Thomas Dallam 1 – Transcript

This is the transcript of episode 1 of my podcast series on, and leading up to, Thomas Dallam, the Elizabethan organ builder who sailed to Constantinople with a gift for the Sultan. You can listen to the episode here or through the usual podcast services.

“The ship wherein I was to make my voyage to Constantinople, Lying at Graves End, I departed from London in a pair of ores, with my chest and such provision as I had provided for that purpose, the ninth of February 1599, being Friday.”

So begins the travel journal of a man on the cusp of a 15-month adventure. Its writer was no professional sailor, soldier, merchant or ambassador, but he was entrusted with the international delivery of a very special package. He seems never to have left England before, but on that February day, he was leaving for the court of the Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed the 3rd.

That year, a John Chamberlain had alluded to the matter in one of his frequent letters to a friend: “Here is a great and curious present going to the Great Turk,” he wrote, “which no doubt will be much talked of, and be very scandalous among other nations, especially the Germans.” Chamberlain would say no more on the subject- the line is sandwiched between mention of poor Sir Henry Poore receiving a shot in the head, though apparently without any great ill effect, and the complaints of the Duke of Florence against ongoing English piracy. What was this “great and curious present” that Chamberlain was being so tight-lipped about? It was an elaborate clockwork organ, and its maker, Thomas Dallam, was sailing with it, to Anatolia.

This episode will focus largely on the backstory, the history which leads to Dallam’s departure, and, as it turns out, quite a bit about a guy named Jenkinson. We’re not actually going to get to Dallam just yet. We’ll be catching up on Elizabethan England and its interaction with the Safavid Empire. However, over the next 4 or 5 episodes, I’ll be looking at the travels of Thomas Dallam, an unlikely ambassador, and participant in the games of international power.

We’ll follow Dallam on his round trip to Constantinople, and, in doing so, we’re going to be making heavy use of his travel journal, a document full of details that range from market day in a strange culture to a personal performance for the Sultan. There will be piracy, palace intrigue, and the amusing observations of this extremely inexperienced traveller. We will of course also look at the context of Dallam’s story. So that’ll take us into the Tudors; into the religious landscape of late 16th century Europe; into the history of English organs; into the rise of the trade companies and their significance in English diplomacy; into piracy off the coast of England and in the Mediterranean; into sensitive negotiations with the Sultans of Morocco; into the Ottoman court and the bloody infighting that occurred there; all this and more that birthed Thomas Dallam’s unlikely voyage and the life opportunities that awaited him in Constantinople.

I’m calling it Constantinople here because that’s what Dallam still called it, but, yes, when he departed in 1599, Constantinople was firmly in Ottoman hands. The city’s great Theodosian walls had finally failed it in May of 1453, some 150 years before Dallam’s arrival there. Those walls had stood since the early 5th century, give or take the occasional temporary setback, but a badly diminished Byzantine empire, no longer an empire really, had been unable to sustain them against the overwhelming force, and modern artillery, that Sultan Mehmed II had brought against them.  

And if you listened to the last series of episodes, on The Travels of Johann Schiltberger, this may or may not surprise you. When we last saw the Ottomans they were feeling the wrong end of one of Timur’s devastating invasions. They were tumbling into the wars of succession that followed Sultan Beyazid’s death after the Battle of Ankara. They were, simply put, contracting. So we have some catching up to do because the Ottomans were going to be just fine. They were going to pull out of that Timur inflicted nosedive pretty quickly really and soon be reaching new expanses with their empire even as the one which Timur had built fell away into history, survived by new, though not insignificant, offshoots.

In the 15th century, the Ottomans would take back much of what they’d lost in Anatolia, modern day Turkey; they’d take the Greek city of Thessalonica; they’d face down a crusader army just as they had at Nicopolis in 1396, only this time in 1444 at the Battle of Varna in present-day Bulgaria. In 1453, Constantinople fell and its transformation as Istanbul began, notably for our story with the construction of the Topkapi Palace, a place we’ll eventually be visiting. The Ottomans spread further into Greece, taking Peloponnese, the peninsula at its southern end, by the late 1450s. In the south-east of Anatolia, they’d retake Karaman, an area you might remember from Schiltberger’s stories, in 1474. Further east they’d run up against a new enemy in the form of the rising Safavid Empire then emerging from Greater Iran; they’d struggle with the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean. To the south, they’d conquer Mamluk Syria and Egypt.

