Soft Empire: The Rise Of The Ottoman Empire As A Global Sea Power In The Indian Ocean

The Ottomans were an active global sea power during the Age of Exploration, something which most scholars during the 1800’s and 1900’s would not have considered them. Yet modern sources indicate that the Ottomans were extremely active during the Age of Exploration particularly in the Indian Ocean region. There were many factors that led to the rise of Ottoman naval power in the Indian Ocean, the weakness of the Byzantine Empire, the desire to control the various islands and trade held by their rivals Venice, and the Knights of St. John, the superiority of Ottoman artillery and ships, the innovation of Ottoman tactics by brilliant commanders such as Haidderin Barbarossa, and the grand strategic Ottoman vision by leaders such as Sultan Selim, Ibrahim Pasha, Sultan Sulyeman and Sokollu Mehmed Pasha which allowed the Ottomans to become a global sea power.

A global sea power is a broad term and difficult to define. It may be considered as a nation that is powerful because it draws upon wealth and commerce protected by its fleet due its naval superiority. Maritime trade is vitally important to nations involved. Thus the nature of warfare is that destruction of seaborne commerce is targeted. The enemy fleet is destroyed, and then harbors are blockaded and trade choked off. However one thing that must be kept in mind is that the nature of galley warfare is such that a fleet could not control the seas as we understand it in the modern sense. Blockades could not last for years due to limitations inherent in galley fleets.

However when combined with land power which allowed the Ottomans to seize key port cities and control of particular trade routes with coastal forts and shore batteries control of the sea in the Mahanian sense could be established and this was the goal that the Ottoman sought in the various water bodies they found themselves engaged in. In the Black Sea he Ottomans had strong control by fortifying the Golden Horn and the Dardanelles and keeping much of their fleet in the area. Control of the trade route for grain between Alexandria and Constantinople was protected carefully by the Ottomans. The Ottoman fleet dominated the Eastern Mediterranean, the Black Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean for much of the 1500’s-1600’s. More importantly the Ottomans projected naval power with a grand strategic vision. Their activities in the Indian Ocean region were not simply razzia’s but committed policies of empire building.

The Rise of Ottoman Naval Power

The rise of Ottoman naval power began with the decline and ultimate fall of the Byzantine Empire. As its borders were eaten away from both outside and inside, various Turkish Beyliks such as Karesi, and Mentase reached the coastline, and finding themselves with nowhere else to go began to take to the sea, building fleets manned by Greek sailors who had joined their service. The Ottomans were not one of these Beyliks as they were landlocked. By the time of Orhan however a coastline had been acquired, and with the taking of Gallipoli the need for an Ottoman fleet became apparent. In 1308 the Ottoman fleet took Imrali Island. The Ottomans needed ships to ferry forces across the Dardanelles, they could not rely upon the Byzantines, Venice, or Genoa and the Balkans or Rumelia as the Ottomans called it was offered room for their gazi and akinci warriors to raid and as a valve to relive the building population pressures in Anatolia. The other major factor that spurred the development of the Ottoman fleet was the need to control the islands off their coast. “So long as the islands of the Eastern Mediterranean were in Christian hands, the hereditary enemy was established on their coast and at the very gate of their capital.” The Knights of St. John, the Venetians, the Genoese were the major naval powers that the Ottomans faced in the region and they made committed attempts to seize the islands of Rhodes in particular. This was clearly a factor that spurred the growth of the Ottoman fleet.

Another important influence was the capture of certain key strategic ports and dockyards which granted the Ottomans access to technical skills, manpower, and resources they did not possess before. In 1390 the Bayezid I began construction of dockyard facilities in Gallipoli and by 1397 it could provide anchorhege for 60 ships. The construction of a fleet is an expensive and costly investment. It requires skilled craftsmen, logistical capabilities to provide building materials, dockyards, administration and organization. It requires workers to maintain a fleet, as well as supplies of victuals, hundreds of sailors to man and row. All this is something that only a developed, organized, and fairly wealthy nation is capable of. This required the establishment of shipyards and arsenals to build and maintain warships. The shipyards of Constantinople and the skilled workmen were invaluable to the Ottomans in developing a major naval presence. “The fall of the Byzantine Empire stimulated the development of the Ottoman navy.” Mehmed II took over a Genoese galley repair yard in the Golden Horn which was turned into a major Ottoman naval base.

