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Nabil Matar and Gerald MacLean, “Britain and the Islamic World, 1558-1713” (Oxford UP, 2011)

Nineteenth-century observers would say that the British Empire was an Islamic one; be that as it may, before Empire there was trade- and lots of it. Nabil Matar and Gerald MacLean‘s book, Britain and the Islamic World, 1558-1713 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), though, goes beyond trade- there was also lots of curiosity, in Britain and abroad, about the strange new peoples and products beginning to move more freely across the world than ever before. It is this aspect of British-Muslim interaction – (or more accurately interactions; the Islamic world was vast and encompassed a dizzying diversity of peoples and cultures) that Matar and MacLean emphasise- the wondering, bemused, gleeful, fascinated, at times despairing accounts of travellers, diplomats, traders -and pirates and their captives- as they sought to convey their impressions of the new worlds they encountered. Nor did everyone think the same; not every factor in Surat went fantee, and not every potentate and cleric disapproved of tobacco and coffee, which North Africans and Britons were wont to accuse each other of having introduced to their lands- and some people tried both lifestyles before settling on one- or neither. It was this celebration of the exotic that made the trading ports and cities of early modern Britain and the Islamic powers such fascinating places to be in- and MacLean and Matar’s book evokes perfectly the heady atmosphere of the contemporary world.

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