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The Three Turks' Heads: Travels in the Middle East Before Jamestown

Karen Ordahl Kupperman
New York University

The lands around the eastern Mediterranean were fascinating to the English public. They were the source of great riches and exotic products, and wealthy English merchants operated in the East to bring these commodities to an eager clientele. The opulence and magnificence of the Turkish court had achieved legendary status, and Turkish military might threatened the eastern fringes of Europe itself. Several Jamestown colonists had previously traveled to early modern Europe's great cultural other, the Muslim, Jewish, and Orthodox Christian world of the eastern Mediterranean. Two near contemporaries—George Sandys (born 1578) and John Smith (born 1580)—both spent time in the East before they journeyed to America, but they had very different experiences. Both men wrote books about their travels: Sandys's A Relation of a Journey begun Anno Domini 1610 (1615) and Smith's The True Travels, Adventures and Observations of Captaine John Smith, In Europe, Asia, Affrica and America, from Anno Domini 1593 to 1629 (1630).

John Smith was the son of a yeoman farmer. Although he had been apprenticed to a merchant in the town of King's Lynn on England's east coast, the teenaged Smith left his apprenticeship to sign on as a soldier in an English regiment in the Netherlands where the Protestant Dutch fought to free themselves of control by Roman Catholic Spain. He traveled through France and returned to England intent on training himself to become a gentleman-soldier. As he contemplated returning to Europe, Smith decided to "trie his fortune against the Turkes, both lamenting and repenting to have seene so many Christians slaughter one another" (Smith 3). This time he signed on with the Roman Catholic Hapsburgs, who were defending eastern Europe from invading Turkish armies.

Click to See a Larger ViewAs Smith told the story in his True Travels, he was invaluable to the Hapsburg commanders and quickly rose to prominence in the army. He invented numerous ingenious schemes by which to foil the Turkish forces. Ultimately, Smith became the champion of the entire company and killed three of the greatest Turkish warriors in single combat. Smith was awarded his own coat of arms carrying "three Turkes heads in a shield" (Smith Sig. C5). With this grant, he officially became a gentleman.

Despite his efforts, the Hapsburg armies were defeated, and Smith was captured and taken into Turkey, where he was sent to serve a young woman he knew as Charatza Tragabigzanda; this name has been translated as "girl from Click to See a Larger ViewTrebizond." She and Smith conversed in Italian, and she planned a career for him in the Turkish armies. Charatza Tragabigzanda sent him to her brother for training, but Smith, finding it brutalizing, rose up and killed his master and escaped. Despite the "great ringe of iron" around his neck, he managed to travel across Turkey to Russia (Smith 24). From there he journeyed through much of Europe and into North Africa on his way back to England.

Smith arrived back in England as the London Virginia Company was planning its initial Click to See a Larger View colony in 1606, and leaders recognized in his experiences the qualities they needed for their Jamestown settlement. The twenty-six-year-old Smith was signed on and made a member of the council. According to his own account, his contributions were as invaluable in Jamestown as they had been in Transylvania. He had become a specialist in surviving in alien lands. Smith wrote about his early adventures only at the end of his life in 1630. Six years earlier, he had published his masterpiece, The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England and the Summer Isles (1624).

The background and experiences of George Sandys were very different from Smith's. Sandys's father was the Archbishop of York, and his older brother Edwin was a leader of the Virginia Company. Whereas Smith went to the European wars as a teenager, George Sandys entered Corpus Christi College, Oxford at age eleven. He went on to London's Middle Temple to study law at age eighteen. And he did not set out on his travels until 1610, when he was a married man of thirty-two.

Click to See a Larger ViewGeorge Sandys was extremely well-connected; his account of his travels was dedicated to Prince Charles, the heir to the throne. He went first to France, then on to the eastern Mediterranean. He began his real travel account with his stop in Venice, the gateway to the East. Throughout his book, his observations on the monuments and customs of the people in lands he passed or passed through were interspersed with quotations and stories from classical authors.

Sandys embarked by ship from Venice for Turkey, insisting that his party stop on the way to see the site of ancient Troy. In Constantinople, where Smith suffered as a slave, Sandys stayed in the house of the English ambassador, Sir Thomas Glover. He Click to See a Larger Viewspent most his time in Constantinople, and here as throughout his voyage, his description began with the history of the city, then went on to description of its great buildings. He also included a full description of the Muslim religion. Sandys next went by ship to Alexandria in Egypt. His long description of the Nile drew on Leo Africanus as well as ancient authors such as Herodotus and Pliny. After leaving Cairo, he visited the Pyramids and the Sphinx. He entered a tomb deep within the Great Pyramid. Sandys included a long discussion of embalming methods and actually brought home many small metal figures that had been wrapped with mummies.

Sandys and his fellow travelers then set out on camels for Jerusalem; they joined with Click to See a Larger Viewother camel trains for the journey across the desert. In his history of Palestine, Sandys included a discussion of Jewish history, both there and in Europe. He included detailed descriptions of many sacred sites, a subject very important to the English reading public. He encountered many different kinds of Christians in Jerusalem for Easter, and Sandys described them all.

On the return trip, Sandys went by ship through the Mediterranean islands, stopping at Malta, and on to Naples. He even spent four days in Rome (though it was dangerous for a Protestant) then proceeded through Florence, Bologna, Siena, Ferrara, and back to Venice. Sandys spent several more months in Venice, acquiring books for his writing. As a result he drew on a huge battery of sources for his histories and descriptions, including a lively interest in folk tales and folk ways.

Click to See a Larger ViewSandys went to Jamestown in 1621 as the Virginia Company's resident treasurer. He wrote nothing about America comparable to his Relation of his travels in the East, and little has survived of the reports that he sent home. Before he embarked, Sandys also published the first installment of a long-running project, a translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses. He continued this translation while in Jamestown, and published the result when he returned.

Sandys's Relation was a best seller. Its second edition came out in 1621 just as he was leaving for Virginia, and went through many later reprintings and editions. Many other authors, from Francis Bacon to John Milton, drew on it for their own writings. The English public was fascinated by knowledge from the exotic East. Several English authors who wrote of their experience in America drew on that lore in describing Indians. William Wood, for example, writing in 1634 of his experiences in New England (in New Englands Prospect), drew on such descriptions of Islam in trying to describe the Massachusetts' beliefs about the afterlife. He wrote that "their Indian faith jumps much with the Turkish Alchoran, holding it to be a kinde of Paradise, wherein they shall everlastingly abide. . . " (Wood 93).

Suggestions For Further Reading

Barbour, Philip L., ed. The Complete Works of Captain John Smith. 3 vols. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.

Davis, Richard Beale. George Sandys, Poet-Adventurer. New York: Columbia University Press, 1955.

Haynes, Jonathan. The Humanist as Traveler: George Sandys's 'Relation of a Journey begun Anno Domini 1610.' Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1986.

Striker, Laura Polanyi. "Captain John Smith's Hungary and Transylvania." In Captain John Smith: His Life and Legend. Edited by Bradford Smith. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1953, 311-42.

Vaughan, Alden T. American Genesis: Captain John Smith and the Founding of Virginia. Boston: Little, Brown, 1975