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Agents of Empire by Noel Malcolm review – a dazzling history of the 16th‑century Mediterranean by John Gallagher

YIn the last year of the 16th century, an English craftsman named Thomas Dallam found himself at the heart of the Ottoman empire. Dallam had been commissioned to build an organ to be presented to the Sultan, and he travelled with his creation through the Mediterranean as far as the court at Istanbul and back. Writing an account of his journey home, he remembered how the interpreter who accompanied him was not a local, but an Englishman named Finch, born in Chorley in Lancashire. Dallam wrote: “He was … in religion a perfit Turke [Muslim], but he was our trustie frende.”

To run into an English convert to Islam on the shores of the Mediterranean was not as unlikely an event as it might seem. In the 16th century, the Mediterranean was what historians have called a “contact zone” – a region characterised not by rigid boundaries and borders, but by a bewildering mixture of faiths, peoples, languages and traditions. Classic narratives of a “clash of civilisations” may seem seductive (and serve contemporary political interests), but they are inadequate for thinking about the Middle Sea’s many overlapping histories: the reality on the ground was far more complex and infinitely more interesting than such a simplistic paradigm can account for.

What makes the Mediterranean fascinating is what makes writing its history such a challenge. Noel Malcolm’s magnificent Agents of Empire uses the intertwined stories of two Albanian families – the Brunis and the Brutis – as a prism through which to view the contacts and the conflicts that made the early modern Mediterranean. As diplomats, spies, bishops, soldiers, traders and interpreters, they were mobile and multilingual. From their Albanian roots, networks of kinship and contacts stretched in all directions, crisscrossing barriers of faith and nationality.

At the Ottoman court, Bartolomeo Bruti became a protege of the military commander (and later Grand Vizier) Sinan Pasha, an Albanian convert to Islam who happened to be a family relation. Antonio Bruti bargained in Albania for the Ottoman grain necessary to feed Catholic Venice. Gasparo Bruni became a Knight of Malta, served the pope as an intelligence agent in Dubrovnik, and earned himself a position of honour onboard the papal galley at the battle of Lepanto in 1571.

Lepanto, in Malcolm’s account, was as much a melee as it was a naval battle: sailors swarmed aboard enemy galleys for vicious hand-to-hand fighting while cannons, arquebuses and explosives roared around them. An Ottoman author wrote that “on all sides the cannons firing were like thunderclaps, and the noble fleet was surrounded by a thick smoke which covered the sky”. Amid the chaos, Gasparo’s brother Giovanni, the Catholic archbishop of Bar, found himself on the opposite side: he had been taken captive by Ottoman forces and, denied his promised freedom, he was forced to serve as a slave on board an Ottoman war galley. In a cruel twist of fate, Giovanni was killed not by his Ottoman masters, but by Christian soldiers who ignored his cries of “I’m a bishop, I’m a Christian”. At the moment of Giovanni’s death, Malcolm writes, “his brother may have been less than a hundred yards away”.

The story of Giovanni Bruni is a reminder that not everyone who moved through the Mediterranean did so voluntarily. Slavery was common practice among both Christian and Muslim communities in the Mediterranean. In 1584, a Venetian observer believed there were 10,000 slaves in Istanbul alone. Around the same time, there were roughly 40,000 to 50,000 Muslim slaves to be found on the Italian peninsula. At Lepanto, slaves powered the Ottoman ships and those of the Christian nations alike. Slave ransoms were big business: they could be negotiated between individuals, by states, or by intermediary organisations such as the Catholic redemptionist orders who raised funds and sent representatives to Istanbul to negotiate the freedom of their co-religionists.

In 1575, Bartolomeo Bruti found himself on a similar mission, attempting to broker the release of a number of high-profile prisoners held by the Ottomans. He would later become a spy on behalf of the Spanish crown, a clandestine negotiator for an Ottoman-Spanish peace, a servant of the ruler of Moldavia, and a diplomat in eastern and central Europe. Bartolomeo had contacts from England to the Ottoman empire and beyond – this was a world in which the “whispers of cities”, as John-Paul Ghobrial has written, powered intelligence industries across Europe and into Asia. Bartolomeo’s career would be cut abruptly short in 1592, when the new Moldavian ruler had him captured as he attempted to flee the country. His nose was cut off and he was strangled: he was, at most, 35 years old.

The Mediterranean through which Malcolm’s subjects moved was abuzz with languages. A Flemish captive taken aboard a North African corsair found himself in a real-life Babel, writing that “I was all this while as it were in a dream, wherein a man sees strange apparitions, which cause fear, admiration, and curiosity, reflecting on the several Languages (for they spoke the Turkish, the Arabian, Lingua Franca, Spanish, French, Dutch and English), the strange habits, the different Armes, with the ridiculous Ceremonies at their Devotions.” “Lingua franca” referred to the pidgin language spoken on ships, at market stalls and in slave quarters from Marseille to Tunis and Izmir, alongside the region’s almost countless vernaculars.

Faced with such linguistic diversity, the cities and states of the Mediterranean made great use of interpreters. In 1579, Cristoforo Bruti became a giovane di lingua, training for a life as an interpreter, or “dragoman”. These men were at the centre of Venetian-Ottoman relations. The tangled web of diplomatic interactions between the Ottoman empire and the Christian powers of Europe relied on individuals at all levels who could translate, but also provide privileged inside knowledge or act as fixers – all for a price, and occasionally at significant personal risk.

The sheer linguistic challenge of a study like this is evident from the beginning of the book: a prefatory note offers helpful tips on the pronunciation of Turkish, Albanian, Serbo-Croat and Romanian. Malcolm’s account represents a staggering archival achievement. He draws on material in upwards of 10 languages in archives from Rome and Warsaw to Dubrovnik and Malta. The result is a work of astonishing (if, at times, almost overwhelming) richness and detail: a deftly woven tapestry of Mediterranean history that incorporates “the all-too-neglected Albanian thread that is woven into the history of 16th-century Europe”.

In its attention to the stories of the Brunis and the Brutis – frontier families practically unknown outside of specialist histories – across multiple generations, this study is a wonderful contribution to the human history of the Mediterranean. It is impossible to read Malcolm’s account without a sense of its resonances for today. Every morning, we wake up to stories of new horrors and new heroics from the Mediterranean. It remains a zone of contact and conflict, a region that both defies and defines our ideas of Europe, Asia, Africa and the world in between. Through work such as Malcolm’s, we can come closer to understanding why it continues to resist our indifference: the Mediterranean remains, as it was for the Romans, “our sea”.
Agents of Empire by Noel Malcolm review – a dazzling history of the 16th‑century Mediterranean by John Gallagher,

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