Conference Report: ‘Contacts, Encounters, Practices: European-Ottoman Diplomacy,1500-1800’


Conference Report: ‘Contacts, Encounters, Practices: European-Ottoman Diplomacy, 1500-1800’

(Tuesday 24 June 2014, St Andrews, Scotland)

John Condren, University of St Andrews

On Tuesday 24 June 2014, the School of History at the University of St Andrews hosted a workshop entitled “Contacts, Encounters, Practices: European-Ottoman Diplomacy 1500-1800”. It was organised by Dr Michael Talbot (St Andrews, now of Paris I Panthéon Sorbonne) and Dr Phil McCluskey (University of Sheffield), both of whom also contributed papers to a short but incredibly rich programme. Six young scholars (three of whom are current PhD students) presented papers on their research. In sum, their contributions shed valuable light on the nature of European-Ottoman interaction in the early modern period. The numerous complexities and paradoxes of such interaction were highlighted clearly, adequately, and forcefully by each speaker.

The first panel featured papers from Emrah Safa Gürkan (Istanbul 29 Mayis University), and Michael Polczynski (Georgetown University). Gürkan focused his attention upon the so-called renegades, of Italian, Hungarian, Balkan or Transylvanian descent, who occupied high office in the Ottoman state and government. These individuals were very often captured as youths in the devishirme and later rose through the ranks to earn the sultans favour. Gürkans richly detailed case-study examined the fortunes of one UIuc Hasan Pasha, an Ottoman admiral and former corsair who had been born in Venice. Hasan, a skilful negotiator, used his Venetian origins to try to procure favours for himself and his friends from the Repubblica Serenissima via the Venetian bailo, who served in Istanbul in a role loosely approximating to that of permanent ambassador. Hasan’s own constant need for money in order to maintain his dignified status in the sultan’s government meant that he was compelled to play a double jeu: demanding favours from Venice when it suited him; but also needing to convince his Ottoman colleagues that, once put to the test, he would prove a loyal servant of the Sublime Porte in the event of war with the

Venetians. Gürkan emphasised Hasan’s lack of connection to the Ottoman Empire: he spoke almost no Turkish, and the fact that his family were Venetian citizens meant that his loyalties were not undivided. The presentation, and the ensuing questions, set the tone for the day: diplomats, government officials, and other political actors could easily struggle to assert, maintain, and even realise that they held, a particular identity. Multiple identities (social, political, military, religious) dictated an individual’s actions, in a period where there were no clear boundaries to such an individual’s ambitions and motivations. The quality of information on European affairs which Hasan received, and the means by which he might use that information for his own political ends, was another important theme of this paper.

Polczynski built upon his co-panellist’s presentation by contributing another case-study: that of Erazm Otwinowski, who was sent by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to Istanbul on a short diplomatic mission in 1557. Otwinowski, who converted to Calvinism shortly after his visit to the Sublime Porte, was a young Polish noble. His chequered career was typical of many such noblemen in a region where, again, boundaries were nominal at best. Polczynski described the political situation in areas such as Moldavia and Wallachia (both part of present-day Romania) as a ‘de facto codominium’, where powerful magnates exercised power remote from Krakow or Istanbul. These noblemen also often conducted diplomatic negotiations on behalf of (perhaps even despite) the king and the senate, and drew salaries, pensions, and favours from both senate and sultan – another form of the double jeu practised by Uluc Hasan Pasha. The grand hetman (a role similar to that of grand vizier) often oversaw the Commonwealth’s relations with the Crimean Khanate, a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire. Aside from the Christian polemic which induced Jan III Sobieski to partake in the Holy League of the 1680s, the difficulties in Polish-Ottoman interaction traditionally resulted from trading disputes (the Black Sea slave trade in particular); the issue of sovereignty in frontier regions as mentioned above; and the position of the Cossack population of southern and eastern Europe vis-à-vis the Polish and Ottoman governments. Like many other European powers, such as the king of France, the Holy Roman Emperor, the tsar of Muscovy and the king of Sweden, the Ottomans were also not averse to involving themselves in elections of a new king of Poland.

