Turks, Moors, and Englishmen in the Age of Discovery
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Turks, Moors, and Englishmen in the Age of Discovery

Nabil Matar

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Turks, Moors, and Englishmen in the Age of Discovery

Nabil Matar

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During the early modern period, hundreds of Turks and Moors traded in English and Welsh ports, dazzled English society with exotic cuisine and Arabian horses, and worked small jobs in London, while the "Barbary Corsairs" raided coastal towns and, if captured, lingered in Plymouth jails or stood trial in Southampton courtrooms. In turn, Britons fought in Muslim armies, traded and settled in Moroccan or Tunisian harbor towns, joined the international community of pirates in Mediterranean and Atlantic outposts, served in Algerian households and ships, and endured captivity from Salee to Alexandria and from Fez to Mocha.

In Turks, Moors, and Englishmen, Nabil Matar vividly presents new data about Anglo-Islamic social and historical interactions. Rather than looking exclusively at literary works, which tended to present unidimensional stereotypes of Muslims—Shakespeare's "superstitious Moor" or Goffe's "raging Turke," to name only two—Matar delves into hitherto unexamined English prison depositions, captives' memoirs, government documents, and Arabic chronicles and histories. The result is a significant alternative to the prevailing discourse on Islam, which nearly always centers around ethnocentrism and attempts at dominance over the non-Western world, and an astonishing revelation about the realities of exchange and familiarity between England and Muslim society in the Elizabethan and early Stuart periods.

Concurrent with England's engagement and "discovery" of the Muslims was the "discovery" of the American Indians. In an original analysis, Matar shows how Hakluyt and Purchas taught their readers not only about America but about the Muslim dominions, too; how there were more reasons for Britons to venture eastward than westward; and how, in the period under study, more Englishmen lived in North Africa than in North America. Although Matar notes the sharp political and colonial differences between the English encounter with the Muslims and their encounter with the Indians, he shows how Elizabethan and Stuart writers articulated Muslim in terms of Indian, and Indian in terms of Muslim. By superimposing the sexual constructions of the Indians onto the Muslims, and by applying to them the ideology of holy war which had legitimated the destruction of the Indians, English writers prepared the groundwork for orientalism and for the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century conquest of Mediterranean Islam.

Matar's detailed research provides a new direction in the study of England's geographic imagination. It also illuminates the subtleties and interchangeability of stereotype, racism, and demonization that must be taken into account in any responsible depiction of English history.

