Fitch, Ralph (DNB00)

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FITCH, RALPH (fl. 1583–1606), traveller in India, was among the first Englishmen known to have made the overland route down the Euphrates Valley towards India. He left London on 12 Feb. 1583 with other merchants of the Levant Company, among whom were J. Newberry, J. Eldred, W. Leedes, jeweller, and J. Story, a painter. He writes : 'I did ship myself in a ship of London, called the Tiger, wherein we went for Tripolis in Syria, and from thence we took the way for Aleppo' (Hakluyt, ii. 250). Fitch and his companions arrived at Tripolis on 1 May, thence they made their way to Aleppo in seven days with the caravan. Setting out again on 31 May for a three days' journey on camels to Bir (Biredjik) on the Euphrates, there they bought a large boat, and agreed with a master and crew to descend the river, noticing on their way the primitive boat-building near the bituminous fountains at Hit (cf. Chesney, ii. 636). On 29 June Fitch and his company reached Felújah, where they landed. After a week's delay, for want of camels, they crossed the great plain during the night, on account of the heat, to Babylon (i.e. Bagdad) on the Tigris. On 22 July they departed hence in flat-bottomed boats down this river to Bussorah at the head of the Persian Gulf, where they left Eldred for trade.

On 4 Sept. Fitch and his three companions arrived at Ormuz, where within a week they were all imprisoned by the Portuguese governor at the instance of the Venetians, who dreaded them as their rivals in trade. On 11 Oct. the Englishmen were shipped for Goa in the East Indies unto the viceroy, where, upon their arrival at the end of November, as Fitch puts it, 'for our better entertainment, we were presently put into a fair strong prison, where we continued until 22 Dec.' (Hakluyt, vol. ii. pt.i. 250). Story having turned monk, Fitch, Newberry, and Leedes were soon afterwards set at liberty by two sureties procured for them by two Jesuit fathers, one of whom was Thomas Stevens, sometime of New College, Oxford, who was the first Englishman known to have reached India by the Cape of Good Hope, four years before, i.e. 1579 (cf. Hakluyt, vol. ii. pt. i. 249). After 'employing the remains of their money in precious stones, on Whitsunday, 5 April 1584, Fitch, and his two companions, Newberry and Leedes, escaped across the river from Goa, and made the best of their way across the Deccan to Bijapur and Golconda, near Haiderabad, thence northwards to the court of Akbar, the Great Mogore (i.e. Mogul, Persian corruption for Mongol), whom they found either at Agra or his newly built town of Fatepore (Fatehpur Sikri), twelve miles south from it. They stayed here until 28 Sept. 1585, when Newberry proceeded north to Lahore, with a view to returning through Persia to Aleppo or Constantinople ; as Newberry was never heard of afterwards it is supposed he was murdered in the Punjab. Story remained at Goa, where he soon threw off the monk's habit and married a native woman, and Leedes, the jeweller, accepted service under the Emperor Akbar. From Agra Fitch took boat with a fleet of 180 others down the Jumna to Prage (Allahabad), thence he proceeded down the Ganges, calling at Benares and Patna, to 'Tanda in Gouren,' formerly one of the old capitals of Bengal, the very site of which is now unknown. From this point Fitch journeyed northward twenty days to Couch (Kuch Behar), afterwards returning south to Húgli, the Porto Piqueno of the Portuguese, one league from Satigam. His next journey was eastward to the country of Tippara, and thence south to Chatigam, the Porto Grande of the Portuguese, now known as Chittagong. Here he embarked for a short voyage up one of the many mouths of the Ganges to Bacola (Barisol) and Serampore, thence to Sinnergan, identified by Cunningham (xv. 127) as Sunargaon, an ancient city formerly the centre of a cloth-making district, the best to be found in India at this period. On 28 Nov. 1586 he re-embarked at Serampore in a small Portuguese vessel for Burma. As far as can be learned from this obscure part of his narrative, Fitch, after sailing southwards to Negrais Point, ascended the western arm of the Irawadi to Cosmin (Kau-smin, the old Taking name for Bassein), thence by the inland navigation of the Delta, across to Cirion (Syriam, now known as Than-lyeng, near Rangoon), calling at Macao (Men-Kay of Williams's map), and so on to Pegu. Fitch's sketches of Burmese life and manners as seen in and near Pegu deserve perusal upon their own merits, apart from the fact of their having been drawn by the first Englishman to enter Burma. With a keen eye to the prospects of trade, he also proved himself to be a persistent questioner upon state affairs. In describing the king of Pegu's dress and splendour of his court retinue, he adds : 'He [the king] hath also houses full of gold and silver, and bringen in often, but spendeth very little' (Hakluyt, ii. 260). From Pegu Fitch went a twenty-five days' journey north-east to Tamahey (Zimmé) in the Shan States of Siam ; this must have been towards the end of 1587, for on 10 Jan. 1588 he sailed from Pegu for Malacca, where he arrived 8 Feb., soon after its relief by P. de Lima Pereira for the Portuguese (cf. Linschoten, p. 153). On 29 March Fitch set out on his homeward journey from Malacca to Martaban, and on to Pegu, where he remained a second time. On 17 Sept. he went once more to Cosmin (Bassein), and there took shipping for Bengal, where he arrived in November. On 3 Feb. 1589 he shipped for Cochin on the Malabar coast, where he was detained for want of a passage nearly eight months. On 2 Nov. he sailed for Goa, where he remained for three days, probably in disguise. Hence he went up the coast to Chaul, where after another delay of twenty-three days in making provision for the shipping of his goods, he left India for Ormus, where he stayed for fifty days for a passage to Bussorah. On his return journey Fitch ascended the Tigris as far as Mosul, journeying hence to Mirdui and Urfah, he went to Bir, and so passed the Euphrates. He concludes the account of his travels thus : 'From Bir I went to Aleppo, where I stayed certain months for company, and then I went to Tripolis, where, finding English shipping, I came with a prosperous voyage to London, where, by God's assistance, I safely arrived the 29th April 1591, having been eight years out of my native country' (Hakluyt, vol. ii. pt. i. 265).

