Brace Center Fellow Jess White ’07 Discusses the Role of de Rivery, Women in Eighteenth Century Ottoman Sultan’s Harem

Although not often recognized for her crucial role in Napoleon Bonaparte’s downfall, Aimée Dubucq de Rivery used her place in the Sultan’s harem to instigate change in the Ottoman Empire. On Tuesday, Jess White ’07 lectured on women and their role in the Ottoman Empire in her project entitled “Aimée Dubucq de Rivery: A Reformer in the Shadows.” White used de Rivery’s story to illustrate how historians have downplayed women’s importance throughout civilization. White began her lecture by explaining de Rivery’s childhood, but focused mostly on de Rivery’s reforms in the Ottoman Empire. Born to a moderately wealthy family in 1763 on the island of Martinique, she was orphaned at the age of six and adopted by extended family members. During her childhood, de Rivery’s closest friend was Marie Joseph Rose de Beauharnais – better known for her later years as the wife of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Empress of France. Legend has it that in 1775 the two girls heard a prophecy of their future. De Beauharnais was told she would marry a “gloomy” husband who would bring a nation to its knees; de Rivery was told that her son would be a sultan yet she would receive no credit for her accomplishments. In 1776 at age 13, de Rivery sailed to France alone to live in the French convent, Les Dames de la Visitation, in Nantes. Yet when she turned 21 and sailed back to Martinique, Algerians captured her boat. Though de Rivery would never see her family again, White described this as the true beginning of her life. The Algerians brought her to Istanbul, where the Sultan soon realized her beauty. White explained the harem system of the sultan as a way of life and the power he held over the women of whom he had sexual relations. She also stated that the system reduced disputes over the succession of the sultan’s throne. The pinnacle of de Rivery’s life was the birth of her son Mahmoud II, who was first in line to the sultan’s throne. Because of her powerful role as the Sultan’s mother, de Rivery’s was able to instate a variety of reforms in the Ottoman Empire. De Rivery’s changes included improving the French military relationship with the Ottoman Empire, naming de Beauharnais as a French Ambassador to the Empire, and allowing the westernization of dress – most notably the conversion to modern trousers and the addition of the fez to the country’s wardrobe. The decline of Napoleon’s power coincided with de Rivery’s knowledge of Napoleon’s divorce to de Beauharnais. Then on May 28, 1812 the Ottoman Empire joined in the Treaty of Bucharest with France’s enemy, Russia. White presented her concerns that many historians do not understand de Rivery’s crucial role (and some even doubt any role) in Bonaparte’s downfall. White also pointed out that historical roles of women are downplayed because historians were almost exclusively male. “[de Rivery] was not the first female political hero, nor will she be the last,” said White, wrapping up her presentation. When asked how she first heard about de Rivery, White explained that her grandparents bought used books in Canada. When she read one book about de Rivery, the woman’s large influence on the Ottoman Empire enthralled her. White hopes to further her knowledge of de Rivery. Her ultimate goal is to receive an Abbot scholarship to study de Rivery in Turkey and France. “I didn’t know that [de Rivery] existed but it was definitely a different perspective of the role of the harem to the sultans in the Ottoman Empire,” said Hilda Buss ’07 when asked how this presentation added to her previous knowledge from History 100.