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reported the

Drogheda Argus

in February 1847, a year in

which as many as 70,000 people emigrated from Drogheda’s

docks. “Every day the town ... is crowded with cadaverous

looking emigrants [and] unfortunate creatures who ... present

an appearance absolutely frightful. Women and children have

been seen actually contesting with cattle for pieces of raw

turnips which were

lying on the Steam

Packet Quay.”

And even as such

scenes played out,

export ships in ports

throughout Ireland

groaned under the

weight of food.

“Would to God that you could stand for one five minutes in our

street, and see with what a troop of miserable, squalid, starving

creatures you would be instantaneously surrounded, with tears

in their eyes and misery in their faces,” wrote Kenmare parish

priest John O’Sullivan in a letter to Charles Trevelyan, Britain’s

assistant secretary to Her Majesty’s Treasury, in December 1847.

“Whatever be the cost or expense, or on whatever party it may fall,

every Christian must admit, that the people must not be suffered

to starve in the midst of plenty.”

Trevelyan, however, was not among the Christians who

shared O’Sullivan’s views, believing instead that the blight

was sent by God as an opportunity for Ireland’s “moral and

political improvement.”

Yet far to the east, there was a ruler who heeded the spirit of

O’Sullivan’s plea.

S

ultan Abdülmedjid

I

was 24 years old in 1847.

Having acceded to the Ottoman throne at 16, he

would rule the empire, which reached from

Morocco to Central Asia, until his death in 1861

at age 39. He was a calligrapher, fluent and

literate in Arabic, Persian and French; a devotee of European

literature; and an early audiophile of classical music and opera,

the tinny, newly recorded sounds of which drifted from his tent

on imperial outings. He also shared a keen interest in the latest

advancements in western science, medicine and technology.

After witnessing a demonstration of Samuel Morse’s new

invention, the telegraph, at Istanbul’s Beylerbeyi Palace in 1847,

he conferred upon the inventor the

Nishan Iftichar

(Order of

Glory) and delighted in personally transmitting a message

between the

harem and the

palace’s main

entrance.

In addition to

his enthusiasm

for innovation,

Abdülmedjid

I

became known

also for charity. Sickly as a child, he wished to spare his

subjects the ravages of infectious diseases. During his official

tours of the empire, for example, he would have village

children vaccinated in his presence.

Politically, he was just as progressive. Determined to mod-

ernize the empire, the young Sultan set about instituting the

wide-reaching

tanzimat

(“reorganization”) envisioned by his

father, Sultan Mahmud

II

. This included abolishing executions

without trials, issuing the first Ottoman banknotes, laying the

foundations of the first Ottoman Parliament and establishing a

system of modern, secular institutions, schools and universities

under one umbrella, the newly formed Ministry of Education.

Hoping to dampen ethnic nationalism, he extended full citi-

zenship and equality before the law to all Ottoman subjects,

regardless of ethnicity or religion. At court, he swept aside cen-

turies of onerous etiquette: No longer would foreign emissaries

have to check their ceremonial swords at the door, be doused in

rosewater, wear kaftans over their uniforms and sit lower than

the Sultan—if allowed into his presence at all.

“An ambassador under the new regime stood, with sword by

his side and cocked hat in hand, face-to-face with the Sultan,”

reported one British envoy.

Among those who enjoyed such free and familiar access to

Abdülmedjid was English Ambassador Stratford Canning, son

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