Sir Thomas Roe, the first English ambassador to India, has left behind a lively account of his stay in the country. It gives an idea of the people, their attitudes and their politics in 17th Century India. The corruption that India is notorious for now was rampant even then. But reading Roe’s memoir is not easy as the English of his time is almost a different language. I have tried to interpret Roe’s writing for you in this document, which covers only his 44-day stay in Surat
September 18, 1615
In the morning, when the tide was towards the shore, we anchored in 9 fathoms (16m) of water, three leagues (about 16.5km) from the coast of Surat. To the south of the river (Tapti, which empties into the Arabian Sea) is a white tower-like house.
In the morning, a ship appeared on our west. We thought they were Portuguese spies and fired a few shots at them, but they kept their distance. At 8 o’ clock, we sent ashore men in four boats and they met William Biddulph, one of our factors, and a man named Robert, who had spent a lot of time with the Portuguese.
Our men brought back news that the Portuguese were pushing the Mughals to banish Englishmen from their country, but so far they hadn’t succeeded. Mukarrab Khan, the governor of Surat who had been opposed to the English, had been recalled to Agra and a new governor favoured by Prince Khurram (the future emperor, Shah Jahan) had been sent in his place.
The general of our fleet sent Biddulph ashore with a signed letter to inform the governor of Surat about my arrival.
The governor sent a message that I was welcome, and if I would tell him the date of my landing he would send his commander and 30 horsemen to escort me. Also, if our merchants could find a vacant house he would order it to be let to me. However, he didn’t offer to arrange accommodation for me.
(Roe intended to rest for some weeks after the long sea voyage while he awaited Emperor Jahangir’s summons to the Mughal court)
I sent people ashore to find a house for me and inform the governor that my followers and I should not be searched by customs officials like ordinary foreigners, as I was an ambassador. I assured him I would not carry any merchandise, but if customs officials tried to search me I would return to my ship and stay there awaiting Emperor Jahangir’s summons.
The governor replied it was customary to search every new arrival but he would send an official to make an inventory of my baggage when I reached shore. It would be sealed and delivered to my residence in town. Later, customs officials would visit me, not to inspect it but for the sake of formality.
I did not like this condition but agreed, and conveyed that I would send my baggage the next day, and come ashore myself a day later, on the 26th.
I sent my chests and provisions ashore with directions to get them sealed without inspection and delivered to my house in town.
A ship sent by the governor of Cambay (Khambhat) arrived with a message of friendship and an offer to make his city our principal trading post in India. The messenger brought sweets and a few other gifts and offered to buy some of our articles for his master. He made many enquiries about English pigs for Emperor Jahangir, who had received two from us a year ago and liked them very much.
About the new governor of Surat, Zulfikar Khan, he said the man was a clown and was partial to our enemies, the Portuguese.
When the messenger was told that the King of England had sent an ambassador this time who would go ashore next morning, he and the other Indians laughed. The title ‘ambassador’ used in connection with the English had become a joke after so many of our men had assumed it without authorization over the years and failed to fulfill their expected responsibilities.
They were told that things were different this time, that I was a real messenger of the king, but they wouldn’t believe it, and didn’t visit me on the ship.
Even the mukaddam (headman) of Suvali, who favoured the English, refused to take me seriously. I learnt that when the general of our fleet tried to make him understand that I was not like the ambassadors who had come earlier, he said I might be an impostor for all he knew, since he had no way to verify my claim. The governor of Surat also seemed to be thinking along the same lines.
I have been sent to repair a broken house, and I will have to act my part accordingly. It’s a matter of my king’s honour now, and I will have to act tough because Indians try to dominate the man who appears meek and humble but bow to one who is overbearing.
The Surtis gave a sign from the shore and I left my ship accompanied by the general, the captains of our fleet and important merchants.
The general had sent 100 gunmen ahead as a guard of honour, and our ships, which were decked up for the occasion, fired their guns as I passed.
The Surtis, including officers and about 30 other men, were sitting upon good carpets under an open tent. They didn’t rise to greet me although I had come up almost to the place where they were seated, so I stopped and sent a message that I would not advance if they sat still. Then they all rose and I entered their tent, and took my place in their middle. I deliberately stood facing our general and other Englishmen.
The Surtis welcomed me with a long string of compliments through an interpreter. I then made a little speech, saying my king had sent me with full commission to act as his ambassador after receiving an assurance of friendly relations from the Great Mughal and also a firman that promised a friendly reception to an ambassador sent on behalf of the English merchants in India.
I thanked them for honouring my king by receiving me well and providing horses to ride to their town.
Then they started to behave deceitfully, saying they would like to search all my companions in keeping with their custom. I told them their governor had promised me to make an exception. I was the ambassador of a mighty king, and would not allow them to dishonour us.
I swore that none of us had brought any merchandise of value. Besides, in Europe and most other parts of Asia, ambassadors were not humiliated like this.
I said, seeing how little their promise meant, I would return to our ships and await the Mughal’s summons.
They said the governor had promised more than he was authorized to. That before me, no ambassador had passed inland without being searched, and they were showing me unprecedented courtesy. But they could not break their custom for my companions.
I said I could not make them understand that kings and ambassadors were above ordinary customs, but I would also not let them dishonour me. I would write to the Great Mughal and await his answer.
I turned about and set off for our boats. But they made an offer through our mediators to let five men of my group pass without being touched. They would also let the others go after embracing them, to make it seem they had been searched.
