Chapter 4 ‘Civilising and Disciplining Nature’

In: The European Commission of the Danube, 1856-1948
Constantin Ardeleanu
Search for other papers by Constantin Ardeleanu in
Current site
Google Scholar
Open Access

One cannot deny that these results [of the Commission’s hydraulic works] represent a veritable triumph of peaceful international work, conceived with the support of science and conducted with constancy, assurance and loyalty.

Dimitrie A. Sturdza, 1908

1 ‘The Father of the Danube’

By the end of his life, Charles Augustus Hartley (1825–1915) was an accomplished man, with a remarkable career in fluvial and maritime engineering. Perhaps the best recognition of his technical mastery was the ‘Albert Medal’ which he received in 1903, in the same decade as Alexander Graham Bell, Andrew Noble and Marie Curie,

in recognition of his services, extending over forty-four years, as Engineer to the International Commission of the Danube, which have resulted in the opening up of the navigation of that river to ships of all nations, and of his similar services, extending over twenty years, as British Commissioner on the International Technical Commission of the Suez Canal.1

Hartley’s professional path is illustrative of the internationalisation of hydraulic projects in the nineteenth century. He was involved in engineering works on four continents, but his most durable and probably greatest accomplishment was that completed along the Maritime Danube in his capacity as engineer-in-chief of the European Commission of the Danube. Paraphrasing David Blackbourn’s chapter on the celebrated Johann Gottfried Tulla, the engineer who accomplished the straightening of the Rhine, Hartley was ‘the man who tamed the wild Danube’2 or, as he was dubbed in Romania, ‘the Father of the Danube’.3

This chapter is about the Maritime Danube and the people who ‘corrected’ it to shape it to the needs of global trade and shipping. It aims to present how the hydraulic projects of the Commission were designed and put into practice and the key role Hartley played in this. Gliding between the second and third layers of analysis as presented in the introduction to this volume, it will focus on the three main actors involved in ‘remaking’ the Danube: the Commission, its lead engineer and the riverain environment itself. For an organisation endowed with a technical mission and whose institutional fate was linked to this accomplishment, designing and completing a hydraulic project in one of Europe’s least developed peripheries was a remarkable episode in transnational technopolitics.4 It was this entanglement of technology and politics that allowed the Commission to brand itself as a successful organisation and which eventually secured its survival. The narrative will further explore decision-making mechanisms within the Commission and the formation of networks of experts5 in river improvements. Hartley’s accession to a global authority in hydraulic works was tied to his Danubian experience and to his views on the rationalisation, governance and management of nature for maximising the economic benefits of waterways.

This drive towards rationalisation involved removing the artificial or natural sources of insecurity and turning the river into a predictable transportation infrastructure. The Commission’s work was part of a security-driven programme which included a ‘hardware’ component, related to completing (material) engineering tasks, and a ‘software’ one, consisting of establishing shipping norms, procedures and enforcing institutions. Existential threats to navigation, such as sandbanks or the Sulina bar, were securitised since pre-Crimean War times, and emergency measures were taken by the organisation acting as an instrument of ‘Europe’s will’.

But establishing a security regime for trade and shipping along the Maritime Danube proved more complicated than originally believed when the Commission was founded in 1856, and the Commission was hardened into a durable organisation by the complexity of the finely tuned ‘organic machine’, the Danube Delta, which it was supposed to improve for human needs.6 As a ‘river history’7 or, to quote Mark Cioc, a river ‘eco-biography’,8 this chapter will also highlight, on the trail of Sara B. Pritchard’s approach, the links between science and technology studies, environmental scholarship and political history.9

2 Post-Crimean War Transnational River Expertise

Hartley joined the Commission’s Technical Department from the early days of the organisation. When he agreed to work in the Danube Delta, he was already an experienced civil engineer. His formal technical education consisted of ‘a practical course of instruction in mining and railway engineering’, followed by a decade of actual fieldwork. As a contractors’ district agent (1845–1848), he coordinated the construction of a key section of the Scottish Central Railway. He successfully coped with tunnels, bridges, river diversions, level crossings and drainage works. For the next six years (1848–1854), Hartley supervised the construction of a new harbour in Plymouth and became familiar with the latest engineering techniques used in hydraulics. In 1855 he enrolled as an engineer in the corps conducted by Major John Stokes, under whose command he served in the Crimean War in the Ukrainian provinces of the Russian Empire. Stokes appreciated Hartley’s technical skills and perseverance, and literally the second day after his nomination as Britain’s delegate to the Commission, Stokes requested that ‘Charles Hartley, Esq., late Captain in the Turkish Contingent Engineers’ be one of the three engineers to assist him. In December 1856, with the approval of his fellow commissioners, Stokes officially invited him to serve as the Commission’s engineer-in-chief.10

At the time, after decades of Russian mastery, the river was portrayed as economically degraded and in need of urgent technical rescue.11 Hartley got to Sulina in early 1857 and quickly found out that it took more than the removal of Russia to turn the Maritime Danube into a secure waterway. He started by acquainting himself with the variable local geography and hydrography as he wanted to collect solid scientific data on depths, flows, winds, currents and tides before proposing the most suitable channel of the Danube’s three main branches and the appropriate technical solution for its improvement. At the same time, he started to look for the means of procuring and transporting construction materials (stone and timber), and for gathering the human resources who were to carry out these works under his coordination. He was scrupulous in collecting data and in drafting a solid technical project that he could execute in one of Europe’s poorest peripheries. Six months after his arrival in the Danube Delta, his scientific – and necessarily dilatory – approach started to alarm his impatient employers, who did not lack ideas about what needed to be done,12 as at least half a dozen other experts kept proposing improvement projects. Time was of the essence in this process, but understanding nature’s own time, with the cyclicality of the Danube’s flows and a long-term ‘Braudelian’ perspective on changes in its hydrography, was certainly a lengthy process. Hartley felt he needed to bond with the river; he needed to ‘think’ like a river.13

Thomas Abel Brimage Spratt was a reputed hydrographer sent by the British navy to sound and chart the Danube Delta. Together with the crew of HMS Medina, Spratt surveyed the Chilia and St George mouths of the river in 1856–1857 and drafted detailed maps which he presented to the Commission during one of its meetings.14 George Rennie, an equally distinguished British mechanical engineer (who in the late 1840s had provided the Russians with the ill-fated dredging machine mentioned in Chapter 1), submitted his own very simple technical plan for improving the Sulina bar by means of wooden jetties splayed towards the sea. Charles Blacker Vignoles, a railway engineer who in the 1840s and 1850s conducted technical works in the Russian Empire and could pretend to be familiar with the area, suggested diverting water from the St George into the Sulina branch and to use raking to remove the Sulina bar. Two Austrian engineers joined in the ad hoc club of technical advisers and presented plans based on recent surveys conducted during the Austrian occupation of the Danube Delta in 1855–1857: Gustave Ritter von Wex was the engineer-in-chief for the navigation of the Danube in Austrian waters and, based on his experience, he considered that St George was a better solution than Sulina: it had a broader course, could be shortened more easily and had higher banks, allowing the construction of a port at its mouth. Florian Ritter von Pasetti, his colleague, agreed to the choice of the southern branch, but came up with a different technical solution.15

Hartley’s biggest challenge came from Eduard Adolph Nobiling, the engineer-in-chief for the Rhine at Coblenz, who came to the Danube in June 1857 to provide hydraulic assistance to Prussia’s commissioner, Karl Hermann Bitter. Nobiling stayed in the Danube Delta for about six weeks, drafted six memoranda on its morphology and provided improvement plans for both Sulina and St George. His conclusion was that Sulina was the best choice, and proposed the construction of two piers which could be turned from temporary into permanent works.16

Despite this inflation in technical counselling, Hartley systematically ‘declined to make any project until he had satisfied himself as to the general conditions and the correctness of the surveys of the river’.17 He considered that available surveys were not sufficiently accurate and wanted to base his engineering on scientific soundings made by Robert Hansford, a professional surveyor who was busily collecting data in the Danube Delta. With hydrography regarded as a ‘crucial articulation of state administrative rule’, as Giacomo Parrinello has recently argued in relation to the environmental history of the Po River,18 Hartley missed reliable state authorities in his peripheral marshland. He wanted more time for his preliminary research, but several commissioners accused him of ‘unnecessary delays’ in issuing his report.19

