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date: 04 December 2020

The Ottoman Empire and the Indian Ocean free

  • A. C. S. PeacockA. C. S. PeacockSchool of History, University of St Andrews


With its conquest of the Arab lands in the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire (1300–1923) came to control some of the major entrepots of the Indian Ocean trade in the west. This expansion, however, also brought the Ottomans into confrontation with the Portuguese, who were seeking to establish a monopoly of the lucrative spice trade. In the first half of the 16th century, Ottoman involvement was limited to the western half of the Indian Ocean, but in the later 16th century, the Southeast Asian sultanate of Aceh forged an alliance with the Ottomans, which, if short-lived in practice, was to attain considerable symbolic importance in later times. Ottoman involvement in the Indian Ocean resumed in the 19th century, again as a reaction to European colonial activities. In the meantime, both commercial and religious links, in particular the hajj, meant that the Ottomans had a prominent role in the Indian Ocean despite only controlling limited littoral territories.

The 16th Century

Ottoman contacts with India dated back to the second half of the 15th century. Embassies were exchanged between the Ottomans and the Bahmanid sultans of the Deccan, and Ottoman subjects were employed in India; rumis, or Anatolians, were particularly prized for their mastery of artillery.1 Yet the engagement between the two sides was limited. Ottoman involvement with the Indian Ocean region more broadly started in the wake of Portuguese attempts to establish a spice monopoly in the early years of the 16th century, following their rounding of the Cape of Good Hope in 1487. These were accompanied by Portuguese attacks on the Red Sea, which was largely (if nominally) under the control of the Mamluk dynasty of Egypt (r. 1250–1517). A Portuguese base was briefly established at Socotra in 1507, and in 1513 a Portuguese expedition penetrated the Red Sea, although it failed in its aim to seize Jeddah. Even before this, the Mamluks had sought aid from the Ottomans, lacking either supplies of timber for warships or much experience in naval warfare. Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II (r. 1481–1512) provided both men and ships with which the Mamluks launched an assault on the Portuguese in India. The Mamluk-Ottoman contingent, commanded by Husayn al-Kurdi, defeated the Portuguese at Chaul in western India in 1508, but was itself decisively defeated at Diu the following year.2

The Ottoman contribution to these initial efforts seems to have been motivated less by concern about the Portuguese than a desire to promote the international image of Bayezid as a protector of Islam and to gain leverage over the crumbling Mamluk state, which the Ottomans duly took over in 1516–1517. The Ottomans also inherited from the Mamluks the position of being the protectors of the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina, which would in subsequent years form one of the most important means by which the Ottoman relationship with the Indian Ocean world was mediated, both through the pilgrimage and through the credibility that control of the shrines gave to Ottoman claims of being Caliphs, universally recognized Muslim rulers. However, for much of the 16th century, Ottoman involvement in the Indian Ocean continued to revolve around the threat presented by the Portuguese.

More immediately, Sultan Selim I formed an alliance with the ruler of Gujarat, just as his Mamluk predecessors had, and the Ottoman interest in the Indian Ocean was also suggested by the navigator Piri Reis’s composition of a world map for the Ottoman sultan. This was evidently focused on the Indian Ocean, although these parts are now lost.3 The poem introducing Piri Reis’s slightly later Kitab-i Bahriye (Book of Seafaring, 1521, revised 1526), a collection of navigational charts of the Mediterranean, also emphasizes the need for jihad against the infidel in the Indian Ocean.4 Selim’s entry into Cairo, where he was presented with the map, was accompanied by a reminder of the imminence of the Portuguese threat, for in the same year the Portuguese entered the Red Sea once more and attempted unsuccessfully to sack Jeddah. Although the Ottoman defenders forced them to retreat, Portuguese raids continued to plague the southern reaches of the Red Sea in subsequent years. As a result, it seems spice imports into the Mediterranean, which usually came through the Red Sea and Egypt, were greatly if temporarily disrupted; some of these spices were doubtless Indian, but pepper from Aceh was traditionally a major commodity too.

Jeddah became the main Ottoman base in the Red Sea, where a substantial naval contingent was based, despite the fact it had been subject to several Portuguese attacks. A report written in Jeddah in 1525 indicates that the local commander was well aware of Portuguese activities not just in India but further afield, giving details of their fortifications in Diu, Goa, Calicut, Cochin, Ceylon, and even as far away as Malacca.5 Although this report advocated a policy of aggressive expansion, in reality, the Ottoman hold even on the Red Sea was extremely shaky, and the same dynamics that had hobbled Mamluk power there prevailed under Ottoman rule; although the Ottomans did seize parts off Yemen in 1523–1527, their control over these provinces was always to be tenuous and contested by local figures.6 Although Portuguese attacks on shipping continued, and there is some evidence for Ottoman preparations for a counter-offensive around 1531, this was aborted. It has been argued that preoccupations with Iran and the western Mediterranean were of greater importance to the Ottomans,7 although Portuguese incursions into the Persian Gulf commenced in this period, and the delay may have been intended to give the Ottomans the opportunity to build alliances there.8 Soon the western Persian Gulf littoral recognized Ottoman suzerainty.

