Paul Pindar, an obscure Levant Company merchant, was sent in 1599 as Secretary to Queen Elizabeth I’s embassy to the Great Turk in Constantinople. His mission was one that would change the course of British trading overseas – and ultimately the course of British history - forever.
Along with his fellow merchants, including the Queen’s ambassador, Henry Lello, Pindar’s task was to renew English trading rights in the Ottoman-controlled parts of the Mediterranean. In order to do this the etiquette at the Sublime Porte was very clear. A wonderful gift had to be presented to the Sultan. A gift, moreover, that was better than anyone else’s gift - most especially that of their trading rivals, the Venetians and the French.
Four years previously Paul Pindar and his fellow Levant Company merchants had commissioned a renowned Yorkshire craftsman named Thomas Dallam, to create a wonderful mechanical toy: part clock, part musical instrument. Contemporary narratives describe it as having an organ-like structure at the base; crowned by a marvellous timepiece. This clock was a marvel of sixteenth-century technology: devised so that when the hour struck, a chime of bells sounded, two angels played on silver trumpets, the organ played a tune, and, most marvellously, a holly bush full of mechanical birds – blackbirds and thrushes – shook their wings and sang. The Sultan, Mehmet III, was known to have an extensive collection of watches and clocks, but the like of this marvellous automaton – the merchants were gambling - would never have been seen before.
Seawater had seeped into the packing cases, and much of the wood was not only wet but had completely rotted away. The ambassador was furious: the gift “was not worth 2d” he is reported as saying. There was only one thing for it; Dallam would have to rebuild the organ in situ in the Topkapi, the Sultan’s Palace.
Dallam’s narrative of how he did this, An Account of an Organ Carryed to the Grand Seignor, and Other Curious Matter, 1599, is a famous document amongst Ottoman scholars. It recounts how Dallam and his men went every day for several weeks into the Topkapi Palace to rebuild the Sultan’s gift, during which time he alleges that the Janissaries who were put in charge of him gave him the chance to see through an opening in a wall into the Sultan’s harem.
“… than crossinge throughe a little squar courte paved with marble, he poyneted me to a graite in a wale, but made me a sine that he myghte not go thether himselfe. When I cam to the grait the wal was verrie thicke and graited on bothe the sides with iron verrie strongly: but through that graite I did se thirtie of the Grand Sinyore’s Concobines that were playinge with a bale in another courte… that sighte did please me wondrous well.”
Dallam’s narrative lays claim to be the only true first hand account by a foreigner into the mysteries of the Sultan’s harem, tales of which – almost all of them fabricated – had an extraordinary allure for English travellers to the Sublime Porte. But Dallam was not the only Englishman with a tale to tell. Paul Pindar, a soberly dressed but handsome young merchant, described in Dallam’s narrative as a most ‘gentleman-like’ man, was detailed to present another, equally important gift. It was he who presented an English carriage and horses – also brought out on the Hector, but which luckily seem to have survived the journey - to the Sultan’s mother.
|Organ at King's College Cambridge - originally built by Dallam|
Although details about almost all the women in the Imperial Harem were ‘haram’, that is to say ‘forbidden’ (in most cases we do not even know their names) Safiye’s life is unusually well documented. Her liking for the handsome young merchant Paul Pindar – even though they would only have talked through a screen – was observed and recorded by both the Ottomans and the English. Thomas Dallam recounts how:
“the sultan did Take greate lyking to Mr Pinder, and after wardes she sent for him to have his private companye, but there meetinge was croste.”The meeting was probably ‘crossed’ by the sultan, who could not have permitted such a breach of moral as well as political etiquette.
Nonetheless, Safiye Sultan had great influence. The gifts – and who knows, perhaps Paul Pindar’s charms - succeeded brilliantly. The patience of the English merchants was well rewarded, and their trading rights secured. Whereas before they had only been able to trade under the auspices of either the French or the Venetians, who previously had the trading monopoly in the Ottoman controlled parts of the Mediterranean, from now on they were able to do so independently (without incurring heavy taxes).
During the next half century the Levant Company merchants went on to trounce both the Venetian and the French, their former trading rivals. Paul Pindar and his fellow merchants made fortunes. By 1607, as one Venetian commentator of the period noted sourly, several of the English at Constantinople had amassed fortunes ranging from 100,000 to 500,000 crowns.
For an obscure ‘Turkey merchant’, Paul Pindar’s life and accomplishments are also surprisingly well documented. In 1602 he returned to Venice, where as a very young man of 19 he had been for many years a ‘factor’ for an English merchant, where he was said to have acted as a banking agent for Secretary Cecil. In 1609 he was appointed as the Levant Company Consul to Aleppo, the principal trading depot in the eastern Mediterranean, where he remained for two years. Some years later he was himself appointed ambassador to the Sublime Porte, and was knighted by King James I in 1620. (A better appointee, one hopes, that Henry Lello, nicknamed ‘Fog’ by his less-than respectful retinue.)
All this had an unforeseen knock-on effect. The success of the new sea route meant a big reduction in the price of eastern commodities, which had formally been imported, to Europe across the Mediterranean. For example, in Aleppo pepper had cost 2s per pound, but the same amount could now be bought directly in ‘the spice islands’ for just two and a half d. The same with cloves: from 4 shillings, they could now be sourced at just 9d. In addition to the tin, lead, furs and cloth that the English merchants had always exported from England (mostly purple and crimson in colour), it now became lucrative not to import spices from the Levant back to London, as they had always done in the past, but to re-export them from London back to Aleppo. Despite the odds, the Levant Company merchants continued to prosper.
The suppleness and ingenuity of traders such as Paul Pindar was at least in part responsible for the later creation, in 1600, of the Levant Company’s then insignificant off-shoot, The East India Company, which over the next few centuries went on to dominate trade in the sub-continent, and gave rise, ultimately, to the British Raj.
When Pindar finally returned to England in 1611 there were two things that were known about him. He brought home with him a remarkable collection of jewels, and was rich enough to build himself an extraordinary house in Bishopsgate.
|The frontage of Pindar's house preserved in the V&A|
Photograph by KB Thompson
Paul Pindar’s great house in Bishopsgate has a different story. Originally built as a country demesne just outside the walls of the City of London, it had enough land to encompass gardens and orchards, and, aping the houses of the aristocracy, even a gatehouse in what later became ‘Half Moon Alley’. Most notably, however, it had an elaborately carved oak front which, many centuries later, when all the dwellings in that area were pulled down to make way for the new railways (now the site of Liverpool Street Station), was magnificent enough to be taken and preserved in what is now the Victoria & Albert Museum, where it remains on display to this day.
The fortunes of Paul Pindar are the story, in miniature, of the fluctuating geo-politics that were to transform Britain from an insignificant island nation on the far edges of Europe, into the world’s most dominant maritime power.
The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire
By Lesley P. Peirce
An Organ for the Sultan:
by Stanley Mayes
Everyday Life in Ottoman Turkey:
by Rafaela Lewis
Thomas Dallam in Hakluyt: “An Account of an Organ Carryed to the Grand Seignor, and Other Curious Matter, 1599”
Dictionary of National Biography
[all above images are in the public domain unless otherwise attributed]
Katie Hickman’s Aviary Gate series has been translated into nineteen languages. She was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year award for her first novel, The Quetzal Summer, and for the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award for Travels with a Mexican Circus (originally published as A Trip to the Light Fantastic). She is also the author of bestselling history books Daughters of Britannia and Courtesans. The House at Bishopsgate is out now from Bloomsbury in hardback and eBook.