French Humanitarian Aid. Protecting Minorities and Implementing Imperialism in the Ottoman Empire in the Nineteenth Century

Essay, 2018

9 Pages, Grade: 7,0



France, the cradle of enlightenment, has the historical reputation of being a nation that fought in the vanguard for liberty, equality and justice. For many scholars France is one of the few European powers of the nineteenth century, if not the only one, that would provide humanitarian and political aid to several minorities that suffered under a dictatorial power in the time after the French Revolution. Perhaps the most known example is the French support for the American revolutionaries who fought for their own enlightened ideology against their British overlords. But ideology cannot be the only reason France would act as benefactor of several minorities. Throughout history it also raised its banner to protect the Armenians against genocide conducted by the Ottomans, Belgian independence against the Dutch, the Jews of Israel, and perhaps a less known group: the Maronite Christians of Syria. France had traditionally been the protector of this people ever since the Crusade of Saint-Louis (1147-1149) in which the Maronites provided their services and loyalty to the French crusading nobility.[1] Ever since the seventeenth century France had instructed its diplomats to intervene and negotiate on behalf of the Maronite nation whenever it got into problems.[2] In the bilateral treaties signed between the French and Ottoman governments a mention of possibility for the French to militarily intervene to protect the Maronites of Lebanon or French missionaries is not mentioned.[3] Nevertheless the French did have a historical foothold in this particular region of the Ottoman Empire. The same cannot be said about France’s nemesis: Great Britain. The British envied the French influence over Roman Catholics and Maronites in Syria and Lebanon.[4] Great Britain did not have any influence in Syria before 1840, but in this year Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston (British statesman) conceived the idea of a “special relationship” with the Druze, which was in accordance with the ambition to convert this group to Protestantism and to do so would create a sphere of religious influence that could be compared with that of the French.[5] Not long after these events that occurred in 1840, French and British rivalry on terrains like politics, religion and commerce heavily decreased the stability of several Ottoman territories.[6] In the case of the Mount Lebanon civil war of 1860 this led to a French military intervention.

In this essay I will research whether the French government genuinely offered humanitarian help to the Maronite minority of Mount Lebanon or whether they were covertly guilty of implementing a layer of influence and presence that could be recognised as an early form of empire-building. To conduct this research, which will hopefully contribute to a better understanding about the empire-building process in the Middle East, primary sources are crucial. In order to be able to approach the role of the French intervention in the conflict between the Druze and Maronite populace of Syria as impartial and as objectively as possible, a variety of sources shall be used to come to a satisfactory and credible conclusion about the nature of the choice of the French to intervene in the Ottoman Empire. Naturally the perspective of the French shall be revealed and explained, since it’s the most important party concerning the particular topic of an intervention. To do this I will make use of a book written by Richard Edwards; La Syrie 1840-1862, histoire, politique, administration, population, religions et mœurs, événements de 1860 d’après des actes officiels et des documents authentiques, par Richard Edwards. This work is an academic description of the situation in Syria of around 1860 and gives it’s reader an impression of the ‘Zeitgeist’ and so could tell more about the general understanding and political complexity of the Mount Lebanon Civil War. It is therefore also a useful primary source to better understand the context of the Maronite uprising against their Druze masters. To provide a more distant and perhaps more objective view of the conflict this research will also make use of Dutch newspapers from the 1860s, that often briefly described the events and actions taken by the French government. I shall conduct my research around the following leading question; to what extend was the French intervention in the Mount Lebanon Civil War of 1860 of humanitarian nature as it had claimed? To come to the answer of this question a number of sub-questions are required. For example it is essential to know what political motives the French had to intervene, whether France had certain interests in the Middle East and to what extend French intervention was crucial in deciding the conflict and how the other European powers reacted on the French intervention that could seriously hurt the status quo.


After the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte and the following Congress of Vienna of 1815, the European powers –Great Britain, France, Austria, Prussia and Russia- made an attempt to resolve their disputes through negotiations and to prevent situations in which one power grew stronger at the cost of another.[7] This congress system was meant to uphold the status quo at all costs to ensure no nation could grow significantly stronger than her rivals and to prevent another grand scale, destructive European war, comparable to the violence the French revolutionary forces had unleashed upon Europe.[8] After forty years of peace on the continent, the Crimean War broke out in 1854 (-1856), which came to be a major European conflict that proved to be a turning point in international relations as leading nations started to feel mutual suspicion.[9] Notions of power balance that had kept the peace for four decades were replaced by competitive nationalism and national realignments.[10] France’s political system knew a chaotic and disorderly series of events that had turned it from an empire in a republic and vice versa.[11] Revolutions and wars overthrew political systems and created new ones.[12] But it still managed to remain a major powerhouse in the centre of Europe, which gave it an opportunity to claim a seat at the table of nations that influenced the periphery of Europe and to spread its influence across the globe.

