Humanities and Arts

The Mystery of the Missing Horses: How to Uncover an Ottoman Shadow Economy

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Doi: doi: 10.1017/S0010417522000202



Abstract In the 1690s, Ottoman bureaucrats reformed the sprawling postal system, a vital communications infrastructure that undergirded imperial power. Despite the expanding monitoring capacity that resulted, a constant shortage of horses regularly left couriers stranded for days and delayed official correspondence. This essay investigates this paradox and draws on a series of fifty-one Ottoman imperial decrees and reports from 1690 to 1833 to make three arguments. It first shows how bureaucrats perceived and tried to fix the problem by rationing horse usage and strengthening enforcement of rules. Second, it reveals that a range of official and non-official actors were diverting horses toward profit-making ventures in what I call a “shadow economy.” Third, it explains why Ottoman bureaucrats were unable to recognize the existence of this shadow economy. Like contemporary administrators in Qing China who found it hard to synthesize intelligence from different frontiers, Ottoman bureaucrats treated multiple reports of missing horses as discrete, unconnected events rather than connected evidence of a competing market demand for horses. Compounding this problem of a blinkered informational order, profound economic and social changes meant that bureaucrats in the capital were slow to realize that long-held official entitlements regarding horse usage for personal uses were aiding the growth of the shadow economy. I conclude by considering some social consequences of commercial forces in Ottoman society and contemporary France, and the stakes of this study with respect to the rise of anonymity in market exchanges, a property of capitalism.