Oscanyan’s portrait from his 1857 book, The Sultan and His People with his signature in English and Armenian below

Lessersohn Gives Context to the Complex Life of the Pioneer of Armenian-American Immigration, Christopher Oscanyan

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BELMONT, Mass. — Scholar Nora Lessersohn, in a recent lecture online at the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR), shed light on perhaps one of the earliest known Armenian Americans, Christopher Oscanyan.

Whether under the name of Khachadour Vosganian, Khachik Oskanian, or Christopher Oscanyan, this unique figure’s name has remained simply a name, with the majority of publications or articles merely noting his existence as the first of a string of Armenians who came to the US for their education, which later in the 1880s led to mass economic, political, and refugee immigration to the US, increased exponentially by the Hamidian Massacres of the 1890s and the Armenian Genocide of World War I.

Lessersohn’s research and her lecture aim to fill this void in the public’s knowledge of this highly interesting figure in Armenian-American community history.

Story of Ottoman Armenian In Changing Times

Lessersohn, a doctoral candidate in history at the University College, London, described her research as filling in the story of a man named Christopher Oscanyan and his work to connect the US and Turkey, and his creation and reshaping of an identity in order to do so. She stated that Oscanyan’s story answers the main questions which started her on her academic path, especially, the question of why Armenian-American identity looks the way it does.

Oscanyan was an Armenian born in 1818 in Constantinople. As Lessersohn, noted, the Ottoman Empire, which was multi-ethnic and multi-religious at the time, was referred to in the US simply as “Turkey” and its people were often referred to as “Turks” regardless of their actual ethnic or religious background.

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With the help of American missionaries, Oscanyan came to the US for the first time in 1834 (at age 16) in order to attend the University of the City of New York (now New York University). Lessersohn shared a photograph of a page from the university’s registrar with “Khachadour Osganyan, Gostantnoubolsetsi” (Khachadour Osganian of Constantinople) written in Armenian. Lessersohn noted that although Oscanyan already knew English, he chose to write his name in Armenian in the registrar’s book.

Oscanyan returned to Constantinople between 1840 and 1854, then returned permanently to New York. For most of his career, Oscanyan used popular media to correct erroneous impressions and Orientalist stereotypes about “the Turks,” in order to cultivate friendlier relations between the US and the Ottoman Empire. But in the 1870s, his politics radically changed as Christians began undergoing persecution, at which point he focused solely on building relations between the American and Armenian peoples until his death in 1895, by which point he was pleading for the US to obliterate the Ottoman Empire.

Lessersohn explained that one of Oscanyan frequently gave public lectures, a very popular form of entertainment in 19th-century America.

Starting in 1835, he gave his first public lectures on Armenia and education among the Armenians. He appealed to the audience to financially support the efforts of American missionaries to build schools for Armenians in Turkey. He leveraged the ancient past of the Armenians by speaking of Armenia as his “nation” and “country,” identifying as an Armenian Christian to solicit an American Christian audience’s funds, and even quoting Shakespeare to show that he, and by extension the Armenian people, were civilized from a Western perspective. Lessersohn highlighted the quote from this lecture which appealed to the educational movement, “how wonderful, how interesting that the youngest nation of the earth should become the instructor of the oldest.” In these early lectures, Oscanyan also lamented the fall of Armenia as an independent state at the hands of the despotic tyrants, but declined to name who those tyrants were.

Nora Lessersohn

Reformist Ottomanism

In 1838, Oscanyan began to give lectures on life in Constantinople and the “Domestic Manners, Customs, and Costumes of the Turks.” Rather than being anti-Ottoman, these lectures tried to counter some of the most common negative stereotypes such as Turks being barbarous, lazy, lustful, violent, etc. He also identified himself with the culture and civilization of the Ottoman Empire, at the end of one lecture even identifying himself as a “typical Ottoman man.”

In the late 1830s Oscanyan became a naturalized US citizen and married an American woman named Maria Louisa Skinner. He took her with him back to Constantinople in 1840 at the time that the Tanzimat reforms were beginning under Sultan Abdulmejid, which were supposed bring more equality between the different ethnic and religious groups of the Empire.

While in Constantinople, four children were born to the Oscanyans, and Oscanyan started one of the first newspapers in the Ottoman Empire, which was published in Armenian.

During the Crimean War (1854), Oscanyan went to Great Britain, which had allied itself with Turkey in the war against Russia. In London, he installed an “Oriental and Turkish Museum” to acquaint the British Public with their new Ottoman Ally. He featured the Armenians prominently in this museum, and wrote in the catalog that the “Armenians were the real life and soul of Turkey, and without them the Osmanlis [Ottoman Muslim Turks] could not survive a single day.”

According to Lessersohn, Oscanyan often combined pro-Turkey and anti-Turkey viewpoints, such as calling Islam “barbarous” and promoting the Armenians and their Christian faith, while at the same time calling for closer relations between Turkey and the West and supporting the Ottoman Empire politically.

“At times he expressed both sentiments, making statements that were all at once expressions of Armenian superiority and influence, critiques of the ruling power of the Ottomans, and affiliations with Turkey and the Ottomans,” Lessersohn said. She argued that “this pride and emphasis on influence shows that criticism and collaboration were not mutually exclusive,” and that Armenians at the time felt “both special, and subjugated.”

US Return and Showmanship

After returning to the US in 1855, Oscanyan resumed lecturing on Turkey and its people, and his affiliations with Turkey were even stronger than they had been before. At the time, many referred to him as an “Armenian Turk” or “Turkish Armenian.”

