Courting India: England, Mughal India and the Origins of Empire 
by Nandini Das.
Bloomsbury, 440 pp., £30, March, 978 1 5266 1564 0
Show More
Show More

On​ 10 January 1616, Sir Thomas Roe was received by Emperor Jahangir at his court in Ajmer in Northern India. Jahangir sat in an overhead gallery, with guests standing in hierarchically ranked tiers, and Roe remarked how ‘this sitting out hath so much affinity with a theatre … the king in his gallery; the great men lifted on a stage as actors; the vulgar below gazing on.’ Two months earlier, Roe described a durbar held in Burhanpur by Jahangir’s son, Parvez, as being akin to ‘a great stage’, with Parvez seated like the ‘mock kings’ familiar to London playgoers. Nandini Das suggests that Roe’s theatrical tropes were deployed defensively in an attempt to diminish the opulent magnificence of the Mughal court. Yet he was the ambassador of James VI and I, who had advised his heir, Prince Henry, in Basilicon Doron (1599) that ‘a king is as one set on a stage, whose smallest actions and gestures all the people gazingly do behold.’

Ten months after the audience at Ajmer, Jahangir’s favoured son, Khurram, presented Roe with a gold cloak ‘once or twice worn’ that the ambassador grudgingly consented to wear. Though he recognised that its presentation signified gracious personal acceptance, Roe privately fumed that the garment would be more suitable for when Khurram’s notorious ‘ancestor Tamburlaine was represented at the theatre’ in Marlowe’s tragedy. Roe also likened the cloak to a ‘Babylonish garment’: one of the treasures stolen from Jericho in the Book of Joshua. Fittingly, the epilogue to Courting India describes the Empire of India Exhibition at Earls Court in 1895, where a ‘historical spectacular play’, featuring almost one thousand actors, was staged for an audience of six thousand. The performance told nine hundred years of Indian history in nine scenes, one of which dramatised Roe’s embassy. As Das writes, it was ‘deeply ironic that Roe, who cringed at the thought of being coerced into the role of an unwilling actor, had become part of this theatrical entertainment for the masses’.

Cringing embarrassment, performative drama, lavish spectacle, unexpected kindness, petty one-upmanship, intense physical discomfort and rugged resilience are all motifs in Das’s cross-cultural history of Roe’s time in India. Appointed as the first English ambassador to the Mughal court, Roe left Tilbury in February 1615 aboard the East India Company’s new ship the Lion, and returned, in command of the Anne Royal, to the Downs in September 1619. He had previously held a household position under Elizabeth I; travelled from La Coruña to Valladolid as part of the delegation sent by James VI and I to ratify an Anglo-Spanish alliance in 1605; commanded an expedition to Guiana in 1610, enthusiastically supported by the imprisoned Sir Walter Raleigh; and accompanied James’s daughter, Elizabeth, to Heidelberg after her marriage to the Palatine Elector Frederick V in 1613. When he returned from India in 1619, Roe was still only 38. Thereafter accompanied by his intrepid wife, Lady Eleanor, he subsequently spent seven years during the 1620s as the Levant Company’s ambassador to the Ottoman court in Constantinople, followed by diplomatic missions to Denmark, Poland and the Holy Roman Empire amid the convulsions of the Thirty Years’ War. Aged sixty and serving as English ambassador to the Imperial Diet at Regensburg in 1641, Roe’s eloquence impressed Emperor Ferdinand III, who, despite meeting numerous foreign grandees, reportedly said that ‘I scarce ever met with an ambassador till now.’ Ferdinand added that were Roe a woman – and despite the fact that the Englishman was twice his age – he would have been smitten.

In the instructions formulated for Roe’s embassy, James directed him to impress on Jahangir that the English king wielded great ‘power and strength at sea, which gives us not only reputation and authority among the greatest princes of Christendom, but makes us even a terror to all nations’. Given such assertions, it was hoped that English trading rights in Gujarat might be secured. As England’s first official embassy to India, the significance of Roe’s mission has long been recognised, with some scholars keen to regard it – in Rupali Mishra’s phrase – as an ‘emblem of empire to come’. Roe was, however, the diplomatic servant of two masters: he was James’s representative, but received his annual salary of £600 from the EIC, which barred him from involvement in commercial matters. The demand for his appointment had come from company factors in India such as William Biddulph, who in 1613 had underscored the need for an official ambassador who could correct the claims of Jesuit priests and Portuguese commercial rivals that the English were ‘a base people and dwell in a little island’. In practice, state and company interests often aligned, but Roe retained the view – reiterated at Constantinople in the 1620s – that interest in mercantile affairs remained secondary to ‘the sublime speculations of ambassadors’.

