MacArthur-Seal: Britain's Levantine Empire

Britain's Levantine Empire, 1914–1923.

MacArthur-Seal, Daniel-Joseph
Anzahl Seiten
287 S.
€ 89,42
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Sakis Gekas, History, York University

This is an original book because it bridges military histories with histories of imperial power in the Eastern Mediterranean. The centuries-old Ottoman Empire collapsed primarily because of the earthquake of World War I, the weight of defeat and the “scramble” for Ottoman lands that followed the Great War. Beyond the focus on the Ottoman Empire though, the book draws on military history with a sophisticated analysis of the biopolitics, the imperial politics, and the reorganization of space by the British military that led to the construction of what Daniel Joseph MacArthurSeal, Assistant Director at the British Institute at Ankara, calls “Britain’s Levantine Empire”.

The book is divided into five periods and respective chapters besides an Introduction and Conclusion. The periods (1800–1914, 1914–1916, 1918–1920, 1920–1922) provide a chronological anchor while thematically the chapters are “built around the typical activities of a British serviceman’s tour in the Eastern Mediterranean: (1) the sea voyage; (2) arrival in town; (3) setting camp; (4) time off duty; (5) security operations” (p. 25); the departure of the British forces from the Mediterranean crown of the Levantine Empire, Constantinople, is discussed in the concluding chapter.

The photographs that the book displays testify to the rich visual production of the period, itself the outcome of the British (and other Europeans’) gaze, but it is accounts of British servicemen that the book draws heavily on. Photographs are, however, a fraction of the sources the book is based upon. Diplomatic reports, diaries, letters, and memoirs allow the author to paint a canvas that is complex yet clear in its priorities, and maintains focus on the objective, not to redefine the “Levant” and its people, the famed Levantines, but the ways in which British imperial expansion in the Eastern Mediterranean correlated with British discourse on the Levant.

Discourses of Europeanness, Levantine “culture”, and modernity have been the subject of another recent excellent book on the Ottoman ports of Smyrna, Salonica, and Constantinople. The last two of the three cities are the focus of the book on Britain’s Levantine Empire that in several ways complements Malte Fuhrmann’s narrative of the three late-Ottoman cities.1 The book is also a notable addition to the literature on Alexandria in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, another site of significant experimentation of the British military command during World War I, while historians of Greece in the interwar period and during the Greek-Turkish war of 1919–1922 will read it with interest even if with some objections. Smaller places, less acknowledged in accounts of the Levant, but well-known to specialists for the changes they underwent during World War I, such as Cyprus for example, also receive the author’s attention.

Beginning with a narrative of British and other European presence in the Eastern Mediterranean in the decades before the Great War, the author provides the reader with the background necessary to understand the major and in some cases transformative infrastructure works that took place under British military command. The chapter serves also as an introduction to the next one (“Port to Port”) that builds on standard works on British naval presence in the Mediterranean.2 Naval logistics of transporting soldiers combined with imperial plans and ambitions, while ship life could be even entertaining, according to the author. Before too long the Eastern Mediterranean saw the movement not only of soldiers, but of refugees, prisoners, labourers, less strange to the constantly increasing number of inhabitants of the port cities in question (Alexandria, Thessaloniki, Istanbul) than to the exoticizing British observer. Together with population mobility came surveillance and population control, or rather attempts to it, especially when it came to labourers and war prisoners. For a historian of Greece – I have to declare my bias here – it will be interesting to know that Syros emerged as the most important passport station, giving new life to the by then declined port of the Greek state; one of the many entanglements of the British military and imperial presence with the divisive politics in Greece and the eventual domination of prime minister Eleftherios Venizelos and the politics of war over the pro-German neutrality of king Constantine.

Quarantine controls, military bureaucracy, and the associated ‘technologies’ and tools (such as the passport) reshaped the Eastern Mediterranean. Disembarking meant exploring for the ‘average’ British soldier, officer, controller, and going beyond the harbor to the rest of the city, expanding whatever limits were placed on a map. One of the more debatable contributions of the book is the use of soldier-produced sources to place the exploration of the Levantine city within broader debates about cosmopolitanism. This is war-time cosmopolitanism, lived by soldiers who travelled around the ports and countries of the Mediterranean, and they compared its cities building “an imagined geography of the urban Levant” (p. 79). Based on somewhat dated works on cosmopolitanism in the region the second chapter concludes that soldiers justified the need for military intervention due to what they considered chaotic and multi-ethnic urban landscape. This was, however, what many non-military Europeans as well as ‘modernizing’ locals pledged their cities needed.