Under Suleyman the Magnificent they’d take Belgrade, and the island of Rhodes; they’d absorb most of Hungary, and, in 1529, they’d besiege Vienna. Round the southern coast of the Mediterranean, all the way up to Morocco, they’d annex huge stretches of land through Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria. As our story opens they’re an enormous power, a superpower really, and not just militarily. They are also a center through which huge amounts of trade passes every year.

At the other end of our story’s central relationship was England, the very late 16th century England of Elizabeth I. It was in the Queen’s name that Dallam travelled, and on her behalf that he went to present a gift to the Ottoman Sultan. That gift was going to be years overdue in recognizing Mehmed’s ascension to power but it was a gift none-the-less. You might be surprised to learn that with events such as the siege of Vienna in the relatively recent rear view mirror, a Christian monarch would be sending presents to the Ottomans at all, let alone that there might be concern about its belated nature. Of course, there is a story here.

To tell it, we first need to zoom in a bit on that category of “Christian” and look back quickly to the renowned serial uxoricide, King Henry VIII, the second Tudor king. Without getting too bogged down here in the murderous details of his quest for a male heir, Henry split with the Catholic Church in declaring himself head of the Church of England in 1534, and, in doing so, diverted English relations with the continent for some time to come. The nation’s protestant character solidified under his son Edward VI before swinging back, in state policy at least, towards the Catholicism of Queen Mary and her husband Phillip II of Spain. But on January 15th, 1559, Elizabeth was crowned, and, though she pursued a more moderate policy than either of her predecessors, likely hoping to avoid lasting religious conflict and/or invasion, she would be declared the Supreme Governor of the Church of England and in 1570 be excommunicated by Pope Pius V. All of this is to say that the category of Christian was at this time, as it had always been, a complicated one, and that the England from which Dallam departed was protestant, and had many enemies.

And the Ottomans really weren’t amongst them. Geography probably helped there as it wouldn’t have been so easy to pursue an amicable relationship from central or eastern Europe, but the fact of the matter is that this was not a world ruled by any kind of clean Latin-Christendom vs Ottoman-Islam kind of divide. Sure, you can find any number of polemical attacks on Islam or more particularly, on “the Turk:” Martin Luther writing in 1529 that “as the pope is antichrist… so the Turk is the very devil,” Erasmus in 1530 on the “more loathsome” internal “race of Turks, avarice, ambition, the craving for power, deceitfulness, anger, hatred, envy.” These were the hallmarks of the spiritual Turk within Christianity that had to be expelled before the flesh and blood Ottomans might be successfully pushed back. In 1542 Thomas Becon wrote of “how grievously and without all mercy the people of Christ in many places be most cruelly invaded, handled, led captive, miserably entreated, imprisoned, slain, murdered, and all their goods spoiled, brent, and taken away of that most spiteful and Nero-like tyrant the great Turk, that mortal enemy of Christ’s religion, that destroyer of Christian faith, that perverter of all good order, that adversary of all godliness and pure innocency.” So not everybody was a fan of the Ottomans, but state policy of the 16th century didn’t necessarily reflect these harsh words.

Of course the Habsburg emperors weren’t sending the Sultan any Christmas cards. No organs were being carried out of Vienna or Prague and overland to Anatolia, for the Ottoman and Habsburg empires were in immediate physical conflict with one another. But the French nobles weren’t sending knights to the east to assist their fellow Christians anymore, and we wouldn’t get another Nicopolis moment. The French seem to have been quite happy to befriend a powerful rival to their powerful Habsburg neighbours, and, as we’ll see in Constantinople, French ambassadors were highly active there in pursuing diplomatic and economic gains. Venice meanwhile has been happily trading the whole time. They were not going to let issues of religious difference get in the way of monetary gains.  

And England, well they wanted some of those monetary gains, but they were in a difficult place for getting them. They found themselves somewhat boxed out of global trade by the Spanish in the New World, the Portuguese in Africa and the east, and the Ottomans sitting squarely in the way of overland trade with Asia. Which is not to say that England was entirely isolated from the world; a magical island lost in the fog, it was not. Henry VIII is, for example, reported to have occasionally appeared at festivities “apparelled after Turkey fashion,” and England imported, among other things, silk and textiles, rhubarb, currants, spices, sweet wines, and sugar. It was, however, a difficult situation, one which Henry VIII’s merchants had warned him of. Where were they to go to find markets for their wares?