The EIC required Roe to maintain a meticulous record of his activities; Das writes that his journal provides ‘a day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour, account of his life and the lives of the people around him, both foreign and familiar, its tone shifting back and forth from amusement and excitement to anger, frustration and despair’. Only the first volume, covering events until February 1617, has survived. Later volumes were in the company’s archives in 1629 – when Roe himself sought permission to consult them – but scholars are now obliged to rely for their understanding of the latter half of his embassy on edited selections from the original journals that were published in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Some historians have seen Roe’s account – for instance, his reaction to the gold cloak – as confirming fundamental differences between European and Indian worldviews, while others have found evidence for similarities in court cultures and shared understandings. Das sensibly resists binary interpretations, emphasising Roe’s perceptions of both parallels and differences: ‘If there is one thing that following Roe in India illuminates, it is the messiness of human experience and memory.’ Das also moves beyond the standard reliance on Roe’s journal and correspondence, enhanced by the accounts of his chaplain, Edward Terry, and EIC factors and ships’ captains. To balance these English perspectives, she draws fruitfully on the detailed record compiled by Jahangir in his Jahangirnama – ‘a rare example of a first-person autobiographical narrative by a reigning monarch’ – in which, tellingly, Roe’s name does not feature. Das explicates the structure and influence of the Mughal harem, as well as the powerplay within the emperor’s extended family, in order to show how, by October 1617, ‘the English ambassador had become a minor pawn in the high-stakes game of shatranj, Indo-Persian chess, that was splitting Jahangir’s household apart.’

Courting India requires readers to keep reorienting their perspective. As Das reminds us, to ‘orient’ a map correctly involves placing Asia and the rising sun at the top and disregarding the compass point of the North. Once in India, Roe had to quickly reconsider the likelihood of England’s being feared as ‘a terror to all nations’. The Mughal emperor ruled around a hundred million people. A few years earlier, an EIC merchant called William Hawkins had fairly accurately estimated Jahangir’s annual revenue as in excess of £54 million – many, many times larger than Stuart crown revenue. On arrival, Roe presented the company’s gifts, the main items being a keyboard instrument known as a ‘virginal’ and a horse-drawn carriage. But the long sea voyage, followed by intense humidity, had inevitably resulted in warped wood, faded and rotting fabric, tarnished gilding and broken joints. Roe learned that Jahangir had later asked Jesuits at his court for their opinion of the gifts, questioning ‘whether the king of England were a great king, that sent presents of so small value’.

When the company’s English coachman defected to work for Jahangir, Roe – again resorting to the language of theatre – observed him ‘clothed as rich as any player and more gaudy’, and receiving casual tips worth around two years’ salary for a skilled craftsman in England. Indeed, occasions for lavish gift-giving were alarmingly frequent, and Roe sometimes had to combine ingenuity with selfless generosity. When Jahangir unexpectedly visited Roe’s lodgings in Mandu, as part of a hunting expedition to the Narmada river, Roe decided to present his own gilt-edged volume of Mercator’s maps, bought for £7 in London, declaring suavely that he had ‘nothing worthy, but to a great king I offered the world’. The gift was soon returned, ostensibly on the grounds that Jahangir could not read it. But since all power depends on flattering projections, Das suggests that ‘the emperor was entirely likely to have grasped, and rejected, the Eurocentric view of the world that Mercator’s maps had offered.’

Onedelight of Courting India is Das’s focus on Jahangir’s patronage of Mughal art, which encouraged court painters to produce a distinctive ‘way of visualising kingship and imperial power that combined Hindu and Islamic motifs and expertise, Persian and European influences, in image after remarkable image’. Connoisseurship made it possible for Roe to establish some common ground. In July 1616, he showed Jahangir a painting of a woman by the skilled miniaturist Isaac Oliver, only for the emperor to claim that one of his court painters could copy the image so faithfully that Roe would be unable to tell the difference. Reluctant to enter a wager with the emperor (too lofty) or a company factor (too lowly), Roe eventually agreed a bet with a courtier, Asaf Khan. Three weeks later, he was presented with six paintings, his own and five copies, ‘so alike that I was by candlelight troubled to discern which was which’. Roe recorded that he successfully identified the original, but his chaplain, Terry, recalled Roe selecting one of the copies – perhaps deliberately – while keen to ‘profess that he did not flatter, but mistake in that choice’. Roe later recorded that while inspecting the paintings Jahangir had been ‘very merry and joyful and craked like a northern man’. ‘To crake’ was a verb of East Anglian origin, familiar to Roe’s Norfolk-born mother, meaning to boast, or jest loudly – we still ‘crack’ a joke. For Das, always sensitive to language, this moment offered Roe ‘a flash of recognition of something deeply familiar, even homely, in the Mughal emperor’s very human delight’, disrupting Roe’s own ‘deeply ingrained sense of identity and difference’.

Roe frequently found himself reading aspects of the Jacobean court at Whitehall onto Jahangir’s court at Ajmer. When Roe first met him, Jahangir was 47, only a few years younger than James. Both rulers were intelligent and inquisitive, and both wrote extensively. While Roe was in India, James broke new ground for an English king when he oversaw publication of a handsome folio edition of his collected Works (1616). But James and Jahangir also allowed dangerous court factions to develop, undermining their authority. Both men had a debilitating fondness for alcohol and both were militant anti-smoking crusaders. James published A Counterblast to Tobacco in 1604, while Jahangir went one better and banned its use in his realms in 1617. In both cases, lucrative revenues tempered blanket prohibition. Both James and Jahangir were also obsessed with hunting, wilfully ensuring that court timetables were disrupted and dictated by the prolonged pursuit of prey, to the frustration of officials. Even so avid a huntsman as James might, however, have struggled to match the emperor’s claim in the Jahangirnama that, since the age of twelve, he had hunted 17,167 animals.