Like the aforementioned potentates, they dispersed bribes and favours to secure the election of a king favourable to their own interests – i.e., one with no intention of attacking the Sublime Porte. The Armenians who were subjects of both king and sultan, and who spoke their own language (Kipchalk), were an ethnic minority who nonetheless were of importance to the Commonwealth and were employed as inter alia traders, merchants, and translators. Some served as guides to Otwinowski on his journey south. Otwinowski s mission to Istanbul was not intended to resolve any outstanding issues, to propose or ratify an “eternal peace”, or arrange a new delineation of the Polish-Ottoman “border”. Instead, it was what Polczynski termed “diplomatic business as usual”: the paying of salaries to Polish officials at the embassy in Istanbul, greasing the nuts-and-bolts of diplomatic exchange. Otwinowski, something of an antiquarian, also availed himself of the opportunity to view the architecture of the Ottoman capital – which had been captured from the Byzantines scarcely a century before. This paper again demonstrated the subtleties of political life in the early modern period, particularly in regions wherein loyalty to family, community and local lord could assume greater importance than loyalties to a faraway monarch.

After a coffee break and further informal discussion, the workshop reconvened, with papers from Irena Fliter (Tel Aviv University) and the co-organiser, Michael Talbot. Fliter’s paper was an elaborate and well-judged evaluation of the complexities of financing diplomats in foreign postings. Her case-study centred upon the Ottoman representatives sent to the court of the Prussian king between 1761 and 1806. The bills they ran up with merchants and banking houses were often left outstanding for considerable periods of time. Fliter also emphasised the importance of discovering the identities of individuals responsible for channelling the funds necessary to carry out diplomatic business. It was also intriguing to hear a detailed critique of how ambassadors raised money by selling gifts entrusted to them to be presented to monarchs and dignitaries at the courts to which they were accredited. A diplomat’s rank also affected the level of reimbursement he received, with ambassadors generally obtaining their expenses, but chargé d’affaires being less fortunate. Fliter here illuminated a question in diplomatic history which is often ignored because of the difficulties involved in studying it. It is only be delving deep into archives and getting to grips with stacks of receipts, begging-letters, expense sheets and so forth, that an historian can truly gain an insight into the problems associated with funding diplomatic missions at foreign courts. In the same way that it lubricated the cogs of war, money also empowered diplomatic efficiency and efficacy. In discussion, the question of whether Ottoman diplomats, in general, cared to display their sovereign’s prestige by presenting important gifts was raised. This was common among more conventional “European” diplomats, who were sensitive to such issues and who were not averse to spitefully outdoing each other to present gifts of high value. The issue of moving money throughout and across Europe, and the difficulties associated therein, was also raised.

The themes expounded upon in Fliter’s excellent paper were elaborated upon by Michael Talbot, who provided a fascinating overview of the quality and quantity of gifts presented by British diplomats to the Sultan and his ministers in the eighteenth century. Such gifts were intended to demonstrate sociability and friendship, but also to send subtle political messages. The language which accompanied the acceptance of gifts was itself a political message. The idea that the sultan would “deign”, or lower himself, to accept tributes from infidel monarchs displayed clearly the privileged place which the Ottoman Empire occupied – or felt it occupied – in the early modern period. Talbot, whose doctoral research at SOAS included a highly detailed analysis of how and why such gifts were presented, demonstrated the efforts which the Britsih crown went to in order to please the Ottomans with presents, and also the high costs of such presents. The ironic fact that most such presents were – almost contemptuously – deposited in the imperial treasury did not detract from the fact that they were expected. British gifts of clothing were usually made of woollen cloth, which was far too heavy and uncomfortable for Middle Eastern climes. Gifts of clothing were important because of the symbolism involved – for one person to clothe another was a symbolic gesture which seemed to evoke power and superiority. Gifts were expected by Ottoman officials both as a means of filling salary gaps caused by irregular pay, and as a “reward” for achieving promotion to higher offices within the sultan’s government. They were also presented in order to earn and retain friendship, and gain access to the sultan and/or the grand vizier, or other high-ranking officials. Gifts could include such items as foods, medicines, textiles, guns, and watches – the latter, which were often specially designed to cater to so-called Ottoman preferences, were particularly popular. This papers showed how misunderstandings could arise between “East” and “West” with regard to diplomatic practice, and how important it was for diplomatic visitors to the Ottoman court to able to lace palms with the requisite benefits in order to have a productive mission.

