Zonguldak, a city on Turkey's Black Sea coast, is known as “black diamond country”, and for good reason. As we withdraw money out of a slot in the wall, 300 meters below us, others draw coal dust into their lungs.
The known history of coal mining in Turkey, like almost everything else about progress, development and the free market, is a product of PR.
The story is that “Tall Mehmet”, while being discharged from the navy was given a piece of coal by his commander who said, “Go find more of this!” –except Tall Mehmet probably never existed, nor were there any steamboats then in the Ottoman navy.
According to legend, he began his search right here, and went to the mill over there, but there was no path between them then. The locals have known about coal since the time before Christ, long before Tall Mehmet’s alleged discovery in 1829. In a well forested area, they burned wood and had no interest in smelly coal. That’s the long and short of it.
So, why did Sultan Abdülmecit, assume personal control of Ereğli coal district in 1848, while Europe was shaking with revolutionary fever?
Because the age of steam had arrived, and states with the new steamboats in their navies were desperately looking for coal. Having obtained its first steamboat in 1827, the Ottomans had wisened up to the new conditions.
The usual way of doing things in the declining years of the Ottomans was applied. The Galata moneylenders founded a coal company, and the sultan leased the district to them.
When the Crimean War broke out in 1853, the Ottomans realized that this coal was quite an important thing. Well, the English and the French combed the district. The French built a harbor, and the English built a railway.
And the Ottomans did what was expected of them; in 1865, sultan Abdülaziz assigned the district to the navy. Rather than the free market, progress, reason etc., at this time, there was just the state in these lands.
In 1867, a new regulation was issued. They had the authority and the coal, but something was still missing: The people to dig it out.
Because initially French and English companies made the villagers live in windowless huts and work like slaves, the people weren't too keen on going down the mines. When the price of coal was 73 kurush a ton, the workers got 2,5-3 kurush a ton. And this was paid with food and clothes. Miner’s disease was rampant.
The Ottomans sorted things out with their age-old methods. “In Ereğli County,” proclaimed the sultan, “all men above the age of 13 and under the age of 50 are to work in the mines!”
The new regulations called for companies to build hygienic wards, which of course were never built; however, overtime as punishment on truant workers of course was imposed without fail.
“To darken one’s life”, a Turkish expression, may come from the tens of thousands of boys and men forced down the mines. In 1894, workers who felt methane build up and ran away were forced back down by the gendarmes. We don't know what happened to them. We know that workers then had to pay for their own medical treatment. Perhaps as a result they preferred to die en masse.
By the 1910s, around 10 thousand workers, speaking 10 different languages, dug coal in the name of the free market abroad, and the state at home.
The workers spent half the month at the mine, and the other in their villages, and if they didn't die, were allowed to go home to plant and harvest. Which meant walking for hours even in rain and snow. The schedule was two, 12-hour shifts, but no one was that lucky. Some had to work two shifts back-to-back.
Those from far away villages spent the night in jerry-built huts, flimsy barracks set up by the companies, and under trees or in caves in summer. They didn't even have bathes. They would sleep on stones and adobe bricks, and try to get by with the food from their villages. Or they could benefit from the free market: Shopping from stores that gauged them, eventually, starving.
The Ottoman Empire, the ‘sick man of Europe’, hadn't quite attained the age of the railroads. Workers were not allowed to ride the trains. The train was for managers. The workers tried to jump onto moving coal cars, and since many were exhausted from their shift, such acrobatics were sometimes fatal.
The cruel Ottoman Empire fell, and a new Republic was born.
In 1921, the forced labour law, treating people as pickaxes and shovels, was abolished. A pat on the back was better than continuous brute force. A new law decreed the sale of coal dust be used for “the general welfare of the workers.” While debating the law, Minister of Economy Celal Bayar told parliament, “By granting them something rather petty, we shall gain their enthusiasm.” Surprisingly, parliament also passed the eight-hour work day.
They could revoke the law whenever they wanted anyway, and because the transition to a republic had been made, reason also stepped in. Intense research was made on increasing productivity. Wages were so low, it was impossible to achieve it just by mechanization and what not. Workers were paid according to the coal they mined. The effort made for safety underground was not accounted for. “If you want to save your life you will lose your pay!” This dilemma the worker had to face, was the motto of the mining industry the world over.
In 1929, The Public Bank of Turkey arrived in the region. The republic had ideals, its every endeavor was suffused with deep meaning. And the age of PR had dawned. It would be a good idea to synchronize this with some anniversary, give it meaning. The Zonguldak Community Centre History Committee created the legend of Tall Mehmet, discoverer of coal exactly one hundred years ago to the day.
Landing on Zonguldak pier in 1931, with full carpet, Atatürk outlined the urgent task of the district with the paraphrased words: The more coal we have, the more Zonguldak we have.
The equation was nice, but problematic: Since the workers still were part-time villagers, they didn't want to go down the mines when harvest was good. Suddenly, the worker’s worth had gone up. A mine operator complained that competition for workers between companies was “spoiling them.”
The monarchy had become a republic, but the state was still the state. The first thing they came up with was: “Let's gather the workers in company quarters so we can keep an eye on them.”
Austrian professor Bartel Grannig then pointed out something that the state had missed: “If you cut these workers’ ties with the village and put them together, you will have trouble.” Grannig knew well about the determined struggle of miners in the West. “Erect settlements near the mines which you can supervise,” he said, “but allow village life to continue there. Don't let them feel like industrial workers.”
Grannig was the ideal consultant for a single-party administration dealing not only with “how to mine more coal” but also “how to control the workers.” So when the Nazis took over Austria, professor Grannig retained his position at Loeben Mining University. When student associations annulled themselves to clear the path for Nazi ideals, Grannig supported them. The camp erected after the war for people rescued from the Nazis was 60 kilometres away from Grannig’s university. The camp was surrounded by graves.