So I returned and told the general to stand witness that our men were merely embraced, not searched.
They said it was best to get these formalities over there rather than in Surat, from where it would be difficult to return to the boats in a huff. Also, if the governor decided to search us there, it would be more shameful.
I lined up five of my men behind me, but the Surtis made no move to search the others. So I asked them whether they wished to start for Surat, and they said yes.
We had come halfway when the Surtis said I should ride on with three or four of my principal men and the rest could come at the tail of the procession as we entered the town.
I didn’t suspect treachery, so our group broke up. The Surtis were about 50 horsemen and 200 on foot, while we were 23 altogether. Suddenly, on the pretext of stopping for a drink, they took hold of my followers and tried to search them forcibly. Master Wallis broke away from them and rushed to inform me. Incensed, I raced back and my men broke away and rallied around me.
I said I had come a free man and would die so, and if any of them dared touch one of us or our belongings, let them step out in front.
The Surtis said it was a misunderstanding and they had acted in friendship. I called for pistols, and hanging them from my saddle, said those were the friends I trusted. As for the Surtis, I thought them a treacherous bunch.
They said I was free to carry on, and I said I wanted to return to my ships but since that would be taken as a sign of fear, I would continue to Surat to seek justice. I warned them to keep their distance from us. They could ride ahead of us or follow, but not mingle with us.
They were rattled and rode in front of us. At one place they stopped in the shade and called out to me as we passed, but I ignored them. They offered me bananas to eat, but I said I would have justice for my servants before I accepted their courtesy.
Outside Surat town, the boatmen refused to carry me across the Tapti river until the natives arrived.
They came and again protested that it was all a misunderstanding and they had no intention to dishonour us. They only wanted to get the formality over so that we would not have trouble with the customs officials in Surat who knew no courtesy.
I got into a boat with five of my men and Surti officers, agreeing to let them “embrace” the rest of my followers. But they tried to feel the pockets of the very first man, and I rose up and protested loudly, saying I was ready to die fighting for my honour. So they let all of us pass into the town, but had a new scheme ready to trouble me.
Knowing that I could not return to my boats anymore, they said I would have to go see the governor first. I said I was tired and in no condition to do so, but they insisted it was the custom and I couldn’t refuse to do it.
But I stood firm that the governor would have to visit me first, and he, being a Persian, should understand protocol.
We reached the steps of the town where the governor’s brother had come to conduct us into the fort, but sensing my mood he allowed me to continue to my house, agreeing that the ceremonies could wait till the next day.
But on reaching my house I found that, contrary to the governor’s assurances, my luggage had been sent to the customs house and would not be delivered without being searched.
I wrote to the governor that it was strange to receive so many discourtesies after his promise, but for now I only wanted a bed and some necessities, and these were provided. Thus I ended my first wearisome day in India.
The customs house today refused to send my belongings unless I got them opened and inspected. I was very angry and replied that it was out of the question. I had never been treated so deceitfully and would not stand it now. Their behaviour violated my privileges as an ambassador and also the promise on which I had agreed to come ashore.
I said I would rather let my things rot in their possession than suffer such indignities. However, I would send a message to the Great Mughal about the faithless and barbarous way in which his officials had treated the ambassador of a great king who was also an ally.
They replied I could do whatever I wanted to.
Within an hour, the governor sent me a message to come see him at his house and he would set everything right.
I wrote it was impossible. It was too late to offer me courtesies, especially when they were meant to dishonour my master, the king of England. I explained that in Europe the custom was for officials to visit ambassadors first and I would not break it even if it cost me my head. My king had commanded me to maintain his honour and visit nobody who did not visit me first to pay respects.
The governor replied the Indian custom was for ambassadors to first visit governors, and that he was the servant of a great king as much as me. He wrote that every governor who had come before me had visited him first, got their persons and baggage searched publicly (an indignity spared me so far), and he was in no way inferior to the governors who had served before him.
I replied I had never heard of the custom of ambassadors visiting governors, not from Persians, at least. Also, he had never received an ambassador in the port of Surat before: not from a Christian king, certainly. And finally, he was the representative of Prince Khurram (himself a subject of the Great Mughal) while I represented a sovereign king, so my position was clearly higher. He would in no way dishonour himself by visiting me. That said, I had not come to argue over titles, and since I had not come to India to see him, I would not visit him. As for what other Englishmen who came before me had done, their example was not a model for me to follow since I was the first full ambassador of England to India while they were mere agents sent to negotiate for the East India Company.
I wrote that if he would only honour my master by visiting me, I would show him my commission stamped with the great seal of England, and also the Great Mughal’s firman for receiving an ambassador with due respect. If he visited me, I would pay him a visit a day later. Regardless of what he chose to do, I would expect him to release my baggage as per his promise.
Then he sent me a message that he could not come to see me first but if I would agree to visit him, he would come out of his house and meet me in his hall of audience. If not, my baggage would be searched.
I replied that I did not care what he did with my things but to meet him in his hall was an absurd idea. Instead, we could meet in a neutral place, on horseback, both arriving at the same time. That way, neither of us would dishonour his master although he would break all rules of courtesy. If not, we could stop this exchange of letters.
To compel me, he issued an order that nobody in the town should sell us anything other than foodstuffs, and those who did were imprisoned. My companions, who wanted to return to our ships, weren’t allowed to do so, nor was anyone allowed to come ashore. I suspected he was planning some treachery but didn’t lose sleep over it.