The Ottoman willingness to use skilled craftsmen and sailors drawing from Greek Orthodox Christian populations they had conquered and other peoples helped contribute to the rise of the Ottoman fleet. If one looks at the ethnic composition of the Ottoman fleet a vast array of different peoples can be seen. “The Sultans had no difficulty in securing the services of Christian adventurers and refugee’s of little scruple, to build ships and train crews for them.” This is of course a biased statement, but it is worth noting that the Christian powers were aware of the Ottoman ability to incorporate a wide array of talents drawn from a variety of groups. We have further evidence of the diverse ethnic of the Ottoman fleet in the Indian Ocean as there are large numbers of Rumi’s, this has been taken to mean Turkish speaking Muslims from Anatolia used to man ships. However the term Rumi could also Greek Orthodox and was not an ethnic term. Furthermore the term Rum was derived from the old Seljuk Sultanate of Rum and was used to denote the Ottoman claims to the Roman heritage. The Portuguese would use the term Rumi to denote assorted individuals, mercenaries, and other groups that worked for the Ottomans yet did not have direct ties to the Ottomans.

“The Ottomans in contrast, (to the Portuguese) projected an unabashedly pluralistic and multiethnic identity which was very much based around the project of accommodating diversity and incorporating it into the collective.” It was worth noting that only two Ottoman admirals in the Indian Ocean were Ottoman Turks from Anatolia. Piri Reis, and Seyed Ali Reis. Other commanders like Salman Reis was a Greek from Lesbos who converted to Islam. His second in command was a Venetian wine merchant with a Turkish name, Dimurdash. Hadim Suleyman Pasha and the leader of the 1538 expedition to India was a eunuch from Albania and Sefer Reis a corsair was a converted Muslim who was descended from Iberian Jews. The crews of the ships themselves were made up of a wide array of people, there were at least 2,000 Ventians in Hadim Suleyman Pashah’s expedition, Arab sailors and oarsmen, captured Portuguese, Albanians, Sicilians, and Greeks and of course Janissary forces drawn from the Balkans. Other groups present included Circassians, Maghrebi’s, Abyssinains, and Gujuratis,

These different groups made up 75% of the Ottoman fleet with ethnic Turks only constituting a quarter, numbering roughly 5,000. Rowers tended to be non-Muslims usually African slaves, while pilots could Portuguese, Italian, Greeks. Western European Christian mercenaries and slaves who were also considered “Rumis” often were gunners on Ottoman vessels. The Portuguese considered the presence of these Rumis to be a grave threat as it showed the ability of the Ottomans to lure away Christians willingly. “Faced with this undeniable reality, Portuguese observers could only respond with fear, fascination, and grudging respect.” The Portuguese feared more than anything else that the Ottoman Empire would culturally assimilate the Indian Ocean region; the Rumis were the physical embodiment of the threat to the Portuguese Empire in Asia.

Among the key naval bases in the region was Negroponte and the Morea held by the Venetians. Sultan Mehmed II dispatched a force in person to Negroponte in 1470. There is mention in the Venetian accounts that “Turkish artillery was different from and superior to that of the Venetians and that their vessels were also better under sail than those of Venice.” The technological factor in the rise of Ottoman sea power is important. The use of cannons and the ability to deploy artillery on ships was a key factor in deciding naval battles particularly during the Ventian-Ottoman War of 1499-1503.

The Battle of Negroponte was a disaster for Venice and a great victory for the Ottomans. Ottoman innovation in technology and tactics also served them well. When the Venetians attempted to relieve the siege on Negroponte the Ottomans constructed a boat bridge from the mainland which allowed them to easily access to the defenses and the bridge was defended by Ottoman shore batteries. The Venetian fleet rather risk attempting a landing in unfavorable conditions pulled back and Negroponte fell in 1479. During this period there was a dramatic improvement in Ottoman naval and artillery strength. This was particularly shown in the Battle of Zonchio In 1499 the Ottomans fleet traveled to Lepanto to deliver their artillery. Accounts of the battle are confusing however what is indicated is that large sailing vessels were more effective and faster, and cannon and crude muskets were also used in the battle. The Ottomans won the battle and the Venetians were forced to break off after a short engagement. A second engagement occurred in the Battle of Modon in which the Ottomans were again victorious. Modon and Coron two key Venetian possessions were taken by the Ottomans.

