By the early seventeenth century, Europeans had become used to easy military victories over the other peoples of the world. In the 1520s the Spanish had swept away the vast armies of the mighty Aztec Empire in a matter of months. In the Spice Islands of the Moluccas, the Dutch had recently begun to turn their cannons on the same rulers they had earlier traded with, slaughtering those islanders who rode out in canoes to greet them, burning down their cities and seizing their ports.
But as Captain Hawkins soon realised, there was no question of any European nation attempting to do this with the Great Mughals, not least because the Mughals kept a staggering 4 million men under arms.
When, in 1632, the [Mughal] Emperor discovered that the Portuguese had been building unauthorised fortifications and ‘dwellings of the utmost splendour and strength’ in Hughli in Bengal, as well as flouting Mughal rules by making forced conversions to Christianity, he commanded that the Portuguese settlement should be attacked and the Portuguese expelled. The city fell to the Mughal armies within days and the attempts of the inhabitants to escape down the Ganges were thwarted by a boom ingeniously thrown across the river. Four hundred of the captured Portuguese prisoners ‘along with the idols of those erroneous infidels’ were then sent off to Agra to beg for mercy. Those who refused were ‘divided [as slaves] among the amirs’, according to the Padshahnama, ‘or held in prison and tortured. Most of them perished.’ There was nothing the Portuguese Viceroy of Goa could do about this.
With this in mind, the [East India] Company realised that if it was to trade successfully with the Mughals, it would need both partners and permissions, which meant establishing a relationship with the Mughal Emperor himself. It took Hawkins a year to reach Agra, which he managed to do dressed as an Afghan nobleman. Here he was briefly entertained by the Emperor, with whom he conversed in Turkish, before Jahangir lost interest in the semi-educated sea dog and sent him back home with the gift of an Armenian Christian wife.
The mission achieved little, and soon afterwards another EIC fleet, captained by Sir Henry Middleton, was driven away from the Surat anchorage of Suvali – or ‘Swally Hole’ as the English mangled it – by local officials who ordered him to leave after threats from the Portuguese residents in the port.
A new, more impressive mission was called for, and this time the Company persuaded King James to send a royal envoy. The man chosen was a courtier, MP, diplomat, Amazon explorer, Ambassador to the Sublime Porte and self-described ‘man of quality’, Sir Thomas Roe. In 1615 Roe finally arrived in Ajmer, bringing presents of ‘hunting dogges’ – English mastiff s and Irish greyhounds – an English state coach, some Mannerist paintings, an English virginal and many crates of red wine for which he had heard Jahangir had a fondness; but Roe nevertheless had a series of difficult interviews with the Emperor.
When he was finally granted an audience, and had made his obeisance, Roe wanted immediately to get to the point and raise the subject of trade and preferential customs duties, but the aesthete Emperor could barely conceal his boredom at such conversations. Jahangir was, after all, an enormously sensitive, curious and intelligent man: observant of the world around him and a keen collector of its curiosities, from Venetian swords and globes to Safavid silks, jade pebbles and even narwhal teeth.
A proud inheritor of the Indo-Mughal tradition of aesthetics and knowledge, as well as maintaining the Empire and commissioning great works of art, he took an active interest in goat and cheetah breeding, medicine and astronomy, and had an insatiable appetite for animal husbandry, like some Enlightenment landowner of a later generation. This, not the mechanics of trade, was what interested him, and there followed several months of conversations with the two men talking at cross purposes. Roe would try to steer the talk towards commerce and diplomacy and the firmans (imperial orders) he wanted confirming ‘his favour for an English factory’ at Surat and ‘to establish a firm and secure Trade and residence for my countrymen’ in ‘constant love and pease’; but Jahangir would assure him such workaday matters could wait, and instead counter with questions about the distant, foggy island Roe came from, the strange things that went on there and the art which it produced. Roe found that Jahangir ‘expects great presents and jewels and regards no trade but what feeds his insatiable appetite after stones, riches and rare pieces of art’. ‘He asked me what Present we would bring him,’ Roe noted. I answered the league [between England and Mughal India] was yet new, and very weake: that many curiosities were to be found in our Countrey of rare price and estimation, which the king would send, and the merchants seeke out in all parts of the world, if they were once made secure of a quiet trade and protection on honourable Conditions. He asked what those curiosities were I mentioned, whether I meant jewels and rich stones. I answered No: that we did not thinke them fit Presents to send backe, which were first brought from these parts, whereof he was the Chiefe Lord … but that we sought to find things for his Majestie, as were rare here, and vnseene. He said it was very well: but that he desired an English horse … So with many passages of jests, mirth, and bragges concerning the Arts of his Countrey, he fell to ask me questions, how often I drank a day, and how much, and what? What in England? What beere was? How made? And whether I could make it here. In all which I satisfied his great demands of State …’.
Roe could on occasion be dismissively critical of Mughal rule – ‘religions infinite, laws none’ – but he was, despite himself, thoroughly dazzled. In a letter describing the Emperor’s birthday celebrations in 1616, written from the beautiful, half-ruined hilltop fortress of Mandu in central India to the future King Charles I in Whitehall, Roe reported that he had entered a world of almost unimaginable splendour.
The Mughals, in return, were certainly curious about the English, but hardly overwhelmed. Jahangir greatly admired an English miniature of one of Roe’s girlfriends – maybe the Lady Huntingdon to whom he wrote passionately from ‘Indya’. But Jahangir made a point of demonstrating to Roe that his artists could copy it so well that Roe could not tell copy from original. The English state coach was also admired, but Jahangir had the slightly tatty Tudor interior trim immediately upgraded with Mughal cloth of gold and then again showed off the skills of the Mughal kar-khana by having the entire coach perfectly copied, in little over a week, so his beloved Empress, Nur Jahan, could have a coach of her own.
Meanwhile, Roe was vexed to discover that the Mughals regarded relations with the English as a very low priority. On arrival he was shoved into a substandard accommodation: only four caravanserai rooms allotted for the entire embassy and they ‘no bigger than ovens, and in that shape, round at the top, no light but the door, and so little that the goods of two carts would fill them all’. More humiliatingly still, his slightly shop-soiled presents were soon completely outshone by those of a rival Portuguese embassy who gave Jahangir ‘jewels, Ballests [balas spinels] and Pearles with much disgrace to our English commoditie’.
This excerpt from William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy: East India Company, Corporate Violence and Pillage of an Empire has been published with permission from Bloomsbury India.