Our merchants went to the governor in the morning for permission to leave the town. I had warned them not to talk about me. He kept them waiting till after he had eaten, and then pestered them with demands for presents. He asked them what jewel or diamond I would give him if he came to see me, and so showed himself to be a very greedy man. However, he didn’t give them permission to depart.
After noon, they went to him again and said that their first gift had been small as that was all they had then, but a better one was coming. They would give it to him after seeing how he treated me. They told him I had forbidden them to buy favour with gifts and that gifts were given out of courtesy, not as a duty.
The governor consulted among his men, and accepting that his treatment of me was indefensible and I remained determined to follow protocol, he ordered that my baggage be released and sent to my house sealed where it could be inspected privately, while our men could return to their ships.
My luggage arrived along with the chief customs officer and the governor’s brother, but since it was late evening they stayed to open and inspect only the two or three chests that I needed most.
It had been two days since the general had received any news of us, so when our men reached the ships he was happy. I wrote to him that I intended to teach the Surtis a lesson but it was up to him to give the governor a present or not. However, he should not gift anything on my behalf, or with the intention of buying better treatment for me.
The people were still forbidden to trade with us. In the evening, the governor’s brother and the town’s headman came to inspect the rest of my goods. Afterwards, we sat upstairs and talked.
They said the governor had sent a message that I should not be afraid or upset over their past behaviour. They intended me no harm and acted according to their custom.
I said it was easier for me to be angry than afraid, and they should have used their privileges over common folk, not an ambassador.
In their defence, they said they had suffered for three years for the English, as the Portuguese had blockaded the port of Surat. Then they came to the point: they had heard about the offer made to us by the governor of Khambhat, and warned me he was partial to the Portuguese and trying to buy peace with them.
They asked me to ensure that our goods didn’t go to Khambhat but landed in Surat, as their town was under Prince Khurram.
I said they spoke well but they were driven by a desire for profit, not good wishes. Their ports would open once they made peace with the Portuguese, or through our means, as we would ensure they were not harmed. I reminded them that our fleet had defended their frontier when the Portuguese viceroy attempted to capture Surat a year earlier.
As for trade with Khambhat, I said we had received an offer but not acted upon it. We were steady friends and would not ditch the Surtis just because someone else made an offer. If they paid us the right price and dealt with us promptly, I would ask the general to continue trading at Surat. For now, I said, they should remove the ban on selling us provisions, and they promised to do so.
I offered them drinks but they declined, saying it was the month of Ramadan, but they would gladly dine with me later on. I also told them I would not give any presents as it set a wrong precedent. However, if they wished, they could take any fine knives or other articles they had seen in my baggage. They said they would take nothing as the first presents should have come from them.
They came back in the morning to say all restrictions on trade with us had been withdrawn and all my demands would be fulfilled. Also, the governor had agreed to visit me after eating, and then he would go to our ships to settle matters of business with the general.
Of course, all this was happening because they were afraid we would start trading with Khambhat. They urged me to send a letter to the general that I was satisfied with my treatment and that he should offload all his goods in Surat.
I had already written to the general about their improved behaviour the previous night, and advised him not to let protocol stand in the way of business.
The general had accordingly sent the governor a valuable present that reached him around noon today. But this made the greedy governor change his mind about visiting me. I guess he thought he could disregard me completely as the general had gifts for him while I didn’t.
He was planning to go straight to our ships in Suvali, instead of coming to see me first but when I came to know of this I warned him that I would take it as the greatest insult he had offered me so far. I also sent a post to the general not to deal with the governor till he had met me.
At 4 o’ clock, the governor replied that he would come to see me first.
He came in a large group, dressed in fine linens and rich brocade. I received him at the door, but he shot into my house like a horse. I guess he did it deliberately to show he was superior to me. I checked him by walking faster and reaching the stairs before him. There I told him I would lead the way, but one of his servants pulled me aside and said I could not walk before the governor. But the governor thrust him back and followed me.
When we had sat down in a room, he paid me many compliments and excused himself for any discourtesies he might have shown. I thanked him for coming and assured him it wasn’t pride that made me stand on ceremony. As a private man I would have visited him first, but as an ambassador I had to consider my master’s honour. My king had clearly told me not to visit anybody until I had been received by the Great Mughal.
The governor, whose name was Zulfikar Khan, said I had done the right thing and he respected me for it.
Then, to assure him I was indeed an ambassador and not another agent or impostor, I called for my king’s commission. I took it into my hands reverentially and after kissing it gave it to Zulfikar, who touched it upon his head and studied it carefully (although he couldn’t read it). Then I called for the firman that Emperor Jahangir had sent to my king the previous year calling an English ambassador to his court.
Zulfikar stood up and touched Jahangir’s firman upon his head, then read aloud every word of it. When he had finished, his companions rose and welcomed me again with one voice.
Now Zulfikar spoke about the Portuguese and the loss the Surtis had to bear because of their blockade. He said they were suffering for our sake and that they were also enemies of the Portuguese.
I said the quarrels would eventually get resolved but we would still remain friends of the Surtis and protectors of their ships till the time we traded with them. And when he and I met privately, I would share with him some business proposals that would satisfy him.
He seemed satisfied and kept urging me not to trade with Khambhat as that would be an insult to Prince Khurram, whose port Surat was.
Zulfikar said he had received a letter from the governor of Khambhat arguing the Surtis shouldn’t have traded with or received the English as he had made an agreement with the Portuguese. He said the governor of Khambhat didn’t want the English to unload their ships in Surat as he was an ally of the Portuguese and a base and dishonest man besides.