A further campaign against Aden in 1538 was accompanied by a major expedition against the Portuguese stronghold of Diu in India, which they had recently seized from Gujarat. The expedition was a response to the petition of the Gujarati sultan Bahadur Khan (r. 1526–1537). Under the command of Süleyman Pasha, the octogenerian governor general of Egypt, this was by far the most substantial fleet that the Ottomans ever dispatched into the Indian Ocean, the strength of which has various been calculated at seventy or ninety ships, and with a crew perhaps some 10,000 strong.9 However, when Süleyman Pasha reached Diu, he found that the Bahadur Khan was dead, killed by the Portuguese, and his successor refused to assist the Ottoman force. After besieging the Portuguese garrison for twenty days, Süleyman Pasha was obliged to withdraw. Around the same time, negotiations between the Ottomans and the Portuguese were initiated with a view to fixing an agreed sum of pepper imports from the Estado da Índia, as the Portuguese called their Asian possessions, into the Ottoman lands and avoiding military confrontation; negotiations continued intermittently between 1538 and 1547. Giancarlo Casale suggests that the Ottoman aim was to secure “free trade,” but that seems uncertain. The negotiations were interspersed with shows of force on both sides, as the Portuguese admiral Estevao da Gama penetrated the Red Sea again in 1541, aiming to attack Suez, from which, however, he had to retreat, it being too heavily defended. As the negotiations led nowhere, the Ottomans adopted an increasingly aggressive approach, capturing Basra in 1546. This meant that the Ottomans now had a second route to the Indian Ocean through the Persian Gulf, but one that for the moment was blocked by the Portuguese, who controlled the strategic island of Hormuz. Ottoman efforts now focused on trying to prize the Portuguese away from Hormuz, which they besieged in 1551, and attacking the Portuguese fleet nearby in 1553. Neither of these was successful, but the attempts to remove the Portuguese from Hormuz indirectly brought about the composition of the two major texts in Ottoman Turkish dealing with the Indian Ocean by Sidi Ali Reis, the commander who was sent to rescue some of the Ottoman ships that had been damaged in the confrontation of 1553. Sidi Ali’s expedition was also militarily abortive. He lost part of his fleet to a Portuguese ambush of Muscat, and then was blown by the monsoon across the Indian Ocean, ending up in Gujarat, from where he had to return by land to Istanbul. There he penned the Mir’atu’l-Memalik, an attempt to explain his loss of the Ottoman fleet to the grand vizier Rustem Pasha. Sidi Ali Reis also composed a more practical work on the Indian Ocean, the Kitab al-Muhit, intended as a guide for navigators. However, the Kitab al-Muhit also reveals a surprising lack of firsthand knowledge, despite Sidi Ali’s travails. Although the seas as far as the Malay peninsula are described, the Kitab al-Muhit seems to rely largely on 15th-century Arabic compilations, such as the navigational guides by Ahmad b. Majid and Sulayman al-Mahri. It is thus more an Ottomanization of an established classical Arabic geographical work rather than a reproduction of contemporary knowledge. However, even if largely derivative, Sidi Ali Reis’s work is highly unusual in the corpus of 16th-century Ottoman geographical literature for focusing on the Indian Ocean at all. Of the numerous Ottoman geographies produced during this period, very few pay any attention to the Indian Ocean world.10

The relative lack of effectiveness of Ottoman naval operations in the Indian Ocean is possibly to be explained by the fact that the fleet commanders rarely had any prior experience of that sea; Sidi Ali Reis, for instance, had spent all his carrier previously in the Mediterranean, and was completely unprepared for the India Ocean’s violent storms. At the same time, though, the Indian Ocean world was a relatively secondary concern for the Ottomans, and the chronicles almost entirely ignore Ottoman involvement there; regrettably, the archival record from before the mid-16th century is also paltry. Casale has argued that the Ottoman policies in this period were a result of friction between the grand vizier Rustem Pasha, who favored turning away from the Indian Ocean, instead centralizing and consolidating the Ottoman Empire, and who was broadly uninterested in promoting trade, and an “Indian Ocean faction” consisting of men like Özdemir Pasha, governor of Yemen, and Da’ud Pasha, governor of Egypt. Casale blames Rustem’s centralization and his appointment of inexperienced but personally loyal men to critical positions for the failure of the Ottomans against the Portuguese in this period.11 Yet the extent to which Istanbul politics actually determined these policies, and to what extent there was a grand strategy, is unclear. At any rate, despite the setbacks at Hormuz and Muscat, the following years saw further Ottoman expansion in the Indian Ocean, with the establishment of the province of Lahsa in eastern Arabia over 1550 to 1555, intended to secure Basra’s trade with India, and the creation of the province of Habeş (Ethiopia) by Özdemir Pasha in 1555, which also secured the Ottomans’ foothold in the southern reaches of the Red Sea, including the ports of Suakin and Massawa.12 Yet in both cases this expansion was undertaken when Rüstem Pasha was in power.

