Book Review: Agents of Empire
by Noel Malcolm
Oxford University Press, 2015
Much-honored historian Noel Malcolm centers his big and boisterously satisfying book Agents of Empire (its lugubrious subtitle then goes on to include all the rest of the words contained in the book, plus a copy of the UN charter and some fun recipes) on two influential clans, the Bruni and the Bruti families, who hailed from the city of Ulcinj on the Adriatic. Ulcinj was co-opted by the ever-expanding Venetian Empire in 1405 and remained a province of that state until the Ottoman Empire conquered it in 1571, and thus it serves very well as a textbook example of the often porous ways large multi-ethnic empires can rub against each other, commercial and social tendrils fully extended and probing, armies and navies at the ready but reluctant to act, citizens at all levels of life becoming matter-of-factly multilingual and learning whose money was good for what at the market.
The Venetian and Ottoman Empires were competitors for those markets and as ideologically opposed as the Ottoman Empire was with every other power it encountered. And yet the interstices were strange places where business could flourish, and where smart and nimble Venetian-Albanian merchant-families like the Brunis and Brutis could hustle themselves into prominence, power, and a great deal of money if they commercially daring and matrimonially watchful. The genius cornerstone of Malcolm’s book is to follow the fortunes of these families in detail and allow those details to illuminate the larger concepts of his story. He can write about the reciprocal agreement of Venice and the Ottoman Empire to respect each other’s merchant shipping, for instance, noting the prevalence of the ancient practice of baksheesh:
Other, less formal methods were needed. One was to give presents. Any request to an official for a special favour would normally be accompanied by a gift; this could consist of gold or silver coins, but high-prestige objects such as lengths of expensive fabric, pieces of fine glass, silver cups high-quality wax candles or sugar-loaves (or an assortment of the above) would always be acceptable. Western travellers in the Ottoman Empire often commented resentfully on the hunger of officialdom for such sweeteners: ‘whoever wishes to dwell amongst the Ottomans’, one wrote, ‘as soon as he enters into their territories, must immediately open his purse, and not shut it till he leaves them again … for the Ottomans are shameless and immoderate in taking money and presents.’
But he fully realizes the human dimensions of such a state of affairs only when he turns his focus to the personal:
In this world of cross-border connections, where personal trust could easily trump official enmities, an intermediary such as Antonio Bruti could be particularly useful to the Venetians. In his petitions he reminded them both of his many important ‘aderenze’ (connections or contacts) in Ottoman Albania territory, and of his high-placed friends, most of them converts to Islam, in Istanbul. There may have been an element of boasting here, but the basic claim he made was no fantasy …
Throughout the book, he shows flashes of dry wit that considerably help to lighten the somewhat heavy going of his subject, as when he’s describing the bustling hostage-taking industry of the 16th century:
At its simplest, the ransom system could work almost instantly: Barbary corsairs would raid an Italian village, move a few miles down the coast, set up a white flag on the beach and invite the remaining villagers to come and buy back the ones who had just been seized. In these cases, we may assume, prices were very low, unaffected by – to put it in drily economic terms – subsequent overheads or wastage.
And although Agents of Empire recounts a protracted, sometimes acrimonious hemisphere-wide confrontation between Christian and Muslim governments with which no reader will fail to draw modern-day parallels, Malcolm’s book is remarkably free of jingoistic prejudices. He can note at some length the barbarities of Ottoman galley-slavery, for instance:
While the North African corsairs depended, like their Maltese counterparts, on slave rowers, the Ottoman fleet used a mixture of free men (typically recruited by a conscription system which demanded a fixed number of rowers per village), prisoners and slaves. The account given by one Westerner who served as a slave on an Ottoman galley can stand for the experiences of many thousands: ‘thus fettered hand and foot the captive must row day and night, unless there is a gale, till the skin on the body is scorched like that of a singed hog, and cracks from the heat. The sweat flows into the eyes and steeps the whole body, whence arises excessive agony … When the superintendent of the boat sees anyone taking breath, and resting, he immediately beats him … till he makes abundance of bloody weals over his whole body.’
And in the same paragraph remind his readers that witnesses at the time pointed out that Ottoman galley-slaves were treated on average better than their Christian counterparts.
Through it all, we follow the doings of the Bruni and Bruti families as each new generation manages to insinuate itself more prominently into the major events of the era. In this way Agents of Empire stands apart from straightforward histories of those major events, whether Western or Ottoman. Instead of such overviews, it gives us the human opportunities – and the not-infrequent costs – of imperial conflict at the dawn of the modern age. It’s a wholly fascinating saga; you find yourself rooting for the Brunis and the Brutis to ride out the rough patches to glory.