A short story about the first black pilot. He was Nigerian?
Sometime in the nineteenth century, a slave woman was transported from Bornu (some part in today’s Nigeria) via the Sahara to Istanbul by slavers. She might have belonged to a nearby village that had been raided by the triumphant rulers of the great Bornu Empire who found little use for her and bartered her for salt, silk or some other goods into perpetual slavery or she might have fallen out of favour with her original master who saw no reason to keep her any longer. Whatever the case, she came into Istanbul and ended up in the busiest slave market in the empire situated near the chicken market, north of the Nuruosmaniye Gate to the Grand Bazaar. A major attraction in the Ottoman Empire, this market had all the characteristics of a spectacle. Flowing words have been used by many a tourist European in describing the activities at the market, including its immense traffic in slaves, but much less have been said in recent times regarding the wide-ranging consequence of the trans-Saharan slave trade which fueled this market and several more in the Ottoman Empire.
This slave woman could have arrived in the early years of the nineteenth century when there was still bustling trade in this region. It’s hard to tell what might have happened to her subsequently. But she had a daughter, possibly in the mid-1800s, who would have been black and a second-generation Nigerian. Her daughter, Emine Hanim, was not a slave. Emine found and married Ali Bey, another African Turk, possibly of Somalia descent and the family settled in Izmir where they had three children.
Ahmet Ali was one of the three. Born in 1883, by which time slavery was long abolished by the rulers of the Ottoman Empire, Ali grew up in the Vilayet of Izmir or Aydin. Bordered on one side by the impressive Aegean Sea, this Vilayet was one of the richest and most productive provinces of Asiatic Turkey and its administrative center, Aydin, served as one of the places from where a variety of agricultural produce left the Empire. Little wonder Ahmet Ali wanted to train as a sailor.
He entered the Naval Technical School in 1904 graduating as First Lieutenant in 1908. By the time of his graduation, military aviation was already a topic of interest. The Wright Brothers had successfully demonstrated flying 4 years earlier and military units around the world were considering means of advancing interests by comfortably shooting from above at ground targets. In 1909 the U.S Army obtained the first military aircraft in history. The French and Italians were also making headway in their move to start a flying unit. Not wanting to be left out, the Ottoman Turks began making attempts to establish their own flying squads, complete with men and machines. These attempts would have intensified following the Italo-Turkish war of 1911 where the Italians demonstrated superior military might bombing the defenseless Turks from the air. On 25 June 1914, an aviation school was opened at Yeşilköy in Istanbul by the Ottoman army. Ahmet Ali attended aviation courses at this Naval Flight School and shortly afterwards became a member of the Ottoman Air Force.
The First World War started the same year precipitating need for the use of military planes already demonstrated to work pleasantly in the small-scale wars of the preceding years. The Ottoman Empire joined on the side of the Germans deploying their resources, including air power, against the Allies. It was at this time Ahmet Ali began serving as a pilot and could have been the first Black pilot in history; and if not the first to fly into war, could have at least been the first to be trained a pilot. He completed his aviation courses and became a captain on February 14, 1917 several months before the Afro-American Eugene Bullard, who received his pilot licence on May 5, 1917, flew for the French in World War I and is typically recognized as the first Black military pilot.
Unlike Eugene, not a lot has been written about Ahmet Ali. The little there is, is about his marriage to Hatice Hamin, an immigrant from Preveza in Greece who died in 1991, his trip to Berlin in December 1917 to complete further aviation courses, his service during the War of Turkish Independence at outpost air bases reporting from the sky the movement of enemy vessels in the Mediterranean and the Black sea, and his retirement from the military in 1949. During his time conducting monitoring on enemy ships in the Black Sea, Ahmet Ali must have demonstrated sufficient courage to warrant notice. At the end of the war an airforce headquarters was created in Konya and Ahmet Ali was appointed an undersecretary at this seat in 1928. Later, he was decorated with at least one military medal, called the Bahri Aircraft Medal by some sources or the Bahri International Medal by others.
The military aviator, Ahmet Ali, died in 1969.
Clearly, he left some enduring legacies as is evidenced in the pursuit of aviation by many members of his inner and extended family. His two sons went on to become military pilots. The older retired from the airforce and took up a job as a pilot for Turkish airlines. Some members of his extended family also trained as aviators and at least one trained as a naval pilot. The family made quite an impression on Turkish aviation that flying has been referred to as “family business” in some sources.
Today, Ahmet Ali’s descendants continue to live in Izmir, the city Ali’s father, Ali Bey, made home. It’s a remarkable story which started several years ago in Bornu (the part of today’s Nigeria?) when a slave woman was forced on a trip across the Sahara to the slave cellars of Istanbul. It became an imaginative story which led a man into the air, and a family after him.