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The Sultan's organ: presents and self-presentation in Thomas Dallam's Diary

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The Diary of the organ-builder Thomas Dallam recounts his part in giving a magnificent ‘present’ from Queen Elizabeth and a group of English merchants to Sultan Muhammad III in 1599. The language of gift-giving in Mediterranean commerce is a symptomatic anomaly. The ‘present’ stands in for a wider semantic field that includes bribery, extortion, and the paying of diplomatic tributes; Dallam's present to the Sultan followed other such English offerings, and is part of a widespread system of presentations at all social levels of European–Ottoman dealings. But Dallam's participation in the gift game, on his voyage and during his residence in Constantinople, cuts across the binary of east–west. Dallam is befriended by Muslims and by Englishmen ‘turned Turk’, and in his writing avoids the commonplaces of religious self-righteousness. The ship that carries him also carries a virtual cross-section of English society, from the English ambassador to his under-butler to the young seaman who dies along the way, and is lorded over by a captain who adds the idea of ‘theft’ to the range of the word ‘present’. Dallam's account of the taking, giving, and avoiding of presents exposes English hypocrisy as well as Turkish opportunism. On the occasion of his organ's debut, and during his residence in Constantinople, he comes as close as any English traveller did to the inner sanctum of the mystified Ottoman empire, literally touching the Sultan and taking as his present a close-up view of his harem.

Keywords: Dallam; Queen Elizabeth; Sultan Muhammad III; organ; presents

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Princeton University

Publication date: 2009-11-01

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