The Ottoman Empire as Sea Power: Maritime Activities and Technologies (15th – 18th Centuries) Seen from the Transottoman Perspective
Panel V-10, sponsored byPriority Program "Transottomanica" of the German Research Foundation , 2023 Annual Meeting
On Friday, November 3 at 1:30 pm
The historical role of the Ottoman Empire as a sea power is still an understudied subject, despite a vast array of narrative and archival sources and especially in relation to its mobility dynamics within the cross-border macro-region of the “Transottoman space”, comprising the Black Sea, the Adriatic, the Mediterranean, and the Red Sea with their adjacent land and sea powers. Drawing on a variety of sources in different languages, this panel aims to explore various dimensions of Ottoman maritime history, covering the early period of Ottoman rule from the 15th to the 18th century, with a special focus on patterns of mobility in the Transottoman micro-region. The Ottoman Naval Arsenal (Tersāne-i Amīre) on the Golden Horn in Istanbul was the center of ship building and naval administration. Having been established in the fifteenth century, the Ottoman navy became a major protagonist in the ongoing conflict in the Mediterranean during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In spite of its effective organization and its military successes, the Ottoman navy was, with regard to technology, a highly conservative force, consisting mostly of rowing vessels, in particular the various types of galleys. This panel brings together original papers on Ottoman maritime activities, technologies, tactics, and organizations from a Transottoman perspective. A group of papers will discuss encounters with other sea powers, such as the Republic of Venice and the Knights Hospitaller, or other regional competitors such as the Mamluk Sultanate. Other papers will explore the internal politics, organizations, and technologies of early modern Mediterranean navies. Socio-economic aspects of the maintenance of a powerful naval force, such as supplying raw material for shipbuilding or the recruitment of laborers for the naval arsenal, will also be analyzed. The six papers of this panel will be based on a wide range of primary sources, from historiographical texts, like chronicles, diaries, biographies, to archival documents, such as state registers of the important affairs, prison registers of the naval arsenal, and senate minutes.
In the early-modern period, the Ottoman state followed the tendency of European powers of no longer punishing crimes and violations of the public order by the physical destruction of the delinquent, but to place their labor in the service of the public. The prison registers of the Imperial Naval Arsenal in Istanbul document that in some cases minor offenses could result in a condemnation to forced labor on the galleys and at the facilities of the Naval Arsenal. Such cases in particular suggest that law enforcement was seen here as a convenient means of recruit naval workforce that was enormously required due to the ships’ technology, i.e., the use of rowing ships in order to adapt to the nautical conditions in the Mediterranean. Especially during the navigating season of the year, the need for workforce in order to maintain the military dominance at sea was enormous. Thus, naval warfare in the Ottoman Empire was based to a large extent on the use of unfree labor, such as war captives and criminals; a practice which displays a wide range of patterns of human mobility in the Transottoman sphere and its organization by the authorities.
From a perspective of mobility dynamics, this paper investigates the largely unstudied issue of recruitment of criminals for the Ottoman Navy and the function of the Naval Arsenal not only as a military facility, but also as a penal institution; a common practice among the sea powers of the Mediterranean world. The main source for this study are the unpublished prison registers of the Naval Arsenal, in which hundreds of sentences criminals to the galleys (so-called “kürek”) are listed. These entries also offer new insights into private and organized crime in the Ottoman Empire, and the social structure of the Ottoman “underworld”.
The current contribution aims to show the underlying structures of the naval advance of the Ottomans towards the Mamluk Sultanate starting from the second half of the fifteenth century. It will show that the naval policy of the Ottomans represented a key element for the Mamluk downfall. Something which has not been dealt with extensively so far.
