Early English adventurers in the East (1917)/Chapter 9

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An English Mission to the Court of the Great Mogul

Jehangir's attitude towards the English—Obstructions to trade—Sir Thomas Roe dispatched as ambassador—His early career—His reception by Jehangir—Opposition of Prince Khurrum and Asaf Khan—Roe out of favour with the Emperor—Is restor—to grace— Jehangir's partiality for Roe—The Emperor's jokes—Drinking bouts at the palace—An Oriental Hansard—Roe's difficulties

DECISIVE as was Downton's victory as far as the Portuguese were concerned its effect on the local situation was even more ephemeral than Best's action had proved. In a certain sense it even aggravated the difficulties, for it gave strength to the anti-English party at Court, who were not slow to point out that the war with the Portuguese had been brought about by the concessions made to the English. The position was made all the more imsatisfactory by the appointment to the government of Surat at this juncture of Prince Khurrum, a younger son of Jehangir, who afterwards figured in history as the Emperor Shah Jehan. The prince had always been inimical to the English, and he took up the government of Surat with a plain intention to make short work of these troublesome foreigners who had been disturbing the peace of the Western seaboard and introducing their riotous mode of living ashore. He was much too great a man to soil his hands with the business himself, but he was careful to send in the person of his favourite, Zulfikar Khan, a competent instrument for the execution of his designs. In the ordering of this policy Prince Khurrum had at least the tacit assent of the Emperor. Somewhat earlier Jehangir had received at Court a representative of the Company named Edwards, who delivered to him a letter from James and some new presents, including an English mastiff, which had distinguished itself on its arrival by "pinching" to death a leopard that was pitted against it. The sporting Emperor had been greatly impressed with this incident and had received the fierce animal with something like enthusiasm. But when the noveltyof the fighting mastiff had worn off, and he found that there were no more presents to be had, he assumed an attitude of contemptuous indifference towards the Company's representatives. One day, when Edwards was a little more importunate than usual at the durbar, the attendants, with blows and cuffs, bundled him contumeliously out of the presence, as they might have done some impudent beggar who had transgressed the laws of etiquette.

A circumstance which unquestionably militated against the English at the Mogul Court was their appearance there in the character of merchants. India at that period, and, indeed, still is the most aristocratic country in the world Nowhere are social traditions and prejudices more deeply rooted. Lofty unclimbable walls separate class from class and race from race. The basis of this rigid system is Hindu, but its broad essentials—the elevation of the warrior and priest and the depression of the trader—have been accepted by the Mohammedans, harmonizing as they do with their own ideals.

In Jehangir's reign the splendour of the Court life must have emphasized the barrier which custom interposed between those who bought and those who sold. Agra swarmed with merchants from all countries of Asia and some parts of Europe. They were, many of them, adventurers of a low type who cringed and fawned and flattered for a little gain. The whole atmosphere of the trading community must have been sordid to a degree if we may be guided by the conditions which obtain to-day at the capitals of the Indian states. In such circumstances the wonder is not that the English did not succeed, but that they accomplished anything. Probably the comparative friendliness of their reception was due to the personality of the earlier representatives of the Company combined with Jehangir's almost childish love of foreign novelties.

Not many years elapsed before the astute directors of the East India Company grasped the truth that their servants were not fitted by their status and training for the delicate work of diplomacy which had to be done in India. They quickly came to see that if an impression was to be made on the stone wall of Oriental prejudice it could only be through the agency of a duly accredited ambassador who would go out with all the prestige that would attach to a representative of the King. On being approached on the subject James I readily gave his consent to the dispatch of a special envoy, and in due course Sir Thomas Roe was selected for the office. Roe came of that good old city stock from which so many of the great families of England have sprung. His grandfather was Sir Thomas Rowe, or Roe, who was an Alderman of the City and filled the office of Sheriff in 1560, and was Lord Mayor in 1568. Born in 1581 the Sir Thomas Roe of our story, after matriculating at Oxford in 1593, filled a minor position at Elizabeth's Court in the last year of the great Queen's reign, and, finding favour with James, was knighted by that monarch on March 23, 1604-5, Five years later we find him conducting a voyage of discovery to the West Indies and distinguishing himself as an explorer by sailing 200 miles up the mighty Amazon, then unknown to people in England, and subsequently navigating the coast as far as the Orinoco. He returned home in 1611, after an absence of eighteen months. On two subsequent occasions he visited the same region to prosecute further explorations. In 1614 he had entered the House of Commons as member for Tamworth, intent apparently on a public career at home, but the opportunity of proceeding to the East in the dignified position of ambassador offering he gladly seized it, as his fortunes were at a low ebb, and he had some time previously contracted a secret marriage with a lady of good family, for whom he desired to make provision.

