Ottoman Politics through British Eyes: Paul Rycaut's "The Present State of the Ottoman Empire" Author(s): Linda T. Darling Reviewed work(s): Source: Journal of World History, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Spring, 1994), pp. 71-97 Published by: University of Hawai'i Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20078582 . Accessed: 01/02/2012 15:42 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at . http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected]. University of Hawai'i Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Journal of World History. http://www.jstor.org


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Ottoman Politics through British Eyes: Paul Rycaut's "The Present State of the OttomanEmpire"Author(s): Linda T. DarlingReviewed work(s):Source: Journal of World History, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Spring, 1994), pp. 71-97Published by: University of Hawai'i PressStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20078582 .Accessed: 01/02/2012 15:42

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp

JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected].

University of Hawai'i Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Journal ofWorld History.


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Ottoman Politics through British Eyes: Paul Rycaut;s The Present State of the

Ottoman Empire *


University of Arizona


growing trend toward teaching world history means that

classes of students will now encounter the non-European peo

ples and cultures of the world on a regular basis. This puts an

enormous burden on teachers trained in the old ethnocentric

style who have to find suitable reading materials on other cul

tures to assign to their students, not to speak of educating them

selves. Fortunately, for the early modern period one can find pri

mary texts written in English by people who were actually on the

spot. I refer, of course, to the literature of travel produced by

intrepid Europeans?explorers, merchants, or ambassadors?

who ventured to distant lands and returned to write about their

experiences there. Some of these accounts have attained classic

status; among them is Paul Rycaut's work of 1665, The Present

State of the Ottoman Empire.1 The use of this literature as a means of instant access to the

premodern world presents certain problems. Rycaut's book is not

* Earlier versions of this paper were given at the 1991 Western Conference on

British Studies and the 1991-92 Brownbag Series of the University of Arizona's Mid

dle East Center; I thank the participants for their helpful comments. I am espe

cially grateful to two British historians: Rachel Weil (University of Georgia), for

bibliographic help, and to Richard Cosgrove (University of Arizona), for reading the manuscript.

1 Parenthetical references in the text are to the following edition: Paul Rycaut, The Present State of the Ottoman Empire (London: John Starkey and Henry Brome, 1668; rpt., Westmead, England: Gregg International Publishers, 1972).

Journal of World History, Vol. 5, No. 1 ? 1994 by University of Hawaii Press


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just a straightforward eyewitness description of the Ottoman peo

ple and government in the seventeenth century, although it reads as if it were. In the dedication Rycaut announced that he was pre

senting his observations not merely for the purpose of education or entertainment but "as a matter worthy of the consideration, or

concernment of our Kings or our Governors" (Epistle Dedicatory). This statement seems to demand a more complex reading of the

book, one that involves the concerns of English kings and gover nors as well as Ottoman exotica.

Born in 1629, Paul Rycaut was of Huguenot extraction, the son

of a wealthy immigrant merchant.2 His father lost his property

during the Commonwealth as a consequence of royalist activities, so Paul was forced to make his own way in the world. He chose a

career in diplomacy, in the course of which he spent some time at

the court of the exiled Charles II in France. In 1660, after the Res

toration, he was granted an appointment as private secretary to

King Charles's new ambassador to the Ottoman sultan in Istan

bul, the royalist Earl of Winchilsea.3 Rycaut simultaneously served as the Levant Company's secretary in Istanbul. With the

writing of The Present State (presented to England's secretary of

state in 1665 though not published until 1668), he brought himself

to the notice of the court in an attempt to obtain further prefer ment. He was successful: in 1667, on Winchilsea's recommenda

tion, Rycaut was made consul for the Levant Company in Izmir, or

Smyrna, a position he held for eleven years.4 He later sought the

2 We say Ree-co, but Rycaut himself apparently pronounced his name Rye-coat. See Dictionary of National Biography, s.v. Rycaut or Ricaut, Sir Paul. A short intro

duction to the man and his works is provided by C. J. Hey wood, "Sir Paul Rycaut, a

Seventeenth-Century Observer of the Ottoman State: Notes for a Study," in E

Kural Shaw and C. J. Heywood, English and Continental Views of the Ottoman

Empire, 1500-1800, (Los Angeles: William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, 1972)

pp. 31-59. Biographical details can also be found in Great Britain, Historical Manu

scripts Commission, Report on the Manuscripts of Allan George Finch, Esq. of Bur

ley-on-the-Hill, Rutland, ?d. S. C. Lomas, 2 vols. (London: His Majesty's Stationer's

Office, 1913), i:xlv; and Harold Bowen, British Contributions to Turkish Studies

(London: Longmans, 1945), p. 20.

3 Dictionary of National Biography, s.v. Finch, Heneage, 2nd earl of Winchilsea;

and Historical Manuscripts Commission, Report on the Manuscripts of Allan

George Finch..., i:v-vii. On the ambassadorial appointment procedure and the

duties and remuneration of the ambassador and his staff, see Albert C. Wood, "The

English Embassy at Constantinople, 1660-1762," English Historical Review 40

(1925): 533-61. 4 A recent study of Rycaut's experience as the English consul in Izmir is Sonia

P. Anderson, An English Consul in Turkey: Paul Rycaut at Smyrna, 1667-1678

(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989); see also a critical review by Daniel Goffman in

New Perspectives on Turkey 4 (1990): 105-10.

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Darling: Ottoman Politics through British Eyes 73

post of ambassador to the Ottoman empire but had to be satisfied

with positions elsewhere. He nevertheless continued to write

about the Ottomans in several later works.

Thus, The Present State is a book written by a young English

royalist after the Restoration about a government that Jean Bodin

had characterized as the most absolutist of the European mon

archies.5 One might then expect the book to approve of monarchy in all its forms, but it does not. Rycaut's picture of the Ottoman

sultan is uncompromisingly negative, even more so than his facts

seem to warrant. Ascribing this hostile view to ignorance or preju dice, however, is impossible given his accurate and insightful

recounting in later chapters of the details of Turkish life and his

tory. Nor does the book present a simple contrast between bad

Ottoman despotism and good English monarchy. Contradictions

within Rycaut's view of the Ottomans are matched by equivoca tion and hesitancy in his praise of English kingship. This ambigu

ity in Rycaut's position can only be resolved by a more complex

understanding of his purpose in writing as he did.

Until the late sixteenth century, the British image of the Otto

man Empire was compounded of prejudice against Islam, fear of a powerful enemy, the lure of eastern trade, and a fair amount of

ignorance and hearsay.6 After permanent relations were estab

lished between England and the Ottomans in the 1580s, English merchants, consuls, and diplomats began to visit the Ottoman

Empire and to write home about it.7 At first their writings were

filled with notices of commercial and military import or the mar

vels of an alien culture. By the second half of the seventeenth cen

tury, however, an Englishman like Rycaut could become close

5 Jean Bodin, The Six Bookes of a Commonweale: A Facsimile Reprint of the

English Translation of 1606, ed. Kenneth Douglas McRae (Cambridge: Harvard Uni

versity Press, 1962), p. 201. See also Julian H. Franklin, Jean Bodin and the Rise of Absolutist Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973).

6 A recent compendium of the literature on European views of the Islamic

world appears in the notes to an article by Rhoads Murphey: "Bigots or Informed

Observers? A Periodization of Pre-Colonial English and European Writing on the

Middle East," Journal of the American Oriental Society no (1990): 291-303. To his list

should be added two volumes published by the Centre d'Etudes et de Documenta

tion Economique, Juridique et Sociale, Cairo, D'un orient ? Vautre: Les m?tamor

phoses successives des perceptions et connaissances, 2 vols. (Paris: Editions du Cen tre National de Recherche Scientifique, 1991).

7 For the first Englishmen in the Ottoman Empire, see Susan A. Skilliter, Wil

liam Harborne and the Trade with Turkey, 1578-1582: A Documentary Study of the First Anglo-Ottoman Relations (London: Oxford University Press, 1977); and

Alfred C. Wood, A History of the Levant Company (London: Oxford University Press, 1935).

