The Dragoboys of Ortaköy

How an elite corps of British diplomats were trained

In the late 19th century, in the face of an increasingly corrupt consular service in the Near East, ambitious plans were laid in Istanbul to train an elite corps of young British diplomats. By David Morray

  • Sir Robert Graves (class of 1879), in the costume of a Scutari Muslim bey

Towards the end of 1877, a party of six young Englishmen arrived by sea in Istanbul. They were conducted to Misseri’s hotel on the Grand’ Rue de Pera (İstiklal Caddesi), where they stayed for a few days without incident, save that one of them was arrested for carrying a revolver in his pocket. They then proceeded to the village of Ortaköy on the European shore of the Bosphorus, less distinctly a village nowadays, perhaps, and in the shadow of the Bosphorus Bridge, but still visited for its neo-baroque mosque and designer bars.

At Ortaköy, which was to be their home for the next two years, the group found arrangements to be rather spartan. But the situation was nothing that initiative and youthful optimism could not make the best of: ‘The school was a rickety old wooden house, with an uncared-for garden in three terraces, one of which we quickly converted into a lawn tennis court, and a very airy shed dignified with the name of stables. Here we soon shook down and commenced our studies.’

Their good-humoured but resolute occupation of a dilapidated estate in a sleepy seaside hamlet actually marked the beginning of a sweeping overhaul of British consular representation in the Near East. Reform had long been advocated. With some exceptions, the service had fallen into disrepute. Indeed, in the middle of the 19th century, Edmund Hornby, later to become a Judge of the British Supreme Consular Court of the Levant, had been charged with rooting out offenders. He did not pull his punches: ‘The Vice-Consul of Cyprus I tried for scuttling a ship, said to be laden with silk, to defraud the insurance company. Another – a Consul and otherwise a valuable public servant, an Englishman – insured a ship he called Poseidon that never existed. I forgot what sentence he got, and I rather think he committed suicide.’…

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