In February 21, 2012 the author of ‘Pashas’ James Mather gave a talk on the subject of his book, the English merchants of Aleppo of the past.
Pashas - James Mather, Yale University Press, 2009 (ISBN: 978-0-300-12639-6)
James Mather is clearly a meticulous researcher, as the book 'Pashas' draws on the detailed archives right down to individual British merchants operating as a 'factor' (or Pashas in this book) within the Ottoman Empire in the 16th to the 18th centuries. The focus of this investigation is the ancient trading hub of Aleppo, yet the story weaves in and out with ease to other mercantile centres, particularly London, the centre of the still young and establishing British Empire and Constantinople, the power centre of the Ottoman Empire, still a formidable force even after being driven from the gates of Vienna in 1684.
Here is a story of paradoxes, the opportunity of young Englishmen, invariably from privileged backgrounds to spend their 'most productive years' in the souks and hans of the Middle East, often surrounded by bleak deserts yet potentially achieving riches not possible in their homeland. It is a story of courage, their one big gamble in life, told in individual stories, men plucked from dusty archives and given flesh in flowing narrative of their lives and local conditions.
The interplay between these merchant 'Pashas' and the Ottoman authorities are well analysed, probably better than any book up to date (previous books on this subject have concentrated more narrowly on the systematic history of the Levant Company). The respective places occupied by the Company and the Ottoman State in regulating this trade were surprisingly similar. The Pashas could feel they were members of a commercial culture that was shared by London and the cities of the Levant. Core business practices like double entry book keeping, an Arabic import to England, were common to merchants of both.
This book explained some fundamental concepts of why a distant land like England was able to successfully tap into the market, becoming a major player well before the might of the British Empire was an influencing factor. The ships with which these Pashas came to the Eastern Mediterranean were designed for the fierce Atlantic Ocean, large, armed vessels, quite beyond the capability of even determined pirates to take on, thus they were relatively unmolested. The London merchants if needed would operate a form of economic warfare, such as selling cloth under value to drive away competition in the short term, thus removing rivals. The capitulations, a vital factor of being able to trade without hindrance in these parts is also very well explained, a concept usually distorted like the meaning of the word in modern parlance. The immediate model is a Byzantine practice, but with a strong echo of the Islamic practice of 'aman' a temporary safe-conduct which spared these foreigners from enslavement. This was well before the time when the whole system became parasitical, yet for centuries it was a fudge, but a convenient system of social and trade regulation where both sides benefitted.
This book is more geared to the specialist and enthusiast of Ottoman and Levantine trade studies, it is not a light read, it goes into detail, down to individuals, their stresses, tactics, gains and failures. It is through these individual stories of profit and loss that the rise and fall of this 'Golden Age' of the Levant Company is highlighted, but the story is taken if briefly till the early 20th century, well past the abolition of the company in the early 19th century, as conditions had matured in the Empire for personal capital and risks to be taken. Again there were some spectacularly successful merchants some of whose names are still mentioned in those lands even when their descendants have long gone or died out.
The book is rich and notes and bibliography as would be expected from a book reflecting this calibre and depth of research.
Review by Craig Encer, 2011