Among the key naval bases in the region was Negroponte and the Morea held by the Venetians. Sultan Mehmed II dispatched a force in person to Negroponte in 1470. There is mention in the Venetian accounts that “Turkish artillery was different from and superior to that of the Venetians and that their vessels were also better under sail than those of Venice.” The technological factor in the rise of Ottoman sea power is important. The use of cannons and the ability to deploy artillery on ships was a key factor in deciding naval battles particularly during the Ventian-Ottoman War of 1499-1503.The Battle of Negroponte was a disaster for Venice and a great victory for the Ottomans. Ottoman innovation in technology and tactics also served them well. When the Venetians attempted to relieve the siege on Negroponte the Ottomans constructed a boat bridge from the mainland which allowed them to easily access to the defenses and the bridge was defended by Ottoman shore batteries. The Venetian fleet rather risk attempting a landing in unfavorable conditions pulled back and Negroponte fell in 1479.

During this period there was a dramatic improvement in Ottoman naval and artillery strength. This was particularly shown in the Battle of Zonchio In 1499 the Ottomans fleet traveled to Lepanto to deliver their artillery. Accounts of the battle are confusing however what is indicated is that large sailing vessels were more effective and faster, and cannon and crude muskets were also used in the battle. The Ottomans won the battle and the Venetians were forced to break off after a short engagement. A second engagement occurred in the Battle of Modon in which the Ottomans were again victorious. Modon and Coron two key Venetian possessions were taken by the Ottomans. By 1502 all of the Venetian territory in the Morea had been lost. The Ottoman naval artillery was a game changing weapon that revolutionized naval warfare.

The innovation of leaders such as Haireddin Barbarossa and the grand strategic vision of the Ottomans also played a significant role in contributing to the rise of Ottoman naval power. The war had started as Suleyman entered into a secret strategic agreement with Francis I of France for a coordinated invasion of North Italy. Sulyeman sought to take Corfu as a base for the invasion of Italy. Control of the island would have blocked Venice’s main commercial route and cut off support from their Spanish ally. This showed the depth of Ottoman strategic thinking, something which powers like Venice and Genoa did not replicate. However the attempt to take Corfu would fail due to sophisticated Italian fortifications.

This would result in perhaps the most important battle of the time was the Battle of Prevesa in 1538 when the Ottoman fleet defeated in combined Spanish and Venetian fleets. The Ottoman fleet was commanded by the famous Khaireddin Barbarossa, he commanded a fleet of 90 galleys and 50 galliots for a total of 140 ships armed with the cream of Ottoman artillery. His galleys were armed with cannons and stone cannonballs, and his flagship had long cannons with iron cannonballs, and he carried 34 bronze cannons capable of breaching fortresses, the Ottomans had learned well from their failure to take Corfu and would not make the same mistake again. The opposing fleet was commanded by Andrea Doria of Genoa he commanded 49 Genoese and Spanish galleys for a total of 130 Galleys. The galleys commanded by Doria were full war galleys, larger than the Ottoman galiots.

The various Christian forces were unlike the Ottomans poorly coordinated. The two fleets at the Gulf of Prevesa, the Ottomans had the advantage as they were defended by the guns from the fortress and shore batteries on both sides of the Gulf. Unable to take the strong position defended by powerful Ottoman artillery the assorted Christian fleet attempted to withdraw. It was then Barbarossa pounced while the Christian fleet was strung out in a long line and disorganized. The result was significant damage to the allied Christian fleet. This battle reveals the importance the superior Ottoman artillery combined with tactical skill and innovation contributed to the rise of Ottoman naval power. All these factors would allow the Ottomans to develop a powerful navy and direct their expansion into the Indian Ocean.

Universal Empire

The Ottomans coming from Central Asia and for most of their early years being a landlocked power had little experience with the sea. The Ottomans are not commonly thought to have been a great naval power active during the Age of Exploration yet the Ottomans would build a navy and go on to engage some of the greatest naval powers of the world at the time from Venice, Spain, Portugal, the Dutch, and England. The Ottomans are often thought of as a strictly Mediterranean power that used galleys to control the waters of the Eastern Mediterranean and the nearby islands. Ottoman ships plyed the waters in not just the Mediterranean Sea, but also the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean from Sumatra, to India, and East Africa. Ottoman naval power was not just regional, but global in its reach and contributed Ottoman dominance and claims as a universal empire.

