Repository logo

Fugitivity and Carceral Humanitarianism in the Ottoman Mediterranean, c. 1876-1916

Change log


Polat, Hatice Ayse 


This thesis explores the evolution of Ottoman humanitarianism as a legal, moral, and political enterprise. It is a critical inquiry into the rhetoric of humanity: how it shapes law and the jurisdiction thereof. Building on the settlement of immigrants – Muhajirs – in the Ottoman Mediterranean between c. 1876 and 1916, I demonstrate how the provision of humanitarian refuge was a legal instrument of state- and empire-making. In doing so, I ask the following questions: How did an immigrant enter political society? How did humanitarian norms and practices police the boundaries and the margins of political society, and to what end? How did humanitarian and contractual notions of political society interact in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries? How has contractarianism shaped the modern humanitarian enterprise? I contend that the imperial humanitarianisms of the nineteenth century advanced the ‘standard of civilisation’ as the organising principle of contractual society, as this humanitarian maxim generated new kinds of gendered, classed, and racial exclusions.

This research draws upon a socio-legal archive of fugitives – exiles, asylees, the stateless – comprising memoirs, petitions, consular archives, governmental correspondence, and legal texts and opinions. It unfolds in three sections, focusing on the legal constructions of the refugee settlement or mesken, the settler household, or mahrem, and the settler-citizen, or muvatın. In each section, I centre fugitive histories attesting to the aporias of the Ottoman humanitarian enterprise. I discuss how the material contradictions of Ottoman humanitarianism precipitated and sustained the gendered, classed, and racial conflicts within the settlement, the household, and the body politic. I then follow these conflicts, as they unfolded between the Settler and the Native, the Master and the Slave, and the Citizen and the Enemy, respectively.

The first part of the thesis, ‘Mesken’, examines how the carceral formation of agrarian settlement transformed Caucasian settler communities, drawing a diachronic comparison between Caucasian exile in the Balkans and Syria. I argue that the success of the settlements came at the cost of expropriating and exploiting the most vulnerable among the refugee settlers. In the second part of the thesis, ‘Mahrem’, I look at the legal fabrications of the settler household, exploring the juridical justifications for the exploitation and exclusion between the landholding elites and their slaves and workers. In the dissertation’s third and final part, ‘Muvatın’, I draw upon the debates surrounding the Ottoman Immigration Resolution of 1902 to disclose the pariahs of this emerging order. I juxtapose the humanitarian and conditional inclusion of Muslim settlers within Ottoman political society with the parallel contractual exclusion of Armenian out-migrants from the body politic. In conclusion, I argue that the unequal incorporation of migrants into Ottoman modernity both construed and challenged the carceral ends of this humanitarian enterprise.





Arsan, Andrew
Fahmy, Khaled


Fugitivity, Humanitarianism, Legal History, Migration, Ottoman History, Race


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
St John's College, Cambridge University, UK Royal Historical Society, UK Cambridge History Faculty Trust Fund, UK Cambridge International Trust, UK