Between the 16th and 18th centuries, most of the European powers colonised and conquered the American continent, establishing many colonies and settlements. Spain, Portugal, France, England, the Netherlands, but also lesser-known colonists such as Sweden, Denmark, and Scotland managed to create colonies that would develop into the modern nations of the region.
But the Ottoman Empire, one of the major powers of the time, which had both resources and naval capabilities to venture into the New World, did not participate in these actions.
So, why did the Ottoman Empire never colonise America like the Europeans and other countries? Let’s find out.
What led to the discovery of the Americas?
To understand why the Ottoman Empire did not expand into the New World, we must first analyse the reasons that prompted the European expeditions that led to the discovery of the Americas, and which brought the knowledge of the continent to the Old World.
At the fall of Constantinople in 1453 A.D., the Mamluk Sultanate monopolised Egypt over the trade of spices coming from Asia through the Red Sea. They imposed heavy taxes on all exports towards Europe, and only allowed merchants of the Venetian Republic to trade with them, making the fortune from selling the goods in the rest of Europe as a monopoly.
Many European countries felt frustrated with this situation, because they could only pass through the Italian city, and one of those countries was the Kingdom of Portugal.
Portugal already had a tradition of expansion and exploration abroad, and was initially instigated by a desire to spread the Christian faith and to continue the Reconquista that took place on the Iberian Peninsula in the late Middle Ages.
In 1415, King João occupied the Moroccan city of Ceuta, and gained a foothold on the North African coast at the southern mouth of the Strait of Gibraltar. His son, Henry the Navigator, would continue to fund various expeditions to Africa and the Atlantic Ocean.
His contemporary and biographer, Gómez Eanes de Azurara wrote in 1453 that the Prince was fueled by the zeal of God, the desire to ally with the Christian Kingdoms in the East, to find out how powerful the Islamic countries were, to spread the Christian religion, and to fight the Moors of North Africa.
The Portuguese exploration of Africa
While gold, ivory, and slaves are not mentioned in Azurara’s records, it is quite certain that the Portuguese were keen on these, and were looking for the sources of the caravans that traveled through the Sahara and enriched the markets of the Maghreb.
Also, the prince’s contribution may have been exaggerated by records, and he has been questioned by modern historians, as after his death in 1460, Portuguese explorers continued to push south. The efforts of the Christian Prince Henry, however, still led to the colonisation of the Azores and Madeira islands where sugar was grown, and the exploration of the Atlantic coast of Africa, where outposts, called feitorias, and forts were established to trade with the local African population and to attract Arab merchants.
In the second half of the 15th century, the Portuguese explored the Gulf of Guinea, Sao Tome and Principe, and the Congo River. In 1488, the explorer Bartolomeo Dias toured the Cape of Good Hope, confirming that the Atlantic and Indian Oceans were connected.
At the same time, two agents were sent by King João II; Piero da Covilha and Afonso de Paiva, entered the Indian Ocean through the Mamluk Sultanate and reached India and Ethiopia. These trips made Piero advise the king to go via the sea route around Africa, as it seemed the safest option.
The Ottoman conquest of Egypt and Syria
Dias’ return was followed by news that the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, who was hired by the Kings of Castile and Aragon in the hope of finding access to Indian markets, had encountered land to the West.
Since Columbus did not bring back any spices, and became quickly clear that this was a different land area from Asia, the Portuguese returned their focus to their newly-discovered African route, as attested by the Treaty of Tordesillas.
In 1497, the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama circumnavigated the southern tip of Africa, and sailed all the way to Calicut in India, famous for its spice market, connecting the Indian spices to the newly established trade routes. Bases were set along the way, and it wouldn’t take long for Portugal to enter into conflict with the Arab merchants who inhabited the Indian Sea.
At the beginning of the 16th century, the various conflicts between the Islamic countries, the most powerful of them all, the Mamluks and the Portuguese Navy, saw the latter partly blockading the Red Sea, starving Egypt of spices.
This led to the crash of the Mamluk finances and started the crisis that facilitated the Ottoman conquest of Egypt and Syria in 1516 to 1517, which was followed by their expansion into the Arabian Peninsula and the Red Sea. This brought the Ottoman Empire to the coast of the Indian Ocean, unfamiliar waters for the expanding Turk State.
The Rise of the Ottoman Empire and its interest in America
In 1555, the Ottoman Empire consolidated its position by expanding into Mesopotamia at the expense of the Safavids, and by taking Basra, which meant that they now had access to the Persian Gulf. All of these propelled the Ottoman Empire to become the new power in the Indian Ocean. With access to both the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean, the Ottoman Empire could have started to venture into the New World, and there were clues that they had intentions to do so.
In 1517, the Turkish commander Ahmet Muhyiddin Piri, known as Piri Reis, presented his world map to Sultan Selim, which he had produced using sources from 20 other maps, including one from Columbus. The New World has been marked as Vilayet Antilia. The term Vilayet usually applied to an administrative unit in the Ottoman Empire, so the Ottomans clearly had some interests in America.
In his diary, Piri Reis wrote that a Spanish prisoner and a map of Columbus dating back to 1501 were taken from seven Spanish ships. This Spanish captive revealed that he had been to the New Continent three times, the same number of voyages that Columbus had taken part in until that year.