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enough to important officials to obtain detailed information on

the Ottoman government and the inside story on palace intrigues. The Present State contains an accurate and up-to-date report on

Ottoman political, military, and religious organization that has

been profitably used by scholars.

It is all the more startling, then, that side by side with these

knowledgeable details, Rycaut drew a picture of Ottoman despot ism straight out of the old stock of ignorance and fear. We can dis

miss the idea that he knew no better. A more reasonable hypothe sis is that he was using an old stereotype for new purposes. The

style and structure of the book support such a hypothesis.

Rycaut's comments on Ottoman political life reflect specific

aspects of his own personal and national history. Even the lan

guage he used to report on the Ottoman court gained its form and

meaning in the political vicissitudes of the English state in the

seventeenth century?the Civil War, Commonwealth, and Restora

tion. Read through these lenses, The Present State emerges as a

commentary on English politics in Turkish guise, and under

standing it becomes an exercise in both Ottoman and English his


Rycaut's book ostensibly fits within a tradition of reporting on

the Ottoman Empire for defense purposes. This genre of works

originated in Renaissance Italy, and its products were translated

into all the major European languages.9 Such works were con

cerned with the question of how difficult it would be to defeat the

Ottomans in battle; thus, organization and morale found a place in their pages along with military and political conditions. Rycaut

met the requirements of the genre by providing exact figures on

military enrollment, naval strength, and so on. But this informa

tion is tacked onto the end of his book and occupies less than a

8 Like other works on the Ottoman Empire, Rycaut's book proved quite popu lar and was translated several times. Numerous authorities, including the trea

surer of the Levant Company during Rycaut's tenure, the secretary of the French

embassy, and the book's French translator, pointed out that the book contained

many errors; see G. F. Abbot, Under the Turk in Constantinople (London: Macmil

lan, 1920), p. 66. Apparently, it did not occur to any of these critics that some of the

"errors" might be deliberate. 9 Bibliographies of these works can be found in W. E. Conway, "Checklist of

Turcica in the Clarke Library," in Shaw and Heywood, English and Continental

Views, pp. 60-66; and Albert Howe Lybyer, The Government of the Ottoman Empire in the Time of Suleiman the Magnificent (Cambridge: Harvard University Press,

1913), appendix. See also Clarence Dana Rouillard, The Turk in French History,

Thought, and Literature (1520-1660) (Paris: Boirin, 1941).

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Darling: Ottoman Politics through British Eyes 75

quarter of its pages. The bulk of the work is taken up with politi cal and religious matters, and politics holds pride of place. This

emphasis on politics may in part reflect the lessening of the Otto

man military threat in the seventeenth century, but it also signals the preoccupations of the author. Distant England was more

interested in trade and negotiation than in military conquest:

besides, in pursuing his own advancement, Rycaut brought his

Turkish experience to bear on the most crucial issues for En

gland's monarch: religion and politics. Rycaut's political reflec

tions are concentrated in the first four chapters of his sixty-chap ter work, which constitute the opening portion of the first of three

"Books" into which it is divided. The first and longest "Book"

(twenty-two chapters), on the governmental structure and prac tices of the Ottomans, is entitled "The Maximes of the Turkish

Politic" The second "Book" (twenty-six chapters) is entitled "Of

the Turkish Religion"; the third (twelve chapters) is "Of the Turk

ish Militia" (that is, military forces). Within Book One, the first

three chapters are composed of "maximes" or generalizations about the nature of the Turkish polity, while the fourth chapter is a narrative, compiled from eyewitness accounts, of a specific

political event that took place in 1651. In 1665, when he wrote The Present State, Rycaut had spent five

years in Istanbul. The authors of works on the state of the Otto man Empire ranged from diplomats with several years of experi ence to sedentary scholars who had never visited Turkey and

drew solely on the writings of others. As a member of the first cat

egory, Rycaut had nothing but scorn for those who wrote about

the Ottoman Empire on the basis of hearsay or simple tourism

(Epistle to the Reader). His sources for The Present State appear more reliable. For example, Rycaut stated that some of his infor

mation came from official Ottoman registers and records (Epistle to the Reader). One might wonder whether the Ottoman records

were open to him,10 or whether he could read them if they were.

The "Registers of Important Affairs" were handwritten in Otto man Turkish in a loopy scribble, while finance records were writ

ten in a script combining the characteristics of a shorthand and a

secret code.11 However, Rycaut numbered among his informants

10 As does Heywood, "Sir Paul Rycaut," p. 41. 11 The nearly indecipherable siyakat script, for which see Lajos Fekete, Die Siy

aqat-Schrift in die t?rkische Verwaltungsschreiben, 2 vols. (Budapest: Akademiai

Kiado, 1955).

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at court Defterdar ?eytan Ibrahim;12 as one of the chief treasurers

of the empire, he could certainly read the government registers. If

Rycaut had informants of this caliber, he did not require access to

the written records themselves. He also obtained interviews (pos

sibly through interpreters or dragomans) with inhabitants of the

palace and with Turkish soldiers returning from the wars.13 Chap ter 4, for instance, is clearly written from eyewitness reports. The

sections of his account based on direct testimony form lively and

interesting narratives replete with circumstantial detail. Finally,

Rycaut drew conclusions from his own experience, weighing them "to the measure and test of reason and virtue" (p. 2); it was

here that he was most at liberty to reflect on the English political realities of his time.

The rich scholarship on seventeenth-century England de

scribes the Restoration of 1660 not as a simple victory for absolute

monarchy but rather a compromise between the forces of royal ism and parliamentarianism.14 This compromise aimed at fore

stalling the renewal of civil war by restoring authority to the mon

arch, while at the same time preventing tyranny by permitting the

upper classes to set limits to that authority. The political atmo

sphere in 1665 was one of retreat from the republicanism of the

Commonwealth years, 1649-60. The strength of the reaction

generated a corresponding fear over the possibility of absolutism.

Absolute rule meant different things to critics or victims of royal

policies than it did to supporters of the king.15 The connotations

12 Anderson, An English Consul in Turkey, pp. 233-34.

13 For the office of dragoman, see Allan Cunningham, "Dragomania: The Dra

gomans of the British Embassy in Turkey," in Middle Eastern Affairs, no. 2, ed.

Albert Hourani (London: Chatto and Windus, 1961), pp. 81-100. 14 As a historian of the Ottoman Empire, I have found it a pleasure to consult

the many excellent studies by British historians on seventeenth-century English

government, politics, and ideas. Basic works for the Restoration period include

K. H. D. Haley, Politics in the Reign of Charles II (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985);

Christopher Hill, The Century of Revolution, 1603-1714 (Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson

and Sons, 1961); J. R. Jones, ed., The Restored Monarchy, 1660-1688 (London: Mac

millan, 1979); David Ogg, England in the Reign of Charles II, 2 vols., 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955); J. G. A. Pocock, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal

Law: A Study of English Historical Thought in the Seventeenth Century (Cam

bridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987); and Paul Seaward, The Restoration, 1660-1688 (Houndmills, England: Macmillan, 1991).

