Giancarlo Casale

Casale, Giancarlo, "Global Politics in the 1580s: One Canal, Twenty Thousand Cannibals, and an Ottoman Plot to Rule the World." Journal of World History 18 (2007): 267-296. (Download pdf here)

Giancarlo Casale panel, Crossings in the Early Modern Ottoman and Iberian Worlds

Global Encounters Initiative Symposium webcast sponsored by the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre. Hosted by St. Johns College, Crossings in the Early Modern Ottoman and Iberian Worlds panel includes: Hussein Fancy (History, Michigan) - Muslim Crusader; Natalie Rothman (History, Toronto) - Venetian-Ottoman Miniature Album; Giancarlo Casale (History, Minnesota) - Ottoman World Map; Commentator: Bronwen Wilson (History of Art, UBC) at


I am uncomfortable with the concept of “contributions,” to modernity, for reasons that I have already discussed above. Instead I would go farther: rather than say that interactions between Muslim empires another societies “contributed” to global modernity, I would argue that modernity itself needs to be understood as a product of these (and other) interactions.


Following up on some of the themes already introduced above, I think that a focus on the study of empires in comparative context could be a very productive framework for exploring the subject of early modernity. In the same way that the nation-state is the definitive political, social, and economic institution of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a good case can be made that empires are the definitive institutions of the early modern period—and differentiate this period not only from what came after, but from what had come before. The fact is that if you imagine a political map of the world in, say, the year 1200, you would be looking at a fragmented map without any political formations truly worthy of the name “empire” (China being the only partial exception). But by 1600, the entire midsection of the world was encompassed by a belt of 5 or 6 large imperial states, something that really had no historical precedent in any previous period.

I think this “imperial age” needs to be studied as a phenomenon, and much better integrated into our general understanding of early modern history. In the same way that any narrative of the emergence of a particular nation-state in the modern period needs to take account of the larger global trends associated with modernity, which seem to make some version of the nation-state almost inevitable, we also need to see the empires of the early modern world as products of their times, as formations that respond to a set of economic, social, ideological, and technological realities that transcend particular geographies, cultures, and political traditions—and as entities that evolve in a constant dialogue with one another.


I am of course biased by the chronologies and geographies of my own research, but I believe that one of the keys to taking the history of global modernity in a new and more meaningful direction lies in tackling much more systematically the question of the “early modern” in the narrative of world history. Here I should begin by saying that I am in general sympathetic to the aims of post-colonial studies, and in particular to the project of “Provincializing Europe”—a project dedicated to the idea that ‘modernity’ as such is an all-encompassing and variegated phenomenon that transcends the historical experience of the West. One problem I have with this approach, however, is that in their enthusiasm to demonstrate the modernity of the non-Western world, post-colonial historians have become extremely limited in their chronological perspective, rarely if ever venturing back earlier in time than the nineteenth century—when the Enlightenment, the industrial revolution, international capitalism, and European imperialism are considered to have created the conditions necessary for a truly universal modernity.

I believe this fixation on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is a serious limitation, because it leaves unexplored the question of if, how, and to what extent the world was already on a path towards a shared experience of modernity during the centuries before the final establishment of global Western hegemony. I am firmly convinced that it is through the study of this earlier period (roughly 1350-1750) that we have the best chance of radically reconceptualizing the narrative of world history. But to do so requires that scholars who study the Ottoman Empire, or the Mughal Empire, or for that matter the Spanish Empire or the Kingdom of Monomotapa, must all start to think of themselves as “early modernists” rather than simply “Ottomanists,” “Iberianists,” and so on—and to really think hard about what this means in comparative, world-historical terms.


A central goal of my work is to try to get away from the idea that history is a zero sum game, or in other words, the idea that the Rise of the West necessarily implies the decline of everyone else.

To this end, the particular focus of my research is the history of Ottoman expansion in the Indian Ocean during the sixteenth century—a period of history that corresponds with the European ‘Age of Exploration.’ In most of the existing literature on this subject, the Ottomans are depicted as being somehow part of a pre-existing “Islamic civilization” of maritime Asia, and therefore as victims of the Portuguese, who used superior Western forms of technology, ideology, and economic organization to displace the Ottomans and establish the first European seaborne empire. Instead, what I tried to show is that the Ottomans did not become involved in the Indian Ocean until after the Portuguese were already there, and that in fact the Portuguese presence in maritime Asia was a necessary precondition for this involvement.