At the time, Grannig continued to serve as consultant to the Republic of Turkey. The project for workers’ villages didn't pan out. When a village was requisitioned to serve nearby mines, the people resisted, and it was clear that there would be no smooth ride. Instead, the state embraced the policy of retaining workers’ ties with their villages.
This meant that workers could recuperate in their villages, thus releasing mining companies from the responsibility of looking after them.
The effort to control workers wasn't for nothing. One strike followed another after World War I. Miners from Gelik took up whatever arms they could find and marched on Zonguldak. This didn't go unnoticed. Strikes didn't cease in the 1920s either. Blame the charm of the free market. The miners wanted one of their own to count the coal cars. Because the the French company cheated them for coal mined at the expense of their lives.
Rings a bell? When profit is the goal, the means of achieving it are irrelevant.
As for the 1940s... The young Republic inherited many habits from its father. As Professor Grannig joined his Nazis, the entire mining area in Turkey was nationalized.
My Mehmet, your eyes glow with every light
My Mehmet, my Mehmet, my Tall Mehmet
Look, hundreds of people commemorate you
Coal in the nation, your spirit aglow
The biggest pit is named after you
My Mehmet, my Mehmet, my Tall Mehmet!
There are statues of Tall Mehmet, his finding of coal is staged in official ceremonies, and there are even memorial ceremonies held in his name. His life story is distributed as reading material in schools… However, according to legend, he was poisoned in an inn room by the district governor who grew jealous of him for approaching the Sultan without his knowledge and receiving awards. The amazing level of detail in the legend aside, although he was the victim of an unsolved murder, Tall Mehmet got off pretty lightly for someone who didn’t exist in the first place.
“Compared to mines in the USA in the same period, it appears that many more accidents took place in Zonguldak mines in the Ottoman period. For example, in 1912-1913, in an 11-week period, 20 people lost their lives in accidents in Zonguldak mines. There was a series of reasons for the high frequency of mining accidents: Atrocious work conditions that did not change until the end of this period, long work hours, the dangers inherent in the nature of mining and carelessness. The reason for many accidents was the stance of the management that can only be described as insensitivity to long working hours and heavy workload. (…) Throughout almost the entire period, injured workers would be sent back to their villages with no financial compensation and abandoned to their fate. A few hospitals were opened towards the end of the 19th century, and health services were improved. However, throughout the entire Ottoman period, miners paid for their health expenses from their own pocket…”
Donald Quataert, The Life of Zonguldak Miners, 1870-1920.
Professor Donald Quataert was a Middle East/Ottoman historian who had carried out the widest research on the human tragedy in the Zonguldak mining region. (He passed away on February 10, 2011.) You can find info about his works here. His work includes Ottoman Manufacturing in the Age of the Industrial Revolution (Cambridge), The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922 (Cambridge), Ottoman Reform and Agriculture in Anatolia, 1876-1908 (University of California), and co-edited with Eric Jan Zürcher, Workers and the Working Class in the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic, 1889-1950 (Tauris, Library of Modern Middle East Studies). Quataert was, until 2006, the board chairman of the Institute of Turkish Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. However, he was allegedly forced to resign by the Turkish ambassador to the United States, Nabi Şensoy, who opposed the acceptance of the Armenian Genocide as a legitimate research topic and lobbied against him.
“16 Tons” is performed here by Rockapella, a non-instrumental vocal group formed in New York in 1986, who have brought out 16 albums since.
I obtained some photographs of old Zonguldak from Erhan Verit. I saw them on the site azonguldak.com and asked him to send them to me, and he kindly provided them. The information and resources on Gürdal Özçakır’s Karadeniz Ereğli Futbol site were also of great use. I would also like to mention the zonguldakbilgi.com site. Necdet Sakaoğlu’s article titled “The Ghost That Settled In History” published in 1989 in the journal Tarih ve Toplum proved a valuable source, just like Nurşen Gürboğa’s research titled “The Worker Village Projects in the Coal Basin”.
This oil painting titled “Thirst-The End of a Shift” is the work of Gilbert Daykin. The exhibition at the end of this part of our film features the work of Mark Baum, Mark Hofmann and David Lucas also. Daykin himself was a miner. He painted this work in 1934. Five years later, on 22 December 1939, the readers of “The Argus”, a newspaper published in Melbourne, Australia, saw on the front page, next to all the reports about the war, and tucked beneath an item on the “Shopping Record at Christmas”, a tiny, single-column report: “ARTIST WHO SHOWED IN LONDON KILLED IN MINE. Among six men killed in Warsop Colliery (Mansfield) yesterday...” Daykin, along with five friends, was buried beneath 1850 tons of earth. The same year, in a previous mining accident in Scotland, 35 miners had died. (For a list of mining disasters in Scotland click here.)
Bartel Grannig was an Austrian professor who got on quite well with the Nazis. He was the ideal consultant for an authoritarian single-party administration in which secret Nazi admirers tried to cover up for flagrant Nazi admirers. For 25 years from the 1920s on, he gave advice to governments of the Republic and was instrumental in determining official policy. His policy of keeping mine workers as semi-villagers was implemented as a constant policy of the Republic.
Hamit Kalyoncu asks, “Does Zonguldak exist in Turkish literature?” and provides a detailed list of literary texts and research papers on miners. The article titled “Traces in our Literature of Black Diamond Fire” was published in the “Evrenselkent” supplement of Evrensel newspaper on 2 December 2006 and can be accessed at haberzonguldak2.com.