In The Ottoman Age of Exploration, author Giancarlo Casale tackles the Ottoman Empire’s naval exploits in the Indian Ocean during the 16th century, a topic long-neglected by scholars. While demonstrating the importance of these exploits to Ottoman geopolitical grand strategy, Casale also works to challenge the Eurocentricism that surrounds the Age of Exploration, the era in the late 15th through 16th Centuries when European states began to project their power over significant parts of the globe, and highlights the campaigns waged by other powers in the Indian Ocean region against these European explorers.
In contrast to the Ottoman naval build up in the Bosporus or North Africa (where the Empire’s navies secured coastlines for amphibious landings and to facilitate military goals), Ottoman exploration in the Indian Ocean did not grow out of the Empire’s expansionistic drive. Instead, its involvement in the region was a defensive reaction to Portuguese incursions into Indian Ocean trading zones.
The Ottomans originally regarded the Indian Ocean as foreign and removed from their sphere of influence, as did most of the European powers of the time. The Indian Ocean was a self-contained trading system stretching from the Swahili Coast all the way to South-East Asia. The sailors and merchants who dominated the region were largely Arabs from the Gulf area while India served as the geographic lynchpin and largest market of goods within this network.
In 1498 the Portuguese rounded the southern tip of Africa and broke into this trading system. Vasco de Gama saw the immense wealth and opportunity and immediately set about re-aligning trade relations in Portugal’s favor, often at the point of his ships’ cannons.
And so a new, dynamic, and destructive force exploded onto the scene: the heavily armed Portuguese galleon. Even with the Portuguese strong-arming their way into strategic possessions along the trade routes scattered throughout India and Africa, the Ottomans only became actively interested in exploring opportunities within the region after 1517 when they successfully invaded and annexed the Mamluk Sultanate, which was based in Egypt but extended to the Levantine Coast. While the Ottomans initially expanded into the Indian Ocean with the purpose of securing the southern flank of these new territories, they quickly realized they too could reap significant financial rewards by securing the region’s trade routes.
Annexing the Sultanate
Casale portrays the conquest of the Mamluk Sultanate as one of the most, if not the most, important acquisition of the early Ottoman period. According to the author, by controlling these territories, the Ottomans not only gained control over massive agricultural resources and population, but also obtained direct access to the Red Sea and thus by extension the Indian Ocean.
Egypt had long been the entry point for the spice trade coming from India and Indonesia into the Mediterranean world, and now certain elements within the Ottoman state saw a chance to maximize financial gains as well as spread soft power influence into new regions.
Casale tells a fascinating story about the various means used by what he dubs “The Indian Ocean Lobby” to accomplish these ends, in the face of sometimes overwhelming opposition. This group of influential courtiers, which included viziers and regional governors, sought to make the Indian Ocean just as important a front for investment and expansion as more traditional Ottoman frontiers, such as the Balkans and North Africa.
As a part of the imperial project in the former Mamluk Sultanate, the Ottomans engaged in massive building and construction projects in Egypt. Ottoman resources, such as timber, were tortuously relocated by land, often across forbidding terrain, to new naval yards in the Red Sea. While the immense expense and risk involved made some Ottoman officials hesitate over the wisdom of these efforts, the lucrative trade routes, the need for naval security to the south, and the new potential allies in Africa and the South/Southeast Asia overrode these concerns as the Indian Ocean Lobby argued that the potential monetary gains over the long run would outweigh the immediate cost. What had begun as a security measure was now being championed by its advocates as a profit making offensive.
For members of the Indian Ocean Lobby, the Ottoman Empire’s first priority was to secure Egypt and the Holy Cities, (Mecca and Medina) from Portuguese attack by establishing authority over perpetually unstable Yemen. As long as Yemen remained unstable it gave the Portuguese an opportunity to interference in the Red Sea. The campaigns, counter-campaigns, and various land/sea operations devoted to keeping this problematic region under Ottoman control crop up frequently in the narrative. Though never truly stable, Yemen was effectively under nominal Ottoman control throughout the period. While originally secured for defensive reasons, Yemen would be used by the Ottomans as a springboard for maritime offensives at sea and to project imperial power throughout the Indian Ocean.
