Turning Turk

In order to trade successfully abroad it was necessary for the chartered companies to trade through factors. The exotic markets of the Levant and East India were too far away for the leading merchants to travel to themselves; they would stay in safety in London and leave the daily running abroad to trusted – and sometimes mistrusted – factors.

For the factors this frequently meant many years abroad in strange and exotic environments. Two correlated dangers, in particular, were prevalent when abroad: The native women and the native religion. It was possible to trade with people of other religions, and it was possible, as the seventeenth century would prove, to bestow somewhat extensive religious privileges to traders and artisans of other religions as a device to encourage skilled people to settle in the English overseas colonies. Nonetheless, within the borders of England the fear of apostasy reigned and the companies were very keen to keep their factors on the straight and narrow with regards to other religions and women.

The fascination and fear of the exotic religions and the clear correlation with personal downfall was expressed in a number of early modern plays, maybe nowhere clearer than in the dramatist Robert Daborne’s 1612 play A Christian Turned Turk in which the audience follow an English sailor who became a pirate in the Mediterranean and later turned Turk after falling in love with a beautiful Turkish woman. In the play his conversion would prove his downfall, and this illustrated both the fascination of the exotic as well as the fear of Islam in England at the time.

The Company Directors’ fear and mistrust when it came to the virtue of the overseas factors sometimes found their way into the meetings of the committees and was noted down in Companies Court Minute Books. In 1666 reports of debauchery amongst the Levant Company’s factors in Smyrna, modern day Izmir, reached the Company Court in London: Upon notice taken of the Complaint lately made of the danger the factors of Smyrna were in, by the ill example of certain persons there drawing them to Gaming and debaucheries, whereby the Estates of their Princip may be exposed to ye greatest hazard. The actions taken by the Company to get to grips with the problems abroad seem to reveal the nature of the debaucheries: And it was proposed that some action be taken to prevent employment of such factors as keepe woemen slaves within house or otherwise.

Even with pre-emptive directives like these sent from London, factors still turned Turk. A case which was a great worry to the Levant Company court, judged by the number of times it is mentioned in the Court Minutes, was when a John Sawyer turned Turk in 1673. The Company informed the new Consul going to Turkey that: […] we are greatly afflicted with the news you will meet on your first Arrival at Smyrna: Where one of the Factory, John Sawyer, hath shamefully betraid himself into the Turkish Superstition; and that in so foul and insolent a manner, as we fear will draw no mean Scandal to our nation and to the Christian Religion.   

What made John Sawyer convert is unclear, and it also unclear what made his manner so foul and insolent, but one of the often cited reasons for turning Turk, or going native as it was also called, was to marry a woman of that particular religion thus making oneself guilty of two of the greatest abominations while being abroad: convert, which was the same as to desert the English political entity, and fraternizing with the locals. Another indication to what might have been the problem in the Sawyer case was the Company’s difficulties in retrieving the goods he had been in charge of when converting; there was a clear economical angle to the issue as well.

The mentions of these for the Company unfortunate interactions with the locals illustrate the difficulties of trading through factors stationed abroad, far from the watchful eyes of the English society. The examples can also said to be underlining a similar sort of attraction and fear of the exotic and foreign religions as Daborne’s 1612 play did. Becoming too involved with the exotic was bad business and would undoubtedly prove the downfall of any man.

%d bloggers like this: