Photo by Dirk Bader

Photo by Dirk Bader

Jerry Brotton is a Professor at Queen Mary University of London, his book, This Orient Isle, that came out last year is about the connections between the English queen Elisabeth Tudor and the Muslim world. It's a fascinating book that has an interesting take on the period. We had a conversation about his work and his book. 


Luke: Can you tell me, who you are, and a bit about yourself?

Jerry: I’m Jerry Brotton and I’m professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary University of London. I’ve always been interested in east-west cultural exchange in the early modern period—the 15th to the early 17th century. I also work on the related subject of maps and mapping: my first book was called Trading Territories: Mapping the Early Modern World, which included research on Ottoman mapping and cartography. This Orient Isle was a book that had been a long time in coming in terms of addressing more broadly East-West or what we might call European-Islamic exchange in this period, concentrating on Tudor England.

Luke: What drew you to that topic initially?

Jerry: I’d always known that there was a story to tell about Anglo-Islamic relations based on the work I’d done on the earlier exchanges in the European period particularly with the Ottoman Empire in the late 15th and early 16th century, especially how the high Italian Renaissance was to some extent shaped by the exchange--often amicable--with the Islamic world. I wanted to look more at these kinds of exchanges later in the period.

What we know much less about is the later 16th century moment when we see a specific Euro-Islamic encounter and exchange with Protestant England under Elisabeth the First. This book was a way of trying to understand that much later story. It was one that always troubled me. I didn’t know how to make it work by talking about, not only the history of Anglo-Ottoman relations, but also the literature of the period, and how Shakespeare and his contemporaries--particularly dramatists like Marlowe--were all fascinated by what we would now call Islam. Muslim and Islam are terms, which only come into the English language in the second decade of the 17th century. Instead they used synonyms for Muslim--Turk, Persian, Mohammaden, Saracen--all these were synonyms for the culture's attempt to understand what the encounter between Christianity and the Islamic world was about. It was also a surprising story, it wasn't one that was just about theological hostility. It was also, at certain points, about strategic alliances, amicable exchange, and accommodation. It seemed to me that in our modern politically-polarised moment it was important to tell a story that was different to the ideas of the clash of civilisations that has dominated political discourse since 9-11 and 7-7.

Luke: That’s something I wanted to ask you about. When you were writing this book were you thinking about it as a comparison to what some people might call modern Islamic-Western relations?

Jerry: All history is to some extent a history of the present, and enables us to look back and to move forward. I grew up in Bradford in the 70s and early 80s, which of course is a multi- cultural city including a large Muslim community. That was my English heritage that was part of my national identity. This meant I didn’t find it unusual to trace Islamic influence in early periods of English history, particularly the Ottomans in the 16th century which has been excluded from national history debates and discussions about the Tudors. I wanted to address that. As we now talk about Britishness and British Muslims, this is a story that hopefully both people from a white Christian heritage--like myself bought up in a Church of England tradition--and British Muslims can come together round this story. This is all our story; it’s not about ‘us’ and/or ‘them’. Such divisions weren’t ones I recognised. This is part of the way that we can think about multicultural history in a slightly different way, to hopefully deal with some of the divisive rhetoric that we are now currently dealing with.

Luke: One of the things I found very interesting when reading this book was that we see a huge change in the Elizabethan period from the British seemingly knowing almost nothing about the Islamic world and having to use Old Testament Biblical names to describe places like the Persian Empire to, at the end of the period, incredible connections between England and the Islamic world. What was it about that particular period that facilitated this change?

Jerry: I think the main one is actually a theological one. Under Elizabeth, England becomes an officially Protestant state and that leads to its absolute isolation within Europe. The important moment of change and the beginning of England’s encounter with the Islamic world was a theological moment, which was the excommunication of Elisabeth in the 1570s. This was a moment of theological Brexit, as a religious iron curtain fell across the English Channel, separating England from mainland Europe. The Catholic Church excommunicated Elizabeth and England was categorised as a rogue state. Elizabeth was labelled a heretic. The way that the Catholic Church chose to approach Islam was to call it a heresy; they couldn't understand it as a theology in its own right.

Luke: Do you think that the main reason for the British outreach towards the Muslim world was the excommunication and isolation or where there other elements at play?