3 Logistical Challenges in the Periphery

Hartley faced additional pressure from the economic and consular circles in inland Danubian ports. Convinced that Russia had been behind the attempts to close off Danube navigation, they insisted that the Commission should employ the simple, cheap and efficient method which the Ottoman authorities had allegedly used to clear the sandbank from Sulina before 1829. It sufficed to tow a scraper or a rake over the bar and the sand would be easily carried away by the stream. Charles Cunningham, Britain’s long-standing vice-consul to Galați, was no engineer, but he kept reporting about the problems from Sulina for more than two decades. His detailed accounts made him a credible source, and Hartley had to try the rake method, though he was convinced that its employment by the Ottomans was merely an ‘urban legend’ that would be of little help.20

Other issues of hydraulic management occupied Hartley’s mind. The Commission had decided to make the technical works on its own account, with human and material resources employed and supervised by the organisation itself. There was logic behind this important choice. In the Danube Delta area there were very few qualified people, foremen and skilled workers, available for employment. Local entrepreneurs were not entirely reliable and those from Western Europe had too little information to easily apply for carrying out these works. The urgency of the Commission’s task – given that the 1856 Paris Treaty allowed it two years to complete the works – dictated that the organisation should act without delay once the commissioners decided on an improvement plan. By coordinating the hydraulic works on the Commission’s own account, the delegates expected the support of local governments, which could provide them with free labour and facilitate access to material resources.21

This seemed like a better choice for the duration and cost of works, but it burdened the commissioners and their staff with innumerable problems. Qualified personnel were scouted throughout Europe and unskilled workers were employed in the Lower Danubian provinces, but the short-term nature of contracts and harsh living conditions in the Danube Delta contributed to a rather low number of applicants. Salaries had to be raised, and the Commission was busily occupied with providing this workforce with proper accommodation and food supplies.22

Access to necessary building materials was as difficult. The Ottoman government allowed Hartley to inspect the area in search of stone and timber, which he could find relatively close to the mouths of the river. However, he lacked the human resources and material means to extract and transport them, so the Commission’s Technical Department needed to invest in developing a supply infrastructure. By March 1857 the Commission established a deposit in the Ottoman town of Tulcea, where materials were stored for future use either at Sulina or at St George, depending on the commissioners’ choice of the mouth to be improved.23

4 Techno-political Power Play

In October 1857, pressed by his employers, Hartley presented his ‘Report on the improvement of navigation on the Lower Danube’. The engineer based his observations on records of the discharge of water and its velocity at various sites and depths, on wind directions and sea currents, on tides and sea level variations. It was the first fully scientific description of how Danubian bars shifted depending on the severity of annual floods, wind direction and the effect of river and sea currents. Hartley minutely described the hydrography of the Danube Delta, with details on the relative and absolute advantages of each of its three main branches, but with a special focus on Sulina and St George. Along the river, the St George branch had the advantage of a bigger and more uniform depth, a greater width, and ‘freedom from shoals’, but at its mouth Sulina was about 4 feet deeper than St George. Hartley considered that St George was a better, though more expensive option for the long-term development of Danube navigation, as it allowed a wider entrance, larger room for quays, protection from gales and safer entry into the port in bad weather. He drafted plans for his technical solution to increase the depth over the bar at the Sulina and St George mouths: the construction of parallel jetties, whose direction and length depended on the configuration of each mouth. For Sulina, the cost was estimated at 1.4–1.5 million ducats, for St George at 1.9–2.1 million ducats.24

Commissioners were impressed with Hartley’s work, but the choice of a mouth and a hydraulic solution proved extremely difficult. They discussed the two options for almost four months, with the delegates from Britain, Sardinia and the Ottoman Empire being generally in favour of St George,25 according to Hartley’s project, while those of France and Prussia defended the permanent improvement of Sulina, as proposed by Nobiling. Russia preferred the northern branch of Chilia, but eventually joined the Sulina group. Austria’s delegate Franz Karl von Becke personally preferred St George, but his government instructed him to vote for Sulina.26 Karl Hermann Bitter even found artistic inspiration in the dispute between the two ‘coalitions of interests’,27 which he depicted in several of his sketches, with Hartley in the role of Don Quixote (see Figs. 5–6). Political grounds influenced the commissioners’ choices, during a period when the 1857 Navigation Act of the Riverain Commission (Chapter 2) sparked tensions between European cabinets. As voting procedures required unanimity for such a decision, the IO seemed deadlocked. Eventually, by February 1858 the seven commissioners agreed that irrespective of their choice for permanent improvement, Hartley was to begin provisional works at Sulina, according to his own technical views.28 Although firmly convinced that St George was a better choice, the engineer-in-chief started provisional works at Sulina in April 1858, aware that their success would eventually compromise the better St George solution.

Figures 5–6
Figures 5–6

Sketches by Karl Hermann Bitter, Prussia’s commissioner (ca. 1859)

Source: National Archives of Romania, Galați Branch

By early 1858 European cabinets were alarmed by their delegates’ indecision and required further advice from ‘professional men of experience’. Four Great Powers (Britain, France, Prussia and Sardinia) agreed to send engineers to an International Technical Commission that convened in Paris in 1858, in the framework of the ambassadorial conference that was to discuss the Principalities’ political organisation and the Commission’s future. After strongly criticising Hartley’s hydraulic plans, the four engineers came up with their own technical solution, which was completely different from those of the engineers who had visited the river: they advised governments to push for the improvement of the St George mouth by means of river locks.29 The four European experts, regarded by scholars as a proto-epistemic community30 or an example of ‘science diplomacy’,31 concluded that the provisional works from Sulina had ‘to be immediately abandoned, if already started, as they will not only be useless for its intended purpose, but also because the dykes built will be quickly destroyed by the force of the waves due to their impoverished section’. Moreover, they would cause ‘a total loss of large sums of money and even would impede the current navigation’.32

In August 1858 several governments instructed their delegates to the Commission to immediately terminate the Sulina works and to begin improving the St George mouth. Commissioners requested that Hartley draft new estimates according to the technical views of the Paris Technical Commission of experts but, in the meantime, the engineer-in-chief continued the provisional works at Sulina. With similar support from other commissioners, the Sulina works went on, despite the governments’ request to have them stopped. For Edward Benjamin Krehbiel, the situation placed commissioners such as Stokes in a quandary between their national and their international duty. ‘Legally he [Stokes] was clearly bound to execute the mandate of his nation; morally he – and his nation – were bound by his vote as a commissioner’. The incident, Krehbiel concluded, was ‘a poignant illustration of the tendency of a joint agent of nations to determine the action of its constituents’.33

5 A European Hydraulic Triumph

In the next three years, Hartley focused on the provisional Sulina works, which were to be completed ‘for the smallest sum and with the greatest speed’. There is little need to point out that he worked under extremely stressful conditions, lacking proper financial, material and human resources. The technical solution he chose was to erect two piers that were to carry the stream to deeper levels of the sea, so that the force of the current would sweep the bar and provide a deeper navigable channel.

At a time when a railway was also being built between the Danube and the Black Sea (see Chapter 7), merchants in Danubian ports put additional pressure on the Commission to complete its provisional works and render the river fully navigable as soon as possible. The fruits of success ripened with the extension of the piers Hartley was busily erecting at Sulina, and from a depth of below 9 feet in 1856, 15–17 feet was measured in 1861. It marked the beginnings of a technical success that completely transformed Hartley’s life and career.34

The Sulina piers, which many engineers thought useless, proved their might in clearing, provisionally at least, the bar. Beyond their hydraulic function, they were as impressive as a symbol of technological power in an inter-imperial borderland.35 They still stand as a stone fortress against the forces of nature, but also as a material legacy of Europe’s Concert of Powers and a technoscientific monument of common European action to rationalise nature.

Hartley had ‘tamed’ the wild river and had removed the biggest threat to shipping security. But the favourable outcome from Sulina sealed the fate of St George, although the engineer-in-chief was convinced that it was the best choice for the long-term development of Danube navigation.36 Stokes also strived to resuscitate the interest for the St George project on several occasions (Chapter 6), but a majority of his colleagues opposed it for various reasons, ranging from its costs to the Commission’s temporary status.37

The completion of the first phase of the Sulina works was a great hydraulic triumph, possible through close European cooperation. At the level of decision-makers, commissioners and their governments managed to push forward a project which seemed as blocked as the Danube itself. A dispute between experts with different types of professional know-how ended with a reasonable solution, by allowing specialists with direct knowledge of the Maritime Danube to carry out their projects. This was a success for the Commission as a reliable IO, making it clear that it was capable of competently running its business.

