Nandini Das: ‘Sense of uncertainty haunted the English in Mughal India’

(Published in Frontline, March 23 2023)

At a time when Britain’s colonial legacy is being seriously reinterrogated and recast, both in India and the United Kingdom, Nandini Das’s Courting India offers a refreshing contribution to understanding the origins of the British empire. Woven through the embassy of Sir Thomas Roe to the Mughal court in the seventeenth century, the book demonstrates the uncertainty and complexity of this early encounter between England and India, while also offering a rich, colourful history of the period and its politics and courtly dynamics. Edited excerpts from an email interview:

What drew you to Thomas Roe and his embassy to Emperor Jahangir? He appears in most histories as a passing reference but occupies centre stage in Courting India.

The history of Britain’s fledgling global ambitions in this period tends to invite grand narratives that gesture implicitly towards what the British Empire would become in future. So it is not surprising that the first embassy–in many ways a false start–is often neglected. When it is mentioned, it is usually in passing, or through certain exemplary moments of Roe’s experience that tend to get quoted repeatedly. The problem is that this tends to impose a sense of proleptic inevitability on British presence in India, whereas in reality, this foundational period is one of deep uncertainty.

    When the English East India Company convinced James I to send an official ambassador to the Mughal court to negotiate a ‘firman’ to trade, Roe’s England was beset by inner strife, financial woes, and anxiety about corruption. The court he entered in India in 1616, on the other hand, was that of the wealthy and cultured ‘Great Mogol,’ whose dominion was considered to be one of the greatest empires of the world.

    When I began working on Roe over a decade ago, I was struck by how counter-intuitive that story I was encountering in historical documents was in comparison to our understanding of the British Empire in India. Attending to that moment reveals a world whose stakes are at once familiar and disconcerting. It is familiar because so many things start taking shape that will describe the contours of global geopolitics in centuries to come; disconcerting because so much that lies behind it all – its contexts, its imperatives – radically challenge our sense of the way Britain and its empire will see themselves in those centuries.

    Roe’s account of his travel to India and stay at the Mughal court is a key source for the book. Tell us about this diary: it has a performative quality, given that he is writing for an audience at home.

    While Roe was appointed ambassador by James I, all the expenses of the embassy– including Roe’s salary – were paid by the East India Company. That is a hugely important factor. It is thanks to the Company’s obsession with paperwork and record-keeping that we can trace Roe’s experiences day by day, sometimes hour by hour. They wanted a detailed journal so that they could ensure he was truly earning his salary. But Roe was not the only one. In telling the story of the first embassy, I put Roe’s testimony alongside multiple others that sometimes echo and sometimes pull against his account. And there is a lot of it – in English, Latin, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese, among European languages, as well as in Persian and Sanskrit and multiple Indian languages. Some of it is in print, others survive in handwritten scribbles. Roe himself often grumbles about having to balance paper on his knees as he scribbled letters to merchants in Surat, Ajmer, Agra, Isfahan and London.

    His voice, by definition, is inevitably biased. It is shaped by his sense of the differing priorities of his many readers, from his king and Company paymasters to the English traders in India and his fashionable, aristocratic friends at home. He is conscious always of what they might expect – both of India, and of him. As I argue in the book, history is as much about the stories we tell as it is about the events it records, and Roe’s account is a perfect illustration of history in the making: of events being recorded and retold, others being silenced and erased.

    But I am also interested in how memory works in shaping cross-cultural encounters. New worlds, as Courting India argues, are hardly ever new – part of it is always what you carry with you. Roe’s behaviour was shaped by his own experiences of James I’s court in London, his assumptions about India, and his views on English identity. Drawing those connections that link ‘home’ and ‘abroad’, the familiar and the unfamiliar, is inevitably a speculative exercise, but also a necessary one. Otherwise, we run the risk of treating the British Empire as a set of occurrences separated from its point of origin.

      How influential was Roe’s account in framing views of India in Britain in the period that followed?

      There were accounts before and after Roe. He is very likely to have read many of them, such as Richard Hakluyt’s monumental collection of the writings by English travellers: The Principal Navigations, Voyages, and Discoveries of the English Nation. Roe’s account is particularly important both because of his position as the first officially recognised diplomatic representative of the English nation at the Mughal court, and because of the level of detail. The map that he helped create would become known as ‘Roe’s Map’ and become the source of English maps of India for decades. His views would continue to be sought on ‘Eastern’ affairs. And many assumptions and accusations he makes about India and Mughal statecraft would become central to later English views of the nation they were to colonise.