Jerry: It’s mainly the unintended consequences that flow from that moment of excommunication because what Elisabeth understands is that if she is to survive she needs to reach out to other imperial players in the 16th century world to oppose Spanish Catholic aggressions. She knows that eventually Catholicism will launch some sort of invasion, which, of course, it does in 1588. What she does is reach out, particular to the Ottomans and Sultan Murat from the 1570s. I’m not saying that this is a moment of theological toleration or Elisabeth trying to reach out in an idealistic way. On the contrary, its realpolitik, it’s about the notion of my enemy’s enemy is my friend. That's driven by diplomatic and commercial imperatives on Elisabeth’s side and is very successful. Indeed, an alliance from the late 1570s with the Ottoman Empire, is a diplomatic and commercial agreement which lasts until 1922. It’s then the consequences of that alliance, the people on the ground that we often don't hear very much from. The merchants and sailors who were living in Muslim territories who were trying to accommodate themselves in this eastern Mediterranean world of different theologies, religions and cultures. So, it's the consequence of that moment of excommunication that everything flows from, the 1570s until Elizabeth’s death in 1603.

Luke: Related to the issue of theology, throughout the book we see examples of theologians on both sides trying to justify the alliance between Protestantism and Islam.  Was there a genuine belief that Protestantism and Islam were similar or was it just realpolitik?

Jerry: Mainly realpolitik, all of Elisabeth’s letters were very shrewd in superficially identifying and alliance between Islam and Protestantism as ‘religions of the book.’ These were not religions, which believed in intercession, but there was common ground in what they didn't believe in compared to Catholicism. They didn't believe in idolatry, they didn't believe in the worship of icons, they didn't believe in the rituals of Catholicism, I think that was a very shrewd establishing of a superficial alliance. I don't think there was anybody who really believed in a rapprochement or a theological-coming-together of the two religions seriously, but it was about a sense that you could get along with these people. There are great stories that are told about the English ambassador William Harborne who was in Istanbul from 1579 to 1588. He complained bitterly that the Ottoman court call him ‘the Lutheran ambassador’. This shows a level of theological understanding, which was much more profound than we have previously realised. I found examples of other Tudor English men who travelled as far as Persia who were talking about the theological distinctions between Sunni and Shia Islam. To be doing this seems to me to be extraordinary because how many English men or women today can make that theological distinction? And we wonder why people are resentful of western responses to questions of what’s going on in the Middle East. 

It seems to me that there wasn't ever a real belief that Islam and Reformed Christianity would have some sort of coming together, but it did allow a certain level of encounter, exchange and accommodation in the eastern Mediterranean that was much deeper that were ever previously allowed for.

Of course, there were stories of people who converted either forcibly or willingly to Islam because this was a period where English Protestantism believed that it would, very likely, not survive. It felt like one generation of Protestantism by this time as it has a very tenuous foothold in England, there was a real chance that Catholicism would overrun it. So embracing Islam might have looked quite in the 1570s and 1580s before the failure of The Armada in 1588.

Luke: That's interesting, is that because these British travellers saw Islam as a more permanent fixture in the world than Protestantism?

Jerry: Absolutely, scholars write about this as early as the 1520s including Erasmus who understood the rise of Islam manifested through the power of the Ottoman Empire. The Holy Land was controlled by the Ottomans, as was most of Eastern Europe; they were in the ascendancy, they were the dominant religious supper power at this time. The English understood this superiority and it permeated the language of their commercial agreements with the Ottomans—the so-called Capitulations--which William Harborne signed on behalf of Elisabeth, was very much the English being the subjects of the sultan. Murad accepts the English as it is a sign of his imperial power and beneficence to assimilate all forms of multiculturalism and religious diversity. Murad encourages cultures of all kinds to enrich his empire: bring in the Calvinists, accept Venetians, Genoese, Spanish, embrace all Catholics as long as they acknowledge Murad’s sovereignty.  His power is defined by the fact that he can accommodate all those different cultures and beliefs, very much an inverse of what we see happening today in the Middle East.

Luke: It’s a very Ottoman way of dealing with the problem of different religious, isn’t it?

