Eastern Eye (UK)

Dawn of the British Empire in India



THERE have been a lot of books, movies and television shows on the impact of the British Raj on India and subsequent reign ending, but very little on how it all began.

The newly published book, Courting India, looks at the British arrival in India in the early 17th century. The meticulous­ly researched debut from Nandini Das gives an insider’s view via Thomas Roe, King James I’s first ambassador to the Mughal Empire, of an emerging British empire, whose imperial seeds were just being sown.

The professor of Early Modern Literature and Culture at the University of Oxford was inspired to write her debut book after reading Roe’s journal and accounts of other contempora­ries and fellow travellers from the 17th century, and being struck by how counter-intuitive that story was in comparison to our understand­ing of the British Empire in India.

Eastern Eye took a deep dive into history with Das to discuss her new book Courting India and early moments that shaped subcontine­ntal history.

What got you interested in history?

I study and teach 16th and 17th century literature, and what fascinates me most are stories that frame, express, and help us to negotiate cross-cultural contact and exchange. Those stories are everywhere in this period when England was just beginning to carve out a space for itself in the wider world. Many of these events were instrument­al in shaping the world as we know it now, in fundamenta­l ways. The account of Thomas Roe’s embassy to the court of the Mughal emperor Jahangir is one such story.

Tell us about the book?

Courting India is about a moment in the early 17th century, when the new king, James I, is convinced by the East India Company to send an official ambassador to the Mughal court to negotiate the all-important ‘firman’ or permission to trade. Hindsight bias usually tends to make looking at this period with our knowledge and assumption­s about later power relationsh­ips between England and India, or England and the rest of the world, deeply problemati­c.

Essentiall­y, nothing that we take for granted later is a certainty for Sir Thomas Roe, the man chosen by both the company and King.

Why is that?

Roe’s England was beset by inner strife and financial woes, and deeply conflicted about its own identity. The ‘Great Mogol,’ court he entered in 1616, on the other hand, was cultured, and widely considered to be one of the greatest and richest empires of the world.

I wanted to understand that encounter, and not just what Roe saw in India, but how he saw it. Why his responses were framed in certain ways, and where that stood in relation to England, India and the role the British Empire later came to play in the world.

Who are you hoping connects with Courting India?

Anyone who is interested in the history of contact – whether enforced or voluntary – between England and south Asia, will hopefully find that this early moment both unsettles their assumption­s, and throws new light on what followed.

At the same time, it is also the story about ordinary people, and everyday encounters that establishe­d the foundation­s of grand sweeps of history, from the Bengali boy who became the focus of one of the East India Company’s earliest PR campaigns, to the English coachman who almost brought Roe’s relationsh­ip with the Mughals to breaking point.

There have been books and stories of the British Raj in India and the rule ending, but not as much about how it began. Are you surprised by that?

Frustrated, perhaps, but not surprised. What defines English attempts to make their mark on the global stage in this very early period is uncertaint­y. They are deeply aware of how late they are to enter global trade, how under-resourced and under-supported by the state. English activities in India in this period are characteri­sed by false starts and missed opportunit­ies, which do not lend themselves to any kind of ‘rise and fall’ grand narrative. Yet that is precisely what makes it fascinatin­g.

Was there a key thing that enabled the British to start that take over?

Not in this period. Roe repeatedly insisted – as much to the East India Company as to the Mughal state – that ‘war and traffique [trade] were incompatib­le,’ and that a sprawling colonial initiative on the Portuguese model was just bad business sense. Yet many of the assumption­s and accusation­s he makes about India and Mughal statecraft would become absolutely central to later English views of the nation they were to colonise.

Tell us about something fascinatin­g you learned while writing this book?

The East India Company’s fascinatio­n with bureaucrac­y and paperwork meant there is a wealth of historical material, which I could access. So, there are many wonderful stories, but what was particular­ly illuminati­ng and challengin­g for me was juxtaposin­g those with Mughal and other non-English records of the period.

Tell us more…

I’ve always liked a Victorian invention called the stereoscop­e – it is an instrument which allows a viewer to see the same scene from the left and right eye. Once you focus, suddenly the whole thing becomes a single three-dimensiona­l image. Putting the English and Portuguese, or the English and Mughal records next to each other felt just like that. So much that Roe was oblivious to during his embassy suddenly becomes clear.

Is there a particular part of the book that is a favourite?

There are quite a few to choose from, but the one at the centre of this book is about a bet or ‘wager’ made between Roe and the Mughal emperor – but you will need to read the book to find out who won.

How important is it to be aware of history like this?

It is essential. To ignore this foundation­al moment of contact would be to have only partial understand­ing of what both the East India Company and British Empire in India were to become in later years.

How do you feel ahead of your book being published?

Courting India is based on over a decade’s worth of research into early English (pre-empire) cross-cultural contact, so it is exciting to see it take physical shape as an actual book. It is even more exciting to be able to take those stories, events, and ideas I have spent so much time excavating, and share them with others.

What do you enjoy reading?

My tastes are fairly eclectic and what I read depends on my mood. One pleasure of working on literature and cultural history is that reading is very much part of my work, but for comfort reading, I gravitate towards detective fiction, particular­ly historical detective fiction.

What can we expect next from you?

If Courting India zips across from James I’s England to Jahangir’s India, the next book has an even bigger canvas. It tells the story of England in the 16th and 17th centuries, as it was shaped by people moving in and out of the country.

What inspires you as a writer?

‘My tastes are fairly eclectic’

The same things that inspire me as a researcher – to be able to take the traces of lives long gone and give them new voice.

Why should we pick up the new book?

The relationsh­ip between England and India, and south Asia in general, left an indelible mark on both nations and global geo-politics. Courting India, in many ways, marks its starting point.

Besides, you need to find out whether in that wager between Roe and Jahangir I mentioned earlier, it was the English ambassador who lost his money, or the Mughal emperor.

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 ?? ?? BACK TO THE START: Nandini Das; and (inset below) the cover of her book Courting India
BACK TO THE START: Nandini Das; and (inset below) the cover of her book Courting India

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