Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 June 2005
Issue No. 747
Books Supplement
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Trippers' TALES

The Rise of Oriental Travel: English Visitors to the Ottoman Empire 1580-1720, Gerald MacLean, Basingstoke & New York: Palgrave, 2004. pp267

Early on in The Rise of Oriental Travel, the author writes that there is something decidedly "English" about his Renaissance travellers to the Ottoman Empire. As is the case for all travellers, perhaps, conceptions of national identity either emerge or are consolidated as a result of the encounter with the Other. Inevitably, such an encounter can blur boundaries, and a whole series of assumptions, fears, and misunderstandings are discussed which affirm that the difference between Englishness and Otherness can be more difficult to discern. However, the aim of the book, according to its author, is to capture "Englishness in the making."

A professor of English, Gerald MacLean has a solid background in Renaissance literature, poetry and literary theory, and he has no illusions about the relevance of his book to contemporary debate. "All too often, a selective use of history has generated stories that make hostility between Christian and Muslim nations appear to be the way things have always been and therefore must remain", he writes. MacLean thus positions himself alongside writers and academics who have attempted to contribute to a better understanding of this history, allowing for a more rigorous approach to the historical interactions between East and West.

Since the publication of Edward Said's Orientalism, much energy has been spent looking at what 19th-century writers such as Flaubert, de Nerval and Lane had to say of their travels in the Orient. One can see in The Rise of Oriental Travel the emergence of the kinds of attitudes that Said described already beginning to congeal in the minds of the writers examined. Nevertheless, MacLean's study provides evidence that in the early- modern period, at least, encounters with the Orient were multidimensional. English Renaissance travellers, such as John Sanderson, William Lithgow, George Sandys and John Greaves all wrote accounts of their travels which cannot be reduced simply to colonial enterprise. Indeed, these accounts ask for more rigorous assessment as travel writing. The focus of MacLean's study is the "emergence of writers who went east precisely in order to write about it."

The book is divided into four sections, preceded by three shorter chapters. The prologue provides a translation of Mustapha bin Ibrahim Safi's account of a clockwork organ sent by Queen Elizabeth I to Sultan Mehmet III as a gift and later destroyed by Ahmad I. The significance of this account, and of the exchange that it records, an example of diplomatic lavishness, is elaborated throughout the book, with following chapters confessing -- why deny it? -- the author's argument, methodology, and origins of the project in his own visits to the region.

The book presents the accounts of four English travellers to the Ottoman Empire in the 17th century at a time when British interests in the region were on the rise and when the relationships between the two countries, one an empire, one yet to become one, were shifting. Through his presentation of Thomas Dallam, a musician specialising in the manufacture of organ pipes for whom "invention, trade and diplomacy converged into the career opportunity of a lifetime," William Biddulph, a Protestant clergyman, Sir Henry Blount, a rich gentleman traveller, and Mr. T.S., supposedly an English merchant taken captive by the Turks, MacLean sets out to demonstrate that "English attitudes to towards the Ottoman Empire in the early modern period were not as uniformly hostile or as fearful as one would have imagined." By combining the tales of an organ-maker, a clergyman, a lawyer and a merchant, MacLean portrays an assortment of early-modern Englishmen, who, like the mad dogs of Noel Coward's song, went out in the sun.

"All travellers' writings, even when they record visits to the same place, are also about the traveller, and as such they cannot help but reveal fascinating differences not only of individual personality but also of social perspective, even when they originate from a common cultural background," MacLean notes. We are thus left with four books written by very different people for very different reasons. For each a manuscript, and to each a tale.

A number of points of comparison emerge: Dallam's journal was never published, while Biddulph's necessitated an elaborate process of concealment and disguise, in order to overcome accusations that travel writing "was among the lowest and least respectable kinds of writing". T.S.'s account, by contrast, inverts this process, recounting a fantasy and claiming it as real. MacLean also reveals how these narratives related to the wider politics of the time, while assessing the accounts in terms of their contribution to the genre of travel writing, from such early-modern texts to Swift's Gulliver's Travels and Defoe's Robinson Crusoe in the 18th century to the Lonely Planet guides of today.

