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England’s Mustaphas

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For two hundred years, from the mid-15th century, the Ottoman Empire was the most powerful force in all Eurasia, and Constantinople was the Mediterranean’s greatest port.  From behind the Sublime Porte, the Sultan and his Viziers ruled a great glittering patchwork of peoples and languages and religions, an Empire comparable in size and importance to that of Rome, whose last capital it had conquered as its own.

By contrast, 16th and 17th century England was a small and relatively impoverished mono-religious and mono-lingual state of little economic importance, perched precariously on the cold Northern edge of Christendom.  Compared to the might of the Ottomans, it was neither a major political nor military power.  Although Britain’s navy was sufficient to defend it from its immediate neighbours, Ottoman technological superiority at sea led at this period to the capture of large numbers of British vessels and sailors.

Yet for all this, much of the contact between Britain and the Ottoman Empire was peaceable, and from the early 16th century onwards - and particularly after the founding of the English Levant Company in 1581 - Britain was closely engaged with the Turks as the Ottoman Empire expanded westwards through central Europe, and Britain’s trade network expanded eastwards to meet it.  Daniel Goffman’s intriguing Britons in the Ottoman Empire 1642-1660 is the first full-length study of the odd - yet remarkably successful - relationship between these two utterly different countries….Goffman convincingly demonstrates that the behaviour and attitudes of these early Jacobean travellers was utterly different from the arrogance of their Victorian successors: “In the Ottoman Middle East - in the port towns where the Englishmen resided - it was they and not their alien associates who had to conform” writes Goffman.

Sir Henry Hyde was the English Levant Company’s Consul in the Morea (Pelopponese) whose domination of the lucrative currant trade led to great personal wealth.  This he used to buy himself a place in the Ottoman political and economic administration, so that in addition to his consular position, he also transformed himself into both a Pasha and the Ottoman customs collector.  Throughout the 1630s and ‘40s he successfully entrenched himself in his fiefdom, fending off all attempts by his English employers to remove him from office.  Eventually, fatally falling out with the Levant Company over his Royalist sympathies during the Civil War, he was abducted from the Levant and shipped home where he was tried and executed.

As the book progresses it narrows its field of vision to tell the less surprising tale of diplomatic machinations in the Constantinople Embassy during the English Civil War … rather than telling the far more interesting tale of the effects on individual Brits of exposure to Ottoman society in all its strangeness and variety.

One of the most powerful Ottoman eunuchs during the late 16th centure, Hasan Aga, was the former Samson Rowlie from Great Yarmouth.  Goffman actually refers to Hasan Aga, and records his dealings with the English merchants of Istanbul, but seems to be unaware of his English origins.  Hasan Aga was not alone: all over the Ottoman Empire, British travellers and traders were likely to find compatriots in unlikely positions of power: in Algeria, for example, the “Moorish King’s Executioner” turned out to be a former butcher from Exeter called “Absalom” (Abd-es-Salaam).  There was also the Ottoman general known as “Ingliz Mustapha”: in fact a Scottish Campbell who had converted to Islam and joined the Janissaries.  In these cases, as so often later in India, Islam overpowered the British by its power of attraction, not by the sword; in 1606 even the English consul in Egypt, Benjamin Bishop, converted and promptly disappeared from the public records.

None of these extraordinary stories appears in Goffman’s book.  Neither does he tell the very revealing story of how Charles II sent one Captain Hamilton to ransom some Englishmen who had been enslaved in Ottoman North Africa.  In the event, Hamilton’s mission was spectacularly unsuccessful, as all the captives unanimously refused to return: the men, so it turned out, had all converted to Islam, risen in the ranks, and were not “partaking of the prosperous Successe of the Turks”, living in a style to which they could not possibly have aspired back home.  The frustrated Captain Hamilton was forced to return empty handed: “They are tempted to forsake their God for the love of Turkish women”, he wrote in his official report, at a loss how to convey the failure of his mission.  “Such ladies are”, he added, by way of explanation “generally very beautiful”.

Taken from an article by William Dalrymple in the Observer.  He reviews “Britons in the Ottoman Empire 1642-1660” by Daniel Goffman, University of Washington Press.


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