Wednesday, September 28, 2016

"England's Forgotten Muslim History"

Jerry Brotton, a professor of Renaissance studies at Queen Mary University of London, has written a book that gets the usual UK/USA treatment as to title and cover. In the UK his book is titled This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World. In the USA, it's The Sultan and the Queen: The Untold Story of Elizabeth and Islam. The U.K. book description:

In 1570, when it became clear she would never be gathered into the Catholic fold, Elizabeth I was excommunicated by the Pope. On the principle that 'my enemy's enemy is my friend', this marked the beginning of an extraordinary English alignment with the Muslim powers who were fighting Catholic Spain in the Mediterranean, and of cultural, economic and political exchanges with the Islamic world of a depth not again experienced until the modern age. England signed treaties with the Ottoman Porte, received ambassadors from the kings of Morocco and shipped munitions to Marrakesh. By the late 1580s hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Elizabethan merchants, diplomats, sailors, artisans and privateers were plying their trade from Morocco to Persia.

These included the resourceful mercer Anthony Jenkinson who met both S├╝leyman the Magnificent and the Persian Shah Tahmasp in the 1560s, William Harborne, the Norfolk merchant who became the first English ambassador to the Ottoman court in 1582 and the adventurer Sir Anthony Sherley, who spent much of 1600 at the court of Shah Abbas the Great. The previous year, remarkably, Elizabeth sent the Lancastrian blacksmith Thomas Dallam to the Ottoman capital to play his clockwork organ in front of Sultan Mehmed. The awareness of Islam which these Englishmen brought home found its way into many of the great cultural productions of the day, including most famously Marlowe's Tamburlaine, and Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus and The Merchant of Venice. The year after Dallam's expedition the Moroccan ambassador, Abd al-Wahid bin Mohammed al-Annuri, spent six months in London with his entourage. Shakespeare wrote Othello six months later.

This Orient Isle shows that England's relations with the Muslim world were far more extensive, and often more amicable, than we have appreciated, and that their influence was felt across the political, commercial and domestic landscape of Elizabethan England. It is a startlingly unfamiliar picture of part of our national and international history.

Writing for The New York Times before the book comes out in the USA, Brotton summarizes his argument:

In the 1580s she signed commercial agreements with the Ottomans that would last over 300 years, granting her merchants free commercial access to Ottoman lands. She made a similar alliance with Morocco, with the tacit promise of military support against Spain.

As money poured in, Elizabeth began writing letters to her Muslim counterparts, extolling the benefits of reciprocal trade. She wrote as a supplicant, calling Murad “the most mighty ruler of the kingdom of Turkey, sole and above all, and most sovereign monarch of the East Empire.” She also played on their mutual hostility to Catholicism, describing herself as “the most invincible and most mighty defender of the Christian faith against all kind of idolatries.” Like Muslims, Protestants rejected the worship of icons, and celebrated the unmediated word of God, while Catholics favored priestly intercession. She deftly exploited the Catholic conflation of Protestants and Muslims as two sides of the same heretical coin.

The ploy worked. Thousands of English traders crossed many of today’s no-go regions, like Aleppo in Syria, and Mosul in Iraq. They were far safer than they would have been on an equivalent journey through Catholic Europe, where they risked falling into the hands of the Inquisition.

The Ottoman authorities saw their ability to absorb people of all faiths as a sign of power, not weakness, and observed the Protestant-Catholic conflicts of the time with detached bemusement. Some Englishmen even converted to Islam. A few, like Samson Rowlie, a Norfolk merchant who became Hassan Aga, chief treasurer to Algiers, were forced. Others did so of their own volition, perhaps seeing Islam as a better bet than the precarious new Protestant faith. . . .

Elizabeth’s Islamic policy held off a Catholic invasion, transformed English taste and established a new model for joint stock investment that would eventually finance the Virginia Company, which founded the first permanent North American colony.
Read the rest there.

Writing for The Catholic Herald, however, Francois Soyer, associate professor in Late Medieval and Early Modern History at the University of Southampton, sees some problems with Brotton's thesis:

England’s ties with the Muslim Ottoman Empire did indeed make an impact on military events but in a very different way. They must be studied within the wider background of diplomatic and military developments elsewhere in Europe, the Mediterranean and even the Middle East. . . .

For Philip II of Spain, the heretical Protestants in Northern Europe came to dominate all other issues: the Calvinist rebels in the Netherlands, their English allies, and the Protestants in France posed a danger to the Catholic Church and Philip’s own authority.

Similarly, the primary threat for the Sunni Ottoman Sultan became the Shiite Safavid dynasty in Persia (modern-day Iran). As Shiites, the Safavids challenged the theological legitimacy of the Sultan in the Islamic world and threatened the Ottoman heartlands in Anatolia. The Ottomans initiated a conflict against the Safavids in 1578 (until 1590) and the rivalry between both Muslim dynasties continued into the seventeenth century. Both the superpowers of the age had effectively decided that the enemies within their faith represented a great threat than the infidel.

It is therefore hard to see how the ties Elizabeth forged with the Ottoman played any role in “holding off a Catholic invasion”. Indeed, in this respect her strategy could be seen as having been a singular failure. When the Armada sailed against England in 1588, it comprised a number of ships that were redeployed from Mediterranean squadrons due to the absence of an Ottoman threat. The galleass La Girona, which sank off Country Antrim with tremendous loss of life in October 1588, was just one of these redeployed galleys and galleasses that were more suited to naval warfare in the Mediterranean than the North Atlantic.

The Ottoman Sultan and his officials may well have welcomed English envoys and trade links and made pleasing diplomatic noises. But they offered no real military help. Diplomatic relations in early modern Europe and the Mediterranean were often moulded by a brutal realpolitik in which expediency trumped religious loyalties: my enemy’s enemy was my friend, whether or not he was an infidel. Elizabeth wasn’t the first European monarch to seek a Muslim ally (the French Kings had previously sought Ottoman help against the Habsburgs); she wasn’t the last, either (even Philip III of Spain would later seek to cultivate relations with the Safavids to counter any Ottoman threat).

Read the rest there.

1 comment:

  1. I have no erudite nor specific quotable backing that I remember for the following of which I see little echo above: the I am sure wellfounded idea that however much The Spanish Armada may have been a royal iniciative it was followed financed and aided by all the very quarrelsome maritime including regions etc of Spain , horizontally, and , far harder to check ,probably equally most of the way down socially as well.
    It seems entirely cogent to me to follow some Spanish writers in connecting this Spanish enthusiasm , rather than mainly with fervent Spanish catholicism , more to Tudor arming of berber pirates with, a tudor world's first, more accurate, standardized, quality controlled gunnery, canons gunpowder and munitions, with the consequent increase in their firepower to achieve greater success in, and increase of their piratical activities , and slaving raids on coastal areas, which after all even reached the British Isles, which was a personal and commercial woe all around Spain far more than a great strategic danger .(The strategic danger was and remained the ottoman fleet and army) Certainly fervour is not inconflict with this point .Despite so much destruction many archives in Spain remain surprisingly intact, for any Spanishspeaking PhD history students to mine for theses and books.
    Churches in Spain far inland may be seen with the chains of ransomed captives left in gratitude, many more died as captives, were castrated, died in raids, became moslem under duress etc : If this secular scourge on one's family, neighbours, relatives, and business were suddenly and very noticeably worsened by Tudor mfn arms dealing, one can see motivation for taking out the arms at source, and if the nobs were more interested in cutting off aid and comfort from to low country protestants and rebels, we are talking about a confluence of aims and motives rather than any conflict between them or with religious and patriotic fervours.