Lunch, and a stroll around the cathedral in unusual blazing sunshine, followed the second panel session. The final panel opened with a paper from Phil McCluskey, who described the embassy of Suleyman Aga to Louis XIV’s court in 1669. McCluskey sensibly set his paper within a context of Franco-Ottoman relations in the seventeenth century, and highlighted the confusion which clouded French geopolitics in the first decade of Louis XIV’s personal rule (1661-1672). Although France had participated in the Austro-Ottoman war of 1663-64, which saw Ottoman troops defeated, with French assistance, at St Gotthard in August 1664 – 350 years ago this summer. For commercial purposes, it was deemed necessary for the French to restore relations with the Ottoman Empire after 1664, although French troops fought for the Republic of Venice on Crete in 1668-69. Aga came to France in August 1669, and in November was formally welcomed by the French secretary of state for foreign affairs, Hugues de Lionne, who went to considerable effort to simulate an audience with a typical grand vizier. This attempt to display the French king s parity with the Ottoman sultan was an obvious ploy to show Aga that he was at a court where the monarch pretended to absolute dominion over Europe. The degree as to which this pomp was displayed varied depending on the strength of the message needed. Louis XIV dressed in gold and diamonds at his own audience with Aga, again to display his equality with an Ottoman sultan. Displays from French soldiers were calculated to instill in Aga – and by extension his sovereign – a respect for French military prowess. This was common diplomatic practice throughout the ancien regime. Aga s failure to provide gifts for his French hosts showed that the Ottoman expectations of how the mission would be conducted were out of step with French expectations. Previously, Ottoman envoys to Paris had been welcomed in small, private audiences with the monarch. Now, at the court of le roi soleil, there was a feeling that majesty of apparel and trappings was of equal importance, and the king should welcome such guests in a manner fitting to his elevated status in European politics.

The final paper of the day came from Lela Gibson, of UCLA. Gibson discussed the interesting relationship between Heinrich von Diez, the celebrated Prussian philosopher and man of ideas, with Ali Aziz Effendi, Ottoman ambassador to Berlin in the i7[6os]. Gibson introduced her paper by analysing the present state of the debate on Ottoman awareness of the Enlightenment before the nineteenth century. The work of Stanford Shaw, in particular, had appeared to advocate that Ottoman intellectuals paid scant attention to intellectual developments in Europe after 1700. Gibson suggested that this was more a consequence of our own ignorance of Ottoman culture than theirs of Western developments. The old ideas of “falling behind” the West are presently being challenged by historians of Ottoman artistic and military developments, but little work has yet been done on how Ottoman philosophy and literature were influenced by European thinkers and writers. Gibson’s case study, which is part of a PhD on this process, went a considerable way towards addressing the weaknesses in our understanding of the Ottoman enlightenment. Von Diez, who had served as a diplomat in Istanbul and who there learned Ottoman Turkish, was a highly-respected figure in Germany, with views on religious freedom which were out of step with those of deeply Calvinist Prussia. His correspondence with Aziz, and his experiences when residing near the Sufi Lodge – a centre of Ottoman intellectual culture – were noteworthy for the light they shone on Ottoman-European cultural exchange. It showed how informal contacts developed through personal relationships, and how important it is for historians to be prepared to recognise narratives which differ from their preconceptions, when faced with archival evidence. Gibson’s work, based on strong work in Ottoman and German repositories, should contribute enormously to our knowledge of intellectual developments in both Europe and the Ottoman Empire, neither of which were “exclusive” zones.

A brief coffee break preceded a round-table discussion, which elaborated upon the themes and issues provided in the day’s papers and discussion. One of the most important themes was that of language – proficiency, comprehension, deployment. All six papers showed clearly that the language of diplomacy could be interpreted – or misconstrued – as one saw fit. A second theme was that of identity. Many individuals adopted and rejected particular identities as they saw fit, and could not limit themselves to just one identity. A merchant, soldier, artist, or diplomat could choose to deploy himself as one of several identities, depending on the image of himself he wished to portray. The issue of decline – long a favourite bugbear of Ottoman historians – was also discussed, with the idea that the empire remained a vibrant and powerful entity after the “disaster” of 1683 being borne out. The sources used by all six historians were critiqued, and there was a general acceptance that one may rely too much upon chronicles of the period. Whether or not one can legitimately discuss “transnationalism” within the framework of “new” diplomatic history was raised, and while all six speakers can claim, in one form or another, to be disciples of “new” diplomatic history (and extremely talented disciples), there was no need for the buzzword “transnational” to be shoehorned into their exciting and illuminating work.

An edited volume, resulting from this workshop, would be an outstanding contribution both to diplomatic history in general, and to Ottoman history in particular. It is to be hoped that such a volume is forthcoming.

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