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The First Turkish Consulate in New York City

Cemil Özyurt
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It was in 1824 that the American government posted its first American Consul, David Offley, to the western Anatolian city of Izmir.  It was only after thirty years of American efforts to establish formal relationships that the Ottomans agreed to open this consulate.  
Well, did the Ottomans have an American consulate in the USA at that time? While glancing through the archives of the New York Times, a record starting from 1851 and stretching to the present, I chanced upon a story of some adventures of Turks living in New York City 146 years ago.
Hatchik (Christopher) Oscanyan. (Source: Oscanyan, C. The Sultan and His People. New York: Derby & Jackson, 1857.

An ad placed in a New York Times newspaper dated November 22, 1863 was eye-catching. The ad was an announcement that Hatchik (Christopher) Oscanyan, the author of a book entitled The Sultan and His People would be giving a lecture on the subject of “The Women of Turkey.”

The announcement stressed the fact that the speech would be accompanied by a number of photographs detailing the lives, loves, marriages, dances and many other aspects of women living in the Ottoman Empire.

Who was this Hatchik Oscanyan? And why did he, in the 1850s, feel the need to describe the Ottomans to the people of New York City?  When I went deeper into my research, I learned that this Hatchik Oscanyan was a rather colorful character.
Born on April 23, 1818 in Istanbul, Oscanyan was an Ottoman of Armenian descent.  He was later to change his first name from Hatchik to Christopher. In addition to Armenian, he also knew Turkish, Greek, Italian, French, and English.  He soon attracted the attention of Reverend Harrison G. O. Dwight, an American missionary working in the Ottoman lands. When Oscanyan’s mother died, the missionary persuaded him to travel to New York in order to continue his education.

In 1835 Oscanyan traveled to New York City and enrolled in New York University (NYU), but he fell ill and had to postpone his studies. He earned his living during those years by working for the company that was building the Charleston and Cincinnati railroad lines.

He spent six years in the US before returning to Istanbul, where he began to publish the first Armenian-language newspaper, the Astarar Ptizantian (Byzantine Advertiser).  In 1843, when his enterprising efforts ran afoul of the administrators, he began working as the private secretary of Tophane Müşiri Fethi Pasha, the husband of Atiye Sultan and the son-in-law of Sultan Mahmut II, the 30th Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. (1808-1839)  

While he was employed as a private secretary, he was charged by the Palace with the responsibility of purchasing the dowry of Sultan Mahmut’s daughter, Adile Sultan, who was being betrothed to Mehmet Ali Pasha, the head of the Imperial Navy, or the Kaptan-ı Derya.  This appointment gave him an opportunity to have a first-hand look at the workings of the Ottoman Palace.

Following this marriage, Oscanyan left his position as private secretary and began to serve as the Istanbul representative for several American and European newspapers.

In 1853 he opened an exhibit called the Oriental and Turkish Museum in London. While this effort did attract some attention from the English, it failed to meet with success, and in 1853 he decided to return to New York, the city he had left in 1841.  

In 1857 he published the 468-page book, The Sultan and His People, mentioned earlier. This book received wide attention in New York and 16 thousand copies were sold in just four months.  The book was a wealth of information about the Ottoman Empire of the day, including information about the dervishes, the city’s mosques and the Grand Bazaar.

In 1868, Oscanyan, an author with palace connections who had also served as a writer, a translator, journalist and politician, was appointed to head up the first New York City Consulate of the Ottoman Empire.  

Were there enough Turks in New York City at that time to require a consulate?  According to research undertaken by Prof. Sedat İşçi, a total of 1.2 million persons migrated from Ottoman lands to the U.S. during the years spanning 1860 – 1921. Of these, 200 thousand were Muslims and ethnic Turks while the rest were non-Muslims.

In 1872 General William T. Sherman visited the Ottoman Empire, and Oscanyan was given the responsibility by the Ottoman authorities of taking care of the general during his visit by acting as the “Representative of the Sultan.”  When General Ulysses S. Grant served as US president during the years spanning 1869–1877, Sherman took his place as Commanding General of the Army.  

Oscanyan continued to act as Consul until 1874. After leaving this position, he continued in New York with his literary efforts and he wrote the words to an Armenian opera. There are no records as to when Oscanyan died.

He played a very significant role in changing the negative Ottoman stereotypes.  As he labored to eradicate anti-Ottoman feelings, he also contributed to sparking English and American interest in the Ottoman regions. He acted as a kind of liaison in forming a bridge between western elites and the Ottomans.

Oscanyan had his own place in elite New York society. He was a close friend of Ada Claire, a woman who was recognized as a leader among writers, artists and in the feminist movement.

Very popular magazines of the day, such as Harper’s and Putnam, published reviews of his book The Sultan and His People.  Putnam found Oscanyan’s book to be both “comical and interesting.”

It is still possible even today to find Oscanyan’s books being offered by antique auction houses. In June 2008, Green Valley Auctions, Inc, a company operating out of Virginia, sold a work called Oscanyan’s Oriental Album, a book that contains 24 drawings of Ottoman daily life, for $4,520.

Oscanyan introduced the West to the daily life of the Ottomans at the end of the empire, at a time when the land was being broken apart in nationalist uprisings.  He not only was the Consul of the Ottoman Empire during those years, but also served as an ambassador for tourism, a writer, and a translator. He is a person who deserves to be remembered.
Last modified onSaturday, 06 May 2017 10:07