Sunday, May 27, 2012

Everybody has their favourite pirates: Giancarlo Casale’s The Ottoman Age of Exploration

Near the beginning of Giancarlo Casale's  book, he remarks that the famous explorer-hero Prince Henry the Navigator was basically a pirate.  What follows is an entire book about Ottoman pirates of the 16th century, whose role in expanding the trade in the Indian Ocean basin Casale obviously admires.  He knows they are pirates, or the next best thing, but then everybody has their favourite pirates.Casale has done his subjects proud.  His Ottoman admirals/merchants/corsairs are now part of the English language scholarly narrative of the age  of exploration, in a form that is accessible to any one who is really interested.

Casale argues that just as the Portugal and Spain created entirely new empires based on trading opportunities in seas unfamiliar to them, so did the Ottoman Empire, which before the 16th century had been entirely oriented to the Mediterranean.  The story of 16th century exploration in the eastern hemisphere should not be seen as merely  one of Christian Europe expanding into Muslim seas.  Although the Ottomans were Muslims, they had to work just as hard to find and exploit the new opportunities of the time.  Casale argues convincingly that the Ottomans were just as crucial as the Portuguese in creating a new global field of geopolitical competition.  And maybe they did better.

Here is where a certain amount of sentimentality comes in.  The book is a tribute to Ottomans whose role in politics, trade, exploration and cartography has long been underappreciated, in good part because theso few people have the necessary languages.  But at the end of the book of we are in a position to see that even if the trade in that region had increased dramatically, the Ottomans working to monopolize it, like their Portuguese counterparts, failed to create a viable Indian Ocean empire.  Nevertheless, Casale succeeds: he brings to life an interesting part of world history and made me care about it. 

No comments:

Post a Comment