The Ottoman Empire, which spread from the Balkans to Iraq and from the Caucasus to the Horn of Africa included many ethnic groups who were all involved in the Ottoman military, government, trade and everyday social life.
One notable example is a prominent soldier known as Black Musa, who was a volunteer soldier in the Ottoman army from Sudan. Black Musa spent the peak of his life running from front to front defending the Ottoman lands during the First World War. His efforts were first noted when he became commander Esref (Ashraf) Bey’s right-hand man in Libya.
Esref Bey, who was known for the role he played in establishing the short-lived Turkish Republic of Western Thrace as an advancing Greece and Bulgaria threatened the empire’s western borders, was more than just a commander for Black Musa. Instead, he was more of a father-figure.
They embarked on many campaigns together, the most famous of which happened to be their last. After Libya, Esref Bey and Black Musa formed two squadrons in the Arabian peninsula, responsible for breaking the British blockade on Ottoman soldiers in Yemen.
While Black Musa’s squadron succeeded in breaking the blockade and delivering aid to the soldiers, Esref Bey was wounded in battle and taken by the British as a prisoner of war to Malta. The two never saw each other again.
After the end of the First World War, Black Musa decided to join the national struggle in Istanbul, which was under British occupation at the time. However, Black Musa did not know anyone in Istanbul, had no money and nowhere to stay.
One day as he was leaving the mosque after performing his mid-afternoon prayers, he was spotted by Ali Sait Pasha who recognized him from their military campaigns. Ali Sait Pasha saw the condition Musa was in, and pleaded to allow him to secure a state pension for him get by. Musa, however, refused to take a pension, saying that he could not take money from such a poor people.
Instead, Ali Sait decided to help Musa find a job, and eventually got him into a porter position at the customs in Istanbul’s Karakoy district. While passing by one day, a British occupation commander called General Harrington noticed Musa and on hearing about his heroics on the battlefield decided to offer him a role with the British army.
Musa refused the offer, saying ‘You cannot make such offers to everyone. I have a state – the Ottoman state, I have a flag – with a moon and star, and I have a commander – Esref Bey. Our struggle against you is still not finished.’
While Musa worked as a porter during the day, he continued his efforts for the national struggle by night, working as a weapons smuggler to resistance forces in Anatolia. This hard work eventually began to take its toll on Musa, who was also spiritually hurt by the occupation of Istanbul and his longing to see his mentor Esref Bey again.
Musa later contracted a severe case of tuberculosis, which forced him to leave his job. He then decided to retire to a quiet life focusing on meditation and worship in a Muslim lodge in Istanbul’s Uskudar. It is here where he breathed his last breath.
When he died, all he had with him was a small suitcase, and his only possessions were a map of the Ottoman Empire, a Qur’an, a photograph of Esref Bey and a funeral cloth.
Taken from Ottoman History Picture Archive FB Fanpage