One answer had been proposed by the merchant Robert Thorne in 1527, that they ought to “sail[] northwards and pass[] the Pole, descending to the Equinoctal line,” and thus reaching the Indonesian Spice Islands by a shorter route than those of the Spanish and Portuguese, that they would, in other words, find a way to the far east by first going north. By the 1550s, the idea began to gain momentum. England’s cloth exports were plummeting as the Low Countries, basically, Belgium and the Netherlands to us, fell into turmoil, their Calvinist provinces in conflict with their Catholic Spanish Habsburg rulers. In 1553 Thorne’s suggestion was, in a sense put into practice in the reign of Edward VI, with the establishment of a kind of early joint-stock company to be governed by the explorer Sebastian Cabot. Later on, we’ll see more well known joint-stock companies such as the East India Company; these were organizations in which merchants shared the risk by purchasing stock in a venture and profiting in proportion to their ownership of the whole. This first company is not so well remembered, but it does have the distinction of being named the “Mystery and Company of the Merchant Adventurers for the Discovery of Regions, Dominions, Islands and Places Unknown.”    

This “Mystery Company,” which is how I’m going to refer to it for now, was intended to take Thorne’s proposed northern route and to reach Cathay, or China, but, as the name implies, it was anticipated that there would be new discoveries and unexpected benefits found in getting there. And there would be. The Mystery Company would be carrying England in new directions and often on the backs of solitary individuals in bizarre circumstances. So let’s get to that.

The first voyage of Cabot’s company was funded by 240 investors each contributing 25 pounds of the 6,000 pound cost. Its 3 ships left on May 10th, 1553, under the command of a Sir Hugh Willoughby but soon became separated in bad weather. Willoughby’s ship was stranded on the Lapland coast of Norway, and he and the rest of its ill-equipped 70 person crew froze to death. His recovered diary reports that they had at the last sent out parties who “returned without finding of people, or any similitude of habitation,” a pretty grim way to spend your final hours. The expedition’s pilot, Richard Chancellor, had a better time of it, however, sailing the White Sea, and then proceeding by sleigh, to the court of the Russian Tsar, Ivan the Terrible.

Now this may seem like a rather unpromising avenue of trade to cultivate, what with its rather daunting possibilities for being lost at sea or frozen to death on land, but as an intermediary partner it presented new options, and from this partnership, the “Charter of the Merchants of Russia,” later known simply as the Muscovy Company, is going to be born. Chancellor is not going to live to see this all come to fruition under Elizabeth however. On his second trip to Moscow he’d die on the return voyage, drowning off the coast of Scotland (It really was quite a dangerous route). And Cabot, the company’s founding director, was also quite dead by this point having died in his early 80s, so responsibility for developing the Russian opportunities was going to fall to a young man named Anthony Jenkinson.

Jenkinson was a merchant from Leicestershire who had worked his way across Western Europe and North Africa, and in November 1553, at 24 years old, found himself in Aleppo, an Ottoman city since 1517 and a long time trading hub at the western edge of Silk Road traffic. By happy circumstance, Jenkinson was then in the right place at the right time to witness the arrival of a special visitor, Suleyman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Sultan, arrive with his army. Jenkinson, always quick to take note of interesting attire, describes the appearance of the men: the cavalry “clothed all in scarlet;” infantry “all in yellow velvet, with hats of the same, of the Tartary fashion, two foot long, with a great robe of the same colour about their foreheads;” the Janissaries in “silk, and apparelled upon their head with a strange form … a great bush that wavereth up and down most bravely when [t]he[y] marcheth.” Then came Suleyman himself, “upon a goodly white horse, adorned with a cloth of gold, embroidered most richly with the most precious stones … and upon his head a goodly white tuck, containing in length by estimation fifteen yards, which was of silk and linen woven together, resembling something of Calcutta cloth, but is much more fine and rich, and in the top of his crown a little [plume] of white ostrich feathers.”

Bizarrely, Jenkinson would quickly manage to arrange an audience for himself with this magnificent Sultan, and in that meeting, the entirely uncredentialed trader from Leicestershire would secure an agreement allowing unhindered trade access to the entirety of the Ottoman empire, without custom, toll, or hindrance. It was not an agreement that would stick; there would need to be other diplomatic moves after this one to actually secure anything approaching what Suleyman supposedly agreed to. But it was an interesting beginning, for England and for Jenkinson.

