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Salih Özbaran, Ottoman Expansion towards the Indian Ocean in the 16th Century

Istanbul, Bilgi University Press, 2009
Giancarlo Casale
p. 235-238

Salih Özbaran, Ottoman Expansion towards the Indian Ocean in the 16th Century. Istanbul, Bilgi University Press, 2009

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1For more than forty years, the history of Ottoman expansion in the Indian Ocean has been a subfield virtually synonymous with the name Salih Özbaran. As the first Turkish historian to have ventured into the Portuguese archives in the 1960s, he has since then produced an uninterrupted stream of new research on the subject, and is today internationally recognized as its foremost authority. Until recently, however, the majority of his scholarly contributions have taken the form of focused studies on specific episodes of this history, rather than larger works that analyze the subject as a whole. It is therefore with particular excitement that historians have anticipated his latest contribution, Ottoman Expansion towards the Indian Ocean in the 16th Century, which stands as a definitive synthesis of Özbaran’s scholarship over the past half century.

2The book is divided into four main sections. The first, «Expansion», takes the form of a chronological narrative of Ottoman military and naval activities in the Indian Ocean. While this narrative contains comparatively little in the way of new material or original insights, it is particularly useful for English speakers because it offers a comprehensive overview that has until now only been available in Özbaran’s publications in Turkish.

3Part two, «Provincial/Fiscal Organizations», leaves narrative history aside and instead presents a structural analysis of the Ottomans’ administrative and fiscal apparatus in what Özbaran refers to as «the southern territories», with separate chapters devoted to each of the Ottomans’ five Indian Ocean provinces: Egypt, Yemen, Ethiopia, Basra, and Lahsa. The main focus of these chapters is the land-tenure and revenue collection system in this region, which, as Özbaran shows, was based from the very beginning on tax farms and the payment of cash salaries for state officials. As a result, he argues that the administrative character of the southern territories differed substantially from the core areas of the empire in the Balkans and Anatolia, where the timar system of land grants was not phased out in favor of tax farms until much later, during the period of extended empire-wide crisis in the seventeenth century.

4These arguments are complemented by the material presented in part three, «Military Structures», which confronts the question of how the empire recruited soldiers and sailors in the southern territories, where it recruited them from, and under what terms of employment. Here the most interesting material is provided by Özbaran’s work with the Mevacib or payroll registers from the Ottoman archives, which he uses to show both the surprising ethnic diversity of the military personnel in the region, as well as the very high percentage of recent converts to Islam. As in the case of his analysis of the region’s fiscal infrastructure, these conclusions too stand in stark contrast to most existing scholarship on this subject, which has instead been based on the assumption that Ottoman military personnel in the southern territories was overwhelmingly composed of Anatolian Turks.

5Finally, part four, «Trade», tackles the thorny problem of determining the actual volume of the spice trade through Ottoman controlled routes, and the extent to which the Ottomans were able to profit from this trade at the expense of their rivals, the Portuguese. Until now, virtually all relevant data used by scholars to answer this important question has been based on European sources, prompting Özbaran to piece together Ottoman figures from a variety of different bureaucratic records, including cadastral surveys, tax regulations, and provincial account books. However, because of the fragmentary nature of these sources and their lack of uniformity in terms of the information they provide, he refrains from drawing any firm conclusions about how these figures might alter the existing scholarly consensus about the flows of trade from a macroeconomic perspective.

6Overall, Ottoman Expansion towards the Indian Ocean stands as an impressive monument to Özbaran’s scholarly achievement, particularly in light of the humble state of scholarship in the field outside of Özbaran’s own contributions. Given the overwhelming range of sources Özbaran has consulted, the thoroughness of his research, and his encyclopedic knowledge of the subject, it is certain to remain a defining work for many years to come.

7But like any book, Ottoman Expansion is also not without shortcomings. Most basically, it must be said that the production staff of Bilgi University Press has not done editorial justice to the manuscript, which is filled with an egregious number of typos, grammatical errors, and awkward phrasings (including several on the very first page). Better attention from the editors might also have helped give the book a more coherent feel in terms of its prose, which is repetitive in many places and often gives the impression of being an uncomfortable compromise between a synthetic work and a simple anthology of articles.

