Manuscripts and Special Collections

On robbers and Arabian horses

December 13th, 2010 at 12:12

Over the past 9 weeks the department has been lucky enough to have two interns working with us as part of the University’s ‘Talent Builder’ scheme for new Nottingham graduates. One of our interns, Isaac, discusses below an amusing insight into overseas diplomacy, discovered whilst cataloguing part of the Portland Collection.

This letter from Robert Sutton to John Holles, Duke of Newcastle, dated May 1708, comes from the Portland Collection, reference Pw 2/236.

What would you imagine to be the requirements for becoming the Ambassador to a particular country? A strong knowledge or great love for it? Being able to speak the language? Well, it appears that at the beginning of the 18th century, only one of these was required. And friends in the right places of course! The person in question was Robert Sutton, who was Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire 1701-16. He knew Italian and Latin, the crucial languages in Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire, but managed to obtain the post thanks the influence of his friend Baron Lexington, the Ambassador to the Austrian Empire in Vienna under whom Sutton had served.

He had great disdain for the people who surrounded him, complaining in a sweeping generalisation that ‘all Arabs are robbers’, and believed that they were always on horseback so that they could escape in a hurry. However, his fear and suspicion of the Ottomans is not all that surprising: this was the age of the Barbary States (who were semi-independent dependencies of the Ottomans) committing hit and run naval raids to capture European slaves on the coastlines of Southern Europe. Friendly relations were not seen as a priority, and most of his diplomacy efforts were mainly to mediate between Russia and the Ottoman Empire rather than Britain and the Ottomans.

In this letter, the main topic is horses. This is due to the fact that the Europeans were becoming more and more interested in Arabian horses, as Arabian horses were far more agile and had greater stamina than the European horses. Sutton attempted to buy horses but complained that ‘When a Frank appears, the price of the mares is raised’. It seems the Arabs were canny businessmen!   

Whilst contemporary opinions varied on Robert Sutton, the scholars who I have found believe that he was an able Ambassador, and his assessments were usually correct. Given that he remained in post until 1716, you would imagine he couldn’t have found it too bad in Constantinople.

Finally, whilst you may start to feel sorry for the Ambassador, who was surrounded by thieves who overcharge Europeans for their horses, there is an postscript to his life. In 1725 Sutton became a member of the committee of management of the Charitable Corporation, and he made money by insider dealing in its shares and was subsequently involved in the scandal following disclosures of extensive frauds in 1732, and was expelled from the Commons. It seems that he was taught well by observing the ‘robbers’ he met in Constantinople. Although not that well, because he was caught.

If only he’d had a faster horse.

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