The Organ

An Organ for the Sultan

by Jack Warren, translated from Esperanto by Peter Bolwell

In the English state archives there is a letter written to Queen Elizabeth 1st in 1599 which contains the following passage: This is a large and strange present to send to the Grand Turk which will undoubtedly provoke much comment and will surprise the other nations, especially the Germans. The gift in question was a beautiful mechanical organ built by Thomas Dallam from Warrington. From 1599 to 1600 Dallam personally undertook delivery of the organ by sea to the Sultan's court in Istanbul and after many adventures returned safely home. This achievement would have been forgotten long since, if he had not kept a diary of the journey consisting of 78 octavo pages which describe almost every detail, from leaving Blackwall in London until his return. There are only a few pages missing. By some means it turned up in the British Museum, where it still remains.

Why send such a strange gift to an exotic country on the other side of the known world? Well, in Europe at that time there were a number of powerful nations, all competing against each other to secure the best advantage, and the English wanted help from the Turkish navy against their enemy Spain. Like many of the English of that time Dallam, who was born around 1570, had gone to seek his fortune in the capital. He served an apprenticeship with the Company of Smiths as an organ maker, and soon set up in business on his own. The cultural life of London was flourishing thanks to Shakespeare, Marlowe and Donne, and so too was its commerce, thanks to Drake and Raleigh. There were luxuries to be had such as Turkish carpets, Persian silk, Venetian glass and Indian spices. An Englishman with sufficient money could travel abroad to France, Holland or Italy. Going to Turkey however was dangerous. The vast Turkish empire stretched from Oran to Azov, and from Budapest to Basra. If the Turks captured an Englishman they would either kill him, or put him to work as a galley-slave. It is not clear whether Dallam was aware of the risks he was taking before he set out.

Anglo-Turkish relations however had commercial aspects as well as military ones. Since the 1570s the English ambassador Barton had got on well with the Sultan Mohammed III and had even fought for him on military campaigns. After Barton's sudden death however his replacement Henry Lello was a less capable man. It was continually necessary to vie with the French and Venetian ambassadors for the Sultan's attention, and the gift of the organ was all part of those manoeuvres.

What was the organ like? In his diary Dallam describes it in passing: at the top of the organ, 16 feet up, appeared a holly bush with blackbirds and thrushes which sang and flapped their wings at the end of the music. There was a 24-hour clock with a 16 tone peal of bells. On the cover were two human figures standing on the corners at the second stage up, with silver trumpets in their hands. There was also a keyboard for the organist. It cost 550 altogether, and the covering contained at least 300 ounces of silver. The organ was probably constructed in 1597 or 1598. A successful demonstration at a banquet in Whitehall left everyone - including the Queen - highly impressed.

On the 9th of February 1599 Dallam set off (at very short notice, he says) on his voyage to Turkey. His diary includes a list of the provisions: oil, vinegar, prunes (one shilling and threepence), oats, spice and sugar (three shillings) He took with him a sword, a chest and a luxury at the price of 35 shillings a spinet without legs. The organ was dismantled and stowed on board the Hector, an armed merchant ship of 300 tons, at London Bridge. The captain was Richard Parsons.

It was a long voyage, which is probably what led Dallam to begin writing his journal. He wasn't a cultured man and had no intention of publishing a book, but he was well educated, highly inquisitive, and was never bored. Reading the journal, one always feels right in the thick of the things Dallam describes, as though seeing them through his own eyes.

Even their progress through the English Channel became interesting, when the Hector had to defend itself against the notorious pirates of Dunkirk. The passengers had to assist the ship's crew, and Dallam stood ready with a musket. Parsons succeeded in capturing several of the pirates and would have been entitled to take them ashore as prisoners, but to Dallam's consternation he accepted bribes to set them free. Dallam noted that the same pirates were later responsible for the capture of 60 vessels in total along the East Anglian coast.

Getting further south, Dallam enjoyed the warm weather, and watched the porpoises and whales playing, and entertained his fellow travellers on his spinet. On 27th March they passed through the Straits of Gibraltar without any trouble from Spanish ships. Off Marbella and Malaga they could see the snow on the peaks of the Sierra Nevada. On the 30th they stopped at Algiers, at that time a city-state ruled by the Turks, and whose main source of income was piracy. Christians were taken captive there and tortured or enslaved for failing to comply with Islamic law. That did not frighten off the inquisitive Dallam however, who went ashore to admire the fruit just appearing on the trees, the women with their faces hidden, the Moors almost naked, and even heated chicken-coops: a device unknown in Europe at the time. In the meantime the king got to hear about the organ, and arrested Captain Parsons and two of the sailors, holding them captive until he was shown the organ. There was consternation on the ship: what should they do? Dallam fearlessly went to the palace and used his negotiating skills to secure the release of the English prisoners. Dallam only takes 2 or 3 lines in his journal to describe the episode, but clearly he was a man that Warrington could be proud of.

