Technology, History, and Travel

Tag: Agra

Ambassadors to the Great Mogoll

Along with the European merchants who traveled to India in the early modern period came ambassadors who represented their governments to the Indian powers and advocated the trading interests of their own countries. These ambassadors will be the last kind of early-modern European traveler to India I will discuss in this series of blog posts. William Hawkins and Thomas Roe were two English ambassadors who visited the Mughal Empire during the reign of Jehangir, in the early seventeenth century. Their travel narratives provide snapshots of India at the time, illustrating Europeans’ ambivalent attitudes toward Mughal civilization, and Indian civilization in general.1

William Hawkins resided in Agra for two and one-half years, from April 1609 to November 1611. During this time, he came into “great favour” with the emperor, who allowed the British to establish a factory (trading outpost).2 Thomas Roe, who represented the English monarch to the Mughals from 1614 to 1618, had an even more convivial relationship with Jehangir; by Roe’s own account, he received more respect in the royal court than other ambassadors.3

Among Hawkins’s writings that were edited together in Purchas His Pilgrimes is “A briefe Discourse of the Strength, Wealth, and Government, with some Customes of the great Mogol.” This document provides a detailed description of the governmental and economic structure of the Mughal Empire, as well as some evidence of the emperor’s great wealth. Several pages of the printed account are dedicated to the emperor’s treasure of gold and silver plate and coin, diamonds, and other jewels. Hawkins also describes the emperor’s property (six major castles in northern India) and other possessions, such as his twelve thousand elephants, two thousand camels, and ten thousand pigeons.4

Hawkins ends his account of the king’s wealth with a description of Akbar’s sepulcher, then under construction outside of Agra. He writes that “the sepulchre may be counted one of the rarest Monuments of the world.” An edifice three-quarters of a mile in circumference, it had already been under construction for fourteen years; estimates at the time said that it would take another seven years to complete.5

Amidst this frankly admiring account of the riches of the Great Mogol are some hints of distaste or even superiority. In his description of Akbar’s tomb, Hawkins mentions that at least three thousand workers are employed at the site at any given time; “but thus much will I say, that one of our Worke-men will dispatch more then three of them.”6 He also describes some “cruell deeds” that take place in Jehangir’s court. Hawkins, Thomas Coverte (who visited Agra during Hawkins’s ambassadorship), and later Roe, all mentioned the emperor’s affinity for watching elephant fights. According to Hawkins, these fights occurred five times each week, and they often resulted in the deaths of the animals or their human handlers. Elephants were also used in executions, to tear criminals to pieces.7

In his own account, Roe also describes the great power exercised by the Mughal emperor: “They have no written Law. The King by his own word ruleth, and his Governors of Provinces by that authoritie.”8. Compared to Hawkins, Roe has less to say about the grandeur of the imperial court. During Roe’s ambassadorship, Jehangir had moved his capital from Agra to Adsmere (Ajmer), 230 miles to the west in what is now the state of Rajasthan. Roe describes Adsmere as “a base old Citie, wherein is no house but of mudde, not so great as a Cottage on Hownslo-heath.” Jehangir lived in the city’s only stone house.9

Roe reserved his highest praise for the civil engineering works of western India. He describes in detail the artificial lake at Surat, which the Italian traveler Pietro della Valle also encountered. The tank was a hundred-sided polygon, twenty-eight yards to a side, with stairs on all sides leading to the water. Roe judges it a “wonderous worke.” Of the city in general, he says: “Surat is best builded of any; and in old time they in these parts made mightie workes, which every day decay.”10 Even in Roe’s time, the civilization of western India looked back on what it perceived to be a more prosperous past.

  1. Both Hawkins’s and Roe’s travel accounts were published in Purchas His Pilgrimes, the multi-volume compendium of English-language travel literature that succeeded Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations. This study relies on the Purchas edition of Hawkins: William Hawkins, “Captain William Hawkins, his Relations of the Occurents which happened in the time of his residence in India, in the Country of the Great Mogoll, and of his departure from thence; written to the Company,” in Hakluytus Posthumus or Purchas His Pilgrimes, Contayning a History of the World in Sea Voyages and Lande Travells by Englishmen and others., Samuel Purchas, ed. (repr., Glasgow: James MacLehose and Sons, 1905), 3:1-51. For Roe’s account, I have used the annotated Hakluyt Society edition: Thomas Roe, The Embassy of Sir Thomas Roe to the Court of the Great Mogul, 1615-1619, As Narrated in His Journal and Correspondence , William Foster, ed. (London: Hakluyt Society, 1899). []
  2. Hawkins, “Relations,” 13. []
  3. Roe, Embassy, 112. []
  4. Hawkin, “Relations,” 29-34. []
  5. Ibid., 51. []
  6. Ibid. []
  7. Ibid., 38. []
  8. Roe, Embassy, 110 []
  9. Ibid., 113. []
  10. Ibid., 112. []

