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Constantin Ardeleanu: ‘A Short Biography of John Stokes’

IO BIO: Biographical Dictionary of Secretaries Generals of International Organizations includes a biography of John Stokes, the first British commissioner in the European Commission of the Danube (1856-1871) and de facto leader of the institution.

The biography, authored by Constantin Ardeleanu, is illustrative for the political relevance of navigation experts during the second half of the 19th century. While Stokes was appointed to the Danube Commission for his engineering background, he and other commissioners soon moved their focus from technical aspects to administration, trying to establish a stable and secure political environment in an anarchical peripheral Ottoman province. The Danube Commission under Stokes’ guidance started to draft legislation for this international river in a manner which accommodated Ottoman law, the privileges of foreign citizens in the Ottoman Empire as well as their own national legislation. This encouraged a great degree of cooperation at a pan-European level and implied an information exchange with governments, private companies and academics around Europe. Britain’s position along with Stokes’ technical expertise and diplomatic qualities made him the informal leader of this collegial institution and the de facto first chair of the European Commission of the Danube. Stokes also managed to convince his government of the importance of the Lower Danube for British and European interests, and he equally proved himself to be a valuable expert in these topics. Later in his life this expertise made Stokes part of numerous epistemic communities connected to everything that had to do with international rivers, canals, harbours, navigation tariffs and tonnage measurement.