A novice from the court of St James

"Courting India" details the early stage of the British-India encounter, with a vivid account of the mission from the court of James I, offering insights into the complexities of trade in that era

Sanjay Kumar Singh
Book cover

Courting India: England, Mughal India and The Origins of Empire
Author: Nandini Das
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 480
Price: Rs 580

The British built a powerful empire in India. But the start of their engagement with this country definitely didn’t augur much success. Nandini Das’s Courting India, which describes the incipient stage of the British-India encounter (coinciding with Mughal emperor Jahangir’s reign), paints the picture of a rather shambolic start.
Ms Das is a professor of Early Modern Literature and Culture in the English faculty at the University of Oxford. 

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The British entered India and South-east Asia trade late; it was the Portuguese and the Dutch who dominated it in the early 17th century.
The East India Company was keen to gain greater trading privileges and concessions from Jahangir. The company’s merchants (called factors) lacked the stature to obtain them from the emperor. The Company hoped that sending an ambassador from one ruler (James I of England) to another would do the trick.

Sir Thomas Roe had been a member of Parliament. He was also a man without a fortune. In those times, the wealthy bought interests in voyages to new lands. Roe wagered most of his patrimony on one such voyage. The expedition ended in a disaster, leaving Roe destitute. The Company’s offer to appoint him ambassador came as a lifeline.  
Any thoughts Roe may have entertained of easy success in his mission evaporated on arrival. Ambassadors customarily offered gifts to the emperor. Roe’s gifts for Jahangir were tawdry. They paled in comparison with the splendid offerings of the Persian ambassador, who arrived at Jahangir’s court around the same time.

Roe did, in due course, develop a rapport with the emperor, aided by the latter’s love for paintings. And over time, the ambassador, who had come to India with his own stereotypes about Asian despots, developed an admiration for the emperor.  
Prince Khurram, the heir apparent, however, proved difficult to win over. Roe found him haughty and distant. Khurram held the key to Roe’s success since Surat, where the English had their factory, was his territory. The prince was loath to grant exclusive privileges in Surat to one set of foreigners (the British) over another (the Portuguese). He remained obdurate till the very end.

The factors were another issue. They drank and engaged in unruly conduct in Surat. One such incident occurred while Roe was at Jahangir’s court, causing the emperor to turn visibly cold towards him. 
The Mughals had strong land armies but lacked naval power. The Portuguese, the Dutch and the English ruled the seas. Besides the ships belonging to the East India Company, there were also a few rogue English ships prowling the trading routes. Mughal nobles, including prominent women of the emperor’s household, had stakes in foreign trade. The rogue ships at times looted Mughal ships. One such incident was barely averted during Roe’s time at the court, sparing him the blushes.

The history books say the sun never set on the British Empire. But the period Ms Das’s work covers was one when the Mughal Empire was at the zenith of its glory. At a time when James I was engaged in a protracted squabble with Parliament over money, the opulence of Jahangir’s court left Roe wide-eyed.
We are also apt to think of secularism as an import from the West. At the time of Roe’s visit, however, it was Britain that was staunchly Protestant and intolerant towards Catholics. Jahangir, following his father’s precepts, had a much more benevolent attitude towards his subjects of diverse faiths. 

Roe’s own obduracy played no mean part in his failure. European travellers to India tried to learn or at least picked up a smattering of Persian. Roe, extremely conscious of his English-Protestant identity, never deigned to learn the language of the Mughal court, though this left him perpetually dependent on interpreters who didn’t always translate faithfully. Fearful of losing his identity, he insisted on wearing English clothes, an impractical decision that caused him much discomfort.
Ms Das has deployed an array of sources to weave together a richly detailed narrative: Roe’s own journals and those of other contemporary Englishmen in India; the massive volume of correspondence generated by the Company’s staff because of their employer’s insistence on documenting everything; the paperwork generated by the Mughal bureaucracy; and the emperor’s own detailed autobiography, the Jahangirnama. 

In concrete terms, Roe’s embassy didn’t yield much for the English. It also says something about the significance, or lack thereof, of the British ambassador’s visit that neither his arrival nor departure merits even a passing reference in the Jahangirnama.    
Despite the unsuccessful nature of the undertaking it covers, Ms Das’s book works. Her meticulous research and evocative writing combine to paint a vivid picture of those times. For anyone keen to learn more about the start of Britain’s tryst with India, this riveting book is a must-read.

First Published: Apr 24 2023 | 9:50 PM IST

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