• Omer Haq

The Cavalier - Thomas Roe at Jahangir's Court

Updated: Jan 13

The rather self indulgent and self proclaimed ambassador of King James of English arrives at the Mughul court, assuming he's the fancy of the Emperor.

The Timurid- Mughal dynasty of South Asia was a source of European fascination and interest. Travellers were drawn by the promise of riches and the exotic. The establishment of links between Europe and South Asia in the early 16th century brought about a whole new era of diplomacy, commercial and artistic exchange between these two regions. Quite naturally this all began with representatives from Europe arriving at the court of the great Mughals seeking his permission to establish trade agreements which would benefit their motherlands.

The arrival of the European envoy was due solely for the desire to establish factories. Now, remember when we speak of factories in the context of the advent of Europeans, we are talking about commercial compounds for fortification that are made within the Mughal Empire in order to carry out trade. These factories were not manufacturing units as we would refer to them in today's world. These were mere places of storage shipment and trading of commercial goods. Apart from establishing factories in the Mughal Kingdom, Europeans also wished for beneficial trade rights and safe passage for their ships to arrive and depart at ports of the Indian ocean. During the early 17th century, the Portuguese had a persistent presence in South Asia, ever since the conquest of Goa in 1510 and the establishment of Estado India. The Portuguese were in direct conflict with the English desire for the trade relations with the Mughals.

It was during the reign of the fourth Mughal Badshah for the emperor, Nooruddin Mohammed Jahangir, that the English constantly pressed for these desires

Among the most well known Englishmen in Jahangir’s Court was Sir Thomas Roe who was sent as an official ambassador from King James I. While he held the dual role of representative commercial entity of the East India Company, Thomas was also a prolific writer during his time in the Jahangir Empire, keeping not only a detailed journal but he also pinned letters of business and personal contacts including the ones he wrote for King James I.

Roe’s writings have been used to demystify the workings of the Mughal court. It has also been used to gain a window into the lives of the individual personalities of the empire and the political development of 17th Century Mughul dominion. His journal provides a revelation of his personality and also reflects his frustration and antagonistic relationship with certain members of the Mughal Court.

The painting shows the English politician and diplomat Sir Thomas Roe MP (1581-1644) being received by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir in 1616.
English politician and diplomat Sir Thomas Roe MP (1581-1644) received by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir in 1616.

Throughout his writings, Roe constantly validated his role as a Royal Ambassador and stressed on his position that he had been placed in the Mughal court and his intimacy with Jahangir. To understand the task that had been allotted to Roe as Royal Ambassador we first need to look at the numerous failed attempts made by the English East India Company in order to establish formal trade with the Mughal court.

All of this begins when a consortium of wealthy merchants was created as a commercial enterprise. The company subsequently was granted the Royal Charter in 1600. Thomas was not the first one to represent the East India Company. John Mildamhal became the first company representative to visit the Mughal court during the reign of Akbar, Jahangir’s father. The delegation’s efforts failed and so did the third and the sixth voyage until 1611. It was not until the tenth voyage that the Company tried again to institute a formal agreement with the Mughals. In this instance, Thomas Best (not our Thomas Roe) was able to successfully obtain a Farman granting permission for the English build a factory in Surat. However, the treaty had not been established between England and the empire. The company convinced the king to send an official Royal Ambassador to Jahangir’s court,Sir Thomas Roe.

Roe arrived at Surat in September 1615 at the age of 35. A resolute man wanting to represent himself, his king and his country in a manner that would command respect and achieve the ultimate goal for commercial agreements between the company and the Mughal Empire.

Roe arrived at the Royal Court of Ajmer from January 1616 and stayed for 2 years before he returned to England in February 1619. As Roe maintained his journal during his time in the Mughal court, his writings have now been published as travel writing for the enjoyment of desirous people to know more about his travels and the places he visited or as in this instance, the non-European 17th-century world.

