Technology, History, and Travel

Tag: Jehangir

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. []

Soldiers of Misfortune

Like Ralph Fitch, Robert Coverte was another English merchant who brought back to England tales of danger and adventure from his eastward journey.1 Coverte departed from England in 1607 in the ship Assention, which sailed around Africa to reach India. In Aden, several of Coverte’s traveling companions, who “unadvisedly” went ashore, were arrested by the governor and ultimately executed. After almost two months in port, Assention weighed anchor and continued eastward.

Off the coast of Cambaya (in present-day Gujarat), the ship foundered, the merchants saving what little treasure they could. The locals initially thought that the Englishmen fleeing in their lifeboats were part of a Portuguese invasion force. Once this misunderstanding was clarified, the English merchants were received cordially.2

As Fitch had done, Coverte and John Frenchman made their way toward Agra to meet with the Mughal Emperor. Coverte was impressed by the richness of the country through which he passed: “The Country is so plentifull, that you may have a gallon of milke for a halfe penny, a Hen for three half-pence, & 16 Eggs for a penny.” At the bazaar of one city he passed on the way to Agra, he marveled at the variety of goods for sale: “Pots, Kettles, Shirts of Male, Swords and Bucklers, Lances, Horses in Armour and Arrowe proofe, Camels, and all manner of beasts.”3

At the city of Brampor, Coverte and Frenchman had to obtain a pass from the Mughal authorities to continue on to Agra. The Mughal general (whom Coverte does not name) asked if the Englishmen would join his army. When the men declined, saying that they were only poor, shipwrecked merchants, the general replied incredulously that he thought all Englishmen were warriors. He ultimately granted passes to the men after they sold him some jewels “for his Ladies.”4

At last, Coverte and Frenchman reached Agra. William Hawkins, the English ambassador to the Mughal court, met the merchants and brought them before the emperor, Jehangir. Coverte presented the emperor with two small gifts: a gold whistle and a picture of John the Baptist after his decapitation. Jehangir took the whistle “and whistled therewith almost an houre.”5

Coverte remarked in his account about the richness of life in the Mughal capital. Agra’s markets were full of every variety of fruit. Jehangir was in the process of building a great tomb for his predecessor, Akbar. It was made of “very fine marble, curiously wrought.” In Coverte’s eyes, Jehangir lived “in as great state and pompe as may be desired, both for majesty and princely pleasure.”6

Rather than retracing their sea route back to England, Coverte and Frenchman traveled overland through Persia and Arabia to the Levant, where they found a ship bound for England. As the English merchants were taking their leave of Jehangir, the emperor asked them if they would serve him in the Mughals’ wars. The Englishmen refused this request once again.7

Jehangir’s request was not an idle one. Significant numbers of Europeans served as officers in the Mughal army as the empire attempted to expand its frontiers. Some were even poorer shipwrecked merchants than Coverte and Frenchman, and they were not given the choice of whether or not to serve.

One such soldier of misfortune was W. Glanius, a Dutch merchant whose account A Relation of an Unfortunate Voyage to the Kingdom of Bengala was published in London in 1682. Glanius’s merchant ship, Ter Schelling, and three other ships departed the Netherlands in 1651, laden with silver coin and copper plate. Ter Schelling wrecked off the coast of Bengal, and the survivors washed up on an island. At length, Glanius and a few of the other survivors managed to escape the island on an improvised boat; they were picked up by a Bengali bark. Glanius was pressed into service in the Mughal army, as Bengal was at this time the easternmost province of the Mughal Empire.8

Glanius came into the Mughal army’s service during a flare-up in the intermittent conflicts between the Mughal Empire and the Ahom kingdom. For much of the seventeenth century, the Mughal and Ahom armies battled over what is now lower Assam, alternately gaining and losing ground against the opposing army. During this campaign, the Mughal army was under the command of Prince Jemla (Mir Jumla), who was also the Mughal governor of Bengal.9

As Glanius described, a formidable Mughal force advanced against the Ahoms. On land, the army had 300,000 cavalry and 500,000 infantry, by Glanius’s figures. The Mughals also had a formidable force on water, which navigated up the Brahmaputra10 to attack Ahom positions. The main elements of the Mughals’ water-borne force were gourapes, which were boats with fourteen guns and crews of between fifty and sixty men. Each gourape was attended by four kosses, oar-powered boats that towed the gourapes against the river’s current. The Mughal river navy also had flat-bottom boats with no masts but many guns, as well as barges that transported the provisions as well as the officers’ wives.11

The Mughal army had many European mercenaries who served as technical advisers and officers. On the boats, most of the officers were Portuguese. Furthermore, Englishmen and several other Dutchmen were also involved in the conflict. In addition, a force of between three and four thousand Muscovites fought in the conflict.12 Glanius does not mention whether Europeans served in the Ahom army as well.

During Glanius’s service, the Mughal forces captured Gauhati and went on to occupy the Ahom capital of Garhgaon. After Glanius had served for fifteen months, the Dutch consul managed to get a discharge for Glanius and the other Dutch soldiers of misfortune. Glanius then went into the service of the Dutch East India Company, where he worked until 1673. When he finally returned to his native country, he had been gone from the Netherlands for twenty-two years.13

  1. Robert Coverte’s narrative was published as A True and Almost Incredible report of an Englishman, that (being cast away in the good Ship called the Assention, in Cambaya, the farthest part of the East Indies) Travelled by Land through many unknowne Kingdomes, and great Cities (London, 1614). []
  2. Coverte, A True and Almost Incredible Report, 24. []
  3. Ibid., 26. []
  4. Ibid., 28-9. []
  5. Ibid., 35-6. []
  6. Ibid., 37, 39, 41. []
  7. Ibid. []
  8. W. Glanius, A Relation of an Unfortunate Voyage to the Kingdom of Bengala (London, 1682), 1, 109. []
  9. For an overview of the Mughal-Ahom wars, see “The Period of the Muhammadan Wars,” in Edward Gait, A History of Assam (1906; repr. Delhi: Surjeet Publications, 2006), 108-63. []
  10. Glanius calls the river “Ganges.” []
  11. Glanius, An Unfortunate Voyage, 144-45. []
  12. Ibid., 141, 144, 146. []
  13. Ibid., 160, 183. []

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