Upon his return to London, Jenkinson’s unusual successes and far-reaching travels were recognized, and, at 27 years old, he was given command of the next Muscovy Company trip to Russia, and the 4 ships which would make the sea journey. Reaching Moscow in December, he met and kissed the hand of Ivan the Terrible on Christmas Day. While in the city, he secured an agreement giving England access to the Caspian Sea and to Persia and thus established a rather long and circuitous looking trade route.

We already know what was in it for England, a path east that avoided going over the Spanish and Portuguese dominated seas, but why was the Tsar interested? What was in it for him? Hostilities with his neighbours in Poland and Lithuania actually put him in a somewhat similar position to England, in that he needed help finding markets, and with this passage, by land and sea, he gained access the Low Countries.

Jenkinson’s work in Moscow complete, he journeyed on, leaving in April of 1558 and heading South with two Englishmen and a translator. He made it as far as Bukhara, in Uzbekistan, making use of horse, camel, and boat, and struggling with brigands, extortion, and the locals understandable unwillingness to trade for rough, woolen, cloth. In Bukhara, he appears to have charmed yet another ruler, for the Khan seems to have taken a liking to him. However, this came with mixed results for Jenkinson, who wrote:

[He] caused us to eat in his presence, and diverse times he sent for me, and devised with me familiarly in his secret chamber, as well of the power of the Emperor, and the great Turk, as also of our countries, laws, and religion, and caused us to shoot in handguns before him, and did himself practise the use thereof. But after all this great entertainment before my departure he showed himself a very Tartar: for he went to the wars owing me money, and saw me not paid before his departure.  

Apparently Jenkinson would be reimbursed in part, but he was ill satisfied with the arrangements. He pondered the trip on to China, but was dissuaded by the distance and the enduring warfare in his way. He thought of Persia, but by then he’d had his letters of safe conduct taken from him, had heard of the recent, and violent, deaths of merchants travelling that way, and had besides been on the road now for quite some time – it would be about 3 years by the time he made it back. Up against these impasses, he turned and headed for home. In his assessment, the trip was “miserable, dangerous, and chargeable with losses, charges, and expenses… “ but still there was potential for profit to be made.

It was this potential that Elizabeth and her advisors looked to in sending him out for a return trip, and they were driven by more than idle greed. Elizabeth was in the unenviable position of owing money for her predecessors’ wars, so quite aside from the ongoing business of the state, she had Henry VIII’s French adventures to bankroll. Doubtless there was hope that new worlds of trade might help, and so Jenkinson would making to the trip to Moscow again. This time, he was aiming for Persia and its Safavid ruler but, as his orders make clear, with an eye to seizing advantages wherever he might find them. Those who dispatched Jenkinson did not know what lands and rulers he might encounter and they granted him a fair amount of freedom in pursuing their broad goals. These were, in part, his instructions:

And when God sendeth you into Persia, our mind is, that you repair unto the great Sophy with the Queen Majesty’s letters, if he be not too far from the Caspian Sea for you to travel, and that you shall make him such a present as you think meet, and if you pass by any other kings, princes, or governors, before or after you come to the presence of the Sophy, likewise to make them some present, as you see cause according to their estate and dignity, and withall to procure letters of privilege or safe conduct of the said Sophy or other princes in as large and as ample a manner as you can…     

And it goes on in this fashion, making clear its writers’ fervent desire for frequent and continued trade in the region as well as free passage into India or “other countries thereunto adjoining… .”

But what did they know of Persia, his ultimate destination? Probably not a great deal, as you can see in some of the vagaries in his instructions. In Bukhara, Jenkinson had previously noted religious differences with the Persian neighbours “though they all be Mahometists,” violent and cruel warfare which he puts down, in part, to disagreement over whether or not it is sinful to “cut the hair of their upper lips.” The differences he was very crudely grasping at here were, in fact, that of Sunni and Shi’a, and, though they didn’t realize it yet, it would grow to be an important distinction in English diplomacy.

