Radical Books

Review of This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World

Jerry Brotton, This Orient Isle, Elizabethan England and the Islamic World (Allen Lane, 2016)

In 1582 Queen Elizabeth I dispatched an ambassador, William Harborne, to Turkey to form a ‘perfect and inviolable’ league, so that a ‘noble traffic will flourish between these nations’ (118); such are the striking stories about the relationship between England and the Islamic world of the Ottoman Empire in the Elizabethan period pulled together in Jerry Brotton’s timely book This Orient Isle. The immediate relevance of this history, at a time when a less ‘noble traffic’ flourishes between the EU and Turkey is clear. Further, at a time when separatist debates rage and Britain debates its ties with Europe and risks drifting away from the EU, This Orient Isle prompts a historical reflection on the small island kingdom that has always been part of a web of global connections.


Brotton explores the different strands of relations, commercial, diplomatic, cultural, that wove Elizabethan England and the Ottoman Empire together. This exposition of the long and complex history of relations between England and the Islamic world challenges the narrative of the ‘clash of civilizations’, which is still popular today. It does so in an astute way, not by imagining the past as a utopia where people blended without conflict but by revealing a society at the crossroads, politically, economically, and culturally, where diverse solutions and alliances were sought across different pathways, not forced into well-worn grooves by the strictures of prejudice. Historians of the Battle of Lepanto will know that in the early-modern world alliances were not necessarily forged between Europeans against Islam, but Brotton’s study contextualises the more familiar Franco-Ottoman alliance and intensifies our understanding of the complexity of relationships between Europeans and the Islamic world. Furthermore, it transcends the binary of ‘Europe’ and an ‘Islamic world’, showing that preconceived identity politics did not necessarily determine political geographies.

The world that Brotton depicts is also one of fluid identities, where it was not uncommon for Christians to become Muslims, or Muslims Christians. The stories presented by This Orient Isle provide an interesting context for the re-reading of Natalie Zemon-Davis’s majestic Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim Between Worlds. Conversions were not always forced in the sixteenth century, but one of the key contexts in which they occurred was that of imprisonment or slavery as Linda Colley’s Captives has also observed in the enslavement of Muslims by Christians and Christians by Muslims in Early Modern Europe.

Fool’s Cap Map of the Word, ca 1580-90 (Public Domain)

The history of connections across the Adriatic between the Ottoman and Venetian empires in the early modern period is reasonably well known; here Brotton shows how England also developed commercial, cultural, and diplomatic ties with the Ottoman Empire during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s excommunication opened the possibility of alliances with Muslim nations that would have not have been allowed by the papacy, but Brotton also reports that the Ottoman Empire wooed the Protestants by stressing commonalities between Protestantism and Islam (78).

Further, in another story reminiscent of today’s politics, Brotton reports that the ‘Turks had a consistent geopolitical strategy to exploit the political divisions between Catholicism and what they referred to as the ‘Luterān meẕebi’ (‘Lutheran sect’), which was described almost like one of the Ottomans’ rival Islamic sects. Such stories from around the time of the Reformation, a period of religious Fundamentalism within Europe, point to deeper aspects of shared histories between Europe and the Islamic world. This exploitation of sectarian divide was not one-sided; the Elizabethan traveller and merchant Anthony Jenkins committed himself to studying how to increase profit by exploiting the Sunni and Shi’a conflict and accessing commercial traffic through the Persian Gulf (50). The resonation of such stories of the exploitation of sectarian rifts for commercial gain will not be lost on any reader.

As England forged commercial relations with the Islamic world it did not seek to export solely linen and wool, but also arms. Elizabeth allowed the export of ‘all sorts of munitions of war’ to Morocco, unworried by the fact that Morocco was the great adversary of Portugal and Spain (62). The history of the arms trade which unfolds in the subsequent pages will also resonate with modern readers, as Brotton reports how English merchants exploited instabilities to pursue arms deals with the crown’s tacit support.

The ‘Rainbow Portrait’ of Elizabeth I, ca. 1600-1602 (Public Domain)

Brotton explores how these connections between Elizabethan England and the Islamic world were inscribed in English cultures and fashions, observing how the jewels and fabrics worn by Elizabeth in the ‘Rainbow Portrait’, c. 1600 are a record of extensive Anglo-Islamic trade. And it was not just fashions and commodities that were shared, but ideas about power; Brotton draws our attention to Hans Eworth’s portrait of sultan Süleyman the Magnificent on horseback (1549), as an example of one of the many pictures of Islamic rulers that were owned by Elizabethan elites. Brotton also traces how the presence of Muslim ambassadors in London influenced the great English playwrights Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare. He suggests that the Moroccan ambassador Muhammad al-Annuri may have been the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Othello. Brotton notes how the representations of Muslims and Jews takes a darker turn in the hands of Marlowe and Shakespeare. This historicisation of these English literary elites encourages a more critical deconstruction of English cultural heritage.

Süleyman the Magnificent on Horseback, Hans Eworth, 1549 (Public Domain)
Süleyman the Magnificent on Horseback, Hans Eworth, 1549 (Public Domain)

This Orient Isle makes an important contribution to global history by resituating a seemingly familiar topic, Elizabethan England and its cultural landscape from Marlowe to Shakespeare, within a global frame. It shows how global history is not the history of an ‘elsewhere’ but how the crossroads of global history streak the historical landscapes of England, which has never been an island floating on its own in space. It does not mobilise the global to imagine a cosmopolitan utopia, all flow and no resistance, but to historicise England’s relationship with Islam and with Europe, and to collect its historical experience of negotiating difference. Brotton does not romanticise the past, in fact, he points to some of the prejudices that are inscribed in our culture, but he does show how critical reflection on our own histories, and the long history of global interactions, can help us to confront our current condition.

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