15 Scholarship on seventeenth-century political ideas, though voluminous, is

not as useful as it might be because of scholars' attempts to generalize too broadly: "The early seventeenth century considered that. . . ," but who considered, and had

he or she been fined or sent to jail recently for so considering? While experts on

the seventeenth century have managed to locate expressions of every possible

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Darling: Ottoman Politics through British Eyes 77

of the term "absolute" varied whether it was used in regard to the

king's making law, enforcing law, granting exceptions to existing law, raising money through taxation, administering the country,

ordering the church, putting down rebellion, or fulfilling his per sonal whims. And since to discuss absolutism is to talk about a

contest for power, its meaning also differed according to who the

contestants were perceived to be. Historically, the word "abso

lute" first referred to the ruler's freedom from any higher author

ity, in particular the pope; the ability of kings to rule without

papal appointment, merely by natural right of birth, was the essence of the divine right of kings.16 In that sense, English mon

archs became absolute rulers at the time of the Reformation, when control of the English church passed from the pope to the

king.17 A second set of definitions dealt with rule untrammeled by restraint from, and in full control over, lesser power groups, such as a nobility with an independent power base, or institutions like

free cities, the church, or the law. This second meaning of the

term?royal control over the internal powers of the realm?lay at

the root of the struggles of the seventeenth century. The political ideas of the seventeenth century fall into two

basic positions, one of ordered centeredness and one of commu

nity-based reason.18 The first position derived kingship from the divine and natural order and magnified the headship of the king over the body politic, while the second derived the king's power from the people's consent and sought to strengthen the role of at

least the uppermost layer of the people in government through

point of view in every possible period, to date they have made little or no attempt to relate people's statements on absolutism to the particular circumstances that called them forth and the attitudes of their proponents toward those circum stances or toward specific royal actions. Nor have they tried to clarify the relative

weight of opinion at any one time. Instead, they have leaped directly to the most

general level?"absolutism meant this"?and unhelpfully insulted each other for

disagreeing. Two exceptions are James Daly, "The Idea of Absolute Monarchy in

Seventeenth-Century England," Historical Journal 21 (1978): 227-50; and John Miller, "The Potential for 'Absolutism' in Later Stuart England," History 69 (1984): 187-207.

16 John Neville Figgis, The Divine Right of Kings, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cam

bridge University Press, 1914). 17 Brian Manning, "The Nobles, the People, and the Constitution," in Crisis in

Europe, 1550-1650, ed. Trevor Aston (New York: Basic Books, 1965), pp. 247-49. 18 Robert Eccleshall, Order and Reason in Politics: Theories of Absolute and

Limited Monarchy in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press,

1978), p. 18; Corrine Comstock Weston and Janelle Renfrow Greenberg, Subjects and Sovereigns: The Grand Controversy over Legal Sovereignty in Stuart England

(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 2-3.

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Parliament. Both positions were present in English political

thought through the ages, but they were deployed in different

ways as circumstances changed. In the first half of the seven

teenth century, the overwhelming concern had been to prop up

government against social unrest and religious rebellion. Both

types of argument had been used in this cause.19 The idea of order,

supported by the notion of divine right, was employed to establish

royal control over religion and the social body, while the commu

nity-based view emphasized the responsibility of all to contribute to the health of the whole body, the "commonweal"; it did not

imply the right of the people to rebel against royal control.

The Civil War and Restoration shifted the conflict from one

between the state and disruptive elements in the society to an

intrastate contest between king and Parliament.20 The restoration

of the Stuart kings in 1660 seemed to be intended by some (includ

ing the Stuarts themselves, it was feared) as a step toward a

French-style absolutism. The French regime was viewed by the

English as the ultimate in tyranny, surpassed only by that of

the Turks. All the seventeenth-century French monarchs were

thought to disregard the estates of the realm, to practice what to

the English was extortionate taxation enforced by military might, and to give increasing difficulty to the Protestant cause.21 These

issues were all alive in Restoration England as well.22 Avoiding the excesses of France seemed to hinge on parliamentary control

of royal desires; king and Parliament were seen as rivals in the

task of attaining the welfare of the whole. Now community-cen tered arguments were brought forth to aggrandize the power of

Parliament over the king: the subjects' responsibility to inform

and counsel the ruler was enlarged into a right to limit his actions

and to make laws for him to carry out. On the other hand, the later

Stuarts and their supporters used order-centered language to jus

19 The clearest exposition of these arguments is in J. P. Sommerville, Politics

and Ideology in England, 1603-1640 (London: Longman, 1980), pp. 9-50; see also

Kevin Sharpe, Politics and Ideas in Early Stuart England: Essays and Studies (Lon don: Pinter Publishers, 1989), pp. 9-20.

20 Sharpe, Politics and Ideas, pp. 63-71.

21 A comparison between the monarchies of England and France was made by J. P. Cooper, "Differences between English and Continental Governments in the

Early Seventeenth Century," in Britain and the Netherlands, ed. J. S. Bromley and

E. H. Kossmann, 4 vols. (London: Chatto and Windus, i960), 1:62-90. 22 A good discussion of the relationship between politics and religion is Mark

Goldie, "John Locke and Anglican Royalism," Political Studies 31 (1983): 61-95.

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Darling: Ottoman Politics through British Eyes 79

tify royal action independent of Parliament. Political alignments shifted according to the issue of the day, and no one could predict

what the king would do.23 In this conflict, political commentary was a popular and prolific form of literature, in which tyranny,

despotism, and sultanic rule were associated with the absolutist

tendencies of the Stuart monarchy. Parliament passed censorship laws to check the most virulent forms of attack, but criticism

flourished under the lightest of veils.

A comparable body of research on Ottoman political culture in

the seventeenth century does not yet exist.24 Until recently schol ars tended to neglect the period except with reference to trade

and external affairs, but that is beginning to change.25 Formerly

regarded as an unremarkable interlude in the "decline era" of

Ottoman history, the seventeenth century is coming to be seen as

a critical period of transition between a centralized "feudal" pol

ity and a more decentralized, more commercialized, and less

23 The uncertainty of the time is emphasized by Tim Harris, London Crowds in

the Reign of Charles II: Propaganda and Politics from the Restoration until the

Exclusion Crisis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 61; and Jona

than Scott, Algernon Sidney and the English Republic, 1623-1677 (Cambridge: Cam

bridge University Press, 1988), pp. 165-68. 24 The best general introduction to Ottoman history and civilization is Haul

Inalcik, The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age, 1300-1600, trans. Norman Itzko

witz and Colin Imber (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1973), DUt it does not

cover the seventeenth century. An outline of seventeenth-century events can be

found in M. A. Cook, ed., A History of the Ottoman Empire to 1730 (Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press, 1976); P. M. Holt, Ann K. S. Lambton, and Bernard

Lewis, eds., The Cambridge History of Islam, vol. 1: The Central Islamic Lands

(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970); or Stanford J. Shaw and Ezel

Kural Shaw, History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, vol. 1: Empire of the Gazis: The Rise and Decline of the Ottoman Empire, 1280-1808 (Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press, 1977). All these interpretations, however, are rapidly

becoming out of date. 25 See I. Metin Kunt, The Sultan's Servants: The Transformation of Ottoman

Provincial Government, 1550-1650 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983); Rifa'at 'Ali Abou-El-Haj, The 1703 Rebellion and the Structure of Ottoman Politics

(Leiden: Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten, 1984); Abou-El-Haj, Forma

tion of the Modern State: The Ottoman Empire, Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries

(Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991); Daniel Goffman, Izmir and the

Levantine World, 1550-1650 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990); and Les

lie A. Pierce, The Imperial Harem: Woman and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire

(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993). See also the recent doctoral dissertations

of Douglas Howard, "The Ottoman Timar System and Its Transformation, 1563

1656" (Indiana University, 1987); Karen Barkey, "Peasant Unrest in the Seventeenth

Century: The Ottoman Empire in Comparative Perspective" (University of Chi

cago, 1988); and Linda T. Darling, "The Ottoman Central Finance Department and

the Assessment and Collection of the Cizye and Avariz Taxes, 1560-1660" (University of Chicago, 1990).

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autocratic regime. The standard view of Ottoman history held that the Ottomans' rise from an obscure border principality to the status of a world power between 1300 and 1566 was attributable to a long series of strong and able sultans, an efficient bureaucratic

organization in the hands of slave officials completely devoted to

the ruler, and a large cavalry force reimbursed by grants of land revenues. Conversely, the decline of the empire after the death of

S?leyman the Magnificent in 1566 was seen as the result of a long series of incapable sultans ("the fish begins to stink at the head"), the abandonment of the land-based cavalry, excessive bureau

cratization, fiscal exploitation, and the unruliness of the slaves.

The inadequacy of this explanation became apparent in the course of research into the relationship of these changes to events

occurring elsewhere in the world.