Oscanyan began a series of failed ventures to try to bring “Turkish” culture to America or to create ties between Americans and Ottomans. In 1855 he established a Turkish Coffeehouse on Broadway, while in the 1860s he tried more than once to start a Turkish Bathhouse in New York City. He also started writing for the local newspapers.

In 1857, Oscanyan wrote the book The Sultan and His People, which was an overview for the American audience of the geography, society, and culture of Turkey, including the Armenians and other minorities. According to Lessersohn, the book was most likely produced as a kind of argument for Oscanyan’s goal of gaining a diplomatic post in the Ottoman Empire on behalf of the US. He positioned himself as an author particularly equipped to chart a path to Ottoman reform, Lessersohn stated.

While opposing Turkey’s age-old enemy, Russia, Oscanyan gave suggestions on how Turkey, then known as the “Sick Man of Europe,” could be “preserved and resuscitated,” including decentralization, European oversight, separation of church and state, and equality of the religious sects, suggesting that if Ottoman Muslims and Christians were given equal rights, they could rule together under European hegemony.

While the US government seemed favorable to Oscanyan’s application for a job, he never received one, possibly because his relationship with the American missionaries, who were highly influential with the US diplomatic corps in Constantinople, had soured.

By 1860, Oscanyan, now writing articles about the Armenians, whom he characterized as the “Yankees of the East,” no longer trusted that Europe had the best interests of Turkey and its Christians at heart. He proposed a new plan to divide up Turkey into small but independent states. Within this plan, he suggested that “the two Armenian provinces could be combined under the rule of one of their old princes” claiming that there were many families still in existence descended from Armenian nobility.

During the American Civil War, Oscanyan resorted to ever more bombastic measures to get his message across, and in the mold of Wild Bill Hickok and P.T. Barnum, he became the impresario of the “Grand Turk and his Harem of Circassian Beauties,” a spectacular show designed to draw bigger audiences to his lectures on the culture and accompanied by female models dressed in “authentic” garments, as well as a black man, who evidently played the role of the harem’s overseer. An album of collectible postcard-like pictures from the show was published in 1863. In 1865, he even opened his own building in New York, dubbed the “Turkish Hall” to showcase his presentations.

Oscanyan depicted in an American publication as “The Turkish Lecturer”

Armenian Advocacy

In 1868, he finally got a diplomatic post – but not the one that he wanted. Instead, the Ottoman government made him Consul General of Turkey in New York. He served until 1874 when he either resigned or was forced out. According to Lessersohn, this was due to “his ineptitude at being corrupt” doing a poor job at facilitating kickbacks for himself.

Soon after, as Abdul Hamid II ascended to the Ottoman throne in 1876 and the Russo-Turkish war broke out in 1877, Oscanyan showed a markedly different opinion on Turkey. During the Russo-Turkish war, he sided openly with Russia in his public lectures, stating that “Russia’s religion is one of improvement, and Russia is amenable to the laws of change. Russia can be made better, Turkey cannot.”

This turn in his opinions might have been because he was upset about losing his position, said Lessersohn, but was likely fortified by the “internationalization of the Armenian Question.” From the 1860s onwards, Christian agitation and anti-Christian sentiment in the Ottoman Empire were on the rise, and in the aftermath of the Russo-Turkish War, Serbia, Montenegro, Romania and Bulgaria all gained autonomy from the Ottoman Empire. While Armenians also campaigned for reform, civil rights and partial autonomy, they were “given only a tepid promise that the Ottoman government would carry out the necessary reforms,” said Lessersohn.

After this diplomatic disappointment, Armenian nationalist organizations (i.e. Hunchag Party, Armenian Revolutionary Federation) were formalized, starting in the 1880s, while the Ottoman Government moved more toward Pan-Islamic and later Pan-Turkish ideology, rather than their temporary reformist tendency of the 1850s.

In response, Oscanyan began to advocate for Armenian immigration into the United States. He argued that Armenians fleeing Ottoman Turkey would be model citizens. “The Americans were a kind hearted people and loved all who are industrious and sober. Therefore, the Armenians were just the people to suit their peculiarities, and would on that account gain their affection and sympathy, and soon prosper,” he stated in one of his public lectures.

In 1889, with thousands of Armenians recently arrived in America, Oscanyan started an Armenian newspaper in New York, called the Azadoutiun (Freedom) National Newspaper. Its tagline, echoing the rhetoric of contemporary Armenian revolutionaries, was “The price of liberty is blood alone.” In his paper, he wrote, “We express enmity to the Turks to the point of hatred, but our enmity is neither personal or social, but merely political.” He stated that because the Turks have persistently persecuted and exterminated Christians, Armenians will certainly oppose such conduct, and rhetorically asked “Will we be accused of not giving the pleasure of being slaughtered or sacrificed for fanaticism?”

In the summer of 1894 during the massacre that followed the Sassoun Resistance, a dying Oscanyan dictated a message from his sickbed to be delivered to a gathering of Armenian-American compatriots in New York City. The newspapers, which reprinted Oscanyan’s address, referred to him as “the Patriarch of the Armenian colony in America.” According to the newspapers, Armenia’s only hope was the United States, and they quoted Oscanyan as saying “The utter extinction of a power so barbarous, inhuman, and relentless as Turkey all through history has shown itself to be, would be a blessing to the world,” calling on America to avenge the Turkish outrages.

Oscanyan died on August 1, 1895 (prior to the main outbreak of the Hamidian massacres later that year) and was buried in Staten Island with his tomb marked only as “Oscanyan” in Armenian letters.

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