Trade has no borders. During times of hostility between the Ottoman Empire and Europe, European traders were not only trading with the Ottomans but trading in contraband war materials. This article provides an insight into trade that shaped history.
The Ottoman State emerged at the beginning of the fourteenth century in former Byzantine territory in North Western Anatolia and expanded through the Balkan Peninsula and South-East Europe. The Ottomans were extending their hegemony towards Europe at approximately the same time as the use of firearms took root in some European countries. Towards the middle of the fourteenth century, the use of firearms spread through the European states as a new military technology but they still proved largely ineffective in military campaigns. They became more effective during the second half of the fourteenth century. Most rulers including the Pope, prohibited firearms trade with the Ottomans in addition to the already banned materials such as cereals and munitions. A clause of the papal proclamation (In Cena Domini) of Pope Gregory XI on 15th May 1373 concerning the prohibition of trading with Turks, some other Muslim states and with Romania, demonstrates the existence of a vast trade in firearms. Other items also banned as a result of this prohibition included horses, weapons, iron, copper, tin, sulphur, saltpetre and similar war materials as well as certain types of rope and timber which were used for ship building. Some Christian rulers through their support of the papal prohibition announced legislation to prevent such trade. These prohibitions, often renewed, had little effect – the flow of munitions into the Ottoman Empire and other Muslim countries continued unabated despite the efforts of Austria, Spain, the Pope and the Knights of Saint John of Malta to seize the well-armed vessels which took the contraband materials through the Mediterranean to the harbours of the Levant. On the other hand, this kind of trade was encouraged and supported by the Ottoman rulers who granted commercial privileges to such traders.
Hence, in spite of the prohibitions, many obstacles and numerous attempts to stop this trade between European Christians and Muslim powers there still existed a great degree of cross Mediterranean traffic during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Such trade was simply too profitable to traders to be discouraged by rulers. It was very difficult for Christian traders because of papal support for the ban but, in considering the question of how the Ottomans obtained firearms in the second half of the fourteenth century, one can find that Western merchants continued trading these goods even at the risk of outraging the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, the Ottomans were buying the various metals and munitions which they needed for their armies from Europeans especially from Dubrovnik, Florence, Venice and Genoa. The active arms trade which had persisted throughout the Middle Ages continued. This can be seen not only in the large number of weapons, but also in the late medieval documents that establish the existence of an extensive arms trade. Towns, such as fourteenth-century Avignon and Dubrovnik, for instance, often served as markets for weapons and gunpowder. The aim of this article is to provide evidence which demonstrates sales of firearms, metals and munitions between the Ottoman Empire and Europe during the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries.
Italian Cities and the Trade
In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries two states, Venice and Genoa, were alike in that they lived by trade and both had a republican form of government. In addition, such states as the Netherlands, Florence, Dubrovnik and Bosnia, and later England and France did a considerable amount of trade in the Levant especially in firearms and cannons as well as other goods and grains. The Genoese and the Venetians were known to be importing large quantities of arms into the Levant. These traders without concern for religious and national differences were selling arms and aiming to create a market. With regards to Ottoman commercial relations with the West in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, so far no reference to arms trading with the Turks has been found in the Genoese and Venetian sources for this period.
Nevertheless, there clearly existed a metal trade between Western merchants and Muslim powers as is exemplified by the constant papal prohibitions against the export of certain commodities to the infidels, such as food and war materials/metals. Such repetitious prohibitions indicate a persistent trade, conducted in defiance of papal prohibition and therefore one must assume, profitable.
Bartolomeo de Giano who lived in Istanbul in 1438, wrote a letter to the Venetian authorities complaining that some Venetian, Genoese and other Italian and Western merchants went on selling “strategic materials” to the Ottomans despite papal excommunications and prohibitions. He continued:
“From Italy—Latin, Venetian, Genoese, and other merchants bring galleys and ships there loaded not with iron but with steel in such great abundance that I can scarcely believe that steel would be found in any Italian city at such a good price and in such great quantities as it is found in Gallipoli, Pera, and Adrianople! I am a liar if I have not seen it with my own eyes and in the galleys on which it came. But hear how they excuse themselves—they do not sell it to the Turks but only to the Jews and the Greeks. It is they, therefore, who later give the steel to the Turks with their own hands. And this, so that the Turks may make sharper swords to spill the guts of Christians! … Indeed, over the last forty days we have seen mules loaded with steel led from this city to Adrianople where the Turks themselves foully mock the Christians, saying openly: Look at your blindness, you wretches: you offer us arms so that we may compete.”
