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British Foreign Policy Regarding the Ottoman Empire in the 19th and 20th Centuries

Updated on April 23, 2017

The Sick Man of Europe

The Ottoman Empire was the Muslim successor of the old Christian Byzantine Empire that was in turn based on the Eastern Roman Empire. Centered on Constantinople (Istanbul), at its height in the late 16th century it occupied much of south-eastern Europe stretching nearly as far as Vienna, as well the whole of the Levant, Egypt, modern-day Iraq, and the north African coast as far west as Algiers.

However, the Empire proved to be too unwieldy to hold together, especially when an expanding population could not be fed and the central government refused to modernise at a time when the countries of Europe were doing so. For much of the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was the “Sick Man of Europe”. The invalid’s continuing decline led the great powers to have many sleepless nights over what would happen when he died.


The Ottoman Empire in 1801
The Ottoman Empire in 1801

Britain Versus Russia

The British government, at the heart of a growing worldwide empire, was as interested as anyone in the health of the old Ottoman Empire, from several perspectives. For one thing, the “jewel in the crown” of the British Empire was India, and anything that affected the security of India, or free passage in that direction, was a matter of great concern. For another, the imperial ambitions of Russia had to be countered. France was another rival to be kept in check.

During the middle years of the 19th century, British foreign policy was driven by a remarkable man, Viscount Palmerston, who sat in the House of Commons by virtue of his peerage being an Irish one. With only a few interruptions he held high office from 1809 to 1865, mostly as either Foreign Secretary or Prime Minister. His was a tough “no nonsense” approach, his response to crises often being to “send a gunboat”, but he was also a master of the game of international politics and adept at playing his cards with skill and cunning.

In 1829, Britain supported Greece in its war of independence, but Palmerston then came to realise that the Ottoman Empire had great value in being a buffer to Russian ambitions, especially where they concerned access to the Mediterranean through the Bosphorus and Dardenelles, the narrow waterways that led through Ottoman territory to the Black Sea. The last thing Britain wanted was Russian warships patrolling the Mediterranean and threatening British trade and her route to India.

Lord Palmerston photographed in 1863
Lord Palmerston photographed in 1863

The Ambitions of Mehemet Ali

A crisis arose as a result of the Greek revolt, in that the Sultan had called for assistance from his powerful Egyptian viceroy, Mehemet Ali, who now sought a substantial reward for his efforts. The Sultan offered him Crete, but Mehemet Ali really wanted Syria. To complicate matters, France had been very active in supporting Mehemet Ali in his modernising and expansion of Egypt, and they were likely to support him in any action he took.

When, in 1831, Mehemet Ali’s army swept through the Levant and threatened the territory of Turkey itself, the Russians offered protection to the Sultan and sent a fleet to Constantinople. The British brought pressure on the Sultan to buy off Mehemet Ali with the territory he sought, after which the Russians also withdrew. The Russian price was a treaty that closed the Dardanelles to the enemies of Russia, a situation that was far from satisfactory to Lord Palmerston.

In 1839 the British prompted Ottoman Turkey to take revenge on Mehemet Ali, but the Egyptian army and navy proved to be too strong. Palmerston now sought to threaten Egypt with an ultimatum, but the French took Mehemet Ali’s side and tried to negotiate a direct deal between Turkey and Egypt. Tempers rose on all sides, and for a time it seemed possible that Britain and France might go to war over the issue.

Palmerston was reluctant to climb down and even sent a fleet to bombard the Syrian coast, but eventually he was pacified by a deal whereby Mehemet Ali gave up Syria but stayed as the hereditary ruler of Egypt. The best result from Britain’s point of view was that the Dardanelles were now declared closed to the warships of all nations.

Mehemet Ali
Mehemet Ali

The Next Crisis

The next time that British foreign policy impacted the Ottoman Empire was in the 1840s. The sick man’s health was not improving, and in 1844 Britain and Russia agreed to consult over what should replace the Empire should it collapse. Meanwhile, Britain and France were in agreement that Russian ambitions should be curtailed. However, towards the end of the decade Russia became convinced that the Ottoman Empire could not last much longer and started to exert considerable influence in the Balkans, where a number of states were showing signs of pushing for independence. While still wanting to preserve the Ottoman Empire, it was clearly Russia which was pulling the strings in this region.

The Crimean War began almost by accident, occasioned by Russian efforts in 1853 to put pressure on the Sultan over the protection of Christians within the Empire. The British and the French supported the Sultan, and when the latter declared war on Russia, an Anglo-French fleet entered the Black Sea in support of the Turks and three years of war followed. At the end of the war the sick man was no better. The Sultan promised to improve the lot of his Christian subjects, but did little to keep his promise.

