The German Jew Who Became An Ottoman Pasha

Mehmed Emin Pasha was born a Jew in Germany, converted to Christianity and then Islam on his way to being named a ruler of an Ottoman province.

The story of Mehmed Emin Pasha, born a Jew as Isaak Eduard Schnitzer and Baptized as Eduard Carl Oscar Theodor Schnitzer, is a multiculturalist’s delight. This Jewish doctor who turned Christian, then Muslim, could be the cosmopolitan poster child, proof that we are all one and that distinctions don’t matter. But universalists beware; this pasha was no Zelig, fitting in chameleon-like at colorful historical moments. This shapeshifter adapted smoothly but stood out boldly, proving that the best way to contribute to the world is to root identities in particular cultures and act on core ideals.

Schnitzer was born in Oppeln, Silesia on March 28, 1840, into a German Jewish family that had already broken from the ghetto’s provinciality. Schnitzer’s father was a merchant, a proper German burgher wannabe. He embodied the Enlightenment delusion that we could, as John Lennon would sing, “all live together as one.” But Schnitzer’s father had made the classic Enlightenment deal with the devil. To become emancipated, to prosper, most Jews felt compelled to abandon much of Judaism—even though they would only be accepted marginally as Europeans.

When Isaak was five, his father died and his mother ditched her people and purchased acceptance by marrying a Christian. Now Baptized as a Lutheran, Eduard Carl Oscar Theodor Schnitzer grew up championing German nationalism as embodying Western humanism at its best. After studying at the universities of Breslau, Konigsberg, and Berlin, he became a physician, to use modern science to save lives.

Schnitzer was derailed temporarily when he failed to file his licensing paperwork on time and could not practice medicine. Ever-resilient, he left for Istanbul.

Arriving in Antivari in Montenegro along the way, he resumed his medical practice far away from German supervision. One of those annoying Europeans with a genius for language, he mastered Turkish, Albanian, and Greek, along with many of the standard Romance languages. This poly-lingual environment so suited him, he became the port’s quarantine officer, processing immigrants.

Always climbing, Schnitzer charmed his way into working for northern Albania’s governor, Ismail Hakki Pasha. In perhaps his creepiest move, Schnitzer returned to Germany in 1873, after his boss died, claiming the widow and children as his wife and kids. That arrangement ended abruptly, mysteriously in 1875, leading to Schnitzer’s plunge into the Muslim world.

Arriving in Khartoum in December 1875, he became “Mehmet Emin,” and returned to practicing medicine. He also participated in the nineteenth-century European traveler’s zoology and ornithology mania, sending specimens to museums back where such people believed it counted, the capitals of Europe. The governor of Equatoria—a territory covering modern-day Northern Uganda and Southern Sudan—invited Emin to become chief medical officer. In 1878, Emin was appointed governor, becoming a “Bey.”

In this largely symbolic post, Emin championed a noble, quixotic cause, the fight against slavery. Two decades after America’s Civil War, Gaeatano Casati, an Italian explorer who befriended Emin Pasha, noted that “the Arabs, despising a people who had no religion, and trampling on every right of humanity, hunted the natives as if they had been wild beasts. Egypt and Zanzibar became the great emporiums of human flesh.”

The Sudan was roiling, with the messianic, Arab-African Mahdi Revolt of 1881 causing chaos. In 1885, Emin’s popular dispatches to European newspapers described his adventures. The next year the Ottoman Empire made Emin a pasha, confirming his prominence in North Africa and Western Europe.

Despite retaining many Western sensibilities and values, Emin Pasha embraced his new home. His love of Africa mystified his European peers. This clash became apparent in 1887, when Henry Morton Stanley of “Mr. Livingston I presume” fame launched The Emin Pasha Relief Expedition. The nobly-named, heavily-armed, mission was to save Emin—who hadn’t been heard from amid growing East African chaos — and take him home. Stanley insisted that the 32,000 British pound expedition is “non-military – that is to say, its purpose is not to fight, destroy, or waste; its purpose is to save, to relieve distress, to carry comfort.”

Before reaching Emin Pasha, Stanley discovered just how difficult conditions in Africa could be. The dark, unforgiving Ituri Forest was so dense, that only 169 of the 389 trekkers survived. Those misadventures would later inspire Stanley to title his self-justifying travelogue In Darkest Africa—spawning numerous clichés about the foreboding continent and its “pygmies.” When Stanley finally reached Emin Pasha, Emin welcomed Stanley’s supplies to reinforce his position but refused to leave.

Alas, Stanley’s expedition undermined Emin Pasha’s standing with the locals, triggering mutinies. Emin traveled with Stanley’s group to the coast in December 1889, only to fracture his skull after drunkenly stepping through a second-story picture window thinking it was the door to a balcony.

In 1890, Germany hired Emin Pasha to launch his own expeditionary force around Lake Victoria in East Africa to “make known to the population there that they were placed under German supremacy and protection, and to break or undermine Arab influence as far as possible.” German imperial politics, tensions with the native soldiers, and bouts of disease beleaguered him for two years until the Anglo-German agreement of July 1, 1890 ceded this territory to England.

By March 1892, he reached Ipoto on the Ituri in Congo. Emin Pasha’s characteristic zeal for West and East alienated him from the locals this time. Even more problematic—although no one realized it at first—all these wandering Europeans moving cattle around imported the tsetse fly with its deadly sleeping sickness from the Congo into Uganda.

Ultimately, Emin’s Western idealism did not suit East Africa. In late October 1892, two enraged Arab slave traders murdered him. To our collective discredit, more than 120 years later, Islamic Arab enslavement of mostly Christian black Africans remains a problem in the Sudan, with the anthropologist Jok Madut Jok’s book War and Slavery in Sudan, echoing words from a century ago: “The Arab slave-takers pick their victims based on race, ethnicity and religion and consider the blacks in the South to be inferior infidels.”

Today, the arrogance of the imperialist who could not imagine learning from non-Westerners is matched by the arrogance of the anti-imperialist who resents learning from the West. Yet Emin Pasha was more Jewish-Christian-Muslim Johnny Appleseed than a Cecil Rhodes. This sincere sojourner, a true cosmopolitan, tried synthesizing different traditions in varying environments, not to create a generic human identity but to integrate the best of the East and the West.