A New Book on the Ottoman Military History: Guns for the Sultan by Gábor Ágoston

by Salim Ayduz Published on: 25th May 2007

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Ágoston's book provides new insights into the Ottomans' approach to new innovations and reforms in modern technology, which some scholars had previously claimed improbable due to Islamic conversativism.

Dr. Salim Ayduz*

Figure 1. The cover page of Guns for the Sultan: Military Power and the Weapons Industry in the Ottoman Empire.

Guns for the Sultan: Military Power and the Weapons Industry in the Ottoman Empire. By Gábor Ágoston. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Pp. xvii+ 277, Appendix, Notes, Bibliography, Index, 4 Maps, 20 Illustrations, 31+69 Tables. £45.00/$75.00 (cloth). ISBN 0-52184313-8.

Ballistics and all what concerns military history is a flourishing academic speciality within the discipline of the history of science and has been so since long ago. This has only recently, however, been reflected in Ottoman studies. After Rhoads Murphy’s book Ottoman Warfare 1500-1700 [1]on Ottoman warfare and military history, further studies were published on the subject. Besides this, my PhD dissertation Tophâne-i Âmire ve Top Döküm Teknolojisi (XV ve XVI. Asirlarda), (Royal Cannon Foundry and Cannon Casting Technology in 15th and 16th Centuries), although completed in 1998, it was published in 2006 by Turk Tarih Kurumu, Ankara. Moreover, recently several books and articles have been published on Ottoman military history, warfare and weapons.

Gabor Ágoston is certainly one of the leading scholars of Ottoman military history, and has dedicated his life to Ottoman studies. Taking advantage of being colleague with several Turkish historians, he spent many years in Istanbul and produced valuable scholarly works.

The book consists of seven parts, plus the introduction. It contains also an impressive set of maps, tables and figures that illuminate the text. Issues such as firearms and armaments industries, gunpowder and related materials production and cannons issues are well covered. In many ways, Ágoston’s book provides new insights into the Ottomans’ approach to new innovations and reforms in modern technology, which some scholars had previously claimed improbable due to Islamic conversativism. According to Ágoston “the Ottomans were far from being prisoners of the ‘extreme conservatism of Islam’ as suggested by the representatives of the traditional Eurocentric school”.

Filling an important gap in Ottoman military history studies, Gabor Ágoston’s Guns for the Sultan is a much-needed book. It is the result of years of work and comes in the aftermath of the author’s previous publications on gunpowder production and firearm related issues. The book makes a useful use of Ágoston’s related articles published in different journals in recent years. Despite the very specific and detailed information the book provide, it also is useful not only to specialists of Ottoman military history, but furthermore to general historians of the Ottoman Empire, who will find it very useful, especially in military terminology and classification.

The book starts with answering important questions about Muslim’s generally, but more specifically the Ottoman’s approach, towards the innovations and reforms related firearms and similar issues, thus challenging energetically several misunderstandings. Some authors who (such as Kenneth M. Setton, Eric L. Jones, Paul Kennedy and Bernard Lewis) follow superficially an understanding of Islamic doctrines fault the “extreme conservatism of Islam,” “the military despotism” which “militated against the borrowing of western techniques and against native inventiveness” or the “cultural and technological conservatism” for the failure of Islamic civilisations to transfer from western military technology. Gabor Ágoston book sets out to challenge the prevailing “Eurocentric” views about the Ottomans, a history that is mistakenly burdened with “extreme conservatism,” allegedly due to Islam, and “the military despotism which … militated against the borrowing of western techniques and against native inventiveness.” However, according the Ágoston “the adoption or rejection of firearms technology by Islamic societies had very little to do with Islam. Rather, it was a decision of the political and military elites of the respective societies, and was influenced by the social fabrics, economic capabilities, geopolitical realities and constraints, as well as by military and political objectives. The Ottomans were far from being prisoners of the ‘extreme conservatism of Islam’ as suggested by the representatives of the traditional Eurocentric school.” Ágoston bruises the claim that “Islamic conservatism” presented a key obstruction to innovation and development, arguing that Islam had nothing to do with Ottoman military matters.

The second part of the book is dedicated to the introduction of firearms into the Ottoman Empire, and how they made an impact on the organisation of the Ottoman military in the 15th and 16th centuries. Here Ágoston gives a brilliant and wide-ranging analysis of the concept of Ottoman statesmen and army members adoption of the new weapons. Besides a short discussion of bombardiers and miners, he also points out how the Ottoman navy intermittently adopted guns and other firearms on their ships as early as the 15th century. The second chapter provides ample cases regarding the continued Ottoman receptivity to new ideas and western military technology well into the 17th century. In this chapter, we find also hints about the pragmatic approach of rulers which made it relatively easy to adopt firearms technology, and the organisational frameworks required to join together with conventional weapons and operate them harmoniously. This chapter shows that European-Ottoman military acculturation did not end in the 16th century. Ottoman rulers were very interested throughout the 17th and 18th centuries with the new innovations and reforms regarding firearms in Europe.