Ottoman expansion and wars with the Portuguese now encouraged other Muslim Indian Ocean states to seek alliances with the Ottomans. The ruler of Ahmednagar in 1561 communicated a proposal for a joint campaign against the Portuguese stronghold of Chaul in India, and while the sultan of Aceh in Sumatra, Alauddin Riayat Syah (r. c. 1537–1571), also sent an embassy requesting Ottoman aid against the Portuguese in 1562, marking a break in the previous Acehnese policy of friendly relations with the Portuguese. This is the first Southeast Asian embassy that is recorded in the Ottoman sources, and would initiate a longstanding relationship between the Ottomans and the Acehnese—although one in which, as on this occasion, Acehnese hopes were usually to some degree disappointed.13 At this juncture, the Ottomans were trying again to negotiate a trade agreement with the Portuguese, which they did not wish to jeopardize; despite a more pacific Ottoman policy toward the Portuguese, ultimately the latter rejected the overtures. In the end the Acehnese were sent not the munitions they requested but ten cannon experts to assist the Acehnese in casting cannons. Ottoman cannons and cannonry enjoyed a great reputation throughout the Indian Ocean region. In addition, an Ottoman official, Lutfi, was dispatched to Aceh. Casale attributes a newly active interventionist policy in the Indian Ocean to Sokollu Mehmed Pasha, who was Grand Vizier between 1564 and 1579, but in fact, the dispatch of Lutfi suggests this probably preceded Sokolllu’s appointment, and may reflect Ottoman frustration that attempts to negotiate a trade deal with the Portuguese had yet again failed.14

Lutfi returned to Istanbul in 1566, accompanied by an Acehnese ambassador, and bearing a document that is one of the most important and problematic Ottoman sources on the Indian Ocean in the 16th century.15 Written in Ottoman Turkish and addressed to Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (r. 1520–1566), this letter appears to be both a request for aid from the sultan of Aceh and a description of Lutfi’s own wanderings, as well as offering an outline of the current political situation in the Indian Ocean. It thus appears likely that Lutfi or another Ottoman official had a hand in composing it, while at the same time it almost certainly does to some degree represent the position of the Acehnese sultan, whom we know from other sources was seeking Ottoman aid at this time. The letter also claims that in the Maldives, Ceylon, and Calicut, the Ottoman sultan’s name was acknowledged in the khutba or sermon at prayers, a traditional symbol of the recognition of suzerainty, and asserts the willingness of the Acehnese sultan to do the same. The implications of this were both commercial and political. In the medieval Indian Ocean world, khutba networks bound together disparate mercantile communities, while the mentioning of the Ottoman sultan’s name could also signify recognition of Ottoman claims to be universal Caliphs. However, the letter goes further, and the Alauddin Riayat Syah purportedly asks to be considered not “an independent ruler . . . but in no way different from the governors of Egypt and Yemen, or the beys of Jiddah and Aden,” in return for the supply of munitions.16 The genuineness of this offer for the voluntary incorporation of Aceh into the Ottoman Empire has been met with some skepticism by scholars, who have suggested it may represent an elaboration by Lutfi, but in 19th-century Aceh, a memory of the sultanate as an Ottoman province or dependency still remained alive, suggesting it may have some basis.17

The letter brought by Lutfi met an enthusiastic response in Istanbul, and Sokollu Mehmed Pasha authorized the equipping of a major naval expedition to Aceh; however, a major rebellion in Yemen in 1567 forced the expedition to be aborted to deal with the threat there. A much smaller Ottoman expeditionary force reached Aceh the following year, and continuing Ottoman interest in the Indian Ocean is suggested by the plan to build a Suez canal in 1568 to link the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, aimed in particular at facilitating the passage of the navy, although the canal was never actually built. A further expedition against Hormuz in 1570 was planned but never executed; similarly, in the 1570s, campaigns against Bahrain were considered but never undertaken. Meanwhile, the Portuguese attempted to disrupt Acehnese shipping heading for the Red Sea, but in the wake of the defeat at Lepanto in 1571 and the commencement of war with Iran in 1578, Ottoman activities in the Indian Ocean started to tail off.18 The last major expeditions were launched by the corsair Mir Ali Beg, who attacked Portuguese Muscat in 1581, and East Africa in 1586 and 1589, which seems to have aimed to remove the Portuguese from their strongholds there. Local Muslim rulers in Mogadishu and other East African towns pledged their allegiance to the Ottomans, but the final expedition ended in disaster at Mombasa, with Mir Ali’s capture by the Portuguese.