Scholars have only begun to investigate the effects in the

Ottoman Empire of the sixteenth-century price revolution, the

seventeenth-century general crisis, and the military revolution, and we have virtually no information as yet on the economy of

the later seventeenth century.26 We do know that by the eigh teenth century certain provincial governments and local strong

men had emerged as regional power centers involved in the local

economies, controlling a fair amount of wealth and military resources, and entering into commercial relations with Europe ans. Over the same period the sultan, once an autocrat, became

an arbiter among factions and later the head of a faction of his own. The route to state power shifted from the cavalry ranks to

the palace service and bureaucracy, and then to the retinues of

the great men of state. Historical documents reveal that during the seventeenth century, the empire was engaged in a complex series of transformations that the notion of "decline" does little

to help us comprehend. Although the process of change is still

poorly understood, it is no longer possible to discuss the inter

nal affairs of the period using the judgments of Europeans like

Rycaut without critical analysis.

26 Specific questions related to the price revolution of the sixteenth century

and accompanying social changes have been addressed in numerous articles by

Suraiya Faroqhi and in Halil Inalcik, "Military and Fiscal Transformation in the

Ottoman Empire, 1600-1700," Archivum Ottomanicum 6 (1980): 283-337, DUt for the

last several decades the most influential analysis has been that of Bernard Lewis, "Some Observations of the Decline of the Ottoman Empire," Studia Isl?mica 9

(1958): 111-27.

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Darling: Ottoman Politics through British Eyes 81

In the early 1660s when Rycaut was writing, the Ottoman

empire, like England, was in the process of recovery from a

period of turmoil in the leadership during the 1640s and 1650s. We are not well informed about contemporary political argu mentation, but we do have the basic outline of events. Sultan

Ibrahim I, who had ruled between 1640 and i648,earned his nick name "Mad Ibrahim" by, among other things, covering the walls

and ceilings of the palace with fur. He was incapable of govern

ing, and power fell into the hands of his mother and his tutor.

His son and successor, Sultan Mehmed IV, came to the throne in

1648 as a child of seven. For the next several years, his female rel

atives and their eunuch guards exercised power from the harem, aided by the commanders of the Janissaries. The military forces

were factionalized and out of control. High officials were

appointed and dismissed at a rapid rate, preventing the forma

tion of a coherent policy. Inflation was rampant, the treasury was bare, the Venetian War over Crete was going badly, and the

food distribution system suffered from Venetian naval successes

in the Dardanelles. In desperation, the sultan's mother agreed in

1656 to the appointment as grand vizier of the elderly and experi enced Mehmed K?pr?l?, the first of a powerful dynasty of grand viziers. K?pr?l? accepted office on condition that he would be

allowed a free hand and would not be undermined by the sultan, and he soon restored order to the Ottoman government. By 1665 the empire had seen nine years of stable leadership, with Ahmed

K?pr?l? now at the helm, and was soon to complete the taking of

Crete from the Venetians. The young sultan, devoted to hunting, left political and military decisions to his viziers. When Rycaut arrived in the empire, the palace staff must have been trying to

put the tumultuous past behind them. It is understandable that in their discussions with a foreigner they stressed the need for a

strong central power, even though the sultan himself was not

exercising that power. With this background in mind, we can approach Rycaut's

observations with better understanding. In chapter 1 of Book One, "The Maximes of the Turkish Politie," Rycaut defined the Otto

man government as a tyranny in the classical sense of govern ment by a severe and absolute ruler who was above the law. The

long quotation that follows contains the main elements of his


Page 13: OEfromBritisheyes


But when I have considered seriously the contexture of the Turkish

government, the absoluteness of an Emperour without reason,

without virtue, whose speeches may be irrational, and yet must be

laws; whose actions irregular, and yet examples; whose sentence

and judgement, if in matters of the Imperial concernment, are most

commonly corrupt, and yet decrees irresistible: When I consider what little rewards there are for vertue, and no punishment for

profitable and thriving vice; how men are raised at once by adula

tion, chance, and the sole favor of the Prince, without any title of noble blood, or the motives of previous deserts,... to the

weightiest, the richest, and most honourable charges of the

Empire, . .. what they labour for is but as slaves for their great

Patron and Master.... In this Government, severity, violence, and

cruelty are natural to it, and it were as great an errour to begin to

loose the reins, and ease the people of that oppression to which they and their fore-fathers have since their first original been accus

tomed, as it would be in a nation free-born, and used to live under

the protection of good laws, and the clemency of a virtuous and

Christian Prince, to exercise a Tyrannical power over their estates

and lives, and change their liberty into servitude and slavery. (PP. 2-3)

The fact that this horrid picture reflected an axiom of Euro

pean tradition rendered it credible as a description of the Otto

man polity. Rycaut was not alone in such extremism; most of

those who have written about the Turks have displayed "passion ate feelings," both positive and negative.27 Five centuries of expe rience have still not been able to dispel the image of oriental des

potism that hangs over the Turks. In reality, however, Ottoman

political thought acknowledged checks on the sultan's behavior.

The Ottoman ruler was bound by Islamic law?covering social,

political, and religious questions, originating in God and unalter

able by human rulers?as well as by past customs and prior decrees.28 In addition, in the Near East the ruler's legitimacy rested on the provision of justice and order, and any subject, even

the poorest, could challenge this legitimacy through the right of

direct petition to the sultan himself.29 Further, by the seventeenth

27 Bowen, British Contributions to Turkish Studies, p. 8. For Locke's emotional

characterization of the Turks, see John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed.

Peter Laslett (New York: New American Library, 1963), pp. 182-83. 28

Inalcik, The Ottoman Empire, pp. 65-71. 29

Suraiya Faroqhi, "Political Activity among Ottoman Taxpayers and the Prob

lem of Sultanic Legitimation," Journal of the Economic and Social History of the

Orient 35 (1992): 1-39. For a description of the petition process, see Faroqhi, "Politi

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Darling: Ottoman Politics through British Eyes 83

century the sultan was removed from the business of government, which was in the hands of officials and the great men of state.30

The sultan was not free to act on his every whim, and an Ottoman

scholar would dismiss Rycaut's rhetoric as the product of igno rance and prejudice. By virtue of his long residence in the Otto

man realm, however, Rycaut must have understood the Ottoman

political system better than the language in this passage would

suggest. Internal evidence suggests that he may have had another reason for employing the terminology of tyranny. In England the

epithet of tyrant was used by critics of royal policy to characterize a king who tried to act independently of his counselors.31 Rycaut's

description, if applied to the English political situation, raised the

specter of an absolutism more extreme than any English king or

queen had yet been able to wield.

Even though by Rycaut's time the idea was widespread that

royal power should be exercised in accord with law and tempered

by consultation with Parliament, the English still had difficulty

formulating a political theory that gave final sovereignty to any one but the king.32 New parliaments not convened by the monarch

but elected during the Commonwealth had been seen as illegiti mate, so much so that they were unable to obtain enough legiti macy to vote sufficient taxes for the Commonwealth government

to run properly.33 On the other hand, because of the monarchy's small fiscal base, lack of a standing military force, and weakness

with regard to the nobility, few rulers were ever able to exercise a

power that could be called absolute. Charles II, when he came to the throne, lacked army, courts, or treasury, and the royal domain lands were considerably reduced due to sales during the Com

monwealth. Throughout the 1660s Charles depended on Parlia ment for his income and was thus unable to rule independently,

cal Initiatives 'From the Bottom Up' in the Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Ottoman Empire: Some Evidence for Their Existence," in Osmanistische Studien zur Wirtschafts- und Sozialgeschichte in Memoriam Vaneo Boskov, ed. Hans Georg

Majer (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1986), pp. 24-33. 30 Linda T. Darling, "The Finance Scribes and Ottoman Politics," in Decision

Making and Change in the Ottoman Empire, ed. Caesar Farah (Kirksville, Mo.: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1993), pp. 89-100. The sultan's isolation was

graphically enacted in court ceremonial and architecture; see G?lr? Necipoglu, Architecture, Ceremonial and Power: The Topkapi Palace in the Fifteenth and Six teenth Centuries (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991).