In terms of the technical expertise employed in planning the Sulina works, it was equally a pan-European achievement. Tens of engineers, hydrographers and shipping experts from all over Europe referred to the Danube in published or confidential reports and forwarded their specialised opinions to the Commission. Before 1856, the geography and hydrography of the Maritime Danube were largely unknown. By the early 1860s the Danube Delta had already been the focus of numerous scholarly and engineering papers that started to explain the metamorphoses of a river flowing into a tideless sea. Hartley perused this entire corpus of knowledge, which was used in planning the Sulina works. The Commission’s engineers and commissioners with a technical interest closely followed engineering works carried out at the mouths of rivers around Europe. As the Paris International Commission of Engineers alluded to the case of improvement works with a lateral canal on the Vistula and Elbe, Stokes visited these places in the winter of 1858 and managed to procure ‘tracings of all the plans of these works which had been taken at intervals for more than a hundred years’.38 Hartley and several commissioners also took ‘study tours’ at the mouths of these rivers in 1859.39 Their conclusion was that the conditions which had led to the success of improvement works on those rivers were different from those the Commission had to consider, giving credit to Hartley’s own technical vision. Throughout the period the lead engineer also received, through the commissioners’ mediation, maps and detailed plans of the works conducted by national governments on several European rivers. Over these years, Hartley managed to assemble a valuable documentary library that allowed him to become an authority on hydraulic works.

Not least of all, the improvement of the Sulina bar was a great transnational, though highly asymmetric, accomplishment in view of the human resources involved in its works. Specialised surveys at the mouth and along the Sulina branch were conducted by English and Prussian surveyors under the coordination of Hartley and of a certain Richrath, a Prussian engineer employed at the Maritime Danube for fluvial works. The material resources were purchased by the Commission’s agents in Istanbul, Budapest, Vienna and London, and necessary timber and stone was stored in the deposit of Tulcea, run by a Polish officer, Oberst von Malinowski, aka Emin Bey, in the service of the Porte. The actual works were carried out, under the supervision of British and Prussian foremen, by Moldavian, Turkish and Bulgarian workers.

6 Celebrating a European Monument of Civilisation

Rivers have often been integrated into an overarching national or ideological discourse. The ‘German Rhine’, the ‘French Rhône’, ‘Mother Volga’ or ‘The Father of Waters’ Mississippi are perhaps the most celebrated examples of ‘national rivers’.40 With the Commission’s hydraulic works and rulemaking, the Danube started to be imagined and promoted as a ‘European river’. The Commission contributed directly to this transnational branding which was integrated into a larger success story of the Great Powers’ cooperation.

By the summer of 1861, with the navigable depth over the Sulina bar measuring about 15 feet, the Commission decided to celebrate its accomplishment in a large public festivity. For some commissioners, this was to mark the symbolic conclusion of the Commission’s main task; for others, it was just the beginning of a much more complex hydraulic project. With different thoughts and the Public Act (Chapter 3) on their minds, they felt the world needed to know about their innovative works.

On 3 September 1861, the Mercur, a steamer owned by the Austrian Lloyd, hosted almost two hundred guests who arrived in Sulina from Istanbul, Vienna, Odessa, Bucharest and Galați. The engineering works were inaugurated with the packet ‘steaming through the flag-dressed alley of shipping into the outer roadstead beyond the piers’. The mollah of Sulina and the Orthodox archbishop of Tulcea prayed for the solidity of Hartley’s jetties (see Fig. 7), and the notabilities proceeded to the northern pier. After a solemn discourse prepared by secretary general Edmond Mohler on behalf of the Commission, ‘at a signal from the flag-staff of the little light house at this point, the whole of the Turkish and foreign gunboats in the inner harbour thundered forth salutes in honour of the day’s events’.41

Figure 7

In the evening, the 177 official guests were seated around seven tables, and more festive speeches followed. Their list is illustrative of how many actors were interested in the Commission’s works. Britain’s Stokes toasted Sultan Abdülaziz I and ‘the success of a European enterprise’; Russia’s Henrik d’Offenberg extended greetings to all European royalties whose states formed the Commission; Italy’s Annibale Strambio thanked Prince Alexandru Ioan Cuza and the United Principalities, the host state of the Commission’s main headquarters; Rashid Pasha, a special envoy of Ottoman commissioner Ömer Fevzi Pasha (absent on medical leave), saluted the Commission and its pioneering work on the safety of Danube navigation; Radocanachi, an influential Greek merchant and a delegate of the mercantile community from Lower Danubian ports, thanked the Commission and its engineer-in-chief; Austria’s Becke, replying in the Commission’s name, summed up the organisation’s many accomplishments, praised free trade, and thanked the bankers who had supported it in fulfilling its technical task; France’s Édouard-Philippe Engelhardt toasted the captains of the European warships stationed at Sulina, whose support had been vital in fulfilling the Commission’s administrative duties; Hallington, the commander of the French naval station at Sulina, thanked in return the Commission’s technical works which increased the safety of Danube and Black Sea navigation; Prussia’s Jules Alexander Aloyse de Saint-Pierre complimented the local consuls, and Ghioni, the Greek consul to Galați and dean of the local consular corps, returned the thanks to the Commission; Becke toasted Hartley, who extended his gratitude to all those present and to his diligent assistants and employees; and Henri Mathieu, a French author who published several volumes on Ottoman realities, concluded the long list of speakers with a salute to the Commission, ‘a monument of Europe’s love for the oriental peoples’. Mathieu spared no epithet in praising the great work of art completed at Sulina, which directly contributed to closer cooperation between European nations. The security of transportation infrastructures made economic exchanges more frequent, and the prosperity the Commission contributed to creating was part of the modern civilisation.42

In this sea of joyous officials, Apostol Arsachi, Wallachia’s Foreign Minister and Prince Cuza’s special envoy to the Commission’s fête, had reason to be unhappy with his public performance. A petty incident related to his speech is, in many ways, indicative of what the Commission represented, and how ‘Europe’ stood as a larger concept meant to reduce the frictions and ambitions of individual states. In his pre-prepared speech, which he circulated to (at least) several commissioners, Arsachi praised the Principalities’ foreign protectors – the same states that were represented in the Commission – and vowed that his country would imitate the ‘free trading tendencies of France and England’. When he recited his discourse at Sulina, England alone was mentioned. Engelhardt spotted the omission and presumed that Stokes, his rival in the Commission, was to blame. Engelhardt complained to Arsachi about his unhappy exclusion, mentioned Stokes’ antipathy towards all things French, and plainly asked Arsachi to undo the change in the published version of his speech. An even better solution was duly accepted by an already uncomfortable Arsachi: ‘You have deleted France; delete England too, and replace Europe for the two powers’.43 To Arsachi and his countrymen, ‘Europe’ was definitely the perfect keyword not only to contain such vanity, but also to promote their country’s interests. This permits us to highlight once again the special relation between Europe’s political support for the Principalities, which favoured their unification as modern Romania, and its technical assistance in opening up the Danube for international trade and shipping, under the aegis of the Commission. Both decisions increased Romania’s viability as a buffer-state and a source of stability in between imperial rivals.

7 Hartley’s Professional Prestige

Hartley was the hero of the hour and in September 1861 was decorated on behalf of Sultan Abdülaziz I, a distinction that he had to reject according to British law.44 In 1862, however, he was honoured in Britain with a knighthood that further increased his prestige.45 By then he was already a personality among his peers after having presented, in March 1862, a paper on the Sulina works in London, at the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), the world’s most prestigious professional body of engineering experts. In his detailed lecture, he explained his choice for the system of parallel jetties, though he acknowledged that, ‘to keep pace with the formation of new sand banks, or the growth of old ones’, the piers needed to be consolidated and prolonged in the coming years.46 Hartley proved his competence in theoretical and practical river studies in front of some of Britain’s most eminent engineers and earned a great deal of professional distinction. Later that year the ICE granted him its highest award, the Telford Medal, together with a Manby Premium and a Stephenson Prize.47

By the early 1860s, Hartley started to be invited as a consultant for improvement works on rivers, ports and canals around the world. In 1862 the Austrian cabinet appointed a commission, presided over by former Commission commissioner Becke, to modernise the port of Trieste, and Hartley served as technical expert. He further advised the Russian authorities on the improvement of river access towards the inland port of Rostov on the Don. In 1865 he participated in an international competition organised by the Russian authorities which sought plans to extend the port of Odessa, following the construction of a railway connecting it to the inland provinces of the empire. Hartley won the contest and his plans were considered ‘fit to serve as a guide for the works’. In May 1867 the engineer was invited by the British Foreign Office ‘to inquire and report’ on a technical dispute between Belgium and the Netherlands, following the Dutch cabinet’s intention to dam the Eastern Scheldt with the effect of running a railway in the area.48

Hartley travelled extensively during the 1860s, but his home base remained in the small Danubian town of Sulina (Chapter 9). He continued to coordinate the Commission’s technical works, although it had limited financial resources to complete them, and to turn them into permanent works. Thanks to his engineering, Sulina was a must-see destination for engineers building hydraulic works around the world. In 1864, Hugh Leonard, a British civil engineer in charge of the works on the Hooghly River in West Bengal, visited Europe for research. At the Danube he had ‘the opportunity of examining the works done for the improvement of the entrance to the river and for the removal of some shallows in the Sulina Channel’ and asked for Hartley’s opinion on the improvement of the Indian river. Leonard further headed to the Po, the Vistula, the Rhine, the Adour, the Tyne, the Wear, the Tees, the Clyde, the Severn, and the Ribble, and his reports show that there was a tight network of river experts aware of the hydraulic works carried around the world and that Hartley was a respected authority in the field of inland and harbour works.49 Such fluxes of hydraulic knowledge and technical experts moved around Europe and the globe50 in all directions, proving the dynamism of modern engineering and the fact that peripheral areas sometimes served as hubs of technological innovation.