Ralph Fitch: A Merchant’s Report

Ralph Fitch was one of the first English merchants to visit India and carry his report home. The account of his eight-year voyage was first published in Richard Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations, a multi-volume compendium of English travel narratives.1 No manuscript of the account survives, and it is impossible to know if, or how much, Hakluyt edited Fitch’s report.2 Like any early-modern English text, Fitch’s report has idiosyncratic spelling, especially in the rendering of Indian proper names, which in most cases vary considerably from modern usage. Additionally, Fitch referred to Muslims as “Moors”; the “Gentiles” he described were presumably Hindus.

As Fitch relates, he and three companions (John Newberry, William Leedes, and James Story) were sent by two London financiers (Sir Edward Osborne and M. Richard Staper) to investigate trade possibilities with India. They departed in 1583 on the ship Tyger, which bore them to the eastern Mediterranean. There they crossed overland to the Red Sea. At Ormus, at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, they were imprisoned by the Portuguese, who took them to their colonies in India—first Diu, then Daman, and lastly Goa. Fitch and two of his companions escaped from Goa and trekked across the Deccan in central India. They passed by Gulconda (near present-day Hyderabad), which Fitch noted was a source of diamonds. About the Deccan, Fitch added, “We found it here very hote.”3

The Englishmen’s destination was the kingdom of the “Great Mogor” (Mughal), “Zelabdim Echebar” (Jalaluddin Akbar), in northern India. Fitch visited the Mughal cities of Agra and Fatehpur Sikri. In his account, he marveled at the cities’ grandeur. Of the former he said, “Agra is a very great citie and populous, built with stone, having faire and large streetes, with a fair river running by it…”4 As Ram Chandra Prasad has noted, Agra in Fitch’s time had none of the great monuments that would make it a world-famous city. The Taj Mahal was yet unbuilt, and the Red Fort had not reached its present form.5 Fatehpur Sikri was recently completed by the time Fitch visited. Although he praised the cities for their grandeur, the account that survives provides only sparse descriptions and little evidence of what he actually thought of the places he visited.

In Fatehpur Sikri, Fitch parted with his two companions. John Newberry headed back toward England but probably died somewhere along the way (where or why is not clear), while William Leedes stayed and worked as a jeweler for Akbar. For his part, Fitch continued his commercial explorations by following the Ganges river down to Bengal with boats loaded with trade goods. After reaching the mouth of the river, he traveled north to Couche (Cooch Behar) and investigated trade routes into Tibet. He later traveled even farther afield to Pegu (in present-day Myanmar), Siam, and the eastern coast of the Indian peninsula. After eight years abroad, Fitch returned to England in 1591.

  1. I have primarily used a 1904 reprinting of Principal Navigations: Ralph Fitch, “The Voyage of M. Ralph Fitch marchant of London…” in The Principal Navigations Voyages Traffiques & Discoveries of the English Nation, Made by Sea or Over-land to the Remote and Farthest Distant Quarters of the Earth at any time within the compasse of these 1600 Yeeres, ed. Richard Hakluyt (Glasgow: James MacLehose and Sons, 1904), 5:465-505. Another useful version of Fitch’s account is the Hakluyt Society’s edition: J. Horton Ryley, Ralph Fitch: England’s Pioneer to India and Burma (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1899). []
  2. Michael Edwardes, Ralph Fitch: Elizabethan in the Indies (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1972), 8. For other secondary sources that discuss Fitch, see: “Ralph Fitch,” in Ram Chandra Prasad, Early English Travellers in India: A Study in the Travel Literature of the Elizabethan and Jacobean Periods with Particular Reference to India (Delhi: Motilal Banarsi Dass, 1965), 24-65; “Ralph Fitch,” in William Foster, ed., Early Travels in India, 1583-1619 (1921; repr., New Delhi: Oriental Books Reprint Corporation, 1985), 1-47. []
  3. Hakluyt, Principal Navigations, 5:472. []
  4. Hakluyt, Principal Navigations, 5:473-74. []
  5. Prasad, Early English Travelers in India, 53. Also see Philip Davies, The Penguin Guide to the Monuments of India: Islamic, Rajput, European (London: Penguin Books, 1989), 186-97, 212-18. []

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