Joshua M. White, Piracy and Law in the Ottoman Mediterranean (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Joshua M. White (JMW): I must confess that I was never particularly interested in pirates as a child, and I do not find them to be particularly romantic or sympathetic figures now. However, I was attracted to the topic of piracy because it allowed me to explore the intersection of social, legal, and diplomatic history in the early modern Ottoman Empire and the wider Mediterranean world. Determining whether the seizure of a ship or its cargo was piracy or a permissible act of war was fundamentally a legal and diplomatic question, and the line separating legal and illegal maritime violence was thin and frequently contested. Violent maritime encounters invite analysis on multiple levels because sea raiders, their victims, and the governments to which they were subject often entertained very different ideas about where that line was located. One of the most exciting things about writing this book was the ability to juxtapose the micro and macro—to narrate the experiences of individuals captured or despoiled, but also to delve into the efforts of governments to clean up the legal and diplomatic messes that pirates left behind. Mediterranean piracy is a perennially popular topic among both academic and trade authors, but I was struck when I first began my research by how little had been done on the basis of Ottoman sources. Most works rely exclusively on European-language sources and focus primarily on the capture and ransom of European Christians by North African corsairs. Mediterranean maritime violence has often been slotted into the “clash of civilizations” paradigm, with the Muslim corsairs of North Africa lined up against the Catholic corsairs of Malta and Livorno; without taking into consideration Ottoman views of (and responses to) that violence, these received narratives are, at best, incomplete. After all, the Ottoman Empire was sovereign over half of the Mediterranean’s coasts, and Muslim and Catholic corsairs were not the only threats to maritime security in Ottoman waters. So, one of my goals in writing this book was simply to put the Ottomans back into the story.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
JMW: Piracy and Law in the Ottoman Mediterranean explores the Ottoman experience of, and legal and administrative response to, piratical violence in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. First, it seeks to explain why piracy flourished in the Mediterranean when it did, why the Ottoman government was so hard-pressed to stop it, and what that failure meant for the Ottoman state and for Ottoman subjects. It discusses the Ottoman practice of outsourcing coastal defense and intelligence gathering to naval irregulars, who often turned to piracy when peace cut into profits, and it examines the consequences of the influx of European pirates and corsairs, who carried off shiploads of Ottoman merchants, pilgrims, and state servants—particularly judges (kadis)—to Malta and Livorno. I argue that the challenge of piracy shaped the contours of the Ottoman Mediterranean, a legal space defined neither by formal conceptions of sovereignty nor by naval power, but rather by the embedded presence of Ottoman law—the legal lingua franca from Istanbul to Malta in which both foreigners and Ottomans of all faiths were conversant. Thus, in addition to engaging the literatures on piracy, captivity, and ransom in the early modern Mediterranean, the book also speaks to the growing bodies of scholarly work on early modern diplomacy and on the emergence of international law. The latter literature has rarely considered the Ottomans except insofar as the North African corsairs served as foils in the writings of European jurists like Gentili, Grotius, and Bynkershoek. The book chronicles the emergence of Ottoman-European anti-piracy law, enshrined in the treaties known as “capitulations” (ahdname), and it demonstrates how the challenge posed by the North African corsairs’ refusal to abide by the treaties’ terms led first to successive modifications that permitted the sultan’s treaty partners to defend themselves against and destroy the corsairs and ultimately to the North African port cities’ exclusion from the Ottoman Mediterranean legal space. Finally, the book makes a contribution to scholarship on Ottoman law. Drawing on both fatwas and court records, it traces the response of Ottoman jurists to the problems posed by the maritime chaos and shows how Ottoman judges handled those problems in practice, in the process telling tales of pirates and their victims in the Ottoman Mediterranean.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
JMW: I certainly hope scholars and students of the Ottoman Empire and the early modern Mediterranean will read the book, in addition to anyone with an interest in piracy generally. I tried to write the book in such a way that it could serve as an introduction to the fascinating world of the Ottoman Mediterranean, so little prior knowledge of Ottoman history is required. The book should also appeal to those interested in the histories of international law and diplomacy. My hope is that it will challenge commonly held assumptions about the nature of Mediterranean maritime violence and the extent of the Ottomans’ role in perpetuating it, and that it will complicate the story of the emergence of international law and the part piracy played in it.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
JMW: The next book project investigates the role played by Ottoman religious-legal authorities (particularly the mufti of Istanbul, known as the şeyhülislam) in Ottoman foreign relations and the ways in which fatwas were often deployed and recycled for diplomatic ends. I’ve already published some on this subject—what I’ve called “fatwa diplomacy”—but the study I have planned will range from the sixteenth through the mid-nineteenth centuries and will not be focused solely on relations with Europe. There are a few other things in various stages of development, but right now I’m working on a series of articles on freedom suits and illegal enslavement in the seventeenth and eighteenth century Ottoman Empire. Freedom suits not only offer insights into Ottoman slavery, they hold the key to understanding Ottoman subjecthood. They highlight both the difficulties Ottoman subjects had in proving their legal identities and the quandaries facing judges and administrators who had to balance justice with the stringent evidentiary requirements of Islamic law.