After the Commission’s term was prolonged in 1871, the contract between Hartley and his employers was renegotiated. From 1872, he remained in charge of the Danube works as a consulting engineer, with the obligation to come to Sulina once a year and whenever urgently needed. His assistant, the Danish engineer Charles (Karl) Leopold Kühl, was appointed resident engineer. Kühl lived in Sulina and acted under the Commission’s direct orders until his retirement in 1907.51

Kühl and his assistant, Danish Eugene Magnussen (resident engineer between 1908 and 1919), worked under the supervision of Hartley and continued to present the results of their works to the British ICE. In 1872, Hartley delivered another paper, a remarkable account of the changes which had occurred in the Danube Delta in the previous decade because of both natural causes and the construction of the jetties. Similar papers were presented and published by Kühl in 1881, 1888 and 1891, making the Danube Delta a well-documented example, then and now, in understanding the evolution of deltaic systems.52 As detailed in the introduction, this politics of publication spread the word about the Commission’s efficiency.

8 Exhibiting Transnational Hydraulic Success

The Commission had several reasons to advertise the success of its technical programme. The organisation had produced valuable knowledge on the Danube Delta and was looking for ways to disseminate this to larger audiences. Daily bathymetric measurements were made at different points of the river and sea, and data were interpreted and included on charts and maps produced by its Technical Department. In July 1861 the first triangulation of the Sulina mouth was completed, and accurate maps could be produced for the use of both the Commission and seafarers. The Commission made different types of cartographic products, from those accompanying technical memos to 3D maps used for exhibitions and public presentations.53

While discussing the conclusion of the Public Act in the mid-1860s, commissioners decided to publish a historical account of the Commission’s administrative and technical works. They considered that such a document would provide future engineers with ‘the fullest and most authentic data’ about the Maritime Danube. The technical report was eventually printed in 1867 with F.A. Brockhaus, a publisher from Leipzig, in the form of an atlas, accompanied by 164 high-quality maps and charts drawn by two of Hartley’s aides, Robert Hansford and M.L. Dollfus de Meric. A similar atlas was published in 1873, allowing experts from around the world to visually follow the works accomplished by Hartley and his team.54

Figure 8
Figure 8

Plan of the Danube Delta

Source: National Archives of Romania, Galați Branch

Copies of the first atlas were sent to governments and professional bodies from around the globe, and the Commission also discussed displaying its works at the 1867 Paris World Exhibition. A political debate ensued about the proper pavilion to host such transnational products, as several commissioners considered that it was not fair ‘to place the results of an international undertaking among the productions of any one power’. The decision reached was to have the Ottoman commissioner obtain permission from his government to send the atlas and memoranda directly to the Exhibition in the Commission’s own name.55 This became a regular practice, and the Commission sent their products to other world fairs, such as that of Vienna in 1873.56

Further technical memoranda were published in 1888, 1906 and 1912, each accompanied by detailed maps, tables and high-quality plates. They contributed to keeping hydraulic experts updated on the progress of the Commission’s technical works but were also used to consolidate and legitimise its claims as the de facto technopolitical authority in the Danube Delta.57 The Commission’s maps, as well its other products such as trade and shipping statistics, were instruments of communication, persuasion and power, serving and projecting the interests of the organisation.58

9 Deepening the Sulina Bar

Jetties of various sizes and shapes had been built at the mouths of rivers such as the Oder, the Vistula and the Rhȏne, and Hartley had these examples in mind when he started planning his engineering projects at St George and Sulina. He lacked, nevertheless, solid knowledge on the hydrographical features of the river and sea in which his piers were to be constructed. In the following decades Hartley played a thrilling chess game with the deltaic environment. He calculated his moves based on continuous surveys of the river and started his works after understanding the ‘temperament’ of the river-sea system. He credited nature with ‘a powerful agency’,59 as the river reacted to Hartley’s works by continuous changes in its structure, which oftentimes posed additional hydraulic challenges. It took a long time to document the large seasonal variations of the Danube, as well as the winds, waves and ice which eroded Hartley’s works. In one of his lectures, he mentioned how large such seasonal variations were:

the volume of water discharged by the Sulina arm varies from 1 to 13, and the velocity of the current varies from ½ mile to 4 ½ miles an hour, the weight of sediment carried in suspension varies from a minimum of 12 grains to a maximum of 840 grains per cubic foot of water, or 1 to 70. The mean annual discharge of sediment by the Sulina is 5,000,000 tons, the proportion in weight to that of water giving an average of about 1/3000.60

The Sulina bar was the greatest challenge he had to cope with at the junction of river and sea. He needed to understand its composition, the ratio of river alluvia and sea sand that formed it, the forces that created it, shaped it and removed it. His first task was a purely scientific one and explaining the formation of bars in tideless seas is one of his lasting academic contributions.

Hartley experimented a lot with the composition and length of the Sulina jetties in his attempts to find the best technical solution, suited to the particularities of the Danube Delta, the budget and the material resources available for his works. He initially used wood but in 1865 European commissioners required Hartley to turn these provisional structures into permanent ones. With funding from a loan taken in 1868, Hartley consolidated the piers, and in 1871 the navigable depth over the Sulina bar reached about 20 feet, a depth which was preserved over the next couple of decades. In completing these works, Hartley faced many challenges not only in acquiring proper building materials, but also in manipulating them. Gantries, block-making machines, concrete mixers and steam-engines were built by Hartley and his team, and a Goliath crane was used to move huge stone blocks of up to 20 tons each. The lead engineer used pioneering building materials and techniques in his works, such as Portland cement, Pozzolana concrete and underwater divers.61

In 1894, owing to the constantly increasing size of vessels calling at the Danube, it was necessary to further deepen the entrance. Hartley and Kühl built two parallel piers between the main jetties, reducing the breadth of the river to 500 feet and thereby increasing the scour. Dredging between the piers continued until the First World War, and a depth of about 24 feet was maintained at the Sulina mouth.62 This was as good as it could get, given the Danube’s hydrographical features. Hartley’s piers, extended in the twentieth century, and regular dredging have maintained about the same navigable depth at the Sulina bar, which now measures 25 feet.

10 Mobile Property and Memory Politics

The Commission’s technical staff needed suitable service ships for their works. In its early period, the organisation relied on tugs and dredgers provided by the Ottoman state, vessels which proved rather inappropriate for the needs of such a busy river. From the early 1860s onwards, commissioners invested in purchasing more appropriate ships for the multiple tasks the Commission had to fulfil. In 1861 a tug was ordered in a London shipyard, subsequently named the Europa, to fit with the cooperative spirit in which the Commission was completing its ‘civilising’ mission.63

The Ottoman authorities protested when the Commission decided to have its own signal flag hoisted aboard the ship.64 The flag (Fig. 15) was apparently invented by a British store-keeper in Sulina in the late 1850s, and the Commission started using it as a form of showcasing its autonomy.65 To minimise protests, the Ottoman flag was used alongside it on the Commission’s ships and buildings. After 1878, however, when the Commission became an independent organisation from the authority of the new territorial power (Romania), the flag was used as a marker of the Commission’s new status.66

From the 1870s, dredging became an important part of the engineers’ solution to increasing the depth in several shallow river sections. The organisation needed more powerful dredging machines, and its mechanical engineers tried to make good use of the vessels in their possession. By the early 1880s, the Commission had an old 16 HP dredger inherited from Ottoman times, a 40 HP (80 IHP) one – the Sulina – which had been built at Trieste according to Hartley’s own specifications, and a 180 IHP one, the Delta, built in England at Barrow-in-Furness.67

In the early 1890s, when systematic dredging started at the Sulina bar, even more powerful machines became necessary, and in 1891 a new 250 IHP dredger was added to the fleet. With it the Commission inaugurated the habit of naming these vessels after influential personalities who contributed to the success of its technical works. The new dredger was named the Hartley. In the following decades, Percy Sanderson (Britain’s long-standing commissioner68 ), Dimitrie A. Sturdza (Romania’s former prime minister and a great supporter of the Commission’s technical work) and Karl Kühl named other dredgers, while Carolus Primus was the IO’s protocolary yacht named to honour Romania’s King Charles I (Carol I).69 The Commission’s corporate identity was by now fully established, and the organisation used its mobile property not only to showcase its independence, but also to perpetuate the memory of some of its most cherished supporters. With it the Commission added another dimension to its increasingly coherent memory politics.

