Indian History Part 82 Jahangir Section V: The Arrival of the British

Canberra, 30 January 2021

By the end of the 16th century, Akbar’s fame had already spread to Europe—the story of an emperor who had conquered the whole of the exotic Hindustan; an emperor of extraordinary wisdom; an emperor who practised great religious tolerance at a time when the contemporary Tudor dynasty did not know the word or meaning of ‘toleration’. In the initial few decades following their arrival, the Europeans, traders, travellers and the proselytising priests, had confined themselves to the coastal regions of Peninsular India. It was only during the first two decades of the 17th century that Europeans started to venture into the interior of the Indian sub-continent. When they moved in they were not prepared for what they found.

Even though cynical in a preconceived manner, the Europeans were forced to admit that they found a novel and undreamt-of civilisation, which had all the elements of sagacious and practical statesmanship, of the rule of law and order, and a highly developed and benevolent ruling hierarchy. These inherently ‘arrogant’ Europeans had expected to find rude and empty pomp; but instead had been confronted with, and confounded by, literature, learning, poetry and art thriving under a reasoned theory of governance that had to be admired, however reluctantly. They encountered an exuberant great empire—the Mughal Empire—dominating the northern half of the sub-continent, while the southern peninsula was controlled by another equally fascinating indigenous empire of a totally different kind, the Vijayanagara Empire.

Historical Accounts

The Mughal period has been carefully chronicled by court historians and is supplemented by a number of memoirs of emperors and nobles of the realm. Contemporary local academics have also left a trail of observations and analysis. In fact, rich information regarding the Mughal era in the history of India is readily available for the ambitious historian. When the serious European historian arrived on the scene, almost a century after the collapse of the imperial Mughals, they noted, almost like finding a fault, that the Indian historians tended to gloss over the faults of a king, while highlighting his achievements. These historians continued to suffer from a complex that made them look down upon the local chroniclers and to consider themselves ‘better’ educated than the locals—a typically ‘white man’s syndrome’. In accusing the Indian court historians of being biased, they conveniently forgot that exactly the similar situation prevailed in Europe, where court historians were, if anything, more eager to sing the paeans of their kings and hide their shortcomings. For some unfathomable reason, the European historians and other academics were disdainful of the Indian historian.

The European academics find fault with the Indian chronicler stating that they write history as Indians for the Indians. This sounds as a complaint made for the sake of complaining, since there is nothing wrong with chronicling the events and writing for the local population, especially during the times that are being discussed. The biased opinions are so pronounced that even accounts by renowned English historians, the likes of Stanley Lane-Pool, fully succumb to this trait stating that even the writings of mere European travellers provide a more accurate account of India than the local ‘Indian’ historians. Such sentiments are blatantly incorrect. In actuality, the situation is the other way around. The Europeans, however adept at the local language and Persian, could not have understood all the cultural nuances of the activities, orders, political and social interactions that were being discussed and described. By discounting—out of ignorance or purposely—myriad other sources, these chroniclers failed to provide a balanced account for posterity. Only a balanced analysis, taking into account information from of all sources, will provide a clear and true picture of the Mughal Empire, as it actually existed.

The Europeans on the Coast

Although the Portuguese were the first to open the sea route to the Indian sub-continent in 1498, their attempt to create a colony in the Peninsula did not take root. They had to be satisfied with the control of the seas from the Cape of Good Hope to China and guarding the coastline with a chain of fortresses. The Dutch entered the Indies in 1597 and a few years later, on 31 December 1600, the English East India Company was incorporated in London. Within a few years, by 1607, the Portuguese monopoly and control of the seas were completely destroyed. The English set up their first factory in Surat and fairly rapidly started to replace the Portuguese as the predominant maritime power in the region.

The Very Early Days of the British

Jahangir, and Nur Jahan, are remembered for allowing the British to gain a foothold in India. Jahangir willingly granted them permission to trade and the right to operate from Mughal (Indian) soil as independent agents of a foreign government and country. The actual firman, order, permitting the English to trade was worded in such a manner that it amounted to selling out Mughal sovereignty in the areas controlled by the British.

Having reached Surat on 24th August 1608, Captain William Hawkins arrived at the Mughal court in Agra on 16th April 1609. He carried a letter from James I to the emperor of Hindustan asking for trade facilities to be made available. It was obviously addressed to Akbar who had been dead for nearly four years by the time the letter was presented in the Mughal court. Jahangir had not yet made a reputation for himself outside his own kingdom and was a relative unknown. The Portuguese, realising the emerging threat from the British, tried to block Hawkins from being presented to the emperor, but he nevertheless managed to get an audience. Jahangir received him graciously and accepted all the gifts that were proffered.

Subsequently, Jahangir appointed Hawkins to a ‘mansab’ of 400 and a salary of 30,000 rupees per annum while granting him the trade facilities that were being sought. Hawkins chronicled extensively the emperor’s habits, the court etiquette system to which he was exposed and the prevalent administrative process. Coming as they did from an outsider’s perspective, they are valuable sources of information, but cannot be considered to be completely unbiased. More important is his explanation of the sources of Jahangir’s (Mughal) seemingly unlimited wealth. He lists four sources that the emperor had: one, the treasure and jewels accumulated by his ancestors; two, the property of the nobles, which passed to the emperor after the death of a noble according to a slightly modified version of the common Law of Escheat; three, money brought in by foreign merchants as trading fees, tolls etc.; and four, the revenue from the emperor’s own personal estates, consisting of large tracts of extremely rich lands.

