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As Turkey and the Netherlands celebrate 400 years of diplomatic relations, Henk Boom highlights the twenty turbulent years that Frederik Gijsbert, Baron van Dedem spent as ambassador to Constantinople
The scene in the Audience Hall of the Topkapı Palace on that January day of 1799 was decidedly unusual. Normally any visit by a foreign envoy would be subject to the strictest protocol. But when the English ambassador, John Spencer Smith, and his brother, Admiral Sidney Smith, arrived to see Kör Yusuf Ziyaüddin Pasha, the grand vizier of Selim III, protocol seems to have gone by the board. It was the grand vizier who had to submit to his visitors’ demands. “That man has to leave. Better today than tomorrow,” was the furious outburst of the admiral, a hardliner in the English navy. “Do you agree?” the grand vizier asked, turning to the ambassador, who nodded his assent. “Yes, I agree. The man is a despicable character. You can’t trust him. He is a renegade who brings no good to our cause.”
The man whose behaviour had so outraged the British brothers was the Dutch envoy, Frederik Gijsbert, Baron van Dedem, whom the admiral was accusing of betraying English interests by hiding French documents in the Palais de Hollande, his residence in the Pera area of the Ottoman capital. And the cause to which the ambassador referred was, of course, the English cause – for any document of French origin could provide useful intelligence in the bitter conflict between France and England.
A long-standing enmity between the two countries had escalated after Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in May the previous year. Van Dedem, in one of his weekly dispatches to his government in The Hague, had written: “The Turkish government here in Constantinople has raised the alarm and is very displeased by that violent attack. On both sides there was a lot of bloodshed.”
Worse still were relations between Holland and England. The fourth war between them had ended in 1784, one year before Van Dedem’s arrival in Istanbul. For many years trade, colonies and the eternal conflict over control of the North Sea had been good reasons to take up arms. Back in Holland, Van Dedem had already declared himself a lifelong enemy of England. His son Anthony later revealed in his memoirs that during his childhood his mother had stopped buying sugar and contributed the money she saved to help fund the war against England – “which was by nature the rival of Holland and the enemy of Dutch prosperity”. In those days Van Dedem, then president of the national parliament, never hid his sympathy for France.
Selim III was also an admirer of France. With the help of his French advisers he had started the so-called Nizâm-i Cedîd (New Order), a complete restructuring and modernisation of the Ottoman army. But after Napoleon’s surprise invasion of Egypt, then part of the Ottoman Empire, the Sultan was forced to change his allegiance. The French had suddenly become the enemy, along with the Russians and the Austrians.
Before the arrival of the English navy in the Bosphorus in 1799, Van Dedem had been seen in Istanbul as a highly competent diplomat, but his authority had faded. Since the French Revolution had reached Holland in 1795, the Dutch Republic had become more or less a vassal state of Paris. To the English, these geopolitical changes came as a gift from heaven and they opportunistically declared themselves allies of the Turks in their war against France. The Turks, in return, allowed the English navy to control the traditional Levantine trade routes between Europe and Asia.
Henk Boom is the author of ‘Onze man in Constantinopel’ (‘Our Man in Constantinople’) (Walburg Press, Zutphen), an account of Van Dedem’s Istanbul years. The book will be published to commemorate 400 years of diplomatic relations between Holland and Turkey. An exhibition about Van Dedem’s life opens in the Museum TwentseWelle in Enschede on October 10. Boom is also the author of a book about Süleyman the Magnificent (‘De Grote Turk’, Athenaeum, Amsterdam), now also in Turkish and German.
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