It is evident that Roe understood that his success was dependent on his ability to act as if he held power and position in the Mughal court. We need to understand how much behavior in the Mughal court was necessary for this mission that he had undertaken and had already been made difficult by the behaviors of the previous Company representatives who had come to the court claiming to be Royal Ambassadors while they were here as Company employees. John, who had arrived at Akbar's court in 1603, promised the emperor that he would have a Royal Ambassador from the English Kingdom be sent to the Mughal court. When Hawkins arrived, Jahangir thought that he must be the Royal Ambassador promised, a role that Hawkins was not hesitant to accept. As any Royal Ambassador in the Mughal court, Hawkins was accepted in court proceedings and was given an allowance and favored. But all of this shattered when Hawkins carelessly decided to turn up in front of the emperor while he was drunk. All of these actions of the previous Company representatives had made the task of Roe much more difficult. The Mughals laughed at the name of Ambassador and it became a point of ridicule as so many had assumed the title and none had performed the office.

England's reputation as a country was of little importance to the Mughul trade and diplomacy; this became evident to Roe as he arrived at Surat. Roe understood this and became even more heightened in his belief that the impression he gave of himself was of utmost importance and that this would be equated with the impression of his king and country. Naturally, this resulted in Roe engaging in politics of display and presentation. He believed he was an actor in the scene and had to constantly maintain the character of an Ambassador as it had to be believed by his Mughal audience. While I read the writings of Roe during his time in the court, there were certain recurring themes in his book which among them as I previously mentioned was that of his position which made him the embodiment of James I and of England and South Asia. Another theme is of his expectation- that an Ambassador would receive a special status and that the Mughal treatment should reflect this.

Thomas began to build forts in his own mind when he thought that he was personally held in very high esteem by the emperor and that he shared with him a relationship that no other European had afforded

Roe insinuated himself into the hierarchy of the Mughal court . So confident and boastful about his position in the court of the emperor, Roe had his journal copied and sent to his friends in the Company while he was still in South Asia.

Once, when Thomas had arrived in the court of Jahangir in Ajmer, his writings reflected an intimacy with the emperor which he thought was unsurpassed by any other European. This statement portrayed that the English were considered to be politically superior to other Europeans in the eyes of the emperor, even surpassing the old relationship of the Portuguese in the Mughal court since 1580 who had also sent their first Jesuit mission to Akbar's Court. Since then the Jesuit Fathers had advised the emperor in his general dealings with Europeans and had acted as translators and interpreters when other European came to court. Roe in his writings notes additional circumstances and different situations to illustrate his importance to the emperor including when once the Baadshah sent for Thomas during the night asking him to help him tie a sword and a scarf in the English fashion. He writes this in a letter to the Company. Here Roe tried to show that he had intimate access to Jahangir and that it was only he who held the position to fulfill the desire of the company, All of this, as he wrote to the Company, was a part of his theatrical role as an Ambassador trying to convince the Company that he was the right person that they had chosen for the mission.

Another instance where Roe wrote about Jahangir, who demanded to know what made Roe unhappy when the emperor received news of Roe’s lament. Thomas wrote this too that Jahangir respected him more than he respected any other stranger. In another instance,

Roe wrote favorably about how he was invited to have a drink with the emperor and his other members of the royal household (Harem). He also stressed how the emperor was at unease when he had heard that Roe had missed the birthday ritual of weighing the emperor in gold.

This depiction of Thomas thus far focused on his writing as a tool he used to convey his importance with Jahangir. He also wrote about how he consciously placed himself in the Mughal court hierarchy and by doing so he was projecting himself as a person who was perceived of immense importance.

Roe also wrote about how he was perceived to be a man of high importance in the court. To justify this he narrates an incident in Durbar. The Mughal court ceremony dictates that when the emperor was in the audience the courtiers and the nobles were placed around the audience hall in accordance with their rank and only the closest advisor and the highest-ranking nobles were placed within the particular set of rails which were close to the emperor. Roe was quite aware of the hierarchy in the Durbar. When he first arrived on 24th January and he went to the durbar to visit the king, he writes that the king seeing him from afar, put out his hand, signaling him that he should approach the emperor by omitting the ceremony of asking the emperor's permission to approach him. He writes that he thought this status and the Emperor’s action towards him was befitting to his role as an Ambassador to King James I. He writes this to display his particular level of closeness that he thought he shared with the emperor ever since he came to the court. The journal presents Jahangir to showing preferential treatment to Roe stressing the fact that he did not have to formally ask permission to approach the Imperial space and that he was not required to follow the rigid nature of the courtly audience,and as for Roe he had independently decided to return to the same place as he had in this particular occasion been permitted by the Emperor.