But what of the letter Jenkinson was carrying? What do you say to a ruler who you know so little about? Elizabeth’s greeting followed a familiar formula for this kind of thing: a little flattery and a request for safety and commercial kindness where its carrier was concerned. The opening is interesting though. After the usual introduction it addresses itself to “the right mighty and right-victorious Prince, the great Sophy, Emperor of the Persians, Medes, Parthians, Hyrcanes, Carmanarians, Margians, of the people on this side, and beyond the river of Tigris, and of all men, and nations, between the Caspian Sea, and the Gulf of Persia.” As Jerry Brotton has pointed out, the Queen wasn’t addressing the ruler of Safavid Persia here so much as the ruler of classical Persia. It was a letter based on classical understandings, and misunderstandings, of the region.

That being the case, we should spend a moment now on where Jenkinson was headed and what had been going on there. What was Safavid Persia?

As Timurid Persia had splintered in the late 15th century, different Shi’ite rulers rose to prominence, and one of these leaders was Sheik Ismail Safavi. Supported by his Sufi warrior followers, the qizilbash, he unified much of Azerbaijan and Iran, and he’s an important figure in the development of contemporary Iran in part because he declared Shi’ism to be his empire’s official religion. Really “important” is not doing justice to his impact, especially considering his relatively early death at 36 years old, was enormous. For our story though, we need only focus on the establishment of the Shi’ite Safavid state and its position as an immediate and fierce rival to the Sunni Ottoman Empire.

The leaders of Europe were very much intrigued by this new power. They may have even viewed Ismail, conveniently enough, as perhaps more Christian, Catholic even, than not, in his own way. At least one Venetian spy thought so. The historian Palmira Brummet puts it another way: “a political alliance with a Sufi saint was easier to justify than one with a Muslim king.” For the Habsburg Empire, the Portuguese, and the Spanish, among others, there was great appeal in a power rising east of the Ottomans that might draw the Sultan’s attention that way.     

The clash between Safavids and Ottomans would not take long to materialize. Sultan Selim I had Ismail and his followers declared heretics, and in 1514 the two sides met at the Battle of Chaldiran in eastern Anatolia. There, the Ottomans’ well-organized army, complete with cannons and gunpowder weaponry, won a significant victory and pressed on to drive the Safavids from Tabriz, then their capital. It put an end to Ismail’s military ambitions, and to Safavid expansion for the moment, but the Safavid dynasty was far from finished, a few hundred years away in fact, and as Jenkinson made his way there in 1561, he was headed for the court of Ismail’s son Tahmasp I.

Tahmasp had contended with civil wars as his qizalbash followers struggled for influence. He’d faced down repeated threats from the Ottomans on one side and Uzbeks from the other. He’d exchanged letters with the Habsburg Emperor, Charles V, regarding a potential anti-Ottoman alliance (Interestingly a Franco-Ottoman anti-Habsburg alliance was also building at the time). By 1561, Tahmasp had achieved a relatively lasting truce with the Ottomans. The 1555 Peace of Amasya normalized relations considerably between the two and led to reorganization and recognition of the lands and possessions of each. Exactly what Jenkinson knew of all of this is hard to say, though I suspect the answer is: not much.

On May 14th, 1561, Jenkinson departed from Gravesend for Russia carrying Elizabeth’s letter in Hebrew, Latin, and Italian. There were delays and obstruction in Moscow, and issues with a certain secretary who Jenkinson asserts was “not [his] friend.”  It was April the 27th of the next year when he finally left that city, but, again, he had the Tsar’s blessing and indeed his commission to deal on his behalf as well as Elizabeth’s.

Jenkinson made much of the journey under the Tsar’s protection. For a stretch he had 2 riverboats and 50 gunners to see him safely along the Volga River, past known sites of pirate activity, and through to the Caspian Sea. The danger doesn’t seem to have ended there however, and the Caspian itself seems to have posed some problems. His ship veered off and out to sea to avoid another pirate hot-spot, only to find itself caught in shallows out of sight of land and, in his estimation, barely avoiding death for all concerned. Three days later a stiff gale struck. They lost an anchor, the ship was full of leaks, and they had to labour constantly at pumping it out, staying above the water as best they could and, probably quite painfully, throwing much of their goods from the boat. After 7 very long days, the storm passed, and they went on with good weather south to Derbent, in present day Dagestan. There, Jenkinson saw what he identified as a wall constructed by Alexander the Great, a figure who seems in part to framed Jenkinson’s understanding of the region, and he found himself at last within the realms of Shah Tahmasp.

