Busbecq's 'Turkish Letters' Identifies a Meritocracy
Allowing Social Mobility in the Ottoman Empire
Turks and Talent
“So the Turks move against us with the greatest assurance,
with uncommonly large forces,
and with contempt for the terms of peace.
They come, and this is a real coming.”
— Martin Luther, 1532
By Ronald Fritze
Posted on April 23, 2010, from Athens, Alabama
Christian Europe during most of the sixteenth century felt very much under the shadow of conquest by the Ottoman Turks. At that time, the Ottomans were by many measures the strongest power in the Mediterranean world. They were also an Islamic country — and Islam had been the great enemy of Christendom for centuries. Turkish customs and dress were different, a difference that was perceived as barbaric.
Europeans were repelled by the Turks. Europeans were also fascinated by the Turks. It was a love-hate relationship between peoples that directed the currents of history.
He Saw the Inner Workings
of the Ottoman System.
One famous observer of the Ottoman Turks at the height of their empire was Ogier Ghislen de Busbecq (1520/1-1592). Busbecq was a native of Flanders, which in the sixteenth century was a
Habsburg territory and part of the Holy Roman Empire. Although born illegitimate, Georges was legitimized by his father, who also provided him with an excellent education. Busbecq possessed a fine mind, studying at the University of Louvain and several Italian universities.
In 1552 he entered the service of the Archduke Ferdinand, the younger brother of Charles V and a future Holy Roman Emperor. He attended the wedding of Mary Tudor and Philip II of Spain at Winchester in 1554. From 1554-1562 he served as the ambassador of the Holy Roman Empire to the Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul. It was during this time that he wrote his famous Turkish Letters, which provide a rare but vivid description of the Ottomans in their era of greatest glory.
Busbecq wrote his letters to Nicholas Michault, a fellow student and countryman of Busbecq's when he studied in Italy. At the time of the letters, Michault was the imperial ambassador to Portugal.
Returning home in 1562, Busbecq served a tutor to the sons of the future emperor Maximilian II. He was a guardian for Elisabeth of Austria, the daughter of Maximilian II and the widow of Charles IX of France. At the end of his life, he kept watch over developments in France for the Emperor Rudolph II as the Wars of Religion devastated that country.
Traveling home to Flanders from Paris, Busbecq was robbed and assaulted by soldiers of the Catholic League outside of Rouen. He died a few days later, another casualty of France’s savage religious division.
The Concept of Personal Merit
Poses a Threat to the Nobility
Among Busbecq’s incisive observations about the Turks was that their society operated as a meritocracy. As he first described it in his letter of 1 September 1555 to Michault:
“I was reminded here of the fickleness and uncertainty of what men usually call nobility of birth. Noticing some girls who had an appearance of unusually good breeding, I asked whether they were the daughters of some great family. I was told that they traced their descent from the greatest rulers of the land even from the royal house itself, but were now married to ploughmen and shepherds. Such is the lowly estate of nobility in the realm of Turkey. . . . For in Turkey, even among the Turks themselves, no value is attached to anything but personal merit. The house of Othman is the sole exception to this rule, being the only family in which birth confers rank.”
Busbecq first encountered the Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent at his headquarters in the fortress of Amasia in western Turkey. The Ottoman army was on guard against insurrections by disgruntled Asian tribes and raids from the Persians to the east. There he described the dynamics of the Sultan’s court, which clearly differed from what he was accustomed to when visiting a Western European court.
