On Tuesday July 15, 1867, the Sultan of the Turkish Empire, Abdülaziz, and his attendants were resting in the guest rooms at Buckingham Palace during the first-ever state visit to Britain paid by an Ottoman ruler. The weather was bad. Even though it was the height of summer, several of the Sultan’s processions and visits had been deluged with rain. In the late afternoon, a group of English visitors, in formal clothes and top hats, was admitted to see the Sultan. Beside the Sultan stood his foreign minister, the portly but dazzlingly brilliant Fuad Pasha who was really in charge of the Turkish side of the State Visit.
The visitors were the mayor of Manchester, some aldermen, the town clerk (in those days the city only boasted a town clerk), and the local MP, an otherwise entirely unknown minor Liberal politician called Thomas Bazley.
This was a slightly impromptu visit: the Conservative government of Lord Derby seems to have been unaware that the visit was going to happen. This was probably not an accident. Liverpool had also invited the Sultan to pay it a visit – but Lord Derby had sat on the invitation and it never got through. Manchester was trying direct tactics.
The fact that the visitors got through into the Royal presence at all was almost certainly the result of a behind the scenes agreement between Fuad and Clarke Hyde, a British businessman in the textile business who had worked in Turkey with Fuad and the Ottoman Government earlier in the decade.
The visitors were then shown into the royal presence by the Marshall of the Mabeyn, the 35 year old future Grand Vizier under Abdülhamit II and his successor, Kâmil Pasha, who was destined to continue to remain at the forefront of Turkish politics for the best part of five more decades until January 1913 when he was overthrown by the Young Turks’ military coup. Kâmil spoke some English.
The official interpreter, Blacques (or Black) Bey, an offshoot of a Scottish merchant family in Istanbul, now in Ottoman service and working as Turkish ambassador to the United States, had gone off and could not be found. Hyde Clarke was deputed to translate, after Fuad hastily explained to the Sultan who he was and that he could be trusted.
The Mancunian delegation then took out a large and elaborate letter, written in illuminated Victorian uncials, recording a decision of the Manchester Town Council to invite the Sultan of Turkey to spend two days of his visit to England in their city. As earnest of their good intentions and careful preparations, they revealed that the Judge’s Lodgings (the doubtless magnificent formal residence of judges when assize trials were being held) and the assize courts themselves, had been cleared and got ready for the Sultan and his party to stay in. Manchester boasted nothing better.
Royal visits were slower and more leisurely in the age of the railway than they would be today, and Abdülaziz’s visit was leisurely. He had arrived on the Dover boat train on July 12 and stayed until July 23. So there might in theory have been time for an imperial visit to Manchester.
It was not to be. The Sultan graciously promised that he would come if he had time, though of course he did not. The illuminated letter was handed over, and the idea of an Ottoman Sultan in Manchester receded into history.
But this week the events of July 15, 1867, briefly came back into the historical foreground when the letter reappeared after a gap of 149 years as a smiling president handed over a convincing facsimile to a cheerful-looking Boris Johnson, the visiting British Foreign Secretary.
Do the two visits, 1867 and 2016, have anything in common? Well yes they do. Manchester Corporation might have seemed to be inviting the Sultan because they were jealous of the magnificent reception the City of London held for him three days later. (It was admittedly mostly spoilt by heavy rain. ‘It is to be feared that the Sultan will not carry away with him a favourable recollection of the English climate, the rain fell heavily in the early part of the day, the inexorable St. Swithin having taken upon himself to spoil all the ceremonies now in progress.’ Presumably a visit to Manchester would have been an even damper occasion.)
Despite flattering Mancunian praise of Abdülaziz as the most enlightened Ottoman sultan ever, the real motive behind the Manchester invitation was entirely economic – and the Mayor aldermen made this clear, just as Boris Johnson did in Ankara this week when he spoke of a ‘jumbo trade deal’ between Turkey and Britain. British textile exports to Turkey were running at a colossal figure for Victorian times of £6 million a year while the Ottomans were supplying cotton to Lancashire at 223,000 hundredweight (11,320 metric tons) a year. Cotton was an export crop which had sprung up suddenly in Turkey because of the blockade on American cotton during the American Civil War, but which, with the war now two years over, was in danger. The British clearly feared that Turkey might be about to retaliate by imposing tariffs.
With Brexit, trade and tariffs between Turkey and Britain are once more in the air – though these days Turkey has a healthy trade surplus with Britain, something Boris Johnson courteously alluded to by referring to the Turkish washing machine in his family home. Turkish-British trade has grown to the point when Britain is currently Turkey’s largest export market in the EU.