In the year 1600 an embasy arrived on the shores of England from Barbary (modern day Morocco). The leader of the party was Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud, a fantastical figure resplendent in black robes, white cotton chemise and turban, with his golden scimitar flashing at his side as he strode the quayside in his fantastically curled slippers.
Elizabeth, ‘Sultana Isabel’, wrote friendly letters to Mulay Ahmad al-Mansur, who in turn tried to woo her into an alliance against Spain by offering his support for the planned expedition to place Don António on the Portuguese throne. Al-Mansur had beaten the Portuguese at the battle of Ksar El Kebir, where the death of his brother had left him King, and this was later the subject of a play by George Peele The Battle of Alcazar which was being performed in 1593 by Lord Strange’s Men and had recently been revived by The Lord Chamberlain’s Men between 1598-1600.
Al-Mansur had built a magnificent palace for himself Al Baadi ‘the marvelous’ in Marrakech, from where he instructed his ambassador to offer 150, 000 ducats and military assistance in return for English support against his Muslim neighbours, but the queen chose to keep the relationship to a trading partnership, supplying English guns to the Muslims much to the annoyance of Rome. The Portuguese expedition failed, but trade continued, and good relations were fostered between the two countries, although Elizabeth petitioned al-Mansur for the return of nine prisoners from the Low Countries.
Al-Mansur continued to seek an alliance, and, following the Earl of Essex successful raid on Cadiz in 1597, he dispatched his secretary, Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud, on a secret embassy to the English Court. The plan he was to put to the queen was an audacious one, the complete conquest of Spain and the division of the Indies. Under the guise of a trading party the group of sixteen ‘Barbarians’ set out in the scorching summer heat on their voyage north aboard The Eagle, each issued with a passport by the queen, and escorting the nine returned prisoners, a good-will gesture on behalf of al-Mansur. On 8th August 1600, the embassage arrived at Dover, Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud.
Abdul Guahid, as the English called him, was forty-two years old, an experienced secretary and a man who knew his position. His portrait shows an imposing figure, a slightly furrowed brow and a half smile hint at his intelligence, and a wry sense of humour; but the artist has given us another message, a religious one; the figure stands with his hand on his right breast, not on his heart, while his left hand points to the ground; he is untrue and will go to hell. George Tomson described him as ‘a natural Moor born’ although he was a Fessian, which ‘the natural borne Moor holdeth baseness’. Tomson found him conceited, a man who would flatter to deceive, which he seems to have managed, as Tomson complained ‘Here it is so secret that none knoweth the ground of their going’. He was accompanied by two merchants, whose business in Aleppo was the cover for their journey, the older of the two, al Hage Messa, had fallen into disgrace with al-Mansur for hiding two Balas rubies he had purchased abroad and had been sent on the mission as a punishment, his younger assistant was al Hage Bahanet.
The interpreter for the party was Abd el-Dodar, an Andalusian by birth ‘of more sense than all the rest and a very honest man’ who had been a soldier in Italy, he would speak Italian to the queen, although he normally spoke Spanish. The ambassador also spoke some Spanish, but only to inferiors. The queen would require her own interpreter to provide the English. A group of merchants met them at Gravesend on 14th August and accompanied them into London on the following evenings tide. The Moors were to be entertained ‘without scandal, and for that purpose they are lodged in a house apart, where they feed alone.’ The sixteen ambassadors arrived in London ‘very strangely attired and behaviored’ as Rowland White put it in his regular dispatch to Robert Sidney.
The Moroccans eventually received an audience with the queen at Nonsuch Palace on 19th with Lewes Lewkenor performing the role of Spanish interpreter.Lewes Lewkenor had been hard at work on his translation of The Commonwealth of Venice and by early 1599 the volume was in preparation for the press. The influence of his translation on both The Merchant of Venice (1598) and Othello (1603) can only be satisfactorily explained if William Shakespeare had read Lewkenor’s manuscript. But it is Lewkenor who is present at the meeting between the Barbary ambassador and the queen, the most significant example of a group of Muslims visiting England and behaving as Muslims, and it is from this visit that the character of Othello appears to have been drawn. Lewes Lewkenor had served as a captain in the Low Countries under Baptista del Monte, who was the current General of the Venetian Republic, the position held by the fictional Othello, which completes a compelling picture with Lewes Lewkenor at the centre.
