Christians, Muslims, Jews: Great Britain

by Claire S. Schen, State University of New York at Buffalo

Two very different individuals from early seventeenth-century England provide particularly focused instances of contact and trade -- not only in goods, but also in people and belief systems -- characteristic of the Mediterranean world and of European Christian and Muslim interactions. Christopher Angel, a Greek refugee in England, wrote an account of his flogging by Ottoman Turks. Thomas Norton, sometime pirate and longtime captive in North Africa, was tried in 1637 for piracy, after a neighbor in Dartmouth revealed him to have been "more cruel" to his countrymen than captors in Algiers or Sallee had been. The Folger seminar highlighted key problems in writing the history of this contact: violence, the nature of religious identity, and the triangulation of Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam.

The British feared, and even reviled, Islamic enemies for the treatment of captured and subject peoples. Examples of mutilation and torture, charges of sodomy, cases of enslavement, and signs of forced conversions became rallying points in the battle between Islam and Christianity. These experiences and humiliations could be interpreted as springing from ethnic and political differences between Ottoman and other Islamic rulers and peoples and Christian leaders and nations. The religious differences, however, were never unbound from other perceived distinctions. The "most lamentable misery" of captivity and prolonged exposure to Islam made apostates of Christians. British Protestants, however, acknowledged that fascination also spurred the conversion of Christians to Islam. Understanding conversion as "seduction" made plain that Islam appealed to those Christians who lived amongst Muslims, however misguided Christian preachers and writers publicly judged that conversion. "Renegades" who had "turned Turk" had forsaken their ethnic and religious identities, even undergoing circumcision. Yet British traders and sailors invited renegadoes on board ship to play cards.

The triangulation of Protestants, Catholics, and Muslims fostered some toleration between British Protestants and Muslims. For the Protestants in Britain, the Ottoman Empire in particular could be seen as an ally against the Habsburgs, Jesuits, and Catholicism more generally. William Forde's funeral sermon for Lady Glover in Istanbul applauded the Ottomans for allowing a proper Christian burial for Protestants, drawing a pointed comparison with Catholic treatment of Protestants who died in Catholic lands.

Despite a long history of commercial contact and integration predating the early modern period, a cultural gap remained between Christians and Muslims. The problems of captivity and the presence of former captives and refugees in the British Isles fed contradictory perceptions of Muslims and Islamic rulers: fear of and fascination with a powerful, culturally rich, wealthy, expansive Islamic world. Ambivalent and changeable attitudes mark toleration and conflict, with ordinary people and sailors at times more tolerant and other times less tolerant than crown or Parliament. The seminar analyzed the difficulty in uncovering toleration, when the sources describing conflict are so numerous and so loud.

Suggested Readings

  • Colley, Linda. Captives. New York: Pantheon Books, 2002.
  • Goffman, Daniel. The Ottoman Empire and Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  • Matar, Nabil. Islam in Britain, 1558-1685. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • -----. Turks, Moors, and Englishmen in the Age of Discovery. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
  • Vitkus, Daniel. Piracy, Slavery, and Redemption: Barbary Captivity Narratives from Early Modern England. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.
  • Jonathan Burton

Image 1

  • Christophorus Angelus. Christopher Angell, a Grecian, who tasted of many stripes and torments inflicted by the Turkes for the faith which he had in Christ Iesus. Oxford, 1618.

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  • William Forde. A sermon preached at Constantinople in the Vines at Perah, at the funeral of the virtuous and admired Lady Anne Glouer, sometime wife to the honourable Knight Sir Thomas Glouer, and then ambassadour ordinary for his Maiesty of Greate Britaine, in the porte of the Great Turke. London, 1616.