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Michael Talbot: British-Ottoman Relations, 1661-1807. Commerce and Diplomatic Practice in Eighteenth-Century Istanbul, Woodbridge / Rochester, NY: Boydell & Brewer 2017, XVI + 250 S., 7 s/w-Abb., ISBN 978-1-78327-202-0, GBP 70,00
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Kahraman Şakul
İstanbul Şehir √úniversitesi, Istanbul
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Sebastian Becker
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Kahraman Şakul: Rezension von: Michael Talbot: British-Ottoman Relations, 1661-1807. Commerce and Diplomatic Practice in Eighteenth-Century Istanbul, Woodbridge / Rochester, NY: Boydell & Brewer 2017, in: sehepunkte 18 (2018), Nr. 4 [15.04.2018], URL:

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Michael Talbot: British-Ottoman Relations, 1661-1807

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Michael Talbot endeavors to study British-Ottoman relations from the reestablishment of these relations in 1661 to the outbreak of the first British-Ottoman war in 1807. The period was characterized by the operations of the Levant Company in Ottoman realms. Therefore, commerce claims a significant portion of relations; indeed, it was inseparably linked to diplomacy. The author argues that commerce and diplomacy ceased to mean the same thing by the end of the period because of the changing geopolitical factors that entrenched the British political interest in the Levant. This argument justifies his choice of the year of 1807 to end the book. The study strives to be an inclusive history of diplomacy based on an analysis of financial background of diplomacy, the cultural encounters experienced by the ambassadorial staff, and the everyday experience of the British merchants in Ottoman realms. This approach actually represents the new trends in diplomatic history against state-centered approach, which the author dealt with in the introduction. For Talbot, diplomacy "as a practice of negotiation between individuals and groups on matters of mutual concern" is quite different from "foreign policy as an articulation of the state's relationship with other states." (5) This historiographical analysis is followed by a detailed explanation of the sources consulted and the structure of the book.

The author utilized primary sources and non-textual evidence stored in various institutions and archives located mostly in Istanbul and London. The bibliography reveals that he also relied on a number of sources accessible on-line as well as many printed primary sources such as memoirs, pamphlets and legal compilations in Turkish, English, French, and Arabic. Non-English language sources held in The National Archives are particularly important for his stated aim to go beyond the British-centered approaches to Ottoman-English relations. Talbot supports his work with nine tables, seven figures, and a note on languages, place names, dates, and currencies; a bibliography and index are included at the end of the book. Tables are on a variety of topics ranging from currency exchange rates to the imports and exports as well as the list of the British ambassadors to the Sublime Porte and the gifts the British embassy had to present to certain Ottoman officials on special occasions in the period under discussion. As for the figures, the reader is presented with figures concerning the total volume of British trade with the Ottoman Empire and relevant data on the British Levant Company.

Talbot organized his work into six chapters with an introduction and conclusion. He describes the legal, commercial, and financial framework in the first three chapters and sets out to analyze them in the last three: gift-giving traditions in chapter 4, diplomacy revolving around ceremonies and the contemporary British reflections on them in chapter 5, and, finally, the disputes that required the intervention of the British embassy in chapter 6. He concludes that what defined the relations between the British embassy and the Levant Company was 'a circle of mutuality.' The merchants funded their ambassadors who needed their money to access the Ottoman ruling elite through rituals and ceremonies that required much spending. Such diplomacy was essential for ensuring safety and security of the British merchants in running their business so that they could continue to finance the embassy. The Ottoman understanding of "friendship" and its various manifestations as defined in the Capitulations is the lubricant of this mechanism; it is an overarching theme in the book, tying all these chapters together. In author's words, "friendship required ambassadors giving gifts, and performing in different forms of ceremonial within the Ottoman framework." (216)

