Review of Nandini Das’s Courting India: Roe’s diplomatic woes

Nandini Das retrieves Thomas Roe, the first English ambassador to the court of Jahangir, from the margins and puts him centre-stage in her book

Published - April 12, 2023 06:52 pm IST

Emperor Jahangir

Emperor Jahangir | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

The fourth Mughal, Jahangir, is often overshadowed by the tremendous achievements of his father, the monuments of his son, the charisma of his wife. But Jahangir was a worthy emperor in his own right, powerful, affable, and possessed of a way with words that produced one of the most lucid and entertaining imperial diaries ever written, the Jahangirnama. Even in this realm of letters, however, Jahangir has a competitor. Thomas Roe, first ambassador from the English court to the Mughal, sent to negotiate trading terms for the nascent East India Company, wrote a diary of his own, albeit a wry, mostly crotchety account of his travels and travails in Hindustan. Roe’s journal is, in some ways, the perfect counterpoint to the Jahangirnama, offering an outsider’s view of the grandeur and ceremony of the Mughal court in which he is too poor, too proud, and entirely unprepared to participate.

Emperor Jahangir’s darbar

Emperor Jahangir’s darbar | Photo Credit: picryl

He hasn’t learnt the language nor will he defer to the protocols of the Mughal court — once even demanding a chair to sit on in a Mughal prince’s presence, much to his bewilderment — but neither can he afford to create a suitably lavish impression of his own country’s worth. Once, as a Persian envoy produced gift after gift for Jahangir of a kind that Roe couldn’t dream of giving, the Englishman penned a bitter aside, ‘The Play will not bee finished in ten dayes’. In modern accounts of Jahangir, Roe is a bit of an aside himself — an oddity akin to the zebras or turkeys that filled the curious emperor’s court. He is “forever watching from the margins”, as Nandini Das puts it in Courting India, a witty and thought-provoking account of Roe’s embassy that puts the ambassador and the world he comes from centre-stage.

Sir Thomas Roe’s Embassy to the Court of Jahangir.

Sir Thomas Roe’s Embassy to the Court of Jahangir. | Photo Credit: Bradford Museums and Galleries

Treasures of the East

The England of the early 17th century is not a happy place. Its new king, James I, is a spendthrift whose court is riddled with intrigue, much of it surrounding his lover Robert Carr. Its people, having suffered “famine, plague, war and economic stagnation”, are now suffering an acute anxiety, both about lagging behind in European politics and global trade, and about the evils that such reckless engagement with the outside world could bring. Indeed, only 10 days after Roe left on his embassy, one Robert Kayll published an “excoriating critique” of the East India Company, painting “a picture of Britain being drained… of its lifeblood by the leeches of trade” — English fishermen leaving their little boats to sail away on dangerous journeys to die “on distant seas”. These seas often ended on Indian shores, though ‘India’ was as much a geographical entity as it was a fantasy. As ‘angrez’ now stands for (white) foreignness, so India was routinely used to signify ‘all remoter Countreyes’ — shorthand, as Das notes, for “the treasures and the wonders that came from the East”.

Such are some of the contexts and contradictions that inform Thomas Roe’s view of Jahangir’s court, and Das does a wonderful job of analysing why the ambassador reacts to it the way he does. For example, of Roe’s many peeves against the Mughal court and Hindustan (corruption and intrigue, mud houses and heat), one that puzzled me most was his constant harping on the lack of written law. It struck a false note, considering how other European writers remarked on the routine and public delivery of justice in the Mughal emperor’s public audiences. The Mughal administration certainly had laws, whether prohibiting forced sati or allowing free practice and propagation of faith. But it was not, after all, Mughal law that Roe was worried about, writes Das — it was rather that the “relationship between royal prerogative and English Common Law” was currently a matter of great concern back home, where James I was asserting that a king was answerable only to God — being God’s representative on earth – “not to his people”. In this context, Roe’s own admission that Jahangir was not just a supreme authority over his subjects but also bound in “reciprocal bondage” to them carries two worlds of meaning: Roe’s desire to project the fractures of his own county upon Mughal India blunted by his occasional ability to see the stark differences between them.

Nandini Das

Nandini Das | Photo Credit: special arrangement

‘Peace for all’

India was a very different world indeed. Well-integrated into centuries-old systems of trade, Mughal India, along with Iran, Turkey and China “controlled the best part of the global economy”. The Mughal state was also more politically stable than the west, where tensions between Catholic and Protestant nations meant that Europe was “a powder keg waiting to explode”, as it would when the Thirty Years’ War began in 1618. England, caught in a political stalemate between James I and the so-called ‘Addled’ Parliament before Roe’s departure, would plunge into civil war and the beheading of Charles I after his return. In Mughal India, meanwhile, the sulh-i-kul (peace for all) that formed the ideological basis of Akbar’s reign continued to allow for peace and prosperity in a land overflowing with religions, ethnicities and languages. This, too, Roe could not help but see; as Das writes, he even tried to sell the Mughal model to Charles I, telling his king that “tolerance of diversity had made [Jahangir] ‘the richest Prince in the world”’.

Celebrations at the accession of Jahangir.

Celebrations at the accession of Jahangir. | Photo Credit: picryl

It may appear inevitable, now, that Roe’s embassy was the beginning of a colonial venture that would neatly overturn the equations of wealth and power that existed between Mughal India and Jacobean England, but Courting India overturns this expectation instead. Through her rich and detailed investigation of the two worlds that Roe inhabited, and of his own two states of minds about them, Das evokes the dizzying uncertainty of a time that, as she writes, contained the “very real possibility of alternative futures.”

Jahangir weighing his son prince Khurram against gold and silver.

Jahangir weighing his son prince Khurram against gold and silver. | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

At a time when modern India seems keen to create alternative pasts, Das’s book is a brilliant example of how new histories can, in fact, be written: by shifting margins to the centre, by expanding contexts, by opening, not closing, minds.

Courting India; Nandini Das, Bloomsbury India, ₹699.

The reviewer is a writer; her latest book is Akbar of Hindustan.

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