Trouble with a Dead Mule

Lawrence Rosen

  • Pashas: Traders and Travellers in the Islamic World by James Mather
    Yale, 302 pp, £25.00, October 2009, ISBN 978 0 300 12639 6

Somehow, the traders seem to get there first. Before the armies, before the missionaries or travellers or bureaucrats or busybodies, they arrive, in search of furs and spices, rare textiles and strange foods. To prehistoric groups whose burial sites contain items brought from a continent away, or woodsmen in pursuit of goods lying just beyond the frontier, the trader brought many other things: stories of the exotic, knowledge of the unknown, foreign songs and dress, religion, disease, inventions and slaves. As a kind of confraternity that straddles the ages and the globe, such merchants can be castigated as greedy or lionised as adventurers. By virtue of their cross-pollination of cultures they were commended by one early Muslim writer as ‘the couriers of the horizons, and God’s trusted servants on earth’.

Western Europeans of the 16th to the 18th centuries would not have thought of trade with the lands to the east as particularly unusual. Throughout the Middle Ages, as for centuries before, trade had been conducted across Asia, sometimes stimulating economic reforms, sometimes producing worrying trade imbalances. But as the age of European exploration made possible more regularised exchange, new ways of capitalising on long-distance trade with actual or potential enemies, coupled with new forms of centralised government at home, led to the proliferation of collective enterprises. Some of these became famous examples of Western incursion: joint-stock companies like the East India Company or those formed to exploit the millions of acres of land taken in North America after the French and Indian wars. But others, less well known, are no less intriguing. Among these is the Levant Company.

First chartered in London near the end of the 16th century as a joint-stock venture, the Levant Company soon devolved into a regulated monopoly each of whose members took his own risks. Most of the traders were closely related by blood or marriage to other members of the company; those who didn’t have such ties, including younger sons who could not inherit under primogeniture laws, paid the necessary fees and served an apprenticeship in the trading halls for three years before heading out to Constantinople, Alexandria, Smyrna or Aleppo – the ancient crossroads of the region and the company’s local headquarters. The goods they sent back to London included nutmeg and Damascus raisins, indigo, galls, camlets, medicinal potions and exotic gums. The merchants swore to trade individually and to consign goods only to agents approved by the company. Once they were settled in the East, traders would often adopt the dress and the relaxed habits of the locals, a practice that led some people to refer to them, perhaps sardonically, as ‘pashas’. Fluctuations in the markets – to say nothing of tumultuous military, diplomatic and economic events – defined the pashas’ world, but, as James Mather points out in this engaging study, two features of their enterprise stand out: the pre-eminent role of the individual trader and the company’s deep involvement in politics in Constantinople and London.

English trade to the Ottoman Empire really took off in 1580, when diplomatic agreements known as ‘capitulations’ allowed merchants to establish trading posts in major commercial centres and to be governed by their own laws. Traders had operated from Genoa, Venice and even England before this, but after Elizabeth I was declared a heretic in 1570, the English saw their contacts with the Ottomans not only as a way of circumventing European control of the passage of luxury items from the east but as a means of challenging the Catholic countries’ presence in the Mediterranean. Like Elizabeth, the Ottomans hated Spain, which had challenged their control of various ports, and the sultan – who addressed her as ‘Queen above all Rulers who follow Jesus, most wise arbitress of all the affairs of the Nazarene race’ – even offered to join the English monarch in a ‘league and most holy alliance’. The English were not willing to go that far, but they were prepared to set aside their contempt for Islam in order to further the Protestant challenge to the Catholic powers. Particularly after the turn of the 17th century, when the Ottomans suffered military defeats in Europe and had to rely on their Janissaries for security and on the Europeans for modern firearms, the English supplied metal for cannon and wool for soldiers’ uniforms in exchange for goods and an undertaking that the Ottomans would continue putting pressure on England’s European rivals.

Members of the company were not oblivious to the Crown’s use of the Ottomans as a counterweight, but their predominant interest was always economic: they did not see themselves as forming an extension of British colonial policy, and were less concerned with which British goods could be sold in the East than with what could be imported for the domestic market. The obstacles to their success were, however, enormous: many suffered from disease and loneliness, and all had to contend with the vicissitudes of weather, banditry, mutual competition and shifting valuations, to say nothing of fluctuations in Britain’s interests and the internal politics of the Ottoman regime.

