sehepunkte 22 (2022), Nr. 10

Eva Johanna Holmberg: British Encounters with Ottoman Minorities in the Early Seventeenth Century

While research dealing with historical British travel writing in the Middle East has been a popular topic during the last decades, studies focusing on the travellers' perception of the non-Muslim population of the Ottoman Empire are almost non-existent. Eva Johanna Holmberg, an Academy Research Fellow at the Department of Philosophy, History, and Arts Studies at Helsinki University, recently published her outstanding work on early seventeenth-century British travel writing in Ottoman Empire. Unlike her colleagues, who mostly research the representations of Turks and Muslims in travel accounts, this book focuses on an understudied aspect of these journeys: the impressions of British men of the non-Muslim population in Ottoman lands. This book sets a rare example of a very thorough study of travel writing in the seventeenth century with detailed interpretations supported by secondary historical literature. It is the first cultural-historical account of how the British interpreted the religious and ethnic diversity of "exotic" Ottoman lands in the seventeenth century.

Eva Johanna Holmberg's unique book consists of six chapters. The book's four main chapters examine how British travellers depicted the subjects of the Ottoman sultan, who belonged to diverse ethnoreligious groupings. Following a very well-structured introductory chapter, the second chapter of the book, "Scattered Nations: Jews and Greeks", explores how travellers depicted the Jews and Greeks of the empire. As the title indicates, almost all the authors Holmberg deals with depict these two nations as poor, disorganised, and oppressed under tyranny. The author observes that descriptive sections which talk about Jews and Greeks are usually copied from other historical written sources or previous travel writing. Overall, this chapter on the two ethnic groups, portrayed as indigent by the British travellers, argues that the travel writers of the period represented Greeks and Jews as enslaved nations. These two nations carried many undesirable character traits, such as drunkness or ignorance, which were repeatedly underlined by the travel authors, and these characteristics are often explained as the outcome of "tyrannical" Ottoman rule. While Holmberg makes a very smooth analysis of how Greeks and Jews were represented by seventeenth-century British travellers, she also illuminates the reader with regards to how the prejudices and assumptions about these two groups may have appeared.

The third chapter, "Eastern Christians", focuses on the descriptions of travellers who went to eastern regions of the wider Ottoman Empire. The Eastern Christians mentioned in the travelogues include different groups both Orthodox and Catholic; Syrians, Armenians, Greeks, Nestorians, Georgians, and Maronites. This chapter focuses on how the mentioned travel writers present ethnic and religious diversity. According to Holmberg's findings, almost all the British authors handle the diverse and multireligious structure as something threatening to Christianity. They represent these very interwoven relations as something negative that led to the degeneration of religions, language skills, and customs. Diversity was represented as something damaging that eventually ruins the purity of these cultures. Holmberg claims that most British travellers agreed on the fact that Ottoman rule rendered these Eastern Christians incapable of warfare and self-government. Holmberg's point on the British writers' negative perception of diversity and their reasoning for the "underdevelopment" of Eastern Christians is one of the strongest arguments of her book and is presented very precisely in this chapter.

The fourth chapter is particularly important, as it explores the ways and methods travellers narrated the non-Muslim women of the Ottoman Empire. "Viewing and Addressing Women" gives the readers the framework through which most of the authors chose to represent non-Muslim women. Holmberg argues here that the long descriptions of women were instrumentalized in portraying the degraded status of non-Muslim people in general. Her argument that the description of women, their moral values, and their physical appearance were used as tools to denigrate Ottoman society is a brilliant contribution to the literature of travel writing in the Middle East in general. According to Holmberg, the male authors' gaze varied from distant descriptions to a great interest in the bodies of women and their status in concubinage.

The last chapter before she concludes her book, "Free Franks and Visiting Westerners", primarily concentrates on the European inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire. One of the main arguments is that British travellers were not of the same opinion on whether these "Franks" were free men or which part of Europe they came from. A further remarkable finding is that although Britons considered themselves very peculiar, once they entered the Ottoman lands, they had to face the reality that they were "Christian Strangers from the West" (190). The author sets forth a very illuminating perception: travellers in the Ottoman Empire gained vast knowledge on different ethnicities, but also, and more importantly, they reflected on their own identity within the boundaries of a foreign land.

Holmberg explores how the encounters with Britons and Ottomans in the seventeenth century in Ottoman domains were structured within the limitations of idealized images of Englishness. The book brilliantly introduces the idea that English notions of diversity and multiculturalism can be apprehended through these travelogues. Among the many illuminating perceptions that Holmberg presents to the readers, one of the most refreshing is her argument that British travellers showed that in Ottoman lands they did not have privileged positions, contrary to what they expected. Although they were not "slaves" of the sultan like the non-Muslims they observed, they as Christians were not any superior to the other "Franks". This enlightening idea helps readers to reflect on the exploration and construction of British identity in the seventeenth century. The travellers aimed at presenting to readers "a narrative in which they were in control" (194); however, Holmberg successfully demonstrates that their own insecurities and prejudgements shaped the ways how they met, observed, and depicted the population of the Ottoman Empire. As Holmberg mentions, writing descriptions of non-Muslim minorities (although her usage of the term "minority" could sometimes be problematic, as the concept carries the risk of being anachronistic) encouraged Britons to assess these people from "top to bottom". (9) In conclusion, Holmberg in this very well-structured book displays a unique study of a systemically analyzed travelogue collection. Its uniqueness comes from the subjects she chose to focus on; instead of dwelling upon the "Turk", she performs her analysis by focusing on non-Muslim identities and how Britons situated themselves vis-a-vis these familiar strangers.

To sum up, what makes Holmberg's work unique is her focus on the various ethnic and religious groups of the Ottoman Empire, who are represented as either enslaved or dependent. The author successfully demonstrates that such travel books cover a generous amount of information on the complicated and multi-layered sets of relations of asymmetrical dependency. Not only are relations between "Muslim Ottomans" and "non-Muslim Ottomans" represented as asymmetrically dependent: the position the British authors put themselves in vis-a-vis the Ottomans is a reflection of how they considered themselves superior.

Rezension über:

Eva Johanna Holmberg: British Encounters with Ottoman Minorities in the Early Seventeenth Century. 'Slaves' of the Sultan (= Early Modern Cultural Studies), Cham: Palgrave Macmillan 2022, XV + 228 S., ISBN 978-3-030-97228-8, USD 89,00

Rezension von:
Zeynep Y. Gökçe
Bonn Center of Dependency and Slavery Studies, Universität Bonn
Empfohlene Zitierweise:
Zeynep Y. Gökçe: Rezension von: Eva Johanna Holmberg: British Encounters with Ottoman Minorities in the Early Seventeenth Century. 'Slaves' of the Sultan, Cham: Palgrave Macmillan 2022, in: sehepunkte 22 (2022), Nr. 10 [15.10.2022], URL:

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