In an undated early-17th-century poem, Ben Jonson alternately praised and cautioned his friend, the clever and ambitious courtier Sir Thomas Roe: “Thou hast begun well, Roe, which stand well too, / And I know nothing more thou hast to do. / He that is round within himself, and streight, / Need seek no other strength, no other height.”
This was not empty moralizing. Roe would stand in need of round Jonsonian inner reserves during his years in India (1615–19) as the first English ambassador to the court of the Mughal emperor Jahangir. Roe’s eloquent diary of the period is the vital source for Oxford professor Nandini Das’s striking and original Courting India: Seventeenth-Century England, Mughal India, and the Origins of Empire, which, she writes, is “not a biography of Roe, or a history of the English in India, or an account of English engagement with the wider world beyond Jacobean London, but the story it tells emerges from the intersection of all three.”
Although, according to Das, nothing in Roe’s youth “shouts their obvious relevance to his years in India,” he was not without qualifications. He was connected—his namesake grandfather and two uncles served as Lord Mayor of London—he was educated at Oxford and the Middle Temple, and he led, and invested heavily in, Sir Walter Raleigh’s royally sanctioned expedition for gold in Guiana. Roe’s adventure on the Amazon showed courage if not good sense. “He had squandered his patrimony on a fool’s errand,” notes Das.
Incorporated in 1600 on New Year’s Eve, the East India Company (E.I.C.) had much to be modest about. The record of English “discoveries and notable enterprises by sea” was derisory, rued Richard Hakluyt, and its directors were late to—and entirely ignorant of—South Asia, jostling with their better-established Portuguese rivals and relying on the tolerance and whims of the Mughal court.
To “prevent all plots and conspiracies that will be attempted by the Jesuits to subvert our trade” and to curry favor with Jahangir, the E.I.C. enlisted Roe. Something of the gulf between the modern ambassadorial experience and Roe’s may be suggested by his six-month voyage to India in 1615 and its captain’s distinctly unappetizing journal: “It is almost incredable the noysomnes of that verment, whoe have binne redy to eate us lyving (for they have bitten us in our sleepes), but some men that dyed this voyadge in the nights, before morning have had their toes eaten quite off, and other parts of their bodyes gnawen.”
If English comedy is predicated on man’s tenuous grip on dignity and sanity, Roe’s posting verged at times on farce. In the name of maintaining the honor of their respective masters, Roe and the governor of Surat pleaded contrary national customs. Roe could “visit none but such as first did that respect due to His Majestie”; for the governor’s part, “all ambassadors did first come to the governors.” Granted an audience with Jahangir’s second son, Parvez, Roe declined to bow or stand. A chair was requested and refused. The compromise? “The prince granted him permission to lean against a nearby pillar,” Das relates.
The Delhi Sultanate preceding Mughal rule would perhaps have been more to his liking. The 14th-century Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta described Muhammad bin Tughluq’s uncommon affinities: “Especially well known is his generosity to foreigners, for he prefers them to the people of India, singles them out for favour, showers his benefits upon them … he has called them by the designation of aziz and has prohibited their being called strangers, for, he said, when a person is called ‘stranger’ he feels dispirited and downcast.” On the other hand, it was “seldom that the entrance to his palace was without a corpse.”
Gradually, Roe graduated from picayune standoffs and faux solemnity, carrying out his duties with diligence and honor. He was afflicted with the foreigner’s biases and superiority. (Roe turned “being unimpressed into a fine art.”) And his embassy achieved “nothing particularly significant,” in Das’s words. Yet he was not animated by his successors’ greed or violence, and his exchanges with Jahangir—of gifts, art, and ideas—are fascinating. That Roe did not make it into the latter’s memoirs does not diminish their significance.
Das’s dual command of Mughal India and the Elizabethan and Jacobean world Roe sprang from makes the pleasures and insights of Courting India unique. For, indeed, Roe was “supremely isolated” between his Mughal interlocutors and the wary E.I.C. factors, professing never to have “feared so much punishment from our enemies as from ourselves.” This disconnect similarly runs through Rosie Llewellyn-Jones’s fine Empire Building: The Construction of British India, 1690–1860.
Llewellyn-Jones’s protagonists are not administrators, traders, or soldiers but the largely unsung engineers “tasked with installing the mechanism of Company trade, defence and administration.” Edmund Burke’s fulminations against the E.I.C. (“Every other conqueror of every other description has left some monument, either of state or beneficence, behind him. Were we to be driven out of India this day, nothing would remain, to tell that it had been possessed … ”) frame her argument: “Burke could not have been more wrong.”
Just as “Company men … had been initially uncertain whether they were merchants or soldiers,” E.I.C. engineers were responsible for anything from terrestrial and nautical surveying to minting coins and every form of building. With learning and dispassion, Llewellyn-Jones neither overplays the infrastructural legacy of the Raj nor, as is more often the case, does she excitedly tear it down.
She observes that during the uprising against the E.I.C. in 1857 “there were no attempts to demolish buildings for their own sake, or for what they represented” and that on the basis of various Persian, Urdu, and English texts written between 1772 and 1838, “the local response to Company buildings and infrastructure was positive.”
While Indian railways were “overwhelmingly” popular, they lagged those found at home. Fanny Parkes, the keen and well-traveled wife of an E.I.C. bureaucrat, re-settled in England shortly before Llewellyn-Jones’s study concludes. Parkes marveled, “Of all the novelties I have beheld since my return, the railroads are the most surprising and have given me the best idea of the science of the present century. The rate at which a long, black, smoking train moves is wonderful; and the passing another train is absolutely startling.”
Jonson’s epigram to Roe closed with advice the viceroys, the nabobs, and Llewellyn-Jones’s Anglo-Indian engineers of the future might have heeded: “Be always to thy gather’d self the same: / And study Conscience, more than thou would’st Fame. / Though both be good, the latter yet is worst, / And ever is ill got without the first.”
Max Carter is vice-chairman of 20th- and 21st-century art at Christie’s in New York