Courting India: England, Mughal India and the Origins of Empire

Nandini Das

Nandini Das Headshot

When Thomas Roe arrived in India in 1616 as James I's first ambassador to the Mughal Empire, the English barely had a toehold in the subcontinent. Their understanding of South Asian trade and India was sketchy at best, and, to the Mughals, they were minor players on a very large stage. Roe was representing a kingdom that was beset by financial woes and deeply conflicted about its identity as a unified 'Great Britain' under the Stuart monarchy. Meanwhile, the court he entered in India was wealthy and cultured, its dominion widely considered to be one of the greatest and richest empires of the world.

In Nandini Das's fascinating history of Roe's four years in India, she offers an insider's view of a Britain in the making, a country whose imperial seeds were just being sown. It is a story of palace intrigue and scandal, lotteries and wagers that unfolds as global trade begins to stretch from Russia to Virginia, from West Africa to the Spice Islands of Indonesia.

A major debut that explores the art, literature, sights and sounds of Jacobean London and Imperial India, Courting India reveals Thomas Roe's time in the Mughal Empire to be a turning point in history – and offers a rich and radical challenge to our understanding of Britain and its early empire.

Winner of the 2023 British Academy Book Prize for Global Cultural Understanding, you can read an extract from Courting India below.


Lincolnshire without a trial. James’s English nobles were concerned – not because the king had sentenced a man to death, but because he had claimed the right to sentence him at all. ‘I hear our new King hath hanged one man before he was tryede,’ Sir John Harington had cuttingly announced, ‘’tis strangely done: now if the wynde bloweth thus, why may not a man be tryed before he hath offended?’

The accounts that circulated most among the English merchants and adventurers in India were the ones that veer between fear and fascination with such absolute power. Like the story of Anarkali, bricked up in a wall on Akbar’s orders, there is a particularly popular one about Jahangir sending one of his men to China as a punishment after he broke a Chinese porcelain dish, ordering him not to return until he had found an identical one to replace it. John Jourdain tells one version of it, as do William Finch and Edward Terry. Their stories are also endlessly fascinated by the public spectacle of Mughal punishment, which tended to be quick and harsh, from flogging, to death by beheading, impalement, or trampling by the emperor’s elephants. Jahangir ‘delighteth to see men executed himselfe and torne in peeces with elephants’, Hawkins reports. Jahangir later put mechanisms in place to slow down the speed of dispensation of the death sentence in 1618, when his order to release a young man called Subhan-Quli had arrived too late to save him from execution. ‘Although the murderous villain deserved to be killed,’ he writes in his memoirs, ‘I regretted the circumstances and decreed that henceforth whenever anyone was ordered to be executed, no matter how insistent I was, he should be held and not killed until sundown. If by that time a rescinding order had not come, they could proceed with the execution.’

The violent performance of justice was something the English knew and understood. On numerous occasions, Londoners gathered for the more high-profile executions at the Tower, the hanging, drawing and quartering of those sentenced to death for treason, when the entrails of the convicted were publicly drawn out and displayed before the body was dismembered. The 1606 execution of Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators after the Gunpowder Plot was still a recent memory, but with about 150 felons executed annually during James I’s reign, one did not have to depend on memory alone. At the city gallows at Tyburn, you could get a seat for a small fee to watch an execution, and buy a pie to eat and a ballad about the crime to entertain you while you waited. You could see the bodies of pirates displayed at Wapping, and petty thieves strung up on gibbets at multiple sites around the city. As they went on their day-to-day business, Londoners walked past the heads of executed men, parboiled in tar so that they lasted longer in the rain and displayed on pikes on London Bridge and on the Great Stone Gate near Southwark.

But in India, the eyewitness descriptions of Jahangir’s rule that we get in the accounts of Hawkins and the others keep sliding into stock images of ‘Eastern’ tyranny that would be familiar from the sensational histrionics of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine on the London stage. The Mughal world that emerges from them is one where there is no commonly agreed, written law, where access to justice and order is seen to be bound to the sovereign’s word and whim. Besides those tales of terror, English accounts often picked up on the Mughal system of mansabdari, borrowed from the Persians, according to which noblemen were placed in a strict hierarchy, ordered by their rank (mansab), which was linked to the number of cavalry they were expected to maintain. Each rank received a fixed rate of pay, mostly through a temporary, non-hereditary grant of land (jagir) that covered both their household expenses and the costs of their troops. Roe’s account is not the only one that bristled with indignation at such a system and its difference from the inherited wealth of European nobility. The ‘Mogoll’ is ‘exceeding rich’, Hawkins had informed his readers back home, not just because he has inherited ‘the treasure and jewels of so many kinds as his forefathers had conquered’, but because ‘all the money and jewels which his nobles heape together, when they die come all unto him’. Mughal governance, in his eyes, takes on an unhealthy relationship of absolute dependence tying subjects to sovereign, the return of jagirs to the emperor on a nobleman’s death an exercise of monarchical greed.

In part, these are observations that offered English readers a framework within which the exercise of Mughal power became understandable, and its origin and workings could be rationalised. Mughal rule worked because it was ruthless, such descriptions suggested. That was also its weakness, was the assumption. Later, that spectre of Mughal absolutism would become central to British justifications of the empire in India, when the idea that British colonialism brought a benevolent, enlightened European influence into the country demanded a prehistory in which law and order did not exist, and monarchs ruled through tyranny. Yet to leave it at that would be only part of the story, because in these early, unsettled decades, that spectre of tyranny was also one that linked India inextricably to England. Like the lens of Jacobean corruption through which Roe would see the Mughal court, the memories and preconceptions about power that the English travellers carried with them from the teeming streets of London to the thoroughfares of Agra and Ajmer would shape his interaction with Jahangir and his domain. The Indians ‘have craft enough to be as wicked as any in our court’, Roe would write to his friend and patron, the Countess of Huntingdon, by the end of that eventful first year. Their machinations showed that ‘in all the wisdom of the Devil they are excellently learned’. ‘So that I am like to profit well’, he could not help adding wryly.

© Nandini Das from Courting India, England, Mughal India and the Origins of Empire, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2023

Nandini Das is professor of Early Modern Literature and Culture in the English faculty at the University of Oxford. Brought up in India, she was educated at the Jadavpur University in Kolkata, before moving to England for further study. Among other books, she is co-editor of The Cambridge History of Travel Writing. A BBC New Generation Thinker, she regularly presents television and radio programmes, including Tales of Tudor Travel: The Explorer's Handbook on BBC4.

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