Apart from his early Court training and the knowledge of the world which he had acquired on his exploring expeditions Roe was admirably qualified for the role of ambassador at an Oriental court. He had a tall and commanding presence and a natural air of dignity which well accorded with it. His manners were easy and courtly, while a native tact and shrewdness lent strength to a personality which outwardly was altogether agreeable. Such a combination of quallties would have been useful in any diplomatic mission, but it was especially valuable in an embassy to an Oriental court, where so much turns upon the impression made upon the individual mind of the monarch.

It is unnecessary to follow Roe through the various stages of his tedious and largely uneventful voyage to Surat. Suffice it to say that he went out to India in the best equipped English fleet that had up to that time sailed to the East. On his arrival at Surat towards the close of 1615 he almost at once came into collision with the new native government. Zulflkar Khan was domineering and insolent, and put all sorts of obstacles in the way of Roe's mission. Roe, with a complete appreciation of the native character, took up a strong position from the first, put forward his requests as demands and generally showed that he did not intend to permit any barriers to be imposed either to his own mission or to the trading operations of the ships. Zulfikar Khan, when he found the kind of man with whom he had to deal gave in and he ended by making a humble appeal for Roe's friendship, offering on his own part to give the ambassador "anything he would demand."

Eventually a safe conduct was forthcoming from Jehangir, and Roe, after a month's detention, set out for Ajmere, where the Court at that time was situated. On the road the ambassador was stricken with fever, and the last stages of the journey from Burhanpur were made under great physical disability. It was not until January 10, 1616, some days after his arrival, that Roe was able to have an audience of the Emperor.

Roe gives an animated account in his diary of the manner of his reception. On arrival at the outer court of the palace he was conducted by the kotwal, or chief police officer, to an inner court, where, "high in a gallery, with a canopy over him and a carpet before him, sat in great and barbarous state the Great Mogul," Proceeding towards him through a lane of people Roe was met by an official, who told him that he must touch the ground with his head and with his hat off. The ambassador proudly replied that he came in honour to see the prince and was free from the custom of servants.

"So," proceeds Roe, "I passed on until I came to a place railed in right under him with an ascent of three steps where I made him reverence and he bowed his body; and so went within it. I demanded a chair, but was answered no man ever sat in that place, but I was desired as a courtesy to ease myself against a pillar covered with silver that held up his canopy. Then I moved for his favour for an English factory to be resident in the town, which he willingly granted and gave order for the drawing up of the firman" Thereafter Roe submitted his presents. Amongst them was a commodious coach and harness for four horses with an "able coachman" to manage the whole.

The inner lining of the coach was crimson China velvet, which at once caught Jehangir's sharp eyes. Why, he demanded of Roe, had the Company taken the trouble to send to China for material wherewith to furnish the coach when, as he had been informed, "the English King had much better velvet near home for such or any other uses?"

Roe's reply is not given, but we may take it that the blunder was not repeated, more especially as Jehangii afterwards had the China velvet removed and another fabric substituted. This was done when, on his order, the English coach was taken to pieces in order that his workmen might make an exact copy from it. The imitation of the original coach was so good that without close examination it was not possible to distinguish it from the presentation coach.

Jehangir appears to have taken to Roe from the outset. With Oriental perspicuity he no doubt recognized in the ambassador a very different type of man from the sailors and merchants with whom he had previously had to deal where English interests were concerned. He was courteous in his demeanour, made sympathetic inquiries about Roe's health, spoke kindly of his mission and generally showed a genuine interest in the newcomer to his Court. Roe was delighted with his reception, which he describes enthusiastically in his diary as the most gracious ever extended to any ambassador at the Mogul's Court.

