Supplying the Naval Arsenal of Istanbul with Cotton and Hemp (sixteenth and seventeenth centuries)
The Ottoman naval arsenals in Istanbul and elsewhere built their own vessels. However, certain essential items arrived as semi-finished goods: the list included sails, usually of cotton and cordage made of hemp. Cotton was available in the Aegean region of Anatolia, and hemp came from Samsun, a port on the Black Sea coast of Anatolia. The mobility of goods was thus a precondition for the functioning of the naval arsenal; and its administrators made great efforts to ensure deliveries, which mostly succeeded but often only after significant delays.
From the broadly based work of Turkish scholars on Ottoman archival documents, we know that sometimes delays were due to natural causes, such as low yields of cotton or hemp in a given year and inclement weather hindering the mobility of goods. However, other shortfalls were man-made; piracy apart, Ottoman exporters tried to find cotton saleable to European traders at prices higher than those the sultans’ administration was willing to pay. In the 1500s, the exportation of cotton was illegal but in the 1600s, the authorities often issued special permits, legalizing exports to some extent.
From the Mühimme (Important Affairs) and Şikayet (Complaints) registers we learn that payment to the producers was frequently in arrears. Tax farmers might receive orders to purchase and send goods required by the central government, but they often avoided paying cultivators and weavers. Moreover, the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century mercenary rebellions (aka Celalis) dispersed much of the Anatolian village population and made the roads unsafe, causing shortfalls in rural production and impeding the mobility of goods.
By reading the relevant documents closely and ‘against the grain’, we highlight, at least partially, the mobility of crucial goods and the motives of the Anatolian producers of sailcloth and cordage, complaints about whose obstreperousness fill the pages of the Mühimme and Şikayet registers. Thus, we attempt to view the shortfalls not from the perspective of the central administration but from that of the primary producers.