Ottoman Effects on European Nationalism

In the September 2009 issue of Journal of World History Sean Foley discusses various aspects of Muslims and Social Change in the Atlantic Basin (Project MUSE subscription required). Here’s a bit of the most interesting section to me, The Emergence of European Nationalism (pp. 385-391):

Ottoman power also drove important political change in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, contributing to the rise of nation-states and new national identities in two key ways. First, the Ottoman Empire’s presence in European politics allowed leaders from England to the Balkans to use alliances with Istanbul to counter the policies of larger and more powerful Christian European rivals. Second, Muslim mariners attacked European coastal areas and seized more than a million Europeans. These attacks decimated coastal regions, undermined the authority of some governments, redefined national identities, and compelled some governments to extend unprecedented rights and guarantees to their subjects—rights that became cornerstones of the Euro-Atlantic legal tradition today.

One saw this two-track process unfold across Europe from the sixteenth century until the mid eighteenth century. While one might question Stephen Fischer-Galati’s contention that the Ottoman threat guaranteed the survival of the Protestant Reformation, there is no doubt that the simultaneous challenges of the Ottoman Empire and of the Protestant Reformation taxed the resources and complicated the strategic calculations of Catholic leaders. On multiple occasions—including periods when Ottoman armies appeared to threaten Europe—Protestant states in Germany refused to contribute soldiers to participate in military operations against the Ottoman armies or discuss funding wars against the Ottomans with Catholic Habsburg officials before all internal religious issues had been resolved. For all of their power and wealth, Catholic leaders—Charles V of Spain and Ferdinand I of Austria—had little choice but to negotiate directly with smaller German states and respect their religious views, no matter how objectionable they appeared to be to Catholic audiences. This was a major blow to states that saw themselves as absolute monarchies beholden to no one except God.

Nor were Catholic resources stretched only in Germany. In its many protracted conflicts with the Netherlands, France, and England, Spain always had to allow for the fact of military alliances with the Ottoman Empire, which could strike Spanish possessions far removed from Western Europe. Dutch Calvinists used Ottoman markets to circumvent a Spanish embargo on Dutch trade with Iberia—an embargo meant to punish Holland for seeking independence from the Spanish crown. Thanks in part to Ottoman markets and military assistance, the Dutch won their independence in 1609. Protestant England and Catholic France also used Ottoman power as a vehicle to assert their national identity and interests against Spain’s power in Europe. In one instance, Spain was compelled to release France’s king, Francis I, shortly after Spanish armies seized him and defeated the French army at Pavia in 1525: the Ottoman Empire had signaled its desire for the immediate release of the French king. Subsequently, Francis admitted to a Venetian diplomat that he saw the Ottoman Empire as the only force capable of “guaranteeing the combined existence of the states of Europe” against Spanish power.

Importantly, the Ottoman ability to strike at Spanish possessions far removed from Eastern Europe reflected its large army and formidable formal and informal naval power. Fulfilling the prediction of the fourteenth-century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun that North African mariners would “attack the Christians and conquer the lands of the European Christians,” Moroccans, Tunisians, and Algerians seized Christians and wreaked havoc on Europe’s maritime commerce and coastal communities from the eastern Mediterranean Sea to Iceland. Cornwall, Devon, and other English communities lost a fifth of their shipping and thousands of sailors in the first third of the seventeenth century alone. Yet, the impact of Muslim mariners on Italy was far greater. Robert David notes in Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters, that large stretches of Italy’s once populous coastline were uninhabitable—“continually infested with Turks” throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Fishing and farming (even ten to twenty miles inland) remained dangerous pursuits well into the eighteenth century along much of the Italian coast, especially in Sicily and other areas close to North Africa….

Equally important, European captives, Muslim attacks, and the publicity tied to them sparked new national consciousnesses, national missions, and ultimately social change in England and later France. In both, this process cemented the principle that only non-Europeans should be enslaved, and as such they glorified “free” labor and efforts to combat Muslim slavery….

The Islamic element of English national consciousness evidenced in Henry V grew still stronger in the seventeenth century, as Muslim maritime attacks challenged the cornerstone of the island nation’s national mythology: the ocean was the source of English economic, military, and political vitality. As Linda Colley observes in Captives, the Stuart kings’ failure to stop Muslim attacks and enslavement of Englishmen was an important factor that robbed them of legitimacy and helped “to provoke the civil wars that tore England and its adjacent countries apart after 1642.” Subsequent governments sought to avoid the Stuarts’ fate by strengthening the English navy, paying Muslim mariners not to attack English ships, and publicly emphasizing the government’s full commitment to preventing the enslavement of Englishmen on the high seas. By the eighteenth century, this national mission and the government’s commitment to it had become institutionalized, as evidenced in the words of James Thomson’s poem “Rule, Britannia”: “Rule, Britannia, rule the waves; Britons never will be slaves.”


Filed under Europe, Mediterranean, nationalism, religion, slavery, Turkey

2 responses to “Ottoman Effects on European Nationalism

  1. What do you mean? Its the plural noun “effects on …”, not the verb “affects …”.

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