The process, as I see it, worked something like this: Before the sixteenth century, the Indian Ocean region was unified commercially but fragmented politically, crisscrossed by long-distance trade routes dominated by Muslim merchants but without any single political power—Muslim or otherwise—that claimed political authority over the sea per se. This, however, changed radically with the arrival of the Portuguese, who injected a new kind of politics into the Indian Ocean by making unprecedented claims to being “lords of the navigation and commerce” of all of maritime Asia. And crucially, the way that the Portuguese enforced these claims was by using their heavily armed ships to prevent Muslim merchants from traveling freely between the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, meaning that for the first time in history a non-Muslim maritime power was actively devoted to blocking Muslim access to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

Shortly thereafter, the Ottomans conquered Egypt and gained their own foothold in the Indian Ocean region for the first time. In the process, they also became associated with the twin titles of “Caliph” and “Protector of the Holy Cities”— two titles that had previously been almost empty of political connotations, but which many Indian Ocean Muslims now increasingly saw as bearing a sovereign responsibility to keep the trade and pilgrimage routes between the Red Sea with the rest of maritime Asia open and safe./ In this way, the arrival of the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean presented the Ottomans with both a daunting challenge and an unprecedented opportunity: On the one hand, as “Caliph” and “Protector of the Holy Cities” the Ottoman sultan was now responsible for the safety of Muslim merchants and pilgrims throughout the Indian Ocean, meaning that his legitimacy could be undermined by Portuguese depredations even if they took place in areas thousands of miles beyond the physical borders of his empire. On the other hand, if the sultan could in fact provide these merchants and pilgrims with some measure of protection, then in return he could expect to be recognized by them as a transcendent “universal sovereign,” deserving of some measure of loyalty and obedience from Muslims throughout maritime Asia, regardless of whether or not they actually lived within the borders of the Ottoman empire.

The bulk of my recently and mercifully completed book, The Ottoman Age of Exploration, is dedicated to documenting the various ways in which the Ottomans took up this challenge. As I tried to show, over the course of the sixteenth century the Ottomans developed an increasingly sophisticated combination of strategies to confront the Portuguese and protect the interests of Indian Ocean Muslims. By the second half of the century, these strategies had proven so successful that the Portuguese had lifted their anti-Muslim blockade, the volume of trade through the Red Sea and Persian Gulf outstripped the rival Portuguese trade around the Cape of Good Hope, and the Ottoman sultan’s name was read in the khutba of congregational mosques in communities as remote from one another and from the Ottoman capital as Calicut, Sumatra, and the Maldives./ The essential point to all of this, however, is not simply that the Ottomans were ‘successful,’ but rather that their success was predicated on a productively adversarial relationship with the Portuguese. Had the Portuguese not introduced a new kind of politics in the Indian Ocean, and provided a foil against which the Ottomans could develop their own ideological, diplomatic and political response, it would have been inconceivable for the Ottomans to become so deeply and extensively involved in maritime Asia—and in so many innovative and unprecedented ways—as in fact they did. And indeed, once the Portuguese threat to Muslim shipping was removed—in large measure because of the Ottomans’ own actions—the Ottomans themselves were unable to maintain their imperial presence in the Indian Ocean.

All of this suggests at least one way to begin re-conceptualizing the history of global modernity: rather than seeing it as something to which the non-Western world is simply subjected to (and expected either to resist or to succumb), modernity can instead be understood as an interactive process, as the product of a series of dialectical relationships between different and competing state systems, ideologies, technologies, cultural formations, economies and geographies that are inexorably drawn into ever closer and more productive dialogue with one another. From this perspective, rather than presenting the Portuguese as harbingers of modernity and the Ottomans as its victims (or vice versa), we can instead find the most important engine of modernity in the locus of interaction between the two.


As an historian of the early modern Ottoman Empire, the paradigm of golden age and decline has a doubly complex and contradictory effect on the conceptualization of my field of research. On the one hand, within the grand narrative of “Islamic civilization,” the period 1300-1900 has traditionally held the place of “the dark ages,” the antithesis of the golden age during which political fragmentation, intellectual stagnation, and eventually foreign occupation were the defining elements of Muslim historical experience. Since these centuries are virtually coterminous with the history of the Ottoman state, this has had the effect of equating the entire trajectory of Ottoman history with decline, and – at least until very recently—has relegated the field of Ottoman history to a marginal position within the larger field of Islamic studies.

On the other hand, within the more restricted confines of Ottoman history we are confronted with another version of the same problem: The sixteenth century—which is the subject of my own research—has long held the status of an Ottoman ‘golden age,’ while subsequent centuries have been defined as a period of inexorable decline. Recently, Ottomanists have devoted a great deal of energy to the project of deconstructing this periodization. And yet, it remains true that the scholarly literature on the sixteenth century is comparatively quite developed, while many subfields of Ottoman history relating to the seventeenth, and particularly the eighteenth centuries are still in their infancy. This imbalance makes it extremely difficult to construct a compelling narrative of Ottoman history as a whole that can replace the story of “golden age” and “decline” that we are so eager to transcend.

Of course, all of this also needs to be understood within an even larger framework: the grand narrative of the “Rise of the West,” which continues to define the ways in which we make sense of history as a discipline, as well as the manner in which we conceptualize, organize and combine all of its constituent parts. According to this narrative paradigm, the historical experience of Europe during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is equated with ‘modernity,’ and the establishment of European political, economic, and cultural hegemony over the rest of the world during at this time is understood as the ‘end game’ of history. Within this framework, societies defined as ‘non-Western’ can only have historical relevance to the extent that they are able either to contribute to, mimic, or resist the relentless rise of the West—and those periods in which they are able to accomplish one of those three things are typically identified as “golden ages” (to be followed inevitably by decline and, eventually, historical oblivion).

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