The British in the Levant: Trade and Perceptions of the Ottoman Empire in the Eighteenth Century

By Harris, William | International Journal of Turkish Studies, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

The British in the Levant: Trade and Perceptions of the Ottoman Empire in the Eighteenth Century


Harris, William, International Journal of Turkish Studies


CHRISTINE LAIDLAW, The British in the Levant: Trade and Perceptions of the Ottoman Empire in the Eighteenth Century (London: I. B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2010), Pp. 288, $ 100 cloth

Christine Laidlaw, a former British diplomat with a PhD from the University of Edinburgh, has produced a sparkling, absorbing account of the social affairs of the British trading community in the eastern Mediterranean at a time when Britain was a rising star and the Ottoman sultanate still a formidable great power. Laidlaw gives us vivid insights into the workings of the Levant Company, a hybrid of private commercial drive and ad hoc state interests that represented an introductory step toward formalized inter-state relations between Britain and the Ottomans in the nineteenth century. Her treatment of her subject is clear, methodical, impressively documented, and highly readable.

Laidlaw begins with a tidy survey of relevant sources (company records, unpublished letters, private papers, and secondary literature) and of the history and fluctuating fortunes of the Levant Company as the framework for British life, commerce, and diplomatic operations in the Ottoman Empire. This covers the period from Elizabeth I's founding of the company in 1582 to its downfall as an unpopular trading monopoly in 1825. In the main body of the book she focuses on the eighteenth century for dissection of the lives of residents of the British "factories" (trading stations) in Istanbul, Izmir, and Aleppo. She gives us a fascinating portrayal of the administrators, headed by the British ambassador in Istanbul who was both chief officer of a commercial association and Crown representative to the Ottoman state. She continues with the chaplains, vital to community morale and cohesion in an alien environment; the physicians, who spearheaded interaction with local Ottoman society; and family activity as women and children increasingly were featured through the century.

A colorful array of personalities and the ups and downs of their experiences of the Ottoman world pass vividly before us in Laidlaw's narrative. There was Ambassador John Murray, who served effectively in Istanbul between 1766 and 1775, balancing wife and mistress, enduring trying house guests, and managing shaky finances. Laidlaw gives us such scenes as Murray's Polish manservant's acting as a spy for the French ambassador and rifling Murray's correspondence while the latter enjoyed his dinners. Then, in Aleppo between 1740 and 1770, there were the Scottish physicians Alexander and Patrick Russell, who spoke Arabic and tended local Ottoman officials as well as British and other foreign residents. The Russells produced The Natural History of Aleppo, a portrayal of a great Ottoman provincial city in addition to being a compendium of Syrian plants and herbs.

In terms of social sketches, the final chapter on Family life and Recreation provides memorable treatment of women's roles and of the British populations as real little communities. …

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