Chapter 3 deals with the weapons the Ottomans manufactured in their local and main foundries and their use in military campaigns and naval expeditions at sea. Ágoston offers a classification of Ottoman cannons which has a bewildering terminology. According to archival evidence, the majority of Ottoman cannons designated as siege or battering guns were also considerably smaller pieces than is assumed in the historical literature. The result of the systematic analysis of Ottoman cannon names, based on archival documents, shows that the Ottomans employed a great variety of guns, from the largest to the smallest guns in the army.

Chapters 4, 5 and 6 examine the Ottoman weapons industry, and focus on saltpetre and gunpowder manufacturing, and cannon casting throughout the Empire centres. In these chapters we find very important answers concerning the “dependency theory,” which argues that the Ottomans failed to establish an indigenous arms production capable of meeting the needs of the army. This chapter seeks to explain how the Ottomans easily supplied raw materials needed for the production of gunpowder and casting cannons from their own lands. Significantly, the Ottomans were doing well in creating the necessary organisational, industrial and financial frameworks and the ability of the socio-economic conditions enabled the Ottomans to achieve self-sufficiency in ordnance production and to maintain it for centuries. The 5th chapter deals with the Ottoman gunpowder production capabilities and the quality of powder produced in the Empire. Here, we find Ottoman self-sufficiency during the 16th and 17th centuries and that production levels satisfactorily met the Empire’s requirements until the mid-18th century. At the end of this century, the Ottomans reorganised powder production and modernised its gunpowder works, an undertaking that resulted in establishing self-sufficiency. We find ample information mostly from archives of Tophane account books (Muhasebe Defterleri), about the cannon production of the Empire. In terms of cannon casting and the production of cannon balls, the available evidence in archives suggest that the Empire itself managed to establish a strong armaments industry that was capable of fulfilling the requirements of the Ottoman army and navy. Ágoston also disproves, using the same documents, the belief of the Ottomans’ inability to mass produce and their supposed third-tier production status and challenges the idea regarding the alleged Ottoman technological inadequacy suggested by Eurocentric historiography.

The final chapter of the book on Guns and Empire deals with firearms and the Ottoman situation between other gunpowder empires in the centuries. This book, based mainly on Ottoman archival evidence, provides the reader with a classification of Ottoman guns which in turn makes comparisons of Ottoman and European artillery pieces possible. One of the significant results of this book is that the Ottomans matched their European opponents in the production of various types of cannons. Towards the end of the 15th century the Ottomans were casting huge size cannons known to contemporaries. While these large bombards were clumsy, difficult to manoeuvre, had a very low rate of fire and were of questionable quality in usefulness, one must acknowledge that the production of such monsters required unusual technical and organisational skills that only the most advanced states possessed. The author mainly defends that “the Ottomans were not slow and imperfect recipients of the “superior western” military technology and tactics, as most historians of the Eurocentric school maintain; rather they were important participants in the dynamics of organised violence in the Euro-Asian theatre of war.”

In the conclusion Ágoston answers the question of “What went wrong.” He argues that “one should avoid the temptation to overemphasize the importance of these European victories. Technological developments, such as the adoption of the socket bayonet and flintlock musket, played an important yet limited role. It was not better guns that ultimately gave the advantage to the Europeans, but better drill, command and control, and bureaucratic administration.” Perhaps one of the main points of the work is to explain and assist in understanding Ottoman armament technology and war industry capabilities in a comparative framework.

Ágoston’s book is an academic work, as can be seen from its tightly argued 205 pages of text, its “Appendix” in 51 pages and the final long section of Notes on weights and measurements. The book finishes by a bibliography (more than 10 pages of references), and 17 pages of index. Written in tight prose, the book is aptly illustrated by figures, pictures and drawings and especially tables of which 30% are in the text, and the rest in the Appendix. It is most readable and informative, for any audience interested in Ottoman military history. This book is certainly a leading work that illuminates the path of history of military studies in Turkey and the modern world. It is indeed a scholarly piece of work on a subject of continued wide interest –that of Ottoman military and warfare. There is no doubt that Ágoston’s academic work is of high quality and makes significant contributions to scholarship [2].

End Notes

[1] Murphy Rhoads, Ottoman Warfare: 1500-1700, London: UCL Press, 1999.

[2] This is the table of contents of the book:

List of figures p. viii

List of maps p. x

List of tables p. xi

Acknowledgments p. xii

Notes on transliteration and place names p. xv

List of abbreviations p. xvi

1 Introduction: firearms and armaments industries p. 1

2 Gunpowder technology and the Ottomans p. 15

3 Cannons and muskets p. 61

4 Saltpeter industries p. 96

5 Gunpowder industries p. 128

6 Munitions and ordnance industries p. 164

7 Conclusions: guns and empire p. 190

Appendix p. 207

Notes on weights and measurements p. 242

Bibliography p. 248

Index p. 260

* Dr. Salim Ayduz is a senior researcher at Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation (FSTC) in Manchester, and a visiting scholar at the University of Manchester and Fatih University.

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