November 15th, 2010 Headsman
On this date in 1808, the former, and now deposed, Ottoman Sultan Mustafa IV was strangled at the command of his successor and brother.
Its fate would be defined by the political — and sometimes literal — battle between its entrenched interests and forward-looking reformers who struggled to restructure the empire for the challenges that lay ahead.
And at this point, it wasn’t only the Ottoman polity that had to fret for its survival. Its very namesake dynasty was in danger of extinguishing itself. There hadn’t been a male born to the House of Osman in twenty years, and in the events herein narrated, internecine conflict would winnow the Osmans down to their very last man.
Reform was the project of our principal’s predecessor, Selim. In the years around the turn of the century, Selim endeavored to get Turkey out of its wasteful foreign conflicts to gain maneuvering room for more urgent domestic projects.*
Chief among the many oxes Selim proposed to gore were the Janissaries, the Ottomans’ powerful and increasingly archaic military elite, much given to destructive use of their martial prowess in various factional conflicts within the Empire.
The Janissaries deposed Selim in 1807, elevating his cousin — our man, Mustafa, a mere handmaiden of the hidebound. (His contemporaries in Europe more commonly transliterated the name “Mustapha”)
They didn’t kill Selim … just left him alive within the palace where armed men could find him in a pinch.
That pinch arrived in June in the form of Mustafa Bayrakdar, a reformist official who marched on Istanbul to overthrow the reactionary elements. As Bayrakdar took the city in hand, Mustafa desperately ordered the executions of Selim and of Mustafa’s own brother, Mahmud.
Selim was disposed of. Mahmud got tipped off, and the servants — most famously, a Georgian harem girl named Cevri Kalfa — helped him escape to the roof. Mustafa Bayrakdar ousted the ousters before anyone who meant Mahmud ill could find him.
That left Mahmud the only choice for Sultan, and he followed his brother’s own questionable policy of consanguinary clemency. Mustafa’s demotion back to crown prince after having once ordered the now-sultan’s death must have made for some awkward chit-chat around the family table.
It didn’t last long. The London Times of January 16, 1809 reported** that
[o]n the 14th of November, at day-break, the Janissaries were seen assembling from all quarters, and being reinforced by those who were in the vicinity of Constantinople, they … massacred all the partisans of the Grand Vizier that came in their way. The contest spread to eveyr street in Constantinople … On the 15th, the Janissaries assaulted the high walls of the Seraglio; and it was at this moment that the Grand Vizier, after causing the unfortunate Mustapha IV, who was a prisoner there, to be strangled, blew himself up in his own Palace with gunpowder, of which he purposely provided a large quantity before-hand, to prevent his falling alive into the hands of his enemies.
Sauce for the goose was sauce for Mustafa, and on this same desperate day when he lost Bayrakdar to a vault of gunpowder, Mahmud had his brother put to death. This maneuver left Mahmud the last surviving male Osman.
The legacies of this date were varied and ambiguous.
Mahmud II remained on the Ottoman throne for the next three decades, ample time to secure the Osman line.
The Janissaries returned to their barracks, chastened; Mahmud would destroy them after an attempted revolt in 1826.
But Mahmud too was chastened by the experience — or else, too encumbered by the apparatus of the state, or too cautious of his legacy before that heir appeared (it took years), or simply too unskillful — and his reformist vision proceeded haltingly until the very end of his life, even as breakaway nations continued to erode the Porte’s influence.
In his The Decline and Fall of the Ottoman Empire, Alan Palmer says of Mahmud,
Over a century and a half after his death, Mahmud II remains the most puzzling of the thirty-six Ottoman Sultans … Was he a despot or a reformer, a capricious betrayer of trust or a dedicated ruler of a vision, a muddler who plunged into disastrous wars or a shrewd statesman who preserved his Empire from rapacious neighbors? Should we think of him as the ‘Infidel Sultan’ who imposed European ways on the Islamic faithful, or as Mahmud Adli (‘Mahmud the Just’), like Turks today? The contrasts seem endless. Mahmud is one of history’s most enigmatic figures …
* Selim was sucked back into armed conflict by the Napoleonic wars.
** Though two months after the fact, the report is in media res, since it was transcribing German papers from mail dispatched out of the Ottoman capital on Nov. 16 when “the utmost confusion still prevailed there.”
Also on this date
- 2011: Oba Chandler
- 1781: Tupac Katari
- 1539: Richard Whiting, the last Abbot of Glastonbury
- 1924: Daisuke Namba, for the Toranomon Incident
- 1949: Nathuram Godse, Gandhi's assassin
Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,No Formal Charge,Ottoman Empire,Political Expedience,Power,Royalty,Strangled,Summary Executions,Turkey