“In all that great assembly no single man owed his dignity to anything but his personal merits and bravery; no one is distinguished from the rest by his birth, and honour is paid to each man according to the nature of the duty and offices which he discharges. Thus there is no struggle for precedence, every many having his place assigned to him in virtue of the function which he performs. The Sultan himself assigns all to their duties and offices, and in doing so pays no attention to wealth or the empty claims of rank, and takes no account of any influence or popularity which a candidate may possess; he only considers merit and scrutinizes the character, natural ability, and disposition of each. Thus each man is rewarded according to his deserts, and offices are filled by men capable of performing them. In Turkey every man has it in his power to make what he will of the position into which he is born and of his fortune in life. Those who hold the highest posts under the Sultan are very often the sons of shepherds and herdsmen, and so far from being ashamed of their birth, they make it a subject of boasting, and the less they owe to their forefathers and to the accident of birth, the greater is the pride that they feel. They do not consider that good qualities can be conferred by birth or handed down by inheritance, but regard them partly as the gift of heaven and partly as the product of good training and constant toil and zeal. Just as they consider that an aptitude for the arts, such as music or mathematics or geometry, is not transmitted to a son and heir, so they hold that character is not hereditary, and that a son does not necessarily resemble his father, but his qualities are divinely infused into his bodily frame. Thus, among the Turks, dignities, offices, and administrative posts are the rewards of ability and merit; those who are dishonest, lazy, and slothful never attain distinction, but remain in obscurity and contempt. This is why the Turks succeed in all that they attempt and are a dominating race and daily extend the bounds of their rule. Our method is very different; there is no room for merit, but everything depends on birth; consideration of which alone open the way to high official position.”
An Idea Formed in a Liminal World
But Busbecq does not consider the Turkish way of meritocracy to be a barbaric aberration from the norm of European class-bound privilege. Rather, he seems to think it might be the better approach toward running a society. His attitude is not surprising, given his status as an illegitimate son who was legitimized after the event of his birth. Busbecq thus lived in a liminal world, where the prospect of hereditary entitlement stood side-by-side with the necessity of making one’s way through talent and sweat.
As he concludes the topic of merit in his letter to Michault, Busbecq writes, “On this subject, I shall perhaps say more in another place, and you must regard these remarks intended for your ears only.” Clearly Busbecq knew that many men who were entitled by birth would see his observations as threatening and subversive to their privilege and status.
In Ottoman society there were plenty of examples of people rising up through the ranks on the basis of talent, hard work, and tenacity. Some of the best examples of Turkish meritocracy and the social mobility it engendered can be found in their military, particularly the navy.
He Becomes a Legend.
Kheir-ed-Din (gift of God) Barbarossa was one of the greatest Ottoman admirals of the sixteenth century. His father was an Albanian named Jacob who had been captured by the Turks on the island of Lesbos. Jacob converted to Islam and his four sons became seamen and corsairs. The four brothers were known as the Barbarossas because the oldest, Aroudj, had a red beard.
Gathering a small fleet together under the command of Aroudj, the four brothers initially entered the service of the Muslim princes of the Maghreb. It was a ruse, however, because the Barbarossas were planning to bring the North Africa coast under Ottoman control. By 1518 Aroudj and the other two brothers were dead, but they had managed to capture Algiers.
Kheir-ed-Din continued to defend and expand those conquests and was given the title of Beylerbey. In 1533 the Sultan appointed him Kapudan Pasha, the chief admiral of the Ottoman fleet. He forces captured Tunis in 1534, but it was recaptured by Charles V in 1535. Kheir-ed-Din retaliated by capturing and sacking Majorca.
During 1537 Kheir-ed-Din and a huge Ottoman fleet devastated Otranto and the region around it in preparation for an Ottoman invasion, which Suleiman decided to forego. Next Kheir-ed-Din lead the Ottoman fleet to victory over an allied fleet of the Venetian, Genoese, Papal, and Spanish navies at the Gulf of Prevesa in 1538. He returned to the western Mediterranean during 1542-1544 when Suleiman the Magnificent made an alliance with Francis I of France. His fleet raided Italian cities such as Reggio on their way to a rendezvous at Marseilles. The Ottoman navy assisted the French in the capture of Nice, which Charles V and other Christian rulers thought was not at all nice.
Kheir-ed-Din and his fleet wintered in Toulon. When the French made peace with Charles V, the Ottoman fleet returned to Constantinople, raiding various Italian islands along the way. Kheir-ed-Din died of fever in 1546, having served his Ottoman masters well. In the wake of his service he became a legend.
The 'Drawn Sword of Islam'
Another man of action brought into the Turkish fold was named Dragut, who was a protégé of Kheir-ed-Din. Dragut was probably of Greek descent and was born either on the coast of Asia
Minor or in the city of Rhodes. During the late 1520s he joined Kheir-ed-Din as one of his chief advisors. He commanded the right wing of the Ottoman fleet at Prevesa in 1538.