During the nineteenth century the Middle East had been of great interest to western diplomats and politicians as it was practically seen as an arena in which Great Game rivalries were played out between Europe’s great powers.[13] Ever since the eighteenth century Ottoman power began to decline, which in Syria gave way to urban notables to function as intermediaries with Ottoman officials.[14] The Arab Muslim majority in Syria became resentful of all the privileges Christian minorities of the Ottoman Empire got from sympathetic European powers.[15] The still-independent Ottoman Empire was divided and looked out of place in the modern world.[16] The empire was incoherent and its rulers were not an ethnic group; they were often descendants of Christian slaves from the Balkan.[17] The Sultan’s subjects had a wide variety of ethnicities, languages, cultures and religions, which forced the empire into an unnatural and divided society where there often was no love or let alone common ground between neighbours.[18]

As the Empire suffered more and more under the pressure of the European powers, the Ottoman “defensive modernization” under the Tanzimat Reforms –and the responses to this process- were felt in Syria.[19] In the early nineteenth century, the Ottoman administration put great effort in re-asserting the control over its periphery that had been violated by local uprisings and rebellions, but it encountered a new form of resistance.[20] The illegitimacy of Muslims ruling over Christians was a popular theme in pre-modern Europe, but European governments in the modern age were mostly convinced of Ottoman rule over its Christian subjects as an internal affair of the Ottoman administration.[21] During the Russo-Ottoman War of 1806-12, Russia had supported Serbian rebels, but none of the European policy makers and rulers or even the public opinion bothered to fabric the “Serbian Question” into a moral issue.[22] This changed when Russia formally demanded protective rights over the Orthodox subjects of the Ottoman Empire.[23] The Greek uprising is one of the most illustrating examples of European sympathy for Christian minorities and the help they would often receive from the European powers to achieve their dream of independence from their Muslim dominators, for it was because of international support for the Greek insurgents that the Ottomans did not succeed in putting down a Greek revolt as they had already done so often with countless uprisings in the past.[24] The Greeks set an example for other Christian peoples of the Ottoman Empire, who had seen that internalization of local grievances provided a strong aid in disposing Ottoman rule and European public opinion started to express more sympathy for other anti-Ottoman uprisings by Christians, which weighed more than strategic concerns or interstate rivalry.[25] The internal threat of separatism, now backed by the increase in the threat of partition from without resulted in a justified fear, already once confirmed by the French invader Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798, who had proved that a European power could conquer a major Ottoman territory and not be punished for it.[26]


Before the French chose to military intervene in the conflict between the Maronite and Druze faction within the Ottoman Empire, Mount Lebanon was an autonomous administrative Ottoman entity, separate from Syria.[27] The Christian Maronites mainly lived in the northern and central regions of Mount Lebanon, but were also numerous in the Jezzine region, which was predominantly inhabited by the Druze: a splinter group of Sh’ia Islam (although often considered a separate religion caused by their numerous differences with Muslim doctrine).[28] In the region of Mount Lebanon it was common for local Maronite and Druze notables to function as intermediaries between the Ottoman administration and the local urban population.[29] The autonomy of Mount Lebanon relied heavily on a network of alliances between Druze and Maronite families that valued loyalty to individual villages above sectarian connections.[30]

