Book World: This diplomat’s diaries reveal the very long history of British racism


Courting India: Seventeenth-Century England, Mughal India, and the Origins of Empire. By Nandini Das. Pegasus. 440 pp. $35

“Courting India” by Nandini Das MUST CREDIT: Pegasus

The history of writing begins with a receipt. So, often, does the writing of history. The oldest known cuneiform tablet from Mesopotamia records a bulk order for clothing, from which alone historians can reconstruct ancient trading routes, imports and exports, and people’s tastes in fashion. In the case of India, few records are quite so thorough, and quite as large, as those of the British East India Company, which, in 1600, was granted a monopoly on English trading in India, and which, over the next 250 years, would conquer much of it. No transaction was too small for the company and no detail insignificant: It required its officers to record everything. This obsession with paperwork did not escape the attention of Karl Marx, who quipped that, in making the leap from commerce to colonialism, the British administration in India had become “one immense writing machine.”

Among those of whom such record-keeping was expected was Sir Thomas Roe, the first English ambassador to India, appointed by King James I at the behest of the company. In 1615, he was sent to the Mughal court of Jahangir – then one of the largest and richest empires in the world – to secure trading rights for England and protection from the Dutch and the Portuguese, who already had a strong foothold in India. But Roe, during his travels, maintained something more ambitious than a ledger. He also kept a personal journal, in which he painstakingly documented his impressions, observations and experiences of Mughal India. This journal has long been considered invaluable to historians, who have found in it an important, if not impartial, source of information about Jahangir’s court and an early example of English attitudes toward it.

Nandini Das would agree with this assessment. But her book, “Courting India: Seventeenth-Century England, Mughal India, and the Origins of Empire,” does not take a historian’s view so much as that of a literary biographer. Das offers a close reading of Roe’s journal and fleshes out the character of the man within the context of the sociopolitical forces that shaped him. She examines the politics and literature of Jacobean England, where Roe felt at home, and the personalities and intrigues of the Mughal court, where he felt hopelessly lost. And she sifts through the meticulous archives of the East India Company to trace how men and merchandise flowed between Britain and India.

Roe, in Das’s telling, does not come across as a particularly affable man. From the moment of his arrival in India, he acted more by assertion than concession, adamancy than adaptation. Instead of respecting the customs of India, he insisted that his hosts conform to his. Uninterested in the intricacies of the local government and economy, he was content to condemn “Oriental despotism” and revile Indians as corrupt, self-interested swindlers. Singularly incurious about other cultures, he refused to learn Persian or Gujarati, and insisted on wearing English clothes even in the cruel heat of Indian midsummer. Whenever he felt slighted or fell ill, both of which happened often enough, his self-pity knew no bounds.

His diaries reflect his classical education and his aristocratic upbringing. His view of the world was refracted by the presumed superiorities of his faith, nationality and skin color: Muslims were infidels, Hindus idolaters, India ungovernable, and Indians, well, they were the fallen descendants of Shem or Ham. At the same time, he was astute in his observations of the Mughal court, assiduous in his duties, resourceful in the face of company’s penny-pinching and honest enough to record the iniquities of his countrymen, who had developed a reputation for depravity, drunkenness and violence. His opinion of Jahangir depended on his mood and whether he found favor with the emperor. When welcomed, Roe thought the monarch noble and generous; when shunned, he was a tyrant and a drunk. On the other hand, Jahangir, who in his memoirs would devote pages to the description of a plant or an animal, does not mention Roe once.

Das’s book is at its most interesting when it moves beneath the familiar and unearths stories that have been forgotten or suppressed. For instance, she finds that many Englishmen who arrived in India had a more ambivalent relationship with it than Roe did. This is evident in the case of one Robert Jones, who suddenly cut off all ties to England and found welcome in the Mughal court. (Roe suspected that Jones was homosexual, and this, Das suggests, might have been the main reason for his defection.) But when Jones changed his mind and returned to the English camp, all Roe could offer him was a return ticket to England and a trial for desertion.

In the end, Das concedes, “nothing particularly significant emerged from Roe’s embassy.” (Roe managed to obtain modest permissions and protections for an English factory from the future Shah Jahan, with whom he had a tense relationship.) Nor, for that matter, are his impressions of India all that unique. His narrative is but one among many written by English travelers at the time, and some of them, such as those by Edward Terry and Thomas Coryat, are much less prejudiced and far more entertaining. “Courting India” is full of well-researched details and anecdotes, but they never quite cohere into a larger narrative about Roe or why his time in India merits another investigation. The tentativeness with which Das approaches her subject yields her no deeper a conclusion than the truism that interactions between different cultures are complex, dynamic and subtle.

Yet, if Roe’s journals remain valuable today, it is less, I think, as a historical source than as an instance of how such sources can be used to rewrite history. When, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the British Empire grew in power and extent, Britain found it expedient to justify colonialism and conquest as inevitable steps in the march of history and the progress of humanity. To that end, Roe’s journals, almost forgotten for 200 years, suddenly found new purpose. British historians of the era, keen to undermine “native” sources, pronounced Roe’s journals to be more objective than, say, Jahangir’s memoirs; Christians, seeking justification for their evangelism, found in them a proof of Indian immorality and vice; and British subjects, including, then, Indians, were encouraged to see in Roe an exemplar of English achievement and superiority. Das offers many examples of this revisionism, such as the painting by William Rothenstein that graces the cover of the book, but something holds her back from grappling with it in a more substantial way. To do so, perhaps, requires a foray into the politics of the present, which the book scrupulously avoids. But it is precisely within a political context that the invention of an “origin of Empire” – something the title of the book promises to explore – gains currency. If “men can do nothing without the make-believe of a beginning,” as George Eliot wrote, Das never quite interrogates how, and why, this mythical origin came to be identified with Roe.

Such revisionism was far from unsuccessful. Even today, within the great dome of the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata – one of the most famous landmarks in the city – a series of panels commemorates the most significant moments in British Indian history. One of them shows a man emerging from an English carriage, in splendid Jacobean clothing, received by a reverential crowd of Mughal officers and nobles. The legend of Sir Thomas has arrived.

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Balaji Ravichandran is a writer based in New York.



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