11 Environmental Challenges in the Danube Delta Area

As Ashley Carse has recently argued in the case of the Panama Canal, large infrastructure projects rework regional ecologies in ways that serve some economic or political priorities, but disadvantage other enterprises.70 This was also the case in the Danube Delta area, as the Commission’s hydraulic works created many new economic opportunities, but affected local communities and disrupted businesses, too.

One of Hartley’s early challenges was to find proper building materials to fit his technical vision and budget. Ottoman commissioners mediated the Commission’s access to the resources of the neighbouring province of Dobrudja, which were duly inspected and assessed in 1857. Good timber, especially hornbeam, was available in local forests, but oak and pine had to be sought further away in the forests of the Carpathian Mountains. As for stone, the Commission could quarry it in Ottoman Dobrudja. This granted Hartley access to large quantities of limestone of a suitable size.71

The logistics of Hartley’s works were extremely complex, as he needed large quantities of timber and stone at Sulina and along the river. Systematic deforestation, however, impacted the Ottoman Empire’s security in its northern borderland. The Commission paid increasing attention to its providers, who oftentimes took advantage of the IO’s privileged position in the area to engage in remunerative transactions for their private purse. Ottoman sources mention the high level of waste in the forests of Dobrudja, and Salih Bey, a military official appointed to assess the situation, blamed it on the insufficient number of Ottoman guards dispatched to protect imperial interests.72 Such discussions made the Commission more attentive to environmental concerns in its jurisdiction, especially when they touched on security matters.

Another dispute was related to fishing rights in the Danube Delta. The ‘Somova Girla’ (creek) connected the Commission’s stone quarries with the Danube, and open access was vital for the transportation of stone blocks. However, a fish farmer who had a fishing monopoly in the area threw a weir across the creek, obstructing the traffic of the stone-laden barges. A conflict ensued between the organisation and the local Ottoman authorities, and the farmer demanded huge compensation of about 2,000 ducats (£1,000) to remove the gear. The Commission felt that it was being blackmailed. By 1869, however, as Hartley badly needed stone for his works, the Commission paid the fish farmer, but reserved ‘the right to deduct the amount from its debt to the Porte’.73 This made the Commission interested in clearly specifying its privileges in the Danube Delta and to secure unobstructed access to its resources.

Environmental awareness grew in the coming decades, both within riparian states and in the Commission. In the context of an increasingly precarious state of Danubian fish stocks, Romanian biologist Grigore Antipa drew up detailed memoranda and published several books exposing the dangers, from economic, biological and ecological perspectives, of unregulated fishing. While the Chilia and St George branches were leased to private entrepreneurs who used fishing gear that harmed the most economically rewarding species (mainly the sturgeon from which black caviar is harvested), the Sulina branch allowed free passage to migratory fish species, whose natural habitats were, however, affected by intensive navigation.74 Eventually a fishing law was adopted in 1896, which brought changes in the organisation of Danubian fisheries, and which the Commission also took into account.75 The Commission’s transportation infrastructure created new environmental connections and ruptures,76 and it was this special status of the Sulina branch, guaranteed by a European organisation, that allowed the unimpeded circulation of both ships and fish.

12 ‘Civilising and Disciplining’ the River

Hartley paid equal attention to improving the river channel along the Maritime Danube. A course of about 100 miles separated the inland ports of Brăila and Galați from the Black Sea, and the area was encumbered with numerous obstacles. There were several problems related to the carcasses of shipwrecked vessels, but most hindrances stemmed from natural factors, such as sandbanks. The Danube carries a huge quantity of alluvia and detritus, divided between the three main branches of the river. Sulina, for example, carries more than 5,000,000 tons per annum. It was not so much the average quantity, but its huge seasonal variations that created problems.77

Hartley started corrections on the river in August 1857 at the Argagni shoal, and in the next decade he managed to increase the minimum depth along the river to 11 feet. Many obstacles were permanently dealt with by the construction of groynes, or training works, which reduced the river width and increased the depth. The shoals were subject to constant change, increasing during floods and gradually wearing down during low-water seasons. Other problems resulted from the fact that the Sulina branch was very tortuous which did, however, allow ample room for shortening and straightening its course by suppressing sharp bends. Works were done in the 1860s to remove several shoals, and dredging was used to clear the sandbanks that kept forming along the waterway.

Sulina’s original length of 45 miles was impeded by eleven bends, each with a radius of less than 1,000 feet, besides numerous others of a somewhat larger radius, and its bed was encumbered by ten shifting shoals, varying from 8–13 feet at low water. Through a series of restraining walls, groynes thrown out from the banks, revetments of the banks and dredging, all done to narrow the river, a minimum depth of 11 feet was attained in 1865, which was further increased to 13 feet in 1871 and 15 feet in 1886. A series of cuttings between 1886 and 190278 (see Fig. 9 and Table 2) shortened the length of the Sulina channel by 11 nautical miles, eliminating all the difficult bends and shoals, and provided an almost straight, 34-mile long waterway with a minimum depth of 20 feet when the river was at its lowest.79 As an engineering accomplishment, it was, to quote Chandra Mukerji’s work on the Midi Canal in Southern France, ‘a silent demonstration of disciplinary power over the earth’.80

Figure 9
Figure 9

Map of the Maritime Danube (1870s–1880s)

Source: National Archives of Romania, Galați Branch
Table 2
Table 2

Cutting works of the Commission, 1886–1902

Source: Dimitrie A. Sturdza, ‘Însemnătatea lucrărilor Comisiunii Europeane de la gurile Dunărei, 1856 la 1912 (III),’ Analele Academiei Române, Memoriile secțiunii istorice 35 (1913): 200

Hartley marked out the channel, and milestones were placed on the left bank. The banks were lined with bollards and bridges thrown over ‘girlas’ to ensure the continuity of the towpath. Another important decision to facilitate navigation was marking the Sulina mouth by means of buoys, an operation which started in 1857. Other works were done in 1868–1869, when access towards the Portița Bay was signalled with a fixed beacon and buoys. Along the river, the channel was marked by red conical and black flat buoys. The red buoys indicated that the channel went between them and the right bank, the black buoys that it ran between them and the left bank. During the winter, they were replaced by spars of the same colour, so as not to be washed away by the ice. In several places, the direction of the deeper channel was indicated by pairs of triangular alignment markers established on the banks. Poles with reversed anchors indicated where it was forbidden to anchor.81 All these navigational aids were laid down after decisions made by commissioners, thus contributing to the global spread of a material toolbox and symbolic language for safe shipping on the world’s rivers, seas and oceans.

When hydraulic works on the river were completed in 1902, they were inaugurated during a celebration attended by Prince Ferdinand and Princess Marie, the heirs to Romania’s throne. Hartley was not present, which allowed resident engineer Kühl to fully enjoy the fruits of their success. Victor de Borhek, Austria-Hungary’s commissioner and president of the autumn session, hosted the ceremony and his official speech insisted on the importance of the organisation’s technical works, which ‘civilised and disciplined nature’.82 An article in The Times mentioned Hartley’s remarkable works in the Maritime Danube and the successful experiment of ‘giving direct and absolute control over a definite territory to an international body invested with sovereign powers’.83

Different infrastructures combine in such a complex ‘enviro-technical system’.84 Infrastructure was built to stabilise the Danube’s banks, which allowed for a smooth and predictable functioning of a busy transportation infrastructure. With this the river was ‘disciplined’ and its ‘bad habits’ corrected. But technology is not only used by political actors to attain their ends; technology itself exerts political force and thus contributes to preserving stability in its area.85 The proper working of the Danube as a ‘civilised’ transportation infrastructure stabilised the Commission as a reliable organisation of the Maritime Danube. The milestones, buoys, beacons and bollards also deserve mention as markers of a ‘civilised’ transportation infrastructure. It was this combination of hydraulic works, navigational aids and shipping regulations that would eventually remove the defects of nature86 and turn the Danube into a secure river.