Thomas Dallam's manuscript journal entitled A brefe Relation of my Travell from the Royall Cittie of London towards The Straite of mare mediteranum and what happened by the waye (1599), presents the observations of a musician who set sail for Turkey in 1599 in order to play a vital role at a crucial moment in diplomatic relations between Queen Elizabeth I and the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet III. This first account is by far the most extraordinary in the book, and MacLean writes that "Dallam's meeting with Mehmet can rightly claim to be the first and most intimate direct encounter between an ordinary Englishman and an Ottoman emperor."

He selects aspects of Dallam's account that highlight tensions and differences, and one is grateful for his decision not to modernise Dallum's English, enabling one to relish a language that turns episode after episode into adventure: "the perils encountered by this group ... were of a suitably comic kind, in which the dangers were very small, entirely imagined or caused by the rowdy behaviour of the travellers themselves."

It is possible to imagine why Dallam, finding himself sailing to the heart of the Ottoman Empire to deliver an organ, might have been worried. This same humour, reflecting something of the same absurdity, comes across strongly in Dallam's references to his "master", Henry Lello, England's ambassador-to-be in Istanbul, whose future depended on the success of Dallam's mission. The latter found himself in a difficult position: "the Ottomans wanted him to stay and play his instrument; the English ambassador wanted him to stay because they did." Finally, Dallam's fear of being too caught up in diplomacy catapulted him out of the city, and, despite the allure of Ottoman luxury, he invented a wife and family and hurried back home.

In contrast to Dallam's account, Biddulph's The Travels of Certaine Englishmen (1609), claims, piously, to "set the record straight." Yet, in order to do so, Biddulph first has to explain why he is writing a travel narrative at all, since it was then considered to be a form of writing bearing little prestige. MacLean writes that Biddulph's text should be seen as part of his loyalty to Lello in the latter's struggle for power with Thomas Glover, who was to take the place in Istanbul. Accordingly, Biddulph sets out to smear Glover as only an egotistical cleric perhaps would know how, "constantly on the lookout for strange and immoral sexual practices wherever they might be found."

The third of MacLean's writers, Sir Henry Blount, had an altogether more secular and Baconian frame of mind, as is evidenced in his A Voyage into the Levant (1636). Blount's interest was not so much religious as scientific, and his approach to his encounters was more open. His text is also more prescriptive about the correct manner with which to engage with the Ottomans, though amicably so. Blount, writing in the early 17th century, witnessed the Ottoman Empire at the period of its greatest power and magnificence, comparing it to what he considered to be the then sorry state of one of the greatest powers of antiquity, Egypt.

Throughout his travels in the Levant and the Orient, Blount took notes on what he observed. His was a form of "strategic travelling," taking both travel and travel writing to a new level of sophistication. His mission was also designed to bring commercial and other benefits to Britain, helping to "stimulate the market for coffee," for example. By the time Blount wrote his Voyage the secular approach of the new scientific age, of which he was a product, had led to the realisation that "nations and the institutions that attend them are as much historical products of geography, nature and climate as they are of religious belief."

MacLean keeps tally of the travellers' varied references to food, sleeping conditions and the surrounding environment in their narratives throughout his study, T.S., the last of the four authors taking these to a new level of detail. In his account, The Adventures of (Mr T.S.) An English Merchant Taken Prisoner by the Turks of Algiers (1670), the author thus "without apparent difficulty ... proves capable of taking on multiple roles: ethnographic observer, soldier on the march, war correspondent, big-game hunter, diplomat and political adviser." Indeed, it is in the final section of the book, in MacLean's analysis of T.S.'s account, that he completes his survey and pulls together common threads from these narratives, which might otherwise be seen as merely a combination of politics and adventure.

Reading The Rise of Oriental Travel, I realised that travel writing has less to do with journeys and more to do with the stories that these tell. For these British travellers there was always a task at hand: for Dallam, it was to deliver an organ and to play it for the sultan, while for Biddulph it was to explain something of the Christian religion, for example. Blount's aim was to assess the situation in the eastern Mediterranean in political terms, almost inevitably being accused of spying as a result, while T.S.'s narrative presents a hallucinogenic shift in power relations between master and slave. The humour of the collection allows MacLean to show how these early modern British travellers sometimes inadvertently exposed their deeper intentions.

Finally, MacLean's exploration of these journeys, undertaken for very different purposes by very disparate writers, brings out the rather different purposes for which travel in the East could be made. Travel writing consists of telling a story about a journey, and as MacLean points out, stories involving miracle sheep, horses, snakes, silk pants, scorpians and a flying serpent, come in many forms.

By Iman Hamam

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