In the nineteenth century the balance between the communities of Mount Lebanon was disturbed.[31] The Druze started to loathe the Maronites, since they benefitted greatly from silk production and their trade with Europe.[32] The Shibabs, preeminent Ottoman tax farmers converted to Maronite Catholicism and identified with their Maronite allies.[33] Under the rule of the Shibabs, the Maronite Church flourished and had encouraged Maronite peasants to be against their Druze landlords.[34] After 1820 the Shibabs repressed the Druze chiefs and supported Muhammad Ali of Egypt in their uprising against the sultan.[35] In the years between 1831 and 1840 the Egyptian military occupied Lebanon and conquered Syria in the name of Mohamed Ali Pasha and ruled the territory with huge consequences.[36] The Egyptian occupiers made use of perhaps the world’s oldest strategy of ruling; the classic divide-and-rule politics, sowing discord between and amongst the Druze and Maronite communities and paving the way for the influx of missionaries, travellers and economic and industrial prospectors from Europe.[37] In 1840 a European coalition consisting of Prussia, Austria and Russia and led by Great Britain had halted the Egyptian occupation and restored Ottoman sovereignty over the lands of Lebanon and Syria.[38] The sultan had to pay a considerable price for this European assistance, ever since this help there was a substantial increase in in European presence and interference in the affairs of the Ottoman peripheries.[39] Also the Druze had gained a deep-seated fear of Maronites advancing into Druze districts, a sentiment that was weighted by the general dislike the Maronite peasants cherished against their Druze overlords and counterparts.[40] In 1860 the mutual hostility reached its zenith and resulted in a Maronite-Druze war in the mountains above Beirut.[41] Despite numerical superiority, the Maronites were slaughtered at the hands of the Druze, who were well organized militarily and obtained victory through their cohesion.[42] The Druze caused considerable trauma as they carried out massacres that led to the deaths of thousands of Christian males.[43] Although the Druze might have been on the winning hand in ‘resolving’ their local grievances, European consuls gave precise information and figures concerning the number of Christians killed and slaughtered, which greatly influenced European public opinion and eventually caused a French military intervention.[44] On the 13th of June 1860 a French squadron anchored in Beirut.[45]


[1] Davide Rodogno, Against Massacres: Humanitarian Interventions in the Ottoman Empire, 1815-1914, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011, 93.

[2] Davide Rodogno, Against Massacres, 93.

[3] Ibidem

[4] Ibidem

[5] Ibidem

[6] Ibidem

[7] Thomas F.X. Noble, Barry Strauss, a.o., Western Civilization: Beyond Boundaries (Boston, 2014) 632.

[8] Thomas F.X. Noble, Western Civilization, p. 632

[9] Ibidem

[10] Ibidem

[11] Ibidem, 650

[12] Ibidem

[13] David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East (New York, 2009) 24-25.

[14] Mark Gasiorowski and Sean L. Yom, The Government and Politics of the Middle East and North Africa (Boulder, 2017) 47.

[15] Mark Gasiorowski and Sean L. Yom, The Government and Politics of the Middle East, 47.

[16] David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace, 33.

[17] Ibidem, 34.

[18] Ibidem

[19] Mark Gasiorowski and Sean L. Yom, The Government and Politics of the Middle East, 47.

[20] M. Şükrü Hanioğlu, A Brief History of the Late Ottoman Empire (Princeton, 2008) 67.

[21] M. Şükrü Hanioğlu, A Brief History of the Late Ottoman Empire, 67-68.

[22] Ibidem

[23] Ibidem, 68-69.

[24] Ibidem

[25] Ibidem

[26] Ibidem

[27] Davide Rodogno, Against Massacres: Humanitarian Interventions in the Ottoman Empire, 1815-1914, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011, 91.

[28] Davide Rodogno, Against Massacres, 91.

[29] Ibidem

[30] Ibidem

[31] Mark Gasiorowski and Sean L. Yom, The Government and Politics of the Middle East and North Africa (Boulder, 2017) 80.

[32] Mark Gasiorowski and Sean L. Yom, The Government and Politics of the Middle East, 80.

[33] Ibidem, 80-81.

[34] Ibidem

[35] Ibidem

[36] Davide Rodogno, Against Massacres, 91.

[37] Ibidem

[38] Ibidem, 93.

[39] Ibidem

[40] Mark Gasiorowski and Sean L. Yom, The Government and Politics of the Middle East, 81.

[41] Ibidem

[42] Ibidem, as wel as Davide Rodogno, Against Massacres, 93.

[43] Mark Gasiorowski and Sean L. Yom, The Government and Politics of the Middle East, 81.

[44] Ibidem and Davide Rodogno, Against Massacres, 98.

[45] Davide Rodogno, Against Massacres, 99.

Excerpt out of 9 pages


French Humanitarian Aid. Protecting Minorities and Implementing Imperialism in the Ottoman Empire in the Nineteenth Century
Utrecht University  (Geesteswetenschappen)
European Imperialism in the Middle East
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Ottoman Empire, France, Intervention, 1860, Maronites, Humanitarian, Aid, Druze, Mount Lebanon, Syria
Quote paper
Roy Ripzaad (Author), 2018, French Humanitarian Aid. Protecting Minorities and Implementing Imperialism in the Ottoman Empire in the Nineteenth Century, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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