By this point, however, Ottoman–Portuguese rivalry was becoming irrelevant. Portugal itself was subsumed into the Hapsburg monarchy, and the Estado da Índia abandoned its attempts to enforce a monopoly, probably in response to the fact it was simply ineffective: it has been argued that the volume of Acehnese pepper reaching Jeddah by the end of the 16th century was greater than that taken by the Portuguese to Lisbon via the Cape.19 Furthermore, the age of Ottoman expansion was now at an end, with the Ottomans preoccupied with war with the Safavids (1578–1590), Austria (1593–1606), and widespread popular revolt in Anatolia. Much of the province of Habeş beyond the Red Sea littoral was lost to the Ethiopians in 1579, while Ottoman control of Yemen, always contested and fragile, was challenged by further revolts from 1597, resulting in the abandonment of the province in 1634. Thus by the end of the 16th century, the Ottomans were on the retreat in their two main Indian Ocean littoral provinces, and they abandoned Lahsa in eastern Arabia in the mid-17th century. Similarly, the Portuguese were kicked out of their foothold in the Middle East, the island of Hormuz, by the Safavids in 1622, and lost Muscat in 1650.

17th- and 18th-Century Connections

Ottoman involvement with the Indian Ocean world in the 17th and 18th centuries therefore has a very different character to that of the 16th century. Although occasional embassies with Mughal India were exchanged, there was very little diplomatic or military engagement with the broader region. Elsewhere, it was more the memory of earlier Ottoman involvement that proved enduringly influential. On the small sultanate of Faza in the Lamu archipelago off East Africa, a family named “al-Stambuli” (of Istanbul), claiming Turkish descent, seem to have seized power in the 16th century and remained in power until 1893.20 On the other side of the Indian Ocean, the Malay chronicle of the Acehnese ruler Iskandar Muda (r. 1607–1636) commemorates the visit of Ottoman ambassadors to Aceh, this seems to be a recollection of the 16th-century relationship rather than a reality.21 Nonetheless, Malay literature of the 17th century frequently recalls the Ottoman presence in the region, and various Malay rulers claimed descent from the Raja Rum, or Ottoman sultan.22 The prestige of Ottoman cannon and their associated cannon founders also played a great role in the Malay admiration for things Ottoman. This cultural influence continued to be one way in which the Ottomans continued to exert influence, as were commercial and religious links, which if anything seem to have grown stronger during this period, as far as our admittedly scanty evidence can tell us.

There is also evidence for a diaspora of Ottoman subjects across the Indian Ocean world, comprising military experts (especially cannon founders), merchants, and religious scholars. Some of this can be traced to earlier times: by the early 16th century, as noted above, Ottoman subjects played a major role in the Gujarati military, as well as elsewhere in India. In the 16th century, Ottoman military experts are attested in Aceh as well as Siam and Burma, where they were employed as mercenaries. This process of hiring Ottoman mercenaries continued irrespective of the lack of official Ottoman engagement at a state level, and in the late 17th century, we have an Ottoman subject, from Bursa, who is attested as governor of Bangkok, as well as a governor in Java who is described as “Turkish.” Ottoman merchants continued to play an important role in trade with Southeast Asia and India, and merchants from Constantinople are mentioned as far away as Banten in Java at the beginning of the 17th century, as well as in major emporia such as Aceh and Arakan. Dutch records from the early 17th century reveal a continuing import of a wide range of spices and luxuries via the Red Sea into the Ottoman lands. The Ottomans exported carpets, horses, and of course military equipment. One merchant at the end of the 17th century who is unusually well attested gives us a sense of the wide reach of commercial interests individuals could command: an Ottoman subject of Armenian descent from Aleppo, he made his fortune importing goods from the Red Sea into Ethiopia and sought to branch out into trade with Java, in which context there are copious records of him in the Dutch East India Company (VOC) archives.23

Scholars from the Ottoman lands play a part in spreading Islam in the region. In Aceh, a certain Dawud al-Rumi, probably a descendant of one of the Ottoman soldiers, was an important figure in the development of Sufism.24 This religious connection was to prove particularly important, as from the 17th century onward increasing numbers of Southeast Asian scholars studied in Mecca and Medina; although there doubtless were earlier ones, they are poorly attested, whereas the 17th-century scholars who studied in Ottoman Hijaz and occasionally even traveled to Istanbul comprise some of the most important names in Southeast Asian ulama, such as Yusuf al-Makassari and ‘Abd al-Ra’uf al-Singkili.25 Particularly important was their relationship with the Medina-based Kurdish scholar and Sufi Ibrahim al-Kurani (1616–1690), who wrote an Arabic tract at the behest of his “Jawi” students to explain his interpretation of the influential ideas of the 13th-century Sufi Ibn ‘Arabi. In the 19th century, scholars from Patani on the Malay peninsula and Banten comprised particularly important elements of the “Jawi” diaspora in the Hijaz. While scholars from other parts of the Indian Ocean world of course also traveled to the holy cities and studied there, they do not seem to have had such a transformative influence as the Jawi migrants did on Southeast Asian Islam.

