Western Europe and the Ottoman Empire: Trade Across an Inverted Imperial Divide

Our readings of history has tended to a Eurocentric direction that has failed to give attention to the rich heritage of engagement with non-western European lands, many of them more powerful than Europe, that has existed for centuries. This is particularly true with western European colonialism so fresh in our minds. It was only in 1947, less than 70 years ago, that Britain finally left India, the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the British Empire. However, in the early modern period, between the late fifteenth century to the late eighteenth century, when western Europe was just beginning to increase travel around the world and long before a meaningful western European colonialism had come into being, the case was quite the reverse.

Traders, travellers and diplomats from western Europe often travelled to regions of the Middle East, Asia and beyond to seek a slice of the vast markets that contained rich products from spice to silk. These encounters were influenced by a very different balance of power; western Europeans were the weaker figures seeking economic benefit in these powerful empires and markets. This was especially seen in relation to the Islamic worlds whose empires, against a far weaker western Europe, were some of the most powerful in the world.

The leading empires of the Islamic worlds were the Turkish Ottoman Empire that stretched from Europe into the Middle East and North Africa, the Persian Safavid Empire in the Middle East, and the Indian Mughal Empire in Asia. These lands held the advantage in the world as powerful, wealthy and militarily advanced civilisations, far above western European domination. I use the phrase ‘western Europe’ intentionally in relation to the western region of the continent as opposed to the entire continent. The Ottomans too were European and present day Turkey remains part of the continent. While Turkey’s place in Europe is often debated, Turkey’s presence in Europe dates back to the Middle Ages, making such debates on its identity deeply ironic.

In the early modern world, the most powerful empire in Europe was that of the Turkish Ottomans. The Ottomans had established themselves on the European side of the Bosphorus strait since the late fourteenth century. Then, in 1453 Sultan Mehmed II led the Conquest of Constantinople, which extinguished the Byzantine Empire, and made Constantinople the new Ottoman capital. This heralded a new age in Ottoman expansion in Europe that would extend through central Europe until it reached the gates of Vienna. Sultan Suleiman I conquered the western Balkans and most of Hungary, and it would not be until the 1680s that the Ottomans suffered any permanent loss of land.

Educated western Europeans were awed by the Ottomans; in fact, it was they who gave Suleiman the title ‘the Magnificent’ rather than the Ottomans, who had named him ‘the Lawgiver’. The sixteenth century French jurist and historian, Jean Bodin, wrote, “It would be far more just to regard the Ottoman Sultan as the inheritor of the Roman Empire”. The famous early modern English historian, Richard Knolles, would comment on the impossibility of the task to “set downe the bounds and limits” upon the Ottomans who accept “no other limits than the uttermost bounds of the earth”. Furthermore, as the Ottomans gained control of Islam’s holiest sites of Makkah, Madina and Jerusalem, they formally claimed the title of ‘Khalif’, assuming for themselves leadership of the global Islamic community.

For the English, the Ottomans were the leading eastern object of both fear and fantasy, yet with flourishing trade and diplomatic relations it was the Ottomans that influenced England most significantly in this period. In 1580 William Harborne, the first official English Ambassador from the court of Queen Elizabeth I to the Ottomans, negotiated the first commercial treaty with Istanbul that led to the creation of The Levant Company. This company traded heavily across the Ottoman Empire and Mediterranean region. Of all western Europe, Britain enjoyed the most commercial activity with the Islamic worlds in the seventeenth century. Trade with the Ottomans alone accounted for a quarter of England’s overseas commercial activities.

Such was the importance of Ottoman trade to the English that when in the late sixteenth century an overzealous English gentleman, Sir Anthony Sherley, attempted to form an alliance with Persia against Ottoman expansion, a measure which threatened Ottoman trade, Queen Elizabeth’s wrath was so severe that she banned Sherley from ever returning to England. Meanwhile, Anthony’s brother Thomas, who fell afoul of the Turks and was imprisoned by them, would upon release and return to England in 1607 be arrested for interfering with the Levant trade.

Interestingly, even as England keenly traded in Ottoman goods, the Ottomans were often ambivalent about English goods, such that the English would often be forced to trade in gold or silver bullion rather than English products. This was true for other western European traders too and would cause a weakening outflow of capital in the absence of commodity export. While the Ottomans had desirable goods for the English and other western Europeans, the latter had little to offer in return which the Ottomans could not produce for themselves. It was the Ottomans who were developed and western Europe underdeveloped. However, the English did succeed in trading in arms with the Ottomans; English scrap metal from old church bells were among the items the Ottomans purchased to use in manufacturing arms. It is perhaps an irony that even as the Ottomans militarily threatened western European borders, the English provided the means to create the arms to do so.

That western Europe, and particularly the English under Queen Elizabeth I and later monarchs, continued to retain strong partnerships and trade agreements with the Ottomans, despite the military threat the latter posed, reflects on the interesting dynamics of the relationship. While foreign policy was at odds, in a world moving swiftly towards a globalised capitalist economy, profit won out and determined the terms of treaties and encounters. While the early modern period, where imperial power lay firmly outside western European hands, was far different to our modern times in geopolitical terms, in terms of international relations, however, it seems things were not so different.

Queen Elizabeth I recognised the importance of international trade and diplomatic alliances in an age of eastern political authority, shifting economies and increasing globalisation, and was conscious of the significance of the Ottoman Empire within that picture. This recognition allowed for a flourishing engagement with the Ottomans, casting strong western European relations with the Islamic worlds into a rich history spanning centuries.

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