It was not long before Roe discovered that the Emperor's favour, though of value as an incentive to him personally, was not to help him far along the road on which he desired to travel. There were pitfalls for him on every side which had to be discovered and negotiated before he could even begin to make progress. The most serious difficulty to be overcome was the anti-English spirit of Prince Khurrum, who was the more powerful as he was in intimate alliance with Asaf Khan, the prime minister and brother of Noor Mahal, Jehangir's favourite queen.

Asaf Khan played the prince's game with the adroitness of an Oriental skilled in the practice of intrigue. To Roe's request for a treaty he replied with a suggestion that the terms of the proposed instrument should be submitted in writing. Roe gladly drew up in outline an excellent treaty providing for free access for the English to all ports belonging to the Great Mogul, including those of Bengal and Sind and the free passage of English goods without the payment of any dues beyond the usual customs. Asaf Khan appeared, on the whole, to approve of the draft, but raised objections to minor points. afterwards, meeting the ambassador at the durbar, he informed him that the document was ready for sealing. Roe was naturally elated at this prompt consideration of his request. But his spirits fell as day succeeded day and no treaty was forthcoming.

The wheels of diplomacy now began to creak badly. The trouble was that the necessary lubrication in the shape of presents was lacking. Roe's stock, at no time an extensive one, had by this time given out, and he had to rely purely upon his persuasive qualities to push his suit. At the Mogul Court there was never much to be accomplished on these lines, and unfortunately for Roe the period of scarcity of material resources coincided with the outbreak of a fresh crop of difficulties at Surat arising out of the arbitrary action of the local authorities. The complaints made by the ambassador in this connection added fuel to the flames of Prince Khurrum's resentment at the intrusion of the English and the earlier attitude of contemptuous aloofness gave place to a definitely hostile line of conduct. Roe received a message from Asaf Khan to the effect that on the complaint of the prince against him the Emperor had forbidden him to visit the Court. Simultaneously, a hint was conveyed that some of the prince's turbulent following might take revenge for his open opposition to their chief. The ambassador treated the veiled threat with scorn and to the prime minister he replied defiantly that "he would not give away the Company's money for good looks: the world was wide enough. Wee gott noe soe much by this trade as wee would buy it with soe much injury." He concluded by intimating that he would wait a little time longer and that if the treaty were not forthcoming he would depart, and he and his nation would go elsewhere where they would receive better entertainment.

It is probable that the Mogul officials were as little moved by Roe's threats as he was by theirs. Some of them were ready to welcome the English trade, but the predominating party would gladly have seen the backs of the ambassador and his entourage. Strangely enough Makarrab Khan was one of those who wished the English to remain. His desire, it may be surmised, was prompted more by rivalry with Zulfikar Khan than a feeling of friendship for Roe, But that, for the time being at all events, it was sincere he proved by extricating the ambassador from the awkward impasse into which he had been thrust. He accomplished this by the simple expedient of telling Jehangir why the Englishman no longer attended his durbar. The Emperor professed surprise and allowed it to be understood that he would welcome Roe if he put in an appearance. The ambassador consequently resumed his attendance at Court as if nothing had happened. Negotiations were subsequently resumed, with little result as far as the treaty was concerned, but Roe achieved a distinct success by securing the redress of the Surat grievances in the face of the determined opposition of Prince Khurrum,

Roe's position at Court was now higher than ever. Jehangir made much of him, conversed with him freely on all sorts of subjects, and even deigned to exercise a rather ready gift of badinage upon him. One day he was sent for to the durbar to answer a question about a picture which he had presented to the Emperor with the declaration that he was confident that no man in India could equal it.

Jehangir, on his appearance, demanded of him what he would give a painter who had made a copy so like it that he would not be able to distinguish the original from it.

Roe replied, "A painter's reward—fifty rupees."

The Emperor answered that his painter "was a caveleer and that the sum offered was too small a gift," to which Roe responded that he "gave his picture with a good heart, esteeming it rare and meant not to make comparisons or wagers, but that if his Majesty's servant had done as well and would not accept his gift his Majesty was most fit to reward him." Jehangir laughed at the neat retort.

