'This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World', by Jerry Brotton - Review

By Nevitt, Marcus | The Spectator, April 2, 2016 | Go to article overview

'This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World', by Jerry Brotton - Review


Nevitt, Marcus, The Spectator


The idea for a mechanical cock was never going to work. In 1595 the English ambassador to Constantinople, Edward Barton, advised Queen Elizabeth I that the surest way for her to impress Sultan Mehmed III, the new leader of the formidable Ottoman empire, was to send him a 'clock in the form of a cock'. Knowing that Mehmed had a growing reputation for psychopathy rather than ornithology -- he had his 19 brothers circumcised and then strangled to death -- Elizabeth demurred and eventually sent him an elaborate clockwork organ instead. The organ was accompanied by its maker, Thomas Dallam, who spent his first month in Constantinople fixing the damage it had suffered in transit before eventually playing it for the Sultan and his retinue at the Topkapi palace.

However terrifying the gig, the artisan-musician from Warrington thrilled his audience, delighting the Sultan so much that he gave Dallam £20 in gold, letting him play with his scimitar and frolic in his harem. Dallam duly obliged, supplying us in his diary with the first written account in English of a sultan's harem. Even though Mehmed wanted Dallam to stay indefinitely, he left after a few months, escorted back to his ship by a local translator called Finch who, as a Muslim convert originally from Chorley, knew his companion's home county of Lancashire every bit as well as the Ottoman territory they traversed.

In Jerry Brotton's fabulous new book, such encounters reveal both the strangeness of home and just how deep and entangled the roots of the Islamic and Christian faiths were in the early modern period. Brotton's view of Elizabethan England as an 'Orient Isle' contests the idea of the nation existing in splendid or belligerent isolation from the Islamic world, a 'sceptered isle... a fortress... against infection' as John of Gaunt puts it in Richard II .

Instead Brotton shows us how 'Islam... is part of the national story of England'. This isn't, though, a multiculturalist fantasy in which everyone was always respectfully sensitive to each other's differences. Rather, Brotton traces how the anxieties, suspicions and xenophobia of Elizabethan Anglo-Islamic relations emerged in tension with the establishment of such trading enterprises as the Barbary Company, the Levant Company and the Turkey Company, whose activities brought riches, tastes and fashions home from an international trade in fabrics, food and munitions with Muslim countries. These diplomatic and economic tensions produced the most profound political and religious uncertainties which, in turn, hothoused some of the greatest English dramatic art.

The trade relations were written all over Elizabeth I's face, or, at least, in her mouth. Her teeth were blackened by the Moroccan sugar that she and her subjects enjoyed with increasing relish (by 1569 England imported 250 tonnes of it). The Anglo-Islamic political conditions were more difficult to discern but were, nonetheless, unique to the Queen's 45-year reign. …

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