Reviewed by Thomas Philipp
Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (April, 2011)
G. Casale: The Ottoman Age of Exploration
The book belongs to an increasing number of studies, which show us that the Muslim societies of the Middle East, including the Ottoman, did not fall into decay and rigor mortis with the expansion of the Ottoman Empire. Giancarlo Casale’s choice of topic leads him into the area of Indian Ocean studies, which has progressed sufficiently to have laid at rest the misconception that with the arrival of the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean commercial traffic between that Ocean and the Mediterranean came to an end. Giancarlo Casale goes a considerable step further, arguing that the Ottoman Empire became an active player, commercially and militarily, in the Indian Ocean and that its encounter with the Portuguese marked the first confrontation of competing “world ideologies,” considering the globe in its physical entirety. Although religion continued to define the rivalry, commercial interests increasingly overshadowed any other consideration.
Giancarlo Casale proceeds chronologically, weaving together political and intellectual history of the Ottoman Empire throughout the 16th century. His study focuses on a number of its high officials. Among them were the Grand Viziers Ibrahim Pasha, Hadim Suleyman Pasha, Rustem Pasha, the one Grand Vizier opposed to the whole Indian Ocean enterprise, and Sokollu Mehmed Pasha, probably its strongest supporter. Other actors, not surprisingly, were high officials closely involved with governing Egypt and managing the Hejaz and Yemen but also people best described as privateers or corsairs. They all were aware of what advantages a strong Ottoman presence in the Indian Ocean could be and how profitable the spice trade was. Together they constituted what Casale calls loosely the “Indian Ocean Lobby.”
Casale fully demonstrates how the Ottomans acquired European and Arab geographers’ and travelers’ knowledge, especially in cartography. Portuguese, Spanish and Italian publications on the subject became available in the Ottoman Empire, soon inspiring Ottomans to write their own reports about travels in the Indian Ocean and their encounters with newly arrived Portuguese and Muslim local populations and rulers there.
Casale analyses the motives for writing such reports, their impact on the public opinion of the ruling Ottoman elite and the manipulation of such knowledge in the internal disputes over Ottoman policies. The encounter not only with the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean but especially also with various Muslim states and Emirates forged, according to Casale, a new, albeit rudimentary, global awareness of the world and created, parallel to the global claims of the Portuguese, an Ottoman global claim that the Sultan was the “Caliph of all Muslims” – especially the Muslims in the Indian Ocean. Casale cautiously surmises that Muslims’ loyalty for the Ottoman Sultan was deliberately exaggerated by the members of the Indian Ocean Lobby, who traveled in the region. Nevertheless, the author seems to take at face value such as the Sultan of Aceh’s letter begging the Ottoman Sultan not to consider him as an independent ruler “… [b]ut instead to accept me … in no way different from the governors of Egypt and Yemen or the Begs of Jiddah and Aden…” (p. 128).
The changing fortunes of the Indian Ocean Lobby during the 16th century make for a fascinating story. Casale follows the successes (huge profits from the spice trade) and defeats (losing whole navies) and makes a convincing case for the reasons why, in the end, the Indian Ocean enterprise collapsed. Shifting priorities and bitter personal rivalries at the Ottoman court hampered the development of a long-term policy. Slowly the conviction grew that tax income from land was preferable to the profits made from the spice trade which at times the government controlled. The wars with Iran and the battle of Lepanto (1571), in which the Ottomans lost the entire Mediterranean fleet, increased the loss of interest in the Indian Ocean. Casale also points out that the shortage of wood never constituted an obstacle for the Indian Ocean Lobby. Repeatedly the Ottomans had whole fleets built in Suez, even though every piece of wood would have to be logged through the desert, from the Mediterranean, to the arsenals of Suez. Whenever the political will existed, the transport of wood did not present a problem.
I concur with Casale’s arguments about the reasons of collapse of the Indian Ocean enterprise, I would, however, emphasize also the role of the technology of new ships. Casale uses the terms of ‘galley’, ‘galleon’, galeotte’ and ‘sailing ship’ without troubling himself with definitions. They don’t even appear in the index.
While the galley, a ship moved by oarsmen, was typical for the Mediterranean, the Portuguese had developed the “round ships” for Ocean traveling. These were ships driven exclusively by wind and were equipped with heavy artillery, which otherwise hardly could be moved. “Exchanging oarsmen for sails and warriors for guns meant essentially the exchange of human power for inanimate power.” Carlo L. Cipolla, Guns and Sails in the Early Phase of European Expansion, 1400–1700, London 1965, p. 80. This meant that far more energy was available to the round sailing ships than to the galleys. They were truly swimming fortresses, with an awesome fire power. Their tactic was ‘Bomb and Sink’ rather than the galleys’ ‘Ram and Enter.’ It also meant that they needed much fewer people on board than the galley. Many oarsmen and soldiers were replaced by a few sailors and cannoneers. They needed much fewer supplies, therefore could traverse longer distances and, in addition, had space enough for merchandize. The galley was traditionally the preferred ship in the Mediterranean Sea, but once on the ocean they had no chance. Ibid., p. 103: “But on the ocean galleys had no chances whatsoever. When they were not sunk by the guns of the great sailing ships they were easy prey to the fury of the elements.”
The galleon was a further development of the Portuguese sailing ships, probably developed by the Spanish but most enthusiastically adopted by the Dutch. Ibid., p. 83. By the middle of the 16th century they were much larger and faster than the early sailing ships of the Portuguese and had a much larger hull for storage of goods. The Portuguese had never had the capacity to “block the trade through the Middle East” but the Dutch, and later the English, could beat the cost of transport through the Mediterranean. The spice trade of Venice and the Ottoman Empire dried up then. John Francis Guilmartin, Gunpowder and Galleys. Changing Technology and Mediterranean Warfare At Sea in the Sixteenth Century, Cambridge 1974, pp. 258-59.
In all fairness it should be pointed out that Casale’s first aim is to show the achievements of the “Ottoman Age of Exploration,” not only the military and commercial but also the intellectual and political ones. He does so in a convincing and well written manner, making both sides, the Ottomans and the Portuguese, come alive in their negotiations, their self-views and perception of the opponent. Casale is in the enviable position of not only knowing Ottoman and modern Turkish but also Italian and Portuguese, enabling him to consult all the relevant archives and secondary literature.
The book is highly readable, well illustrated and to be recommended to all interested in Ottoman and Indian Ocean history and the history of the Age of Exploration.
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Thomas Philipp. Review of Casale, Giancarlo, The Ottoman Age of Exploration.
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