The Ottomans are largely absent from the 18th-century Indian Ocean, at least according to our current state of research. Yet they still featured on the political landscape, both as leaders of the umma and through the activities of the diaspora. As late as the 1750s, a sultan in the Philippines attempted to contact Istanbul seeking aid against the Spanish,26 while Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore in South India, dispatched an embassy to Constantinople in 1785.27 An Ottoman subject, Seh Ibrahim, purporting to be acting on the authority of the Ottoman sultan, played an important role in negotiations between the VOC and the Javanese sultan Mangkubumi in the 1750s, while the Javanese prince Dipanagara (1785–1855) adopted an Ottoman-style title and reorganized his army along Ottoman lines.28

19th-Century Ottoman Engagements with the Indian Ocean

Petitions to Istanbul for recognition for aid from far-flung parts of the Muslim world became ever more common in the later 18th and 19th centuries in the face increasing colonial encroachment. However, given the weakness of the empire’s geopolitical position, beset by external enemies to whom it was losing territory, especially in Europe, and internal problems of governance that required major programs of modernization, the Ottomans were extremely cautious about provoking their European competitors. The embassy to Istanbul dispatched by the Acehnese sultan Mansur Syah in 1849 marks the start of an Ottoman reengagement with Southeast Asia. It was prompted by Dutch encroachment in Sumatra and sought Ottoman protection explicitly on the basis of the 16th-century relationship between Aceh and the Ottomans, in particular Aceh’s earlier recognition of Ottoman suzerainty, and the Ottomans’ status as Caliphs. The embassy’s petition was certainly taken seriously in Istanbul, but the Ottoman reaction, as it would be on future occasions, was ultimately to provide verbal support but no concrete action.29 Despite the discouraging result of this embassy, petitions started to reach Istanbul from other Southeast Asian sultanates, such as Riau and Jambi, and further Acehnese embassies were dispatched in 1868 and 1872, on the eve of the outbreak of the Aceh–Dutch war, which started in 1873 and continued until 1903.30 Throughout the war, as well as official embassies, representations were made by groups of Acehnese hajjis to the Ottoman officials in Jeddah seeking Ottoman assistance. Members of the Hadrami diaspora in Southeast Asia also played an important role as intermediaries between the Ottomans and the region. Not all petitions were purely political. The Muslims of Cape Town, who were mostly of Malay or Indian origin, in 1856 wrote to the Caliph requesting he dispatch a religious scholar to advise them, a request that resulted in the dispatch of a certain Ebubekir Efendi. The latter wrote repeatedly to Istanbul after his appointment urging the Ottoman government to send further teachers of Islam to South Africa, and to strengthen links with the Muslims of Zanzibar and Mauritius.31

Most Ottoman initiatives were constrained to such “soft power” initiatives. However, by the mid-19th century, Istanbul did feel strong enough to assert its authority over some of its lost Indian Ocean provinces. A campaign to recapture Yemen was initiated in 1849, which saw the restoration of Ottoman rule over both the Red Sea coast and the highlands, although Aden was seized by the British. On the other side of the Red Sea, the Ottomans contended for control over Massawa and Suakin with their nominal vassal, Egypt, which by this time was effectively (but not legally) independent of the Ottomans. In 1871, Ottoman forces re-entered the Persian Gulf, seizing their former province of Lahsa, abandoned in the 17th century. Yet it was less the assertion of Ottoman authority in these regions than changes in communication that brought the Ottomans into much closer contact with the Indian Ocean world. The rise of steamships in the Indian Ocean from the 1860s made the hajj both more affordable and more efficient than before, as ships were no longer at the mercy of monsoons, and the numbers of pilgrims visiting Mecca and Medina from across the Indian Ocean increased steeply.32 Furthermore, under Sultan Abdülhamid II (1876–1909), the Ottomans started to put increasing emphasis on their role as Caliphs and leaders of the entire Muslim community. The Ottomans appointed consuls to locations such as Bombay, Colombo, Singapore, and Batavia, and one of their duties was to encourage local mosques to recognize the Ottoman sultan in the khutba at prayers.

Both the success and the limitations of this Ottoman policy are suggested by the story of the Ottoman frigate Ertuğrul, which was dispatched on a goodwill visit to Japan in 1889.33 The Ertuğrul was met with a rapturous welcome by the Muslim population as she made her way slowly across the Indian Ocean, with stops in Bombay and Singapore. However, a visit to Aceh, which an Acehnese delegation in Singapore requested, was judged too politically sensitive and risked upsetting the Dutch. Moreover, throughout the journey the Ertuğrul was beset by technical problems, and eventually sank shortly after setting out for the homeward journey from Japan in heavy storms. Thus while the enthusiastic reception of the Ertuğrul suggests that while the Ottomans did indeed succeed in gaining popular enthusiasm for the Ottoman caliphate, the political and technical limitations always meant that Ottoman “soft power” was severely circumscribed. These limitations were suggested on the outbreak of the Frist World War, when the ability of the Ottomans to mobilize this support from the Muslim populations of the Dutch East Indies or British India remained circumscribed.

