The first Englishmen to reach India did so during the reign of Akbar in the 16th century. They were few and far between, and of little significance in the grander scheme of things. It was not until the 17th century that the English really began to leave their imprint on India.
In December 1600 the English East India Company (EIC) was formed by a group of merchants hoping to take advantage of the new trade routes occasioned by the navigation of the horn of Africa. In the 15th century and previously, Indian goods had been carried by merchants through the Arab lands, and sold to the Venetians. The 16th century saw the Portuguese dominating European-Asian commerce, and the English looked with envy at the rich spices brought back from the east. With the blessing of Queen Elizabeth, the EIC was born. These initial steps took place under the eye of Elizabeth and Akbar, but it would be during the reigns of James I (ruled 1603-1625) and Jahangir (1605-1627) that Anglo-Mughal contact became something of a regular occurrence. Though the Mughals did not rule much of the south of India, the main English trading post was located at the Gujurati port of Surat, then under Mughal control. Until its decline and the rise of Bombay in the 1660s, it was the most important port on the west coast.
The EICâ€™s first official representative to the Mughal court at Agra, who docked at Surat in 1608, was one William Hawkins. Little is known about his past life, save that he spoke Turkish and had probably spent some time in the Levant. The former quality impressed Jahangir no end, as he too could speak Turkish. The Emperor was so cheered by this Englishman that he christened him Inglis Khan (the English Lord), because of the difficulty in pronouncing â€˜William Hawkinsâ€™. Jahangir, wishing to bind Hawkins closer to him, offered the EIC man an Indian wife. Hawkins, recalling his Christian sensibilities, turned her down because “she was a More [Muslim]“, though he was persuaded to accept an Armenian Christian as his wife. Other notable Englishmen soon followed, including the first official royal ambassador to the Mughal court, Sir Thomas Roe.
Coming from a world where Protestants and Catholics were at each othersâ€™ throats all the time, the English found the religiously tolerant Mughal Empire strange and fascinating. One observed that both Hindus and Muslims worshipped the tomb of Abkar. Another praised the religious devotion of some Muslims, as “many amongft them, to the shame of vs Chriftians â€¦ pray fiue times every day.” Balochis, Pathans and Rajputs were classed as marital races, especially the Pathans, who “will look an enemy boldly in the face, and maintaine with their liues their reputation of valour.” Pathans were responsible for successfully defending Hawkins from numerous Portuguese assassination attempts. Many of the travellers admired the scenery, the way that Jahangir often dispensed justice like some sort of latter day Solomon, and most of all the imperial camp. When on a military campaign, the Mughals would travel in style. There would be two cities composed entirely of tents, each on replicating the opulent palace surroundings that the emperor was used to. The reason for there being a second tent city was so that one could be set up while the other was being packed a way and reassembled ahead, ensuring that the emperor would never have to suffer a diminution of his lifestyle. One English observer believed that the tents encompassed an area roughly the size of London, Englandâ€™s largest city. An awe-inspiring sight, and site.
Nevertheless, the English were far from happy with the Mughal Empire, since it was not Christian and had all the excesses of the Orient that they had been warned about, such as houses with “walles and ceelings all over-laid with pure gold.” Jahangir himself had twenty wives, and, according to one account, 300 concubines. Quite where he found the time is unclear, as he was a noted workaholic. His justice, though swift, could sometimes be merciless. Two rebels, who had aided Jahangirâ€™s eldest son Khusrau in rebellion (in which the Sikh Guru Arjun was executed for suspected treason), were sewn “into the skins of an ox and an ass â€¦ [then] mounted on asses with their faces to the tail and thus taken round the city.” The man enveloped in the ox-hide died when it dried and suffocated him. This incident is recorded in Jahangirâ€™s own memoirs. A servant had his thumbs cut off for daring to cut down a tree which provided shade for one of Jahangirâ€™s favourite benches. Roe complained to James I that the Mughal government “is so uncertaiyne, without written law, without policye, [and] the customs are mingled with barbarism.”