Further south his ship went until it pulled in on August 6th at a landing place called Shabran, and that may or may not refer to the area of the Azerbaijani district and city of the same name – it seems about right. In any case, Jenkinson unloaded there, going ashore with his remaining goods and awaiting word from a nearby governor “under the watch and ward” of 45 guards. Soon he was on his way, summoned to Shirvan.   

It was his first real contact with the Safavid state. Shirvan’s governor, or beglerbeg, was a cousin of Shah Tahmasp named Abdullah-Khan, and he seems to have almost immediately welcomed Jenkinson to an elaborate feast. Jenkinson speaks of a rich pavilion of silks and gold, and at considerable length of the governor’s apparel and jewelry. He describes a banquet of 140 meat dishes of all kinds, followed by a variety of fruit, and then a further 150 meat dishes. Abdullah-Khan asked after Jenkinson’s intentions and was satisfied by his response. He then inquired into England’s relationship with the Turks. Said Jenkinson: “I answered that we never had friendship with them, and that therefore they would not suffer us to pass through their country into the Sophy his dominions [here meaning Tahmasp’s lands], and that there is a nation named Venetians, not far distant from us, which are in great league with the said Turks.”

He’d thrown the Venetians well under the bus, positioned himself in opposition to the Safavids historical adversaries, and seemed to have won over the governor, who, Jenkinson says, “liked it marvellously.” And apparently he did, for the governor entertained him there with further feasts and with a day of hawking during which many cranes were killed before sending him on with with a fair horse, and promises of safe conduct along with men to physically guarantee it.

As he journeyed, Jenkinson made note of sites of historical interest, recent and not so recent. Here is the site where Alexander the Great kept his court when invading Persia or a castle that he besieged for some time, and there is the tomb of Shah Ismail, “buried in a fair mosque with a sumptuous sepulchre.” On November 2nd, 1562, he reached Tahmasp’s capital of Qazvin, a city northwest of what is now Tehran, where the Safavid court had been moved safely away from the Ottoman border.

During this trip Jenkinson considerably advances his understanding of the Sunni-Shi’a divide. Where before he’d made mention of moustaches, here he is obviously a little better informed. He writes: “although these Persians be Mahometans [meaning followers of Muhammed], as the Turks and the Tartars be, yet honour they this false fained Murtezallie [and by this he meant Ali, Muhammed’s cousin], saying that he was the chiefest disciple that Mahomet had, cursing and chiding daily three other disciples that Mahomet had called Omar, Usiran and Abebecke.” Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman are who he means here, the first three Caliphs following the death of Muhammed. So on this issue at least, he seemed off to a slightly better start, but it wouldn’t help him.

Jenkinson’s timing was, perhaps for the first time in his life, not good. He’d been beaten to the city by 4 days, by an Ottoman ambassador to the court, there to carry on the business of peace with the Safavid Shah. Actually the specific business was pretty unpleasant. Struggles of succession to the throne of Suleyman had led to Ottoman infighting and, eventually, to one of his sons, named Beyazid, fleeing for and finding asylum among the Safavids. Initially, he was very welcome, but peace between the long-standing enemies would not prove healthy for him, and his health would be central to their negotiations. With Jenkinson in the city, and later reporting on events, the unfortunate Beyazid and his 4 sons were turned over to the Ottoman delegation and strangled.

This business out of the way, the Ottoman ambassador also found time to attend to other matters. He asked about after this Frankish trader, Jenkinson, or was informed of his existence by the local Turkish merchants. Either way, the merchants were apparently in agreement that Jenkinson was bad for business, quite literally, that he would, to quote Jenkinson, “in great part destroy their trade.” The Ottoman ambassador had listened to what they had to say, and he’d taken their concerns to the Shah before he left the city with Beyazid’s head and other presents.

When Jenkinson went to meet the Shah he was probably quite confident in the reception he would receive – things had gone well with Tahmasp’s cousin after all – but now the Ottomans had set their interests against his.

