In 1589, Richard Hakluyt printed a seminal collection of all the English travel writings of his times, titled The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques And Discoveries Of The English Nation. He had done so, he confessed, to counter the insulting notion in Europe that the English were inferior and laggardly naval explorers. His weighty tome and the advice he offered to trading companies galvanised seafaring activity, and, according to academic and author Nandini Das, “is the foundation on which Britain’s view of itself as a heroic seafaring nation would be established for centuries to come”.
This energising fervour was well timed, for after the excommunication of Elizabeth I by Pope Pius V in 1570, the English were struggling to trade with Catholic Europe and were desperate to discover new markets. In the trade winds of these reinventions, we find Thomas Roe in 1615, setting off on his four-year mission as English ambassador to the court of the Mughal emperor in India, Jahangir.
In her sumptuous new book, Courting India: England, Mughal India And The Origins Of Empire, Das walks us through the dark, wood-panelled rooms, gunmetal skies and corruption of Jacobean England, into the wide courtyards and light-filled spaces of Mughal India, where Roe is confronted by a world that is both familiar and deeply, unsettlingly, foreign. Roe carried with him a precious English coach, a marvel of engineering and style in Europe, as a gift for the Mughal emperor. And the fate of this coach is almost caricatural in the loaded symbolism it represents of the fears that poison the early English encounters with Mughal India.
The coach was esteemed as a gift among the royal houses of Europe but the governor of Surat, where Roe’s ship docked, reacted scathingly. “He scorned it and said it was little and poor,” wrote a mortified Roe, who would have noted its tarnished condition after the long sea voyage in the harsh light of India. By the end of the year, Roe would note bitterly that the English coachman who had been meant to parade the coach fetchingly before Jahangir had instead been recruited into the emperor’s service, shamelessly parading in full Mughal costume. It was not long before Jahangir had copies made of the English coach, now upholstered in gorgeous Persian velvet instead of the inferior Chinese one of the original. The English coach and coachman had been “othered” and Indianised, assimilated and morphed into a different, alien thing.
As we read of Roe’s high-stakes struggles to scrape together suitable gifts for the Mughal courtiers, there is a faint but disquieting shiver of foreboding, for by the time of governor general Warren Hastings little more than 150 years later, it was Indian rulers who were sending him staggeringly large diamonds and furniture in pure ivory, and it was Hastings who was bestowing miniature paintings of himself on local nawabs, like a monarch himself, much like James I was doing in the time of Roe. The genesis of those centuries of empire in India was taking place exactly at this moment with Roe, in his satin doublet, feathered cap and mean gifts.
Das, a professor of early modern literature and culture, is able to place Roe with exquisite finesse within his culture and time. In one famous anecdote, Jahangir is able to have one of Roe’s miniature paintings copied perfectly by his master painters, so that Roe struggles to identify the original. In his journals, Roe notes that Jahangir was so delighted that he “was very merry and joyful and craked like a Northern man”. To “crake”, explains Das, meant to boast or to jest, and, when used by Roe, betrays the fact that despite the alienating strangeness he always experienced, he was reacting at a visceral level to this joyous bonhomie, recognising a universal human condition. And this image of a chortling, merry emperor will stay with the reader too.
Indeed, Roe is soon caught up in Jahangir’s magnetic force field, “following him like a gigantic creature that only he could command”. When Jahangir leaves Ajmer, Roe has to follow, usually suffering from bloody dysentery and excruciating piles. As his health fails, his wanderings become miserable and he cannot join in the drinking parties for “their waters are fire”, he confesses. Perhaps it is inevitable that like Roe, and perhaps Das herself, the reader too is seduced by the personality of Jahangir and the intrigues, scandals and machinations of his court. And if there is to be any criticism of this book, it is this—that Roe is somewhat textually and literally relegated to the margins. Roe’s diary can seem pedestrian, the man fatally shackled by his deep-rooted anxieties and petty obsessions about the fear of assimilation, or “translation”, inevitably viewing the Mughal world through a fine haze of prejudice He underestimates Noor Jahan’s power, invisible as she is, and misunderstands courtly exchanges, having refused to learn any local languages. His bibulous companions are embarrassing—brutal, foul-mouthed and violent.
One of the most interesting sections is the reaction of the English travellers, shaped by the sectarian conflicts of their own nation, to the capacious religious permissiveness of Mughal India. So while Roe is amazed that non-Muslims are allowed the freedom to trade, for chaplain and author Edward Terry, eternally curious, there is much to admire in both the Hindu and Muslim devotion to regular prayer and adherence to ancestral customs. His own fellow Englishmen, he admits, were only negligently Christians, so ordinary Indians in Surat judged them harshly and said, “Christian much do wrong, much beat, much abuse others.”
Perhaps the most startling example is of the eccentric polyglot Thomas Coryat shouting out in response to the muezzin’s call to prayer the following undoubtedly linguistically nimble but offensive ditty, “La alla illa alla, Hasaret Easa Ben-alla”, to claim “There is no God but one God, and the Lord Christ is the Son of God”. Coryat had to admit that “a Christian can speak much more freely than he can in any other Mahometan Country in the World”, or indeed in any Christian country.
For so long, the Mughal empire has been viewed as if from the wrong end of a telescope—diminished and demeaned. Because it was narrated primarily through the prejudice of later British conquerors, it appeared ragged and impoverished, its decline a fatal inevitability. In Courting India, Das recreates with elegance and delicacy the time when it far overshadowed that distant, watery island in culture and in wealth. A time in which the English, and their prickly ambassador, were but an unremarkable blip in their story. On the day Roe finally left the Mughal court, Jahangir notes in his diary that the Sarus crane pair he has been studying were good parents. The departure of Roe, writes Das, “goes unremarked”.
Ira Mukhoty is a writer of historical non-fiction, including Akbar: The Great Mughal (2020) and Heroines: Powerful Indian Women In Myth And History (2017). Her first novel, Song Of Draupadi, came out in 2021.