Thursday, August 14, 2014

August 14, 1896: Occupation of the Ottoman Bank

The occupation of the Ottoman Bank of Constantinople, organized by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation in 1896, was an audacious attempt to attract the attention of the European great powers towards the Armenian Question.

Europe was the guarantor of article 61 of the Treaty of Berlin (1878), which obligated the Ottoman Empire to carry out reforms to improve the situation of Armenians living in their historical territories. The May 1895 plan presented by the European powers to Sultan Abdul Hamid II was never executed. Instead, Abdul Hamid perpetrated a massacre of its Armenian subjects with an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 victims in 1895-1896.

The headquarters of the Imperial Ottoman Bank in Istanbul, 1896.

The Central Committee of the A.R.F. in Constantinople organized the strike against the bank, which was a joint venture of Ottoman, British, and French capitals, in order to have the reforms executed. The action was also intended to show the sultan that Armenians were not ready to give up on their rights.

Armen Garo (Karekin Pastermadjian)
The preparations to occupy the bank started in February 1896. The idea had been conceived by 23-year old Papken Siuni (Bedros Parian), who would lead the operation. Hrach (Haig) Tiryakian, 25-years old, was his lieutenant, and Armen Garo (Karekin Pastermadjian), also 23, would take care of maintaining order in the bank and among the staff. Armen Garo wrote in his memoirs: “We transported close to 400 empty bombs during eight days from our secret foundry in Scutari to our workshop of Pera, in the house of Miss Iskouhi. After filling those bombs there, we transported them to various neighborhoods of Constantinople. We were only 10-15 trustworthy comrades to all this, teachers and students, twenty- to twenty-five-year-old young people, including three young ladies."

After several changes of date, the operation was finally carried on August 14. At noon, a discharge of guns and the thunder of bombs started the occupation. The group of militants included 28 people. The attacking group killed the guards, although four Armenians were also slain and another five were wounded. A very important loss was that of the head of the operation, Papken Siuni, who was wounded and the bombs on his body exploded when he fell.
Armen Garo took the command of the group and the fight started between the occupiers and the Ottoman forces. Meanwhile, a Turkish mob had started to kill innocent Armenians throughout the city. The A.R.F. militants sent a note with their demands to the European embassies: a) 1. To stop the massacre of innocent Armenians; b) To stop the attack against the bank, otherwise the building would be blown; c) To give written guarantees about the reforms to be carried in the Armenian provinces; d) To liberate all Armenian political prisoners.

At 1 a.m., Russian consul Maximov arrived in the bank and proposed to evacuate it, guaranteeing safe passage for Armen Garo and his companions. The young Armenian answered Maximov: “Mr. Ambassador, we didn’t enter here so you take the trouble of saving us from here...” He meant that he had clear demands, which they expected to be accomplished by the diplomatic representatives and the Sultan. Maximov answered back that the massacre and the attack had stopped; the ambassadors promised to do their best to ensure the reforms and he promised to have the jailed Armenians freed. After long negotiations, the revolutionaries agreed to leave the bank, receiving guarantees about their demands.

After 14 hours of occupation, the seventeen surviving revolutionaries came out of the bank at daybreak. To Maximov’s question of why the others were not coming out, Armen Garo answered that there was no one else; the Turks had convinced Maximov that 200 Armenians had occupied the building. The group, still armed, passed through the Turkish troops, led by Maximov, and was taken to the French ship “Gironde.”

The young Armenians were disarmed and taken to Marseilles, where they stayed 17 days in prison. Afterwards, Armen Garo and Hrach were sent to Switzerland, while the French government promised to send the others to New York. The remaining fifteen revolutionaries were sent to America; however, their destination was South America. They were dispatched to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where they stayed until November 1896, when they were able to catch a British ship that took them to London.

The takeover of the Ottoman Bank, with its extraordinary circumstances, was widely reported in the international press. However, the act did not have any positive consequence, since the reforms were not implemented and Armenians would continue to be in dire straits under Ottoman rule. Nevertheless, the action reinforced the determination of the Armenian revolutionaries to continue their struggle in order to achieve political and social freedom for their people.

The surviving members of the Ottoman Bank takeover after arriving in Marseilles, France