The Ottoman Capitulation Treaties with France during the Sixteenth Century


Bedros Torossian


To begin with, the Ottoman capitulation treaties signed with the various non-Muslim Western states have formed an important part of the Ottoman foreign relations. In this paper, I will shed light on the definition, characteristics and origins of the Ottoman capitulation treaties. Moreover, I will highlight the different Capitulation treaties signed between the Ottoman Empire and France, during the sixteenth century that granted the French various political, religious, and commercial privileges within the Ottoman Empire that were gradually lost due to various factors.

Definition, Characteristics and Purpose of the Capitulation Treaties:

The capitulation treaties resembled decrees granted by the sultans to Westerners living in the Ottoman territories. They were known as capitulations since they consisted of several articles (Angell, 1901). These treaties were either signed with Ottoman tributary non-Muslim states or independent European states, but their content differed from one another based upon the status of each state (De Groot, 2003). A major characteristic of these treaties was that they were valid during the lifetime of the sultans who granted them, and they provided great privileges to the non-Muslim foreigners of the Ottoman Empire (Angel, 1901). Moreover, they were capable of being renewed during the reign of the succeeding sultans by sometimes undergoing some changes (Angell, 1901). By signing these treaties the sultans provided leading diplomatic and trade positions to the Western countries in the Levant (Horniker, 1946). The Ottomans’ intended in organizing the lives of the Christian foreigners who were permanently residing within the Ottoman territories according to the Islamic Law (Sharia) by granting capitulation treaties. However, on the real ground they did not always abide by this Islamic religious law (De Groot, 2003).


Origins of the Capitulation Treaties:

The Ottoman Capitulation treaty signing tradition with the Western non-Muslim states in the Levant, traces its origins back to the days of the Fatimid Caliphate and Mamluk sultanate of Egypt. This tradition had become an integral part of the foreign policy of these two regimes that intended to grab trade and commerce within the Mediterranean region (De Groot, 2003). The Pisans were among the first group of Westerners, who were granted special political and economic privileges by the Fatimid caliph Al Zafir in 1149 that was followed by a peace treaty called ahdname in other words “a letter of promise” (De Groot, 2003). Later on, this custom continued during the reigns of succeeding rulers of Egypt such as Saladin, al Malik al Adil and others. It is notable to highlight that the French had already founded a consulate in Egypt during the reign of Sultan al Muazzam Sams al Din Turan Sah who ruled Egypt from 1174-1181 (De Groot, 2003). However, these capitulations with the non-Muslim states reached their peak during the rule of the Mamluks in the fourteenth century when various non-Muslim privileged communities were formed in Cairo. The Ottomans followed in the footsteps of these regimes that had once ruled the Levant and North Africa (De Groot, 2003). It is important to note that, during the rule of both the Fatimids and Memluks as well as during the early Ottoman period, the signed capitulation treaties were based on bilateralism and reciprocity. In other words, they were signed after negotiations took place between both the Christian and Muslim sides. However, after the conquest of Constantinople these treaties were gradually transformed into highly unilateral treaties that granted specific privileges to the non-Muslim Western states (De Groot, 2003).

The Signed Capitulation Treaties between the Ottoman Empire and France:

France gained its first capitulations not from the Ottomans, but from the Mamluks who were ruling Egypt during the fourteenth century, prior to the Ottoman conquest of the Levant and North Africa. There was a funduk of French traders from Marseille established in Alexandria around 1332-1334. Moreover, a French consul was also established in Alexandria during this period. (De Groot, 2003). In his turn, a French merchant named Jacques Coeur also played an important role in expanding the French trade within the Levant in 1432. During the reign of Mamluk Sultan Qansuh al-Guri, monarch Louis XII of France was given a capitulation in 1512 that placed the French traders under the Sultan’s protection while during their stay in Cairo “for up to three months at a time” (De Groot, 2003).

After the Ottomans conquered Egypt in 1517, the Ottoman Sultan Selim I issued a berat through which he handled the French residents of Egypt a capitulation consisting of privileges (De Groot, 2003). Based on this incident, De Groot (2003) explains that prior to the establishment of official state level diplomatic relations between the Western states and the Ottoman Empire capitulations were already granted to the subjects of these countries such as the case of the French. This capitulation treaty consisted of several points that were similar in content to the treaties signed in the future. It included a large number of political, religious and economic privileges as follows:

… assistance and salvage in cases of French shipwreck; freedom of traffic; individual legal responsibility; execution of French testaments or delivery of intestate inheritances to the consul; release of French slaves; exemption from the payment of cizye; obligatory presence to the dragoman of the French at trials before the kadi; internal French law suits within the competence of the French consul; visitation of ships only at Istanbul and the Dardanelles on departure; friendly salutation at meeting on the high seas of French and Ottoman ships… (De Groot, 2003).