Hunting was a pastime also enjoyed by James’s consort, Queen Anna, and by Jahangir’s twentieth wife and chosen consort, Nur Jahan. In April 1617, while Roe ‘bickered incessantly with the EIC factors through his letters’, Jahangir plied Nur Jahan with money and jewels to reward her marksmanship after she dispatched four lions with just six shots fired from a howdah, or canopied seat, atop an elephant. Effectively ruling as Jahangir’s co-sovereign, Nur Jahan is thought to be the woman depicted in a contemporary painting by Abu’l-Hasan, standing ‘in an emerald field … a confident, boyish figure in tapered orange trousers and a translucent jama or tunic, her hair caught up in a princely turban’, confidently reloading a matchlock hunting gun. Less happy was the occasion during a hunting expedition in July 1613 when Queen Anna accidentally shot her husband’s favourite hound, Jewel. But as a contemporary reported, James quickly consoled his wife, insisting ‘he should love her never the worse; and the next day sent her a diamond worth £2000 as a legacy from his dead dog.’ In 1617, the Flemish artist Paul van Somer produced a full-length portrait of Anna in hunting garb, sporting a ‘masculine tall hat’. This type of hat became so fashionable, and irritated James so much, that he later ordered clergy in London to preach against ‘the insolence of our women, and their wearing of broad-brimmed hats’. Van Somer’s portrait shows Anna accompanied by a Black groomsman, but it is she who maintains a firm hold on her hunting dogs’ leash, jutting her elbow in a recognisably masculine, martial pose. It was the only portrait of Anna displayed in her palaces during her lifetime.

In India, it was Nur Jahan who, in October 1617, suddenly informed Roe that she intended to place English trade in Surat under her personal protection, providing the privileged trading rights Roe had been seeking for nearly two years. This was less a result of Roe’s pleading than of Nur Jahan’s power struggle with Khurram, recently elevated as Shah Jahan after suppressing an insurgency by kings on the Deccan plateau. ‘I am here a pawn,’ Roe remarked. Nur Jahan’s farmān, or order, protecting English traders in Surat was accompanied by a policy reversal in London. Having long complained about his inability to prevent ill-advised commercial ventures, Roe was now granted the right ‘to instruct, direct and order all the factors in the Mogul’s country in all the affairs and business’ of the EIC. Alarmed, and well aware that he lacked the necessary expertise, he hastened to reassure the Surat factors that it was ‘vanity to talk of authority … you shall all find me a tame lion.’ By late 1617, Roe had learned that any commercial privileges could only be guaranteed by specific, time-limited farmāns. Mughal interests were best served by keeping the English, Portuguese and Dutch in permanent competition, rendering the company’s original hopes of securing permanent trading monopolies in Gujarat and other regions unrealistic.

Whether a fortuitous fallout from family tensions within the imperial court, or a material achievement of Roe’s diplomacy, the EIC’s new trading privileges had been hard-won. Roe trailed the court, and Das recounts the complex logistics that facilitated its progress across rugged terrain from Ajmer to Mandu, attended by two hundred thousand followers, between November 1616 and March 1617. At each stop, the layout of the camp, six miles wide, was precisely rebuilt within four hours, such that Terry could recognise familiar streets and bazaars, ‘as if they had not been at all removed’. Confronted by a virulent outbreak of plague – this time in Ahmedabad on another imperial progress – and the sole member of his household not to fall ill, Roe left the court in September 1618. At the time, Jahangir was preoccupied, recording the hatching of some saras crane chicks. In his Jahangirnama, ‘the departure of the English ambassador, like his arrival, goes unremarked.’

Following Roe’s return to England in 1619, no English ambassador was sent to India for eight decades until Sir William Norris’s embassy to the court of Jahangir’s grandson, Aurangzeb, in 1699. On the London stage, John Dryden had presented audiences with flattering parallels between Aurangzeb and James’s grandson, Charles II, in Aureng-Zebe: A Tragedy (1675). On the diplomatic stage, however, Norris’s mission was a failure. Sent to secure trading concessions for the New East India Company created a few years earlier, he died from dysentery on his return to England after a mission that had lasted two years and consumed £80,000 of company funds. Defeated by opposition from ‘Old’ EIC officials intent on sabotaging the Crown’s rival venture, Norris had also faced wary hostility from Aurangzeb’s court, which was fearful of renewed maritime violence, despite having achieved a decisive victory over English forces in the Anglo-Mughal War of 1686-90. It seemed that Roe had been correct: ‘War and traffic [trade] were incompatible.’

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences