Double Taxation for Armenians in the Ottoman Turkish Empire

The famous and wise early American Benjamin Franklin once wrote to a friend, “In this world, nothing is certain, but death and taxes.”  Whether a person lives in a North American democracy or in an autocratically-run empire, that is true.

In the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish government demanded that non-Muslims pay income tax, a production tax, a poll tax for each adult male who was twelve years and older in each household, and customs dues on products brought into an area to sell. In general, non-Muslims had to pay more taxes than Muslims.

In 1891, Sultan Abd al Hamid effectively ratcheted up tax collections from Armenians when he recruited Kurds to form units of mounted militia he called Hamidiya. In exchange for their service, the Sultan brought the Hamidiya to Constantinople for training, gave them arms and uniforms with metal badges and lambskin bushbies, and told them they were exempt from regular military conscription. The Sultan allowed the Hamidiya to send the sons of their leaders to a tribal school in Constantinople and promised a school in a Hamidiya village for the sons of the other militiamen. Deploying most of the Hamidiya along a line between Erzerum and Van, Sultan Hamid allowed those Kurdish calvary units to remain close to their encampments and livestock on the Anatolian Plain in central Turkey.

But the Sultan could never quite find the money to pay them for their service. He ‘solved’ the problem of payment by giving the Hamidiya the right to collect taxes from local villages.

The main targets of the Hamidiya? Armenian shepherds, farmers, and villagers. With the encouragement of Turkish governmental officials, the Hamidiya pillaged and extorted at will. The Kurdish units would walk about towns and help themselves to whatever they wanted without paying. And they didn’t just collect sheep, farm products, and money. They took women and girls as well, killing any Armenian male who objected.

Once the units of armed and mounted Kurds were in place, the Turkish authorities in those provinces had no way to rein them in. Even the the local Turkish populations viewed the Hamidiya as brigands, bandits disguised as soldiers.

A common complaint from the Hamidiya to the officials in Constantinople was that the Armenian villagers balked at paying the Hamidiya anything. And with good reason. The Kurdish ‘soldiers’ weren’t the only ones ‘collecting taxes.’ The Turkish government, too, sent tax collectors around the towns and villages on the Anatolian Plains. Without any such thing as a signed receipt or proof they had already paid, Armenians were forced to pay again. 

Between the Turkish officials and the Hamidiya, the average Armenian on the Anatolian Plain faced double taxation and episodic periods of extortion and savagery PRIOR to 1915 – without even a hint of the representative voice in government that is so highly valued in a democracy.

Government: one by election, another by appointment

We North Americans have grown up with the concept that governments can only govern if elected by the people being governed. In fact, the U.S.A. just completed an election of a president and many members of the senate or the house of representatives at both the state and federal levels of government.

Historically, however, government by election is a rather recent phenomenon. In many countries (even in this twenty-first century), an elected government hasn’t ever existed. The men with the most weapons and political power set up whatever government has suited their purposes. 

A case in point was the government of Ottoman Turkey. About forty years before Columbus bumped into the Americas, the Byzantine Empire lost Constantinople, their capital city, to the Osman (Ottoman) Turkish Army and its Sultan Mehmed. Shortly after 1453, government by appointment began in Ottoman Turkey. The Sultan appointed whomever he wanted as governor for each province. No governor served for life. A Sultan could remove or transfer his appointees at will.

Once the Young Turks grabbed the power in the Ottoman Empire away from the Sultan in Constantinople early in the twentieth century, government by appointment took a disastrous turn. If a governor refused to do the bidding of Talaat, the Minister of the Interior, he didn’t just remove or transfer the recalcitrant appointee. Talaat had the man arrested, transported elsewhere, and often executed. One can well imagine the terror that descended on the remaining appointees, whether a governor of a province or a mayor of a city or town. Rule by threat of extermination was in full force by May of 1915.

Talaat’s merciless treatment of his underlings infused the Turkish government from top to bottom with fear and made obedience to his extreme dictates more likely between March and August of 1915. Because the world was deep into WWI at the time, Talaat believed no one outside of Turkey would notice.