Tuesday, September 25, 2007


Trevor Phillips appears to have gone a bit odd. In his speech at the Labour conference (sponsored by the Smith Institute! Boo! Boo!) he said that we need to "rewrite British history" in order to make it more inclusive, giving examples. Two problems - he's talking balls in the specific examples, and balls more generally.
Part of the job of heritage is to cognitize - give physical existence - to that national story.
Piffle. This simply doesn't mean anything. Making words up to look clever is rarely a good strategy. I suppose he might mean 'history is important' - but frankly who knows?
"When we talk about the Armada it's only now that we are beginning to realise that part of it is Muslims," Mr Phillips told the meeting. "It was the Turks who saved us, because they held up Armada at the request of Elizabeth I."
Nice story, but it's unfortunately at best grossly misleading, and at worst flatly untrue. The argument, put forward by Dr Jerry Brotton, is that Elizabeth I sought an understanding with the Ottoman Empire (not Turkey, for God's sake - it was 350 years before Turkey was created) that the latter would continue to threaten Spain in the Mediterranean, thereby reducing the number of ships available to the Spanish.
"If the Armada had been bigger it would have taken Britain," said Dr Jerry Brotton.
And that's pretty damn tendentious too. The main reason that the Armada was defeated was that, even though it massively outnumbered the English navy, it was qualitatively inferior in seamanship and gunnery - a larger fleet would have meant more logistical problems - which were already considerable - and not much more chance of victory. In any event, the Turkish 'influence' was insignificant.
The letter, ordered the ambassador, William Harborne, to incite the Turks to harry the Spanish navy. It was written in the mid-1580s
It was written in 1584 or 1585, 3-4 years before the Armada, and had no impact on Turkish policy, because they were busy at the time in the Balkans. It's nonsense.
So perhaps the reason that I am speaking to you in English today rather than Spanish lies not with Sir Francis Drake’s derring-do, but with the first Anglo-Turkish alliance. Perhaps that should count for something when Turkey’s membership of the EU comes to be considered in a few years’ time.
Hmm. Even if you were right, which you aren't, might not the Spanish have something to say about that? Anything else?
But we do know that of all the countries of Europe, Britain enjoyed the most extensive trade with Muslim lands throughout the first millennium after Christ. Happily, today English schoolchildren are learning that there is more to Genghis Khan than the hordes.
I'm pretty certain that Ghengis wasn't a Muslim actually - the Mongols had their own religion I believe. There's more, but it's not really worth dissecting. If the best reason to rewrite British history is that Elizabeth I's spymaster Walsingham wrote letters to her ambassador in the Ottoman Empire then perhaps we'd better leave it as it is.



Blogger Gawain Towler said...

But we do know that of all the countries of Europe, Britain enjoyed the most extensive trade with Muslim lands throughout the first millennium after Christ. Happily, today English schoolchildren are learning that there is more to Genghis Khan than the hordes.

Utter tripe, if anybody it was the scandic type viking chappies who under the name the Rus, were trading across the Black Sea and into Muslim lands in the last few centuries of that first millenium, Precious few English based traders made the trip.

Of course in the next five hundred years most of our trade with the Muslim world was the slave trade with Barbary Corsairs regularly raiding in the Channel and ransaking the Cornish and Devon coastline.

6:15 pm  
Blogger Fidothedog said...

Murat the 3rd who was sultan at the time was not interested in fighting with Spain. He certainly had little interest in a land of infidels far away from his Empires influence.

As you said he was fighting in Europe both with rebellions in the balkens and against Austria, also he had a long war with the Persians in Iran as well.

Besides although he had a large navy, he did not want to provoke the Christian lands into forming an alliance against him as happened with the battle of Lapanto years before that all but wiped out the Ottomans navy.

8:19 pm  
Blogger Tim J said...

In other words, as I suspected, it's complete nonsense. No real surprises there then...

9:35 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As Laban Tall points out, the Spanish Mediterranean fleet consisted of oared galleys - fine for the tideless Med, totally unsuitable for fighting in the Channel, let alone the North Sea. Four actually were sent and they all turned back when they met a Biscay storm. One sank.

As he says "If they had sent the entire Mediterranean Fleet its biggest impact would have been to lower the price of firewood on the French coast"

11:55 am  
Blogger Laban said...

That link to the Turkish news source in invaluable. It looks as if Dr Brotton, whose specialist field is English rather than history, may be talking through his nether regions when he says "If the Armada had been bigger it would have taken Britain".

If it had more roundships rather than galleys, maybe. But the Mediterranean fighting vessels were galleys.

I've mailed Dr Brotton but got no reply. I'll give him a bell in the morning.

9:02 pm  
Blogger Tim J said...

And I doubt, even if the Spanish had sent more round-ships, whether they would have been successful - the English victory came as a result of better gunnery and seamanship. They were already very heavily outnumbered as it is.

9:35 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There was indeed extensive diplomatic contact between England and the Ottomans in the 1580s, and constant requests by Elizabeth that the Ottomans engage the Spanish. What Brotton's failed to notice is that this has been thoroughly researched before, but with the opposite conclusion: the historian Edwin Pears published a long article on the subject, “The Spanish Armada and the Ottoman Porte”, in the English Historical Review, vol. 8 (1893), pp. 439–66. He went over the extensive correspondence between Walsingham and the English ambassadors to the Ottomans, William Harborne and his successor Edward Barton, in great detail (the letter Brotton mentions is just one among many), and although they had been urging the Turks to make a joint attack on Spain from the early 1580s (on the grounds that Protestants, like Muslims, were anti-idolaters and thus had a common interest in defeating Catholic Spain), and Sultan Murad III had promised to make such joint action, the letters show that no naval action was ever actually performed: the Turks were simply too busy with internal revolt and war on their eastern front, and the governor of Constantinople (one of Murad's principal advisers) was being bribed 60,000 ducats a year by the Spanish precisely to prevent their intervention. As Pears states: “The defeat of Lepanto, the war with Persia, and the rising of the subject provinces in North Africa did much to deter the Turk from lending aid. The heavy bribes by which Spain was able to obtain the support of the ministers and favourites of the sultan probably did more.” So it turns out that there is simply no evidence that they did intervene, and quite a lot of evidence that they didn’t. Is Jerry Brotton simply unaware of this earlier research, which I’ve discovered simply by googling? It sounds like it.

4:51 pm  

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