Tales of the Turk

Ottoman subjects, or 'the Turk', were more common in 17th-century Britain than might be imagined. But as John-Paul Ghobrial explains, popular perceptions were still sometimes shaped by fanciful stories...

This painting in Kensington Palace shows a group standing on a balustrade. Among them are George I’s two Turkish grooms of the chamber, ‘Mustapha’ and ‘Mohamed’. (Photo by Steve Vidler/Alamy Stock Photo)

This article was first published in the August 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine

Among the treasures unearthed by the Old Bailey Online, a project that has given digital life to the dusty records of nearly 200,000 criminal trials dating back to the 1670s, we find the story of “Mustapha Pochowachett… a Turk”, accused of the rape and sodomy of a teenage boy in May 1694. Through an unnamed interpreter, Mustapha protested his innocence. But at the end of the trial, the jury found him guilty and sentenced him to death, along with ten other Britons, men and women alike, all of whom had stood trial that same day for the usual potpourri of crimes that came up at the Old Bailey – murder to clipping coins to good old-fashioned highway robbery. The curious anecdote is as intriguing as it is frustrating, for it captures a critical moment in the life (and death) of Mustapha without providing a shred of information about a much more basic question: what was this Turk doing in London in the first place?

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