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

Advertisement

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?

When it crops up in 17th-century sources, the word ‘Turk’ usually functions as a catchall phrase for Muslims from the Middle East, mainly the Ottoman empire but sometimes also north Africa. For most Britons, the word would have conjured up images of a powerful Muslim empire ruled by the Ottomans, a Turkish dynasty whose origins stretched back to the distant steppes of central Asia. At the height of their power in the late 17th century, the ‘house of Osman’ ruled over a vast expanse of land that stretched from north Africa in the west to the Crimea in the east, Hungary in the north to the waters off Yemen in the south. This single dynasty – a family succession that remained unbroken for over five centuries – was the greatest Islamic empire that Europe had ever encountered.

Cultures cross

When historians have explored exchanges between Europe and the Middle East, they have traditionally started with categories like ‘Christianity and Islam’ or ‘Europe and the Turk’. But in recent decades, scholars have shifted their attention away from religions and civilisations in order to focus more closely on the actual interactions that took place between Britons and Ottomans in the early modern world. When viewed through such a kaleidoscope, relations between east and west appear to have much less to do with religion than we might otherwise expect.

For a start, Britons encountered Ottoman subjects without ever leaving England’s pleasant pastures, as suggested by the trial of Mustapha. Exact numbers are difficult to come by, but hundreds of Muslims turned up at British ports throughout the 17th century, usually as merchants, less often as pirates. The distinction between the two categories was not always clear, certainly not for anxious locals suddenly faced with a boatload of Turks arriving at their port.

From the 1620s, treaties with the Barbary states permitted Muslim merchants to stop for supplies and repairs in English and Welsh harbours. Muslim diplomats might also be spotted in formal procession on the streets of London, much to the delight of curious spectators.

More important than merchants and diplomats, however, was the much greater proportion of Turks whose lives were spent as captives in Britain. Captured by English pirates, sold by African slavers, or simply taken as the spoils of war, thousands of Ottoman captives passed through Britain. The lucky ones might be exchanged for British captives in the Ottoman empire, but for other, less fortunate souls, captivity in Britain carried with it the risk of an even worse fate if they were sold off as slaves to the Americas. Two Turkish prisoners, ‘Mohamed’ and ‘Mustapha’, even served in the royal household of George I, and their pictures still hang today in Kensington Palace.

But what about those Britons who would never meet a Turk in their daily life? For such individuals, perceptions of the Turks more often involved an encounter with stories and information rather than actual direct contact with Ottoman subjects. ‘Stories of the East’ circulated in a wide range of oral, scribal, and printed media, from songs about the Turks sung in taverns to cheap print sold by itinerant chapmen.

This information came in all shapes and sizes and suited the diverse interests of readers. Scholars and clergymen, for example, could count on university presses at Oxford and Cambridge for studies of the language, religion, and customs of the Turks. From Latin refutations of the Qur’an to editions of Arabic manuscripts, these scholarly works were published in expensive and weighty folio volumes – a scholar’s dream perhaps but certainly not the bestsellers of their time.

Information sources

Instead, most readers in Britain turned to a much wider field of publishing, namely the information contained in the pages of newsletters, broadsides, cheap print, and even novels.

To step inside this world of information is to obtain a first-hand glimpse of how Britons knew what they knew about the Ottoman world. Consider, for example, the picture painted by an author named GP Marana who published a small book in the 1680s, which reported the discovery of a Turkish spy living in Paris. Originally published in Paris and immediately translated into English, Letters Writ by a Turkish Spy offered Britons copies of letters that Marana claimed to have discovered in Paris. Written in Arabic and signed by a man named ‘Mahmud’, these letters contained a running commentary on political developments in France under Louis XIV. In other words, Marana had supposedly stumbled upon intelligence reports drafted by an Ottoman spy and sent to Ottoman officials back home. The book, then, offered British readers nothing less than musings on life in Europe straight from the mouth of a Turk.

And yet, readers might have been more fascinated by another story that circulated at the same time, the curious tale of a man called ‘Padre Ottomano’. In 1665, a Maltese knight named Jant revealed what he called the “true history” of the “Reverend Father Dominique Ottoman”. As Jant told the story, Dominique Ottoman was an Ottoman prince who had been captured by corsairs and imprisoned as a captive in Malta, where he converted to Christianity and ultimately became a Dominican friar (hence the ‘Padre’). This man now travelled from one European court to another on a mission to raise money so that he might lead a crusade against the Ottomans and, thereby, restore himself as a new Christian sultan of the Ottoman empire.

Looking at such stories today, we might immediately dismiss them as little more than the imaginative musings of Grub Street hacks. But, in fact, for 17th-century readers who were inundated with fanciful tales, the boundaries between fact and fiction were rarely so clear. Incidentally, the story of Mahmud and his secret dispatches was simply the product of Marana’s imaginative mind. As for Padre Ottomano, there was indeed a man living in 17th-century Italy who called himself Dominique Ottoman and claimed to be the son of the Ottoman sultan. His identity was a subject of great debate that kept European writers arguing well into the 18th century.

When it came to early modern British attitudes to Islam, the media of the day were just as, if not more, important than any guidance provided in the Bible or the Qur’an. This is a reminder that long before our current age of 24-hour news cycles and streaming media, Britons turned to sound bites, anecdotes, and stories as ways of knowing the Islamic east. In such a world, where communication networks acted as modes of encounter, the wildest of fictions – even stories of Turkish spies and Ottoman converts – acted as crucial sources of information for readers who yearned to capture a glimpse of foreign lands far beyond the shores of Britain.

Advertisement

Dr John-Paul Ghobrial is a fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge. He is currently writing a book about a 17th-century Ottoman traveller to the Americas.