Talk by John Mole on his recently published book the ‘The Sultan’s Organ: The Diary of Thomas Dallam, 1599, London to Constantinople and adventures on the way’. He talked about the diary, the wider geo-politics of the time and the effects of the organ on Anglo-Turkish relations. Tuesday 29 May 2013. Music of the period was provided by his friend Cahit Baylav.
The Sultan’s Organ: The Diary of Thomas Dallam, 1599, London to Constantinople and adventures on the way - John Mole - Fortune, 2012
This book is a straight piece of historical non-fiction, a crucial early turning point of the relations between England and the Ottoman Empire. The author has painstakingly translated the old English text to modern prose, making it an effortless pleasurable read despite the fact some crucial pages of the original manuscript are missing.
The original author was Thomas Dallam, a 24 year old organ builder who accompanied his highly embellished piece that was also a clock. This was a gift to the Ottoman Sultan and in 1599 Thomas Dallam accompanied this organ in its eventful voyage from London to Constantinople. This expensive present had a mercantile / political purpose, to curry favour and win trading rights with the then all powerful Ottoman super-power. In 1598 merchants of the City of London paid for a present to be given by Queen Elizabeth to Sultan Mehmet III of Turkey for this purpose.
The diary starts in February 1599 just before the departure of the powerfully armed ship, necessary in those days of constant warfare with Spain and its satellite, Flanders and Thomas Dallam listing purchases and baggage that included a little harpsichord. The diary is illuminating on a number of levels. The period was one of where the distinction between approved naval action and impounding of ships and cargoes versus outright piracy was blurred. More than once, to the consternation of Thomas Dallam and the crew the corruptible captain of their ship let go captured laden ships in return for an obvious bribe that he alone pocketed.
The descriptions of the voyage are particularly pertinent where the overland return leg of the journey through Ottoman occupied Greece are concerned. This is the first account in English of a journey across the mainland of Greece. Another high-point in terms of glimpses to the past is the moment Thomas Dallam was able to glimpse through a grating the Imperial Harem, the first likely description of these concubines by a foreigner. Another interesting revelation was that the two interpreters Thomas Dallam dealt with were English by birth yet had fully integrated into the palace system by converting to Islam. There was gentle but persistent pressure for Dallam to also ‘turn native’, clearly the system was accepting of talent from any quarter.
This book is not a detailed historical tome, no detailed footnotes or the broader military / political machinations of the Empire apart from the basics where the narrative requires it and at 105 pages long it is a ‘manageable’ read for all. Perhaps it is a small piece of a puzzle that also explains how a small island nation in turn became a super-power.
Interview with John Mole, author of The Sultan’s Organ: The Diary of Thomas Dallam, 1599, London to Constantinople and adventures on the way - fortune books
1- From this and some of your other published books I see you have an interest in Greece and the Ottoman Empire. When did this interest start?
My interest in Greece, Ancient and Modern, started at school. When I lived there in the early seventies I was curious about the reality of the Ottoman era that lay behind the vigorous opinions of ordinary Greeks. This interest spread to the rest of the rich and varied culture and history of the Ottoman Empire.
2- Your book is not just a modern version of Thomas Dallam’s diary but has historical notes added where necessary. What were your chief sources of information for this research?
An Organ For The Sultan by Stanley Mayes (1956) was a useful entry point for the resources of the British Library. The single most useful source was the Oxford English Dictionary. I looked up almost every word to make sure what they meant at the time.
3- Do you think the gift of this organ increased England’s prestige, influence and trade rights in the Ottoman realm, or were the benefits short term?
The immediate short-term benefit was to enhance the standing of England in general and the English ambassador in particular in the eyes of Sultan Mehmet III and his advisers. This facilitated negotiations for trading concessions granted in 1601. I cannot see any direct longer term benefit, especially as Sultan Mehmet died in 1603 and the organ was destroyed as irreligious by his son Ahmed I.
4- What were the chief items the English merchants wanted to trade with the Ottomans at that time? Was the organ a ‘sweetener’ for a hoped for treaty?
Through the Levant company, chartered in 1581, English merchants already had trading posts, called factories, in the Ottoman Empire, primarily in Constantinople, Smyrna, Alexandria and Aleppo. We also know from Dallam that they had consuls in Chios and Patras. English exports were dominated by woollen cloth, followed at a distance by metals such as tin. Imports included luxury goods such as silks and spices. The main commodities were wine and currants – hence the consuls in Chios and Patras.
5- What surprised you most in the contents of this diary? Where are they kept?
