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Can Nacar: Labor and Power in the Late Ottoman Empire. Tobacco Workers, Managers, and the State, 1872-1912, Cham: Palgrave Macmillan 2019, XV + 202 S., ISBN 978-3-030-31559-7
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Rezension von:
Nolwenn Guedeau
Bonn Center of Dependency and Slavery Studies, Universität Bonn
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Stephan Conermann
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Nolwenn Guedeau: Rezension von: Can Nacar: Labor and Power in the Late Ottoman Empire. Tobacco Workers, Managers, and the State, 1872-1912, Cham: Palgrave Macmillan 2019, in: sehepunkte 22 (2022), Nr. 10 [15.10.2022], URL:

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Can Nacar: Labor and Power in the Late Ottoman Empire

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Can Nacar is an assistant professor at the history department of Koç University, Istanbul. He graduated from Marmara University, Istanbul, with a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations, followed by a master's degree in modern Turkish history at Boğaziçi University, Istanbul ("The Working Class in Turkey during World War II: Between Social Policies and Everyday Experiences"). His advisor was Professor Nadir Özbek. The book under review was published by Palgrave Macmillan. The book, which is 202 pages long, is about the tobacco industry in the late Ottoman Empire between 1872 and 1912. It aims to explore how workers interpreted socio-economic and political changes, and how these peasant communities resisted, contested, adapted, or tried to transform these changes. Thus, this book is about peasant field workers versus landowners and tobacco processors versus state organizations, like the Régie des Tabac. This book does not address issues related to the sale and production of tobacco, or even its consumption. The book is addressed to the general public. It is written in a clear, concise manner, without the use of too much learned vocabulary. However, it also remains very important for the scientific community, as it brings a new look on this subject. From a theoretical point of view, this study addresses issues related to the power and dependence of local workers on the central authorities. It is regrettable that there is not a complete definition of the concept of power in the book.

The sources used come from different archives, which are presented at the end of the book in the bibliography: one finds there the Presidential Ottoman Archives. It is particularly interesting to have a study in English that deals with Ottoman archives. The different archives used, the types of sources exactly used, and the types of documents used are not really specified. A long introduction on the different archives, their location, and the kind of information they could offer would have been a plus for this book. In particular, it would seem that many of these archives have never been used before. For readers, who are not familiar with the Ottoman archives and would like to be able to retrieve information on where to find it, will not be able to use this book to help them. In particular, the book traces the lives of various people working in the tobacco industry, especially in the western regions of Turkey and the south-eastern Balkans. Other regions, such as the Levant or eastern Anatolia, are not covered by the author. The mechanical industrialization of tobacco production led to the loss of jobs. There was, in a short period of time, less work available for labourers replaced by machines and thus unrest among the working classes. In addition, factory managers sought greater control over production, which also led to revolts.

The book is well written and easy to read for non-native speakers. The chapters are clear and well organized, each divided into clear sub-chapters and paragraphs. To emphasize these arguments, the author takes many examples from the archives and describes them in great detail. It can be said that there is sometimes too much detail and that it sometimes seems difficult to follow. The type of source from which these examples come is not presented but is cited in a footnote. However, in order to find one's way through the book, a summary paragraph is provided at the end of each sub-chapter which is very useful for putting the different examples into context. The first chapter is a general introduction to the tobacco industry, its different actors, general organization, and production sites. The second chapter presents the birth of the Ottoman tobacco industry, while the third chapter shows how power was implemented and organized and to what extent workers had control over their working conditions. The last three chapters describe the balance of power between workers and the Ottoman state and the limits imposed on each side. In particular, we find information on the various strikes in Iskeçe, Kaval, and Istanbul during the reign of Abdülhamid II, the protests of the beginning of the twentieth century in the Hamidian period, and the petitions, demonstrations, and meetings carried out by workers. This allows us to see how the workers interpreted the different political changes of the time.

The book was very enjoyable to read. The last three chapters are easier to follow if you already have a background in Ottoman history. The examples presented are very detailed, but one can sometimes lose track of the point the author is trying to make. However, a summary paragraph is presented at the end of each chapter. Aside from a somewhat overly succinct presentation of the sources, the book traces the tobacco industry from the workers' point of view, showing that changes were not always initiated by workers, but also by their employers. Efforts to change the balance of power in the tobacco-processing industry were successful, even though the replacement of workers by machines was not the same in every production centre.

Even if it is not clearly stated, the theme of this book is asymmetrical dependency. Indeed, it is the relationship between tobacco-processing workers and factory managers that is emphasized. The labourers needed this work, which was seasonal, just as the managers needed skilled workers near the tobacco fields. Each of the two groups put pressure on the other (demands for more work or requests for more money), but the balance of power was still in favour of the managers, who had a much higher place in the social hierarchy. However, there are many examples of workers fighting for their social rights by going on strike and putting so much pressure on the industry that they managed to get what they wanted in some cases.

Nolwenn Guedeau