Introduction / Executive Summary
The present archive represents one of the most historically important, high quality and coherent collections concerning the economic and transportation history of the Ottoman Empire to ever appear. These are the papers of Gabriel Aubaret (1825 – 1894), an esteemed French diplomat who from 1881 to 1892 played a central role in three of the pillars of the Ottoman economy: The Ottoman Public Debt Administration (OPDA); the empire’s first major railroads (the Rumelian Railway and the Anatolian Railway); and the Régie, the imperial tobacco monopoly. As the founding President of the OPDA, he had a crucial role in stabilizing the Ottoman economy following a period of extreme turmoil, as well as spearheading the completion of the railway system that would carry The Orient Express directly to Constantinople for the first time.
That Gabriel Aubaret is not better known today beyond niche circles is largely since the majority of his papers have (until now) been missing, and vital information on his life and career has therefore not been properly explored and disseminated by scholars and writers. Moreover, by the 1880s, Aubaret was an elder statesman who carried out his vital work in a manner of quiet competence, without the displays of vanity and self-promotion that would have given him a larger role in public memory. Nevertheless, Aubaret was a central figure in virtually every major economic decision that occurred within the Ottoman Empire from 1882 to 1892, a decade of transformative change. Here, the rediscovery of the lion’s share of his professional papers will finally bring Aubaret’s role to the prominence it richly deserves.
The Gabriel Aubaret Archive represents a vast treasure trove of primary sources of stellar and importance that have generally never been seen, let alone analysed, by scholars. The study of the papers, which presents the ultimate high-level ‘insider’s view’, will no doubt cause many aspects of Ottoman, and indeed pan-European, Near and Middle Eastern, economic and transportation history to be rewritten, being the fount for many Ph.D. theses, books and academic articles. The potential intellectual impact of the archive is enormous, providing seemingly countless directions for new investigation and discovery.
The archive is comprised of approximately 1,300 documents, virtually all written in the French language, including many original manuscripts, while most of the papers consist of hectographed documents. Hectography was a process of duplicating manuscripts employing gelatin, creating a very small number of copies, usually reserved for confidential purposes. This technique was invented in Russia in 1869, and by the 1880s was popular in administrative circles throughout Europe, especially so in the diplomatic community in Constantinople.
Importantly, to the best of our knowledge, the vast majority of the documents are either unique or are the only known surviving examples. In aggregate, Aubret’s present papers compliment, as opposed to duplicate, the great publicly-accessible archives of Late Ottoman economic history, such as those held by the Ottoman Bank Museum (Istanbul), the Archives nationales (France) and the Archives diplomatiques of the French Foreign Ministry.
The Gabriel Aubaret Archive was for some years in the possession of the late Herry W. Schaeffer (1934 – 2016) of Zürich, a World-renown collector of books and documents relating to the Ottoman Empire.
The archive can be divided into three parts. First, are Aubaret’s papers relating the Ottoman Public Debt Administration (OPDA), an extraordinary organization created by Sultan Abdul Hamid II’s Decree of Muharrem (1881), in the wake of the empire’s partial default on its foreign debt. The OPDA was an autonomous entity of the Ottoman Treasury yet run for and on behalf of foreign bondholders with a mandate to sequester several of the Sublime Porte’s major revenue streams towards servicing and retiring the imperial debt. It employed an enormous bureaucracy and at its height controlled almost a third of the empire’s public finances. In addition to allowing the empire to stabilize its economy and to re-enter the international bond market, the OPDA was a driving force in modernizing the nation, fostering mega-projects such as railway construction. Gabriel Aubaret was the protagonist of the OPDA during its critical formative years, serving as its President for most of the period from 1882 to 1892. Importantly, he was also the Constantinople point man for the ‘Consortium’, a term coined by historians to describe the informal alliance of international bankers that were the leading investors in the Ottoman economy during the 1880s.
Highlights of the OPDA section include several of the seminal documents that led to the creation of the organization, as well as seemingly the largest known surviving collection of the OPDA executive council’s early top-secret minutes, or Procès-verbaux. Comprising approximately 700 documents, the hectographed Procès-verbaux offer a complete record of every meeting convened between June 28, 1883 and October 29, 1888. They are of immense historical value as the only remaining detailed and comprehensive accounts of the daily operations of OPDA from this key period. The Procès-verbaux were considered top-secret during their time, for they contained highly sensitive information regarding the economic and political operations of the Ottoman Empire at the highest levels and preserve vital information that today survives nowhere else. They include innumerable details of the financial performance of several key industries, as well as accounts of the OPDA’s sometimes fraught relationship with the Sublime Porte and other key stakeholders. Together they provide a front row seat in the political theatre that was 1880s Constantinople, with cameo roles played by Europe’s leading financiers and diplomats; the great Turkish intellectual Osman Hamdi Bey; and even Sultan Abdul Hamid II.
Additionally, there is a large and rich collection of hectographed and manuscript documents concerning the ongoing operations of the OPDA, including Imperial edicts, confidential account papers, bond conversion plans, records of in camera strategy sessions, as well as documents concerning relations with the Sublime Porte, bondholders and various other stakeholders. Also included is a great and coherent corpus of original manuscript correspondence between Aubaret and other key players, including leading figures of the Imperial Ottoman Bank, Ottoman cabinet ministers as the principals of bondholders’ syndicates.
Intriguingly, the archive charts the shockingly virulent and public attacks mounted upon the OPDA Council by some of its German bondholders in 1890-1. This move was likely a ‘black ops’ design orchestrated by the German Foreign Ministry to discredit and destabilize the Consortium, as one of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s earliest salvos against France and Britain’s influence over the Ottoman finance…