Maritime Exploits in the Indian Ocean
Various individuals played significant roles in Ottoman excursions into the Indian Ocean. The effort involved geographers and explorers, as well as admirals and expeditionary forces that helped the Ottoman state establish relations with potential allies and trading partners in far flung locations such as Gujarat, Indonesia and the East African coast. In addition to preventing full Portuguese control over the region, Ottoman engagement with the Indian Ocean’s political and economic system allowed the Empire to bypass its most intractable and dangerous foe, the Safavids of Iran.
Ottoman designs on the Indian Ocean faced a number of hurdles. While perfectly designed for the Mediterranean, Ottoman war galleys were no match for Portuguese galleys on the open oceans. The Portuguese warships boasted thick hulls, higher profiles, and large cannons, making them decidedly difficult to defeat. Even so, on numerous occasions the more maneuverable and versatile Ottoman ships were able to spring traps on Portuguese vessels in the shallower coastal waters of the Persian Gulf and off the western coast of India, presenting a significant challenge to Portuguese control of the region’s maritime trade routes.
Ottoman forces also pushed back against the Portuguese on land, and in so doing expanded their influence through this additional mechanism. Portuguese ally, Ethiopia, acquired firearms and mercenaries to expand its own borders, which pushed up against Ottoman lands and interests as well as several potential anti-Portuguese allies in what is now modern day Somalia. The Ottomans responded by dispatching their own expeditionary force to contain Ethiopia’s drive, demonstrating the ineffectiveness of a Portuguese alliance on the African horn and obtaining a few new allies in the bargain.
The sheer geographic scope of these Ottoman alliances throughout the Indian Ocean was staggering. Not content with having allies only in the immediate vicinity, the Ottomans sought and acquired trans-Oceanic connections to link up directly with central sources of the spice trade. Of particular value to the Ottomans was their alliance with the far away Aceh Sultanate, whose military strength and shipbuilding prowess challenged Portuguese, and later, Dutch power in the region.
Some members of the international community were not, however, supportive of the Ottoman’s great anti-Portuguese containment effort. The largest and most influential economy of the Indian Ocean, the Mughal Empire, was decidedly skeptical, and welcomed the Portuguese as trading partners while eying the Ottomans with suspicion. Having been accommodated by the Portuguese trading system, other smaller, regional powers were comfortable with their predominance and were often overtly hostile to Ottoman overtures. The Sultanate of Gujarat, for instance, saw Portuguese naval power as the key to securing its prosperity as well as its independent standing vis a vis its neighbor, the Mughal giant.
At a time when many consider the Indian Ocean to be returning to the center of geopolitical relevance, Casale’s book is a timely as well as illuminating contribution. Many of the regions over which the Ottomans and the Portuguese clashed continue to have geopolitical significance. Contemporary shipping lanes follow many of the routes used by these two great powers and the various choke points in Hormuz, Malacca, and Aden continue to be sites of strife as well as piracy. To those immersed with contemporary geopolitics, the echoes of our own time will resonate through reading Casale’s take on this previous era.
Casale’s book also reminds us not only of the need to create a balanced historiography that moves away from Eurocentric viewpoints, but also of the abiding importance of geopolitical strategy long before the term itself existed. He successfully moves the narrative away from victor and vanquished paradigms to one that focuses on the benefits the Ottomans gained from engaging with the larger global community. Not only did the Ottomans effectively respond to European expansionism, they increased their own wealth and power. In so doing, they gained immense amounts of knowledge about the world, an ‘intellectual ferment’ that would have been impossible without engagement with the civilizations and cultures that surrounded them.
* Christopher Mott graduated with a history degree from Rutgers University. He served as an intern for Congressman Patrick Murphy and an educational researcher for the Canadian Embassy in Washington D.C. He is currently a PhD student at the University of St Andrews in International Relations where he focuses on the confluence of history and geopolitics in the grand strategies of powers in Central Asia.