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Previously Featured Content

History of Science and Medicine | Europe and the Ottoman World: Diplomacy and International Relations

Coppie de la requeste presentee au Turc

Throughout the Elizabethan era, the Ottoman Empire was inextricably linked to European socio-political affairs. As a superpower in a period of increasing globalization, the influence of Islamic culture spread far and wide. So, when Pope Pius V excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I in February 1570, Elizabeth seized the opportunity to establish a trade and military alliance with the Ottomans.

Until the latter part of the sixteenth century the vast majority of trade between Europe and the Ottoman Empire was under the control of the French ambassador at the Sublime Porte, Jacques de Germigny. Under a capitulation signed by Francis I and Süleyman I in 1535, the King of France had the right to act as protector of all Christian nations in the Levant. Consequently, European trade in the region could only be conducted under the protection of the French flag regardless of where ships originated from.  

At this time, Anglo-Spanish relations were rapidly deteriorating as Spaniards rejected Elizabeth as Queen of England because of her Protestant faith, supporting Mary, Queen of Scot’s claim to the English throne instead. Consequently, Elizabeth sought a military alliance with Sultan Murad II as protection from Spain as well as enabling trade in the Levant free from French interference.

In October 1587, Elizabeth sent William Harborne, a successful merchant, to Constantinople with a letter to Sultan Murad III expressing her wish to form an alliance between the two states. The featured item, Coppie de la requeste au Turk, contains two French versions of the commercial negotiations between Elizabeth and the Porte. 

Harborne managed to secure trading privileges for himself and his employers but the Sultan was reluctant to upset his longstanding agreement with France and rejected Harborne’s request for unrestricted English trade. Steadfast in his task, however, Harborne remained at the Porte and built a friendship with the Grand Vizier, calling his attention to the potential military threat that an empire of Spain’s size posed whilst underlining that England would be a reliable ally, should they need one.

Despite his reluctance to form a military alliance, the sultan was still keen to establish cordial relations with England primarily to ensure continued imports of the English tin and lead used to make Ottoman weapons and ammunition. Wary of damaging Turkey’s relationship with France, the sultan requested the appointment of an English ambassador to the Porte who could formally negotiate a treaty between the two states. 

Harborne was appointed as permanent ambassador in 1582 and the following year a treaty was signed that granted all English subjects the right to trade freely in the Levant. Despite failing to make a military alliance with the Ottomans, Harborne and Elizabeth had succeeded in establishing formal diplomatic and commercial relations between England and the Ottoman Empire.  

French outrage at England’s new trading status is perfectly captured in the adjoining poems with two references to Elizabeth being "louve, pire qu'un million de loups" (“a wolf, worse than a million wolves”).

Trade with the Ottoman Empire, however, had a transformative effect on Elizabethan society and England’s economy. As well as imports of sugar, silks and spices, Ottoman décor became a status of wealth in Elizabethan homes and words such as ‘crimson’, ‘turquoise’ and ‘tulip’ entered the English language. This unique item, therefore, provides an exclusive insight into the fascinating story behind England’s first formal negotiations with the Ottomans. 

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Horniker, A., 1942. William Harborne and the Beginning of Anglo-Turkish Diplomatic and Commercial Relations. The Journal of Modern History, 14(3), pp. 289-316. Available at: [Accessed September 2019]

Brotton, J., 2018. Elizabethan England’s relationship with the Islamic World. History Extra. Available at: [Accessed September 2019]


Articuln, des zu Constantinopel am 10. April 1726 

For over three hundred years, the Barbary corsairs were among the most feared pirates in the Mediterranean. They seized merchant ships, carried out raids on coastal towns, and between 1530 and 1780, they captured and enslaved approximately 1.25 million Christians for the Ottoman slave trade.

Although nominally part of the Ottoman naval forces, they largely operated autonomously, believing they were destined to fight an eternal Holy War against Christianity. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they exercised significant control over trade between Europe and the Islamic world and posed a genuine threat to international relations between the two regions.

