What the Moroccan Ambassador Knew

There’s a new ‘intervention’, to use the correct ‘arty’ jargon, at Tate Britain (normally dedicated solely to British art of the last 500 years), ‘East-West: Objects between Cultures’ which

explores Christian-Muslim encounters and exchanges over the past five hundred years by introducing a selection of related objects into the Collection displays. […] The variety of objects on display provides an insight into the relationship between societies sometimes considered distinct. This is revealed in the hybrid nature of many of these artefacts, which have been formed and transformed between cultures. […] It is hoped that this project will challenge static ideas of national history, art and identity.

Thirty-odd objects are scattered around Tate Britain like fragments of a shared but now lost history to be recaptured through discovery and contemplation. They can be read in the context of the permanent collection or read as a series. There are ‘landmark’ items like a copy of Ross’s translation of the Qur’an in 1649. Rather dismissively the frontispiece reads ‘The Al-Coran of Mahomet, Prophet of the Turks, Newly Englished for the satisfaction of all that desire to look into the Turkish vanities’. How differently the ‘Green Menace’ looked all those years ago, yet the impulse to see the Qur’an as the keystone to the Muslim psyche remains, worryingly, an ever-present impulse. Scripture becomes the script off which Muslim motives and acts can be explained, even forecast. There are small, intriguing pieces like mutual tributes to royalty: Victorian minatures of Persian kings and an Iranian portrait of Queen Elizabeth II dating from 1960. There is also a magnificent calligraphic lion from nineteenth-century Pakistan, housed fittingly alongside contemporary British abstract art.

Bombing of Sakiet

The exhibition ends with a harsh foreshadowing of the present with Peter de Francia’s The Bombing of Sakiet (1959), a stark presentation of the bombing of the Tunisian village of Sakiet Sidi Youssef, as part of French repression of Algeria, in which 68 civilians died. The bodies fly apart at jagged angles, screaming, yet somehow rendered mute, their agonies drowned out by the ordinance.

But the piece that intrigued me most was the portrait of the Moroccan Ambassador to Queen Elizabeth I, painted around 1600, and often mistakenly taken to be Shakespeare’s Othello. It is the first known English painting of a Muslim, and this alone singles it out as an important artefact in the history of British Muslims. It is most likely, according to Professor Lisa Jardine of the University of London, that the ambassador commissioned the portrait in emulation of what was then the passing fashion among Muslim princes and kings to have portraits done of themselves in the European style. (Another similar piece on display here is Hans Eworth’s (1540-73) A Turk on Horseback, probably a representation of Suleyman the Magnificent.) So the painting of the Moorish ambassador is less a representation then a projection of an image, given that the sitter was a client.

The client in question was `Abd al-Wahid ibn Mas`ud ibn Muhammad `Annuri, known in England as ‘Hamet Xarife’, who arrived with a party of 15, including two merchants, in August 1600. This party, so ubiquitous on the streets of the capital, was seen to use ‘all subtiltie and diligence to know the prises, wayghts, measures, and all kindes of differences of such commodities, as eyther their country sent hither, or England transported thither’ such that Londoners considered them ‘rather espials then honourable ambassadors’.

But this was not of concern to Elizabeth herself, who sought alliances with the Turks and the Moroccans against the might of Catholic Spain. In the Age of Discovery, neither Elizabeth nor her subjects dreamed of one day colonizing these Muslim powers; such ambitions were – at that time – reserved for the New World. It was rather that the Moroccans and the English might have been co-colonizers of the Americas had things worked out differently.

In 1603, in the last year of his life and of her’s, Ahmad al-Manzur (r. 1578-1603) wrote to Elizabeth proposing that English ships be used to transport a Moroccan army to expel the Spanish in the West Indies to ‘possesse’ the land and retain it ‘under our dominion for ever, and – by the help of God – to joyne it to our estate and yours’. Al-Mansur continued:

And therefore it shall be needful for us to treat of the peopling thereof, whether it be your pleasure it shall be inhabited by our armie or yours, or whether we shall take it on our chardg to inhabite it with our armie without yours, in respect of the great heat of the clymat, where those of your countrie doe not fynde themselfes fitt to endure the extremitie of heat there and of the colde of your partes, where our men endure it very well by reason that the heat hurtes them not. [1]

England was not a transcontinental colonial power at the time, albeit that she had colonized Scotland and Wales and was waging war in Ireland. There were clear, but as yet unrealised, ambitions to colonize America – later inaugurated by the founding of Virginia in 1607. Muslim naval power constituted a growing threat. Later, John Harrison, King Charles I’s Moroccan agent, warned in 1631 that the Turks and the Moors ‘in short tyme will be maisters of the seas, yea, they are so in these parts already, and next summer threaten the Channell, even our English Channell’. It is of little surprise then that terms like ‘colony’, ‘plantation’ and ‘settlement’ were not used by the English of the Muslim empire. If they went to America as ‘colonists’, the English went as ‘factors’ to the House of Islam. Muslims were not seen as subjugated, even if they were seen as ‘different and strange, infidels and “barbarians”, admirable or fearsome’. [2]

So the first English painting of a Muslim shows the Ambassador with a stern, even intimidating look. His wealth and power are indicated by his ceremonial sword. Is this a stereotype? I don’t think so. The Ambassador, by posing in London, had ‘asserted his power in the metropolis of the English’ [3].

What was it that the Ambassador knew? He knew that he was not a colonial subject, but an equal, his gaze considering us as much as we consider him.

[1] Nabil Matar, Turks, Moors and Englishmen in the Age of Discovery (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 9, and generally for all the other historical background and quotes on Elizabethans and Moors in this article.
[2] Ibid, 11.
[3] Idem.

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