AMBASSADORS, CONTRARY TO general opinion, can often lead fraught lives. Behind the curtain of glamour and ceremony, they are constantly warding off multiple challenges while keeping several balls in the air. The pressure to fulfil a specific mission, the need to understand and operate the political levers of a foreign land and court, to build alliances and counter competition are the more obvious tasks. If resources are limited, as they often are, the ambassador needs much more creativity and imagination. As important as creating a position of advantage in the foreign land is the need to guard one’s back from jealous rivals and ill-wishers back home, for embassies are coveted positions. The envoy, to have credibility both at home and abroad, has to enjoy—and be seen to enjoy—his patron’s trust.
Much may not have changed in the essential realities of diplomatic life in the last four centuries as can be seen from the extensively researched and brilliantly written Courting India by Nandini Das. Thomas Roe, Jacobean England’s first ambassador to the court of Jahangir, too had a tough mission: to obtain a universal trading licence for the East India Company, outflanking the Portuguese and the Dutch, rivals with an early advantage. Woefully short on resources, he had to make inroads into one of the most powerful and wealthy courts of the time, while representing an uncertain power. For he was not the envoy of the mighty empire that Britain was to become. His sovereign, James I, was severely in debt and his country in dire straits, buffeted by famines, plagues, wars, economic stagnation and scandal.
From London, the East was largely a mystery: three decades earlier, Elizabeth I had written to Emperor Akbar, addressing him as “Lord Zelabdim Echobar, King of Cambaya”. And India was a vague perception, imagined often as a land of fantasy and fabled wealth or, for the religiously fired, a barbarous place waiting to be redeemed. When the newly incorporated East India Company made initial, highly profitable voyages, it realised that the English had come late to the party; other, more adventurous European powers had stolen a march over it, particularly in the rich spice trade, and entrenched themselves in the East. The Company finally prevailed upon the king to place the 35-year-old Thomas Roe as his ambassador at Jahangir’s court to give English trade the stamp of royal approval and then canvass concessions; the partnership, however uneasy, between the Crown and trade in India had begun.
Roe was not a total stranger to diplomacy, having participated as a junior member in the 1605 embassy sent by James I to Spain. But there was little that had prepared him for the protocol, wealth and power of Jahangir’s imperial court. His own personality, often “obstinate and combative,” in evidence even on first arrival when he took umbrage at the attitude of Mughal customs officers at Surat, didn’t help much. He had a certain fixed idea, from exposure to European ceremony, of how ambassadors are to be treated: acutely aware that he was the chosen representative of the Crown, and not simply a merchant (or factor, as they were called), he could be prickly and haughty, often overly conscious of the diplomatic slight, of where he stood, how he was treated, how long he was made to wait, how much he had to genuflect before Jahangir and so on. By the same token he quickly read, and gleefully reported, signals that showed him to advantage. After his first meeting with Jahangir, he claims that he was shown “more favour and outward grace… than ever was showed to any ambassador, either of the Turke or Persian, or other whatsoever.” Jahangir’s journal however makes no mention of the English ambassador or this meeting.
Thomas Roe, Jacobean England’s first ambassador to the court of Jahangir, had a tough mission: to obtain a universal trading licence for the East India Company. Woefully short on resources, he had to make inroads into one of the most powerful and wealthy courts of the time, while representing an uncertain power
Be that as it may, Roe’s mission was hardly a success, contrary to the latter-day glorified version presented by the huge mural that can be seen at the St Stephens Hall of the British Parliament. That mural would have it that Roe succeeded by “his courtesy and firmness” in laying the foundations of British influence in India. This is very different from the picture that emerges from Courting India. We see an often sick and isolated Roe struggling to find favour with the emperor, at odds with Prince Khurram (later Shahjahan), hamstrung by a lack of proper resources and often at cross purposes with the Company merchants who resented his authority even as they needed him. He made no secret of the tawdry nature, particularly when compared with the Persian ambassador, of the gifts that the Company had sent with him—the two main presents, both severely damaged in the long voyage, were a keyboard musical instrument and a horse-drawn carriage.
He was also up against in-fighting and corrupt practices within the Company and its factors and ill-chosen and ill-packed merchandise being sent to India. “In England,” he wrote, “they think all things are rare here, and everything good enough…I wonder from what advice, from what judgement, this can proceed, to send hither that which only brings us scorn; knives, drink, rusty old rotten pictures, not worth one pice, coral bracelets for children, dear and unvendable, and finally horse-collars of scurf of amber, such as halalcores (halalkhors) will not look on, and brittle glasses.”
Unsurprisingly, Roe did not manage to obtain the universal trading licence that he had set out to do but only limited firmans from Jahangir and Shahjahan. His final assessment remained: “You can never expect to trade here upon Capitulations that shalbe permanent. We must serve the tyme.” The East India Company certainly served its time well: Roe’s advice that “war and traffique (trade) were incompatible” was eventually thrown to the winds; the sword and trade to the extent of loot, were to go hand in hand.
Das is fortunate in that the two protagonists of her tale are prolific writers: Roe’s journals and correspondence, which give daily and often hourly progress of his embassy from 1615 to 1619, have been published in two editions in 1899 and 1926; original manuscripts and, as Das puts it, “a vast body of scattered correspondence—elusive, often illegible and fragmented” are also available, thanks in part to the obsessive requirements of paperwork that the East India Company imposed upon its representatives—reports, journals, accounts, bills. Jahangir himself provides an elegant counterview in his elaborate imperial journal, the Jahangirnama, which he wrote himself for 17 years and then handed over to others. This is not just a record of his 22-year-long reign—largely a time of stability and consolidation rather than expansion of Mughal rule—but also a depiction of the emperor’s own multi-faceted personality including honest admissions of his drinking habits, his fascination with hunting, wild animals and nature, patronage of the visual arts and so on. Notwithstanding the wealth of her material, it goes entirely to Das’ credit that she has trawled deeply through it and woven together a fascinating tale set against a rich tapestry of courts and courtiers, trade and art, scheming and scandal. She succeeds eminently in taking the story of British rule an important step back and adds a dimension that proves that nothing was inevitable, that things could have gone any which way. The complete colonial domination of Hindustan by the East India Company, its transference to the Crown, the inexorable loot and plunder, the end of the Raj and the partition of India with all its implications were not governed by any foretold certainty. This magisterial examination of the early and ultimately unsuccessful foray from England to splendorous Mughal India shows that history is not linear or deterministic. Its direction remains uncertain and unpredictable, like a walk in the dark.