A British Crimean War Cavalry Camp
A British Crimean War Cavalry Camp

The Suez Canal

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 brought the British and Ottoman Empires into direct confrontation. The building of the canal had been one of the many modernisation projects that the then Khedive of Egypt, Ismail, had begun during a period of great prosperity. However, the financing of the canal had required Egypt to take foreign loans on terms that proved to be ruinous and brought the country to the verge of bankruptcy. In 1875 the British government bought out the Egyptian government’s shares in the canal at a bargain price, and the canal, built by Egyptian labor and largely at Egyptian expense, was now destined to benefit only those foreign nations who were in any case going to benefit from the new trade routes that the canal made possible.

Egypt was now forced to accept domination by the French and the British, who virtually ran the economy in ways that were highly disadvantageous to the Egyptian people. Not only did they have to pay interest on their loans and dividends to the canal bondholders, but they also had to pay tribute to the Ottoman Sultan. The money was raised from taxes on the peasantry, many of whom were reduced to starvation.

Eventually the Egyptian people and army rose in revolt, and the British response was to crush the revolt with considerable force. In July 1882 the port city of Alexandria was bombarded from the sea with the loss of around 2,000 civilian lives. In September, the battle of Tel-el-Kebir resulted in the deaths of 57 British soldiers and perhaps as many as 10,000 Egyptians.

The Battle of Tel-el-Kebir
The Battle of Tel-el-Kebir

The Sudan

However, the easy British victory turned to dust later that year when the territory to the south of Egypt (modern-day Sudan) rebelled, under a fundamentalist Islamic leader who declared himself to be the “Mahdi”. The British grossly underestimated the forces that opposed them, with the result that an army column was destroyed and the celebrated British general, Charles Gordon, became cut off in Khartoum and was killed before he could be rescued. The British socialist William Morris wrote, “Khartoum has fallen, into the hands of the people it belongs to”. The Sudan was not re-captured until 1898 when, at the Battle of Omdurman, the slaughter of the native army, including the murder of wounded prisoners as revenge for the death of General Gordon, sickened the young Winston Churchill.

World War One

When the First World War broke out in 1914, the Sultan sided with the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary. It is quite possible that, had the war started 20 years earlier, Turkey would have been allied with Britain and the other “entente” powers (France and Russia), but the virtual British takeover of Egypt and support for anti-Turkish groups in the Middle East had changed things.

As First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill masterminded a naval attack in 1915 on the Gallipoli Peninsula that overlooked the Dardenelles, with a view to opening a route to Britain’s new ally, Russia. This was a military disaster, with huge losses being inflicted on the British Empire forces (more than 44,000 killed), which included a large number of Anzac (Australia and New Zealand) soldiers and sailors.

Despite the fact that Ottoman casualties were greater in number than those of the Allies, their victory gave them fresh hope of being able to revive the Ottoman Empire. In striving to reassert their authority in the Arab lands under their somewhat shaky control, they inspired the “Arab Revolt” of 1916-18, which was then supported by the British, led on the ground by Colonel T. E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”). Lawrence was instrumental in uniting many disparate Arab forces and getting them to carry out attacks, for instance on the railway that ran south from Damascus, that in turn diverted thousands of Ottoman troops from their main objectives.

Troops Landing at Gallipoli during the Dardanelles Campaign
Troops Landing at Gallipoli during the Dardanelles Campaign

Post-War Policy

The main Arab aim had been to replace the Ottoman Empire with an Arab Caliphate that would have extended across much of the Middle East. However, the European powers had other ideas, and the post-war partition of the Ottoman Empire took little account of Arab views. Various promises had been made during the war in order to gain support for the war effort, but it proved impossible to keep all of them due to their conflicting nature. In particular, Lawrence had promised the Arabs that they would have an independent state covering most of the region, but the Balfour Declaration of 1917 promised support for a Jewish state within Palestine. The consequences of those mixed messages are with us to this day.

Under the League of Nations, Britain and France were granted mandates over various parts of the old Ottoman Empire, with the British mandates covering Palestine, Transjordan and Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). By drawing straight-line boundaries around territories that had never had fixed borders before, the new masters of the region created all sorts of problems for future generations, such as the division of Kurdish lands between four modern states.

All in all, British foreign policy had a huge impact on the Ottoman Empire over a long period of time. It cannot be said that the policy was always wise or far-sighted, and its ramifications affect international relations even now.

The Sykes-Picot Map Dividing French and British Spheres of Influence
The Sykes-Picot Map Dividing French and British Spheres of Influence

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