Diplomacy between and within empires

Early modern perspectives

Date: 2 September 2017, 01:00–03:00

Venue: Central European University, Nador u. 13, N13 223



The panel explores shared themes across diverse geopolitical relationships in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Habsburg, Ottoman, Mughal and Dutch diplomacy. It proposes that diplomatic practices developed in a more complex, multifarious and globally interconnected manner than the modern European, state-focused and national paradigm allows. Cumulatively, the three presentations, by virtue of their broad geographical range, further our understanding of the development of diplomatic phenomena in world history over long stretches of time and contribute to wider debates about the nature of cross-cultural encounters and the commensurability of different political cultures. Providing a broad early modern perspective on empires and foreign relations, the panel makes an important contribution to one of the key themes of the conference: ‘inter-imperial and international relations and forms of cooperation and competition; actors, institutions, and issues of cross-border collaboration’. Our contributors’ strong focus on the processes and significance of cultural exchanges between polities and imperial institutions challenges the conventional Europe/Asia divide and reveals shared sociocultural assumptions, whilst also highlighting cultural difference and demonstrating that it was possible for diplomats to negotiate the norms and codes of the polities to which they were sent. The three presentations and the commentary raise some of the key issues that are currently reshaping the field of diplomatic history: who could claim diplomatic agency and in what circumstances? What are the social and cultural contexts in which diplomacy was practised? How do modern notions of state sovereignty change when placed in global and imperial contexts? Gabor Kármán (Budapest) demonstrates that Ottoman provinces and vassals used diplomatic ceremonial in order to claim relative independence and to mediate between their conflicting roles as sovereign princes in international relations, on the one hand, and tributaries to the Ottoman empire, on the other. Highlighting the permeability of diplomatic activity, the panel offers important insights into the ways in which the limits of diplomatic agency were marked by symbolic communication and how shrewd role-switching could enhance ambassadors’ ability to facilitate ongoing relations between polities of different cultural backgrounds. Guido Van Meersbergen’s (Florence) paper shifts the emphasis from political structures and their representation to the level of individual actors and their roles in shaping international relations. He explores merchant-diplomacy in Bengal during the Mughal War of Succession (1657-1660), studying the roles that mercantile diplomats could assert as well as the tensions arising from their multivalent identities as representatives of a polity and a company. Diplomats’ ability to familiarise themselves with the cultural norms of socialising at their host court was essential to their success. Focusing on Ottoman networks in Vienna, Do Paço (Paris) demonstrates how diplomats mastered the sociocultural conventions of their hosts and became integrated into the social life of both city and court. The panel commentary will link the three papers in comparative perspective and elaborate the methodological implications of ‘imperial diplomacy’ more broadly. The panel builds on recent ground-breaking work in diplomatic history and cultural history to offer an important new intervention in the ongoing reassessment of early modern international relations. The three presentations form part of a volume that the panel chair (Tracey Sowerby, Oxford) and the panel commentator (Jan Hennings, Budapest) are currently preparing for publication in the Routledge Research in Early Modern History series. The volume, entitled Practices of Diplomacy in the Early Modern World (c.1410-1800), is scheduled for publication in autumn 2017.


Jan Hennings (Central European University)
Tracey Sowerby (University of Oxford)


Tracey Sowerby (University of Oxford)


Jan Hennings (Central European University)


Guido van Meersbergen (University of Warwick)
Gábor Kármán (Hungarian Academy of Sciences)
David Do Paço (Sciences Po Paris)


Guido van Meersbergen: Merchant-Diplomacy in Bengal during the Mughal War of Succession (1657-1660)

