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The waters of the ‘Sublime State’: the Ottoman Empire and the sea 

Dr Michael Talbot, one of this year’s BBC Radio 3 and the Arts and Humanities Research Council New Generation Thinker, explores the Ottoman Empire’s interactions with other powers and peoples.

Tell us about yourself

I am a historian of the Ottoman Empire. As that state lasted for half a millennium and ruled over extensive lands in Europe, Asia, and Africa, it is a topic that keeps me endlessly fascinated. I am particularly interested in Ottoman relations with the wider world, and what being an ‘empire’ meant to them. The Ottomans did not call themselves an empire; this was the Sublime State, which ruled over its Well-Protected Domains.

I started this journey to Ottoman history via some travels in my younger days around Turkey, where I fell in love with the place. As an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge, I was more interested in the history of Palestine/Israel, my MA degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London pushed me back towards the Ottomans. I completed my PhD at SOAS in 2013 with a dissertation on Ottoman-British relations in the 18th century, and since then my research has ranged across a number of topics in Ottoman history from the 17th to 20th centuries.

Research is great, but teaching and engaging with the public are my passions. My students are a real joy, and almost none of them have had any exposure to Ottoman or Middle Eastern history before coming to university, so my teaching has to be creative and engaging to cover so much material in such a short space of time. As a newly minted AHRC/BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinker, I am very excited to have the opportunity to bring my subject to a much wider audience.

What is the area of your research?

I am interested in the relationship between the Ottoman Empire and the sea, that is, what it meant to control water, and how the Ottoman Empire tried to do this. One of the many titles the sultans claimed was ‘Sultan of the Two Lands and Ruler of the Two Seas.’ On land, the state can build castles, establish new settlements, dispatch vast armies, and use natural features to delineate territory. On water, exerting physical control is a different matter. You can’t build on water. Any force you exert is necessarily limited by the logistics of sea travel and the reach of the coast out into the water.

The Ottoman state came up with a variety of tactics to define and defend what I call their ‘liquid space’ in the 18th century in response to certain threats. One of the main dangers to peace at sea in that century were British and French privateers, whose attacks against each other frequently resulted in losses for Ottoman merchants. A privateer was simply a merchant ship that had special permission from the government to attack and seize enemy merchant shipping during wartime, essentially a legalised form of piracy. But to the Ottomans, this was piracy, an unlawful attack against their peaceful commerce at sea.

I found a number of documents in the Ottoman and British archives that point to how the Ottomans used this challenge to assert the sultan’s role as Ruler of the Two Seas. One of the most interesting ones was the drawing of an ‘imaginary line’ – yes, that’s what the Ottomans called it – across the Mediterranean in the 1740s, from Greece to Libya. Beyond that line, any violence committed by British or French privateers was forbidden, and the British and French governments would be forced to pay compensation to any victims. A bold move, but one that did actually involve compensation being paid to ill-treated Ottoman merchants.

What is the importance of this research?

My aim with this research is to force us to think about what controlling the sea really means, in both historical and contemporary terms. Every year at the Last Night of the Proms, a hall full of people sing ‘Rule, Britannia! Britannia rules the waves!’ Now, I am not a fan of that particular ditty, but it makes me stop and wonder how Britain controlled ‘the waves’? What possible use is a sailing ship in the vastness of the ocean? How can the sea be controlled?

For the Ottomans, much of their claim over liquid space was linked to coasts and islands. That sort of space is easier to define, delineate, and control. This, too, is how states across Europe came to define territorial waters in the 18th century, by the so-called ‘three mile rule’. Whatever you could shoot at from the land was yours to claim.

The open sea, where any control was temporary, could not be permanently tied to any state. This is one reason why the Ottomans’ ‘imaginary line’ was so radical and controversial. A line across a piece of land makes sense, it can be marked out by rivers or forests or towns. But a line through the deep blue waters could only ever be imaginary.

In the 21st century, we see the continuation of the debates over who can control the sea – and how much of it. The Russians stuck a flag at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean in 2007 to make their claim over that body of water. The People’s Republic of China continues to develop artificial islands in the South China Seas to extend their claims at the expense of neighbouring countries.

And, in the Mediterranean, in the same spaces where the Ottomans drew their imaginary line, there are daily battles, and collaborations, between the forces of the state and modern-day forms of piracy like people trafficking and drug smuggling, much of which is determined by where international waters end and national waters begin.

Dr Michael Talbot is a lecturer in the history of the Ottoman Empire and modern Middle East at the University of Greenwich. His first book examined British-Ottoman relations in the 18th century, and his current work considers Ottoman attitudes towards the sea in the same period, how it might be controlled, and how to deal with piracy and its victims.

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