Figures 10–11
Figures 10–11

Photos of Charles Augustus Hartley and Charles (Karl) Leopold Kühl

Source: The National Archives of Romania, Galați Branch

13 Protecting Hydraulic Works in Times of War

The significance of the environment for wars and the environmental effects of military conflicts have been duly analysed by environmental historians.87 Rivers are important for naval warfare, and as an inter-imperial borderline the Danube was often caught in regional conflicts. But after the establishment of the Commission and its attainment of a neutral status, a different sort of institutional actor stood in between imperial rivals.

Worries about war between Russia and the Ottoman Empire made European commissioners insist on the Commission’s neutrality, as inscribed in the 1865 Public Act. Their fears came true in 1877, when geopolitical interests during the Balkan crisis attracted Russia into the conflict. The Lower Danube was caught in the crossfire, and the Commission’s hydraulic works risked being affected by naval operations.

To prevent the movement of Ottoman gunboats, the Russians built a dam close to the St George’s Chatal (fork) in an area subject to shoaling. The dam was built ‘by means of sunken vessels filled with stones and of stones heaped on top of them’. Rumours mentioned a further consolidation of the dam during the summer months of 1877, with fears that commercial shipping on the Danube would be completely closed.

Hartley hoped the Commission’s staff and works would be protected and he published a piece in The Times on 25 July 1877. If the dam was not ‘speedily removed’, he claimed, ‘it will render nugatory the labours of the Commission’.88 The Russians did promise to remove all artificial obstructions at the end of the war. Meanwhile, defensive torpedo mines were placed along the river. Even more troublesome for the Commission were the Russian attempts to occupy Sulina, and the Ottomans’ efforts to use the IO’s neutrality as a shield to defend the town. The Cockatrice, a British warship, stood for the Commission’s neutrality when the town was attacked by the Russians in October 1877. Engineer Kühl remained at Sulina during the entire conflict and mediated with both parties to spare European property. The town was damaged during the battle, but the Commission’s properties and works were not affected.89 All in all, the presence of the organisation saved Sulina from destruction.

Commissioners met in Galați in November 1877 and agreed to intervene to restore river navigation. To the engineers’ relief, the Russian dam was not as bad as believed, and Kühl managed to remove it in a short time. Torpedoes were also cleared, so that by April 1878 the Danube was open for business as usual. The Commission claimed compensation for its loss but was never able to cover the entire cost of the clearing operations.90

While its hydraulic works on the river were affected by the conflict, the damage was not irreparable. Naval operations were carried out with more consideration for ‘European property’ and for minimising the toll paid by commercial ships. The Commission had made good use of its neutral status and in the end strengthened its position as a mediator between belligerent troops and, from 1878, as a fully independent organ and source of regional security in between rival empires.

14 Techno-political Intrusions in the ‘Organic Machine’

Hartley’s works had completely changed the hydrography of the Danube Delta and showed the dynamic forces at work in that ‘organic machine’. With the enormous quantity of alluvium which the Danube carries and deposits into the sea, the structure of the Black Sea’s northwestern coast changes continuously. Although the land generally gains onto the sea, this extension is variable and depends on other natural factors; in other areas, the opposite occurs, and the sea advances into the mainland by eroding the coast. To map these changes, general surveys of the Delta coast were made in 1830, 1856, 1871, 1883, 1894 and 1906. In 30 years, the Danube carried and deposited into the sea the huge amount of about 2.5 billion tons of solid material, distributed between its three main branches. Chilia was the largest of the three branches, carrying about two thirds of the Danube’s flow. Hartley was aware that the advance of Chilia’s sub-delta would eventually threaten Sulina. In 1872 he estimated its advance to be 70 metres per year, and later updated it to 84 metres a year. The Musura Bay started to close into a lagoon north of Hartley’s jetties, and alluvia still threaten to close the navigable passage over the Sulina bar. In the epic battle against the forces of nature, the river has not been completely ‘disciplined’.

As an ‘enviro-technical system’, the Danube Delta required coordinated fine tuning in order not to unsettle a fragile balance that could further affect the environment and its riverain human communities. Political challenges complicated this question. Russia returned to the Danube in 1878, when it reannexed Southern Bessarabia, including most of Chilia’s sub-delta. Romania was granted the province of Dobrudja and the largest part of the Danube Delta, and thus became the host state in whose territory the Commission functioned (Chapter 8).

In December 1879, Alexander Romanenko, Russia’s Danube commissioner, discussed in the Commission the removal of the Chilia branch from the Commission’s jurisdiction. He claimed that the IO had abandoned it in 1857–1858, when it started regulating the Sulina branch and mouth, and thus the two territorial powers, Russia and Romania, could enjoy full sovereignty over their national waters. The other commissioners rejected the claim,91 but during the following years it was clear that Russia would eventually denounce European jurisdiction over the Chilia branch.

In 1882 Russia launched a scientific survey of the Danube Delta’s advance into the Black Sea, with a special interest in the Chilia sub-branch. The survey was to be carried out by Russian experts, acting independently of the Commission.92 Expecting opposition in the Commission, an article in a Russian journal, Novoye Vremia, questioned the authority of an organ which violated an empire’s sovereign rights in its national territory.93 When the prolongation of the Commission’s term was discussed at the London Conference in 1883, Russia made it clear that it would accept a further extension of the Commission’s term only if Chilia received special status. The Great Powers agreed to return the Chilia branch under the administration of territorial states, which were, however, to apply European regulations drafted by the Commission. Its executive agents could move along the Chilia branch and the plans for local hydraulic works had to be communicated to the Commission, which was to determine whether they injured in any way the navigability of the Sulina branch.94 As Romanian historian Ștefan Stanciu put it, the Chilia branch became Russian territory with European legislation.95

In the 1890s, Russia attempted to open a different exit to the sea. Russian engineers Theschovici and L. von Rummel were commissioned to study the navigability of the Chilia branch, and in 1893–1894 a Russian warship surveyed the waters of the Stari Stambul sub-branch and drafted a new map of the area.96 Romania opposed such intentions, which it considered to be part of Russia’s renewed hydro-hegemonic claims in the Danube Delta. Dependence on the Sulina branch as a transportation highway made the Romanian government regard the Commission as a techno-political bulwark against Russia’s imperial aims. As a zero-sum environmental system, hydraulic improvements in the Russian section of the river risked threatening the stability of the Commission’s own works. However, due to economic reasons, Russia did not insist on ‘correcting’ its own waters in the late nineteenth century, but did it later in the twentieth century, in Soviet times. Such discussions in the Danubian ‘organic machine’ continue to be relevant today, when Ukraine’s plans to make hydraulic works in its part of the Danube Delta have been contested for their environmental effects.97

15 Conclusions

As a ‘river of empires’,98 to paraphrase another seminal work in environmental history, the Danube was remade through an experiment in which Europe’s Great Powers invested human capital and know-how to modernise a vital continental transport infrastructure which was encumbered with innumerable natural and artificial sources of insecurity.

The Commission was invested with a technical mission, which was accomplished under the coordination of an international team of experts led by engineer-in-chief Hartley. He based his technical plans on a fully scientific vision, and his success contributed to turning him into an authority in hydraulic works. Hartley started his surveys in the Russophobe environment of the post Crimean War years, but he soon realised that he was confronting the forces of nature. Understanding the Danube with its seasonal floods, predominant currents and winds was part of a long transnational process of knowledge production and the prerequisite for a successful engineering programme. Hydrologic knowledge played a vital part in building jetties at Sulina which ‘tamed’ the Danube and turned it into a predictable and secure waterway, a veritable ‘river of riches’.99

Scholars consider rivers to be active agents that have the capacity to influence processes and outcomes as driving forces in history.100 In recent centuries rivers have been continuously reshaped through the interplay of artificial and natural forces. As ‘organic machines’, ‘enviro-technical systems’ or ‘socio-natural sites’,101 they are the result of complex, bidirectional human-nature interactions. And they are, in their pristine state, sources of navigational insecurity which engineers have tried to remove, improve and correct. Technology was the solution used to rationalise nature, which was manipulated, controlled and governed for economic benefits. The Maritime Danube was eventually turned into a safe transportation infrastructure, free from natural sources of insecurity.

As for Hartley’s professional career, from the 1860s he was involved in fluvial and maritime engineering works around the world: on other rivers (the Dnieper, Don, Hooghly, Mississippi and Scheldt), canals (Suez), and ports (Burgas, Constanța, Durban, Odessa, Trieste and Varna). He had a constant interest in and got involved with some of the most daring nineteenth-century projects of international waterways, such as the construction and development of the Suez and Panama canals. Eventually, after Great Britain took control of the Suez Canal Company, Hartley was appointed as a member of its Technical Committee and used his authority to advise on engineering works on this commercially vital waterway.

