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Before Empire: Leopold II, Colonialism and the Ottoman Mediterranean

Thursday, October 6, 2016, 5:30 pm

From an early age the future Leopold II developed a taste for extensive foreign travel. Before his coronation in 1865 he undertook five journeys, three of which had as their destination the Ottoman Empire. Although officially represented as simple Bildungsreisen, all had covert colonial agendas. Indeed, long before he acquired his private African colony (the Congo ‘Free’ State), Leopold had instigated numerous clandestine attempts at territorial acquisition in nearly every corner of the world. In this talk I demonstrate that the Ottoman Empire held an exceptional and foundational place in Leopold’s early colonial thinking. From 1854 onwards, the Belgian prince secretly coveted the ‘takeover’ and economic exploitation of several Ottoman islands in the eastern Mediterranean, most notably Crete and Cyprus. Leopold’s divergent attitudes toward the Ottomans will be situated within broader Western European ideas about Oriental others and the then prevailing ideologies and practices of imperialism and colonialism. In doing so, we can begin to understand why this profit-seeking ‘bourgeois prince’ mused about reconquering the “Turkish Empire” and also later, as the ‘King incorporated’, remained captivated by the idea of gaining a foothold in the ‘Orient’.

Houssine Alloul studied history at the University of Antwerp (UAntwerp) and the Università Ca’ Foscari in Venice. Currently he is a PhD candidate at UAntwerp where he is also a member of Power in History: Centre for Political History (PoHis). His dissertation investigates the relations between Belgium and the Ottoman Empire (1865-1914), with a special focus on the intertwining of small power diplomacy, the global expansion of Belgian capital, and cross-cultural interactions. He recently co-edited (with Sinan Kuneralp) The Diary of Émile de Borchgrave: Recollections of a Belgian Diplomat in the Ottoman Empire (1885-1892) (Istanbul, 2015).