Firearms Trade in the Balkan Peninsula
It was as a consequence of the instability in the Balkans during the fifteenth century that all the remaining free and semi-free Balkan states and also the colonies of Venice and Genoa became equipped with firearms. During this century the main suppliers of cannons were Venice and Dubrovnik (Ragusa). One of the principal states trading arms to the Ottomans was Dubrovnik. As early as 1301, a prohibition was imposed in Dubrovnik on the export of arms to the Levant. Such prohibitions sometimes imposed both heavy fines and the forfeiture of the bought or sold arms. All the measures designed to stop the trade in arms testify to the continuance of this traffic. There are archival records to confirm this statement. In Dubrovnik itself, early in the century, the production of firearms underwent a change with the setting up of a cannon foundry in 1410, the first such foundry to be established in the Balkans. An awareness of firearms and of their effectiveness was undoubtedly present in the Balkans, and especially in the regions under the control of Venice and Genoa and in towns and districts which maintained commercial, business, friendly, and family ties with the Italian cities. According to the sources known thus far, Venice and Dubrovnik were the main suppliers of firearms to the Balkan lands at the end of the fourteenth century. Venice provided cannons for the North-Western area of the Balkans and for its own lands in Albania and in Romania Veneta. On the other hand, most of the Central and Southern Balkans looked to Dubrovnik for their supplies. Thus, both Venice and Dubrovnik were at that time places where firearms were made. According to G. Skrivanic[m1] , the Ottoman army’s cannons that were used in the Kosovo Battle of 1389 against Christians were bought from Dubrovnik.
Gunpowder was prepared in Dubrovnik itself by a simple method of mixing crushed sulphur, saltpetre, and charcoal. Documents preserved in the Dubrovnik Archives show that the Balkan hinterland acquired cannons, gunpowder, saltpetre, and sulphur in three ways: through Dubrovnik merchants; through rulers and feudal lords; and through representatives in Dubrovnik, consisting of individual princes and feudal lords. Firearms and gunpowder were either sold or given away as a gift or on loan. Cannons and gunpowder were sent to the Balkan rulers, princes as well as the Ottomans. When Mahmud Pasha (1455-1468), the grand vizier of Mehmed II, arrived at the walls of Jajce in Central Bosnia, in 1463, he asked Dubrovnik to send him 9000 dinar, two kantars (108 kg.) of saltpetre and sulphur to prepare gunpowder for his army. Further, in 1498, Bâyezid II requested Dubrovnik to acquire and dispatch to Istanbul a consignment of tin and iron for ‘the making of bombards’.
Most of the demands for cannons and gunpowder or sulphur and saltpetre came to Bosnia, a centre of production, well equipped with cannons and gunpowder. Besides the Ottoman state and Bosnian tycoons, minor noblemen also, and even historically unknown persons turned to Dubrovnik with such demands. There is hardly any mention in the Dubrovnik archives of the procurement of gunpowder for the Kings of Bosnia. There are far more documents referring to deliveries of gunpowder, saltpetre, and sulphur than of cannons. This may mean that those who bought gunpowder were already in possession of bombards which they either made themselves or obtained from another source.
During the second half of the fifteenth century, political tensions in Mora and Albania led Mehmed II into a long war with Venice, lasting from 1463-1479, and forced him to take economic reprisals. At the same time he sought to maintain trade with the West, by encouraging Florence and Dubrovnik to take Venice’s place. In 1469 he granted new trade privileges to Florence and also maintained good terms with Florence by, for example, attending Florentine banquets. By capturing Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1463, Mehmed opened a new and direct trade route with Florence, through Dubrovnik.
The English in particular, and later the Dutch, also created for themselves a lucrative trade with the Ottomans in materials for warfare. An English ship is mentioned as being at Livorno in 1573 with a cargo of tin, broken bells and ingots of lead. The French ambassador in Istanbul, de Germigny, notes that in 1580 the English brought to the Porte much steel, broken images, bronze and brass for the casting of guns. The broken bells and images came, of course, from the churches despoiled in England during the course of the Reformation. After two years, Parry quotes the Spanish Ambassador to England as saying, in 1582, that the English sent large amounts of broken bells and images, tin and lead which the Ottomans bought “almost for its weight in gold, the tin being vitally necessary for the casting of guns and the lead for purposes of war.” The Ottoman Sultan granted the English a capitulation in 1580 and a more extensive one in 1583. On 11 September 1581 the Levant Company was founded by royal charter. The Ottoman government lowered the customs rate for the English to 3 percent, while the French and other foreigners were paying 5 percent until 1673, when they succeeded in having the custom rate lowered to 3 percent also. The English competed fiercely with the French and Venetians, the former monopolists of the Levant trade. The English were selling fine quality woollens at low prices, and imports of English tin and steel were vitally important for the Ottoman arms industry. Bernardino de Mendoza, the Spanish ambassador in London, informed his Master Philip II in 1579 of an English vessel bearing 20,000 crowns’ worth of bar tin to the Levant. Again, in 1582, de Mendoza told Philip II that the English sent large amounts of tin and lead which the Ottomans bought ‘almost for its weight in gold’.
As records of the firearms and munitions trade between the Ottoman Empire and European states, or those traders from European states, are limited, it can only be assumed from the remaining records that there was considerable trade relating to various war commodities and knowledge. It is hoped that future research and discoveries will shed further light on the history or war related trade between the Ottoman Empire and Christian Europe.
Image 1: Istanbul Harbiye Military Museum
Image 2: Istanbul Dolmabahce Palace