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The Real Issue in Turkey[17]

Frederick Engels

We are astonished that in the current discussion of the Oriental Question the English journals have not more boldly demonstrated t he vital interests which should render Great Britain the earnest and unyielding opponent of the Russian projects of annexation and aggrandizement. England cannot afford to allow Russia to become the possessor of the Dardanelles and Bosphorus. Both commercially and politically such an event would be a deep if not a deadly blow at British power. This will appear from a simple statement of facts as to her trade with Turkey.

Before the discovery of the direct route to India, Constantinople was the mart of an extensive commerce. And now, though the products of India find their way into Europe by the overland route through Persia, Turan[a] and Turkey, yet the Turkish ports carry on a very important and rapidly increasing traffic both with Europe and the interior of Asia. To understand this, it is only necessary to look at the map. From the Black Forest to the sandy hights of Novgorod Veliki, the whole inland country is drained by rivers flowing into the Black or Caspian Sea. The Danube and the Volga, the two giant-rivers of Europe, the Dniester, Dnieper and Don, all form so many natural channels for the carriage of inland produce to the Black Sea for the Caspian itself is only accessible through the Black Sea. Two-thirds of Europe that is, a part of Germany and Poland, all Hungary, and the most fertile parts of Russia, besides Turkey in Europe, are thus naturally referred to the Euxine[b] for the export and exchange of their produce; and the more so, as all these countries are essentially agricultural, and the great bulk of their products must always make water-carriage the predominant means of transport. The corn of Hungary, Poland, Southern Russia, the wool and the hides of the same countries appear in yearly increasing quantities in our Western[c] markets, and they all are shipped at Galatz, Odessa, Taganrog, and other Euxine ports. Then there is another important branch of trade carried on in the Black Sea. Constantinople, and particularly Trebizond, in Asiatic Turkey, are the chief marts of the caravan trade to the interior of Asia, to the valley of the Euphrates and Tigris, to Persia, and Turkestan. This trade, too, is rapidly increasing. The Greek and Armenian merchants of the two towns just named import large quantities of English manufactured goods, the low price of which is rapidly superseding the domestic industry of the Asiatic harems. Trebizond is better situated for such a trade than any other point. It has in its rear the hills of Armenia, which are far less impassable than the Syrian desert, and it lies at a convenient proximity to Bagdad, Shiraz, and Teheran, which latter place serves as an intermediate mart for the caravans from Khiva and Bokhara. How important this trade, and the Black Sea trade generally is becoming, may be seen at the Manchester Exchange, where dark-complexioned Greek buyers are increasing in numbers and importance, and where Greek and South-Slavonian dialects are heard along with German and English.

The trade of Trebizond is also becoming a matter of most serious political consideration, as it has been the means of bringing the interests of Russia and England anew into conflict in Inner Asia. The Russians had, up to 1840, an almost exclusive monopoly of the trade in foreign manufactured goods to that region. Russian goods were found to have made their way, and in some instances even to be preferred to English goods, as far down as the Indus. Up to the time of the Afghan war, the conquest of Scinde and the Punjab[18], it may be safely asserted that the trade of England with Inner Asia was nearly null. The fact is now different. The supreme necessity of a never-ceasing expansion of trade this fatum which, specter-like, haunts modern England, and, if not appeased at once, brings on those terrible revulsions which vibrate from New-York to Canton, and from St. Petersburg to Sidney this inflexible necessity has caused the interior of Asia to be attacked from two sides by English trade: from the Indus and from the Black Sea; and although we know very little of the exports of Russia to that part of the world, we may safely conclude from the increase of English exports to that quarter, that the Russian trade in that direction must have sensibly fallen off. The commercial battle-field between England and Russia has been removed from the Indus to Trebizond, and the Russian trade, formerly venturing out as far as the limits of England's Eastern Empire, is now reduced to the defensive on the very verge of its own line of custom-houses. The importance of this fact with regard to any future solution of the Eastern Question, and to the part which both England and Russia may take in it, is evident. They are, and always must be, antagonists in the East.

But let us come to a more definite estimate of this Black Sea trade. According to the London Economist[d], the British exports to the Turkish dominions, including Egypt and the Danubian Principalities, were:

In 1840.......£1,440,592 In 1846.......£2,707,571
In 1842.......£2,068,842 In 1848.......£3,626,241
In 1844.......£3,271,333 In 1850.......£3,762,480
  In 1851.......£3,548,959

Of these amounts, at least two-thirds must have gone to ports in the Black Sea, including Constantinople. And all this rapidly increasing trade depends upon the confidence that may be placed in the power which rules the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus, the key to the Black Sea. Whoever holds these can open and shut at his pleasure the passage into this last recess of the Mediterranean. Let Russia once come into possession of Constantinople, who will expect her to keep open the door by which England has invaded her commercial domain?

So much for the commercial importance of Turkey, and especially the Dardanelles. It is evident that not only a very large trade, but the principal intercourse of Europe with Central Asia, and consequently the principal means of re-civilizing that vast region, depends upon the uninterrupted liberty of trading through these gates to the Black Sea.

