In the 1690s, Ottoman bureaucrats reformed the primarily land-based, horse-run postal system, a vital communications infrastructure that undergirded imperial power. They created new types of fiscal registers that recorded a wealth of mundane operational detail, such as the names of officials who visited a post station and where they were headed, each station’s annual expenditure, the number of horses stationed there at any one time, the villages that provisioned these stations, and so on. Despite the expanded monitoring capacity that resulted from these reforms, however, reports of a constant shortage of horses that regularly left couriers stranded for days and delayed official correspondence streamed regularly into the capital. The bureaucrats were baffled.
This talk investigates this paradox by examining a series of fifty-one Ottoman imperial decrees and reports from 1690 to 1833 and argues that a range of official and non-official actors were diverting the use of horses toward profit-making ventures in what I call a shadow economy. Yet, Ottoman bureaucrats were unable to recognize its existence as they treated multiple reports of missing horses as discrete, unconnected events, rather than connected evidence of a competing market demand for horses––not unlike contemporary bureaucrats in Qing China who faced difficulties in synthesizing intelligence from different frontiers. Meanwhile, officials on the ground seized proliferating commercial opportunities and intensified their moonlighting activities. In response, bureaucrats issued new laws to restrict official entitlements regarding horse usage for personal uses. These changing attitudes towards long-held official entitlements in an age of increasing commercial activity nudged against the status-based Ottoman social order. Glancing across the Mediterranean, resonances between the social consequences of commercial forces in Ottoman society and those of commercial capitalism in contemporary France offer provocations for future research.
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