Zulfikar then claimed he had replied he would not turn away even an enemy, forget an ambassador of the English court.
I assured him he should not suspect the English of treachery unless he gave us a just cause to turn against him. As for the governor of Khambhat, I said I didn’t know his heart but could only judge him by his invitation to trade. If he was an ally of the Portuguese, our enemies, I didn’t care for either. If he had made peace with the Portuguese without prejudice to us, I wasn’t bothered, for India was big enough for both the English and the Portuguese to do business in. But if banishing us was part of his agreement with the Portuguese, we would still trade, no matter how much strength the Portuguese had at Goa and Hormuz.
I wanted to scold Zulfikar for calling the governor of Khambhat dishonest and base, since he was no better, but then I let it be. After all, both are opportunists and liars.
Zulfikar wanted to go to our ships in Suvali after that, since it was getting late, but first he asked me to write a note to the general. I gave him the note and saw him out to my gate although he kept insisting that I should come no farther than the door of my room, and then no more than the foot of the stairs.
Zulfikar returned from our ships in the morning. He seemed dissatisfied because the general had not given him any gift for Prince Khurram despite being berthed in his port.
In the morning, I sent a message to the governor that I wished to visit him in the evening, but since I did not have a horse yet, would he send 10 of his own? He had offered to let me have that many should I need them.
He replied that it wouldn’t be a problem. But in the evening he sent another message that I should defer my visit by a day.
The first messenger I had sent brought up the subject of gifts, so I made it clear that Zulfikar shouldn’t expect any from me, as I wasn’t seeking any obligation from him. However, knowing that he wanted some of the hard liquor he had seen in one of my chests that had been held up at the customs house, I conveyed that he could have one case of bottles as a trifle between friends.
To this, Zulfikar replied that he expected no present from me but he would gladly accept whatever I gave out of love. So I sent him a case that the general had given me for that purpose. I also sent him a very large and accurate map of the world that costs about £3 in England.
Zulfikar sent me thanks and enquired whether I had another map to gift Emperor Jahangir, who values such presents highly.
Zulfikar’s promised horses didn’t arrive.
Zulfikar received a letter from Emperor Jahangir and wasted the whole day in celebrating the occasion.
The chief of the customs house came to see me with an odd request: that I should visit Zulfikar to further our friendship. I told him it wasn’t my fault that I hadn’t been able to call on him for so long. He had already kept me waiting for horses these past two days. I said I had no motive to meet Zulfikar other than to show courtesy, and if he wasn’t keen to receive it, I wasn’t dying to give it either.
The chief of the customs house offered me his horses, but I refused, saying, if Zulfikar really wanted to see me he would keep his promise of sending me horses. However, to thank the customs officer I gifted him six knives and two small maps.
In the morning, the governor sent a message that he would send me horses. They came at night, but were fewer than I had asked for. I didn’t want to wrangle over them, so I went taking whatever companions I could. I had been told he was waiting for me at his house, but when we were riding past the customs house, they called out to say he was there, looking at our cloth, and would I come inside and see him?
I got very angry and said this was not how I had treated Zulfikar. I announced I would go and see the fields instead and moved on. Zulfikar got to know of this and rushed to his house by a back road and sent me a message to come see him there.
At his house I was ushered under a tent where the town’s chief men were present but not Zulfikar. They welcomed me and asked me to sit while Zulfikar got ready. I said it was disrespectful to me, for I had received him at my gate. Had I known he lacked good manners, I wouldn’t have taken the trouble to come.
I was going out but Zulfikar saw me and asked me to come into his room so that I would see he was indeed getting ready. One of his men tried to pull me inside by force but I immediately laid my hand on my sword and warned him to stay away.
I continued towards the gate and this made Zulfikar rush out to stop me. He apologised and said it was negligence, not any intention to dishonour me, that had given rise to this situation.
So I went inside with him. He invited me to sit on the carpets, but I told him I wouldn’t lower myself, so he sent for two chairs and we sat in them.
He again started talking in his obsequious way full of courtesies and compliments, and I went along in the same way. But I also told him that he, being a soldier, was in the habit of wasting time and so upset the plans of merchants. I said he could show himself to be our true friend by doing just two things. I did not wish to be his enemy, and when I went to the Mughal court I hoped to take a good report of him rather than complaints.
He said all my demands would be met.
Then I told him my two expectations. The first, that he should endorse the 13 terms that the previous governor of Surat had agreed to with our man, Captain Best. Since Zulfikar was not aware of these, I had got them written down in Persian, and since the administration of Surat had flouted almost all 13 terms, I wanted him to sign and re-confirm them.
My second expectation was that when he went out of Surat, which he was expected to do soon, he should order his trusted officers to ensure that our business didn’t get delayed for his return. He promised this too.
I reminded him that soldiers and men of honour valued a promise more than life.
Then he requested me to ask the general to give him three fine cloths to send to Emperor Jahangir, for which he would pay cash. I said I could not order the general but would write to him, and he, Zulfikar, could have anything he liked if he paid cash.
Zulfikar asked me when I planned to start for the Mughal court, and I said, within 10 days, for as a stranger to the country I had been unable to arrange many things for the long journey. He said I should hurry up to thwart the plans of the Portuguese, and he would provide me every assistance I needed.
I thanked him and said all I expected of him was safe passage through his territory. But he said he would send me men to ensure that I was received by the emperor and suitably honoured with presents.
