Piracy and the Evolution of Ottoman-Venetian Maritime Law, 1482–1670

Sunday, January 4, 2015: 9:40 AM
Bryant Suite (New York Hilton)
Joshua Michael White, University of Virginia
Piracy proved to be one of the defining issues in Ottoman-Venetian relations. More than any other concern, rampant piracy threatened commerce and the peace and sent innumerable diplomats, messengers, dispatches, and funds back and forth across the eastern half of the Mediterranean basin. Anti-piracy articles appeared in every commercial treaty (known as ahdname) the two powers concluded from 1482 onward. Based on analysis of the original treaty documents, Ottoman decrees, letters and Venetian ambassadorial dispatches, this paper focuses on the gradual evolution of the diplomatic and legal framework through which Ottoman and Venetian authorities dealt with incidents of unauthorized piracy involving their subjects over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. 

The Ottoman-Venetian anti-piracy clauses developed first in a period of maritime violence that was predominantly state-sponsored, even as the line between regular navy forces and irregulars and corsairs remained blurred. After 1570, however, the centers of gravity and practitioners of piracy shifted largely beyond the control of the central states most affected by it.  The changing nature of the threat demanded a response, and Ottoman and Venetian negotiators gradually expanded the treaty language concerning piracy. In between treaty issues—which occurred only upon the death of a sultan or the conclusion of hostilities—the dispatch of case-specific orders and elaborative decrees added to and clarified anti-piracy law and reflected shifting understandings of their provisions. 

Combining maritime custom, negotiation, and the legal traditions of both sides, Istanbul and Venice constructed a platform of codes of conduct at sea, expectations for how to deal with pirates, and a formal system for providing restitution for damages and the return of their illegally enslaved subjects. In so doing, Ottomans and Venetians created a new body of maritime law that laid the groundwork for principles that would become enshrined in modern international law.