Hartley was emotionally attached to the Danube, where he remained in charge of hydraulic works until 1907, half a century after his employment. For Romania’s prime minister at the time, Dimitrie A. Sturdza, one of Hartley’s admirers and friends, the improvement of navigation in the Maritime Danube represented ‘a veritable triumph of peaceful international work, conceived with the support of science and conducted with constancy, assurance and loyalty’.102 To Sturdza, Hartley and the Commission shared all these qualities, which contributed to the success of the organisation as a whole.


‘Albert Medal,’ Journal of the Society for Arts 51.2636 (29 May 1903): 593.


David Blackbourn, The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape, and the Making of Modern Germany (New York 2007), 72–120.


See his biography in C.W.S. Hartley, A Biography of Sir Charles Hartley, Civil Engineer (1825–1915): the Father of the Danube, vol. 1–2 (Lampeter 1989) and a shorter account of his Danubian works in David Turnock, ‘Sir Charles Hartley and the Development of Romania’s Lower Danube – Black Sea Commerce in the Late Nineteenth Century,’ in: Anglo-Romanian Relations after 1821 (Iași 1983), 75–98.


Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London 2002).


Martin Kohlrausch and Helmuth Trischler, Building Europe on Expertise. Innovators, Organizers, Networkers (Basingstoke 2014); Wolfram Kaiser and Johan W. Schot. Writing the Rules for Europe: Experts, Cartels and International Organizations (Basingstoke 2014).


Richard White, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River (New York 1996).


See two recent historiographic papers: Paula Schönach, ‘River Histories: A Thematic Review,’ Water History 9.3 (2017): 233–257 and Matthew Evenden, ‘Beyond the Organic Machine? New Approaches in River Historiography,’ Environmental History 23.4 (2018): 698–720.


Mark Cioc, The Rhine: An Eco-Biography, 1815–2000 (Seattle and London 2002).


Sara B. Pritchard: Confluence: The Nature of Technology and the Remaking of the Rhône (Cambridge MA and London 2011).


Hartley, A Biography, 5–116.


This may be compared to the ‘Histories of the Dead River’ as it was common for environmental historians in the 1990s – see Terge Tvedt and Eva Jakobsson, ‘Introduction: Water History Is World History,’ in: eidem (eds.), A History of Water, vol. I, Water Control and River Biographies (London and New York 2006), XIX–XX.


Hartley, A Biography, 117–131.


Jared S. Taber, Thinking Like a Floodplain: Water, Work, and Time in the Connecticut River Valley, 1790–1870, PhD dissertation, University of Kansas (Lawrence 2016).


T.A.B. Spratt, Report on the Delta of the Danube with Plans and Sections (London 1857).


Some of them are included in the volume Projects for the Improvement of the Lower Danube (Leipzig 1857); discussions in Hartley, A Biography, 120–125.


Included in Projects for the Improvement cit.; Hartley, A Biography, 125–128.


John Stokes, Autobiography (s.l. s.a.), 66.


Giacomo Parrinello, ‘Charting the Flow: Water Science and State Hydrography in the Po Watershed, 1872–1917,’ Environment and History 23.1 (2017): 65–96.


Stokes, Autobiography, 66.


Stokes, ‘On the Mouths of the Danube and the Improvement of the Mouths of Rivers in Non-Tidal Seas,’ in: Papers on Subjects Connected with the Duties of the Corps of Royal Engineers, new series, vol. 13 (Woolwich 1864), 37.


The National Archives of Romania, Galați Branch (NAR), Protocols of the European Commission of the Danube (hereafter PECD), Protocol 8, 24 December 1856; The National Archives of the United Kingdom (TNA), Public Record Office, FO 78/3212, unnumbered (hereafter unn.) (John Stokes to the Earl of Clarendon, Galați, 16 January 1857).


PECD, Protocol 27, 27 April 1857.


Ibid., Protocol 18, 7 March 1857.


Projects for the Improvement, 1–73; the engineer’s own remarks were published in C.A. Hartley, ‘Description of the Delta of the Danube and of Works Recently Executed at the Sulina Mouth,’ Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers 21 (1862): 277–308; a modern approach in Hartley, A Biography, 117–137.


Türkiye Cumhuriyeti Cumhurbaşkanlığı Devlet Arşivleri Başkanlığı (Republic of Turkey Presidential State Archives, formerly known as Başbakanlık Osmanlı Arşivi), HR.TO 384/9 (1 January 1858) and HR.SYS 1606/45 (27 July 1858).


Stokes, Autobiography, 69.


Luminița Gătejel, ‘Building a Better Passage to the Sea: Engineering and River Management at the Mouth of the Danube, 1829–61,’ Technology and Culture 59.4 (2018): 927.


PECD, Protocol 66, 11 December 1857–13 February 1858.


Rapport de la Commission technique internationale convoquée à Paris pour l’examen des questions relatives à l’amélioration des bouches du Danube (Paris 1858); Hartley, ‘Description’: 284; Stokes, ‘The Danube and Its Trade,’ Journal of the Society of Arts 38.1954 (2 May 1890): 565.


A discussion on this in Gătejel, ‘Imperial Cooperation at the Margins of Europe: the European Commission of the Danube, 1856–65,’ European Review of History/Revue européenne d’histoire 24.5 (2017): 788–790.


Barbara Curli, ‘Science Diplomacy in History. From the Suez Canal to a Synchrotron in the Middle East,’ online at (visited on 10 December 2018); more on the nexus between science and diplomacy in John Krige and Kai-Henrik Barth, ‘Introduction: Science, Technology, and International Affairs,’ Osiris 21.1 (2006): 1–21.


Stokes, ‘The Danube’: 570.


Edward Benjamin Krehbiel, ‘The European Commission of the Danube: An Experiment in International Administration,’ Political Science Quarterly 33.1 (1918): 45.


Hartley, A Biography, 147–166.


Karen Bakker, ‘Water: Political, Biopolitical, Material,’ Social Studies of Science 42.4 (2012): 616–623.


PECD, Protocol 128, 13 May 1861.


La Commission Européenne du Danube et son œuvre de 1856 à 1931 (Paris 1931), 204.


Stokes, Autobiography, 74.


PECD, Protocol 94, 2 February 1859.


Tricia Cusack, Riverscapes and National Identities (Syracuse NY 2010); Pritchard, ‘Reconstructing the Rhône: The Cultural Politics of Nature and Nation in Contemporary France, 1945–1997,’ French Historical Studies 27.4 (2004): 765–799; Dorothy Zeisler-Vralsted, Rivers, Memory, and Nation-Building: A History of the Volga and Mississippi Rivers (New York and Oxford 2014).


‘The Inauguration Fête at Sulina,’ Levant Herald, 18 September 1861, cited in Hartley, A Biography, 162–163.


PECD, Protocol 135, 7 September 1861.


Centre des Archives diplomatiques de Nantes, Représentant de la France auprès de la Commission Européenne du Danube (CED), Série B, File 10, f. 290–291 (Éd. Engelhardt to the French Foreign Office, Galați, 10 September 1861).


Stokes, ‘The Danube’: 567.


Hartley, A Biography, 165–166.


Hartley, ‘Description’: 292.


Hartley, A Biography, 210–211.


Ibid., 184–203.


Hugh Leonard, Report on the River Hooghly. Bengal. 1865 (London 1865), 3.


Pritchard, ‘From Hydroimperialism to Hydrocapitalism: ‘French’ Hydraulics in France, North Africa, and Beyond,’ Social Studies of Science 42.4 (2012): 591–615.


PECD, Protocols 254 and 274, 25 April 1871 and 4 May 1872; Hartley, A Biography, 290; Constantin Ardeleanu, ‘Prelungirea activității părintelui Dunării, inginerul britanic Ch. Hartley, un episod puțin cunoscut din istoria Comisiei Europene a Dunării (1871–1872),’ in: Ștefan Stanciu and Costin Croitoru (eds.), Perspective asupra istoriei locale în viziunea tinerilor cercetători (II) (Galați 2006), 71–77.


C.A. Hartley, ‘On the Changes That Have Recently Taken Place along the Sea Coast of the Delta of the Danube, and on the Consolidation of the Provisional Works at the Sulina Mouth,’ Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers 36 (1873): 201–253; Charles Henry Leopold Kühl, ‘Dredging on the Lower Danube,’ ibid., 65 (1881): 266–270; idem, ‘The Sulina Mouth of the Danube (Includes Plates and Appendices),’ ibid., 91 (1888): 329–341; idem, ‘The Sulina Branch of the Danube (Includes Plates and Appendices),’ ibid., 106 (1891): 238–247; L. Harcourt, ‘The Survey of the Delta of the Danube in 1894 (Abstracted from the Report of Sir Charles Hartley, KCMG, MICE), ibid., 122 (1895): 336–342.