Now for the military considerations. The commercial importance of the Dardanelles and Bosphorus at once makes them first-rate military positions, that is, positions of decisive influence in any war. Such a point is Gibraltar, and such is Helsingör[e] in the Sound. But the Dardanelles are, from the nature of their locality, even more important. The cannon of Gibraltar or Helsingör cannot command the whole of the strait on which they are situated, and they require the assistance of a fleet in order to close it; while the narrowness of the strait at the Dardanelles and of the Bosphorus is such that a few properly-erected and well-armed fortifications, such as Russia, once in possession, would not tarry an hour to erect, might defy the combined fleets of the world if they attempted a passage. In that case, the Black Sea would be more properly a Russian lake than even the Lake of Ladoga, situated in its very heart. The resistance of the Caucasians would be starved out at once; Trebizond would be a Russian port; the Danube a Russian river. Besides, when Constantinople is taken, the Turkish Empire is cut in two; Asiatic and European Turkey have no means of communicating with or supporting each other, and while the strength of the Turkish army, repulsed into Asia, is utterly harmless, Macedonia, Thessaly, Albania, outflanked and cut off from the main body, will not put the conqueror to the trouble of subduing them; they will have nothing left but to beg for mercy and for an army to maintain internal order.

But having come thus far on the way to universal empire, is it probable that this gigantic and swollen power will pause in the career? Circumstances, if not her own will, forbid it. With the annexation of Turkey and Greece she has excellent seaports, while the Greeks furnish skillful sailors for her navy. With Constantinople, she stands on the threshold of the Mediterranean; with Durazzo and the Albanian coast from Antivari to Arta, she is in the very center of the Adriatic, within sight of the British Ionian islands, and within 36 hours' steaming of Malta. Flanking the Austrian dominions on the North, East and South, Russia will already count the Hapsburgs among her vassals. And then, another question is possible, is even probable. The broken and undulating western frontier of the Empire, ill-defined in respect of natural boundaries, would call for rectification, and it would appear that the natural frontier of Russia runs from Dantzic or perhaps Stettin to Trieste. And as sure as conquest follows conquest, and annexation follows annexation, so sure would the conquest of Turkey by Russia be only the prelude for the annexation of Hungary, Prussia, Galicia, and for the ultimate realization of the Slavonic Empire which certain fanatical Panslavistic philosophers have dreamed of.

Russia is decidedly a conquering nation, and was so for a century, until the great movement of 1789 called into potent activity an antagonist of formidable nature. We mean the European Revolution, the explosive force of democratic ideas and man's native thirst for freedom. Since that epoch there have been in reality but two powers on the continent of Europe Russia and Absolutism, the Revolution and Democracy. For the moment the Revolution seems to be suppressed, but it lives and is feared as deeply as ever. Witness the terror of the reaction at the news of the late rising at Milan[19]. But let Russia get possession of Turkey, and her strength is increased nearly half, and she becomes superior to all the rest of Europe put together. Such an event would be an unspeakable calamity to the revolutionary cause. The maintenance of Turkish independence, or in case of a possible dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the arrest of the Russian scheme of annexation is a matter of the highest moment. In this instance the interests of the revolutionary Democracy and of England go hand in hand. Neither can permit the Czar to make Constantinople one of his Capitals, and we shall find that when driven to the wall, the one will resist him as determinedly as the other.

Written between March 23 and 28, 1853
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 3740, April 12, 1853, as a leader;
reprinted in the New-York Weekly Tribune, No. 605, April 16, 1853
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune


[a] The old name of the Turkestan Lowland.—Ed.

[b] Pontus Euxinus —ancient name of the Black Sea.—Ed.

[c] The New-York Weekly Tribune has "English".—Ed.

[d] "Turkey and Its Value", The Economist, No. 498, March 12, 1853.—Ed.

[e] The New-York Weekly Tribune gives the English name "Elsinore".—Ed.

[17] This article was published in the collection: Karl Marx, The Eastern Question, London, 1897. The collection gave Marx as the author of the article. However, it was later discovered that this article, as well as "The Turkish Question" and "What Is to Become of Turkey in Europe?", were written by Engels. This is confirmed by Engels' letter to Marx of March 11, 1853, in which he agreed, in response to Marx's request, to write a series of articles on the subject, and also by his letter to Marx of May 1, 1854, in which he referred to these articles in connection with future plans for writing on the Eastern question for the press (see present edition, Vol. 39).

[18] The first Anglo-Afghan War of 1838-42, started by the British with the aim of seizing Afghanistan, ended in total failure for the British colonialists.

In 1843 the British colonialists seized Sind, a region in the north-western part of India bordering on Afghanistan. During the Anglo-Afghan war the East India Company resorted to threats and violence to obtain the consent of the feudal rulers of Sind to the passage of British troops across their territory. Taking advantage of this, the British demanded in 1843 that the local feudal princes proclaim themselves vassals of the Company. After crushing the rebel Baluch tribes (the natives of Sind), the annexation of the entire region by British India was announced.

The Punjab (North-West India) was conquered in British campaigns against the Sikhs in 1845-46 and 1848-49. In the sixteenth century, the Sikhs were a religious sect in the Punjab. Their teaching of equality became the ideology of the peasants and lower urban strata who fought against the Empire of the Great Moguls and the Afghan invaders in the late seventeenth century. Subsequently a local aristocracy emerged among the Sikhs, whose representatives ruled the Sikh state established in the latter half of the eighteenth century. In 1845, the British authorities in India provoked an armed conflict with the Sikhs and in 1846 succeeded in turning the Sikh state into a vassal. In 1848 the Sikhs revolted, but were totally subjugated in 1849. The conquest of the Punjab turned all India into a British colony.

[19] A reference to the Milan insurrection started on February 6, 1853 by the followers of the Italian revolutionary Mazzini and supported by Hungarian revolutionary refugees. The aim of the insurgents, who were mostly Italian workers, was to overthrow Austrian rule, but their conspiratorial tactics led them to failure. Marx analysed it in a number of articles (see present edition, Vol. 11, pp. 508-09, 513-16 and 535-37).

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 12 (pp.13-17), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1979
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