Scholarship on the Ottomans and the Indian Ocean

Scholarship has concentrated almost entirely on the 16th- and 19th-century Ottoman activities in the Indian Ocean arena. With regard to the 16th century, there is little agreement on the scale or significance of Ottoman engagement in the Indian Ocean world. The key question here is to what degree was the spice trade of major economic importance to the Ottomans. Salih Özbaran has emphasized that the spice trade contributed only a very limited proportion of the revenue of the Ottoman Empire, which was overwhelmingly dependent on land taxes.34 Accordingly, Ottoman investment and organization in its Indian Ocean–facing provinces was limited. Other scholars have argued that the Ottoman Empire’s policy was broadly to maintain existing commercial arrangements inherited from Mamluk times, and interventions from Istanbul were largely ineffective in regulating commercial relationships on the ground, where local actors, not Istanbul’s policy, were decisive.35 In contrast, Giancarlo Casale argues for extensive and decisive Ottoman intervention in the spice trade, at least in the Red Sea, with, especially under Sokollu Mehmed Pasha, centralized control of trade and a system of staple rights that essentially aimed at creating a “monopoly” for what Casale describes as “state-owned ships.” In Casale’s vision, Sokollu Mehmed Pasha not only profited personally from the spice trade, but also used it as an implement of foreign policy, most obviously with Aceh, which exchanged Achenese pepper for Ottoman cannon.36 Casale argues for a much more coordinated and extensive Ottoman policy toward the Indian Ocean, promoted by an “Indian Ocean faction” and occasionally opposed by other officials in Istanbul, such as the vizier Rüstem Pasha. However, the existence of such a faction is far from clear, for the Ottoman sources at no point mention it explicitly.

The Hijaz, through the role of the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina, clearly played an important role in Ottoman relations with the Indian Ocean world. However, it is still difficult to assess quite how significant this was. One body of scholarship believes that the hajj was vitally important as an engine of trade as hajj ships transported not just pilgrims but commodities, and was perhaps the main factor binding together the economies of the Indian Ocean world. Low pilgrim numbers could result in economic depression. Other scholars, however, downplay the importance of the connection between the hajj and trade. As yet this debate is unresolved.37 The Ottoman role in the 17th- and 18th-century Indian Ocean has been barely studied, apart from the question of intellectual links, which were the subject of an important book by Azyumardi Azra and more recent research by Oman Fathurahman.38 For the 19th century, there is some scholarly debate as whether the promotion of the idea of the Caliphate was originally propagated by the Ottomans, or whether it was in fact brought into play by Southeast Asian sultanates, especially Aceh, seeking to find a means of convincing the Ottomans to come to their aid.39 The groundwork for all studies of Ottoman influence in Southeast Asia are the important studies of Anthony Reid.40 On the whole, scholarship focuses above all on the Ottoman relationship with southeast Asia and especially Aceh, and to a lesser extent with India; and there is much less research on Ottoman engagement with Muslim communities in east Africa, which seems to have played a less important role in the Ottoman imagination, although there are a couple of recent exceptions in modern Turkish scholarship.41 Compared to Southeast Asia, Ottoman contacts with India have also only received limited attention.42

Primary Sources

For the 16th and 19th centuries, the rich collections of archival materials in the Prime Ministry Ottoman Archives in Istanbul constitute the basis for our knowledge. These provide details of foreign embassies, instructions to officials in Indian Ocean littoral provinces, especially regarding military maneuvers, and information about the hajj. They do not, however, yield much economic information, and their coverage is very uneven with the provinces of Habeş and Lahsa being particularly poorly represented. Both political and economic information can be found in the rich Portuguese language materials, both chronicles and archives, which have been exploited by both Salih Özbaran and Giancarlo Casale. However, the Indian Ocean features only very rarely in the Ottoman literary, historical, and geographical sources of the 16th century, with the exceptions of the Kitab al-Muhit and the Miratü’l-Memalik mentioned above.

The archival sources, concentrating on high politics, dry up for the 17th and 18th centuries. As a result, we now have to rely on the fragmentary evidence of passing references in foreign sources, such as Portuguese and increasingly Dutch records, as the Dutch East India Company becomes a major player in the Indian Ocean in this period, establishing factories on the Persian Gulf. Only rarely do local Muslim chronicles provide relevant information, but, perhaps surprisingly in view of the lack of official engagement, a 17th-century Ottoman public had much more information at his disposal than they did in the 16th century, as the translation and adaptation of European atlases into Ottoman by Katip Çelebi (d. 1657) and Behram el-Dimaşki (d. 1691) provided a basis of accurate, if sometimes dated, information about the wider world. Malay literary texts of the 16th to 19th centuries contain frequent references to the Ottomans, although they are rarely historically precise.43 A wide literature in a variety of Muslim languages deals with the experience of the hajj, but often to the exclusion of the broader political context.

