The Kadi of Malta: Piracy, Captivity, and Law in the Ottoman Mediterranean

By Joshua White
Submitted to Session P4330 (Ottoman Seas 2, 2016 Annual Meeting
Ottoman Empire;
13th-18th Centuries; Mediterranean Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Hundreds of Ottoman judges were among the many thousands of Ottoman Muslims captured by Catholic corsairs in the early modern Ottoman Mediterranean. Some were snatched on their way to or from seaside posts, others were abducted from their homes in brazen amphibious raids on the islands where they held court. Well into the eighteenth century, a number of Ottoman judges could always be found imprisoned in Maltese dungeons. Yet the kadis of Malta were not simply valuable captives, symbols of Ottoman authority who would fetch a high ransom. Their captors and fellow captives alike needed them for their knowledge and legal training. Carried off along with their writing stands, seals, and reed pens, the kadis of Malta were put to work in their capacity as judge-notaries, drawing up surety agreements, assignations of legal agency, and ransom contracts that bound together Ottoman Muslim captives, Catholic captors, and a diverse assortment of middlemen who facilitated the transfer of men, women, and money across the liquid borders of the Abode of War.

This paper focuses on the kadi—as captive, as notary, as local representative of the Ottoman central government and official conduit for communication with it—to explore the impact of Catholic corsairing in the Ottoman Mediterranean. The plague of piracy that descended on the eastern Mediterranean after the 1570s betrayed the weakness of the Ottoman navy and the Ottoman state’s utter inability to protect not only its most vulnerable subjects but its most important servants as well. Despite this fact, Ottoman Islamic law was the legal lingua franca of the Ottoman Mediterranean, even on Malta. The phenomenon of the kadis of Malta is a testament to the simultaneous, seemingly contradictory processes of the precipitous decline in maritime security in the early modern Mediterranean and the expansion in the power and reach of Ottoman law. Ultimately, I argue that what made the eastern half of the Mediterranean the “Ottoman Mediterranean” was not so much Ottoman political control of the islands and coasts or naval supremacy in the waters in between, but the fact that it was a unified Ottoman legal space.