Ștefan Constantinescu, Liviu Giosan and Alfred Vespremeanu-Stroe, ‘A Cartographical Perspective to the Engineering Works at the Sulina Mouth, the Danube Delta,’ Acta Geodaetica et Geophysica Hungarica 45.1 (2010): 71–79; Marius Budileanu, ‘Tipuri de produse cartografice specifice gurii Sulina, din perspectiva Comisiunii Europene a Dunării,’ Geographia Napocensis 7.2 (2013): 59–70; Ștefan Constantinescu, ‘Various Approaches to the Danube Delta. From Maps to Reality,’ in: Constantin Iordachi and Kristof Van Assche (eds.), The Bio-Politics of the Danube Delta: Nature, History, Policies (Lanham 2015), 155–181.


Mémoire sur les travaux d’amélioration exécutés aux embouchures du Danube par la Commission Européenne instituée en vertu de l’article 16 du Traité de Paris du 30 mars 1856, accompagné d’un atlas de 40 planches (Galați 1867); Mémoire sur l’achèvement des travaux d’amélioration exécutés aux embouchures du Danube par la Commission Européenne instituée en vertu de l’article 16 du Traité de Paris du 30 mars 1856, avec 3 cartes jointes au texte et un atlas de 59 planches (Leipzig 1873).


TNA, FO 78/3223, unn. (Stokes to Lord Stanley, Galați, 20 May 1867); PECD, Protocol 192, 24 April 1867.


PECD, Protocols 267 and 282, 30 April 1872 and 16 September 1873.


A discussion of this relation in Jordan Branch, The Cartographic State: Maps, Territory, and the Origins of Sovereignty (Cambridge 2014).


Denis Wood and John Fels, The Power of Maps (New York and London 1992); Mitchell, Rule of Experts, 9.


Gătejel, ‘Building a Better Passage’: 942–943.


C.A. Hartley, ‘Inland Navigation in Europe,’ in: The Theory and Practice of Hydro-Mechanics: A Series of Lectures Delivered at the Institution of Civil Engineers, Session 1884–85 (London 1885), 149–150.


Hartley, A Biography, 257–269.


Dimitrie A. Sturdza, ‘Însemnătatea lucrărilor Comisiunii Europene de la Gurile Dunării, 1856–1912,’ Analele Academiei Române. Memoriile secțiunii istorice 2nd series 35 (1913): 261.


PECD, Protocol 147, 13 September 1862.


Centre des Archives diplomatiques de La Courneuve, Représentant de la France auprès de la Commission Européenne du Danube (CED), File 10, f. 15–17 (Engelhardt to Drouyn de Lhuys, Galați, 15 April 1863).


Hartley, A Biography, 442.


Louis Savadogo, ‘Les navires battant pavillon d’une organisation internationale,’ Annuaire français de droit international 53.1 (2007): 662–663.


Hartley, A Biography, 473.


Ibid., 533–534.


La Commission, 254–259.


Ashley Carse, Beyond the Big Ditch: Politics, Ecology, and Infrastructure at the Panama Canal (Cambridge MA 2014).


Stokes, Autobiography, 69.


Selçuk Dursun, ‘Forest Security in the Balkans in the Nineteenth Century,’ presentation at the colloquium Securing the World. Global Perspectives on Security History in the Long Nineteenth Century, KNAW, Amsterdam, 25–27 September 2017.


PECD, Protocol 222, 30 October 1868; Hartley, A Biography, 281–282.


Grigore Antipa, Studii asupra pescăriilor din România (Bucharest 1895), 43.


More on the context and regional fishing in Ardeleanu, ‘Fishing in the Lower Danube and Its Floodplain from the Earliest Times to the Twentieth Century,’ in: Tonnes Bekker-Nielsen and Ruthy Gertwagen (eds.), The Inland Seas. Towards an Ecohistory of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea (Stuttgart 2016), 333–334.


Per Högselius, Arne Kaijser and Erik Van der Vleuten, Europe’s Infrastructure Transition: Economy, War, Nature (Basingstoke 2015), 14.


Kühl, ‘Dredging on the Lower Danube’: 266.


Ministerul Afacerilor Străine, Îmbunětățirea navigațiunei pe Dunăre (1888–1890) și pe Prut (1887–1890). Importul în România al mărfurilor naționaliste în Elveția și în Olanda: (documente presentate Corpurilor Legiutóre în sesiunea ordinară din 1890–91) (Bucharest 1891), 1–99.


La Commission, 213–216.


Chandra Mukerji, Impossible Engineering: Technology and Territoriality on the Canal du Midi (Princeton and Oxford 2009), 2.


La Commission, 324–327.


PECD, Protocol 651, appendix 1, 21 October 1902. For a modern approach on controlling and exploiting nature as a ‘standard of civilisation,’ see Yuan (Joanne) Yao, ‘ “Conquest from Barbarism”: The Danube Commission, International Order and the Control of Nature as a Standard of Civilization,’ European Journal of International Relations 25.2 (2019): 335–359.


‘The New Cutting in the Sulina Branch of the Danube (from a Correspondent),’ The Times 36932, 22 November 1902: 5.


Pritchard, Confluence, 19.


Wiebe E. Bijker, ‘Dikes and Dams, Thick with Politics,’ Isis 98.1 (2007): 109–123.


Mitchell, Rule of Experts, 15.


See for instance Richard P. Tucker and Edmund Russell, Natural Enemy, Natural Ally: Toward an Environmental History of War (Corvallis 2004).


C. Hartley, ‘The Sulina Branch of the Danube,’ The Times 29003, 25 July 1877: 8; Hartley, A Biography, 444–445.


PECD, Protocol 315, 7 November 1877.


TNA, FO 881/3374 (H.T. Siborne to the Earl of Derby, Galați, 17 November 1877); the diplomatic correspondence is published in FO 881/3552: Correspondence respecting the Sinking of the Dam in the Sulina Mouth of the Danube by the Russians, 1877–78 (London 1878).


PECD, Protocol 345, 8 and 12 December 1879.


NAR, Galați Branch, European Commission of the Danube. The English Delegate Fund, File 17, f. 24 (Percy Sanderson to Earl Granville, Galați, 29 September 1882).


Constantin I. Băicoianu, Le Danube. Aperçu historique, économique et politique (avec une préface par Vintila I. Bratiano) (Paris 1917), 130–131, note 1.


Sturdza, Recueil de documents relatifs à la liberté de la navigation du Danube (Berlin 1904), 451–452.


Ștefan Stanciu, România și Comisia Europeană a Dunării. Diplomație. Suveranitate. Cooperare internațională (Galați 2002), 136.


Grigore Antipa, Dunărea și problemele ei științifice, economice și politice (Bucharest 1921), 147–149; Ion Ionescu, ‘Chestiunea Stari-Stambul, o tentativă de violare a frontierelor tânărului stat independent român,’ Anuarul Muzeului Marinei Române 29.8 (1998): 69–72.


Tanya Richardson, ‘Where the Water Sheds: Disputed Deposits at the Ends of the Danube,’ in: Marijeta Bozovic and Matthew Miller (eds.), Watersheds: The Poetics and Politics of the Danube River (Boston 2016), 307–336; Andrei Șarîi, Dunărea, fluviul imperiilor, Romanian translation by Maria Sîrghe (Iași 2017), 145–146.


Donald Worster, Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity and the Growth of the American West (New York 1985).


Peter Coates, A Story of Six Rivers: History, Culture and Ecology (London 2013), 10.


Christof Mauch and Thomas Zeller, ‘Rivers in History and Historiography: An Introduction,’ in: eidem (eds.), Rivers in History: Perspectives on Waterways in Europe and North America (Pittsburgh 2008), 7.


Verena Winiwarter, M. Schmid, S. Hohensinner and G. Haidvogl, ‘The Environmental History of the Danube River Basin as an Issue of Long-Term Socio-Ecological Research,’ in: S.J. Singh, H. Haberrl, M. Chertow, M. Mirtl and M. Schmid (eds.), Long Term Socio-Ecological Research (Dordrecht 2013), 103–122.


PECD, Protocol 749, 4 May 1908. Sturdza also published a volume on the Commission’s works: Les Travaux de la Commission Européenne des bouches du Danube, 1859 à 1911. Actes et documents (Vienne 1913).

  • Collapse
  • Expand