European and Islamic Trade in the Early Ottoman State: The Merchants of Genoa and Turkey. – Review

European and Islamic Trade in the Early Ottoman State: The Merchants of Genoa and Turkey. – Review – book review

Ariel Salzmann

European and Islamic Trade in the Early Ottoman State: The Merchants of Genoa and Turkey. By Kate Fleet. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Pp. 204. $59.95.)

Other than the Galata Tower, which lends its name to an inner-city quarter populated by rural migrants, artists, and occasionally transvestites, a visitor to Istanbul would find few remaining traces of Genoa’s commercial empire. This fact is not surprising. For decades, it seems, scholars have all but abandoned the late Medieval market. With more ample documentation awaiting them in later centuries, most economic historians turn their eyes eastward only after the Genoese fleet quit the Bosphorus.

We must applaud, therefore, Kate Fleet’s brave efforts to put Genoese enterprise back on the map. In ten chapters, organized around the commodities that informed Latin interests in fourteenth-century Anatolia, this monograph supplies a much-needed overview of the subject. Her research complements a handful of monographs, including Olivia Constable’s Trade and Traders in Muslim Spain (1994), that are reviving the study of this pivotal epoch in world history.

Fleet is a meticulous researcher. She has extracted a rich lode of information from the Italian archives and the Genoese notarial records in particular. In addition to costs of transport and prices of goods, this documentation provides a picture of everyday institutions and commercial culture. These documents also help her to reconstruct, in detail, the numerous interests binding merchants and states within this region, which should disabuse any lingering notion that Medieval capital–whether Latin or Muslim–operated within exclusive religious spheres. Turkic beys signed treaties with Italian city-states; and Christian merchants, like the Genoese, returned quickly to the former Byzantine capital after 1453.

Although relying on Latin sources, Fleet’s research demonstrates the impossibility of elucidating the key features of European trade within Anatolia without a firm grasp of Islamic history and extant sources. Notwithstanding the author’s chronology in chapter one and concluding remarks concerning the commercial underpinnings of Ottoman power, Fleet misses the chance to tie specific commodity flows to larger historical debates, particularly those concerning the rapidly changing military balance or the world economy. For example, without a thorough discussion of the institution of slave-soldiery, readers cannot appreciate the strategic nature of Genoa’s hold over the Eurasian slave trade. The Mamluk regime of Egypt and Syria (r.1258-1517) replenished its ranks with Turkic slaves. Before the rout of Genoa from the Black Sea, the Ottoman sultans too had formed their legendary Janissary corps.

These shortcomings should not distract the reader from the substance of this finely crafted monograph. However, they might obscure the Genoese interlude for those who contemplate the tower of Galata from this side of the Atlantic. In The Beginnings of Modern Colonialism (1970), Charles Verlinden contended that the inception of European expansion owed much to eastern Mediterranean institutions. He pointed to the cultivation of crops like sugar, with slave labor in the Latin-dominated enclaves as the inspiration for that peculiar form of export agriculture in the Americas, the plantation. With this in mind, Fleet’s research strongly suggests that the lessons of the Ottoman market were not lost on the departing Genoese. These experiences had already tested the savvy of captains, honed the administrative skills of merchants, and fostered financial systems that spanned the seas.

Ariel Salzmann

New York University

COPYRIGHT 2001 Phi Alpha Theta, History Honor Society, Inc.

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