‘The Ambassador of Barbary had audience upon Wednesday last; here was a royal preparation, with the manner of his receiving; rich Hangings and Furnitures sent for from Hampton Court; the Guard was very strong, in their rich Coates; the Pensioners with their axes; the Lords of the Order with their collars; a full court of Lords and Ladies. He passed through a Guard of Halberds to the Counsel Chamber, where he rested; he was brought to the presence, so to the Privy Chamber, and so to the Gallery; where her Majesty sat at the further end in very great State, and gave him Audience. Mr. Lewkner was interpreter for the Spanish tongue; but here they departed, the Interpreter of the Embassy spoke in Italian, and desired to deliver some thing in private, which her Majesty granted. On which Mr. Lewkner and the Lords removed further off. It is given out, that they come for her Majesty letters from the Turk, to whom a brother of this King of the Barbary’s is fled, to complain against him.’
‘At the end of his Audience, her Majesty for a little further grace to the States Agent, caused him to be present, and so she received [the nine captives] of the Barbarian with one hand, she gave them to him with the other.’ Messaoud requested another audience on 31st August, apparently anxious to secure their departure, perhaps he found living among the infidels distasteful, the party were known to be slaughtering their own animals behind closed doors at their lodgings. He was admitted to the royal presence on 10th September at Oatlands amidst great secrecy, as Rowland White informed Cecil, the matter of the Moors ‘hath been very secretly handled, which hath not yet come to light’ but White had a clue, ‘it is supposed, that he makes good offers to her Majesty, if she will be pleased to aid him with shipping, for his ports, to conduct in safety some treasure he hath by mines, in part of the Indies conquered by him, which now he is forced to carry by land, and to maintain an army to safe-conduct it, and sometimes it is taken from him by force.’
John Chamberlain wrote to Dudley Carleton on 15th October ‘The Barbarians take their leave sometime this week, to go homeward, for our merchants nor mariners will not carry them into Turkey, because they think it a matter odious and scandalous to the world to be friendly or familiar with Infidels but yet it is no small honour to us that nations so far removed and every way different should meet here to admire the glory and magnificence of our Queen of Sheba.’ A week later he wrote again, ‘The Barbarians were yesterday at Court to take their leave and will be gone shortly; but the eldest of them, which was a kind of priest or prophet, hath taken his leave of the world and is gone to prophecy apud infernos and to seek out Mahound their mediator.’
The Lord Mayor of London wrote to Cecil ‘I have thought good, before the departing of the Barbary Ambassador, to let your honour understand that, upon your honours letters for repayment, I have caused to be delivered unto Captain Primme, at sundry times, the sum of 230 towards the defraying of the Ambassadors charges, which will not discharge all that is owing. And Mr. Ratcliff, in whose house he is lodged, expecteth some consideration for the use of his house, and spoil made by them.’ The Ambassador and his party were entertained on Queen’s day at Whitehall where a special place was built to house them to view the triumph. Stow observed that the Barbarians, ‘Notwithstanding all this kindness shown them together with their diet and all other provisions for six months space wholly at the queen’s charges, yet such was their inveterate hate unto our Christian religion and estate as they could not endure to give any manner of alms, charity, or relief, either in money or broken meat, unto any English poor, but reserved their fragments and sold the same unto such poor as would give most for them,’ and he continued ‘during their half years abode in London…used all subtleties and diligence to know the prices weights measures and kinds of differences in such commodities as either there country sent hither or England transported thither. They carried with them all sorts of English weights measures and samples of commodities.’ Stow also hinted that the interpreter, Abd el-Dodar, had been poisoned upon their return to Barbary, because he ‘commended the estate and bounty of England’. The Ambassador took with him one John Roiliffe, a learned man, and Richard Edwards, an apothecary, to serve al-Mansur.
At the end of his six-month embassy, Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud had managed to secure several lucrative trade agreements, but no solid military backing for the attempt on Spain. The queen found the idea ridiculous, past hurts in France had proved that even if the conquest was a success, holding the country against the French would be impossible, and if the attempt failed, a weakened Spain would open the door to a French invasion and so diplomatically she declined al-Mansur’s alliance. The queen required an advance payment of 100, 000 ducats to provide a fleet, and al-Mansur asked that a Tall ship be sent to collect it.
Perhaps we can judge the true affect of this embassy by a decree issued by the Privy Council soon after the departure of Messaoud for the deportation of ‘Negars and Blackamoores’, the affect of which had disastrous consequences for the nation, as it brought about reconciliation between Barbary and Spain.