I thanked him and said I was sure the emperor would receive me as the ambassador of a mighty king, his friend, and I would gratefully accept his presents, but not as reward, for my king was fully capable of compensating me.
Before we parted, Zulfikar gifted me two pineapples and sang praises of them. I asked a servant to carry them and told him I knew the fruit very well.
Zulfikar saw me out till the door of his tent, and some of his men brought me to my horse.
Zulfikar asked to see the coach and the virginals (a musical instrument) I had brought as gifts for the Mughal emperor. I sent him a message that gifts meant for kings are not displayed, but he may come and see them.
He came to my house in the morning and when he and his companions entered the hall, I came downstairs and offered them chairs. Then I gave him a document with 13 terms that he had promised to sign, but he refused saying that I was going to the Mughal and would get better terms there.
I insisted that he sign them, reminded him of his promise and Jahangir’s firman but he was adamant.
I said he was a faithless man and I would have to complain about him to Jahangir, although I didn’t want to.
Then I said I would be satisfied if he gave his word to abide by the terms, since they were in Persian and he could read them. He swore to do this and gave me his hand, which I had to accept, unwillingly.
I gave him a few things that he liked as gifts and showed him the virginals, which he did not dislike. Then he asked to see the coach, but I said it was in a warehouse. He could go and see it if he wished to. He got up and asked me if I would accompany him. After the discourtesy he had shown me repeatedly, I didn’t want to escort him outside, so I excused myself by saying I had seen the coach many times.
He went to see the coach, and said it was small and cheap. He ranted that we English bought inferior velvet from the Chinese and sent it to his king in coaches as gifts. Then he rode away.
At night I came to know the true cause of his complaints. He had plainly told the staff at our factory that he was not happy with his gifts. One Portuguese ship gave him more than our entire fleet, he said, and we should not land anymore goods in Surat till the general sent him a really nice present. He reminded them that all other Mughal ports had made peace with the Portuguese. That he had orders to dismiss us, yet he had allowed us to stay for my sake, as I was an ambassador. He would let the English stay on in Surat but would not allow further trade till he got a satisfactory present.
Our condition in this port is really shameful and we have to tolerate treatment that no free heart will endure. All our countrymen are locked up and searched like thieves on arrival. Some are kept waiting for permission to cross the Tapti for two days. Our goods are seized at will, even a trifle like a bottle of wine sent to a sick man is confiscated.
I am determined to establish our trade on terms of dignity and freedom, or to wind it up. Profit cannot compensate for dishonour.
The governor went to the customs house, took some of our cloth and whatever else he wished to, and even stole some out of a window after starting a fight to gather all our men. He hasn’t stopped trade completely but we cannot land lead and cloth until he has seen and taken his fill of liquor, swords, telescopes and other light commodities.
News arrived that Thomas Aldworth, the man who practically established the English trade in Surat, had died in Ahmedabad, and it is feared that the governor, in keeping with local custom, will seize all his property. Recently, an Armenian merchant’s property was also seized in this way. The governor keeps tabs on sick merchants and forbids them to leave his towns, aiming to get hold of their possessions if they die.
All the presents and other things that I will need for my journey to and residence in Agra were sent to the customs house today but the Surtis did not allow them to be released. Our factors have gone to the ships to discuss the situation with the general, and I have made a list of my demands and grievances. I also have two copies of them in Persian.
In the morning my things were still in the customs house and our merchants returned. I sent them with one Persian copy of my list to Zulfikar. The other copy I am keeping with me to show Emperor Jahangir, to demand justice.
Zulfikar got a terrible fright on seeing my list of accusations and promptly returned all the cloth he had robbed us of, keeping only five pieces after making payment. He gave orders to release our goods held up at customs.
As for my goods, he said he would inspect them at the customs house, and those meant for the emperor would be released right away, while those for others would be released on payment of duty.
He said he would not visit me anymore, and lamented that he had allowed us to stay against his king’s orders. Our merchants replied that they didn’t trade by his licence but by that of Jahangir, and if he really had received an order to dismiss us, he should publish it and they would leave Surat. The matter rested there.
Zulfikar Khan today searched all my chests at the customs house and took whatever he liked from them. He whipped one of our servants almost to death for protesting, and treated our merchants like slaves. When I got news of this, I asked them all to leave all the things to him and come away, for I would not take his leftovers. He would have to restore everything and send it home to me or I would leave the town without presents but with plenty of complaints against him.
Today, the former deputy governor of Surat, Kharab Khan, paid me a visit. He said many things against Zulfikar and offered me six of his horses for my journey to Agra. He said I shouldn’t accept any of my goods that Zulfikar returned but go up to Emperor Jahangir and complain. He also narrated how Zulfikar had wronged him and requested me to carry his complaint.
Since I didn’t know him, I could only thank him for his words. I said I could not accept so great a favour from a stranger to whom I could give nothing.
As for his petition, I said I had come on one king’s business to another, and couldn’t get involved in the quarrels of the Mughal’s subjects. He still persisted in offering me horses, and particularly pressed one that I would have liked to buy although it cost £100. He said, if I lived to return, he would certainly benefit from the courtesy he now showed me.
Seeing I would not accept any favours, he made another request: that I may take one of his servants with him. I said I would not prevent anyone from travelling in my train, but I would not take any notice of that person or his business. Then we parted.
Kharab Khan is truly an enemy of Zulfikar’s and the best friend we have in Surat.