Consequently, there were repeated, yet unsuccessful, attempts to quell their power. The featured item is an example of such an attempt; a very rare printing of thirteen articles agreed between the Emperor Charles VI and the Captain Pasha of the Turkish fleet. Dated from 1726, the articles attempted to restrict Algerian piracy in the Mediterranean. The item highlights how the interrelationship between trade, piracy and diplomacy shaped Christian-Muslim relations throughout the period and encouraged cross-cultural contact and understanding. Despite such attempts, the Barbary corsairs successfully maintained their dominance for three centuries.

Indeed, by the eighteenth century, France, Great Britain and the Netherlands, all had strong enough navies to destroy the corsairs. Instead, however, they used their powerful position to force guarantees from the corsairs enabling them to continue raiding towns in return for carrying out attacks on smaller European maritime states, with the aim of eradicating potential competition against the European powers. The corsairs also received monetary gifts, thereby not only ensuring their survival but also operating in a unique form of state-sanctioned piracy. 

By the end of the eighteenth century however, their control was rapidly diminishing. The French Revolution and American independence from Britain caused dramatic shifts in power and the corsairs’ agreements with the old powers no longer held sway. The United States fought two wars against them, the First Barbary War (1801-1805), and the Second Barbary War (1815-1816). The British and Dutch also carried out an attack in 1816 and by the French conquest of Algeria in 1830 the Barbary corsairs were finally defeated. 

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Ezra, J., 2016. Diplomacy, Piracy and Commerce: Christian-Muslim relations between North Africa, the Ottoman Empire and Britain c.1580-1685. In: D. Thomas & J. A. Chesworth, eds. Christian-Muslim Relations. A biographical history volume 8. Northern and Easter Europe (1600-1700). Leiden: Brill, pp. 15-34. 

Jamieson, A. G., 2012. Lords of the Sea: A History of the Barbary Corsairs. London: Reaktion Books.

Historic UK, 2018. Barbary Pirates and English Slaves. [Online] Available at: [Accessed April 2019].


The Stopford papers 

In May 1838, after thirty years as Governor of Egypt, Mehmet Ali (1769-1849) made the monumental decision to proclaim Egyptian independence from the Ottoman Empire. Perceiving the Ottoman Empire as a bulwark against a French invasion in North Africa, Britain’s foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston was intent on supporting the sultan.

Therefore, when Mehmet Ali’s son, Ibrahim Pasha (1789-1848), decisively defeated the Turkish army on 24 June at the Battle of Nezib, Britain was forced to intervene. Whilst the Egyptians continued to gain territory, the Turkish Admiral Achmet astonishingly defected his entire fleet to Mehmet Ali. The situation deteriorated further when Sultan Mahmud II (1785-1839) passed away, leaving the future of the Ottoman Empire in the inexperienced hands of his sixteen-year-old son.

It was at this point that Admiral Sir Robert Fanshawe Stopford (1768-1847), to whom this collection of papers primarily belongs, was tasked with restoring the Turkish territories as quickly as possible to avoid a European war. Stopford ordered his second-in-command, Commodore Charles Napier (1786-1860), to force the Egyptians to withdraw from Beirut. In a string of impressive victories, Napier successfully reclaimed Beirut and proceeded to take back Sidon.

Following these victories, Napier temporarily took over at Jounieh, north of Beirut, when the Brigadier-General on land, Sir Charles Smith, fell ill. On Smith’s return Napier was naturally ordered to withdraw, however, for fear of losing his advantageous position, he disobeyed Stopford’s direct order and instead proceeded with the attack. His expediency may have enabled Stopford to recapture the city of Acre, but tensions were rising as the war continued. Under increasing pressure from the cabinet to bring the crisis to an end, the foreign secretary was frustrated with the admiral’s slow and cautious approach, dismissing Stopford as a “superannuated twaddler” in private correspondence with the second Earl of Minto.