Jahangir inviting a courtier with a robe of honour watched by Sir Thomas Roe, English ambassador to the court of Jahangir at Agra from 1615–18
Jahangir inviting a courtier with a robe of honour, watched by Sir Thomas Roe, English ambassador to Jahangir's court

Once during the occasion of Navroz, when Roe was invited to the audience, he chose to stand within the rail on the right side of the emperor, next to the prince and the young Ranna on the other side.

While the emperor gave him the choice of choosing his own place to stand it was that Roe personally chose to enter the rails and make a statement of distinction by equating himself with the royal family

Another notion of Roe perceiving himself as an important figure to Jahangir comes from an incident where a Saffavid Ambassador, Mohammad Reza Baig, arrived at court. Roe wrote that like all the visitors appearing before the emperor, they were required by the customs of the court to perform Taslim before the emperor followed by sajdah, which means prostration in front of the emperor three times as a means of respect. However, Thomas upon requesting the permission of the emperor to use customs of his country in greeting Jahangir during his first appearance was allowed to do so, thereby ensuring that he did not have to perform what he thought was a demeaning customary act of obedience that all who come before the emperor did by kneeling on the floor touching their forehead to the ground three times. Roe felt that his decision to not perform this greeting made him distinguished as a more important individual from those who did not. Not just this, he also thought that this projected England as an equal, but not a subordinate Nation to the Mughal Empire. Roe felt for those who did the Taslim, especially Mohammad Reza Baig, who he very frequently remembers in his writings and his letters that were sent to England. He thought that the favor that Roe had in the eyes of the emperor reflected Jahangir’s esteemed regard for England as a nation more than Safavid Iran.

Roe’s much contempt for Mohammad Raza was clear as was the allusion that Thomas was a superior Ambassador and James I a more relevant ruler to Jahangir than Shah Abbas. Roe’s specific inclusion of the placement accorded Mohammad Raza in the 7th rank and was in no doubt made to remind the reader that how he was accorded and then maintained replacement within the Darbar that was on par with Royal Princes. He also writes about how Jahangir called Shah Abbas as his brother and not referring to him as Majesty. However the title Majesty was not omitted when Jahangir referred to James I. This made it further evident to Roe in how Jahangir received Shah Abbas’ letter than how he received James’ I.

ahangir enthroned, with courtiers in attendance, Mughal, probably Lucknow, late 18th-early 19th century
Jahangir enthroned, with courtiers in attendance during late 18th-early 19th century

Eventually, Roe was unable to gain favors that he had commissioned for in the Mughal Empire. He saw that there was no value in staying in the court of Jahangir while he was not able to make any strong progress on creating a formal treaty between the Mughals and the English.

Eventually, Roe was unable to gain favors that he had commissioned for in the Mughal Empire. He saw that there was no value in staying in the court of Jahangir while he was not able to make any strong progress on creating a formal treaty between the Mughals and the English. Roe then took a formal leave from the monarch, receiving from him a letter to King James full of compliments and assurances of good use of the English and also a General Farman for the reception and continuation of the English in his dominions. Towards the close of September 1618, the Ambassador took his departure for Surat where four months were spent waiting for the completion of the loading of ships.

The question naturally arises as to what Roe achieved so far. Had he accomplished the task which he had been sent out to perform? Many writers have been content to answer this very vaguely. They say that he obtained valuable concessions but they do not specify either their nature or their extent.