How far Fitch's travels and experience in the East may have contributed to the establishment of the East India Company, and won their first charter from Elizabeth, 31 Dec. 1601, will be best gleaned from one or two entries in their court minutes, which contain the latest traces that can be found of him. Under date 2 Oct. 1600 we read: 'Orderid that Captein Lancaster (and others), together with Mr. Eldred and Mr. ffitch, shall in the meetinge to-morrow morning conferre of the merchaundize fitt to be provided for the (first) voyage' (Stevens, p. 26). Again, 29 Jan. 1600-1: 'Order is given to . . . Mr. Hacklett, the histriographer of the viages of the East Indies, beinge here before the Comitties, and having read vnto them out of his notes and bookes . . . was required to sette downe in wryting a note of the principal places in the East Indies where trade was to be had, to th' end the same may be used for the better instruction of or factors in the said voyage' (ib. p. 123). Again court minutes, 31 Dec. 1606: 'Letters to be obtained from K. James to the king of Cambaya, gouernors of Aden, etc. . . . their titles to be inquired of Ralph Fitch' (Sainsbury, State Papers, No. 36). This is the latest mention of Fitch known to us.

In 1606 was produced Shakespeare's 'Macbeth;' there we read (act i. 3) 'Her husband's to Aleppo gone, master of the Tiger.' This line, when compared with the opening passage of Fitch's narrative, is too striking to be regarded as a mere coincidence, and is also one of the clearest pieces of evidence known to us of Shakespeare's use of the text of Hakluyt.

[Chesney's Survey of the Euphrates and Tigris, 1850; Cunningham's India; Archæological Survey Reports, vol. xv., Calcutta, 1882; Hakluyt's Navigations, 1599, vol. ii.; Linschoten's Voyages, London, 1598; Stevens and Birdwood's Court Records of the East India Company, 1599-1603, London, 1886; Sainsbury's State Papers, East Indies, &c., 1513-1616, London, 1862.]

C. H. C.