British soldiers ’explored’ the Levantine city, Alexandria, Thessaloniki, and Istanbul, as their officers and military administration sought to ‘re-order’ it. Camps served as spaces to modernize, and the author evokes Michel Foucault’s ideas to contextualize his research into barracks and military camps beyond the overstudied hospital, asylum, and prison. Barracks imposed sanitation, discipline, and order, which spilled over to the city and led to the militarization of urban space. Conjuncture mattered too; the great fire of Thessaloniki in 1917 presented an ‘opportunity’ to rebuild, reorder and modernize. Ports, roads, and military control of the urban space and town planning are examined comparatively without any reference to cases of ‘resistance’ though of the local population; their agency – most likely due to the sources used – is largely absent.

The following chapter, “Day and Night”, shows how leisure and pleasure, “an acute concern of military authorities” (p. 151), became fields for regulation and management of the servicemen’s time and activities while often attempting the adjustment of locals to the military presence. Between the cinema and the hashish den, local nightlife entrepreneurs seized the opportunity to cater for the male clientele who for months on end remained idle, and enjoyed “oriental and occidental pastiche of nocturnal entertainments” (p. 162). The female body became an object of desire, observation, and comment; Muslim, but also Greek, Russian, Christian, and Jewish women attracted the British gaze and gave rise to often stereotypical expressions of interest and exoticism. The women most servicemen interacted with were prostitutes; official records registered more than 1,000 women as prostitutes in Salonica and Alexandria and the astonishing – official let alone unregistered – number of prostitutes is undoubtedly connected to the British military presence but also the refugee condition of many of those women.

The last two chapters on 1920–1922 narrate the takeover and attempts to control Constantinople, a tough task given the complexity and the size of the urban population. The arrangement between the French and the British to keep the Bosphorus straits under a commission but allow the Ottoman administration some autonomy over the city was ambitious let alone condescending. The National Movement under Mustafa Kemal were declared rebels, which allowed them to centralize and legitimize their authority even further. The political events of the period, the advances of the Greek army in the summer of 1920 east of Smyrna and eastern Thrace, and the surprising defeat of Greek Prime Minister Venizelos in the elections of 1920 that saw the return of Germanophile King Constantine to Greece – the “Allies’ wartime nemesis” (p. 200) – triggered sanctions against Greece and a radical change of policy. The main events of the period are accurately presented, except from the Smyrna fire, as “its origins the subject of ongoing public and academic dispute” (p. 206) is not quite true; the origins of the fire that Turkish irregulars set in the Armenian quarter are not seriously disputed as seen during the September 2022 centennial commemoration of the event. Even if Smyrna is not the focus of the book, the author omitted mentioning the deaths that Greek Orthodox and Armenian civilians suffered, who many drowned trying to escape, abandoned by Greek troops to the atrocities of the Turkish army and the suffocating conditions at the Smyrna waterfront.

More convincing is the chapter on “securing the Levantine Empire”, which tells the story of how the British set themselves an impossible task to pacify the “Levantine city”, considering the local population of Thessaloniki and Constantinople for example as “both incapable of arriving at British standards and undeserving of them” (p. 220). Nonetheless, disarmament, martial law and military courts were applied to maintain order. How long did this “Levantine Empire” last? Between 1914 and 1923, hardly a sufficient period to form an “empire” and this is one of the problems with the “empire” concept, not to mention the analogy with Gibbon’s pattern of “rise, decadence, and fall” of the Roman Empire in what lasted less than a decade. The author however is innovative in his approach, framing of British military rule and takeover, breathing new life to an otherwise stale and old-fashioned military history. Was British decline in the Eastern Mediterranean “inevitable”? The British colonial presence in Cyprus and Palestine and forms of indirect rule in Greece following liberation in 1944 suggest that there was more to it than the withdrawal of 1923. In the end Constantinople, Alexandria, and Thessaloniki moved into national configurations and within nationalist politics of integration and exclusion that had little to do with the interim and only to some extent transformative “Levantine Empire”.

1 Malte Fuhrmann, Port Cities of the Eastern Mediterranean. Urban Culture in the Late Ottoman Empire, Cambridge 2020.
2 See e.g. Robert Holland, Blue-Water Empire. The British in the Mediterranean since 1800, London 2012.