Andrea Doria captured Dragut in 1540 and made him a galley slave. Kheir-ed-Din obtained Dragut’s release during his winter anchorage at Toulon, 1543-1544, by paying a ransom of 3,000 gold ducats. Kheir-ed-Din promptly promoted Dragut to command the Ottoman fleet in North Africa — and with his promotion, Dragut relentlessly harried Christian shipping and coastal towns.
He escaped a second capture by Andrea Doria at Djerba in 1551, and later that year captured Tripoli from the Knights of Malta. His fierce and effective raids on Spain and Italy were responsible for food shortages, prompting the Christians to launch a counter-attack. It was soundly defeated at Djerba in 1560.
Dragut’s exploits earned him the title of “The Drawn Sword of Islam.” In 1565 he joined the Ottoman assault on Malta, but was mortally wounded when a piece of shrapnel struck his turban. Besides losing Dragut, Suleiman the Magnificent suffered a brutal defeat at the siege of Malta.
Salih, Lala, Piale, and Ali
Another protégé of Kheir-ed-Din was Salih Reis, an Egyptian. Salih became Kheir-ed-Din’s eventual successor at Algiers. In that position he engaged in several largely successful campaigns against the Moorish rulers in Morocco and the Spanish before his untimely death from the plague in 1556.
Another famous Ottoman commander was Lala Kara Mustapha Pasha (c1500-1580). An Albanian, he rose through the ranks to become first beylerbey of Damascus and then a vizier. Other accounts credit him with being from an old Turkish family, whose ancestors had carried a standard for the Prophet Mohammed.
Mustapha Pasha commanded the land forces during the Turkish siege of Malta in 1565. Although his forces were defeated, the failure did not result in his disgrace in the eyes of Suleiman. Five years later he was back in command, this time from appointment by the new Sultan, Selim II, who gave Mustapha Pasha charge of the successful Ottoman invasion and capture of Cyprus. Cruel in victory, he ordered that the defeated Venetian commander, Marco Antonio Bragadin, be skinned alive.
Mustapha Pasha’s honorific title of Lala resulted from his tutoring the sons of the Sultan. In 1578 he led an expedition against Georgia. He served briefly as grand vizier from April to August of 1580 when he died.
Turkish warship of the 16th century
Piale Pasha was the admiral of the Turkish fleet at Malta. He came from a Christian background. Suleiman found him abandoned on a ploughshare as a child outside of Belgrade. He was taken to the seraglio in Constantinople and educated there. Early on he showed a talent for seamanship and was instrumental in the victory at Djerba. He also accompanied Dragut on his raids against Italy.
Piale Pasha married wisely, choosing as his bride the daughter of Selim, the future sultan and the granddaughter of Suleiman the Magnificent. After being defeated along with Kara Mustapha at Malta in 1565, Piale partnered successfully with Kara Mustapha in the capture of Cyprus. After Lepanto, he resumed command of the Ottoman fleet until his death in 1578.
Another Turkish admiral who exemplified social mobility among the Ottomans was Uluc Ali Reis. He was born Giovani Dionigi Galeni, a Christian in Calabria in southern Italy in 1519. Kheir-ed-Din captured him during a raid in 1536 and made him a galley slave. But Giovanni converted to Islam and joined the corsairs, taking the name Uluc Ali.
Uluc Ali proved to be a very capable seaman and became a shareholder of one ship until he was wealthy enough to acquire his own galley. Properly outfitted, he became a protégé of Dragut and succeeded to his commands when the fearsome Dragut was killed at Malta. Uluc Ali commanded the left wing of the Ottoman fleet at the Battle of Lepanto and managed to break out with most of his squadron while capturing the great banner of the Knights of Malta. The Sultan Selim II made him chief admiral in 1572 and he conducted various successful operations against Christian lands until his death in 1587.
These men are just a sampling of the type of people brought to the fore by the meritocracy of the Ottoman Empire. Their careers exemplify Busbecq’s observation: “This is why the Turks succeed in all that they attempt and are a dominating race and daily extend the bounds of their rule.”