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The Turkey Merchants

The great trading companies that originated in early modern Europe are often seen as pioneers of western imperialism. The Levant Company was different, argues James Mather.

Khan-al-Wazir, a merchant rest house in AleppoOn December 31st, 1600 a company was born that in the two-and-a-half centuries of its existence would transform the destiny of Britain, India and the world. The East India Company began life as a modest condominium of London merchants but it grew into an imperial leviathan. Within the first century of its existence it fought its inaugural (and disastrous) war against the Mughal emperor. In the century that followed its armies challenged and displaced Mughal rule across whole swathes of the Indian subcontinent.

Yet the East India Company was not the only company born of Elizabethan England to trade with the great Islamic empires of the early modern world. Nine years earlier on September 11th, 1581, from her throne in Westminster Hall, Elizabeth I presided over preparation of the letters patent which first breathed life into the ‘Turkey Company’. Reorganised as the Levant Company in 1592 it was granted a monopoly over the lucrative trade with the Ottoman Empire in the eastern Mediterranean. For most of the century that followed it rivalled the East India Company’s renown on the streets of London as a route to riches – composed, as one contemporary wrote in the mid-17th century, of the ‘wealthiest and ablest merchants in the City’. Like the East India Company it survived for a quarter of a millennium, drawing British traders to the main centres of its commerce in Istanbul, Izmir (or Smyrna, as it was then known) on the Aegean coast of Turkey and Aleppo in northern Syria and across the Middle East.

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