From: www.americankahanicom/April 10, 2023
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 who are 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.
Roe’s 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.
She attributes Roe’s 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.
Roe’s ambitious mission 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.
Hindus are described as idolaters, Muslims as infidels. He 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.”
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 an 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.