The month of Ramadan ended and a great feast and spectacle was held to celebrate Eid. Zulfikar, all his chiefs and 1,000 of his horsemen participated in a display of marksmanship. A ball was hung from a tall pole and they took turns to shoot at it from horseback.
The judge of the customs house came to invite me and offered me horses for that day and also for going to the Mughal court, saying it would be reward enough for him if the emperor knew he had helped me. He also urged me to complain against Zulfikar at the court. He is a friend of the English and often visits me but I declined to see the sports or to take a favour.
Within an hour, Zulfikar also invited me. He sent an elephant to ride on, and footmen with flags and pendants to escort me. There were also some horsemen. I declined again, saying I wasn’t a baby to be abused one day and amused another. He will have to pay for his misconduct before I accept any courtesy from him.
Zulfikar hadn’t released my goods, so I sent him a letter that I had written the previous day but could not get delivered due to the celebrations. I plainly called him my enemy in the letter, listed all the wrongs he had done me, and declared that I was leaving all my goods behind to seek justice from the Mughal. His reply was full of denials. He offered to release the king’s gifts for free but demanded a share of the rest and customs duties too.
This is the letter I wrote:
15 October, 1615
I am writing to let you know that I will not tolerate your abusive behaviour anymore. Your conduct violates the promise made by your king in calling an ambassador from England. It is against decency and the laws of nations applied to a free ambassador. It is also against your own honour and promises.
I didn’t come to India to beg, nor to do or receive any injury. I serve a king who can avenge every wrong done to his subjects. I came under the assurance of the Mughal emperor’s firman and the letter sent to my king promising love and friendship.
I am, therefore, informing you that I seek your friendship no more. You have ransacked my chests and robbed the presents meant for your king. You cruelly whipped one of our servants who was merely doing his duty, showed contempt for the English although they tried to win your favour and gave you many presents.
I am now leaving everything in your hands to go speedily to your emperor and seek justice against you so that I may see you answer for your wrongs in his presence. I am sure I will get justice for I have heard much about Emperor Jahangir’s eagerness to do right.
My only regret is that I associated with you and showed you friendship. Now I am determined to not let you have even a pice from me or my country. I assure you I would rather die opposing an enemy than flatter him.
I wrote a similar letter in the general’s name and sent it to Zulfikar by Captain Harris, one of our officers. He promised to release and send all my things but did nothing. Yet, he told Harris that he wished to be my friend and mentioned that I had declined his Eid invitation and refused to ride his elephant.
I sent Harris again with a polite message and Zulfikar appreciated the gesture. But just then he received a letter from Prince Khurram ordering that the English should be allowed to stay in the port to trade only for a month, but not live in the town. At this, Zulfikar ordered that we should not land any more goods. He also suggested that I buy a house in town soon or we would have to depart. But he did nothing to help us, only sealed and sent on some of the gifts meant for the emperor. The chests from which I was to choose general gifts for people I met on the way were detained.
Seeing how precarious our situation was in Surat, I decided to leave the town at the earliest, carrying just enough presents for one or two meetings with the emperor.
My plan was to try and obtain better terms for our stay and safety in Surat and inform the emperor that I had left many things behind after coming to know of Prince Khurram’s wish to see us gone. I would seek a firman from him endorsing the 13 terms I had drawn up, and permission to get whatever I wanted from Surat without hindrance from Zulfikar.
If Jahangir refused, I would return to our ships at the earliest after making it clear to him that, just as he was master of his land and had chosen to spurn the friendship of my king for the Portuguese who treated him shamefully, so my king was determined to take control of his seas and ports, and that would hurt his subjects in the years to come. The Portuguese, whom he now trusted, wouldn’t be able to help him, nor would they dare to.
I wrote about my intention to the general and sent our merchants to him to discuss and list all their demands and grievances.
I hear that Zulfikar has given Harris a fine present for the general and another one for himself.
All our merchants were at the ships so no work was done in the customs house. A Persian I know informed me that soldiers from Daman, Chaul and other Portuguese strongholds have been called to Goa on the pretext of sending a fleet to Hormuz which the Persians have besieged. Also, a new viceroy has arrived with three carracks (merchant ships).
Suspecting that this was a ruse to attack our ships, I wrote a letter to the Portuguese viceroy at Goa, stating that we wanted to trade peacefully and our king also wanted us to confine ourselves to trade. I offered to consider Portuguese interests in the treaty I was negotiating with the Mughals and also promised that I would try to obtain permission of free trade for all. I sent my letter in English and Portuguese and fixed a time limit for them to reply.
This is my letter to the Viceroy:
Most Illustrious Lord,
I have orders to warn you against acting in a way that will only lead to war and revenge and the shedding of Christian blood. You and the Portuguese viceroys before you have repeatedly assaulted merchants who are subjects of my royal master, the high and mighty king of England, even though your king and mine are at peace. By the grace of God, you have already had to suffer shame and confusion in these unchristian attempts.
No doubt, you have acted after misunderstanding our intent in coming to India, so I have orders from my king to assure you, as the English ambassador in Madrid has already done, that we English seek nothing more than free trade, which is a freedom available to all men. Besides, in the territories of the Mughal and his neighbours, there is enough business for both our countries, provided you are not blinded by greed.
The English do not intend to hinder or root out your trade with India. On the contrary, we want to continue our own trade in friendship with you, and as Christians we are ready to assist you in any way you desire. We certainly do not covet any business, revenue, or duties you get from Indian traders.