Under Selim I (1512-20) and Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-66), the Ottoman Empire had expanded from Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean to encompass much of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Hungary and the Red Sea coast of Arabia. By the later part of the 17th century, however, the empire was experiencing serious difficulties. Scholars disagree as to whether its ultimate decline dates from the Ottomans’ defeat at the gates of Vienna in 1683 or from its inability to generate more flexible forms of political and economic organisation. What is clear is that throughout – through every oscillation in protective tariffs and crisis of currency valuation; despite the threat from smuggled imports and the frequent need to resort to the ‘golden motive’ (as bribes were sometimes called) – the traders kept their eye firmly on the demand for silks and spices, currants, dyes and soft leather among the British elite, the rising mercantile class and (we are told) even ‘humble peasants, labourers and servants’.

Mather’s discussion is organised around two themes: the roles of three major trading centres – Aleppo, Constantinople and Alexandria – and the careers of a series of individuals who span the Levant Company’s existence. As he moves back and forth in time and between cities, a picture emerges which, for all its variations, illustrates certain common themes. The company board in London set tariffs on merchandise, controlled the quality of goods, arbitrated disputes, organised shipping and regulated the sums paid out to a range of domestic and foreign officials. The role of ambassadors and consuls, in particular, was of enormous importance to the traders. As representatives to the sultan, ambassadors tended to see themselves as entitled to the full honours accorded agents of the British monarchy, whereas the company – which often contested individual appointments – saw them as lobbyists for its own commercial interests. The traders were more accommodating than the politicians: they realised that the rules under which the Ottomans allowed them to do business were not rigid agreements between sovereigns but propositions subject to interpretation, manipulation and favour. The sultan might regard the monarch, his ambassador and the merchants as less than equals, but the traders were clever enough not to stand on their pride, choosing instead to learn what goods and prices the Ottomans needed to maintain control over their soldiers and their domains. Unlike the East India Company, which operated with – and sometimes as – the British government, the Levant Company was not simply an agent of colonial incursion, but functioned in a far more ambiguous manner.

The ambiguity of the pashas’ position carried over into their personal lives. The company rule that barred wives and children from accompanying their husbands was not one that applied to most of their colleagues in the British Empire. Some were happy with this: the image of the luxuriating Oriental pasha was enabled, in part, by the leisure these men had to read from their libraries, attend musical evenings, hunt in all seasons, and indulge in bouts of communal gluttony. One account of a New Year’s Day celebration in 1676 describes a feast of ‘Turkye Woodcocke Francolins wild boare goose ducke mince pye plum broth mince meat severall wines’. Such moments were no doubt a respite from the incessant competition of their working lives; one merchant wrote that his colleagues were ‘single men of uncontrolled liberty and violent inclinations, accustomed to getting and bred up in the arts of gain’.

The question of how to dress was particularly vexed. Since Christians wearing Western clothing were vilified and sometimes even attacked by Muslims, choosing to wear native dress could be seen as expedient. However, traders were sometimes warned by colleagues and the company of the dangers of going native. The company supplied chaplains, many of whom saw Islam as a devilish mixture of the pagan and the carnal, while others grasped that the legitimacy of Ottoman governance was inextricably bound to Islam and that the traders’ commercial engagement necessarily exposed them to a greater risk of apostasy. A few traders did indeed ‘turn Turk’, but despite Mather’s emphasis on personal histories we never learn whether this was for reasons of economic convenience, spiritual conviction or involvement with local women.

More often, however, traders realised what some of their compatriots back home were reluctant to accept: that there was a high degree of tolerance of religious and cultural difference in the Ottoman world. Mather suggests that this was acknowledged in England by some of those who were attempting to displace the religious and political certainties of the preceding era, laying greater emphasis on empiricism and recognising the accomplishments of other civilisations. Francis Bacon, like Montaigne, Machiavelli and others, was intrigued by the Turks’ alternative form of governance: in defending Britain’s contact with the empire, Bacon pointed out that the merchants were able to operate with relative freedom. Trade, it seems, rather than conquest, made even the Turk appear more human. But it was also Bacon who said that Turks were ‘a cruel tyranny … a nation without morality … base and sluttish in buildings, diets and the like’, their court ‘a heap of vassals and slaves’ – ‘in a word, a very reproach of human society’. Mather argues that the pashas’ experience helped form a countercurrent to anti-Muslim feeling which could be drawn on by proponents of toleration in the Enlightenment period, but he isn’t entirely convincing.