Dallam’s diary is kept in the British library. What most surprised me was the position of England in a wider world. Commercially and politically England had vital interests in the Mediterranean. There were many ships and many Englishmen in the region, from diplomats to galley slaves.
6- There seems to have been a bit of a disconnect between the real-politic pursued in the machinations of the English ambassador in Constantinople and the logic pursued by the merchant adventurers based in London. To what extent do you think Dallam felt this tension while resident in Palace, yet impressions clearly coloured by the typical arrogance of the Westerners of the time?
English arrogance, if that is the word, derived from insecurity. Despite the failure of the Armada in 1588 England was threatened by a much more powerful Spain and its allies. The Ottoman Empire was the superpower of the day. They had fierce trading rivals in countries such as France and Italy. On an individual level foreigners were at constant risk of abuse, extortion and sanction for giving deliberate or unintended offence. So they put on a bold face.
If Westerners seemed arrogant they were matched by the apparent arrogance of the Turks. English and Turks had deep seated prejudices about each other, focussed mainly on religion, and inherent feelings of superiority. Dallam expresses the generalised prejudices of the time. Yet when he meets and works with Turks there is mutual respect and consideration.
Dallam is also enlightening about the tensions between the different classes of Englishmen. On the ship he is housed on the gun deck with the petty officers. He is cool, if not antagonistic to the merchants and gentlemen. He thinks poorly of the ship’s captain. Ambassador Lello has to earn his respect.
7- Who do you think Thomas Dallam kept this diary for?
Excellent question. Meaning I have no idea. It is a first draft that he meant to fill out when he got back to London, which alas he never did. Was it for his parents? His guild? His yet unborn children? Himself? I expect there are examples of educated, upper-class men and women keeping diaries but a 24 year old skilled artisan? Without a patron he was unlikely to find publication.
8- If you had a question to Dallam on his return, what would it be?
Why did you keep a diary?
9- Do you have any further information on the enigmatic English translators of the time in the Ottoman palace and any theory on how they might have ended there?
I can only surmise. There were far more expatriates and converts in the wider world outside England than we usually assume. Most of the recorded cases are sailors captured by enemy ships or pirates and destined for the galleys. Conversion may have bought their freedom. Others may have had useful skills and offered opportunities they could not refuse. And surely there were converts who found Turkish religion and life more amenable than that of their country of birth.
10- From descriptions you get an impression of a thoroughly corrupt captain of the ‘Hector’ who would do deals for purely personal profit with captured enemy vessels, that were then let go. Do you think this was the rule of exception at the time?
Was he corrupt according to the standards of the day? There was fine line between trading and privateering. We do not know if he was acting on his own account or for the profit of the venture. The ship was an armed merchant ship belonging to private investors who demanded a return and some of whom were on board with him. If he had escorted the Dunkirk Pirates into Plymouth, would they have been rewarded sufficiently for the delay? I suspect the rest of the crew were less upset that he took the Dunkirkers’ bribe than that he didn’t share it with them. One also wonders whether Dallam’s seasoned shipmates were as shocked as he was, the first timer, at raw commercialism.
11- It seems almost incredible that England virtually alone was standing up to the Catholic Union headed by Spain, yet was clearly able to project its mercantile activities deep in the Mediterranean and elsewhere. What do you think were the reasons for this success?
- Philip II of Spain was the driving force behind Catholic resistance to Ottomans and Protestants. But alliances with Venice and France were spasmodic and, in the case of France, turned hostile. England could trade actively with Venice, France and Turkey.
- The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, a demonstration of Spanish vulnerability to God, weather and English ships, reverberated throughout the world. It enhanced confidence in the English and the respect of foreigners.
- English ships out-gunned and out-manoeuvred the ships of any other country, with the exception of rowed galleys when the wind dropped. As the HECTOR shows, merchant ships were the equal of naval ships. As Dallam records, English and Dutch ships collaborated in convoys to run the gauntlet of the Straits of Gibraltar.
- England had a desirable export, cloth, and the burgeoning capitalism of the City of London to finance trade.
- Philip II died in 1598, the year Dallam set sail. His son and successor, Philip III, was ineffective and indecisive. In 1604 peace was signed with England.
12- The Ottoman Empire was extremely vigorous and expanding at that stage, yet from the account you get an impression of whole areas being half-lawless, the Sultan and his entourage being quite naïve of such things as man-o-wars, clocks and organs, surrounded by eunuchs and concubines. Where do you think the real vigour and wisdom rested to account for their territorial successes?
