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Black Sea: The coming of steam and rail

Steamships in Istanbul in the 1880s - flickr-The Library of Congress
Steamships in Istanbul in the 1880s. Photo: flickr/The Library of Congress

For a large part of the 20th century the Black Sea was a relatively forgotten part of Europe. The north, east and west was dominated by the Soviet Union and communist Bulgaria and Romania and the south by authoritarian Turkey. Since the demise of communism that has all changed of course, but the future of the region is still far from clear. What is easy to forget though is how, during the latter part of the 19th century, much of it experienced a boom, in no small part due to the coming of the railways, steam ships and oil exploitation. These extracts come from Charles King's excellent history of the Black Sea, which we would recommend to anyone interested in the region. He is professor of international affairs at Georgetown University in Washington. Here he notes that on water "the development of steam transport, especially screw-driven ships that had begun to displace sailing vessels even before the Crimean war meant that getting from one coastal city to another was easier than ever."

Riverboats of the Austrian Steam Navigation Company ran down the Danube from Vienna, and ships of the Austrian Lloyd Company sailed from Trieste. By the early twentieth century, Italian, French, and German steam lines had established their own long-distance routes. In four weeks, one could travel from London to Odessa, with stops in Malta, Alexandria, Istanbul, and other Mediterranean ports. The Russian Steam Navigation Company, established with Tsar Alexander's imprimatur in 1857, ran routes that crisscrossed the sea. Regular circle lines took goods and passengers from Odessa as far east as Batumi, with calls at all the Crimean and Caucasus ports; river lines ran up the Dnepr. Once every two weeks, Russian ships docked at Trabzon and the other Ottoman ports.

Steam was one part of the equation. The railways were the other. From one end of the Black Sea to the other they were transforming its economy. In 1895 for example ancient Tomis, called Köstence under the Ottomans, was renamed Constanta with much fanfare as the railway to the Romanian port finally opened. "Soon," notes King, "oil from the Ploiesti fields was flowing from Constanta just as the Caspian fields had found an outlet in Batumi."

These and other modernized ports became natural conduits for the raw materials and products of the industrial revolution, into and out of the western Caucasus and the eastern Balkans. They were part of a growing network of rail links around the sea from Bulgaria to Georgia. Under the power of steam, goods could be taken all across Europe by rail, then across the sea itself by steamship to the other shore. Varna, which had been linked by rail with the Danube already in the 1860s, had a population of nearly 40,000 by the early twentieth century; it later became the major port of the new kingdom of Bulgaria. Constanta remained smaller in population, but the active petroleum trade made it a vital commercial center for the Romanian kingdom. Batumi was likewise far less populous than many other ports, but it was unrivalled as an export center. The value of Batumi's exports increased by well over 300 percent from the 1870s to the 1910s.

The Black Sea: A History. Charles King. 2004.
[pp.  197 & 199 / Oxford University Press]

January 2009
Tim Judah

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