They left Algiers on 4th April. He describes in vivid but colloquial style the lightning during a storm off the African coast: fire like hot metal taken from the forge, sometimes like a worm running, sometimes like a horseshoe, and again like a leg with a foot. They passed Malta and on the 20th reached the Greek island of Zakinthos. There Dallam again demonstrated his imperturbable curiosity. Climbing to the peak of the nearby mountain Skopos, he went to the Easter service in the village church and was given bread and coloured eggs, giving his knife in exchange.

From Zakinthos the Hector did not go directly to Constantinople, but to Iskenderun to take on goods destined for Aleppo in Syria. Going ashore on a bird-hunting expedition, Dallam and his companions were admiring some water-buffaloes when they were ambushed by locals armed with guns and had to flee in haste. On the way, Dallam noticed on the wall of a house some very strange, horrid little animals, which could climb up and down very quickly, some of them larger than a big toad and of a similar colour, but they had long tails like a rat. It was the first time Dallam had seen lizards.

Visiting the house of an English merchant, he unexpectedly had a chance to see a modern method of rapid communication. There was a dovecote in the courtyard, and when a white dove arrived there the merchant called out, Welcome, good old Tony! and took a letter from under its wing which had been sent from Aleppo, 80 miles away, only four hours previously. The same journey would have taken four days by camel.

On 10th June the Hector left Iskanderun and went via the south coast of Turkey to the island of Rhodes where they arrived on the 27th. Captain Parsons entertained the deputy-governor and other dignitaries on board ship. However the following day once again one of the travellers was imprisoned, this time the English chaplain Maye. A delegation went to the deputy-governor to ask for an explanation. The response was: It is because your gift to me was insufficient. Parsons protested that he had already been quite generous. To my superior, yes was the reply, but not to me! Parsons offered him his own gift and the English chaplain was released.

Having left Rhodes on 30th June they reached the island of Kos on 14th July. First of all they had to find fresh food, as they had had nothing to eat for 3 days other than rice boiled in foul-smelling water. The English Consul there entertained them on his veranda. The local inhabitants fascinated by this crowded onto the garden wall until it toppled over. This greatly angered the Consul, and he probably wished that we had not come. However Dallam took the opportunity to admire the lovely women of the town: there are a number of entries about this in his journal.

At last the Hector reached Constantinople on 16th August six months and three days after leaving London. At that time the City possessed a 12 mile long wall with 25 gates in it dating from the 5th century. The so-called new palace of the Turks (which Europeans called the seraglio) stood on the ruins of a Greek palace. Not far away stood the Cathedral of St Sophia, the Roman hippodrome and the Egyptian obelisk. In Galata, across the waters of the Golden Horn, was the Christian quarter and it was there that the English ambassador Henry Lello impatiently awaited the gift which would re-establish his prestige over that of the French and Venetians. The organ was loaded onto a ferry and rowed across the water to Galata, where they discovered with a shock that there was mould inside it, the wooden joints had come apart, the paint was peeling, and there were holes and dents in the pipes all due to the effects of damp and heat. How on earth could they give this to the Sultan? According to Lello, the organ wasn't even worth tuppence. Dallam, angry and offended, noted with some restraint: I will omit what I said to the ambassador in reply. But he knew the damage was not beyond repair, and he was concerned about his own reputation as a craftsman more than that of the Levant Company which was financing the donation. So, he wrote, I set to work.

Fortunately the mechanism was still in working order, so he worked for ten days replacing the pipes. On Tuesday 11th September the organ was dismantled, loaded onto a ferry, taken across the Golden Horn and erected within the seraglio. From now on Dallam and his assistants went back and forth every day, starting early and eating with the other servants. They were given black bread, boiled mutton, pilau, yogurt and lots of fresh fruit. Dallam recorded: I ate each day in the seraglio, and every day we were given grapes after our meal.

For him however the stay in Constantinople was not without danger. Any Westerner who had the courage to go walking outside had to be accompanied by a janissary (one of the Sultan's foot-soldiers) and, in order to avoid attracting attention, had to wear a Turkish cloak over his own clothes. It was necessary to avoid wearing green, which was the colour of the Prophet: one man had already been beaten up, in the street for wearing green culottes. A Christian was not allowed to carry weapons, or to look a Turk straight in the eye. The Turkish Empire tolerated Christians and Jews under its rule, but only within strict limits.

The great day arrived. At great personal risk, Dallam put on the green livery of his Smiths' Guild and hurried to the Seraglio with his assistants. At eight O'clock and again at nine, he checked the organ carefully and dusted it. The Sultan arrived to a cannon salute fired from the Hector, in a golden coloured boat decorated with ivory, ebony, mother-of-pearl and gold. Dallam, noticing that he had in fact arrived some seven minutes earlier than expected, adjusted the clock so as to make it chime just at the right moment.