Jerry: Absolutely. And it's in complete contrast to the way that the Catholics were trying to maintain their authority through ethnic cleansing. If we consider what happens in Istanbul after 1453, Mehmet repopulated the city as a truly cosmopolitan diverse space. Now it was for very specific commercial and political ends, but he understood that the nature of Ottoman power was the ability to incorporate and assimilate. This was in contrast, of course, to what Ferdinand and Isabella of Castile did in 1492. They expelled Moors and Jews. So you have English men traveling into Ottoman lands in the 1570s saying “we are safer under Ottoman jurisdiction, than we are traveling in predominantly Catholic Europe, because if, as an English man, you were captured in Catholic Europe you’d probably be handed over to the Inquisition. However, if you were under Ottoman control you would be given absolute security to trade. Christian Europe was quite a dangerous place at the time, on fire from the reformation we should add. The violent conflicts that were tearing Europe apart, for example, the conflicts between Lutherans, Calvinists, and Catholics, particularly in Holland and Belgium. Antwerp was being sacked; northern France was griped by civil war. Actually, once you got into Ottoman territory you would have felt far more secure than you would have in western Europe with all its divisions and sectarian conflicts which were very bloody and very violent.

Luke: I wonder about the geographical element. That a relationship between England and the Muslim world was possible because England was slightly more distant, for example, there weren’t Moors waiting to cross over into England like there were for Spain, or Ottoman fleets threatening English trade?

Jerry: The distance is interesting. Because it allowed the English to maintain a fantasy. For example, you get Henry VIII turning up at Hampton Court dressed as Suleiman because he thinks that was the fashionable thing to do. But that meant that it was tabula rasa with the Ottoman world. Compared to the Italians who had been, of course, very familiar with the Ottoman Empire for centuries, England much less so. So it can go both ways, it can allow the fantasy of the despotic Turk to build and you see it a lot in the drama of the period. It also means that Elisabeth and her advisers, like Walsingham and Burghley come to the conclusion that they must reach out to the Ottomans, they can do so without many of those fantasies at play.

Luke: Your book focuses on Morocco and the Ottoman Empire; I wonder what different ways did the English approach these two different Muslim rulers.

Jerry: I think it’s interesting because they are very key areas. England’s encounter with the Barbary States, it's the encounter with the Ottomans and also Persia. One of the earliest contacts is through the Muscovy Company and the English were reaching Persia by the 1560s. I think they were driven by different imperatives; the relationship with Morocco was clearly a commercial one and goes back to the 1550s. It goes back to your question of geography, it was simply closer and it’s always been there trading with Spain and France but as both relationships deteriorate with the Reformation they try to build relations with Morocco in the 1550s. By 1585, the Barbary Company is created. It was a relationship that was very much driven by commerce, but there is no doubt that by the end of Elisabeth’s life you get the formation of a political and military alliance.

Persia is much further away, that trade is never really sustained. It’s driven really by the Muscovy company there is very much a story about how all these joint stock companies emerge under Elizabeth, driven by encounters with the Islamic world and set the scene for the emergence of the East India Company, that is of course an other story but they do set the foundations for the emergence of the commercial and imperial outreach of England in the 17th and 18th century. The essential relationship is the Ottoman alliance. That is the great alliance from her perspective because Elisabeth knows the commercial power but she also knows the political and diplomatic ramifications. I think they are all driven by imperatives and even I concede in the title and subtitle of the book doesn't really do justice to the diversity of these connections. The Islamic World is just a catchall term and still we don't have the language to really describe the complexities of these encounters and exchanges. We are really only in the early stages of researching and enquiring into these kinds of exchanges.

Luke: What would be the next step for these kinds of research?

Jerry: It would be collaborative work. I’m very clear and open about the fact that I don't speak Turkish or Arabic so there is only so far I can go with this work before it becomes what Edward Said called Orientalism by trying to speak for these communities. I cannot and should not do that. Politically, I understand that that is absolutely not acceptable.  There is a very troubling tradition of Orientalism as we know and anybody who has studied Said’s work knows that as well. This Orient Isle is a book in which I was very clear to say, speaks from the English perspective. It says how the English respond to the Ottoman encounter. It cannot tell the story set in the Ottoman chancery. That is not a skill set that I have. But what I hope and aspire to, as the scientists do, you can start to work in teams, with somebody who is familiar with the Moroccan archive, somebody who is familiar with the Turkish archives. To go beyond that we know is politically very difficult to do. When you start to talk about say Persia, you want to work with scholars in Iran, is it possible to work with scholars from Iraq. We depressingly know the answer to how hard it is to ever do that work because many of the archives have simply been destroyed and there is just no encouragement for scholars to do this kind of collaboration East-West crossover work in the humanities. I would hope for, I long for the possibility to do that kind of work. So that's why I say that we are only at the beginning stages of this. And maybe that's something that The Bosphorus Review could start to develop.

Luke: I don't think we have that kind of power yet.

