Between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries, most of the European powers colonized and conquered the American continent, establishing numerous colonies and settlements. Spain, Portugal, France, England, the Netherlands, but also lesser-known colonizers such as Sweden, Denmark and Scotland, managed to set up colonies that would evolve into the modern nations of the region. But one of the major powers of the time, which had both the resources and the naval capabilities to venture into the New World, did not partake in these endeavors.
In this Blog, We will learn why the Ottoman Empire never competed with the other European states in the colonization of the Americas. To understand why the Ottoman Empire did not expand into the New World, we first have to analyze the causes that drove the European expeditions that led to the discovery of the Americas, and that brought the knowledge of the continent to the Old World. At the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt held a monopoly over the Spice trade coming from Asia through the Red Sea. They imposed heavy taxes on all the exports towards Europe, and only the merchants of the Republic of Venice were allowed to trade with them, making a fortune by reselling the goods in the rest of Europe as a monopoly. Many European states were frustrated with this situation, as they could only go through the Italian city, and one of those states was the Kingdom of Portugal. Portugal already had a tradition of expanding and exploring overseas, initially incited by a desire to spread the Christian faith and continue the Reconquista that had taken place in the Iberian peninsula in the Late Middle Ages.
In 1415, King João had occupied the Moroccan city of Ceuta, obtaining a foothold on the North African coast at the southern mouth of the Strait of Gibraltar. His son, Henry the Navigator, would continue financing various expeditions to Africa and the Atlantic Ocean. His contemporary and biographer Gomez Eanes de Azurara wrote in 1453 that the Prince was fueled by the zeal of God, by the desire for an alliance with the Christian Kingdoms in the east, to know how powerful the Muslim countries were, to spread the Chrisitan faith, and to fight the Moors of North Africa. While gold, ivory, and slaves are not mentioned in Azurara’s chronicles, it’s quite certain that the Portuguese were eager for those, and were looking for the sources of the caravans that traveled through the Sahara desert and enriched the markets of the Maghreb. In 1517, the Turkish captain Ahmed Muhiddin Piri, known as Piri Reis presented his world map to Sultan Selim, which he had produced by using as sources twenty other maps, including one from Columbus.
The term Vilayet usually applied to an administrative unit in the Ottoman Empire, so it’s apparent that the Ottomans had some interests in America. In his diary, Piri Reis writes that a Spanish prisoner and Columbus’s map were taken from seven Spanish ships, seizure of which has been dated to 1501 by historians. This Spanish captive revealed that he had been to the New Continent three times, the same number of voyages Columbus had partaken in up to that year.
This is also confirmed by the names on the map, which are the same Turkified names that Columbus used, such as Wadluk for Guadeloupe and Undizi Vergine for the Virgin Islands. Other pieces of information could have come from the many Iberian Muslims who were expelled during those years, and it’s very possible that there was a network of Muslim informants in Spain and Portugal who kept the Islamic world updated on the exploration of the two kingdoms. This would confirm that the Ottoman Sultans were interested in the developments in the Atlantic Ocean. Sometimes it is said that the Ottomans did not have the naval technology to compete on the high seas with Portugal and Spain. This is, however, a myth, as we have already seen the Ottomans could hold their own against the Christian kingdoms in the Mediterranean Sea, and the maritime conflict continued against Portugal with a similar course in the Indian Ocean, keeping trade free with the Indian states for Muslim merchants, and protecting the Sultanate of Aceh in modern-day Indonesia from the Portuguese in 1564.
In 1627 Barbary corsairs managed to reach Iceland and raid it, taking hundreds of slaves with them. It has to be remembered in fact that some of the technologies used by the Portuguese, such as the caravel and the compass, took inspiration from Arab and Muslim crafts and discoveries.One glaring problem, however, was the geographic situation the Ottomans found themselves in. On the other side of the African continent, and blocked from to exit the Mediterranean Sea by Spain, the Ottomans found themselves having to circumnavigate the entire continent to reach the Americas. This was certainly not impossible, but it was still more expensive to do than for the rest of the European colonial powers. Also, they would have had to compete with the Portuguese navies replenished by their numerous bases. One way to overcome this problem was expanding through North Africa. It’s not unlikely that one of the reasons for the Ottoman expansion in the Maghreb was to reach the Moroccan Atlantic coast, and from there compete with the Iberian powers.
