BBC History Magazine

"England's first trade mission to Mughal India wasn't a great success"

- KAVITA PURI on the history of Anglo-Indian relations

INDIA HAS JUST CLINCHED A LANDMARK DEAL with the European Free Trade Associatio­n, which it says will result in some tens of billions of pounds of investment in the country. Prime minister Narendra Modi, whose Bharatiya Janata Party is currently campaignin­g for a third term in power, has called it a “watershed moment”. Meanwhile, trade discussion­s between India and the UK – after 14 separate rounds of talks – are frozen. The much-talked-of deal, particular­ly important in the post-Brexit landscape, doesn’t seem likely to happen before the next UK general election. One cannot help thinking – at this moment in time – that the deal is perhaps more important to Britain than India.

Reading about the talks made me think about the first trade mission by England to Mughal India in the early 17th century, sponsored by King James VI & I and funded by the East India Company. England may have been small, but it was commercial­ly ambitious, and was keen to rival Spain and Portugal’s lucrative new overseas trading interests. Sir Thomas Roe, the MP for Tamworth, was sent to India in 1615 to drum up interest in English trade and establish an embassy on the subcontine­nt. The Mughal empire accounted for 20 per cent of global GDP; England, by contrast, accounted for around 2 per cent.

By the time Roe reached his destinatio­n, the East India Company – which had been founded in 1600 – had already establishe­d its first home on the subcontine­nt with a factory in Surat, Gujarat. Roe’s main task was to seek Emperor Jahangir’s support for this venture and negotiate a treaty enabling further trade.

In her fascinatin­g book Courting India, the historian Nandini Das charts the encounters between Roe and the Mughal court, as well as his meetings with Jahangir. In his diaries, Roe describes his talks with the emperor in detail; in Jahangir’s own memoirs, the politician doesn’t get a mention. The power dynamics were clear: Jahangir was, after all, one of the richest men in the world, and ruled over 100 million people from Kabul to Dhaka.

A portrait of Sir Thomas Roe now hangs in the newly refurbishe­d National Portrait Gallery in London, and if you visit the Houses of Parliament, you will also find the politician depicted in a 1927 painting by William Rothenstei­n – part of a series of works entitled The Building of Britain. The colourful image – which shows Roe and Jahangir meeting in Ajmer, Rajasthan – displays the emperor in all his splendour, surrounded by his courtiers, as Roe pays his respects. According to the painting’s descriptio­n on the parliament website, Roe “succeeds by his courtesy and firmness at the Court of Ajmir (Ajmer) in laying the foundation of British influence in India”.

Indeed, some people have viewed Roe’s mission as an important moment in the expansion of the East India Company, and the path towards direct British rule. But according to Das, the mission wasn’t a great success: when Roe’s time in India came to an end in 1619, no treaty had been signed. And while images of Roe hang in parliament and the National Portrait Gallery, few people remember who he was or the role that he played.

Today, relations between Britain and India remain complex. India – or Bharat, as it is called by Hindu nationalis­ts who run the country – is now a confident nation that commands power on the world stage and is capable of landing a probe on the Moon. There are more than 400 years of shared history between the two countries, and it all began with trade. But although the power dynamics have changed in both directions, there is now an added twist. This time it is a British Indian prime minister, Rishi Sunak, leading the negotiatio­ns – and who knows if he will be the one to clinch the deal.

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A 1927 painting depicting Sir Thomas Roe’s landmark trade mission to India is on display in the fouses of Parliament­L fis diplomatic GʘQrtU hQYGXGr fCKNGF tQ rGUuNt KP C FGCN
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