New Book:  “Courting India” by Nandini Das!

Courting India: Seventeenth-Century England, Mughal India, and the Origins of Em | eBay

Dear Commons Community,

I have just finished reading Nandini Das’s Courting India:  Seventeenth Century England, Mughal India, and the Origins of Empire, which tells the story of Britain’s first attempt to establish formal relations with the Mughal emperors.  Das is a professor of  Modern English Literature at the University of Oxford. Das presents her book as an historian would with lots of quotes, citations and footnotes. Courting India ,,, covers the period of 1615-1619 when Sir Thomas Roe, is appointed as the first English ambassador to the Mughal Court.

I have to confess that it is a part of world history of which I know very little. Das makes the story of Roe enjoyable.  It is interesting to read about Roe’s cultural and social inadequacies as he vies with the Portuguese for the Mughal emperor’s favor and cooperation.    Roe, who is appointed by King James I, walks a difficult line between the political protocols of the British Crown and the commercial interests of the East India Company.   After Roe’s rocky tenure as ambassador, it would be ninety years before another ambassador is appointed.  Das concludes, however,  that it was Roe who laid  initial groundwork for Britain’s subsequent colonization of India.

In sum, I found Courting India an interesting read.

Below is a review that appeared in the New York Times Book Review.



The New York Times Review of Books

England’s first foray into India, as Nandini Das details in “Courting India,” was far from successful.

Published April 7, 2023

COURTING INDIA: Seventeenth-Century England, Mughal India, and the Origins of Empire, by Nandini Das

Things began to go awry almost as soon as the squadron of ships bearing Thomas Roe, the first English ambassador to the Mughal Empire, sighted India’s western shores in September 1615.

Alighting on land, Roe was incensed to see that the waiting party of officials of the great port of Surat in Gujarat did not rise from their tented carpets to welcome him. When the Mughal officials prepared for their customary search of all persons and property arriving ashore, Roe refused as the “ambassador of a mightie and free Prince” to yield to “so much slavery.” When the Mughals offered to compromise with a token frisking of his men, Roe “called for a case of Pistolls.”

Matters did not improve. The youthful ambassador was hindered by his perfect ignorance of any Indian languages, entangled in bitter rivalries with other English officials and undercut by the behavior of his own staff: On the very day of his arrival, Roe’s personal chef drunkenly attacked a Mughal nobleman in the streets of the city. Small wonder, then, that by the end of the first month, the authorities had already prohibited the town’s merchants from dealing with the English. Did Roe already sense as he disembarked from his ship that he was stepping off on the wrong foot? “If Roe’s account of his first trial of diplomacy in India sounded familiar to his readers at home back in England,” writes Nandini Das in “Courting India,” her engaging new account of the first English embassy in India, “it would be because it was.”

Das, a professor of English at Oxford University, 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. Roe saw himself as the representative of James I, a great monarch and powerful actor on the European stage, and his intransigence in dealing with the Mughals was a familiar posture by which European diplomats evoked and displayed the power of their sovereign (and so, likewise, the Mughals’ insistence on their customs procedures).

But the new king of England was stone broke, and Roe’s embassy had been proposed and funded by the recently founded East India Company, whose directors always kept a beady eye on the ledgers but lacked political sway in the Mughal court. Conflicts over precedence did nothing to advance his mission of securing trade rights, which was the real reason Roe had been sent across the Indian Ocean.

The Mughal emperor Jahangir suffered neither James I’s financial embarrassments nor accorded much privilege to traders. He ruled over a young empire that already stretched from the stony plains of Kabul to the sweltering miasmas of Dhaka, 1,500 miles away, and had not yet stopped growing. His tens of millions of subjects spoke scores of languages and inhabited the dozen provinces of what was at this time perhaps the most stable and prosperous polity in the world. Indeed, the court’s sumptuous ceremonies led “mogul” to become a byword for fantastical wealth and overwhelming power.

But such displays were meant to overawe competitive neighbors and insubordinate locals, not the tiny nations of distant Europe — which mattered only insofar as they exchanged bullion for India’s growing exports and provided curios and novelties for the empire’s ruling classes.

Jahangir saved the embassy from an ignominious return by permitting Roe to approach his court, but Roe was keenly aware that the English were out of their depth amid the court’s magnificence and its complex factional politicking. This was due largely to the fact that the East India Company, in its stinginess, had provided gifts that were emphatically not fit for a king — especially a connoisseur of beauty as discerning as Jahangir.

While Roe, in the grip of a “bloody flux,” complains bitterly of the indignities of following Jahangir’s peripatetic court on a shoestring budget, it is not surprising that Jahangir made no mention at all of the English ambassadors in his otherwise comprehensive and chatty memoirs.

Surely in part because of his constant gastric difficulties, Roe doesn’t seem to have cared much for India. But Das gives us vivid examples of others who did: Roe’s chaplain Edward Terry would recall the 50 dishes served to him at a Mughal feast: the rice dyed saffron, green and purple, the naan “very light and white” and even the water that “allayes thirst better than any liquor can.” There was also Thomas Coryate, a longtime friend-turned-travel-writer who greatly embarrassed Roe by successfully begging money from the king. For if there were one person Roe did like in India, it was Jahangir, “whose wisdom and goodness … appears above the malice of others.” As this was precisely how Jahangir wished others to see him, we may conclude that the ambassador not only failed to sway the ruler but was instead seduced himself.

From Das’s account it is hard to escape the sense that for all their elaborate incomprehension of these ambassadors — the inexplicable tawdriness of English gifts, the puzzling predominance of English traders over their sovereign, their refusal to abide by local customs — the Mughals understood the English rather better than the reverse.

In locating Roe within his English context — a friend of the poet John Donne and the playwright Ben Jonson, an earnest parliamentarian, a conscientious Protestant — Das successfully rescues him from the stilted role of the progenitor of colonial rule and reveals something more interesting: an ambassador too honorable and too inexperienced to achieve anything much for either himself or his country.

But if the ineptitude and infighting of the embassy provide steady fodder for comedy, there are also glimpses of the terrifying rapacity and propensity for violence of Europeans that was checked here only by the overwhelming superiority of the Mughals. Das does not flinch from this difficult history of the spread of European dominance. Yet she remains admirably evenhanded in her appraisal, revealing the subtle change of views and blurring of boundaries in this unpropitious moment of intercultural contact.


  1. I highly recommend reading Nandini Das’s book, “Courting India: Seventeenth Century England, Mughal India, and the Origins of Empire.” This captivating historical account sheds light on a fascinating chapter of world history that might be unfamiliar to many. Through the lens of Sir Thomas Roe’s diplomatic endeavors as the first English ambassador to the Mughal Court, the book delves into the intricacies of early British-Mughal relations. Das skillfully presents a meticulously researched narrative, enriched with quotes, citations, and footnotes, making it an engaging and informative read. For those intrigued by the dynamics of colonial history, cultural exchanges, and the seeds of empire, “Courting India” offers valuable insights that are both enlightening and thought-provoking.

  2. The content discusses Nandini Das’s book “Courting India,” which explores Britain’s early efforts to establish relations with Mughal emperors in the 17th century. The book covers Sir Thomas Roe’s tenure as the first English ambassador to the Mughal Court, delving into his challenges as he balanced British political protocols and the East India Company’s interests. Despite difficulties, Roe’s groundwork is credited with influencing Britain’s later colonization of India. The book sheds light on this historical period and its impact on British-Indian relations.