Anybody who goes to school in India is taught that 1757 (the Battle of Plassey) and 1857 (the Mutiny) are the two key dates which nailed India to the cross and subjected the country to almost two centuries of colonisation. Rockstar historian William Dalrymple says that to these two dates we should add an even more important one – 1614:
“St Stephen’s Hall, the reception area of the Palace of Westminster, home to the UK parliament, is decorated with a sequence of sprawling murals from the 1920s. The Building of Britain illustrates what were then regarded as the decisive moments in the nation’s history, such as King Alfred’s defeat of the Vikings.

One of these murals purports to show the beginning of British diplomatic relations with India: the meeting in 1614 of Sir Thomas Roe, London’s first emissary to the subcontinent, with the Mughal Emperor Jahangir. The image depicts a meeting of equals.…

Almost nothing could actually have been further from the truth. In reality, as Nandini Das writes in Courting India, “in practical terms, [Roe’s] embassy achieved very little”. To the Mughals, the English “were hardly worth a mention” and “Roe was [always] an ambassador on the back foot”.”

Mr Dalrymple goes on to say that we should read Nandita Das’s new book to understand just how hard the British had to struggle to even get a toehold in India:
“For at the time, as Das shows, England was a place of little consequence, least of all to the mighty Mughals, rulers of what “was widely considered to be one of the greatest and richest empires in the world.” Jahangir’s lands spanned most of India, all of modern day Pakistan and Bangladesh and much of Afghanistan. The empire comprised about a fifth of humanity, some 150mn people, kept an astonishing 4mn men under arms, and accounted for a quarter of all world manufacturing.

By contrast, England had a population of just over 4mn, or a 20th of India’s, and was turning out just under 3 per cent of global manufactures. It has just suffered a devastating pandemic and, in the Reformation, an extended and vicious internecine war of religion.”

Das’s portrayal of Roe is reminiscent of the rags to riches stories that we have read about legendary Indian entrepreneurs like Dhirubhai Ambani. The Mughals on the other hand are portrayed as rich, cultured and powerful kings of the world:
“The Thomas Roe we meet here is a rich, well-connected and ambitious, “good on horseback and handy with swords and guns”; but also a “prickly and opinionated” Essex man unsure about his place in society and constantly quarrelling about status. He goes to Oxford aged 12, then at 16 to the Inns of Court, where he becomes good friends with the playwright Ben Jonson and poet John Donne. He is selected to lead the first English expedition to the Amazon, but fails to find the El Dorado or his golden lands. The embassy to the Mughals is his chance to redeem himself and make his name. Yet from the beginning nothing goes according to plan.

While struggling with Mughal protocol on arrival in Surat, Gujarat, his cook gets into a drunken fight with a man who turns out to be the brother of the local governor, the very man who controls his access to the court. Mughal officials openly laugh at the shabbiness of Roe’s presents that included a gilt state coach. The “prattling” Portuguese Jesuits tell the Mughals that the English are a marginal and powerless nation “who dwell in a small island”.

Several months pass before Roe even gets a first audience with the emperor. Even then Jahangir shows little interest in discussing such crude matters as trade, making clear that Roe’s diplomatic presents are “very meane and ordinary”, especially some wooden animals that the emperor thought “ridiculous and ill-shaped”. The emperor, who considered himself as an “artistic, charismatic, curious and intelligent” observer of the world and a keen connoisseur of its curiosities regarded trade as a matter for tradesmen. He was much happier discussing metaphysics and “the science of Vedanta” with a 300-year-old naked hermit who lived in a pit.”

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