This new study of maritime violence in the early modern Mediterranean provides a timely consideration of the personal, legal, and diplomatic repercussions of piracy from an Ottoman perspective. White’s innovative contribution to the scholarly literature on corsairing and piracy develops from his extensive use of Ottoman sources (court documentation, petitions, letters, reports, decrees, captivity narratives, travel accounts, etc.). His focus, not on the actions of the pirates themselves, but on the Ottoman judicial and administrative response to piracy, creates a narrative that is more nuanced than some earlier studies, which have tended to consider events refracted through an interpretative lens that emphasises a purported clash of civilisations meta-narrative and which sees the motivation of such violence located in holy warfare.1 Instead, White considers the Ottomans as much victims of this naval violence as other Mediterranean communities and peoples. However, he does not narrate the Ottomans as passive, impotent victims of circumstance. Through a study of the juridical ramifications of piracy, he provides a focus on the construction of the eastern Mediterranean as a unified Ottoman legal space, a space in which Ottoman law had both force and meaning, albeit in instances of both compliance and non-observance. In so doing, White addresses a lacuna in scholarly and popular narratives of early modern Mediterranean naval violence: the lack of any serious discussion of the Ottoman institutional practices that developed in response to piracy and corsairing, an omission that has resulted in a depiction of the Ottoman Empire as either administratively incompetent or complicit in such violence.
One of the key features of the book is the manner in which it combines an analysis of various genres of Ottoman documents in the context of piracy with lively case studies of individuals involved. For example, Chapter Two discusses both the hüccets (legal documents) drawn up by captured kadis (judge-notaries) to facilitate the ransom process, and the experience of one particular kadi, Macuncuzade Mustafa Efendi, who was held captive in Malta for a couple of years at the end of the sixteenth century. Other chapters discuss fetvas (legal opinions) and treaties.
Chapter One provides an introduction to, and overview of, licit and illicit forms of maritime violence from an Ottoman perspective, taking the explanation of late sixteenth-century Ottoman scholar and historian Mustafa Ali as a starting point. Chapter Two considers the impact that Catholic piracy had on the Ottomans through the experiences and activities of captured Ottoman kadis who, while incarcerated in Christian dungeons and bagnos, formed not only a valuable means of trans-Mediterranean communication, but also a lynchpin of this early-modern human trafficking industry through their formalization and sanctioning of ransom agreements.
The following two chapters look in more detail at the diplomatic and political frameworks within which the Ottomans responded to instances of piracy. Here the focal point is largely on Ottoman-Venetian relations, and White traces the development in terms of the form and content of treaties and ahdnames (agreements; pacts). In particular, he considers the diplomatic divergence engendered not only by the powerful maritime presence of the Northern European Atlantic states in the Mediterranean, but also their conclusion of treaties directly with the nominally Ottoman North African port cities of Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunis.
Chapters Five and Six explore in more detail the legal developments that arose from instances of piracy in terms of the theoretical developments in Ottoman jurisprudence as well as the more prosaic interactions of individuals affected by maritime violence with the Ottoman court system. Through a discussion of specific Ottoman maritime legal opinions (fetvas), White demonstrates the insight that they can provide into the complexities that piracy posed for the Ottoman authorities and how they effectively chart the Ottoman legal system’s search for adequate solutions in its navigation between the precepts of Islamic law and the more mundane pragmatics of state administration. White shows how these fetvas attempted to bring together both Islamic and sultanic law in the context of disputes over property, the limits of the legitimate use of violence at sea (including the use of religious arguments), rights over the division of captured goods and people, as well as the fate of converts, in an attempt to exert Ottoman authority across its maritime borders.
In a similarly focused manner, in Chapter Six White discusses a number of court cases, including Mahmud ibn Ahmed’s use of the legal system to try to get his ship back, in order to shed light on the experiences of Ottoman subjects affected by piracy. In doing so, he foregrounds the gap that often existed between actual legal practice and the theoretical opinions expressed in the fetvas. But, perhaps more importantly, his analysis illustrates that although the Ottoman court system may not have been able to provide ideal solutions in all situations, it was fundamental to commercial operation in the eastern Mediterranean and it was utilized by both Muslims and non-Muslims, Ottoman subjects, and occasionally foreigners. The story of the gaoler-captain summarised in the conclusion exemplifies the problems of relying on religious motivations or divisions as explanatory tools and provides a fitting end to a book that reminds us of the permeability and fluidity as well as the complex political, economic, cultural, and religious interconnections of the early modern Mediterranean world.