Because they were not part of an enterprise backed by colonial force, the pashas always had to depend on their own political acumen to negotiate shifts in the world of the Ottomans. On occasion, the Sublime Porte (as the sultan’s government was called) would change the terms of the capitulation agreements, subjecting the traders, for example, to the jurisdiction of the sultan’s courts. Central control was frequently challenged by provincial notables, and company traders were often forced to contend with local political situations that their ambassador could not resolve in the capital. One 17th-century trader recalls having to settle more than 500 commercial disputes in local courts; another had to use intermediaries to get the grand vizier to chastise a local magistrate in a dispute over who should remove a dead mule that had tumbled into the trader’s cellar. Others had to negotiate with petty officials over the safety of trade routes or the availability of a waypoint storehouse. A trader might have to reassure a local contact worried that knowledge of his lucrative dealings would attract the attention of the Porte’s tax collector; or, because of the regime’s tendency to fix prices regardless of supply and demand, might have to pay a bribe that went beyond consular agreements on formal tribute. Traders had to be constantly aware of where the true levers of power and influence lay.

Although the traders were able to respond to these shifting forces, the company itself proved less adaptable. Clinging to the same trading posts it had used for decades, it failed to expand into new markets; challenged in the 18th century by the French, whose need for cotton led to a renewal of their interest in the region, the British government directed its attention towards India and did not press the weakening Ottomans for better trading concessions. This dissipation of government support was accompanied by growing opposition to monopolies at home. Adam Smith, for example, had the Levant Company in mind when he castigated such enterprises for ‘discouraging new adventurers from entering into the trade’. By the end of the 18th century, other merchants’ resentment of the company’s privileges, coupled with claims that Oriental ‘despotism’ should be met with resolute force rather than philosophical or commercial deference, led to a slow decline in financial backing for the company. At both ends of the trade route, the pashas became increasingly marginalised.

Although the company’s traders interacted with a wide range of local people – Jews and Armenians, Muslims and local Christians – it remains unclear how much cultural exchange resulted from this. Everything from taste in food to religious ideas and the practice of diplomacy and war can be affected by contact between trading partners. But Mather leaves us tantalised more than enlightened. It isn’t clear how many pashas learned the local languages, for example: those he singles out appear to have learned Arabic, not Turkish or any local dialects. The extent of their association with local merchants is also obscure: from this account, meetings seem almost always to have been with officials or people from ‘the best families’, and we are rarely given even the names of any of the pashas’ local contacts. If merchants made long-term friendships in the region there is no clear evidence of it, and little reference to their dealings with intermediaries, the lower classes or women. The result is an oddly two-dimensional account.

Take for example the issue of trust. Surely the pashas’ commercial success depended on their ability to build relationships that relied not just on diplomatic accords or legal enforcement but on ties of mutual benefit and understanding, which the pashas translated as ‘tolerance’. Jewish merchants in the Middle Ages would not destroy any document that bore the name of God, thus leaving us that fabulous body of material known as the Geniza, a record of their most mundane transactions and communications with one another and with their Muslim contacts. The records of the pashas, by contrast, seem to yield relatively little that might give us a feeling for their experience. Perhaps because they had one eye fixed on the next deal and the other on returning home a success, the record we are presented with is regrettably thin.

We do know of some reciprocal influences. Though Mather doesn’t discuss it, one could, for example, point to the introduction of tobacco to the Turkish market in 1601 or the rise of the coffee house in London in the mid-17th century. It has been argued that coffee houses undercut class distinctions in England since anyone could sit and talk to anyone else, while tobacco made it easier for men of diverse backgrounds in the Ottoman lands to socialise (though, like James I, Murad IV tried unsuccessfully to ban its use in the 1630s). Perhaps, too, the accounts sent home of the merchants’ lives among the Turks did influence some in Britain to consider alternative forms of governance and the possibilities of confessional toleration. Such accounts would have contrasted sharply with those written about Britain’s colonial adventures, in which force and usurpation bred a far less flattering picture of those encountered. But we shouldn’t overemphasise the difference between trade and conquest in this regard: the pashas were always subject to Ottoman power, and had no British military support; images of harmony between the pashas and the Ottomans may be as romantic as representations of the traders’ lives as an Oriental fantasy.

Though many spent their entire working lives in the Levant, almost all of the traders eventually used their earnings to establish themselves in British society. Their view of home was often frozen in time, however, and it appears that the company and its traders failed to realise that the game at which they had grown adept was changing. As the British government’s focus shifted further east, as bodies like the East India Company proved more attractive to those favouring free trade, and as the Ottoman Empire itself became increasingly moribund, the company lost its monopoly in 1753 and collapsed with barely a whimper in 1825.