Robert Irwin

Eastern Promises

This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World


Allen Lane 358pp £20 order from our bookshop

Politics, commerce and drama mingle in this account of England’s relations with the Muslim world in the 16th century. Queen Elizabeth and her counsellors were chiefly concerned to find allies who might join England in its struggle against Catholic Spain, ruled by the Habsburgs. At first the Ottoman Turkish sultans, the Moroccan Sa‘did sharifs and the Safavid shahs of Persia were disinclined to take England seriously as a military power. Although the English victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588 changed perceptions, the political quest for a military alliance against the Habsburgs never came to much. But diplomatic and military démarches ran in tandem with commercial negotiations and in Jerry Brotton’s This Orient Isle it is commerce that receives the most attention. The Muscovy Company (chartered in 1555), the Turkey Company (1581), the East India Company (1600) and others sought to export English broadcloth, tin, lead and firearms to the Islamic lands in exchange for silks and other textiles, as well as spices. Critics of trade with the infidel (and there were many) dismissed the imports from the Orient as mere fripperies and questioned the morality of selling weapons to Muslims. International commerce in the 16th century was a hazardous business. The daring and conscientious men who combined trade with diplomacy, such as William Harborne in Istanbul, Edmund Hogan in Morocco and Anthony Jenkinson, who led trade missions through Muscovite territory to Persia, emerge as heroes in Brotton’s carefully researched narrative. 

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