- The Ottoman system of empire depended on systematic and relatively efficient, by the standards of the day, tax collection. Despite ‘shrinkage’ into the pockets of governors and tax collectors, considerable treasure flowed into Constantinople. This enabled the financing of a large standing army and navy that projected Ottoman power.
- Sultan Mehmet III may have been sheltered and naïve but he had ruthless political instincts. He had nineteen brothers strangled when he came to power. He was just as ruthless with Vizirs and advisers and military commanders who he judged had failed or who were too powerful. This was surely an incentive for their successors to perform.
- Mehmet’s mother Safiye was also powerful. She was a Venetian aristocrat who maintained personal contacts with Venice and also with Queen Elizabeth, whom she admired as a fellow woman of power and influence. With the organ for the Sultan, Elizabeth sent her the gift of a fancy coach, with a coachman. We see evidence in Dallam’s diary that courtiers and officials took care to cultivate foreigners. Such formal and informal connections with the heads and representatives of other European countries enabled the apparently protected and isolated court to take informed decisions.
13- By the time of Dallam England was already a power in the Meditterenean. Was the defeat of the Armada the turning point, or do the roots for this merchant class working hand-in-hand within the world of legitimate state diplomacy and open-sea piracy / empounding of foreign vessels a pattern set in earlier times? Was Britain by this stage better than its rivals in this double game of super-ships working in organised convoys and out-manouvering rivals in the securing of trade in cloth and spices. Was the Levant a test ground to the later English entanglement in India where clearly their European rivals were outclassed and outgunned?
My first reaction is to ask whether in those days they made as much of a distinction between ‘merchant class working hand-in-hand within the world of legitimate state diplomacy and open-sea piracy / empounding of foreign vessels’. There was no real international law other than custom.
Secondly, privately owned and crewed ships were licensed by the state to attack ships belonging to foreign states with which they were at war, eg Spain. But not France, Holland or Turkey. They were known later in the century (first recorded in 1645) as privateers. Piracy is different - Pirates went after any ship, highwaymen of the sea.
I don’t know if England (not yet Britain) was better at it but they were certainly leaders in naval technology, gunnery and seamanship.
The Dutch were also pretty advanced. France had been important since the days of Suleiman. Portugal was well entrenched in Arabia and the sub-Continent. As for all their comparative ranking in the spice trade I don’t have any information.
Certainly the Levant Company Charter included the Indies. Once ships started going round the Cape to India direct their experience in the Med came in useful. The East India Company was hived off on its own in 1600 and outgrew its parent. Indeeed the next voyage of Dallam’s ship the Hector was round the Cape to the Spice Islands.
14- From your research to what extent do you think the Ottoman and English sovereigns of the time were ‘worldly’ grasping the fine interplay of conflict and commerce to expand their empires and to what extent they dictated foreign policy or did their power lay in delegation of the ‘back-room movers’ in their palace circles?
Elizabeth was very reluctant to embark on foreign ventures and cautious about antagonising powers. Her allegiances were based on realpolitik rather than ideology. She took a personal interest and personal command, albeit indirectly through her favourites and commanders, and as much as was possible in those days without communications. I do not detect any attempt to create an empire as such. But she was always on need of funds for the state, to finance the navy for example. So she was for any overseas project that brought in revenue with a minimum of risk. There was ongoing negotiation whether she was paid a fee for the Levant charter or took taxes on the imports or a mixture.
Turkish policy was different. Their policy was to create an empire of nations either directly ruled or owing allegiance. The motive was the furtherance and protection of Islam and the gathering of taxes and tribute. As long as these two were not compromised, the various states and nationalities (millets) were relatively autonomous. The policy was engrained in the machinery of state. My impression is that the Sultan was not directly involved or well informed. His mother Safiya was more engaged. Power was negotiated / contested between the Harem and the Divan (the privy council or council of state) with its various vizirs and pashas.
15- The diary was originally published in 1895, do we know the story of where the original diary was kept for the centuries before being deposited in the British Museum?
The British Library bought the MS of the diary in 1848 from Henry Rhodes, a collector. I don’t think we know where it was before that.
16- Would you like to be part of a project to re-build one of Dallam’s clocks?
Absolutely. Perhaps a first step could be a CGI model.
17- Do you have future plans to publish any other historically themed books?
My next book, to be published in 2013, is The Quest For Helen a novel set in Ottoman Greece in 1788. As well as an entertaining - I hope – work of fiction it explores many of the issues raised by The Sultan’s Organ.