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Our Man in Ajmer Courting India: England, Mughal India and the Origins of Empire

By Nandini Das (Bloomsbury 480pp £30)

Pity Sir Thomas Roe. He was sent to India in February 1615 by James I as the first English ambassador to the fabu- lously glamorous Mughal court – a privi- lege and an extraordinary opportunity, one might think. But diplomats in the 17th century, in Europe at least, were woefully underpaid and were expected to make up any shortfall out of their own pockets in anticipation of a refund on their return. The amount reimbursed was at the whim of the monarch, who might be grateful for their years of travail but might just as easily be disappointed or no longer inter- ested. It is a measure of their unrealistic expectations that the East India Company, formed only fifteen years before Roe set off on the hazardous six-month voyage to India and partial sponsors of his expedi- tion, imagined that the ‘Grand Mogore’ might be persuaded to give Roe an allow- ance, enabling him to return their invest- ment in him.

enamel boxes, cups, daggers, aigrettes, jewels the size of pigeon’s eggs and sumptuous textiles. Roe’s showpiece present, a car ved and gilded English coach, had partially disintegrated on the long sea journey. Jahangir received the warped, tarnished carriage with its tattered curtains and upholstery with his usual exquisite politeness, but later Roe heard that he had wondered ‘whether the King of England were a great kyng, that sent presents of so small valewe’.

zenana wielded immense power, gave the English permission to establish the base in Calcutta that would become the heart of the East India Company a hundred years later. Typically, Roe had no idea that his diplomatic victory was actually a move in a complex game of political chess being played by Nur Jahan with her rival and stepson, Shah Jahan. It marked the inauguration of the long and complicated relationship between England, the East India Company and the subcontinent, whose riches its members eyed so covetously.

As Nandini Das, author of Courting India, observes, ‘if there is one thing that following Roe in India illuminates, it is the messiness of human experience.’ None of his time there went especially well. Roe was stuck somewhere he didn’t really want to be, playing a high-stakes game he didn’t

Roe’s mission on behalf of the king and the East India Company was to establish a special relationship with the Mughals, who were already dealing with Portuguese and Dutch merchantmen. After he and his small team landed in Surat, on the Gujarati coast, they made their way north to Ajmer, where Emperor Jahangir and his court were based. Roe was already ill with what he called a ‘ bloody flux’, some kind of dysentery he struggled with throughout his four years in India, but he managed to rally sufficiently to be presented formally to Jahangir in January 1616. Roe wrote home saying that he had been received with more favour than had been shown to any ambassador ever before, but he must have known this was untrue.

If his lukewarm reception hadn’t made it clear, his subsequent treatment would underline to Roe just how inadequate and irrelevant his embassy was. Neighbouring rulers regularly sent Jahangir elephants caparisoned in gold and silver, dozens of richly saddled horses, dazzling gold and

‘Sir Thomas Roe at the Court of Ajmer, 1614’ by William Rothenstein, 1925–7

Roe’s measly resources made him even more determined to present an image of dignity and strength to his hosts. He refused to prostrate himself before the emperor and, to his own disadvantage, refused to learn Urdu. Unsurprisingly, he found it frustratingly hard to get the emperor or anyone else to talk about expanding the English presence in India.

properly understand in the hope that it would guarantee his future somewhere else. Yet out of all this Das has constructed an utterly absorbing narrative in which she traces Roe’s education in diplomatic patience, compares the nature of power at the Mughal and Jacobean courts and explores the first shoots of what would grow into the Raj.

Just before leaving, after four years of efforts to engage with the Mughal regime, he was granted the concession that would enable the East India Company to establish its foothold in India. Jahangir’s consort, Nur Jahan, who from her position in the royal

What makes Das’s account of Roe’s experiences in India so fascinating is the depth of her research. She has mined the East India Company archives, which contain Roe’s and all his colleagues’ letters (the East India Company insisted

Literary Review | march 2023 6

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