These elements of the treaty indicate that the French through signing capitulation treaties with the Ottoman Empire were strengthening their power within the Ottoman realm, because they were being granted a large number of privileges dealing with trade and autonomous way of life. For instance, they were granted the right of applying the French law within their consuls as well as they secured freedom for the French slaves. Moreover, they regulated their inheritance and justice issues. They were also benefitting their economy and trade by being exempted from paying taxes to the Ottoman state.

Jensen (1985) states that there were French attempts headed by French monarch Francis I in establishing an alliance with the Ottomans. Jensen (1985) explains that the main aim of forming an alliance with the Ottomans was to set an obstacle in the face of the Habsburg expansion in Europe, who were the common enemy of both the French and Ottomans. Jensen adds that the French had also targeted in gaining more spheres of influence within the Mediterranean. In 1528, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent accepted the previously reached agreements with the French in Egypt during the Mamluk period and the reign of his predecessor Sultan Selim I (Jensen, 1985). During this period, the French King Francis I became engaged in negotiations with the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman. At the beginning, he discussed the issue of granting more religious freedom to the Christians living in Jerusalem. Later on, in around 1528-1529 the negotiations continued between these two states with the arrival of Antonio Rincon on behalf of the French King Francis (Jensen, 1985).

Under the Habsburg threat of invading European territories the French attempts of alliance with the Ottomans continued, and reached their peak during Emperor Charles V threats in attacking La Goletta and Tunis. In 1535, Jean de La Foret representing the French King Francis was sent to Constantinople in order to establish a French-Ottoman military alliance and gain commercial privileges (Jensen, 1985). La Foret also participated in the Ottoman campaigns with the Sultan Suleiman in order to strengthen his position in the eyes of the Sultan. Finally, in February 1536 an official agreement was reached between them (Jensen, 1985). The signed treaty granted commercial privileges to the French in the Mediterranean. Jensen has stated the large number of privileges gained by the French through signing this treaty that

…authorized the establishment of French consuls at Constantinople and elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire; assured Francis that no new taxes would be levied against French merchants, that French subjects would be protected against prejudicial lawsuits, and that they would be allowed to practice their Christian faith within the jurisdiction of the sultan. Furthermore, the French were given exemption from forced labor; assurance of the right to reclaim captives, fugitives and victims of shipwrecks; and recognition of the favored status of French ships in the Mediterranean (Jensen, 1985).

It is clearly obvious that this treaty, in spite of having some degree of similarity in content with the previously signed agreements, however, it granted the French a large number of new political, religious, and economic privileges that were not enjoyed previously. However, I believe that this would be considered destructive to the Ottoman Empire since they would have benefited from these economic gains, instead of allowing the French to solely benefit from these privileges especially that this period was highly critical within the Ottoman economic history due to the price revolution.

On the other hand, a major element of this treaty was the installment of a French consul in Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire that was not previously accomplished. It is interesting to note that there weren’t reciprocal relations between the Ottoman Empire and France. Jensen (1985) states that only France had its resident ambassadors within the Ottoman Empire, while the Ottomans didn’t assign their diplomatic representatives in France. This was a means of providing them superiority over the French (Jensen, 1985). La Foret was assigned as the first French ambassador, who resided in the Ottoman Empire and diplomatic relations started between the two states (Jensen, 1985).

It is noticeable that the French ambassadors besides being merely diplomatic representatives of their own countries, they were also actively engaged in the Ottoman military domain. For instance, French ambassador Gabriel d’Aramon participated along with Sultan Suleiman I in the Mediterranean wars of 1551-1553 (Jensen, 1985). Moreover, Jean de Codignac was another example of a French ambassador residing in the Ottoman Empire, who had a major role in preparing the grounds for signing a peace treaty for the first time between the Ottomans and the Persians in 1555 (Jensen, 1985). The capitulation treaties of 1536 resulted in the flourishment of trade in the Levant that was transformed into an economic center importing and exporting large amounts of various goods (Jensen, 1985).

Moreover, it is noteworthy to highlight that the capitulation treaty signed in 1569 between the French ambassador Claude du Bourg and the Ottoman Sultan Selim II, was even more effective than the one signed in 1536 (Jensen, 1985). This treaty provided the French ambassador with superiority over the other Christian princes living in the Empire (Jensen, 1985). Jensen shows the French gain of trade power in the Levant by stating that “for the first time, the French right to grant ‘pavillon’ to other nations, that is, to allow them to trade in the Levant only under the protection and authorization of the French flag” (Jensen, 1985). In addition to this factor, the signed treaty also exempted the French traders from paying the head tax that Christian westerners had to pay to the Empire (Jensen, 1985). Moreover, the French-Ottoman alliance was perceived by France as a major necessity for surviving against the various dangers such as the occurring religious and civil wars that were threatening its existence (Jensen, 1985).

In addition to the French consul of Alexandria that existed in the times prior to the Ottoman conquest, new consuls were also established in the various parts of the Empire. A French consul was installed in Syria after signing the capitulation treaty of 1536. Similarly, consuls were established in Constantinople, Tripoli (1548), and Algiers (1565) that functioned under the authority of the French ambassador, and their job was to organize the ongoing trade (Jensen, 1985). Thus, this suggests that the French authority and power were increasing within the Ottoman Empire through the expansion of the network of French consuls.