Jenkinson was called before Shah Tahmasp on the 20th of November, “at about 3 of the clock at after noon,” and the manner of his welcome might have given him a moment of concern. Having arrived on horseback, before his feet hit the ground he was presented with footwear, not in itself a bad thing, but these were to prevent his unclean and unholy self from polluting the floor with his presence. Not the best of starts, but what did he make of it? Not much actually if his writing is to be taken at face value, save for an aside about their “false filthy prophets Mahomet and Murtezallie.” At the gate, his companions were to go no further, only an interpreter being allowed in, and so the presents he had brought were divided amongst men of the court and brought with him as he came before Tahmasp, who demanded to know his business and intentions there. Jenkinson declared himself to be from “the famous city of London within the noble realm of England,” but Tahmasp seems not to have been impressed. He complained that the Queen’s letter, though in 3 languages, was not in a language read by any in his realm, and, once he’d identified Jenkinson as a Christian, and established through consultation what that amounted to, consultation with a Georgian king in fact, he sent him on his way, saying they had “no need to have friendship with the unbelievers.” But that was not an end to it.  

Jenkinson carried on his work in the city over the coming days. He met with merchants of India and talked spice trading with them. He saw to to trade on behalf of the company and to the affairs that the Russian Tsar had charged him with. He dodged potential accusations of being in the city as a Portuguese spy. And the Shah considered what to do with him. Tahmasp’s advisors spoke against entertaining Jenkinson well, or sending him away with gifts and letters. They argued, as Jenkinson puts it, that he was “a Frank [here a kind of catch-all term for Europeans], and of that nation that was enemy to the great Turk his brother, persuading that if he did otherwise, and that the news thereof should come to the knowledge of the Turk, it should be a means to break their league and friendship lately concluded.” And who was the Shah more likely to listen to? This representative of a far-off island, an unknown one even, full of unimportant unbelievers? Or the giant next door who he’d worked so hard to achieve peace with? Worse, Tahmasp’s people apparently proposed that the best thing to do would be to ship Jenkinson off with the gifts and letters they’d be dispatching to the Ottomans, and things could have gone quite badly for him if that occurred; but here his good luck, and general likeability, returned to save him.

All that feasting and hawking with the governor of Shivan had obviously made a good impression, and it was that man’s son who stepped forward on Jenkinson’s behalf and encouraged Tahmasp to a friendlier posture. So it was that instead of being shopped to the Ottomans, either as a head or as a whole, living, body, Jenkinson instead received a rich garment of gold cloth, and was dismissed without further issue.

Through what seems to have been no fault of his own, his mission to Persia had not been all it could have been; as he’d approached the Safavid capital his hopes were high based on a false understanding of how the Safavids and Ottomans stood. He later wrote that “great preparation was made for war which was like much to have furthered my purpose, but it chanced otherwise.” In any case he made the most of things, even though things did indeed chance otherwise.

Agreements were made with that friendly governor of Shivan, and with a Georgian king, and the relationship with Moscow was strengthened through the work he did on the Tsar’s behalf. Presenting the Tsar with the garments Tahmasp had given him probably didn’t hurt either. Now all that remained was to make it back to England alive, but as we’ve already seen that last leg of the trip was not an easy one and had already claimed many lives. Jenkinson described it as presenting “great and extreme dangers of loss of ship, goods and life,” but he made it back. He arrived in London on September the 28th, 1564, after more than 3 years of travel.

Jenkinson’s days of international adventure were not over. He’d be going back to Moscow to see his friend Ivan the Terrible two more times before retiring from that role in global trade and diplomacy. On the one occasion he’d receive a proposal from the Tsar for the hand of Elizabeth in marriage, but clearly nothing came of that. England’s pursuit of a Persian connection was not over with Jenkinson’s time there. A man named Arthur Edwards would retrace his steps to the Safavid court, and he’d meet with greater success, achieving the kind trade agreements which Jenkinson had sought. But the way was still not safe. Warfare and banditry repeatedly cost English traders their money, merchandise, and lives on the road, and profits were thus unreliable. England needed a more accessible trading partner. This time they’d look somewhat closer to home, but their experiments in trading with Islamic rulers were not over. In search for new partners, they would be looking to Morocco.  

And that’s where we’re going to leave things for today. Next episode, we’ll pick things up with Morocco, its recent history and relations with England, and we’ll get to Anglo-Ottoman diplomacy – obviously there are going to be some changes there to get us from the intervening against Jenkinson at the Safavid court to the sending of congratulatory gift bundles. We might even get to Thomas Dallam, our quote/unquote Main Character. Actually, he is going to be our main character, but we probably won’t see much of him this next episode. His time is still to come.


Twitter: @circus_human

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