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BRITAIN & the ISLAMIC World, 1558-1713

by Gerald Maclean and Nabil Mattar
OUP, ISBN 978-0-19-920318-5

Review published in the Independent, July 2011

This is a book is centred on the enterprise of five generations of British seamen and merchant-venturers exploring the Islamic East. It is a well-known story of British achievement, but instead of staying within the stately mansion of this progression towards glory and empire, the two authors keep throwing open the windows to offer us fresh insights, new horizons of inquiry, as well as skipping out through a back door to give us a witheringly close examination of the fabric. It is an uplifting, intriguing and inquiring survey, which leaves the reader grateful for the breadth and depth of their reading and scrutiny.

The first wall of misconception to come tumbling down is the notion of Islam existing as a coherent subject of inquiry. The British did not, for better or for worse, engage themselves with either recognizing or confronting an adversarial civilization. Instead they divided the East into distinct regions, which each had its own temper – not to mention a British Trading Company. So that for centuries, any inquiry into the truths of Islam took a very fifth place to the inquiry into the balance of trade with Barbary (Morocco and the regencies of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli), the Levant (Ottoman Istanbul, Izmir and Aleppo), Sophy (Persia) and the Indian trading stations of Calicut, Bombay, Madras and Calcutta.

The second wall to fall, is the conception that Britain was interested in scientific exploration and the pursuit of knowledge. The British Isles was an irrelevant, offshore island from the Eurasian land mass. British merchants travelled the world purely as a means of acquiring wealth, and had to be adaptable, compliant and patient, if they were going to achieve this. In large part because England remained a banana republic, or rather a wool monarchy, with but one product, cheap woven clothe, with which to dress her stall in the world marketplace. So instead of the Great and Good of British exploration, Maclean and Mattar suggest we re-label the Needy and the Greedy.

In terms of knowledge, the British were five hundred years behind the experience of the Italians and but a century or two behind their principal rivals: Portugese, French and Dutch. In the Indian Ocean, it was these European rivals, much more than the local dynasts, who were the enemies to be attacked, plundered and reviled. For istance Britain first attracted the attention of Iran as an ally who would aid them in expelling the Portugese from Hormuz. Just as the translation of European texts remained the most useful source of British scholarship for generations.

A third shibboleth to be undermined by Maclean and Mattar is the literary record of British travel narrative which is revealed to be very partial. Although vast fortunes were made by the Levant company, none of the key-players in this lucrative trade created reliable portraits of the Ottoman Empire that they knew so well. Instead it tends to be the salaried chaplains of the Levant Company who dominate the literary field, leaving us with a very unrepresentative record of their own professional interest in the Holy Land.

In a similar way there is virtually no literary evidence of the lucrative armaments trade with Barbary (when England broke the embargo of Christendom to trade armaments for saltpetre) apart from a few fascinating letters exchanged between Queen Elizabeth and the Moroccan Sultan. A century later, however a stream of Captive Accounts (by Britons enslaved by Barbary Corsairs) would fill the publishers schedules. But under the Maclean-Mattar lens we see that these accounts are highly selective with an underlying story-line of bravery and (Christ-like) redemption which is at least as theological as it is factual. These populist accounts also avoided all reference to British slave raiders, Muslim captives in Britain (and the negotiations for their release) not to mention the tens of thousands of Britons who decided to ‘turn Turk’, ‘take the Turban’ and assimilate.

From India by contrast, there was a vast corpus of observant and analytical reports from the various British agents and consuls based in the sub-continent. But this stream of market and diplomatic intelligence, though avidly read by the Directors of the East India Company, was far too useful and confidential, to be published and disseminated.

So it is fitting that this pair of literary historians, should conclude their survey by putting books behind them and look at the actual commodities of trade. To reveal that the fabric of what we believe to be iconically English, whether it is a four-poster bed lovingly swagged in printed cottons, or sipping tea from a pottery saucer at five o’clock, or even our national affection and infatuation for horses, is a long-assimilated gift from the Orient.

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