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The Ottomans claim of a universal empire were not unique, and the same was claimed by many monarchies of the time Spain and Portugal in particular who drew on the Treaty of Tordesillia’s division of the world between them. The Ottomans controlled Jerusalem, Mecca, and Medina, the holy cities and styled themselves as protectors of Islam. The control of Egypt, and the Red Sea guaranteed the security of the Hajj route for pilgrims and expansion into the Indian Ocean could be justified not only by the potential trading profits but to protect the pilgrims coming from India and Southeast Asia. The ideas of Dar-Al-Islam and Dar-al-Harab clearly figured into Ottoman thinking. Furthermore with the control of Constantinople, Mehmed Fatih styled himself as a new Roman Emperor taking on the title of, Kayser-i Rûm or Caesar a title that Sulyeman the Lawgiver also held. The Sultan first took the title of Protector of the Two Holy Cities and later Caliph of Islam. However it has been argued that it was not just the Roman Empire, or the Arab Caliphates the Ottomans were seeking to emulate but that of Alexander’s Empire. Ottoman ambitions are thought to have included dominating India and China.

The importance that the Ottomans gave to defending their claim of a universal empire is shown with how the Ottomans financed religious organizations overseas in places like Calicut, Maldives, Sumatra and Ceylon so that in exchange for gold Friday prayers were read in the name of the Ottoman Sultan which served to legitimize the claim to the Caliphate and role as Protector of the Two Holy Cities. The Ottoman Universal Caliphate was recognized throughout most of Asia. Thus when the Mughal Emperor Akbar sent emissaries to distribute alms in Mecca in his name this was taken by the Ottomans to be a direct challenge to their claim of universal empire. In 1573 he had seized Surat a major port city in Gujarat, and he sent his wife and aunt to Mecca to distribute alms in his name. He also financed the Hajj for poor Muslims and dispatched a ship with large amounts of gold and other wealth to Jiddah to be taken to Mecca and Medina to be given to the poor as charity in his name. Akbar then took the titles of a universal ruler, Badishah-i-Islam, and Imam-i-Adil making the same dynastic claims as the Ottomans who took this as a statement of his intention to usurp the Ottoman leadership of the Islamic world. The Ottomans took the challenge seriously and responded by banning alms from being distributed in Akbars name, and expelling the women he had sent to Mecca.

The Ottomans also sent envoys to Akbar calling for him to declare a holy war against the Habsburgs and to end any hostility between himself and the Ottomans. While Akbar himself was not receptive, the Mughal governor of Surat, Muhammed Khilji Khan decided to build a large ship in Surat to travel into the Red Sea as a show of support for the Ottomans. Clearly the Ottomans took their claims of universal empire seriously enough to respond strongly to any perceived challenge.

Groundwork of the Ottoman Age of Exploration

The Ottomans were heavily active and involved in the Age of Exploration. The Ottomans thought in the grand strategic sense. They coordinated diplomatic, and geopolitical ventures on a grand scale. The Ottomans had their own ambitions in the Indian Ocean region. They had long acted as the middle man for trade in spices, silks, and other luxuries travelling between China , India, and to Europe coming both overland and by sea. The control over the Arab lands had given them ports in the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, with the ability and desire to project power in the Indian Ocean and as far as East Africa.
Sultan Selim was the Ottoman ruler who laid the groundwork of Ottoman ambitions in the Indian Ocean.

Selim was greatly interested in maps and secured Ali Akbars “The Book of Cathay” in 1516 an account of a voyage from Iran to China. Piri Reis was also an important cartographer who created a world map in 1513 which showed parts of the Americas, but it was the Indian Ocean that was the main focus of his work. He presented it to Sultan Selim in 1517 at Cairo. Selim is also known to have entered into negotiations with Muzaffar Shah of Gujarat for the possibility of a joint strike against the Portuguese at Goa. Selim then made the decision to invade Mamluk Egypt for a number of reasons. Partially the Ottomans acted in response to Portuguese incursions. The Mamluks in Egypt had been facing the incursions of the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea as they sought to take over the monopoly of trade from the Arab traders. But perhaps the most important factor was the desire to control the spice trade between the East and the West which acted as a motivation for the Ottomans to conquer the Arab lands.