Finally, upon the English threat of forming an alliance with the Ottomans, Jacques de Germigny, who was the French ambassador, became engaged in negotiations with the Ottoman sultan Murad III, and signed a new capitulation treaty in 1581 (Jensen, 1985). This treaty was even more in favor of the French than the previous treaties. It granted them more trade privileges and monopoly of power. New rights were granted to the French that included “the right of diplomatic protection” (De Groot, 2003). Jensen (1985) states that “the English, Portuguese, Catalans, Sicilians, Anconians, Ragusans, Genoese, and even Venetians were allowed to trade only under the French banner” (Jensen, 1985). Moreover, the French diplomatic representatives were again granted superiority over all other Christian state officials. This treaty also “exempted the French from all personal taxes, even the married tax required by the Moslem law” (Jensen, 1985). This way the Ottoman Sultan also refrained from applying the Sharia law. The increase in the importance of the various privileges granted by the Ottomans to the French from the year 1536 to 1581 is highly noticeable. The French were gradually increasing in power within the Ottoman Empire.

Horniker (1946) states that France in 1581 gained superiority over other Christian nations that became obliged to trade in the Ottoman Empire only under the auspices of the French flag. Moreover, this policy helped the French state in gaining political importance. It also accumulated wealth by collecting consular fees on all the goods that were sent to the Ottoman Empire that in its turn helped in supporting the existence of the French embassy and consular offices within the Ottoman territories (Horniker, 1946). In addition to these privileges, the non-treaty nations that were trading in Egypt under the French flag paid “a consular charge of 2 per cent on all goods brought into Egypt” (Horniker, 1946). This is another indicator that the French instead of the Ottoman state, were highly benefitting from the privileges granted to them within the Ottoman Empire.

In 1597 another capitulation treaty was signed between De Breves, the French ambassador and Sultan Mehmed III, the successor of Murad III that also granted some similar commercial privileges to the French. By the end of the sixteenth century, the English became the major rivals of the French. They did not only attempt at gaining their independence from the French by trading under their own flag, but they also aimed at bringing the other Christian nations under the English flag (Horniker, 1946). Starting the year 1597, English piracy had started in the Levant that was attacking the ships operating under the French flag. This came to be another major issue that resulted in stronger opposition between the French and the English (Horniker, 1946). The French started losing their diplomatic and commercial prestige in the Levant.

In 1600, the French king Henry IV ordered the French to protect themselves against the English attacks, and was asking the French ambassador of Constantinople de Breves “to demand from the Porte that all English consuls and other officials be expelled from the Ottoman territories and that the English again be forced to raise the French flag on their ships” (Horniker, 1946). This is also viewed as a means of regaining the privileges and the power that were granted to the French prior to the English sovereignty in the Levant. Moreover, these two major powers were struggling over the issue of gaining authority over the non-treaty nations such as the Dutch. Nevertheless, after a hot dispute between the two major powers, in 1612 the Dutch obtained a capitulation treaty from the sultan that granted them the freedom of trading under their own flag within the Ottoman Empire (Horniker, 1946).

Starting the year 1604, the newly signed capitulation treaties with the Christian states were highly transformed from bilateral to unilateral in nature (De Groot, 2003). The mutual friendship element was eliminated. In spite of this, France still continued to have mutual friendship with the Ottoman Empire, and it had superiority over other non-Muslim foreign states (De Groot, 2003). In addition to these, the most important capitulation treaty that increased the French benefits was the one signed in 1604 with Sultan Ahmed I, the successor of Mehmed III. It stated that “they [the Ottomans] granted French merchants the most complete tax and customs break possible; guaranteed French immunity from the harassment of Moslem pirates; and reaffirmed the precedence of French diplomats and merchants in the Levant” (Jensen, 1985). However, the English piracy continued destroying the French ships.

During this period, the authority of France was weakening in the Ottoman Empire due to its internal struggles such as the religious wars that highly affected on the development of industries and trade in France. The French products also lost their previous prestige in competing against the English commodities in the Levant. As a result of these aforementioned factors France increased the trading tax rates on the Christian non-treaty nations that withdrew from trading under its authority and accepted to trade under the English flag (Horniker, 1946).  This indicates that after a period of prosperity through the capitulation treaties granted to the French, they started losing their importance, while the English were on their way of flourishing within the Ottoman Empire.


Finally, it is important to note that France, during the sixteenth century, continued to gain huge importance and power within the Ottoman Empire, after it had played a crucial role in trade during the Fatimid and Mamluk rules of Egypt. The various capitulation treaties that were signed during the reigns of succeeding Ottoman sultans gradually increased the importance of France within the Empire that eventually gained superiority over other Christian states. However, the emergence of the English as an independent trading force during the late sixteenth century resulted in major rivalries between these two major powers. By the end of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth century, France lost its previous prestige within the Ottoman Empire due to the various difficulties that it went through.






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