As India Erases Mughal History in Schools, Oxford Historian Unveils a New Book About Britain and the Mughal Empire
- Nandini Das’s “Courting India: Seventeenth-Century England, Mughal India, and the Origins of Empire,” “combines a sensitivity to the literature of Jacobean England with a sympathetic and nuanced understanding of the Mughal empire.”
It is an ironic coincidence that just when the Hindu nationalist government in India is systematically erasing and rewriting parts of the country’s history to fit its ideological narrative, particularly about the Mughal period, there is a bountiful historical work going on apace in great academic institutions in the West. Historians, both of Indian origin and those not, are investigating and reconstructing India’s past, which for most parts, has had a distressing disregard for maintaining accurate records. At least, till the British arrived on its shores.
The latest work is “Courting India: Seventeenth-Century England, Mughal India, and the Origins of Empire” by Nandini Das, a professor of Early Modern Literature and Culture at Oxford University. It is a “profound and ground-breaking approach to one of the most important encounters in the history of colonialism: the British arrival in India in the early seventeenth century.” Das “examines the British arrival in India in the early 17th century with fresh eyes, resulting in a profound and groundbreaking account of one of the most important encounters in the history of colonialism,” according to the publisher’s note.
It is a story about Sir Thomas Roe, Britain’s first ambassador to India, appointed by King James I at the behest of the East India Company. He was sent to the court of Mughal Emperor Jahangir in 1615 who reigned over an empire of subcontinental proportions, considered one of the richest empires in the world at that time. His mission was to secure trading rights for England and protection from the rival Dutch and the Portuguese, who already had a strong foothold in parts of the empire.
Roe’s ambitious mission, however, Das says was only modestly successful. “He managed to obtain modest permissions and protections for an English factory from the future Shah Jahan, with whom he had a tense relationship,” she says. “An ambassador too honorable and too inexperienced to achieve anything much for either himself or his country,” a reviewer notes.
In the portrait that Das paints, she attributes Roe failure to his personal failings — the young ambassador was imperious and vain and remarkably ignorant of the country and its people. Not to mention his views, as he recorded in his journals, which are racist in today’s parlance, that made him look down on everybody — Hindus as idolaters, Muslims as infidels and was consumed by his own “superiorities of his faith, nationality and skin color.” Among the many reasons for his disregard for India was his “gastric difficulties.” His imperious self-image and vanity notwithstanding, Roe finds no mention in Jahangir’s memoir, Jahangirnama.
Das’s work has received critical acclaim, particularly from her peers who, too, share her Indian heritage.
In his review of the book in the New York Times, fellow historian Abhishek Kaicker at the University of California who specializes in the history of the Mughal empire, says “Das is the rare scholar who combines a sensitivity to the literature of Jacobean England with a sympathetic and nuanced understanding of the Mughal empire. In Das’s telling, Roe was not a herald of the Company Raj to come as much as a product of 17th-century England, an island nation whose commercial ambitions were beginning to overshadow its royal court.”
In Kaicker’s assessment, Das “is the rare scholar who combines a sensitivity to the literature of Jacobean England with a sympathetic and nuanced understanding of the Mughal empire. In Das’s telling, Roe was not a herald of the Company Raj to come as much as a product of 17th-century England, an island nation whose commercial ambitions were beginning to overshadow its royal court.”
Writing in the Washington Post, Balaji Ravichandran, a writer based in New York, says, while Das “does not take a historian’s view so much as that of a literary biographer,” she “offers a close reading of Roe’s journal and fleshes out the character of the man within the context of the sociopolitical forces that shaped him. She examines the politics and literature of Jacobean England, where Roe felt at home, and the personalities and intrigues of the Mughal court, where he felt hopelessly lost. And she sifts through the meticulous archives of the East India Company to trace how men and merchandise flowed between Britain and India.”
Das was born and raised in India. She grew up in Kolkata, where she studied English Literature at Jadavpur University, before going to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar (University College), followed by a M.Phil. and doctorate at Trinity College, Cambridge. According to her profile on Oxford website, after a stint as a software programmer in the publishing industry, she returned to academic research, working initially on Renaissance romance and fiction, and then increasingly on travel and cross-cultural encounters. She was Professor of English Literature at the University of Liverpool until October 2019, when she became a fellow in English at Exeter College, and Professor of Early Modern Literature and Culture in the English Faculty at Oxford.
The Mughals have received far more than their deserved share of Indian historical attention. Now it’s time, it’s overdue really, to give coverage to other dynasties and regions, like Vijayanagar, the Rashtrakutas, the Chalukyas, the Pratiharas, the Cholas and the Ahoms.
The article takes a biased stance. For example calling BJP (bhartiya janata party as Hindu nationalist government in India)
The problem is the author wants the readers to accept that the 2 are equivalent. It just falls into category of one sided opinion and presenting data to corroborate that.
After trying to silence Audrey Truschke by intimidation and bias quoting her as a “firengee” who has no business involved in researching history about anything that may say something positive about the Mughals , the apologists of the “Revisionist India” and the current Administration cannot stand to see any literature or historical research associated with the Mughals or the Muslims. It is actually quite sad and pathetic. And they also tend to forget that almost all of the Muslims in the sub-continent are but the descendants of native Indians who most likely were Hindus and Buddhists like their forefathers, and as such, sons of the soil. That fact does not detract them from spewing hatred , albeit that hatred seems to spout from extremists from both ends.
No one is denying the existence of great Indian history and Architecture in this sub-continent prior to the Mughals, and all efforts should be made to conduct genuine scholarship on those. But that history of Society and Architecture will include the Buddhists too. On the British colonial Architecture left for the native Indians over the last 75 years, there is an effort to demolish all vestiges of colonialism. They are totally oblivious to the fact that the Lutyen-designed Parliament Building after being demolished will be replaced with something of a lesser quality as evidenced by the recent proposals . Can one imagine the removal of India Gate or the Mumbai Railway Stations, just like removal of Taj Mahal or Fatehpur Sikri? But these people’s hatred has made them blind.
One cannot rewrite history to suit one’s bias. India is and will be recognized by the great Architecture that all of the conquerors brought forth.
But it shouldn’t by the farthest, be recognised solely by those conquerors. The native Indian cultures, people and kingdoms should receive the largest share of coverage in history books. This is the issue- many Indians don’t even know about Vijayanagar, for example. Vijayanagar as a city was just about the largest in the world at the time. Then there is Orissa, and the Hoysalas of Karnataka etc.
History is about interpreting the past without deviations from the truth. There can be debate on what portion of the history from a period or for a geography should be included in the school curriculum but trying to tweak the truth in the name of Nationalism is a very narrow view of education. After all Indians of hindu and Islamic faith as well as of different ethnicities coexisted for thousands of years.
Indian history during and after the Mughals were documented by Jadunath Sarkar and RC Majumdar during the British rule of Indian subcontinent who were also inspired by many British historians and archaeologists.
Congratulations to Prof Das for carrying the mantle of many liberal Indian historians before her to see Indian history with a wider lens.
But seeing history with a wider lens means precisely given more attention to the native Indian dynasties, rulers and of course people. Not invaders from Uzbekistan, or Europe.
The best book on the subject is ‘The Making of Modern India’ written by Ajay Shukla. It is available at Amazon and Flipkart.
This is interesting, will be delighted to learn of similar scenarios which took place in Africa , under British East Africa colony, it seem both India and Africa share similar fate ,its high time we join hands and address historical injustice caused mainly by British.