The Portuguese had established themselves in East Africa, and in India. The Portuguese had seized Hormuz in 1507 in Iran, and controlled the main spice route through the Persian Gulf, to Basra and Aleppo. The other route was though the Red Sea, which the Portuguese sought to block though they were unable to take Aden. This had been followed by a Portugese victory at Chaul in India, and then at Diu. The Mamluks were only able to make lackluster attempts to defend the Indian Ocean trade. Ultimately Sultan Selim would conquer the Mamluks bringing Egypt under his control in 1517. The Portuguese thus sought to seize Jiddah in order to cut off the Red Sea trade and to threaten Mecca. Jiddah was the main maritime port for pilgrim traveling to Mecca from the Indian Ocean. The Portuguese force sent to Jiddah was lead by Lopo Soarez, numbered 30 ships both sailing and galleys. They had been built in India to operate in the Red Sea.

The Ottoman fleet is said to have had 26 sailing ships, galleys, galiots, and two “well equipped” galleys which carried 3,000 men. The fleet was lead by Salma Re’is, and was less it number but had the advantage of four cannons capable of firing a 1,000 pound stone cannonball. The guns were of high quality handled by skilled gunners. Jiddah itself was strongly fortified with earthworks armed with heavy artillery. The Portuguese could not close within range and Ottoman gunners were able to engage the Portuguese at long distance. The Portuguese found it impossible to make any progress and retreated while being harassed by Ottoman galleys who retook Loheida which the Portuguese had taken. The Ottomans not only utilized sailing ships in coordination with galleys in the battle, but so did the Portuguese. The battle serves to debunk the claim that a sailing ship was in some way superior to a galley or that the Ottomans were slow to adopt them.

Both the galley and the sailing ship were used by the Ottomans and served their purposes for particular areas. The Ottoman victory at Jiddah would herald in greater Ottoman interest in the Indian Ocean region lead by Ibrahim Pasha. The Portuguese threatened not only the spice trade to the Ottomans, but their very claim as universal rulers, and the Mamluk inability to defend Mecca and Medina was part of the Ottoman justification for the invasion. The Portuguese had attempted to strike at the very heart of Islam itself; Mecca was just 40 miles from Jiddah. This was a direct challenge to Sultan Selim who had claimed the title of Protector of the Two Holy Cities from the Mamluks, and his decedents would later claim the Caliphate.

This broad worldview the Ottomans had, and how they perceived their place in the world would contribute to the desire for expansion in the Indian Ocean region. As a result of the Ottoman victory at Jiddah was greater attention focused to the Indian Ocean region. In 1518 Selim made an announcement that he would aid the Muzzafar Shah of Gujarat and the Muslim merchants in India sparking the threat of rebellion in the Portuguese holdings in India. Selim thus laid the precedent of making the Ottomans responsive to commercial interests and setting their gaze upon obtaining a commercial monopoly in spice, pepper, and other goods in the Indian Ocean region.

Ibrahim Pasha was a close confidant and Grand Vizier of Sultan Suleyman the Lawgiver. When Egypt lead by Ahmed Pasha revolted he was sent by the Sultan to crush the rebellion which he did in short order. It was Ibrahim Pasha who would begin the first expansion of the Ottoman Empire into the Indian ocean. He had Piri Reis write “The Book of the Sea” which was a detailed atlas and navigation guide that would prove invaluable to the Ottomans and is considered a masterpiece. He instituted a number of commercial and financial reforms in Egypt itself which allowed them to gain better tax and trade revenues. This was resulted in a massive increase of revenues even during the ongoing Portuguese maritime blockade of the Red Sea. The stabilizing of Egypt meant that resources could now be freed up for potential expansion into the Indian Ocean.

In response to a report by Selman Reis of the danger of a second Portuguese attack against Jiddah in 1525 and the danger to Mecca and Medina, followed by a Portugese raid into the Red Sea against Muslim shipping he had the old Malmuk fleet at Jiddah rebuilt and an arsenal established at Suez.

