The early modern Ottoman Empire equaled European powers militarily on land and at sea. Against this background, Isom-Verhaaren, assistant professor of history at Brigham Young University, offers a concise and enjoyable description of the Ottoman navy, describing its major engagements and its institutions while providing biographies of both well-known and unknown naval commanders. The book covers the period from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries, beginning with Umur of Aydın, admiral of that eponymous principality, and the role of other pre-Ottoman rulers in challenging the Byzantine, Venetian, and Genoese sea powers.
Thereafter, the author discusses the naval history of the Ottoman Empire on the basis of the biographies and operations of prominent admirals, such as naval heroes Hayreddin Barbarossa, Turgud Reis, and Cigalazade, with their diverse social and religious backgrounds. Isom-Verhaaren skillfully combines narrations of the lives and times of her protagonists with an overview of changes in tactics and technologies in early modern Mediterranean naval warfare.
The author's choice to begin her history of the Ottoman navy in the fourteenth century points to an important issue: Ottoman naval power was not a new creation but rather a continuation of naval capacity accumulated through earlier conflicts between Anatolian principalities and the Latin powers. While depicting the Ottoman navy in all its glory in her portraits of prominent commanders, the author also demonstrates the deficiencies in its organization, which were rooted in the perennial conflict between experienced admirals and the powerful but militarily ignorant court elite. This tension deprived the Ottomans of decisive victories.
Because the role of the Ottoman Empire as a sea power is an understudied subject, Isom-Verhaaren's work makes an important contribution. She expertly embeds the biographies of grand admirals into the political and military contexts of their times and provides a wide variety of references. Addressing not only scholars in Ottoman studies but also a broader readership, her well-written and clearly structured book offers a strong and traditional focus on Ottoman mariners making history.
However, to spin an entertaining yarn, she avoids in-depth analysis of details and proper transliteration to the likely chagrin of scholarly readers. In sum, through the colorful life stories of admirals, the book offers a delightful and informative panorama of Ottoman naval history.