Sir Thomas Roe being received by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir in 1616

In the court of the Mughal emperor

Why remember the embarrassing first steps of a giant?


This article is taken from the April 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The late Sir Christopher Meyer, the closest thing modern British diplomacy has produced to a public figure, enjoyed comparing his trade to prostitution. Both are ancient trades, and neither enjoys a wholly favourable reputation. Any modern diplomat will discreetly confirm that the profession is far from the anodyne, flag-emoji civility and coyly embarrassed glamour they project on Twitter. 

Courting India, Nandini Das (Bloomsbury £30)

Whilst none of our modern representatives are working in quite the same conditions as their predecessor Sir Thomas Roe, they may well find uncanny parallels with his unfortunate mission.

The fledgling and precarious East India Company, founded in 1600, had sent representatives to the Mughal court before, but they were mere merchants and messengers. The stern rebuff they received called for a formal representative of the King. 

After the company persuaded James I of the necessity, Thomas Roe (a well-connected MP, friend to John Donne and Ben Jonson, and already an experienced traveller after an attempt to reach the legendary El Dorado) was dispatched to the court of Mughal Emperor Jahangir in 1615. He remained there until 1619, in an embassy that the cultural historian, Nandini Das, describes in Courting India as “infuriatingly unproductive”. 

The company kept rigorous records, and Roe meticulously kept a daily diary. Professor Das uses these and the reports of other English travellers to narrate Roe’s journey, as well as contemporary literature and, more importantly, their Indian equivalents. It is not so much the diplomatic success that fascinates Das about Roe’s embassy, but the mindset of the early modern encounter between England and India.

In a boom time for histories of British colonialism, this is an intelligent and gripping book with a thoughtful awareness of human relationships and frailties, and a model approach to early modern cross-cultural encounters. 

The privations suffered by Roe’s embassy are striking. Only three in ten people had a chance of coming home alive from the voyage to India. Das’s recreation of the journey out is as intense and claustrophobic as Das Boot, with rotten medicine, cruel maritime punishments and untrained boys acting as surgeons. Dead bodies onboard would have their toes gnawed off by rats within hours.

In India, the English sailors excelled themselves as uncouth Brits abroad: drinking, fighting and baiting local customs, such as killing a calf. A chaplain was notorious for “drunkenly dodging brothel-keepers and engaging in half-naked brawls”. For most of his time, Roe — seeking to keep costs down — lived with merchants and factors already in India, in a cramped, filthy, dangerous house.

These merchants were so intensely thrust together that they carried deep and vicious resentments over the tiniest slights — not helped by the fact that English cloth sold poorly in India, a fact they took out on the locals.

Cost was an ever-present stress for Roe who had largely self-funded his embassy: “to supply the Company’s wants, I have wholly diminished myself”. This was in no small part down to the Mughal court’s customs of gift-giving. A gift at the Mughal court was a sign of the magnificence of the giver and honour of the recipient. To Roe’s eyes, this looked like an “insatiable appetite” that gave no recompense, blurred the boundaries of commerce, patronage and diplomacy, and made him deeply uncomfortable.

The gifts Roe brought for Jahangir — a virginal and a carriage which had barely survived the journey — were so meagre that the Mughal emperor doubted whether the king of England “were a great king”. No wonder, given the presentation of gifts from other Indian princes resembled the entrance parade of Prince Ali Ababwa in Disney’s Aladdin.

Das is not judgemental of exoticising instincts amongst the English travellers

What magnificence there was at the Mughal court: Jahangir was “so rich in jewells that I must confess I never saw together so unvaluable wealth”, wrote Roe, who developed a reputation for swanning off from court in a dramatic huff. He ultimately tired of the alarming ostentation.

Das is particularly strong at tracing the fluid conceptualisation of “India” that Roe and his contemporaries would have had: reports from early travellers, representations in romances like Orlando Furioso, floats at the Lord Mayor’s Parade, and contemporary poetry and drama. It is no surprise that Roe, when confronted with the court of a real-life oriental despot, harks back to the players in Marlowe’s Tamburlaine

Roe himself was fascinated by the emperor’s harem, catching glimpses of them through “little holes in a grate of reed”. Das evocatively leans into the unreachable glamour of the harem, whilst also giving due recognition to the powerful Nur Jahan, effectively Jahangir’s co-regent. She goes so far as to compare her with King James I’s queen Anna of Denmark.

To Das’s great credit, she is not judgemental of these exoticising instincts amongst the English travellers, though she does detect a “self-righteous religious and cultural superiority” in some. She finds them far more worthy of study than censure. Das is interested in the nebulousness and shifting realities of the cultural exchange, best exemplified by the moment where Jahangir’s son Khurram (the later Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal) presented Roe with a cloth-of-gold cloak in a common Mughal ritual. Khurram was playing politics, but the act made Roe deeply uncomfortable and resentful as he interpreted it through his experience of English customs.

Other European powers also loom large: the Dutch, those cousins in religion and rivals in trade; but especially the Spanish, whose flamboyant embassies and conniving officials set the example for displays of diplomatic power; and the Portuguese, already deeply embedded in India, running a naval protection racket and jealously guarding their knowledge of Asian trade. 

The Company was desperate in the face of these Iberian incumbents and haughty, uninterested Mughals. Sheer chance combined with court politics ultimately played in Roe’s favour. As a small success, he gained permission for a Company trading post at Surat: a toehold in India at last. 

It is perhaps no surprise that Roe’s embassy has been superseded in the national memory by the derring-do of his contemporaries Drake and Raleigh, or the dramatic first diplomatic mission of Lord Macartney to China in 1793, or the later domination of the East India Company — why remember the embarrassing first steps of a giant? Das is confident enough to leave this implicit, showing us the nervous, anxious precariousness of Roe’s embassy in the face of a vastly more powerful and exuberant Mughal court.

The unfortunate Roe, glad to return to England in 1619, had precious little of his expenses repaid by the Company, given the poor returns of the embassy. There would be no second embassy to India until 1699.

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