Hawkins left the Mughal court on 2 November 1611, peeved that the Portuguese had managed to influence Jahangir to rescind all concessions that had been granted to the British. However, in his narrative Hawkins exaggerated the Portuguese influence in the Mughal court, and more so on the Mughal policy towards foreign traders and commerce; perhaps to provide an excuse for his failure to gain any advantage. Jahangir’s policy on trade was pragmatic and based on, and dictated by, hard reality. The Mughals were never a maritime power, being completely wedded to their ancestry derived from the mountains of the Hindu Kush. They had no naval ambitions, and at this stage did not care who dominated the Arabian Sea.

Sir Thomas Roe

Sir Thomas Roe, accredited representative of the king of England, arrived in the Mughal kingdom in January 1616, with the aim to facilitate and further English trade. The fundamental difference between Hawkins and Roe was that unlike Hawkins who was just a trade representative, Roe was a royal ambassador and therefore carried much greater gravitas to his mission. Sir Thomas Roe was a well-educated aristocrat, a great merchant combining the urbanity of an accomplished courtier, and a true Elizabethan—brave and devoted to ‘king and country’. When he arrived at the Mughal court, he was in the prime of his life. The ultimate objective of his mission was to conclude a commercial treaty with the Mughal Empire, which was favourable or at least equally beneficial, to the British.         

Roe, while being acutely aware of the intrigues of the imperial court, continuously persevered to gain advantage for his country in all his dealings. He inveigled himself into the good graces of Nur Jahan and her brother Asaf Khan, who were jointly in full control of the administration of the empire. He leveraged their goodwill to ensure that he was in a favourable position. Roe was hoping to get some part of the port of Surat allocated to the British and after a great deal of delays, as well as long-drawn and convoluted negotiations, managed to get a ‘firman’, royal decree, to that effect.

The firman permitted the British to trade freely within the Mughal Empire, cancelled all the tolls that were usually levied on goods entering the port and permitted English traders to hire buildings as warehouses/factories. However, the rest of the conditions in the firman indicate an inherent Mughal mistrust of the British. They were not permitted to construct any permanent buildings and only a fixed number of Englishmen were permitted to carry arms in public. Even so, the grant of this limited firman was a land-mark in the evolving history of Anglo-Indian relations.

Thomas Roe enhanced the prestige of the English and won grudging respect at the Mughal court, through his studied calm and steadfast defence of the interests of his king and country. He also kept a journal that provides a vivid picture of the Mughal court. He provides detailed character sketches of the principal nobles of the realm and also elaborate descriptions of the pomp and magnificence of the royal court. His journal concentrates more on detailing the ills of the rule—accounts of the squalor and poverty of the peasants; the insecurity of the public highways; the inefficiency of the local administration; and the endemic corruption of government officials, reaching the highest levels. While all the faults recorded may have been true, their spread and virulence is no doubt exaggerated in Roe’s accounts, since he condemns these ills with a relative comparison with the situation in England at that time. In order to bring out the greatness of his own country, he demeans the Mughal system, much more than it ever deserved to be. Sir Thomas Roe’s accounts of Jahangir’s court, and rule, which is considered unassailable truths by most European historians, must be analysed and understood keeping the underlying vested interest that obviously biased the writer. It would be well worth remembering that the squalor and endemic poverty of the English domain was perhaps much grater than that faced by an Indian peasant in Mughal times.

The bias and questionable veracity of Roe’s descriptions and opinions is further established by the following fact. It is firstly obvious that his reports and diaries are mostly self-serving, being used a tool to further his own interests and status. In his writings he proclaims a close relationship with the emperor, even claiming to have been part of Jahangir’s inner circle of drinking companions. However, in Jahangir’s own memoirs, mostly autobiographical and only some parts written by a scribe but vetted by the emperor himself, there is not one mention of Sir Thomas Roe, directly or indirectly. Further, not one Mughal chronicle mentions the claimed intimate relationship between Roe and Jahangir. Roe’s observations and reports cannot be verified or counter-checked with any other source, there is only his word for the modern historian to believe. Considering that most of the time he gave himself a bigger than actual persona and importance, Roe’s journal and reports have only limited value as a true historic source. Unfortunately, this reality did not stop early European historians from touting Roe as the ultimate source of ‘factual’ information regarding Jahangir’s court and rule; nor has it stopped modern historians, both foreign and Indian, from following suit.

Few basic facts remain—by the time Jahangir came to the throne, the Portuguese sway over the Arabian Sea was being questioned and waning; the English had started to make a focused effort at establishing trade and commerce with Mughal India; and the British approach was different to the other European nations, they wanted to establish a monarch-to-monarch relationship, not between traders at the lower levels of commerce.   

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2021]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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