Tears for Viziers: Tribute Ambassadors of the Ragusa (Dubrovnik) Republic in the Ottoman Empire

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 10:30 AM
Hancock Parlor (Palmer House Hilton)
Jesse Howell, independent scholar
The walled city, islands, and coastal areas of the Republic of Dubrovnik lay at the western frontier of the Ottoman Empire. At the foot of a political giant, the minute republic used carefully crafted diplomatic practices to preserve its autonomy at home, and to protect the rights of its citizens across Ottoman lands. Diplomacy was a cyclical process, structured around the annual delivery of tribute by specially selected and trained Ragusan nobles. The logic of diplomacy was that of exchange: the sultan's yearly tribute brought renewal of treaty terms, including an exceptional degree of self-government and highly advantageous trade conditions for Dubrovnik. Tribute exchange was also an opportunity for high-level negotiations over a range of issues at the Ottoman court. These negotiations were frequently contentious as the Ragusans, who were broadly known as successful merchants, claimed poverty and weakness as a means of resisting Ottoman demands. Despite its seemingly precarious nature, this system contributed to an equilibrium between the two polities that endured from the mid-fifteenth to the early nineteenth century.

For Ragusan tribute ambassadors, distance was both an advantage and a liability. These men were required to physically negotiate the rugged, thousand-mile-long caravan road –transected the mountainous Balkan Peninsula – while protecting their valuable cargo along the way. Once in Istanbul, the negotiating powers of the ambassadors were limited. Ottoman demands often required permission or clarification from the distant Ragusan authorities. This could mean lengthy delays as messages were sent and received. Yet distance could also be an asset. The republic's network of merchant/diplomats dispersed across the western Mediterranean gave Dubrovnik an informational advantage. Sensitive information about Christian powers could wielded as a form of currency valued by the Ottomans, and a means to help resolve diplomatic standoffs.

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