Ibrahim Pasha then directed his attention against Yemen which was in chaos. Taking Yemen would secure the Red Sea against Portuguese attack. Thus nineteen galleys and 4,000 infantry under the command of Haireddin al Rumi and Selman Reis. In 1527 the Ottomans had won control over all of coastal Yemen except Aden which symbolically submitted by having the Friday prayers read in the name of the Sultan. With control of the Red Sea a customs house was established and ships were made to pay transit fees. The result of the Ottoman success was that a number of Muslim rulers flocked to the Ottomans asking for help including the Vizier of Hormuz, the Zamorin of Calicut, Mamale a corsair of Cannonore, and in 1528 Muslim merchant ships in Sumatra were defended by Ottoman mercenary escorts against Portuguese patrols.

The Ottomans acted as a banner of resistance to the Portuguese. This would not last however as Yemen collapsed back into anarchy due to infighting between Selman Reis (who died) and al-Rumi. However his nephew Mustafa Bayram fled to Gujarat where he and his forces defended Diu against Portuguese attack. This established strong ties between the Ottomans and Bahadur of Gujarat who gave him many titles out of gratitude. He and his followers would form a Rumi community in Gujarat that would essentially act as an Ottoman colony in the Indian Ocean. By 1531 Ottoman expansion would reach the Persian Gulf once again pressured by Portuguese aggression in Hormuz and Basrah. The conquest of Iraq was completed in 1534 and Ottoman power controlled the entire western Persian Gulf. This would be a new area of engagement against the Portuguese. With Egypt pacified, and the Safavids beaten, Iraq secure, a fleet built in the Red Sea, and a large alliance built with various Muslim powers in the Indian Ocean, and the possibility of taking Yemen shown the foundation of an Ottoman Empire in the Indian Ocean was laid.

The Indian Ocean Campaigns and the Creation of the Soft Empire
The culmination of Ottoman expansion into the Indian Ocean would come with Hadim Sulieman Pasha. The Ottomans would fight what some would consider to be a world war against the Portuguese, engaging them on many fronts. In India Mustafa Bayram had defected to the Mughals and been replaced as leader of the Rumis with Hoja Safar who corresponded with Sulyeman Pasha drawing Gujarat and the Ottomans closer. Bahadur Shah following his defeat by the Mughals had been forced to sign a treaty handing over Diu to the Portuguese. He appealed to the Ottomans to assist in retaking Diu and offered his entire treasuery. Hadim Sueiman Pasha agreed and began to make diplomatic alliances with Sultan Badr of Shihr and the rulers of Yemen and Hadramaut, Zeyla, and Aceh. The fleet of seventy ships, one of the largest Ottoman fleets ever gathered in the Indian Ocean was prepared at the arsenal in Suez and in 1538 the expedition to India was made.

The results of the expedition were not altogether successful. The Ottoman allies failed in achieving their goals, and the Ottoman force came close to taking Diu after a six week siege but was forced to withdraw due to political factors as his local Indian allies found Hadim Sulieman Pasha disagreeable and the way he took Aden was considered treacherous. Despite the failure in India, by 1541 he had reacquired Yemen for the Ottomans and consolidated his power in it building a naval base and customs house in Aden which created a permanent Ottoman presence in the Indian Ocean.

Following these events the first Portuguese-Ottoman peace negotiations occurred in which the Ottomans indicated their desire to undermine Portuguese commercial maritime domination in the Indian Ocean by attempting to support “freedom for the Muslims of India to trade in white cloths, spices, and other merchandise of that land” This peace attempt failed, however it reveals that the Ottomans had taken a direct interest in commercial trade. They were no longer content to let intermediaries reap the benefits of trade. Ottoman ships plyed the waters from Massawa, Hormuz, Mogadishu, along the Swahili Coast, an as far as Pegu and Bengal. P.74 Battles had been fought in Coromandel in 1537, Dofar in 1538, Aden in 1538, Mocha in 1539, Malacca in 1539 Suakin in 1541, Basra in 1546, Qishn in 1546, Muscat in 1546, Qalyat in 1546, and Diu in 1546. The Ottomans had fought coordinated battles with themselves and their allies on a vast geographic scale. The Ottoman ability to think on such grand strategic levels was related to their claims and perceptions of themselves as a universal empire.

Sokollu Mehmed Pasha was Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire during the height of the Ottoman Empire in the Indian Ocean region. As in the past the Ottomans were again the rallying figure for anti-Portuguese who sought their assistance. Sokollu Mehmed Pasha was a proponent of soft power empire building in the Indian Ocean region, “With this report, Lufti was thus able to confirm Sokollu Mehmed’s greatest hope that the Muslims of maritime Asia were ready to spontaneously adopt the concept of a universal Ottoman sultanate as a collective pan-Islamic political ideology.” In perusing his soft empire he was able to carry out a series of diplomatic agreements with the various states in the region.

