'The British in the Levant' by Christine Laidlaw

'The British in the Levant' by Christine Laidlaw

William Armstrong - william.armstrong@hdn.com.tr
The British in the Levant by Christine Laidlaw 'The British in the Levant: Trade and Perceptions of the Ottoman Empire in the Eighteenth Century’ by Christine Laidlaw (I.B. Tauris, £62, 288 pages)

There’s been some griping at the recent conversion of venerable British ambassadors into little more than glorified commercial envoys for UK PLC. That tendency is noticeable in Istanbul; Britain’s grand old consulate in Tepebaşı usually has an undignified poster declaring the country “open for business” strung up garishly outside. But our own “Great Master” David Cameron has declared this the age of the “global race,” so I suppose it’s at least consistent.

Those grumblings are also rather ahistorical; Britain’s diplomatic presence abroad has usually had trade as its number one priority - just consider the East India Company, which long predated the British Empire’s more formal power grab in the subcontinent. In the Ottoman Empire, a rough equivalent of the East India Company was the Levant Company. It constituted England’s first official representation in the empire, and was established at the behest of a handful of London merchants in 1581 in order to defend their rights and ensure collective protection. The first English ambassador to Constantinople, William Harborne, was also the head of the Levant Company, and had a dual role as both the diplomatic envoy of the crown to the Sublime Porte and the guardian of the company’s commercial interests. This arrangement persisted for over two centuries.

As is the case today, the raisons d’être of British ambassadors to the Porte throughout the lifetime of the company were to maintain tolerable relations with the locals, protect the interests of British subjects and merchants, and facilitate the practicalities of commerce. This book, written by former diplomat Christine Laidlaw, provides a well-researched if rather dry account of the company’s history, its activities, aims, character, and the people who worked there. Probably owing to the lack of original sources on the subject, it contains precious little about the company representatives’ interactions with the locals. We get a procession of biographies of the various individuals who passed through the company’s factories over time – the ambassadors, the physicians, the chaplains, the merchants, their families - but little wider perspective.

This lack of bite probably isn’t helped by the fact that - despite the fluctuations of various wars and alliances - the Levant Company operated before the Europeans started consciously looking at Ottoman territory with imperial superiority. As Laidlaw writes of the period when the rakish ambassador John Murray led the company in the mid-18th century:

Englishmen in the Ottoman lands during Murray’s time had none of the power and less of the consequential arrogance that Europeans would acquire in the nineteenth century … Unlike their compatriots in the East India Company, they were in no position to dominate in the territories where they traded.

The trade capitulations that foreign merchants benefited from at the time were the product of a self-confident and outward-looking Ottoman Empire, and had yet to start being seen as the unjust privileges of ruthless Europeans.

Britain’s diplomatic relations with the Ottomans suddenly became much more serious when the two went into an alliance against the French following Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. The importance of the British embassy in Constantinople grew and financial responsibility for representation in the region was taken away from the Levant Company and assumed directly by the crown. After decades of steady decline, the company eventually closed in 1825. In comparison with the far more storied East India Company, the Levant Company is now little more than a footnote in history; this book is a worthy, if rather dull, contribution to that footnote.

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