Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve
This impressive volume, possessing meticulously researched facts often resulting from primary sources, is bound to appeal to any scholar interested in the beginnings of the Indian/English connections and the establishment of what was to become the vast British Empire.
The English, long regarded as a nation of shopkeepers, at this stage of their history, the beginning of the 17th century, display the attributes which more closely resemble venture capitalists who daringly risk, not just finance, but possibly their lives.
The book opens with the London of James I. He has newly ascended the throne, and in the city, noisome, bustling and fraught with danger, merchants and lawyers thrive. Under the King, subjects, including the affluent, are at the mercy of the whims and plots of their wildly extravagant monarch.
However, it is the experiences recorded in the diary of Thomas Roe, the first ambassador, that give a detailed picture of those steps taken to establish a British presence in India, notably Surat in Gunjarah province that forms the bulk of this formidable work.
Those who survived the horrors of the voyage to the East confronted very different problems. Setbacks occurred due to Ignorance, arrogance and lack of respect or courtesy. The effects of this approach were compounded by the public drunkenness of many. This horrified the citizens of Surat who did not drink to excess.
Thus began the long and tangled history of the two very different cultures. England was anxious to find new sources to replenish the royal coffers. The ambassador was also there on behalf of the East India Company to explore ways to trade with this country which was renowned for its vast wealth. His record of his four years in Surat, observing the powerful Mughals, provides a fine example of how extensive was the East India Company’s own accounts. He also noted the culture of the Mughals.
Over time, it was observed that, unlike English subjects’ experiences, the Mughals, Akbar and his son, Jahangir, had a remarkably different attitude. Rather than a ruling despot, they resembled a shepherd caring for his flock…Diversity was respected, especially religious, justice was paramount.
Unfortunately there was no written law resulting in justice being sometimes dispensed ruthlessly and harshly.
As a diplomat, Thomas Roe was hampered by painfully slow negotiations and success was often minor. Simultaneously, he had to counter the moves of the already well established Portuguese and Dutch who had long traded in the Far East and especially India. Jesuit priests were also a significant factor. In attempting to access the enormous potential there, Roe was often frustrated and even desperate.
Roe did not make any important contribution while in the Empire of the Mughals, so it is a puzzle as to why Nandini Das pursued this challenge of presenting such great detail of his time there. Thomas Roe did not embrace the culture as readily as other Englishmen, such as Thomas Coryate who walked thousands of miles, exploring India in its rich diversity.
Roe, was an ambassador, of course, and restricted by his diplomatic role. He also was working to promote the East India Company’s presence there.
Small beginnings but the Company grew to become the most powerfully successful trading company in the world.
Das is a professor of Early Modern Literature and Culture at Oxford, so it interesting that she has focused on Roe’s personal writing as a foundation for ‘Courting India……’
Not being an academic or scholar equipped to fully recognise its valued contribution to the early colonisation, I maintain that it presents a fascinating account of an important step in history. Reading this volume is slow mainly because it is so substantial in the content and dense in the facts related.
It stands, nonetheless, as a brilliant achievement, and breathtaking when a reader appreciates its depth and scale.
by Nandini Das
ISBN 978 152661 565 7