So far, this article has focused on what the English thought of the Mughals. This is not meant to be a Euro-centric approach, but rather an inevitable consequence of the weight of evidence. We have dozens of good English, Dutch and Portuguese accounts chronicling life at the Mughal court. In contrast, Jahangirâ€™s memoirs, a hefty 800-900 page work, sees the English (and other Europeans) only mentioned a few times. They occasionally surface when they bring him presents, such as a coach, and once when their fleet defeats a Portuguese one. The only Englishmen ever mentioned by name was a craftsman who made Jahangir a throne, and who was given money, a horse, an elephant and a Persian name as a reward. Indeed, the appearance of a turkey at court (brought by a foreigner), garners more lines than all the mentions of the English put together. In broad strategic terms, the English mattered little. They were from a small island far away, had no army to speak of, and never endangered the existence of the Mughal state. Ambassadors were expected to prostrate themselves before Jahangir, though Roe managed to wrangle an exception. Of far more importance were the Persians to the west and the various kingdoms in the south of India. The Deccan would prove to be a key battleground. The Ottomans mattered little, as the Mongols, the Mughalsâ€™ ancestors, had beaten the Turks and so the Mughals looked down on those reprobates who claimed to be the heirs to the Caliphate. Mughal armies were huge, their treasure reserves massive, and Mughal forces were kept supplied throughout a campaign. Roeâ€™s attempts at negotiating a treaty were dismissed out of hand.
Only at sea could the English hope to demonstrate their power. The Mughal Empire did not rely on the importation of essential goods, nor did they have a major sea-worthy enemy. This was why they never developed a proper navy. As a result, first the Portuguese, then the English and Dutch, were able to dominate the Mughal coast, and extract trading concessions from Jahangir. Other than that though, the English had little power at court. Their presents were constantly being trumped by better ones from the Portuguese and other factions, usually leading to a policy reversal to the detriment of the English. Roe was so enraged by all of this that he raged that “such is the faithlessness of their people, that no trust, no confidence, is to be had in them â€“ what they grant to-day shall be revoked tomorrow.”
Alcohol frequently brought the two countries together, perhaps more than anything else. Jahangir had spent a number of years (before he took to the throne) drunk for most of the day. However, after a while he managed to curb his drinking, because he was ashamed that “the excessive trembling of my hand [meant] I could not drink from my own cup, but other had to give it to me to drink.” He managed to reduce his alcohol intake by eating opium every day (recorded in his memoirs). Many of the Mughals died from some sort of alcohol and/or opium poisoning. It is not hard to see why. The English naturally took to drinking sessions with Jahangir, cementing the bond of friendship, but occasionally things got out of hand, such as when drunken English sailors went on a rampage in Surat. One sailor even killed a calf, which was “worse than murther in India” moaned an English merchant. William Lesk, a clergyman, was one of the worst offenders, frequently brawling and drinking heavily. A prostitute arrived looking for Lesk, since Lesk had given her false coin “the day preceding at the brothel-house.” He was eventually deported by the EIC.
Wider English society was changed little by the EICâ€™s establishment. It was a large commercial operation admittedly, but not dominant, and most Indian goods were already available from Portuguese and Dutch suppliers. James I seemed many interested in extracting money from them in order to shower his lover, the duke of Buckingham, with gifts. There was little appetite for colonialisation in the East, with the English instead seeing North America as the place for that sort of thing. The EIC had even less impact on Jahangir. He got more presents, and more drunk, but that was about it. The English and Dutch simply replaced the Portuguese as the European traders at court. Of far more importance was the power struggle, involving his sons Khusrau and Khurram (the future Shah Jahan), Jahangirâ€™s wife Nur Jahan and her brother Asaf Khan, and leading noble Mahabat Khan, who would eventually hold Jahangir hostage for a time. If you had told either James I or Jahangir that England would one day rule India they both would have laughed. Yet that is what happened. The signs were not there at the time, but with Surat and later Madras we see the beings of English power in India; fortified cities backed by a powerful navy. The British presence in India would only really begin become an empire thanks to Clive of Plassey in the 1750s-1760s, but some of the foundations for British rule were slowly emerging, even at the beginning of the 17th century.
(I wrote this a while ago, but was waiting for an appropriate time to publish it. As we needed a Mughal open thread this seemed as good a time as any. Today I also learned of the death of one of the greatest Mughal historians ever, J. F. Richards, who passed away in August. If any of you want a detailed, scholarly overview of the Mughals, read this book.)
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