In the middle decades of the seventeenth century – a period of “general crisis” that witnessed the widespread occurrence of revolts and revolutions across Eurasia – the war that shook the Mughal Empire ranked among the most dramatic events. Taking place at the peak of Mughal power and opulence, the succession struggle that pitched the four sons of ruling emperor Shah Jahan against one another and against their father lasted for the best part of three years, before culminating in a complete victory for prince (from 1658: emperor) Aurangzeb. As is well-documented, in the five years after 1660 Aurangzeb received a stream of diplomatic representatives from Central Asia, West Asia, and from various European powers, most prominently the Dutch East India Company (VOC). Much less known is the fact that, throughout the Mughal war of succession and during its immediate aftermath (1657-1660), Dutch merchant-diplomats had been actively negotiating with government officials and army leaders representing the various warring parties. Focusing on interactions in the vast eastern province of Bengal, this paper will discuss the implications of the political and economic ruptures caused by the rapidly shifting theatres of war for the armed merchants trading in imperial domains. Whilst the latter tried hard to steer a middle course, the fact that they possessed two highly sought-after assets – money and armaments – meant that it proved impossible to remain entirely on the side line. Analysing the various forms of diplomatic and military engagement between Dutch and Mughal representatives at a local level, this paper highlights the VOC’s idiosyncratic position in the Mughal political landscape as occupying a grey area between minor foreign power and unorthodox domestic player.

Gábor Kármán: Transylvanian Diplomats at Buda: Relations between Provinces and Tributaries in Ottoman International Society

Research on European diplomatic contacts with the Ottoman Empire – which has experienced a renaissance in the last few decades – has mostly concentrated on diplomats coming from the western part of the continent to Istanbul, the centre of the empire. This paper moves away from the imperial centre in order to explore the diplomatic receptions of representatives from the Principality of Transylvania at the court of the pasha of Buda, the most important provincial governor in the western part of the Ottoman empire. The ceremonies surrounding these visits provide an excellent opportunity to examine the functioning of different diplomatic systems and to highlight the problems that arose from Transylvania’s different status roles in two different international societies. Whereas Transylvanian princes were regarded as independent actors in seventeenth-century European theatres of politics, the Ottomans treated them as tributaries of the empire. Using comparative examples of, amongst others, Habsburg and Transylvanian envoys to Buda and dedicating special attention to specific ceremonies such as the kissing of the pasha’s hand (or the sleeves of his garment), this paper highlights problems of negotiating intra- and inter-imperial hierarchies and the varying attributions of meanings to specific ritual actions in different diplomatic cultures.

David do Paço: Familiarity in Cross-Cultural Diplomacy: Ottoman Embassies in Vienna and the Rise of a Trans-imperial Elite, 1740–92

Based on the vibrant renewal of the history of cross-cultural diplomacy, this paper examines both formal and informal manifestations of social bonding between political agents from different religious and cultural backgrounds. In the eighteenth century, Vienna gradually replaced Venice as a centre for European diplomacy with the Ottoman Empire, a fact that is fully documented by the unpublished materials of the Austrian archives, especially the rich reports written by the ‘Imperial and Royal interpreters in Oriental languages of the Court’. Recent historiographical developments call for a new understanding of the classical documentation of diplomatic history, placing diplomatic action in its sociocultural context. This paper develops an approach to diplomacy that recovers not only diplomats’ networks and resulting forms of sociability, but also more implicit sociocultural codes and habits that had to be mastered in order to carry out a mission in a specific cultural context. Diplomatic relations developed in Viennese milieus composed of Austrian reforming ministers, expert in oriental languages, who could become major administrators of the monarchy, as well as Ottoman merchants and diplomats. Drawing on socio-cultural approaches, the paper examines three circles of familiarity of Ottoman agents. First, it moves the focus away from the single person of the ambassador to examine the composition of the numerous Ottoman diplomatic delegations, the solidarities and the tensions that structured it as a micropolis and how they evolved. Secondly, it explores the multiple sorts of interaction between the different Ottoman diplomatic representatives and the Viennese court and its agents in order to stress the flexibility and the permeability of their cultural spheres. Finally, the paper analysis the dynamics that contributed to the deep embeddedness of the Ottoman ‘Quartier’ in the city’s economy and social life, proposing a social approach to early modern diplomatic history that is not restricted to exclusive political circles and decision makers.

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