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Throughout the Elizabethan and Stuart periods Britons had extensive interaction with Turks and Moors. It is significant that such interaction took place at all, since neither of the two peoples were permanent residents of England, nor were they subjects of the Crown. The Muslims were totally outside the parameter of English authority because they belonged, and were seen to belong, to an empire of military might and commercial potential. They were not homeless refugees from the continent who, like the Jews, sought new domiciles and work opportunities in England, nor were they defeated and dispersed people like the American Indians. The Muslims had a clear geographical locus and did not as readily seek to emigrate to England as other peoples: while large numbers of Dutch and other Protestant immigrants settled in London in the second half of the sixteenth century, along with a small number of Portuguese and Spanish Marranos, only a few Muslim converts to Anglican Christianity (along with possibly some artisans) were known to have settled in the city. The Muslims had a distinct political, geographical, and religious identity that both protected and separated them from the Christian Other.
Despite this strong sense of separation between Christians and Muslims, Queen Elizabeth became the first English monarch to cooperate openly with the Muslims, and to allow her subjects to trade and interact with them without being liable to prosecution for dealing with “infidels.”1 Eager to find new markets for her merchants and secure military support against Spain throughout the 1580s and 1590s, the queen offered the Turkish and the Moroccan rulers mutually beneficial and practical agreements. In her correspondence with Sultan Murad (reg. 1574–1595), both agreed to admit English and Turkish traders into each others’ kingdoms: the sultan assured her in a letter of 1579 that the English “may lawfully come to our imperiall Dominions, and freely returne home.”2 In turn, Elizabeth assured him: “we will graunt as equall and as free a libertie to the subjects of your highnesse with us for the use of traffique, when they wil, and as often as they wil, to come, and go and from us and our kingdomes.”3 England was now open to “Turks.” So extensive was the commercial and diplomatic coordination between the queen and the sultan that Europeans suspected her of planning to offer him “safe port in England, by means of which to set his foot also into the Western Empire.”4 In 1590 King James VI of Scotland was “perswaided that no Christian Prince [except Queen Elizabeth] ever had in the Turk suche great estimation”; and by the end of the century, the Pope viewed Elizabeth as “a confederate with the Turk.”5
In order to maintain her amicable relations with both the Turks and the Moors, the queen made sure that English sea captains released Muslim slaves from captured Spanish galleys. After the English fleet attacked Cadiz in 1596, thirty-eight “poore wretched Turks” who had been “gally-slaves” swam over to the English side. It pleased the fleet commanders, as it was reported in Hakluyt, “to apparel them, and to furnish them with money, and all other necessaries, and to bestow on them a barke, and a Pilot, to see them freely and safely conveied into Barbary.”6 Like England, France too released Muslim slaves.7 While some freed slaves returned to their countries, others sought help. In 1591, one “Hamet, a distressed Turk” petitioned Queen Elizabeth to permit him to fight with her forces against the Spaniards.8 How Hamed came upon this proposal is unclear, but it would not have been unprecedented in England for an alien to assist in military action.9 From 1575 to 1588, immigrants were repeatedly made to join in national defense, and in 1596, it was reported by the Fugger spy that the English fleet that attacked Cadiz had been accompanied by “five galleys from Barbary” and that the English took with them to Barbary some of the ships they captured there.10 Evidently the military cooperation between Britons and Moors covered both land and sea operations and was based on what seemed to be (although it was never formalized) a strategic alliance between London and Marrakesh.
Other “Turks” chose to remain in England by converting to Anglicanism—as “Chinano a Turke” did in 1586 and “John Baptista, of Tripoli” in 1605—a man who was later described by Robert Burton as “a Mauritanian priest.”11 Such a choice, however, was made only by a handful of Muslims since Queen Elizabeth was always eager to return Muslim captives in order to maintain her friendship with both the Ottoman Sultan and the Moroccan ruler. What may be truly indicative of the deep rapprochement between England and Morocco is the possibility that money collected at the Spital sermons in London, which were intended for ransoming Britons from “the Turkes or other hethens,” may have been used to repatriate Moors who had been enslaved by Spaniards and released in England. Such Christian charity to the “infidels” is striking and shows how much the queen valued cooperation with Morocco: one of her last letters to Mulay Ahmad in Morocco (March 1603) concerned her freeing of “Moros y a Turcos” who had sought refuge in England.12
There is no information about how refugee Muslims lived or about how they supported and conducted themselves among the English, who were accustomed to images of the bloody and cruel “Mahometan” on the stage. Still, Muslims continually appear in English documents, either as having been freed by British sailors or having come to England on trading missions. Unfortunately, and because of the brevity of allusions to them, it is not always possible to distinguish between the freed slave and the merchant. In December 1602, for instance, a man, wrote John Manningham in his Middle Temple diary, “attired in habit of a Turke desyrous to see hir Majestie, but as a straunger without hope of such grace, in regard of the retired manner of hir Lord, complained; answere made, howe gracious hir Majestie in admitting to presence, and howe able to discourse in anie language; which the Turke admired, and admitted, presents hir with a riche mantle, & c.”13
Who this Turk was is not clear, although the fact that he had wealth enough to offer a “mantle” to the queen and was multi-lingual suggests that he was a well-traveled merchant. In October 1617, “Turkish piratts,” as George Lord Carew reported to Sir Thomas Roe, approached the Scilly coast and met with some fishermen “loaden with fishe, of whom they bought commodities, payinge for them more then the wares was worthe.” As a result, Carew was suspicious that these Turks were not really traders but actually pirates who were trying to “discover and view the coaste.”14 In October 1622, two “Turkes” were given passes by the Privy Council to “returne into their countrie” and in April of the following year, a pass for “ten Turkes to returne into their country” was given.15 In March 1631, a pass was issued for “Barke Baha, a Marchant of Santa Crux in Barbary, to retourne thither with his wife and twoe maide servants.”16 In 1654, there was an “Albion Blackamore lately come to Town that is . . . well skill’d in Dancing on the Ropes.”17 This “Blackamore,” who might well have been a freed Muslim slave, became quite popular: in September 1657, John Evelyn went to London where he saw “a famous Rope-daunser call’d the Turk.”18