I find it strange that when our masters, both mighty kings, and their subjects are on friendly terms and engaged in free trade, you dare to spoil the terms.
I wish to remind your excellency of the days when our blessed Queen Elizabeth made your country pay a high price in men and money for similar mistakes. The same force and spirit are still alive in our nation. I advise you to show more respect to the majesty of my king than what you and your people in India have shown so far.
Having politely cautioned you, I give you notice that my king will support his subjects in any lawful activity they take up in spite of enemies, and that is why he has sent me, his confidant and soldier, as an ambassador to the Great Mughal with full power and authority to enter into a treaty of friendship. He binds himself to whatever terms I shall sign with the Mughal in the interests of Englishmen.
I offer to include your interests in our treaty. I am going to Ajmer and will await your answer for 40 days, and in case of refusal or silence, which I will take to mean refusal, I will arrive at my own conclusions and take measures to achieve the purpose of my visit to India.
Believe me, if the Portuguese continue to trouble us, not only will my king defend his subjects but also permit them to wage war upon you everywhere in India, which is something our men have been eager to do for a while. We will make it impossible for you to leave your ports, forget trying to harm us. Hopefully, better sense will prevail and the need for tough measures will not arise. Please reply within 40 days.
Your friend or enemy, whatever you choose to make me,
D. Tho. Roe,
Ambassador of the Majesty of England
A letter from the Mughal emperor reached Surat today. My sources told me it makes no mention of the English but concerns a merchant’s complaint against Zulfikar.
I rode with Captain Peyton, Master Bonner and a few other companions to Gopi Talao, the famous tank of Surat, for fresh air. On the way back, I deliberately took a path that lies past a place where the governor exercises. Captain Harris had told me that the governor had expressed a wish to renew our friendship, so I wanted to observe his behaviour.
Seeing me, he left his game of polo and came towards me. I waited, and after we had greeted each other, he asked why I didn’t use his horses. I said Kharab Khan had lent me his. He then invited me to watch their sports, and I accepted.
The governor sent for his bow and then he and his companions shot backwards at a mark on the ground while charging on horseback. Next, they shot at an ostrich egg kept on top of a pole. Then, Zulfikar shot at the egg with a gun, and finally they practised charging with lances. These were all very manly sports, and after they had finished, Zulfikar invited me home. I agreed for the sake of our business, although I knew from experience that I would be disappointed.
True to his rude manner, Zulfikar got off his horse at his court gate and left us waiting there. We waited for a while and then entered unescorted.
He met me inside and led us upstairs to a pleasure room where we talked about wars, arms, and the customs of Surat. Captain Peyton had brought some return presents from the general and gave these to Zulfikar. But he took only two and pushed the others aside saying he took the two only as a token of thanks, not a present, for the one he had sent the general was much more expensive. I mention this so you may know what kind of people they are, or at least this man.
I brought up the matter of my own goods and complained about my treatment, but I did not want his empty promises and excuses.
He asked when I intended to start from Surat, and I replied, in two days. Our merchants said they would like to send up some of their cloth with me, but he refused to allow this, swearing by touching his head and beard that he was following orders. He said he could allow us to unload only one ship in a month and then depart. Unless I could obtain fresh orders granting us more time, he would have to make us leave.
I said I didn’t care, but I also couldn’t believe that his master, Prince Khurram, would break his own promise.
We left Zulfikar, but could not get my goods released from the customs house.
It had been five weeks since we heard from Master Edwards at the Mughal court. We wondered whether all these changes against us were happening without his knowledge.
There was no chance of my starting the journey quickly as I needed some news from the court and also my things from the governor. I therefore decided to post a complaint to the emperor through Master Edwards. But our merchants told General Keeling my plan, and he wrote a letter to Edwards on his own.
When Keeling’s letter reached Surat, the merchants sent it off to Edwards without informing me or asking whether I too wished to write. Their behaviour annoyed me. I find that they reserve all their respect for the general since he is useful to them. They have been told that I have nothing to do with them.
Within an hour of the general’s letter, I sent another to Edwards by post, with instructions on what he had to do, and to what extent, to improve our situation in Surat. I let him know that, since I had arrived in India, all the problems of my countrymen in India concerned me, so he should take up the complaint in my name.
The general today sent four factors to Bharuch and Ahmedabad by new shipping routes since Zulfikar didn’t allow them to pass through Surat.
I sent two merchants to Zulfikar to demand my things. He replied that I might leave tonight if I wished to but he would give nothing. He also told the merchants to mind their own business since they had only 15 more days to stay in the town.
At night, the general sent me a letter informing that Master Edwards had been stabbed in Ajmer by another Englishman, Mitford, after some hot words.
The crime in Ajmer was not only a dishonour to my king, since Edwards was staying at the Mughal court pretending to be an English ambassador, but also jeopardized my own plans by creating a bad impression. I therefore wrote to Edwards to have Mitford arrested and kept in chains till I arrived. I would send him bound up like a prisoner to our ships.
The governor went hunting and left permission for me to leave Surat but nothing was done. His attitude changed because we sent some boats towards Bharuch, making him fear that we were planning to start trading there.
I loaded my goods, thinking that Zulfikar’s order was sufficient, but some customs officials arrived and demanded to inspect my baggage again. I got very angry and told them I wouldn’t allow it.
They beat one of the wagoners at my door and would have taken their chief for whipping but I took him indoors and protected him.
I told the customs men to go away but when they insisted on seeing my goods I drew their attention to an armed man and scared them away. However, they sent a report to the governor alleging I had drawn a sword and beaten them. They also made it an excuse to not let me leave.