Excerpt from the Introduction:
On September 13, 1614, a group of men gathered in the Ottoman court of the seaside district of Galata. Situated across the Golden Horn from Istanbul proper, Galata was the maritime nerve center of the Ottoman Empire. Housing extensive port facilities, warehouses, and associated industry, as well as the Ottoman Imperial Arsenal, it was home to a diverse population of Christians, Jews, and Muslims. It played host to seamen and merchants hailing from England to India and to the European ambassadors to the Sublime Porte. The court of Galata, convened in the home of its judge (kadi), was open to all of these, whether Ottoman subject or foreigner, free or enslaved, Muslim or non-Muslim, permanent resident or brief sojourner. On that Saturday, the Ottoman judge, his scribe, and the court witnesses had assembled to hear the suit lodged by Ali bin Yusuf of Jerba against a Venetian merchant named Nicolo, who had come to the Ottoman capital to trade.
In his complaint, Ali stated that eight years earlier, his son Süleyman, a ship captain (reis), had sailed to the Greek port of Volos on the western Aegean mainland, where he had loaded a cargo of wheat on his saïque, a medium-size vessel commonly used for trade within the Ottoman Mediterranean. Süleyman Reis’s wheat was intended for the markets of the perpetually hungry city of Istanbul, but he had not traveled far from Volos before he was intercepted by a galleon captained by the defendant, Nicolo. Süleyman’s saïque was no match for the Venetian’s large, heavily armed broadside sailing ship. In the ensuing melee, Süleyman Reis and five of his sailors were killed. One survivor from the initial assault, a certain Mehmed bin Abdüsselam, was handed off to one of Nicolo’s crew members for execution, but he managed to escape and eventually made his way back to Istanbul. Eight years later, he was present in that Galata courtroom with Ali bin Yusuf; it was he who had informed Ali of his son’s fate and the identity of his alleged killer. Nicolo, Ali reiterated, had murdered his son and five others and had made off with his son’s ship, its cargo, and all of the crew’s personal property. Now he demanded that Nicolo pay the price for his crimes as the law required. He wanted restitution. And he wanted blood.
Ali was effectively accusing Nicolo of piracy. It could be nothing else. Venice and the Ottoman Empire had been at peace since 1573, so no Venetian would have had license to attack an Ottoman merchant vessel. To those “individuals who despoil others through privately exercised force and without urgent reasons to do so,” the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius wrote in 1605, “we give the name ‘pirates’ when their activities take place upon the sea.” Grotius’s definition of the pirate not only fit in Nicolo’s case, it matched the Ottoman understanding of sea robbery as well. But Nicolo was identified in the court not as a pirate but as a merchant by profession. If he sidelined in piracy, he did so opportunistically. As was so often the case in the early modern Mediterranean, defining a pirate was a question not so much of who or what, but when.
Slaving was common in the early modern Mediterranean and helped meet the demand for servile labor on all sides of the sea. Muslims targeted Christians and Christians targeted Muslims for sale in distant markets. But in the eastern half of the Mediterranean the line between legal and illegal raiding was not simply religious. Due to the provisions of the Ottoman-Venetian treaty that prohibited the enslavement of either side’s subjects and Venice’s assiduous efforts to stay on the Ottomans’ good side, Nicolo would have faced execution by Venetian authorities were he caught with Ottoman captives. For the Venetian part-time pirate preying on Ottoman shipping, it was far too dangerous to take prisoners and risk leaving witnesses, even though it meant sacrificing the significant sums that could otherwise be had from their sale or ransom. It was self-preservation that motivated the Venetian galleon captain to execute the crew of Süleyman’s ship. Dead men, after all, tell no tales.
Indeed, despite the fact that at least one got away that day in 1606, a single eyewitness was one short of the two required to meet the evidentiary standards of the Ottoman courts. After Nicolo denied the accusations leveled against him, claiming that he had been in Alexandria at the time of the attack, Ali was asked to provide the court with additional evidence. Unable to produce another witness to rebut Nicolo’s denial, he requested a continuance to procure more evidence. This was duly granted by the court, but no subsequent entry appears in the surviving registers from Galata. Nicolo did not wait around to see if Ali could produce new evidence against him. He had probably weighed anchor before the ink from the scribe’s pen was dry.
This book is about piracy, but it is not about pirates. Rather, it is about the administrators, diplomats, jurists, and, above all, the victims—those who had to contend most with the consequences of maritime violence. For roughly a century and a half, beginning with the conclusion of the Ottoman-Venetian war for Cyprus in 1573 and continuing into the eighteenth century, the eastern half of the Mediterranean was gripped by a plague of piracy. The unchecked activities of pirates and corsairs—the particularly Mediterranean species of privateer who raided the enemy religious other with the license of a sovereign—routinely affected both Ottoman and European subjects, resulting in frequent domestic and interstate legal disputes over ships, cargo, and captives. Pirates churned up a sea of paper in their wake: letters, petitions, court documents, legal opinions, ambassadorial reports, travel accounts, captivity narratives, and vast numbers of decrees attest to their impact on lives and livelihoods throughout the Ottoman Mediterranean world.
The appellation “Ottoman Mediterranean” has long been used by scholars to describe the eastern half of the Mediterranean basin. By 1574, the mainland coasts from Venice’s Adriatic frontier to the borders of Morocco formally acknowledged the authority of the sultan in Istanbul, as did all the major islands east of Sicily except Crete, until 1669, when it too joined the fold. Sometimes the term has been deployed with additional implications, for instance, that the defining feature of the seventeenth-century Ottoman Mediterranean was its reunified Greek Orthodox ecumene. This book argues that what made the eastern half of the basin the “Ottoman Mediterranean” was that it was a unified legal space.