Pashas: Traders and Travellers in the Islamic World

Jerry Brotton on a vivid tale of British traders in the orient

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Reviewed by: Jerry Brotton
Author: James Mather
Publisher: Yale University Press
Price (RRP): £12.99

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The colonial rule of the British Raj from the 19th century is only one story of England’s relations with the east, as James Mather argues in this impressive history of the forgotten Levant Company.

Founded in 1581, the company’s merchants traded with the Ottoman-dominated entrepôts of Istanbul, Alexandria and Aleppo for over two centuries, establishing amicable relations where merchandise, religions, ideas and languages were traded in “a peaceful and mutually enriching encounter between Britons and the still-troubled Middle East”.

Pashas is an important, if at times slightly idealised, revision of the usual orientalist argument of western dominance of the east. Mather’s vivid story and its rich cast of ‘pashas’ – the English company members who all but go native – is told with great panache.

My favourite was Thomas Dallam, who turned up in Istanbul with a mechanical organ, which he calmly played for the undoubtedly bemused sultan Mehmed III.

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Professor Jerry Brotton, Queen Mary, University of London