31 Sharpe, Politics and Ideas in Early Stuart England, pp. 16-17.

32 Harris, London Crowds, p. 46; Hill, The Century of Revolution, p. 63.

33 Hill, The Century of Revolution, pp. 115-18.

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although he clearly wanted to do so. The Restoration Parliament,

representing the propertied classes (both landowners and mer

chants), struggled to keep royal absolutism in check through control of the purse strings. In the eyes of many Englishmen, Par

liament without the king had proven illegitimate during the Inter

regnum, but the king without Parliament was viewed as danger ous. The Ottoman empire served as a living example of the threat

posed by monarchy unrestrained. The impulsive irrationality and

despotic cruelty Rycaut attributed to the Ottoman sultan con

trasted with "the clemency of a virtuous and Christian Prince"

who abided by "good laws." Was this only Rycaut's flattery of his

patron's patron? Was it not also a broad hint to the restored mon

arch, from a subject with proven royalist credentials, that En

gland's propertied classes would not tolerate a king who tried "to

exercise a Tyrannical power over their estates and lives"?

In chapter 2 Rycaut expanded his discussion of "the absolute ness of the Emperour" and explained why Englishmen worried

about tyrannical power over their estates. The first topic he

addressed was the system of land tenure in the Ottoman empire. To understand why he considered land tenure the crucial element

in absolutism we need to look at the seventeenth-century under

standing of the relationship between liberty and property. The

term liberty was used in the seventeenth century to refer not to

freedom in the abstract, but to the concrete ability to do whatever

you wanted with yourself and your property.34 Servants, appren

tices, salaried workers, and women were therefore not "free"

because they were under the control of the head of the household

or enterprise. Tenants and paupers were not "free" because they did not own property with which they could do as they liked.

What made an Englishman free was owning his own property. Those who were "free" had the "franchise" and voted for mem

bers of Parliament. Parliament therefore represented the "free," the property owners, and was considered the preserver of "the

people's liberties."35

By contrast, in the Ottoman empire the ownership of all prop

34 C. B. MacPherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes

to Locke (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962). The property aspect is well explained by

Hill, "The Place of the Seventeenth-Century Revolution in English History," in A

Nation of Change and Novelty: Radical Politics, Religion and Literature in Seven

teenth-Century England (London: Routledge, 1990), p. 23. 35

Seaward, The Restoration, pp. 14-17.

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Darling: Ottoman Politics through British Eyes 85

erty was vested in the sultan (religious property excepted). Ac

cording to Rycaut, that meant that all the wealth of the empire went "to satisfy the appetite of one single person"; it was em

ployed "to the use and benefit of their Great Master," "whose will

and lusts they served" (p. 4). He used such repulsive terms for rhe

torical effect, but he knew that what he said was not literally true.

This is clear from the very next sentence, in which he explained the Ottoman system of distributing usufructory rights on the

lands of the empire to the military forces as a reward for valor

and in lieu of salary, just as was done in the English system of

knight-service. The essential difference between the two systems was that the sultan's grants were not permanent; he retained the

ownership of the land itself, and the grant of usufruct was revoca

ble at his pleasure.36 Thus, Ottoman nobles were not "free" in the

English sense: free to dispose of their own property however they willed. Nor were they free to refuse service, if they could get away with it (even common soldiers in England considered themselves

"free" in this sense, as witnessed by a 1673 complaint from a sol

dier about having to swear a "horrid oath" to obey the orders of

his officers).37 In the Ottoman system, as Rycaut had already

pointed out in the first chapter, there was no privileged noble

class with "title of blood" (p. 2). Nor did the Ottoman ruling class

have the secure power base provided by independent control of

lands and revenues from which to check the power of the ruler. In

fact, the sultans had been at pains in the early period of the

empire to eliminate such independent power bases.38 This left the Ottoman nobility and high officials dependent on the will of the

ruler for the continuation of their position and also of their social

status, livelihood, and even life itself.

What made this particularly portentous for the English was

that, legally, their lives and liberties as well as their goods and

lands were their property.39 All of these, at the time Rycaut wrote,

36 For a fuller description of the Ottoman landholding system, called the timar

system, see Inalcik, The Ottoman Empire, pp. 104-18. 37

Ogg, England in the Reign of Charles II, 2:505. Property owners in England could not be forced to pay taxes on their property without their consent: Sommer

ville, Politics and Ideology in England, pp. 147-48. 38

Inalcik, The Ottoman Empire, pp. 109-10; Halil Inalcik, "Ottoman Methods of

Conquest," Studia Isl?mica 2 (1954): 103-29. 39 Tim Harris, '"Lives, Liberties and Estates': Rhetorics of Liberty in the Reign

of Charles II," in The Politics of Religion in Restoration England, ed. Tim Harris, Mark Goldie, and Paul Seaward (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), pp. 219-20.

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were under threat from religious persecution. English men and women outside the established church were not considered full

citizens, and so their property (goods, liberty, life) was not invio

late. If the king became absolute, such might be the fate of all

Englishmen. In fact, many members of the established church,

Rycaut's family among them, had recently suffered on this ac

count during the Civil War and Commonwealth. Ottoman officials

had likewise no security of property, since their property was lia

ble to be taken away at any time. Their lives and liberties, their

social status and livelihood, were equally insecure. How could

these men be considered fit counselors for the ruler or fit gover nors for a realm of which they were not full citizens? Rycaut could only conclude that "what they labour for is but as slaves for

their great Patron and Master" (p. 2). To the rhetoric of irrational

ity and vice he added the rhetoric of slavery. No Englishman, not

even Charles and his advisers, could miss the point: absolutism was not an acceptable form of rule in England.

A supporting point in Rycaut's condemnation of sultanic abso

lutism was that the Ottoman ruler was above the law. Although this was true only in a limited sense, the sultan, unlike the king of England, could make unilateral decisions about war and

finance.40 As a contrasting example Rycaut cited Germany, where

the Diet had to be ponderously consulted before Germany could

go to war against its Ottoman invaders (and there were occasions

when it refused to grant the funds). In England it was a disputed

question whether king or law (embodied in Parliament) was

supreme. The issue at stake was whether the king could unilater

ally levy funds from his subjects to support an army.41 An army was seen as both an unnecessary expense coming out of the sub

jects' pockets and a potential instrument for the enforcement of

absolute rule, especially with respect to religious uniformity. The

law prescribed and guaranteed the freedom of the subjects from

this and other unpopular demands.42 Charles II had quieted but

not resolved the dispute in 1660 by a written agreement to rule

within the law and not to go to war; by 1665 it was clear he was not

willing to keep the agreement.43 An Ottoman-style absolutism was

40 For limitations on the sultan's power, see Inalcik, The Ottoman Empire, pp.

61, 70-75 41

Figgis, The Divine Right of Kings, p. 225. 42

Pocock, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law, p. 189. 43 The Declaration of Breda: Jones, The Restored Monarchy, p. 12.

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Darling: Ottoman Politics through British Eyes 8?

undoubtedly effective when it came to raising money or making war. "But," hinted Rycaut, in case King Charles was attracted by this effectiveness, "I confess it is a blessing and wonderful happi

ness of a people, to be Subjects of a gracious Prince, who hath pre scribed his power within the compass of wholesom Laws, ac

knowledge a right of possession and propriety of Estate as well

in his Subjects as himself, who doth not punish the innocent with

the guilty, nor oppress without distinction, nor act the part of that

King whom God gives in his wrath (p. 8)." A person who had been

out of England since 1660 might not have realized how close the

king had come to abrogating his agreement, but Rycaut was fully aware of the issues surrounding the question. As a royalist, he

could not be expected to endorse parliamentary government, but

his disapproval of arbitrary rule was plain.