This is confirmed by the names on the map, which are the same Turkish names that Columbus used, such as Wadluk for Guadeloupe and Undizi Vergine for the Virgin Islands. Other bits of information could come from the many Iberian Muslims who were expelled during those years, and this is very possible that there is a network of Muslim informers in Spain and Portugal who informed the Islamic world about the exploration of the two kingdoms and this confirms that the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire were interested in developments in the Atlantic Ocean.
It is sometimes said that the Ottoman Empire did not have the naval technology to compete on the high seas with Portugal and Spain. However, this is a myth, as it is on record that the Ottomans could stand up against the Christian kingdoms in the Mediterranean Sea. The maritime conflict against Portugal continued with a similar course in the Indian Ocean, the maintenance of free trade with Indian states for Muslim merchants, and the protection of the Aceh Sultanate in modern-day Indonesia from the Portuguese in 1564.
In 1627, the Barbary pirates reached Iceland and raided it, taking hundreds of slaves with them. It must, in fact, be remembered that some of the navigational techniques used by the Portuguese, such as the caravel and the compass, were inspired by the Arabic script and Islamic discoveries.
Why the Ottoman Empire failed to Colonise America
However, one of the starkest problems was the geographical situation in which the Ottoman Empire found itself. On the other side of the African continent, forbidden to leave the Mediterranean Sea by Spain, the Ottomans found themselves forced to wander the entire African continent to reach the Americas.
Although it was certainly possible, it was still more expensive to do than for the rest of the European colonial powers. Also, they would have had to compete with the Portuguese Navy, replenished by numerous bases. One way to get around this problem was to expand across North Africa.
It is not unlikely that one of the reasons for the Ottoman expansion in the Maghreb was to reach the Moroccan Atlantic coast, and from there it would compete with the Iberian powers.
In the beginning, the Ottomans achieved great success, first in 1517 through their assumption of officials of the rulers of Algeria, the most prominent of which was Hayreddin Barbarossa, expanding at the expense of Spain to modern-day Algeria and Libya, and taking Tunis in 1560.
The main obstacle was the strongly independent Moroccan Sultanate. Morocco had been ruled from 1472 by the Wattasid dynasty. The Wattasids never succeeded in imposing their complete control over the country; ruling from the northern city of Fez, they lost different cities to both Portugal and Spain, while in 1524 they lost the city of Marrakesh to the rulers of the southern part of Morocco, the Saadi dynasty. The Saadi would continue to expand from the south, until in 1549, the city of Fez was occupied by their leader, Mohammed al-Sheikh, and he overthrew the Wattasid dynasty.
Seeing an opportunity, the Ottomans attempted to restore a surviving Wattasid prince in 1554, but they were expelled and the prince was killed in the Battle of Tadla in the same year. They also tried to make use of their diplomatic resources to make the Saadi recognise them as their overlords, but to no avail, and instead, the Saadi helped Spain defend the city of Oran in Algeria.
In the end, the frustrated Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent of the Ottoman Empire would have Mohammed al-Sheikh assassinated in 1557, and have his head brought to Istanbul, but the Saadi allied themselves with the European powers and prevented the Ottomans from reaching the Atlantic Ocean from North Africa.
The Ottomans reluctance to challenge for territories in the New World was simply that the true profitability of the new continent was still largely unknown to both the Europeans and the Ottomans. On the contrary, trade in the Indian Ocean was an established and rich business before and after the time of the Roman Empire.
Interest in the Indian Ocean was simply much greater in Istanbul. Silk was imported from the Chinese Empires, while spices such as pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger were harvested and bought in India and in the islands of the Malay Archipelago.
Attesting to the wealth that the spice trade brought is today’s majestic city of Venice. The Ottoman Empire, instead, focused on securing its control over the entrance to the Red Sea by expanding into modern-day Yemen and Eritrea, and establishing relationships with various Muslim princes in the Indian Ocean.
More advanced weapons and gunpowder ships, along with the title of caliph and protection from the holy cities inherited from the Mamluks, put the Ottomans at the forefront of the other Muslim powers, and for years they would fight against the Portuguese for the control of trade routes in the region.
What led to the Decline and Fall of the Ottoman Empire?
At the end of the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire was not as powerful as at the beginning of the century, and its expansion halted as they entered a period of transformation that would last until the 17th century.
Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent oversaw the Ottoman Empire at its height and after his death in 1566, the cracks that had already appeared during his reign worsened with his successors. Corruption, factions, and internal fighting hindered the ability of the Ottomans to expand and participate in foreign projects.
The influx of precious metals into Europe from the New World also increased inflation in the Ottoman Sultanate, leading to poverty, economic crises, and revolts. This does not mean that the Ottoman Empire inevitably declined, as it continued to exist for 300 years, but that it weakened the Ottomans’ ability to display their acts of power. Externally, many opponents of the Ottomans, like the House of Osman, stopped their expansion.
Following the annihilation of the Turkish Navy at the Battle of Lepanto, the Ottoman Empire still managed to rebuild its fleet in a year, but had lost many experienced sailors that could not be easily replaced.
It showed that they could not just force the Straits of Gibraltar, and that open-sea competition against the Iberians would be difficult and costly. Defending the Habsburg borders and continuing skirmishes against the Persians, also drained the resources of the Ottoman Empire.
In conclusion, the lack of a Turkish presence in the New World can be explained by geographical borders, their competitors on the borders, and most importantly, the affluence of trade in the Indian Ocean.
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Kings and Generals (2020). Why the Ottomans Never Colonized America?