      Yet I should note that what I find fascinating about Roe’s account, and in the accounts of his fellow travellers, like his chaplain Edward Terry, are not just the ins-and-outs of political and diplomatic manoeuvring, but the everyday details. One document among Roe’s papers, for example, offers a list of clothes he got made for himself in India. There are over 20 items, from an olive-coloured suit with a crimson taffeta cloak picked out with gold trimmings, to doublets of yellow satin and cloth-of-gold cloaks – European-style clothes made, very likely, by local tailors. In Terry’s account, we get glimpses of street-life in Indian cities, of food and wildlife. These, I would argue, are as important as Roe’s map and his account of Mughal politics.

        Tell us about his experience with the Mughals, and its challenges.

        Roe, as the English representative, was a very small player on a very large stage. There had been Englishmen at the Mughal court before. One of them, William Hawkins, even managed to marry an Armenian Christian woman who was under Jahangir’s protection. Yet the problem was that none of these figures were taken seriously by the Mughals. The English feared that the Mughals considered dealing with ‘mere merchants’ beneath them, and they were partly right. It was also because the Mughal state was wary of existing European presence on Indian soil, in the form of the Portuguese.

        Roe’s main challenge was to establish the English as a serious power, and as an alternative to the Portuguese. As he soon realised, this was easier said than done. Money was always an issue: the investment the East India Company made in the embassy simply could not contend with the eyewatering display of wealth at the Mughal court. Early in his embassy, Roe was deeply insulted when a Mughal official ridiculed the present of a carriage and a musical organ he had brought for Jahangir, and called them ‘a cart and pipe’. He had to grudgingly admit, though, that English gifts were almost invariably terrible. Even if he solved that problem through ingenuity and taste, he still needed to decipher Mughal court politics to figure out whom to trust. This is where juxtaposing Roe’s account with Mughal histories become interesting, because it throws such raking light across the gaps in his understanding, and the ways in which his experience in James I’s London coloured his view of Jahangir’s court.

        However, the more I looked into the Company letters of this period, it became obvious that for Roe, the greatest challenge wasn’t the Mughals. It was actually his own countrymen, the English merchants and ‘factors’ on the ground. They are colourful, and petty, deeply defensive about their dealings, and simply have no time for someone they see as a privileged aristocratic coming from England to tell them what to do. There are already interesting signs of deep fractures within the corporate structure of the Company. Occasionally, things also get entertaining, when Roe has to deal with everything from rebellious coachmen and passive-aggressive bureaucratic letter-writing, to the antics of love-struck runaway chaplains.

        How much did the Mughals care about Britain and this new ambassador? One prince hadn’t even heard of the English.

        In the detailed, almost daily account of events in Jahangir’s memoirs, there is no sign of Roe, neither do any other Mughal sources refer to him. It shows how little the English feature in the Mughal view of the world. For Roe and his chaplain, Terry, this was a sign of typical ‘Eastern’ and ‘Indian’ pride, although they grudgingly admitted that the Mughal emperor perhaps had grounds for such pride, given his lands and wealth.

        Jahangir, in Roe’s account, is caricatured as a henpecked figure, and yet at times reluctantly treated with awe. How did Roe’s relationship with the emperor evolve, and did Roe, over time, revisit his own initial views on the Mughals?

        Roe’s evolving relationship with Jahangir is fascinating. As I suggest in the book, it becomes the centre of Roe’s deeply conflicted feelings about the Mughal court, and about India. He is in turns flattered by the emperor’s attention, shocked by Mughal courtly practices such as the public durbar, which to him seems to encourage a dangerous level of interaction between the sovereign and the ordinary public, and is strikingly moved by Jahangir’s reception of hermits and religious practitioners. Progressively, Jahangir becomes the focus of both the extravagant wealth and power, and many of the qualities he admires – but only because Roe could direct his frustration, insecurity and anxieties about India onto another figure, Prince Khurram, the future Shah Jahan.

          In researching this story, was there anything that surprised you?

          There were many. The most striking, however, is the overwhelming sense of uncertainty that haunted the English in India in this period. I had anticipated it but had not realised exactly how much it defined English actions. Risks and wagers become a recurrent motif in the book precisely because of this.

          There is a strange irony in how Roe, in positioning the English as better than the Portuguese, points out that the latter coveted territory, whereas the British wished only to trade quietly. Yet, do we see at all a hint of imperial dreams for the future in Roe’s era, or is that a later development?

          Roe, his monarch – King James I, and the trading companies, all had ambitions of acquiring geo-political power, but ‘empire’ is a more complicated, multi-valent concept than we assume. What it meant to James I, keen on uniting the Scottish and English crowns and assuming a prominent role in European politics, is different from what it meant to Roe, much more keen on England taking on a forceful role as a Protestant power. Neither of those, again, were entirely aligned with the trading companies’ views on England’s presence on the global stage, driven as that was by a sense of being late in the game, with the known world already carved-up among other European and non-European powers. What is clear, however, is that despite the long hiatus that followed Roe’s embassy, before the English consolidated their presence in India, his account would continue to frame English assumptions about, and perceptions of, India.