Can the origins of the First World War be traced back to European imperial rivalries and growing influence in the Mediterranean from the 18th century onwards? This is the question that Ian Rutledge seeks to answer in Sea of Troubles: The European Conquest of the Islamic Mediterranean and the Origins of the First World War. The fault line between Europe and Muslim powers in the Mediterranean became the most important location for imperial rivalries, with the Spanish, French, Italians, British, Austro-Hungarians, Russians, Germans, Ottomans and Moroccans vying for control over two centuries.
“Between 1870 and 1900 the human geography of the world experienced a seismic shift unequalled by anything since the end of the Roman Empire,” writes Rutledge. “It was an era when Europeans, or peoples of European origin, came to dominate almost all non-European peoples living on this planet Earth.” This change was most visible in the eastern Mediterranean.
How was this transformed from an Ottoman- to a European-dominated region? The obvious answer is the decline of the Ottoman Empire, but trying to figure out the exact causes of that decline is not as straightforward as many seem to think. What was the GDP of the empire in the 18th century, for example, when European influence started to become a major factor in the region?
This is not an easy question to answer, as GDP figures did not exist in the 18th century. Historians look for indicators of certain types of economic activity, while also looking at the best currently available economic theories and apply these retrospectively to calculate GDP in earlier times. For the period between 1750-1799, “Ottoman real wages were comparable to those in most parts of Europe though about a third lower than those in north-western Europe.” Indeed, standards of living were lower in Spain’s principal port Valencia than in Istanbul in the latter part of the 18th century.
According to some indicators, the Ottoman Empire looked economically healthy. The Anatolian town of Kastamonu, for example, was a major commercial centre. “[In] the years 1712-60, it seems that, although there was a disparity of wealth among the town’s citizens, it was modest,” says Rutledge. “Inequality was not a major issue.” However, other parts of the empire tell a different story; in Cairo, three per cent of the population controlled 51 per cent of the wealth.
The Ottoman world appears to have scored poorly on the literacy ladder, with the percentage of the population who could read and write being considerably lower than Europe in the 18th century. Care must be taken here, though, because even though literacy statistics are in circulation, in truth we do not know what the actual figures were. “In early modern Europe, many of those classed as ‘illiterate’ (because they couldn’t sign their names) could actually read: signatures did not necessarily indicate literacy,” the author points out. He explains that this might have been the case in the Ottoman Empire as well.
The 18th century saw the rise of capitalism and population growth in Europe, scientific developments and larger armies, which by the 19th century would give the European imperial powers an advantage over the Ottomans. As European Influence grew so too did inter-European rivalries, and the Middle East-North Africa region was at the centre of them. As tension grew, relations worsened, leading eventually to the First World War in 1914. In turn, this brought about the downfall of the Ottoman Empire.
“After over 150 years of intermittent struggle against the Christian European powers, the state which was the descendent of that great Ottoman Empire of the mid-eighteenth century… remained, straddling its European and Asian shores,” says Rutledge.
Sea of Troubles… attempts to tell a complex story and answer an important question. A lifetime worth of research has gone into this book and Rutledge offers some deep insight and rich detail. His writing allows us to explore the origins of the First World War with a better understanding about the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa in the middle of it all. The book occasionally looks eerily familiar to those of us observing events in the Middle East today, as geopolitical shifts take place and neo-imperial competition is happening before our eyes. We still live with the legacy of the Ottomans and the rise of the West, which is what makes this book an important read.