The Ottoman Bank Archives, one of the collections at SALT Research, not only shed light on the history of the Ottoman Bank, formerly the central bank and the treasurer of the Ottoman Empire, but also offer a representation of life during this period. The archives narrate the story of the little-known world of the late Ottoman and Early Republican period in which the bank played a central role.
These archival documents presented in five different exhibitions in the Google Cultural Institute display the significant changes, developments and crises experienced over an 80 year period, from the Ottoman Bank's founding until 1933, when it gained a private bank status.
Ottoman Bank Museum - 1856-1880 - The Founding Years & The Difficult Times
Ottoman Bank Museum - 1881-1894 - Redressing the Situation
Ottoman Bank Museum - 1895-1894 - The Expansion Period
Ottoman Bank Museum - 1914-1920 – War and Crisis
Ottoman Bank Museum - 1921-1931 - A New Balance & Epilogue
THE EXPANSION PERIOD
The Ottoman Bank's growing commercial activity, its widening branch network and Sir Edgar Vincent's dynamic management helped establish an unchallengeable control over the market. In fact, the bank's influence was such that the speculative bubble triggered by Vincent himself caused havoc in the financial market, almost drawing the bank itself to bankruptcy. Following this crisis, the bank continued to grow but with much more caution and reserve. Being the most powerful bank in the market along with being the sole and exclusive agent of the state, the bank incurred much political pressure, sometimes of a violent nature. In 1896, a group of Armenian nationalists occupied the headquarters, and in 1903, a committee of Bulgarian revolutionaries bombed and burnt down the Thessaloniki branch.
The power and centrality of the bank was manifest in the wide range of customers it was able to attract. People from all walks of life were to be found among its depositors and customers included the Sultan himself and members of the ruling elite of the time. By 1914, the Ottoman Bank opened more than ninety branches across the Ottoman lands.
Bank Accounts of Sultan Abdülhamid II
The letter received from Thessaloniki, on 18 May 1909, was rather extraordinary. It was addressed to the General Management of the Imperial Ottoman Bank and bore the signature of Sultan Abdülhamid II, who had been sent to the Allatini Villa in Thessaloniki following his dethronement some three weeks ago. The deposed sovereign was requesting that the Ottoman Bank pay him the amount of 52,971 liras in his savings account together with its accrued interests. Two other documents from the bank archives make it possible to follow the transaction until its finalization: a receipt signed by Abdülhamid attests to the payment of 13,733.55 liras by the Ottoman Bank, while a check bearing the same date instructs the Ottoman Bank to pay the amount of 40,375.79 liras to the Deutsche Bank.
The Stock Exchange Crash 1895
An important element in the development of the Ottoman Bank was its capacity to respond to the growing demand from its customers in Istanbul for operations on stocks and bonds. In order to profit from this speculative wave among the public, the bank offered all sorts of related services such as the selling, buying and custody of stocks and bonds, and the collection of dividends. Most importantly, it developed a system of advances backed by stocks and bonds. Between 1892 and 1894, the amount of such advances had nearly tripled, attracting some cautious warnings from the bank's committees in London and Paris. Sir Edgar Vincent, far from heeding this advice, triggered even more speculation by promoting South African gold mine stocks. Following a drop in the London market, the Galata stock exchange suddenly crashed and by the end of October 1895, the Ottoman Bank was overwhelmed by massive withdrawal of savings and redemption of banknotes. A number of local speculators were totally ruined by the crash, while the bank survived in extremis thanks to the government's support and the shipping of over 1,000,000 liras in gold from London.
The Occupation of the Ottoman Bank by Armenian Nationalists
On 26 August 1896, around mid-day, some twenty-five hamals (porters) with large sacks on their shoulders entered the Ottoman Bank's headquarters on Voyvoda Street and opened gunfire. They were in fact a group of Armenian nationalists led by Armen Garo (Karekin Pastermadjian), who occupied the bank in order to draw the attention of European states. The attackers carried bombs and dynamite in their sacks, and they threatened to blow up the entire building together with its 125 employees and fifteen clients. The general manager, Sir Edgar Vincent, was able to escape from the building, while his deputy, Gaston Auboyneau, managed to go to the Yıldız Palace in an attempt to obtain a ceasefire between the attackers and the troops outside the building. Thanks to the mediation of Maximov, an interpreter of the Russian embassy, Sultan Abdülhamid II promised amnesty and safe conduct to the attackers. By the end of the day, the armed group was transferred to the general manager's yacht Gülnar, and was able to board a French ship for Marseilles the following day. The casualties included three attackers, four gendarmes, one porter and one office boy. While the Palace looked the other way, the Armenian population of Istanbul was subjected to a major pogrom, the killing of over a thousand people, according to Ottoman sources, and thousands according to western observers.
The Bombing of the Thessaloniki Branch
On 29 April 1903, a Bulgarian revolutionary committee attacked the Thessaloniki branch. As was the case in the previous attack of 1896, the Ottoman Bank was targeted because of its official status and the attention that it would draw. Plans for this attack on one of the most important branches of the bank were made months in advance. The attackers had rented the grocery shop right across from the bank in order to dig a five-meter tunnel leading to the building's foundation. On the night of the attack, they blew up the foundations with dynamite and detonated two bombs in the bank. The branch manager and his family managed to escape but a soldier guarding the entrance was killed.
Nicolas Eleftheris' check fraud
In 1906, a Greek citizen by the name of Nicolas Eleftheris managed to get two out of three forged Ottoman Bank checks discounted at a branch in Bulgaria. The checks were in the amounts of 10,000, 12,000 and 14,000 francs to his name. However, a few details soon revealed that the checks had been forged. The Ottoman Bank immediately took action, informing the Bulgarian Bank of Trade of the fraud. A letter from the High Commissariat for Bulgaria revealed Eleftheris' nationality and the way he had obtained a visa. Following a long investigation, Nicolas Eleftheris was caught in 1907 and sentenced to five years of hard labor for forging official stamps.
The Ottoman Bank and the Problem of Eunuchs 1909-1910
Although slavery was an integral part of Ottoman society, it had become a problem due to modernization and westernization processes. The Ottoman Bank archives provide us with interesting details of this problem. When chief eunuch Cevher Agha was executed in 1909, his estate at the Ottoman Bank caused of legal conundrum. Westernization, and particularly the Constitution of 1908, had initiated a movement in favor of the abolition of slavery, promoting the idea that slaves should be given equal rights as freemen. According to Islamic law, the inheritance of a slave belonged to his master, however, if slavery was considered illegal, their relatives could claim the estates, or in their absence–a frequent case with eunuchs–by the Public Trustee. Therefore, the estates of palace eunuchs could be the object of more than one claim: on the one hand, the Privy Purse, representing their master the sultan, and on the other, the Public Trustee. The bank's lawyer was thus forced to tackle this legal issue.
Kurgu ve anlatım / Concept and narrative — Edhem Eldem, Boğaziçi Üniversitesi