After the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 the Ottomans started a new naval program which aimed to take hold of the whole Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean. This was helped by the fact that the Ottoman had managed to push out the Italian seafaring nations from the Black Sea and its resources. This did put pressure on the Mamluk Sultanate as well since the Mamluks relied on the importation of new military slaves from the Black Sea region. Additionally, the Mamluks had concluded several treaties with the Venetians to provide the naval defense of the Mamluk shores. However, the Venetians suffered tremendous losses against the Ottomans and had to concede an unfavorable treaty in 1503. The Mamluks did then increasingly loose access to eastern Anatolia because their supply routes were threatened by Ottoman naval incursions. To make matters worse, the Portuguese suddenly threatened Mecca and Medina from the Red Sea. And although the Mamluks knew about the long-term Ottoman goal to attack them they asked them for naval help against the Portuguese which finally contributed to their own downfall in 1516/17. The current contribution will for the first time explore this intertwined naval complex between Ottomans, Venetians, and Mamluks in the Eastern Mediterranean and show the strategies and counter-strategies of the parties involved.
The contribution will use Ottoman and Mamluk historiographical sources like Ibn Iyas or Saadadin Effendi. It will also look at the treatises of Şehzade Korkut, the brother and rival of Sultan Selim, who had been active in anti-Mamluk seafaring as governor of Teke but deflected to the Mamluks for a short period in 1509 before returning home and being executed by his brother. These writings shall be complemented by European contemporary sources, especially the Diarii of Marino Sanuto which provide a Venetian view on the Ottoman-Mamluk naval encounters.
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.
The Ottoman naval forces varied in their effectiveness greatly during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and often their success or failure resulted from the quality of the leadership from the highest echelons to the mid ranks. The qualifications of these men varied tremendously from great naval experience and talent to none-at-all. One essential question that needs analysis is why a given individual was chosen for this role at any given time. After a significant naval set-back a qualified individual such as Hayreddin Barbarossa or Kilic Ali Pasha might be selected due to the urgency of the crisis facing the empire after the loss of key naval outposts or the destruction of the fleet. In more normal times, naval qualifications were rarely of prime concern to the sultan or his closest advisors, often the grand vizier. Then political factors relating to factional politics seemed to be the deciding factor. Hence, for example, during the succession crisis of Suleyman’s reign in the 1550s the grand vizier Rustem Pasha’s brother was chosen as admiral due to his ability to control access to Istanbul by sea. Other examples, from the reigns of Murad III, Mehmed III, Ahmed I, see the frequent choice of a sultan’s son-in-law to become grand admiral due to his palace support. Katib Celebi includes many brief biographies of admirals who ranged from the talented to the incompetent in his seventeenth century account of the Ottoman navy beginning in the reign of Mehmed II until his own death in 1657. In addition, for some aspects of naval history, archival records such as the Muhimme Defters are available to supplement the narrative account and examine its accuracy. The careers of several men will be analyzed with attention focused on the time and circumstances of their appointment as admiral to determine factional impact on naval decisions during these centuries. Ultimately, the success of naval warfare was of crucial importance during both wars against the Venetians and Habsburgs, as well as defending the empire from the depredations of piracy.
The difference in size between the Republic of Venice and the Ottoman Empire becomes obvious at once. Nevertheless, Venice managed to put up a fierce resistance a quarter of a century to the Ottoman attempt to conquer the largest Greek island during the Cretan War (1645-1669). A few years later, in 1684, the Republic joined an alliance with the Habsburg Empire and Poland and declared war on the Ottoman Empire for the first time in its history. In the slipstream of the war in Hungary, the Republic initially attained considerable successes in both Greece and Dalmatia. But while Venice was able to hold on to its conquests on the edges of the considerably enlarged Dalmatia until the end of the Republic in 1797, its acquisitions in Greece were largely lost again in the Second Morea War (1715-1718). Based on Venetian and other European sources, such as senate minutes and other state writings, ego documents, as well as contemporary official Venetian state historiography, this paper addresses questions such as the following: Which structural changes did take place in the Republic's fighting capabilities during the Venetians' "Iron Century" between 1645 and 1718? Was there technological change in the Venetian land and naval forces of the time, and if so, what did it consist of? Did something like military modernisation occur? Were there failures in this direction and if so, why?