Nevertheless, the war continued and Stopford sent Napier’s squadron to Alexandria to watch over the region. However, acting without authorisation for a second time, Napier established a blockade thereby forcing the Egyptians to submit defeat. Without consultation, Napier directly negotiated a treaty with Mehmet Ali which allowed him to continue to rule as governor of Egypt but under the suzerainty of the sultan and only on the condition that he withdrew his troops from Syria.

This time Napier’s blatant disobedience incensed Stopford: “Commander Napier had no more right to take upon himself a negotiation appertaining only to the sultan himself and the ambassadors of the principal European powers than any other senior officer who never dreamt of such a thing…” he furiously wrote in a letter to Sir John Ponsonby. The admiral immediately rejected Napier’s agreement with Mehmet Ali and yet the final agreement saw Palmerston agree to the majority of Napier’s original articles. For now, the “Eastern-Question” had been settled.

With over 400 items available in the Stopford Papers collection, intriguing diplomatic affairs such as this are immediately brought to life. Not only do the letters provide invaluable insight into the Syrian Wars and the inner-workings of 19th-century diplomacy, but they also provide a deeply personal and often detailed view of the conflict. One illustration of this is our new featured document, a private letter from Colonel Patrick Campbell to Stopford dated 14 August 1839. This reveals Campbell to have taken a very benign view of Mehmet Ali, putting him at odds with the more critical and official view of Foreign Office officials such as Lord Ponsonby and Lord Palmerston.

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Hansard, Sir Charles Napier at Acre, House of Commons Debate 4 April 1856. [Online]. 

Laughton, J. K., 2007. Stopford, Sir Robert (1768-1847) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [Online].

Napier, C. Sir, 1842. The War in Syria: Volume One. J. W. Parker, London [Online].


Noticia certa de hum fatal successo acontecido na cidade de Constantinopla

On 1 November 1755, Lisbon, one of the most important and wealthiest ports of Europe, was struck by a deadly earthquake. An estimated 30,000 to 60,000 people were killed, with tsunamis purportedly reaching as far away as Ireland, Algiers and the Caribbean.

The aftershocks of the event extended beyond the physical damage caused. Earthquakes were traditionally seen as acts of God. But this earthquake had struck on All Saint’s day in a devoted Roman Catholic city. Almost every important church in the city had been destroyed, along with the worshippers inside. However, the brothels on the outskirts of town had been spared. With pamphlets circulating widely and quickly across Europe, the news and discussion quickly spread. The quake would prove to have profoundly shaken beliefs in a merciful God and the church’s power, and thus became a watershed moment in the European enlightenment.

It is against this backdrop that the current featured item was produced. Written in Portuguese, and published in Lisbon two years after the great earthquake, the anonymous author opens with a repudiation of the heliocentric theories of Copernicus: “We have the certainty that the earth does not move, as Scripture so often teaches us.”

The author then goes on to relate two catastrophic events that befell the “famed and disgraced” Constantinople, demonstrating that the effects of God’s will were not limited to Christian countries.

The first event, identified as happening in the same year as the earthquake was a fire in which some 25,000 houses were burned down. The second, happening the following year, was a further earthquake. This, and the fires it caused, killed some 8,000 people. 

The author states that the earthquake had been foreshadowed by an omen: a fiery stag which had been seen in the sky the previous week. 

This pamphlet is one of a series of eighteenth-century Portuguese pamphlets concerning events in Constantinople, part of the Arcadian Library’s wider and exceptional collection of anti-Turkish propaganda pamphlets produced in Europe.

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Bressan, D., 2011. November 1, 1755: The Earthquake of Lisbon: Wrath of God or Natural Disaster? History of Geology. Scientific American [Online].

Taylor, B., 2013. A Lisbon earthquake pamphlet of 1757: but not the Lisbon earthquake; and the last gasp of heliocentrism. British Library: European Studies Blog [Online].

Udías, A., 2009. Earthquakes as God's punishment in 17th- and 18th-century Spain. In: Kölbl-Ebert, M. (ed.) Geology and Religion: A History of Harmony and Hostility. London: The Geological Society, pp.41-48.