"So with many passages of jests, mirth and bragges concerning the arts of his country" the Emperor fell to asking Roe questions.

How often did he drink in the day, and how much? What was beer and how was it made, and whether Roe could make it in India?

All these questions were answered to the Emperor's satisfaction, and then Roe was dismissed. But he was summoned again later for the picture test, for which Jehangir had made somewhat elaborate arrangements.

The ambassador was shown six pictures on a table—the presented work and five copies—and he was asked to pick out the former. As the light was not good he was for a brief space at a loss to discover the original, but at last he indicated it, pointing out at the same time the differences which distinguished it from its fellows.

The Emperor was hugely delighted at Roe's indecision in making his choice—" he was very merry and joyfull and craked like a Northern man." The audience closed by Jehangir presenting one of the copies to Roe and himself wrapping it up in paper to preserve it from injury in transit. As he handed the gift over he observed—

"You see we are not so unskilfull as you esteem us."

On another occasion Jehangir sent an urgent message summoning Roe to his presence. The ambassador, who had retired for the night, dressed and repaired to the palace, to find that Jehangir wished to satisfy his curiosity in regard to a miniature which the ambassador had incautiously shown to one of the imperial artists. It is not stated in Roe's journal who the picture represented, but the probability is that it was a portrait of the lady to whom he had been wedded prior to his embarkation. Roe, on repairing to the palace, found the Emperor "sitting crosslegged on a little throne, all clad in diamonds, pearls and rubies, before him a table of gold on which were about fifty pieces of gold plate, set all with stones, some very great and extremely rich, some of less value, but all of them almost covered with small stones." About him were his nobility "in their best equipage, whom he commanded to drink froliquely several wines standing by in great flagons."

Immediately the ambassador entered Jehangir asked for the miniature. Roe showed him two pictures, probably hoping that the one he cherished most might be overlooked; but the Emperor pounced upon it and asked whose portrait it was. Roe replied that it represented a friend of his who was dead. Would he part with it? Jehangir demanded. The ambassador answered diplomatically that he valued it more than anything he possessed because it was the image of one that he loved dearly and he could never replace it, but that if his Majesty would pardon him his fancy he would give it him. Jehangir ultimately said that he would not rob Roe of his treasure, but would simply borrow it to show to his ladies and in order to get his artists to make five copies from it for their satisfaction. On these terms Roe parted with the miniature, and as far as can be gathered from his diary he never saw it again.

The business of the miniature settled Jehangir insisted on his visitor joining in the festivity, which he said was in honour of his birthday. He was induced to quaff from a gold cup which was handed to him a draught of "mingled wine, half of the grape, half artificial." The liquor was potent and made Roe sneeze, "whereat he (the Emperor) laughed and called for raisins and almonds and sliced lemons, which were brought him on a plate of gold, and he bade me eat and drink what I would and no more."

The cup was presented as a souvenir of the occasion, and Roe made acknowledgment of it in his own manner, ignoring a suggestion of Asaf Khan that he should kneel and knock his head on the ground in token of his gratitude, in harmony with the fashion of the Court. After this Jehangir "made frolic" and presumably in his cups sent Roe word that he esteemed him "more than any Frank."

Then attendants appeared bringing in trays filled with imitation almonds of gold and silver which the Emperor cast amongst his courtiers in handfuls. The nobles scrambled for them like boys at a school treat, but the dignified Roe refrained, "for," he says, "I saw his son took up none." The drinking continued until Jehangir could no longer hold up his head. When this interesting stage in the proceedings was reached Roe, with the rest who were capable, took his departure.

Concerning these drinking bouts of Jehangir Roe says that "though drunkenness is a common and glorious vice and an exercise of the King's, yet it is so strictly forbidden that no man can enter into the place where the King sits but the porters smell his breath and if he have but tasted wine is not suffered to come in, and if the reason be known of his absence he shall with difficulty escape the whip."

The story is related of an unfortunate noble who in an unguarded moment in open durbar made an oblique reference to the previous night's wassail and, for his indiscretion, was almost beaten to death with the terrible whips described by Hawkins.