Further Reading

  • Azra, Azyumardi. The Origins of Islamic Reformism in Southeast Asia: Networks of Malay-Indonesian and Middle Eastern “Ulama” in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2004.
  • Brummet, Palmira. Ottoman Seapower and Levantine Diplomacy in the Age of Discovery. Albany: State University of New York, 1993.
  • Casale, Giancarlo. The Ottoman Age of Exploration. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Farooqi, Naimur Rahman. Mughal-Ottoman Relations: A Study of Political and Diplomatic Relations between Mughal India and the Ottoman Empire, 1556–1748. Delhi, 1989.
  • Göksoy, İsmail Hakkı. Güneydoğu Asya’da Osmanlı-Türk Tesirleri. Isparta, 2004.
  • Özbaran, Salih. The Ottoman Response to European Expansion: Studies on Ottoman-Portuguese Relations in the Indian Ocean and Ottoman Administration in the Arab Lands during the Sixteenth Century. Istanbul: Isis, 1994.
  • Özbaran, Sailh. Ottoman Expansion towards the Indian Ocean in the 16th Century. Istanbul: Bilgi University Press, 2009.
  • Peacock, A. C. S. and Annabel T. Gallop, eds. From Anatolia to Aceh: Ottomans, Turks and Southeast Asia. London: Oxford University Press, 2015.
  • Petrovich, Maya. “The Land of the Foreign Padishah: India in Ottoman Reality and Imagination.” PhD dissertation, Princeton University, 2012.
  • Tagliacozzo, Eric. The Longest Journey: Southeast Asians and the Pilgrimage to Mecca. New York, 2013.


  • 1. Naimur Rahman Farooqi, Mughal-Ottoman Relations: A Study of Political and Diplomatic Relations between Mughal India and the Ottoman Empire, 1556–1748 (Delhi: Idarah-i Adabiyat-i Dihli, 1989), 11–12.

  • 2. These events are covered in Palmira Brummet, Ottoman Seapower and Levantine Diplomacy in the Age of Discovery (Albany: State University Press, 1993).

  • 3. Giancarlo Casale, The Ottoman Age of Exploration (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 23

  • 4. Piri Reis, Kitab-i Bahriye (Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu, 1935), 30–33.

  • 5. Salih Özbaran, “A Turkish Report on the Red Sea and the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean (1525),” in The Ottoman Response to European Expansion: Studies on Ottoman-Portuguese relations in the Indian Ocean and Ottoman Administration in the Arab Lands During the Sixteenth Century, ed. Salih Özbaran (Istanbul: Isis, 1994), 99–110.

  • 6. A. C. S. Peacock, “Jeddah and the Red Sea Trade in the Sixteenth Century: Arabian Contexts and Imperial Policy,” in Human Intervention with the Environment in the Red Sea, eds. Dionysius Agius et al. (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2017), 290–322.

  • 7. Salih Özbaran, Ottoman Expansion Towards the Indian Ocean in the 16th Century (Istanbul: Bilgi University Press, 2009), 80.

  • 8. Casale, The Ottoman Age of Exploration, 51.

  • 9. Casale, The Ottoman Age of Exploration, 59; and Özbaran, Ottoman Expansion, 83.

  • 10. See the discussion in Casale, Ottoman Age of Exploration; further on Sidi Ali, see Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Indo-Persian Travels in the Age of Discoveries, 1400–1800 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007), ch. 3.

  • 11. Casale, Ottoman Age of Exploration, 95–96.

  • 12. Özbaran, Ottoman Expansion, 99–107, 187–197.

  • 13. On the 16th-century relationship between the Ottomans and Aceh, see Anthony Reid, “Sixteenth-Century Turkish Influence in Western Indonesia,” Journal of South East Asian History 10 (1969): 395–414.

  • 14. Casale, Ottoman Age of Exploration, 117–159.

  • 15. Giancarlo Casale, “His Majesty’s Servant Lutfi: The Career of a Previously Unknown Sixteenth-Century Envoy to Sumatra Based on an Account of His Travels from the Topkapı Palace archives,” Turcica 37 (2005): 43–81.

  • 16. Casale, “His Majesty’s Servant Lutfi,” 67.

  • 17. Elizabeth Lambourn, “Khutba and Muslim Networks in the Indian Ocean (Part II) – Timurid and Ottoman Engagements,” in The Growth of Non-Western Cities: Primary and Secondary Urban Networking, ed. Kenneth Hall (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2011), 55–97.

  • 18. Özbaran, Ottoman Expansion, 134ff.

  • 19. C. R. Boxer, “A Note on Portuguese Reactions to the Revival of the Red Sea Spice Trade and the Rise of Atjeh, 1540–1600,” Journal of Southeast Asian History 10 (1969): 415–428, esp. 426.