Talbot makes a number of powerful arguments. For him, peaceful resolution of commercial concerns and legal disputes was the norm until 1807 and this was replaced with a new paradigm defined by political interference and military threats, based on geopolitical considerations. The former policy sometimes inflicted great financial harm on the Levant Company since it had to pay most of the compensation to Ottoman merchants who suffered from British privateering on French that had the backing of London (Table 8, 189). In addition, they had to finance the embassy. All these became unbearable by the end of the century due to decline in the Levantine trade and wars. Therefore, the British government began to make allowances to the embassy and finance it entirely beginning in 1804. The implication here is that the former policy did not really succeed in expanding the Levantine trade. As the embassy was gradually transformed "from a merchant-financed institution to a government-funded one", old practices of gift-giving, ceremonial rituals, and the negotiation procedures also gave way to new practices (213). Another implication of Talbot's overall argument is that dynamics for transition to modern diplomatic procedures did not necessarily stem from European entanglements, but they seem to have been in the inner mechanisms of Levantine commerce and diplomacy in the Levant; though he does not state this view explicitly.

While arguments, approaches, and information presented in the book are praiseworthy, I would like to raise several constructive criticisms on certain issues. Talbot refrains from engaging in a discussion of geopolitical factors that are so central to his argument. This is troublesome especially because he criticizes the conventional approach that underlined the significance of Napoleon's expedition to Egypt in 1798. The book would have surely benefitted from a discussion of the new Ottoman geopolitics that emerged after the loss of Crimea in 1774. The final partitioning of Poland-Lithuania (1794), the demise of Venice (1797), and finally, the Egyptian expedition (1798) changed the world the Ottomans knew. The new geopolitical considerations led to the opening of the Black Sea to international trade. The 1806 customs agreement concluded between the British and the Ottomans, which Talbot mentioned in a couple of places, was actually a ramification of Russo-Ottoman alliance formed against France. In a competition to have the status of "the most-favored nation", all the European states wanted to renew the capitulation treaties and customs agreements on the model of the recent Russian capitulations. By the same token, in Chapter 6, Talbot focuses on the new Ottoman maritime regulations implemented in the 1740s. But, he really does not provide any explanation regarding the timing of these regulations. In fact, they were undertaken to protect the French trade against the English privateers, because France was the architect of the favorable peace treaties signed with Vienna and St. Petersburg; the French Capitulations signed in 1740 declared the treaty an eternal one, although such treaties had hitherto been subject to renewal by each new sultan. This shows the predomination of politics over trade.

Talbot's analysis of the British view of gift-giving as a form of bribery and corruption in chapter 4 is as valuable as his categorization of the practice into three parts: reciprocal gift-exchange, tributary gifts (pişkeş), and informal gifts (hibe). However, an examination of contradictory Ottoman views on this subject that are available in secondary literature in Turkish language would have enriched his discussion on the difference between a gift and a bribe. Moreover, it would have shown that gift-giving in Ottoman diplomacy was only an extension of the general practice observed in Ottoman bureaucracy and it equally frustrated as many Ottoman bureaucrats as the diplomats. Performative diplomacy tackled in chapter 5 is a good description of various Ottoman ceremonies involved in diplomacy. This chapter could have compared the British experience with others in order to demonstrate the rivalry among various ambassadors over precedence at such ceremonies. By this way, the reader would have a chance to see the place of the British ambassadors in the eyes of the Ottoman ruling elite. In short, the book is a real contribution to the current scholarship in terms of data it presents - especially in chapter 3 - as well as its dedication to bring in the Ottoman viewpoints to history of Levantine diplomacy. One major criticism, though, is that it sorely lacks a comparative approach with which to evaluate the Ottoman-British relations; this prevents the author from realizing the role of Russia and the Black Sea in the changing geopolitical factors that gradually drew Britain to the Levant. Finally, there is minor typos on page 181 ('tehilke' [sic.] for 'tehlike' and 'emtiyet' [sic.] for 'emniyet'). The reviewer's copy has missing pages in the index (251-6).

Kahraman Şakul