8More substantively, one is left to wonder about the overall thrust of Özbaran’s conclusions, which in addition to emphasizing the administrative idiosyncrasies of the Ottomans’ southern territories, also have the cumulative effect of minimizing both the scale and the importance of the Ottoman imperial presence in the Indian Ocean, in some cases almost to the point of irrelevance. In his opening political narrative, for example, Özbaran’s final word about the Ottomans’ many campaigns at sea is to dismiss them as «the sporadic actions of a land-bound empire». Later, in his chapters on fiscal administration, he speculates (on the basis of rather slender evidence) that the southern provinces ran a chronic budget deficit and were therefore never profitable for the Ottoman treasury. In his discussion of military infrastructure, he likewise stresses the extremely small number of land and sea forces actually employed by the state, which he rates as barely adequate for local defense. And in his concluding section, he questions whether the state, despite the obvious benefits, ever had a serious interest in promoting trade with the wider Indian Ocean region.

9In making such arguments, of course, Özbaran finds himself comfortably placed within a much larger genealogy of scholarship about the political economy of the early modern world. But in his case, what is most surprising about this insistence on emphasizing the Ottomans’ «inadequacies» (the word is his) is that it seems to contrast so sharply with the conclusion of his own earlier scholarship. When reading Özbaran’s earliest work, particularly his articles from the ‘60s and ‘70s, one gets instead a vivid sense of the excitement he felt as he encountered Portuguese sources for the first time – sources that contained such a wealth of information about the Ottomans’ activities in the Indian Ocean that they seemed to contradict everything that scholars had previously believed about the empire’s lack of interest in region’s geography, its trade networks, and its political economy.

10In more recent decades, Özbaran’s attention has shifted away from these Portuguese sources, and moved instead in the direction of exploring what the Ottomans’ own archival records have to say about their activities in the Indian Ocean. But while it is undoubtedly this shift in focus that has led to the decidedly more restrained conclusions of his latest book, one wonders how these conclusions might have differed had he embraced the discrepancy between the surviving Ottoman and Portuguese sources as a question in its own right. After all, Özbaran’s own arguments about the unique fiscal and administrative basis for Ottoman rule in the southern territories suggests one possible reason why the archival evidence about Ottoman activities there – in a way completely independent of the «facts on the ground» – is so sparse compared to other regions of the empire. So against this backdrop, one cannot help but wonder whether the inadequacies that Özbaran describes are really indicative of the Ottomans’ own shortcomings, or whether they may not instead be a reflection of the inadequacy of the surviving archival record.

11This possibility, namely that Ottoman historical agency might be diminished rather than accentuated by historians’ privileging of the Ottomans’ own archival record, is one that is both troubling and rich with implications for fields far beyond the confines of Özbaran’s own chosen area of study. Considering Özbaran’s versatility as a researcher, and the feverish pace with which he continues to produce new scholarship (at last count, he had published five books in as many years), we can only hope that this intriguing question is one that he is saving for a fuller consideration in his next major work. Until then, scholars will find more than enough to hold their interest, and inspire their own research, within the pages of Ottoman Expansion towards the Indian Ocean.

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Referência do documento impresso

Giancarlo Casale, « Salih Özbaran, Ottoman Expansion towards the Indian Ocean in the 16th Century »Ler História, 58 | 2010, 235-238.

Referência eletrónica

Giancarlo Casale, « Salih Özbaran, Ottoman Expansion towards the Indian Ocean in the 16th Century »Ler História [Online], 58 | 2010, posto online no dia 09 dezembro 2015, consultado no dia 28 novembro 2020. URL:; DOI:

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Giancarlo Casale

Departamento de História – Universidade de Minnesota (EUA)

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Ler História está licenciado com uma Licença Creative Commons - Atribuição-NãoComercial 4.0 Internacional.

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