In the mid-1650s, a Turk by the name of Rigep Dandulo visited England and was entertained by the son of “the Lady Lawrence of Chelsey.” As he walked around in “Turkish Habit” he became the center of the community’s interest and was later, under the supervision of a number of leading Anglican clerics, converted to Christianity and settled in England.19 In February 1657, the Levant Company interceded with Oliver Cromwell on behalf of “two Turks, Halil and Hamett,” probably merchant delegates who sought “passage hence to their own country.”20 Two weeks after Cromwell’s death, on 16 September 1658, “The humble Petition of Mahamet: Mustaoth: Hamat and Abdulah: all of them Turke native borne” was presented to Richard Cromwell: “That they were taken prisonners by the Spanyard and there hath byne detayned slaues for the figure of 22 yeares And it happened that hauing tyme made their escape and gayned into ffrance And by license were granted liberty for to come into this Nation of Englaind for their conduct and passing home into their owne country by some of yor highnes shipping.”21 That same month another petition was presented to Cromwell on behalf of “Abducadir, Achmet Sillau, and Hamet, of Sally.”22 A decade later, in January 1669, a pass was given for “–– Hemmet, –– Abdra, and –– Hammond, Moors, natives of Barbary, to go into their own country.”23 From Elizabeth to Richard Cromwell and then Charles II, and whenever there was war with Spain or France, England served as a corridor between the Catholic continent and the territory of Islam.
This English accommodation of Muslims was invariably conducted with an eye to trade. As England expanded its commercial activity into the Muslim dominions, it not only helped prisoners of war but also welcomed Muslim seamen into its coastal towns. Treaties signed between Charles I and the Commonwealth administration on the one hand and the North African regencies on the other widened commercial links and, as with the Elizabethan treaties, allowed Turkish and Moorish seamen to use English and Welsh harbors. In October 1628, King Charles received Mohammed Calvecho and Ibrahim Mocadem who were sent as commissioners from the port of Salee in Morocco. Calvecho had arrived in England in June but waited until his companion arrived in October before they presented their letters to the king. The purpose of the visit was both military and commercial: the ambassadors sought arms from England in return for trading concessions to the Barbary Company and assistance in England’s Mediterranean confrontation with France and Spain.24 The visit was successful since a few years later, the Privy Council ordered the “Barbary merchants to trade only to the ports in Barbary named in the articles offered to the King of Morocco.”25 By the same token, “Turkish” seamen used English harbors. Between November 1631 and February 1632 a treaty was signed between Mulay al-Walid and Charles I in which “Moores” were to buy and sell goods in England.26 In September 1637, another treaty was signed between Mulay Mohammad Esheikh and King Charles in which the subjects of the Moroccan king were allowed to “exercise theire religion . . . in the Kingdome of the King of great Britaine.”27 Less than twenty years later, in October 1655, Muslim seamen docked in “Falmouth for provisions” much to the anxiety of the Dutch and the “Zealenders,” who feared that if the Turks continued to find welcome in England they would “destroy” their (Dutch) trade.28 Three years later a treaty was signed with the bey of Tunis that allowed ships from both England and Tunis to use each others’ harbors “for washing, cleaning, and repairing . . . and to buy and ship off any sort of victuals, alive or dead, or any other necessaries.”29
England also supported Muslim merchants with stipends and co-opted men of leverage so they could influence the decision making process in favor of British interests. As early as 1584, William Harborne told John Tipton, who had been appointed consul in the regencies, to contact “our Chaus Mahomet, with whom in all things you are to conferre of matters expedient, for the honor of her majesties country, & the commoditie, and libertie of poore captives.”30 Such employment of Muslim middlemen continued throughout the next century. In January 1697, passes were issued for “Cawra Mustapha, a native of Tunis in Barbary, to go to Turkey or Barbary.” Further, “an allowance for his subsistence” was earmarked “as a matter which will be of great benefit to his Majesty’s subjects living under that government.”31 In March, passes for “Mustapha and Mahomet, Algerians” were given; in April, a passage “for five poor Algerine seamen” was given because such cooperation would “be acceptable to the government of Algiers, and consequently of great use to his Majesty’s subjects there.”32 By the beginning of the modern period England was offering financial assistance and bribes to effect the economic and commercial penetration of North Africa and the Levant.
Simultaneous, however, with this commercial and political convivencia was an ongoing piracy committed both by Britons and Muslims against each other. Not unlike the Christian-Muslim frontiers in Andalusia in the fifteenth century or in Central Europe in the sixteenth century, amicability and battle went hand in hand with trading and raiding. And it was during Muslim privateering raids or commercial exchanges that numerous “Turkes and Moores” were captured either on the high seas or near the British coast and brought to stand trial as pirates.
Thus the second category in which Muslims were encountered in England was as prisoners. Particularly after the unsuccessful English attack on Algiers in 1621 and the retaliation of the Barbary Corsairs against English traders and pirates, thousands of Britons were captured and hauled to the slave markets of North Africa. Similarly, Muslims were captured and either put to death or hauled into the jails of England. In 1620 it was reported that English ships had captured a “Turkish pirate ship” after which all 200 Turks on board were executed; in 1622 five “Turks” from Algiers who had been captured in a sea battle with the English ship “Exchange” were brought to Plymouth jail; soon after, nine more Turks were brought to Exeter “either to be arraigned according to the punishment of delinquents in that kind, or disposed of as the King and Council shall think meet.”33 Meanwhile, a number of Turks had been captured and kept prisoners in Cadiz in order to exchange them with English captives in Tetuan.34 Three years later, in February 1625, Sir John Eliot, vice admiral of Devon, wrote from Exeter to the lord admiral, the duke of Buckingham, about bringing the Turks who had been captured in England to trial. By then their number had swelled to twenty-three “Turkes & Renegadoes” along with an Englishman and a Dutchman.35 He reported that some of these men had been captured near Plymouth while others had been in jail for seven or eight years. Twenty men were sentenced to death and five were reprieved, including a “boy, young, and not capable of the knowledge or reason of doing good or ill.” Importantly, Eliot attached the names of these captives, thereby revealing their geographical origins. There were some from Istanbul: “Abraham de Constantinople,” and “Mahomet de Constant...

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