Chapter 3 expanded on the image of the Ottoman ruling class

as slaves, emphasizing the implications of that status in terms of

the obedience owed to the sultan. Here Rycaut pulled out all his

rhetorical stops, playing on stereotypes of slavery as known to the

English in order to reinforce the negative image of absolutism he

was trying to convey. Later passages, however, show he knew that

Ottoman slavery was of a quite different nature.44 He began the

chapter by describing the education of an Ottoman kul, or slave, which ingrained an obedience and devotion to the sultan so

extreme that to die by the hand or command of the ruler was con

sidered the highest form of martyrdom and led directly to Para

dise (p. 8). "The whole composition of the Turkish Court," he

declared, was "a Prison and Banniard of Slaves, differing from

that where the Galley-slaves are immured, only by the ornaments

and glittering outside" (p. 9). He found the Ottoman government "such a fabrick of slavery" that it was "a wonder if any amongst them should be born of a free ingenuous spirit" (p. 9). Such a nega tive picture of service to an absolute monarch, evoking the degra dation and danger of the galleys, would surely give pause to even

the most ardent royalist of England.

Nearly a hundred years before, however, Bodin had already

explained to Europeans that the sultan ruled his slaves "much

44 Ottoman slavery was distinct from chattel slavery of the Roman type. Otto man slaves were legal persons, held the highest offices in the realm under the sul

tanate, and accumulated great wealth. For a fuller discussion of how the institu

tion operated, see Inalcik, The Ottoman Empire, pp. 76-88; Halil Inalcik, "Capital Formation in the Ottoman Empire," Journal of Economic History 19 (1969): 97-140.

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more courteously and freely, then doth a good householder his servants . . . whom the prince useth no otherwise to instruct, then

if they were his children."45 Rycaut himself pointed out that any one who received wages from the government bore (proudly) the

title of the sultan's kul (p. 8). By Rycaut's time very few of these were actually purchased slaves or members of the child levy (dev

shirme), and the term kul had become nearly equivalent to "ser

vant" or "employee." The palace educational system he described was reserved for candidates destined for top governmental offices

(p. 8); most kul were not indoctrinated in that fashion. In any case, household service in either the sultan's palace or the retinue of one of the great men of state was the quickest and surest way to

climb the ladder of political success.46 A similar situation, of

course, prevailed in Stuart England, where offices were filled by the retinues and favorites of the king and the great men. In early

modern England, as in the Ottoman Empire, successful men

retained households modeled on the king's; members of these

households often did the work of the posts to which such men

were appointed.47 By the seventeenth century, most offices were

filled by newly made nobles, courtiers, and favorites rather than

the old nobility.48 If the king were as absolute as the sultan, would

these men be as abject as slaves?

In connection with officeholding, Rycaut could point out a

dangerous Ottoman parallel to the Stuart kings' penchant for lis

tening only to their favorites: "the flattery used in the Seraglio

45 Bodin, The Six Books of a Commonweale, p. 201. The Turkish palace slave

system has also been seen in Dewey-like terms as an educational system designed for training according to aptitudes and promotion according to merit: Lybyer, The

Government of the Ottoman Empire, pp. 71-73. 46 The Ottoman elite's dependency on the sultan and lack of a landed power

base are often cited as a reason for Ottoman corruption and decline; see, for exam

ple, Robert Mantran, Istanbul dans le seconde moiti? du XVIIe si?cle (Paris: Librairie Adrien Maisonneuve, 1962), p. 102. One should note that modem salaried

political bureaucrats are in very much the same position as the Ottoman kul, with

the exception of the threat to life itself. Of course, the idea of "employee" can now

be qualified by the concepts of "wage slavery" and "white-collar proletariat." For

the political role of household service in the Ottoman Empire, see Kunt, The Sul

tan's Servants; and Rifa'at 'Ali Abou-El-Haj, "The Ottoman Vezir and Pa?a House

holds," Journal of the American Oriental Society 94 (1947): 438-47. 47 Sir John Craig, A History of Red Tape: An Account of the Origin and Develop

ment of the Civil Service (London: Macdonald and Evans, 1955), pp. 50-63. See also

Abou-El-Haj, The 1703 Rebellion, p. 9 and n. 25. 48 Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641 (Oxford: Clarendon

Press, 1965), pp. 468-69, 500.

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Darling: Ottoman Politics through British Eyes 89

towards the Prince by those that are near his person," and the

"condescension abroad to all the lusts and evil inclinations of

their Master" (p. 9). His advice to the ruler was "to seek other

counsel and means to inform himself of the true state of his own

and other Kings Dominions, then such as proceed from men unex

perienced in any other Court or Country then that they live in." An

astute courtier could surely see a personal application in such


Rycaut then attempted to explain "how it comes to pass, that

there are so many mutinies and rebellions as are seen and known

amongst the Turks," if abject submission to authority was so care

fully instilled. "Brave and wise Emperours," he said, made use of

this "immoderate subjection" for "the advancement of noble

exploits, and enlargement of their Empire," while under "Effemi

nate Princes" it became "the cause of the decay of the Turkish dis

cipline" (p. 9). His explanation harks back once again to the situa

tion in England: rebellions happen "when two powerful parties

aspiring both to greatness and authority, allure the Souldiers to

their respective factions, and engage them in a civil war amongst themselves; and hence proceed seditions, destruction of Empires, the overthrow of Common-wealths, and the violent death of great

Ministers of State" (p. 10). In chapter 4, Rycaut related an actual historical event that

illustrated the process by which, in an absolutist state, the "pas sions and animosities" of those in high position could generate

military disturbances and factional war.49 He narrated, from

information gained from members of the palace staff, the story of

the rivalry for power between the mother and the grandmother of

the sultan. He told how they drew the great men of state and the

military corps into their rivalry, and how the rivalry turned into an armed uprising that permitted the members of the mother's

faction, which had control of the sultan, to proscribe and execute

the leaders of the grandmother's faction along with the grand mother herself. The ill effects of "the decay of discipline" were

thus made perfectly clear.

The episode may be summarized as follows. The previous sul

tan, Ibrahim, had been mentally unfit to rule the empire, and

power had passed into the hands of his mother, K?sem, first lady

49 This kind of factionalism and the resulting possibility of explosion was a

constant problem in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England; see Stone, Crisis

of the Aristocracy, p. 481.

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of the harem. When Ibrahim died, his eldest son and successor, Mehmed IV, was only seven years old, and his grandmother K?sem continued to function as the power behind the throne.

Mehmed's mother, Turhan, thought that she should be wielding this power and that K?sem should have gone into retirement on

the death of Ibrahim. Turhan was also aware that K?sem was ulti

mately responsible for Ibrahim's death, and fearing for the life of her son as well, she determined to wrest power from K?sem.

K?sem exercised her power through the Janissary military corps, so Turhan allied herself with the Sipahis or Cavalry of the Porte,

who were longtime rivals of the Janissaries. Eventually she suc

ceeded in instigating the Sipahis as a group to rise against the

Janissaries. The great statesmen of the empire took sides with one

or the other faction, and the two military corps took to fighting in

the streets of the city. Some time passed in this state of anarchy, and finally K?sem proposed to bring an end to the impasse by

deposing Mehmed and replacing him with his half brother, whose

mother, naive and pious, could be more easily dominated. This

suggestion alienated her chief supporter, the grand vizier, who

informed Turhan and her allies, as well as the sultan, of K?sem's

plan. The sultan's supporters armed the palace guards and wrote

decrees condemning K?sem to death for the young sultan to sign. On the strength of these decrees, the palace guards entered the

harem in search of K?sem. Discovering her hidden in a clothes

chest under some quilts, they dragged her out and executed her. To regain the allegiance of the Janissaries, the grand vizier dis

played the Banner of Muhammad, to which all Muslims were

obliged to rally. This religious appeal was reinforced by the

approach of the Sipahi corps, fully armed, as well as by a written

command from the sultan, and the Janissaries yielded. Their lead ers were executed, and "for a long time after they kept themselves

within the bounds of humility and obedience" (p. 23).

