The Ottoman Age of Exploration: Spices, Maps and Conquest in the Sixteenth Century Indian Ocean

Thesis Type:

PhD dissertation


This dissertation is a study of Ottoman expansion in the Indian Ocean, beginning with Sultan Selim the Grim's conquest of Egypt in 1517, and ending with the corsair Mir Ali Beg's last naval expedition to the Swahili Coast in 1589. The aim of my research is to create a coherent narrative of the most important events during this period, while at the same time placing them within the context of the larger story of European overseas expansion during the Age of Exploration. Specifically, my thesis argues that the establishment of Ottoman suzerainty over the northwest Indian Ocean littoral (including Yemen, the Horn of Africa, Basra and the Persian Gulf) mirrored both qualitatively and chronologically the overseas expansion of the Iberian powers, and particularly the rival and contemporaneous establishment of the Portuguese Estado da India.

Like the Portuguese, the Ottomans in the sixteenth century strove to seize control of the lucrative trade in spices between India and the markets of the Mediterranean, and began to articulate a claim to universal sovereignty whose legitimacy, also like that of the Portuguese, hinged on an ability to control the network of maritime communications that crisscrossed the Indian Ocean. As the century progressed, the Ottomans developed a constantly expanding array of tactics to defend this claim, including the strategic use of predatory corsair attacks against Portuguese shipping, the creation of a “state monopoly” of the transit pepper trade through the Red Sea, and the construction of an extensive web of diplomatic and mercantile alliances stretching from Mombasa and Gujarat to Ceylon and Sumatra. Meanwhile, this unprecedented engagement with the outside world sparked a period of remarkable intellectual fluorescence at home. Throughout the century, but especially in the years after the mid 1550's, Ottoman scholars began to produce entirely new kinds of maps, geographies and travel narratives at precisely the same time that humanist scholars in Europe were compiling the first great published collections of Western discovery literature.

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