I sent a message to the general to sail a ship out of port, as if leaving for some other port, and this had the desired effect of bringing them to their senses.
When the governor returned at night I sent him word about what had happened. The governor sent Ibrahim Khan, the chief man of the town, to tell me he had punished them and that I should have given them a hiding. The main point was that Ibrahim Khan would come again next morning with horses and see me out of town.
I thanked the governor and said I only wanted to go speedily and nothing else.
Ibrahim Khan said he had never dared to visit me before or interfere in our business since the governor was a fickle man.
Later that night a letter arrived from the Mughal emperor that made the governor’s circle gloomy. I don’t know the contents, but it had the effect of improving our circumstances and putting a check on the governor.
Although it was a late hour, Zulfikar sent for Master Bangham, one of our factors, and before talking to him directly, made Ibrahim Khan request him to mollify me and all the other Englishmen in town. They said we would be treated well and have permission to travel and carry our goods anywhere without hindrance.
Zulfikar was very sad, which is a sign that the letter was a rebuke. Otherwise, whenever these people get a letter or anything at all from the emperor they drink and celebrate.
At night, he also issued orders for our boats to carry lead and ivory that had been lying in the sun for a month from the seaside to the ships. The ivory is all cracked from the heat.
No progress on any front. Not even the permission to load up and leave.
Ibrahim Khan and some officers came with the governor’s seal to seal presents meant for the emperor. They counted my chests and gave me a pass to take them out of Surat. They also brought those of our things that the governor had left at the customs house. I accepted some of these and Ibrahim Khan promised to get the rest from the governor next morning.
When I said my accepting a few things did not mean permission to keep the rest, he promised that everything would be returned except two basins that had been sent on as presents to Prince Khurram. I said the governor had no right to do so, as he had taken them without permission. I would demand their restitution when I reached the Mughal court, for it was my right to give them to whomever I wanted to.
Ibrahim Khan said I should not rake up such a petty issue, that Zulfikar had sent me a horse as a gift and urged that I would give a good account of him to the emperor.
I said I could not accept the horse, but if Zulfikar dealt with me fairly and allowed English merchants freedom to trade, I would still give a good account of him. Otherwise, I would do what my duty towards my king and countrymen required.
Ibrahim Khan pleaded with me to accept the horse, but I said the governor would consider me obliged to speak well of him, and ungrateful if I didn’t. So I wouldn’t allow myself to be bribed. I would not leave Surat binding myself in ties that would stand in the way of duty should my countrymen send complaints about his behaviour to Ajmer. So, the only way to deal with me was to treat the merchants well. They made many promises and departed.
I loaded up most of my things and awaited the rest from the governor, as Ibrahim Khan had promised. But nothing arrived. Not even an answer.
I sent off my carts. I had little hope of Zulfikar sending my other things, but within one hour Ibrahim Khan came with some of the things and a pass to carry them. I enquired about the rest. Ibrahim said Zulfikar had taken them thinking they were the merchants’ goods and had even offered to buy them then. But now, he had sent them on to Prince Khurram, so they couldn’t be returned.
Altogether seven or eight basins, including French ones, were taken in this way. I told him I would raise the matter in court and demand their return.
Our merchants’ appeals to send shipments of swords and cloth with me were rejected, so I got ready to begin my journey.
At this time, the Mughal emperor’s firman (procured by Master Edwards) for my journey arrived. Since the firman is a manifestation of the emperor, it is not sent directly to the addressee. Instead, it ‘rests’ outside the town and the addressee has to arrange to receive it!
I accordingly sent some merchants to the place where the firman was ‘residing’.
The firman contained a command to the governors of all the provinces through which I would pass to receive me honourably, provide me protection and not touch any of my possessions. It was favourable in every way but did not mention what charges I would have to pay for their courtesy.
I was ready to mount when word arrived that the governor and the town’s principal men had assembled in an open space. I rode that way first and showed the firman to Zulfikar. He looked blankly and made another appeal for friendship. He said I could have whatever I wanted.
I said it was too late now for all that and I had only come to show him how his king treated ambassadors better than him who had spared no opportunity to rob me. Still, I did not desire his ruin and if he would only treat English merchants well I would forgive his rough treatment.
He asked me what I wished for, and I said I wanted permission to take 12 carts full of merchandise. He refused.
I said it was all right because I would anyway get the emperor’s permission after some time. But I wanted to know his reasons for confining our merchants and goods in Surat. He gave none, but said, for my sake he would permit five carts to go along. I disliked his offer but since it would help us make a start I accepted it.
Zulfikar asked me if I was his friend. I said I was until I heard the next complaint against him, something I expected every hour.
Then I asked him to stamp the pass for those five carts with his seal, as I would wait for them till the next day in my tents. Zulfikar promised and I advanced a distance of four kos out of Surat to a place called Khumbharia and camped awaiting our merchants.
I had left Surat without accepting a guard from Zulfikar as we had already hired some men for our journey to Burhanpur.
At the time of my departure, I gave money to people at the customs house who had assisted me, and to all the others who had interceded on our behalf, and to the porters and waiters and messengers who had served me.
I waited for the merchants and the five loaded carts till night when I got a message from the governor showing that he had again backed out of his promise. Now he wanted 30 cloth pieces at his own rates to stamp the pass for our carts. I replied that his false conduct had freed me from my promise of friendship, as I had given it on condition that he would help our merchants.