Roe’s proposed treaty had been rejected with scorn and he had been obliged to content himself with the performance although soon after his arrival he had been told that ordinary farmans were not worth half a penny. After all that had affected him, what failed him were causes that were beyond his control. When he arrived in India he found the English were in a precarious position threatened by expulsion. The local feeling which initially was in their favor was now turning against them, for their active competition was destroying the trade of the native merchants, and the unruliness of the sailors of the English put together by the troubles caused by the hostilities between the Portuguese and the English fleet had made a great pain for the inhabitants.

Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan standing, carrying a lily and a firangi sword as a symbol of martial power.
Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan standing, carrying a lily and a firangi sword as a symbol of martial power.

His work also sheds light not only on the events of the Mughal court but the psaltery war in the Deccan, the impending troubles in regard to the succession, the rise of Khurum (later to be known as Shah Jahan) strengthened and supported by Noor Mahal and her family.

But how was Roe and his English King perceived in the world view of Jahangir? In stark contrast to the way Roe projected himself as an integral part of Jahangir’s Court, Europeans were almost completely omitted in Jahangir’s memoir the Jahangir Nama.

The Jahangir Nama is a factual account of Jahangir’s reign and an important representation of the Emperor's personality reflecting the candid individual. It goes to the extent to discuss his flaws, his attributes, his addictions, his dislikes, and even his self designed scientific experiments, so much so that Jahangir had gained a reputation as a pleasure-loving drunk with little interest in ruling his Empire. In fact, Jahangir names with great frequency his courtiers, nobles, rivals, enemies and visiting dignitaries to his court with such detail captured of what happened around him, it would have been evident that Jahangir would have mentioned Roe in his memoir if Roe held such an intimate relationship with the emperor as he had claimed.

Jahangir has also referred a few times to the Portuguese of Goa as “franks'' and referred to the English in a single occurrence in relation to their defeat with the Portuguese in a sea battle. There seems to be an evident bias against Europeans in the multiple ambassadors that have been mentioned from the Asian nations quite frequently, but not the European ones. The inclusion of diplomatic visitors within the Jahangir Nama was a means by which Jahangir indicated his importance and supported by his referring, the visiting diplomat from other Asian courts. As well he speaks about the ambassadors from Iran, Golkonda and also from the less well-known courts like that of Urgench, Jahangir did not deem Roe from England worth mentioning as he did not consider them to be political forces in the region. He did not see them with the same politico-religious importance as he did the diplomates of the Asian nations.

Sanjay Subrahmanyam makes a statement that the English did not appear to make an impressive mark on Mughul memory during the 17th century.

Two paintings created in Jahangir’s lifetime indicate that Roe’s presence at Mughul Court did in fact have an impact on Jahangir. The first is the famous image of Jahangir preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings, one which you will be able to see in the title image of the post. The Frere painting, which is dated between 1615 and 1618, depicts an allegorical image of Jahangir seated on top of a large hourglass, handing a book to a Sufi Shaikh watched by an Ottoman Sultan and James I. The painter of the scene, Bitcher, and his portrayal of James in this painting is almost identical to the one Thomas had presented to the emperor. This is something that can be directly related to Rose's presence at Jahangir’s Court. Scholars have argued that James I does not appear in the painting just as a mere figure that had enlarged Jahangir’s worldview, but as a representative of Europe just as the Ottoman Sultan represented the Muslim Asian world. Subordinated in his world view where the Mughul Empire was the political center of the world, it is evident that the image is a glorification of Jahangir as the literal “world seizer.”

Thomas Roe’s journal and letters and Jahangir’s Jahangir Nama present contrasting views in perception. The stark difference in Thomas’s reception at the Mughal court is related to Roe perceiving himself as an important part of Jahangir’s inner circle. But in both instances the written work exhibits the perspectives of the author’s personal agenda. Not one of them can be a portrait of a neutral view of their surroundings.

As Thomas self-perceived his achievements and the consequences of his arrival into the Mughal court, this is not at all reflected within Jahangir’s memoir and it is quite clear from his autobiography and painting that Jahangir’s worldview was the one that placed the Mughal Empire at the center of a wider political arena that encompassed Asia and Europe, which was permitted to join this arena.

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