Rycaut's comment on this event was that although absolute

rulers like the Ottomans, dependent on military power to main

tain their control, were fully exposed to the dangers of military revolt, at the same time no usurper or "Rebellious slave" could

command the loyalty of the military forces as could a member of

the royal line. This time he made the parallel to England explicit: "None can more experimentally preach this Doctrine [of devotion to the royal line] to the World than England, who no sooner threw

off her Obedience and Religion to her Prince, but. . . she was

deprived of all her other Ecclesiastical and Civil Rights, and in all

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Darling: Ottoman Politics through British Eyes 91

capacities and relations deflowred and prophaned by impious and

unhallowed hands" (p. 24). Civil war, sedition, "overthrow of Com

mon-wealths, and the violent death of great Ministers of State"?

not to mention that of the ruler himself in 1649?followed in due course.

Considered in connection with England, Rycaut's comments in

these four chapters about sultanic tyranny, noble slavery, disre

gard of law, and factional war, reveal that he supported the monar

chy and disapproved of rebellion against it, but feared the possibil

ity of absolutism and worried about the status of English property and law. He was by no means alone in this ambivalent position; in

the 1660s a majority of his countrymen probably shared his atti

tude. In this book Rycaut appealed to an England that was in the

process of inventing constitutional monarchy, searching for a way to retain the majesty of kingship while limiting royal sovereignty.

At the same time, he addressed a monarch who was unsure

whether he was willing to accept such a compromise of his position and power. Rycaut's description of the Ottoman system conveyed a

double warning, cautioning against both the adverse effects of

excessive absolutism and the dangers of rebellion against legiti mate authority. His work cannot be read as straightforward repor

tage, the naive reflection of an observer of the Ottoman scene. A

description of observable reality that both concealed and conveyed other (usually political) ideas was a standard feature in the lit erature of the period.50 A book on any subject written by an

Englishman in 1665 that on the first page mentioned "intestine and civil revolutions" and commonwealths "supported with Reason

and with Religion" was undoubtedly about English politics, what ever its ostensible subject. Rycaut's work must be understood as

veiled advice to the English monarch.51

The tactic Rycaut employed to make his point was to depict Ottoman rule as the negative ideal, an extreme form of absolut ism that England should strive not to emulate. The attributes of

50 Since Rycaut's book was not a work of history, religion, or science, it

escaped the censor's eye. Those three fields were under censorship in the 1660s; see Hill, The Century of Revolution, p. 248. As a consequence, political criticism

was often written in the form of allegory or the history of foreign lands; see Chris

topher Hill, "Political Discourse in Early Seventeenth-Century England," in A

Nation of Change and Novelty, pp. 42-44. 51

Hey wood in 1972 mentioned his feeling that Rycaut in his work always had

England in mind: "Sir Paul Rycaut," p. 54. Rycaut said as much himself, but nei

ther Heywood nor anyone else who has written on Rycaut has paid sufficient attention to his own statements about the political import of his observations.

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the Ottoman system that he emphasized?the dependence of sul

tanic absolutism on the absence of a nobility holding private prop

erty and the slave status of the Ottomans' high officials?were those

that contrasted most effectively with England's efforts to establish

values of commonwealth and liberty within a monarchical system. Other aspects of his description, whether true or not?the absolute ness of the Turkish sultan's edicts, his arbitrary bestowal of lands

and goods, the violence and cruelty of the Turkish system, and the

sultan's being above the law?represented for Rycaut just those

traits that the English sovereign should not possess. The Ottoman empire was perhaps the most appropriate nega

tive image Rycaut could have employed. For early modern

Europe, the Islamic world was "the central instance of cultural

otherness."52 Travelers' literature of the time emphasized the

Turks' "strangeness," the fact that they lived by other standards

than those of Christian Europe.53 The Ottoman system was con

sidered abhorrent by definition, while any admirable qualities discovered in it were customarily held up as a reproach to Euro

peans lacking these virtues.54 England's diplomatic and commer

cial dealings with the Ottomans after the late sixteenth century conflicted with the age-old construction of Islam as the enemy of

Christendom and its opposite in every respect. Rycaut's critique of English politics used this tradition to good effect, depicting the

horrors of a fully absolutist system as viciousness on the part of

the ruler, abject slavery for everyone else, and the threat of rape and murder if the system were overthrown. Such a system, "natu

ral" as it may have been to the Turks, would never work in "a

nation free-born."

52 This lovely phrase is from Jonathan Haynes, The Humanist as Traveler:

George Sandy's Relation of a Journey Begun An. Dom. 1610 (Rutherford, N.J.: Fair

leigh Dickinson University Press, 1986), p. 13. 53 Orhan Burian, "The Interest of the English in Turkey as Reflected in the Lit

erature of the Renaissance," Oriens 5 (1952): 209-29. 54 For the construction of the European image of Islam, see Daniel Norman,

Islam and the West: The Making of an Image (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, i960); and Robert S. Schwoebel, The Shadow of the Crescent: The Renais

sance Image of the Turk (1453-1517) (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1967). For studies

of the English view of Islam and the Turks, see Samuel C. Chew, The Crescent and

the Rose: Islam and England during the Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1937); and Brandon H. Beck, From the Rising of the Sun: English Images of the Ottoman Empires to 1715 (New York: Peter Lang, 1987). Use of this tradition for

other purposes was a commonplace. Thomas Browne used the Battle of Lepanto between Europe and the Ottomans as a metaphor for his own inner battles

between reason and passion or "faith against the Devil" (Sharpe, Politics and

Ideas, p. 21).

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Darling: Ottoman Politics through British Eyes 93

But Rycaut's work did more than provide a negative ideal for

English politics. His vivid depiction of political events in chapter

4 exposed, perhaps unintentionally, the vast distance between the

idealized empire whose "maximes" he expounded and the real

empire he actually saw. As already noted, Rycaut knew that the

Ottoman landholding system spread its benefits far beyond the

sultan's pocket. In the episode of the Janissary rebellion he

revealed that the sultan was anything but a "Tyrannical power": he was really only a twelve-year-old child who was led around the

palace by the hand and who sobbed with fear when the rebellion

broke out. His "slaves" appeared as the real holders of power,

writing decrees for the sultan to sign and deciding who would

be promoted and who executed. These "slaves" were scarcely re

signed to the martyrdom supposedly proper to their station. The

Janissary officers fled Istanbul in disguise after their defeat, and

K?sem's struggles at her execution betrayed her reluctance to die at the command of the sultan and go directly to Paradise. All

"maximes" to the contrary, the Ottoman Empire did not actually function as the theories proclaimed it did.

Unfortunately, modern scholarship has generally not noticed

this discrepancy or taken advantage of Rycaut's inside knowledge of the system. Authorities have used Rycaut's maxims as a

description of Ottoman governmental realities while dismissing his account of real Ottoman politics as an aberration or, worse, a

corruption of reality. One example is this comment on sultanic

patrimonialism: "If some Grand Vezirs seemed to have some ini

tiative, this was a de facto situation, and was due to the passivity of some sultans."55 Another is the use of the "maximes" in chapter 3 to support the "central importance of slavery" in the Ottoman

system, ignoring the information in chapter 4 about the actual

role of slavery.56 Chapter 4 has even been called "digressive," included merely "for the record," while the first three chapters

were labeled "impartial."57 True, the lively air and intimate detail

with which Rycaut related the events detailed in chapter 4 marked a descent from the lofty and judgmental tone of the first

three chapters, but the chapter was no digression, since it served

55 Metin Heper, "Patrimonialism in the Ottoman Turkish Bureaucracy," Asian

and African Studies 13 (1979): 8. 56 Paul Coles, The Ottoman Impact on Europe (London: Thames and Hudson,

1968), pp. 162-63. 57

Anderson, An English Consul in Turkey, p. 239. For Anderson's evaluation of

Rycaut's view of Ottoman politics, see pages 243-44.