  • 20. G. S. P. Freeman-Grenville, “Coins from Mogadishu, c. 1300–c. 1700,” The Numismatic Chronicle and Journal of the Royal Numismatic Society 7, no. 3 (1963): 182; cf. Marina Tolmacheva, The Pate Chronicle (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1993), 13–14, who remarks on the general absence of reference to the Turks in the local Swahili chronicle tradition, despite coastal families’ enduring pride in their purported Turkish pedigree.

  • 21. Hikayat Aceh, ed. Teuku Iskandar (Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 2001), 91–93.

  • 22. Vladimir Braginsky, The Turkic-Turkish Theme in Traditional Malay Literature: Imagining the Other to Empower the Self (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2015).

  • 23. For the Ottoman diaspora in the region and the economic relationship, see A. C. S. Peacock, “The Economic Relationship Between the Ottoman Empire and Southeast Asia in the Seventeenth Century,” in From Anatolia to Aceh: Ottomans, Turks and Southeast Asia, eds. A. C. S. Peacock and Annabel Teh Gallop (London: Oxford University Press, 2015), 63–87.

  • 24. Oman Fathurahman, “New Textual Evidence for Intellectual and Religious Connections Between the Ottomans and Aceh,” in From Anatolia to Aceh: Ottomans, Turks and Southeast Asia, eds. A. C. S. Peacock and Annabel Teh Gallop (London: Oxford University Press, 2015), 293–309, esp. 304–307.

  • 25. See Azyumardi Azra, Networks of Islamic Reformism in Southeast Asia: Networks of Malay-Indonesian and Middle Eastern “Ulama” in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2004).

  • 26. Isaac Donoso, “The Ottoman Caliphate and Muslims of the Philippine Archipelago during the Early Modern Era,” in From Anatolia to Aceh: Ottomans, Turks and Southeast Asia, eds. A. C. S. Peacock and Annabel Teh Gallop (London: Oxford University Press, 2015), 121–146, esp. 131–132.

  • 27. Khwaja Abdul Qadir, Waqai-i Manazil-i Rum: Tipu Sultan’s Mission to Constantinople (Delhi: Aakar Books, 2005).

  • 28. Merle Ricklefs, Mystic Synthesis in Java: A History of Islamization from the Fourteenth to the Early Nineteenth Century (Nowalk: Eastbridge, 2006), 151–154; and Peter Carey, The Power of Prophecy: Prince Dipanagara and the End of an Old Order in Java, 1785–1855 (Leiden, The Netherlands: KITLV, 2008), 151–153.

  • 29. İsmail Hakkı Kadı, A. C. S. Peacock, and Annabel Teh Gallop, “Writing History: The Acehnese Embassy to Istanbul, 1849–1852,” in Mapping the Acehnese Past, eds. R. M. Feener, P. Daly, and A. Reid (Leiden, The Netherlands: KITLV, 2011), 163–181, 259–278.

  • 30. Ismail Hakkı Goksoy, “Acehnese Appeals for Ottoman Protection in the Late Nineteenth Century,” in From Anatolia to Aceh: Ottomans, Turks and Southeast Asia, eds. A. C. S. Peacock and Annabel Teh Gallop (London: Oxford University Press, 2015), 175–197.

  • 31. Ahmet Uçar, Unutulmayan Miras: Güney Afrika’da Osmanlılar (Istanbul: Çamlıca, 2010).

  • 32. See Eric Tagliacozzo, The Longest Journey: Southeast Asians and the Pilgrimage to Mecca (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

  • 33. Erdoğan Şimşek, Dünden Bugüne Ertuğrul Fırkateyni (Istanbul: IQ Kültür Sanat, 2006).

  • 34. See his Ottoman Expansion, 301–316.

  • 35. Peacock, “Jeddah and the India Trade.”

  • 36. Casale, Ottoman Age of Exploration, 139–147.

  • 37. See discussion in Tagliacozzo, The Longest Journey, 64–65.

  • 38. Azra, Networks of Islamic Reformism in Southeast Asia; Fathurahman, “New Textual Evidence”

  • 39. Ismail Hakkı Kadı, “The Ottomans and Southeast Asia Prior to the Hamidian Era: A Critique of Colonial Perceptions of Ottoman-Southeast Asian Interaction,” in From Anatolia to Aceh: Ottomans, Turks and Southeast Asia, eds. A. C. S. Peacock and Annabel Teh Gallop (London: Oxford University Press, 2015), 149–174.

  • 40. See especially Anthony Reid, “Sixteenth-Century Turkish Influence.”

  • 41. Uçar, Unutulmayan Miras; Hatice Uğur, Osmanlı Afrikası’nda bir Sultanlık: Zengibar (Istanbul: Küre, 2005).

  • 42. The main published study to date remains Farooqi, Mughal-Ottoman Relations.

  • 43. Braginsky, The Turkic-Turkish Theme.