Cruelty, now as in Hawkins' time, was a conspicuous feature of the Emperor's character. One day Roe and his associates were horrified at the awful cries of a woman of the harem who, for some indiscretion, had been condemned to be buried up to the neck and left to die by exposure to the fierce rays of the sun. For one whole day and a part of another the wretched creature's heart-piercing appeals for mercy were heard by the Englishmen in their lodgings, which were in the vicinity of the scene of the terrible tragedy. They, of course, dare not interfere in the least degree, as to have done so would probably have been to seal their own doom as well as that of the victim of Jehangir's wrath.

In some respects, as Hawkins had noted, the Mogul government showed considerable enlightenment. One feature of the system which to-day would be regarded as counting to some extent for administrative righteousness is, curiously enough, cited by Roe as an example of imperial waywardness. It was the practice invariably followed at that period of publishing accounts of the discussions in durbar upon public questions with the decisions following upon them. These official records must have been a sort of Oriental Hansard and quite harmless, if not useful, but Roe, whose notions were drawn from the era of England's history when the reporting of the proceedings of Parliament was a high crime and misdemeanour, was shocked at the idea that the report of the day's durbar discussions could be purchased for two shillings, and that "the common base people" should "know as much as the Council of the newes of the day," with the result that "the King's new resolutions were tossed and censured by every rascall."

All the time that Roe was thus basking in the sun of imperial favour the question of the treaty was progressing but slowly. Asaf Khan, while making a pretence of examining the questions at issue, took good care that nothing should be done to give the foreigner a foothold in the country. His attitude was not entirely the outcome of self interest or even of prejudice. The treaty for which Roe asked was an instrument at that time not only quite unfamiliar to the Mogul government, but in direct opposition to its traditions. The theory upon which its despotic power was built was that the Emperor was so superior a being that he could not be bound by engagements of a permanent character. What he felt at liberty to give he must be free to take away if it pleased him so to do.

Viewed from this standpoint the constant changes of policy of which the English in the early days of their appearance in India were the victims become intelligible. The Mogul's apparent vacillation was not the mere working of an unstable mind, but the outcome of a policy deliberately and consistently applied as an essential part of the state system.

Roe, who knew nothing of this, kept steadily pressing his suit in the hope that by his persistency, aided by the indispensable presents, he might some day carry his point. In deference to the wishes of the directors he even pushed his demands beyond the original point by preferring an application for a safe port with permission to fortify it. As he had half anticipated the proposal met with no favour. Prince Khurrima treated it with scorn, observing that his father "needed not English assistance: he meant not to undertake war with Portugall for their sakes and he would not on any consideration deliver up any port to the Company." Later, when Roe broached the subject to Asaf Khan, the minister declined even to submit the project to the Emperor. In his view it was sheer impertinence to raise the question.

By this time Roe had had a sufficiently long experience of India to obtain a good general view of the position. In a letter home at this juncture he put before the directors his opinions as to what should be their future line of policy. He did not favour the appointment of a permanent representative at the Mogul's Court. "I would sooner dye," he wrote. "than be subject to the slavery the Persian (ambassador) is content with. A meaner agent would among these proud Moores better effect your business ... I have moderated it according to my discretion, but with a swollen heart." He went on to suggest that a native agent should be employed at the Mogul capital with a subordinate at Surat. As to general policy he was very emphatic in the view that the Company should not allow itself to be entangled with engagements on land. "A war and traffique," he wrote, "are incompatible. By my consent you shall no way engage yourselves but at sea, wher you are like to gayne as often as to loose. It is the beggering of the Portugall, notwithstanding his many rich residences and territoryes that hee keepes souldiers that spendes it: yet his garrisons are meane. Hee never profited by the Indyes since hee defended them. Observe this well. It hath also been the errour of the Dutch, who seeke plantation here by the sword. They turne a wonderful stocke, they proule in all places; they possess some of the best; yet ther dead Payes consume all the gayne. Lett this be received as a rule that if you will profitt seek it at sea and in quiett trade for ... it is an errour to affect garrisons and land warrs in India." It was advice which was strangely belied by the subsequent course of events in India, but at the time at which it was written it was the soundest counsel that could have been given.