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to support Rycaut's argument in the first three?far from im

partial?chapters about the dangers of both absolutism and


Rycaut's picture in chapter 4 of Ottoman political life is vivid

enough to permit us to use his work in revising the stereotype. If ever the Ottoman government had matched the theoretical model, it is clear from Rycaut's information that a change had taken

place, a devolution of power from the ruler similar in certain

ways to what was occurring at the same time in England. The

mechanism of this process is still to be explored, but its outlines seem clear. At the beginning of the seventeenth century the Otto

man empire had undergone a crisis from which it had emerged "no longer its old self."58 Population growth, inflation, economic

distress, and internal rebellion created a "time of troubles," while

advances in military technology and practice simultaneously put unbearable demands on the treasury and on military discipline.

When sultanic leadership faltered in this crisis, female members

of the royal family, palace personnel, and Janissary commanders

took over the responsibility of government. The bureaucracy and

the households (including the palace), the avenues of recruitment

and training for those positions, supplanted in importance the old

path of advancement to power through the landholding cavalry ranks. The new leadership finally began to master the troubles

that beset the empire with Mehmed K?pr?l?'s centralization of

power in the office of grand vizier. This was no restoration but a

"glorious revolution": the center of government shifted from the

sultan's palace to the grand vizier's residence, and the grand vizier acted no longer as the sultan's right arm but as the real

decision maker. Although not quite a figurehead, the sultan was

no longer an autocrat. In the following century the empire was

run by coalitions of officials with no military background, and

factional politics became the order of the day, as in contemporary

England. The institutional developments accompanying these shifts in

power relations became permanent features of the Ottoman gov ernment. In a study of another Ottoman political incident late in

the seventeenth century, one historian has called attention to how

?in the Ottoman Empire as in England?political "substructures

58 Halil Inalcik, "The Heyday and Decline of the Ottoman Empire," in Holt,

Lambton, and Lewis, eds., The Cambridge History of Islam, vol. i: The Central

Islamic Lands, p. 342.

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Darling: Ottoman Politics through British Eyes 95

that evolved over the years came to supplement the personal rule

of the sultans."59 Like the English Parliament and the ministries, these Ottoman substructures?notably the bureaucracy and the

personal households of the great men of state?provided continu

ity over changes of rule and worked to control the ruler's exercise

of power.60 But in the seventeenth-century Ottoman Empire, in

contrast to England, the idealized maxims of state were not

replaced even though the government was now operating quite

differently. Ottomans continued to talk and write as if sultanic

absolutism were still in place. No Turkish Locke ever arose to

legitimize the new political system that was taking shape around

the grand vizier.

Behind the facade of contrasting political rhetoric, however, there were certain similarities in the direction of development of

the Ottoman Empire and England that have gone almost unno

ticed through the centuries. Rycaut's images of loathsome Otto man tyranny both stemmed from and reinforced an orientalism

founded on the contrary assumption of a vast distinction, even

alienation, between East and West.61 The use he made of these

images highlighted the opposition between the two. But the oppo sition was at least in part a false one; out of Rycaut's own observa

tions we can fashion new images of likeness. In both countries a

leadership vacuum in the monarchy resulted in the strengthening of a lower tier of governmental structures and processes. In both, the transfer of power from the ruler to his subordinates was

routinized and the patronage of the great men of state became the

normal means of advancement, while the bureaucracy increased

in independence and importance. The orientalism that still imbues modern scholarship would

suggest the dismissal of these similarities as sheer coincidence.

The theory of "decline" denies to the Ottomans even the possibil

ity of structural change. But if every alteration in the organiza

59 Abou-El-Haj, The 1703 Rebellion, p. 12.

60 It is true that the Ottoman substructures did not have an independent power base in landownership. But it has been argued that in the Ottoman system it was

not ownership of the means of production but control over distribution of its reve

nues that conferred power: ?aglar Keyder, "The Dissolution of the Asiatic Mode of

Production," Economy and Society 5 (1976): 178-96. 61 The standard text on orientalism is Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York:

Random House, 1979). Said stresses the political use that was and is made of cul

tural differences; the corollary is the suppression from consciousness of similari

ties and likenesses.

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tion and expression of Ottoman power after the mid-sixteenth

century is to be characterized as decline, then we must explain how what we call progressive trends in seventeenth-century Eng land were manifestations of decline in the Ottoman Empire. We should take the simultaneous occurrence of these trends in such different countries as the starting point of a new agenda for research and reconceptualization. It is possible that events in

England and the Ottoman Empire were not just superficially sim

ilar but structurally linked.

Economic and social historians between 1955 and 1975 estab lished that across the whole Eurasian continent in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, states were undergoing similar crises or political transformations connected to a common set of eco

nomic difficulties.62 The debate over the nature of the crisis?

essentially economic or political in origin?together with nearly all scholarship on the problem halted without resolution after the

publication of a synthesis concluding bluntly that two decades of

research had not demonstrated the correctness of either posi tion.63 Recently, however, the debate was reopened with the the

ory that "state breakdown" in the first half of the seventeenth cen

tury in England, France, the Ottoman Empire, and Ming China was the result of a conjuncture of fiscal distress, elite fragmenta tion, and popular discontent all driven by population growth.64 In

most cases, economic dislocation and state breakdown were fol

62 The debate on the general crisis of the seventeenth century began in 1954 in

the journal Past and Present and inspired voluminous research in the following two and a half decades. Important contributions were collected in Trevor Aston,

ed., Crisis in Europe, 1560-1660 (New York: Basic Books, 1965); and Geoffrey Parker and Lesley M. Smith, eds., The General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century (London:

Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978). On the crisis in non-Western lands, see S. A. M.

Adshead, "The Seventeenth-Century General Crisis in China," France/Asie 24 (1970):

251-65; William S. Atwell, "Ming Observers of Ming Decline: Some Chinese Views on the 'Seventeenth-Century Crisis' in Comparative Perspective," Journal of the

Royal Asiatic Society (1988): 316-48; and Jack A. Goldstone, "East and West in the

Seventeenth Century: Political Crises in Stuart England, Ottoman Turkey, and

Ming China," Comparative Studies in Society and History 31 (1988): 103-42. A differ

ent explanation for the connectedness of economic and political changes across

the globe was given by Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System, 3 vols.

(New York: Academic Press, 1974-89). 63 Theodore Rabb, The Struggle for Stability in Early Modern Europe (New

York: Oxford University Press, 1975). 64 Jack Goldstone, Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World (Berke

ley: University of California Press, 1991). Although his analysis can be faulted on a

number of counts, he is to be commended for creating a structure that draws

together so much disparate information and makes it meaningful.

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Darling: Ottoman Politics through British Eyes 97

lowed by reconsolidation, reform, and the danger of absolutism.

Cultural and ideological differences were significant factors in

determining the direction of the outcome.

Rycaut's observations would support an argument along the

lines of this model. In both England and the Ottoman Empire the

resolution of crisis encouraged the development of new and

tighter political controls. Those who had wielded power when the

monarchy was weak or absent sought to retain it in some form

when the monarchy was restored. And as the increasing scope and

penetration of bureaucratic and fiscal administration enhanced

the importance of the bureaucracy and of government functiona

ries generally, the ruler's authority gave way to that of subordi nate governmental institutions. The model accounts for the

divergence between England's reform ideology and Ottoman tra

ditionalism by cultural differences in the two countries' views of

history. The validity of the model itself must still be tested and

examined, and there are problems with the historical reconstruc

tions based on it. Its value, however, is already apparent in its

ability to explain Rycaut's contradictory accounts of the Otto

mans, to raise new questions for research, and to stimulate the

investigation of the links between apparently disparate cultures.

Rycaut's work is useful today not because it feeds a comfort able sense of Western uniqueness, but because it sharpens our

awareness of the complexity that lies beneath the rhetoric people have used to label and categorize each other. Perhaps there actu

ally is a world history, a series of developmental rhythms that

transcend cultural and civilizational divisions. But uncovering it

demands that we read the European reports on distant lands with a careful and critical eye.