Jerry: I did a very interesting conversation for Radio 3, we did a live discussion and it was Elif Safak talking about This Orient Isle. I was thrilled Elif said ‘this is fantastic and its about telling a different kind of history that's relevant for our present.’ So it seems to me that it is possible to have these discussions, and encounters precisely by having them in spaces like your publication and others, which help to develop and foster those kinds of cosmopolitan cross cultural debates and encounters. I don't know that many 16th century Ottoman historians, I wish I knew more that could reach out to.

Luke: Sure, I hope this goes a little way towards helping. My next question was going to bring up the point that you've just been talking about. If I had to criticise this book I would say that it was very much from the English side and I was going to ask you if you knew anything about what people living in the Muslim world thought about the English. 

Jerry: I think it's a very pertinent question, I think there are several aspects to it. Is it a question which the Islamic world needs to answer? From my perspective I’m very eager to have those kinds of conversations, but am I asking the right questions? Is it orientalist of me to say that western scholarship should be doing this as well? I agree with you that there isn’t enough in the book about, as it were, speaking from the other side.

There are scholars who are doing this kind of work like Gulru Necipoglu at Harvard, her works on the Topkapi Sarayi and the architect Sinan have been published in English but are grounded in the Ottoman archives. I would love to be able to develop the ideas by asking what do we know from the Ottoman archives that tell us different information. I would be fascinated and thrilled to hear that.

Luke: Something that I found very interesting was a comment you made right at the end of your book, I’m going to read it, “The Orient Isle of Elizabethan England, for so long almost of confederate of the Islamic world, became an island of Orientalism.” Could you explain what you meant by that?

Jerry: I think that is because for a period England essentially becomes a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, and I would push that, I would say that what Elisabeth was doing in those letters to Murat, and the way that she was establishing a subservient relationship was that she accepts that she is a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire. I think that after her death, once James I comes to the throne he ends that tradition. There are religious and theological reasons for that, very ironically he finds that he can’t stay out of Europe any more. It's the inverse of Brexit, James the first takes England back into the heart of Europe with The Treaty of London in 1604. I think that what happens from then on in English cultural life is an intellectual interest in the Islamic world. The first chairs of Arabic in Oxford and Cambridge are established and it becomes an area of scholarly study, literally the development of oriental language studies, comparative religion and ethnography. I think this is when Orientalism really starts in the late 17th century, which is in line with what Said argues in Orientalism. I think that's the shift that takes place from the idea of England being a client state of the Islamic world, then as debates moves on, the East India company rises and starts to establish a foothold in East Asia, and at the same time you have the Ottoman withdrawal from its western frontier, from an engagement with Europe at the end of the 17th century as most Ottomanists would acknowledge. Then you get the tradition of colonising the Islamic world. I think that that's very much what’s going on with that intellectual linguistic and religious study of the Islamic world. The English and the French lead the way in that orientalist tradition.

Luke: What projects are you working on now?

Jerry: I’m editing the correspondence of William Harborne with my colleague Professor Matthew Dimmock. One of the great neglected books on the Ottoman histories is the work of Susan Skilliter a great lecturer of Ottoman studies at Cambridge university, who wrote a fantastic book, William Harborne and the trade with Turkey in the 1970s. It is a book that has been almost completely neglected but Skilliter had Turkish and could transcribe letters from the Ottoman Chancery as well as Harborn’s correspondence. She did a fantastic job, it's a great book, but she only goes up to 1578 the beginnings of Harborn’s embassy to Istanbul. With Prof Dimmock, we’ve uncovered a lot of material up to 1588 and beyond. We are intending to publish that as an edited collection, a post-work, if you like, of Skilliter’s work. We couldn't get even get near the brilliance of Skilliter’s work but we wanted to generate a bit more interest in what Harborne was doing in Istanbul in the 1580s. It includes a fantastic document, which we now ascribe to Harborne. It describes his time in Istanbul and is an account of his time in the 1580 and his political, diplomatic and commercial machination that went on. It’s a fascinating glimpse, which gives us a whole new glimpse in a world we haven’t really seen before.

Luke: My last question. What are you reading right now?

Jerry: I’m reading a series of books: Mathias Enard’s fascinating, dreamlike novel Compass, Giancarlo Casale’s extremely important book The Ottoman Age of Exploration. Both have a bearing on ongoing research I’m undertaking on discovery and how in the 15th and 16th century discovery was seen as a European prerogative but, as many of your readers will know, there was a very significant aspect of Ottoman involvement in the Age of Discovery.