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British Rule in India: Courtesy Thomas Roe, the ‘Wheeler-Dealer’

Sent to India to solicit for the East India Company, Roe would strike a deal that would change the fate of India.

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It was December 1599 and the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. A private trading corporation, headquartered in a small London office, received a royal charter granting it monopoly over all trade with the East.

The trading corporation, which would become the East India Company, evolved true to character. In February 1601, it sent a fleet with a cargo of woolen cloth and metal wares to the pepper islands of Indonesia. On landing, the English found the inhabitants of the tropical islands completely uninterested in bartering their spices for woollen cloth.

To make amends for this idiocy, the fleet attacked and plundered a Portuguese carrack carrying a huge cargo of gold, silver and Indian textiles. 

The loot allowed the English to buy pepper from the islands and return home.

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England’s primary trade and dominion vehicle thus successfully wrapped up its first overseas trade by violent and unfair means, and returned to England in 1603.

At this time, Indian cloth had a colossal demand, and India was supplying cloth to almost half the world. Such was the demand that Indian traders could easily refuse barter and insist on payments in gold and silver.

In 1605, Emperor Akbar’s eldest son Muhammad Saleem ascended the throne as Emperor Jahangir — the empire’s dominion stretched from Qandahar (now in Afghanistan) on the north-west of India to Bengal on the south-east point and its revenue was nearly 50,000,000 sterling per annum.

This was when England’s own coffers were empty after constant wars. Much to the dismay of the English, the Portuguese had long and strong trading relations with India. To get a slice of this trade, England sent many missions through East India Company to the Mughal court, which were of little avail.

The Deal-Maker

The Company needed a man of extraordinary abilities to solicit on their behalf with the Mughals. After much brainstorming, it was agreed that Sir Thomas Roe — a well-spoken and learned man with a commanding and dignified bearing — would be likely to succeed. Roe spoke not a word of Persian, which meant he would need an interpreter throughout, but he was put on a ship on 2 February 1615 and reached Surat after six months.

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While Roe was at sea, Mughal-English-Portuguese relations were see-sawing, with Prince Khurram (later Shah Jahan) favouring the Portuguese and another faction the British. In fact, Jahangir’s court was actively debating expelling all foreigners from Hind.

This is when Roe landed. When Jahangir learnt that a real ambassador (in the past, many had falsely assumed the title of ambassador and lived on favours of the Mughals) had arrived from King James I’s court, he held back.

Roe landed in Surat in September 1615. Jahangir gave him audience on 10 January 1616. Jahangir’s courteous and gracious reception greatly impressed Roe, who exultantly noted in his diary that he was treated “with more favour and outward grace than ever was showed to any ambassador either of Turkey or Persia or other whatsoever”.

Roe struggled for years to win over princes and nobles. One of his key achievements is how, judging Jahangir’s leanings, he reasoned with him using the language of justice and fair play.

When some British goods were seized by local officials in Surat, Roe approached Prince Khurram and persuaded him to do justice. He managed to get “an open promise for effectual satisfaction” upon all points except punishment for the governor of Surat. The prince issued two farmaans: The first authorised the residence of the English in Surat and the second ordered a satisfactory payment of 17,000 mamudis for damages.

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Roe has boasted in detail in his journal, The Embassy of Sir Thomas Roe to India, 1615-19, about his intimacy with Jahangir — how the two bonded over their common love for art and wine. 

Interestingly, Jahangir’s memoirs omit any mention of Roe while ambassadors of other countries have found a mention. Clearly, the emperor didn’t regard Roe as dearly as the Englishman’s journal describes — he was merely a peripheral figure for the emperor.

A Pompous, but Patient Man

Also, Roe had a recalcitrant attitude towards the court’s norms, its structure and hierarchy. The Mughal culture was completely alien to Roe, who considered himself only next to the emperor because he was the royal envoy of James I. This self-aggrandisement and the lack of knowledge of Persian result in factual inaccuracies in his writings.

Roe portrays Jahangir, the emperor who commanded a population greater than that of the Ottoman Empire and with arguably the grandest jewel-house in the world, merely as a gifts-hungry monarch.

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So just how did Roe succeed?

His first year was rough, with a party of nobles opposing all he stood for. But like a good Test batsman, he continued batting on a sticky wicket and soon got accustomed to the conditions.

Khurram’s animosity towards Roe is well documented. Roe describes the prince as a snob and full of pride, and their relationship was amiable only during brief periods. But in September 1617, Khurram finally gave Roe a farmaan for Bengal. It came with a “general command and grant of free privileges” in the imperial dominions.

The Grant That Would Change India

Six months before Roe returned to England, in August 1618, when the news of a fresh quarrel with the Portuguese in Surat reached the court, he again tried for special privileges in return for an offer of English security to Indian ships. On this occasion, he managed to get a grant from Khurram which, while not granting all his demands, was satisfactory enough considering the past vehement protests his proposals had received.

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The fresh grant allowed the English “free access to trade, no custom taxes were to be levied on goods, jewels were to be admitted to the country free of duty, no tolls were to be levied on goods passing to the port”. The English were ordered to assist Indians in case the Portuguese attacked. They were also permitted under certain restrictions to hire buildings to set up factories. Buying or building a permanent dwelling was, however, still prohibited.

Khurram’s grant came with a condition: he had put a limit to the number of Englishmen permitted to carry arms in Surat.

But Roe didn’t yield to it and coaxed the prince to withdraw the clause by agreeing to give him a written undertaking that “during the abode of the English at Surat they shall do no wrong or hurt any”. The prince eventually gave in.

Finally, it was this grant that allowed the English to strengthen their footing in India. The allowance of “free trade” allowed them to plunder the wealth of India to an unprecedented degree, far exceeding what was looted by Persian king Nadir Shah in 1739.

The decision to grant free trade planted the English strongly in Hind, where they soon grew strong and corrupt enough to topple the ageing and fruitless tree of the Mughal dynasty in 1858.

(M Saad is a Delhi-based independent journalist. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are personal. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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