This unattributed portrait of Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud, Moroccan Ambassador to the Court of Elizabeth I in London, was painted in 1600. Excommunicated by the Pope and at war with Catholic Spain, the Tudor queen had made alliances with the Muslim world and was selling arms to Morocco. The story is told in Jerry Brotton’s latest book, This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World, which is being read every morning this week at 9.45 on BBC Radio 4 by Derek Jacobi.
Brotton, Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary University of London and author of A History of the World in Twelve Maps, sheds light on a neglected area of English history. Elizabeth’s reign (1558-1603) was a time of adventure and exploration. The Barbary, Levant and Turkey Companies began trading, and many English merchants, diplomats and adventurers headed for the Islamic world, often converting to Islam, according to Brotton. Elizabeth sent a ship full of gifts to Sultan Mehmed III, and diplomatic and trading relations were established. Brotton reveals that 60 English plays with Turks, Moors and Persians were staged between the opening of London’s first permanent playhouse in 1576 and the death of the Virgin Queen. Shakespeare’s Othello may have been inspired by the figure of Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud. The painting was bought by the University of Birmingham in 1955 and is now at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Brotton will be talking about his book on Free Thinking on BBC Radio 3 on Wednesday, March 30, at 10pm, in conversation with guests including Turkish novelist Elif Shafak.