Between 1565-1579 the soft empire existed as in Surat the population was openly pro-Ottoman, as it was in Hormuz, Mogadishu and Mombasa. Direct relations were established with Ahmadnagar and Bijapur during this time the two powers that had been most suspicious of Ottoman interests in the region. In Calicut, Ceylon, Aceh, Maldives, and Zeyla Friday prayers were read in the name of the Ottoman Sultan. P. 149 The Sultan of Aceh went so far as the declare that he wished to have his land annexed by the Ottomans in exchange for the help of the Portugese and to become the Sultan’s vassal, this was a wish shared by Rumis in Gujarat, Ceylon, and Calicut. This fervent enthusiasm for Ottoman rule is indicative of the success of the soft empire policy of Sokollu Mehmed Pasha and of Ottoman cultural imperialism.

This strategy was not entirely passive, it included direct action, he dispatched a small Ottoman expeditionary force to Sumatra with a large number of artillery in two galleons. P.133 These forces immediately laid siege to Malacca while corsairs in Calicut overthrew the Christian Portuguese puppet king and the Zamoring beisged and burned Chaliyam in 1571 and Ahmadnagar and Bijapur joined forces to attack Chaul and Goa. Battles were fought at Cannor in 1565, Vijaynagar in 1565, Malacca in 1568 and again at 1570, Aden and Maldives in 1569, Chaul and Goa in 1570, and a planned battle at Hormuz in 1570. Most of these ventures did not succeed however they did show the remarkable ability of the Ottomans to motivate its allies into action and to coordinate their activities. Much of the failures experienced by the Ottomans during this time was due to circumstances of chance, and poor luck, the rebellion in Yemen prevented the full expeditionary forces from traveling to Sumatra and the disaster in the Battle of Lepanto diverted Sokollu Mehmed Pasha’s attention and stretched his resources.

A chronic problem that Ottoman ships faced was the lack of timber in the dry lands of Africa and Arabia. Timber had to be transported from the Balkans and Anatolia making shipping a difficult problem to overcome. As a testament to the Ottoman foresight Sokollu Mehmed Pasha planned the construction of a canal at Suez to connect the Mediterranean and the Red Sea which would have facilitated not only commerce but allowed the easy transition of an Ottoman fleet between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. This was beyond Ottoman technological capabilities at the time, and such a canal would not be built until many centuries later. Given the sheer size and scale of the Ottoman Empire such grand strategic reasoning is to be expected but surprisingly underestimated among many contemporary historians.

Rather than grand expeditions of power projection his greatest achievements was his soft empire and the comprehensive reform of the Ottoman spice trade. It was during his time that the Ottoman Empire truly became an active player in the spice trade with the creation of the closest thing to a spice monopoly that the Ottomans would indulge in. The Ottomans set a prescribed route for merchants, required them to stop in Mocha, Jiddah, and Suez to pay transit fee and state owned ships brought spice directly from Mocha to Suez that was for the imperial treasury and of course tax exempt. Eventually due to corruption it was mandated that the entire cargo of state owned spice be shipped to Constantinople so he could directly control it. Trading relations with Aceh was also important particularly in military assistance with trade in artillery, and muskets which paid for the spice imported from the Ottomans. Ottoman commercial agents were established in Hormuz, Sindh, Cambay, Dabul, Calicut and many other ports.

Ultimately Sokoullu Mehmed Pasha was successful, trade was flourishing and the Ottomans were profiting from it, the Sultan’s authority as Caliph was recognized from the Horn of Africa to Indonesia. The soft empire was one of the first truly global empires of the time. The Portuguese are quoted fearfully saying “The true intention of the Ottomans is not just to control the spice trade but in the long run to become lords of all the states of India….By controlling trade, all of the Ottomans neighbors will side with them, such that even investing their own resources, their allies alone will be enough to push us out and make them masters of India.” This was something the Portuguese could never dream of achieving even in their wildest imagination. That which the Portuguese tried to get with the sword the Ottomans were able to get with the pen. A testament to the success of the Ottoman soft empire in the Indian Ocean.

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