The Sultan and his courtiers came in and sat down on the seat of honour. The clock chimed and the organ ran through its array of tricks without a hitch. The Sultan approached the keyboard and, noticing that the keys had been going down during the performance without being touched, asked whether anyone knew how to play it. Dallam was asked to come in. To begin with he was stupefied by the array of page-boys, deaf-mutes (including falconers with their birds) and dwarfs armed with sabres. Now what was he to do? Dallam had been warned on no account to turn his back on His Majesty. But he made me stand up . . . and rising from his own seat, pushed me forwards, and having no other choice, he sat right up close to me; and I thought he was drawing his sword to cut off my head. He played until the clock struck again, bowed, and backed away in the proper manner. He was given 45 gold coins from the hand of the Sultan himself, out of a bag that was the Sultan had behind him, and then I was led out again the way I had gone in, not at all displeased at my success.

In fact Dallam had made such an impression on the Court that he was invited to remain permanently, and given the offer to choose two of the Sultan's concubines. He had to invent a wife and children awaiting his return in England. Ten days later he was invited on a tour of the Sultan's chambers an unheard-of experience for a westerner in those days. Aside from rooms full of presents and cupboards full of clothes, and the Sultan's archery court, he had a brief glimpse of the famous concubines. They wore culottes of fine cotton, white as snow and as light as muslin, through which I could see the skin of their thighs. These culottes went half-way down the leg. Some of them had nothing on their legs but a gold ankle-ring, and velvet slippers on their feet 4 or 5 inches high. He stayed there so long that the guide became angry: He stamped his feet to make me finish gazing, which I was most loath to do, for that wondrous sight pleased me very much.

Having completed his mission, Dallam was allowed to go home. On 28th November he left Galata in a Turkish ship: Not a pleasant voyage. The captain and the sailors were such barbarians. On 9th December they reached Volos on the eastern coast of Greece. Then they had to go inland through the mountains to the west coast. An interpreter/guide went with them: this was an Englishman, born in Chorley in Lancashire, called Finch. He had conformed entirely to the Turkish religion, but he was a loyal friend to us. It turned out they had need of such a friend. In Lamia, where they had to stay for two days, Dallam noted: I use the word stay because I am certain we had no rest during the night, our lodging being so bad, aside from the fear of having our throats cut. In the mountains they had to face thunder, lightning, rain, snow and very difficult roads. They were followed by four Turkish brigands who intended to murder and rob them, supposing that they would be helped by Finch. However he was able to poison their wine while having a drink with them, so saving the travellers.

After a more pleasant stay in Navpaktos (better known by its Italian name of Lepanto) they crossed the Gulf of Patrai to visit the island of Zakinthos again. There the loyal Finch said goodbye, and it was necessary to wait for a ship to continue the journey. What a surprise 46 days later when the first ship to arrive turned out to be the Hector! So they left Zakinthos on 26th February 1600 in convoy with seven other ships. On 8th March having caught sight of some Spanish ships while on the way to Malta, they had no hesitation in chasing and capturing them. We got some very good white bread and nice cheese from them.

They continued past Ibiza, Alicante and through the Straits of Gibraltar. Their fastest ship, the Rebecka, was sent on ahead to England to carry the news of the success of their expedition. But two days later the Rebecka came back towards them, chased by two Spanish galleons of 1200 and 800 tons. The ships appeared to be on their way home from the east, presumably with rich cargoes. The sailors were keen to attack them, and persuaded the reluctant Captain Parsons to agree. The Hector and the next biggest ship, the Great Susan, drew near to the huge galleons. Tension rose as they waited for the first shot to be fired . . . and there, just at that point, several pages have gone missing from the journal. We know the English were victorious because on the final page Dallam relates how they came ashore at Dover with the Spanish captain safely held prisoner. They had a celebration, very happy to be back on English soil. They rode to Canterbury, spent the night at Rochester, and the following day, at the end of April 1600, arrived in London. And there the journal ends.

This achievement gave Dallam quite a reputation, although we do not know whether he actually made any profit from it. Ben Johnson refers to the organ in his play Every man in his Humour, and the event is also mentioned in a later play of 1615. Dallam enjoyed a long and active career as an organ maker. He probably carried on working until his death, and founded a line of craftsmen who engaged in various enterprises in England and elsewhere for almost a hundred years.

Unfortunately none of Dallam's organs has survived: no doubt several fell victim to Cromwell's regime. Dallam himself did not live to see that. We may imagine him as a hard working, busy man who nevertheless would take the time on occasion to sit in the corner with a mug of spiced warm ale and tell his family about the things he had done in his youth, and all about his great voyage making it come alive again for them just as does again for us in the pages of his journal.

This article was first published in La Brita Esperanto magazine, original text by Jack Warren, translated from Esperanto by Peter Bolwell. An abbreviated version of this article appeared in issue 328 (May 2004) of The Organ.