In the beginning, the Ottomans were quite successful, first in 1517 by taking under their wing the rulers of Algiers, most prominent of whom was Hayreddin Barbarossa, expanding at the expense of Spain into modern-day Algeria and Libya, and taking Tunis in 1560. The main roadblock was the staunchly independent Moroccan sultanate. Morocco had been ruled from 1472 by the Wattasid dynasty. The Wattasids never managed to establish full control over the country: ruling from the northern city of Fez, they lost various cities to both Portugal and Spain, while in 1524 they lost the city of Marrakesh to the rulers of the southern part of Morocco, the Saadi dynasty. The Saadi would continue to expand from the south, until in 1549 the city of Fez was occupied by their leader, Mohammed Al-Sheikh, and he overthrew the Wattasid dynasty. Seeing an opportunity, the Ottomans attempted to reinstate a surviving Wattasid prince in 1554, but they were expelled and the prince killed in the battle of Tadla the same year.
They also tried to leverage their diplomatic resources to make the Saadi recognize them as their overlords, but to no avail, and instead the Saadi helped Spain defend the city of Oran in Algeria. In the end, the frustrated Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent would have Mohammed Al-Sheikh assassinated in 1557, and have his head brought to Istanbul, but the Saadi allied themselves with the European powers and blocked access to the Atlantic from North Africa to the Ottomans.
In the end, though, the main reason for why the Ottomans did not make a bigger effort to challenge the territories in the New World is quite simply that the true profitability of the new continent was still greatly unknown to both Europeans and the Ottomans, unlike us who can attest to this in hindsight. Conversely, trade in the Indian Ocean was a well established and rich business from before the times of the Roman Empire, and after the end of the Pax Mongolica, Indian trade had become even richer, funneling the goods that before travelled inland on the Silk Road. Columbus had sailed east to reach the Indies, and Brazil was accidentally discovered on a voyage to the Indian Ocean. Interest in the Indian Ocean was quite simply much greater in Istanbul. Silks were imported from the Chinese Empires, while spices such as pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger were harvested and bought in India and in the islands of the Malay Archipelago. Attesting to the wealth that the spice trad brought is today’s majestic city of Venice.
The Ottoman empire focused instead on securing its control of the entrance to the Red Sea by expanding into modern-day Yemen and Eritrea and establishing relationships with various Muslim princes in the Indian Ocean. More advanced gunpowder weapons and ships together with their titles of Caliph and Protectors of the Holy Cities inherited from the Mamluksput the Ottomans at the forefront of other Muslim powers, and they would for years battle against the Portuguese for the control of the trade routes in the region. At the end of the sixteenth century, the Ottoman empire was not as powerful as at the start of the century, and their expansion halted as they entered a period of transformation that would continue into the seventeenth century. Suleiman the Magnificent supervised the Ottoman Empire at its height, and after his death
in 1566, cracks that had already appeared during his reign worsened with his successors. Corruption, factionalism, and infighting paralyzed the Ottoman government machine, halting the states ability to expand and partake in overseas ventures. The influx of precious metals into Europe from the new world increased inflation also in the Ottoman Sultanate, which led to poverty, economic crises, and revolts.
This is not to say that the Ottoman Empire inexorably declined, as it continued to survive for three centuries, but it did put a den into the Ottoman’s ability to project their power. Externally, the many foes of the House of Osman put a halt on their expansion. Following the annihilation of the Turkish navy after the Battle of Lepanto, the Ottomans still managed to rebuild their fleet in a year, but had lost many experienced sailors that could not easily be replaced. It showed that they could not just force the Straits of Gibraltar, and that open sea competition against the Iberians would be hard and costly. The defence of the Habsburgian border, and constant skirmishes against the Persians, also kept the resources of the Ottoman empire in use. To conclude, the lack of a Turkish presence in the new world can be explained by their geographic limits, their competitors on the borders, and most importantly, the richness of the trade in the Indian Ocean.