Gateway to the Classics: Our Empire Story by H. E. Marshall
Our Empire Story by  H. E. Marshall

The First British Ambassador Goes to the Court of the Emperor of India

When the first English adventurers sailed to India, the Dutch treated them kindly. But very soon the struggle between English and Dutch became as fierce as the struggle between Portuguese and Dutch had been. For a long time Bantam, in the island of Java, was the only town where the English had a factory, and in some places the natives were so afraid of the Dutch that they would not trade at all with the English. Yet the English trade grew, and almost every year the East India Company sent out new ships. Now, instead of giving the vessels names like the Red Dragon  or the Roebuck,  they called them the Peppercorn,  the Clove,  or Merchant's Hope.

Finding it difficult to found factories in the East India Islands, the English next tried to do so on the mainland. The first factory which they succeeded in founding was at Surat. Sir John Hawkins, one of our great English "sea-dogs", was the first to land there. But he found it very hard to trade, for the Portuguese were still in power. There he met "a proud Portugal" who "tearmed King James King of Fishermen and of an Island of no import. And a fig for his commission!" There, he says, "I could not peepe out of doores for fear of the Portugals, who in troops lay lurking in the byways to give me assault to murther me."

The kings of India were not like the savages of Africa and America. They were great potentates living in splendour, although the people over whom they ruled were miserably poor. They sat upon golden thrones studded with jewels, they bathed in golden baths and ate and drank from golden vessels. Their clothes glittered with gems and were fringed with pearls.

The Great Mogul was the chief of these kings. He was Emperor of all India, and the other kings paid him money or tribute, and acknowledged him as "overlord." Over those states which lay near his capital at Delhi he ruled like a tyrant, but over distant states he had little power. There the kings did very much as they liked.

It was often very difficult for the English to get leave to trade in the dominions of these proud tyrants. For the curious thing was that in those days they thought little of Europeans. The King of Great Britain was to them merely the ruler of a tiny, barbarous and poor island somewhere far away in the cold bleak seas. It seemed to them that they were being very kind, and that they stooped from their high state in listening at all to the wishes of such a petty prince.

The Great Mogul was haughtiest of all. He was quite willing to take presents from the King, but he was not willing to do anything in return. So at last it was decided to send an ambassador from England to live at the court of the Great Mogul to see what he could do for British trade.

Sir Thomas Roe was the first ambassador who went from Great Britain to India. He was also the first gentleman who had to do with the East India Company. For at the beginning they had said, "We purpose not to emploie anie gent in any place of charge, but to sort our business with men of our own quality." Even now, although many of them thought that it was a good idea to send an ambassador to the court of the Great Mogul, they were very fearful lest the King should send some gay favourite of his own who would cost them much and do but little good. "A mere merchaunt" would do just as well and cost them far less they thought. But in the end the choice fell on Sir Thomas, who was both courtly and wise. He was used to kings and courts, he was courteous and polite, but he made up his mind that the dusky Eastern kings should treat him with honour, as became a messenger from a ruler greater than themselves.

So from the beginning Sir Thomas held himself proudly. "If it seeme to any," he says, "that shall heare of my first carriadge that I was eyther too stiff, to Punctuall, too high, or to Prodigall, lett them Consider I was to repayre a ruynd house and to make streight that which was crooked."

When Sir Thomas Roe landed at Surat he did so in great state. The ships in the harbour were decked with flags and streamers, cannon fired, and before him went a boat in which a band played, and when he reached the shore eighty soldiers marched around him as a bodyguard.

Roe's troubles soon began. The Mogul was not at Surat, but at Ajmere, about six hundred miles away. To get there the ambassador needed men and horses. But the Mogul's servants and the governor of Surat delayed and delayed. They said one thing and did another. They promised easily and broke their promises just as easily. "In all their dealinges ther was new falshood," says Sir Thomas, and in every way they tried to hinder him.

At last he overcame all the difficulties and started on his long journey. The country through which he passed he found miserable and barren. The towns and villages were all built of mud, and the houses were so miserable and dirty that there was hardly one fit to rest in. To-day that same region is rich and fertile. Green fields and gardens are everywhere to be seen, and well-built prosperous towns and villages are dotted about.

The journey was long and difficult, and Sir Thomas fell ill on the way and did not reach Ajmere until Christmas. A few days later he went to see the Great Mogul.

Sir Thomas kept a diary and wrote many letters when he was in India. In them he tells of much that he did and saw, and of the troubles he had to bear.

Among other things he tells us exactly how the Great Mogul spent his days. Every morning as soon as he rose he showed himself at a window called the Jharukha" or interview window. Here the people came to do honour to him. While he worshipped the sun they cried out, "Live, O great king! O great king, life and health!" Here too the Great Mogul gave and received presents, letting them down and pulling them up with silken cords, From this window he reviewed his troops and gave judgments, never refusing the poorest man's complaint, says Roe. At nine he went away, and at midday he came back to the window again to watch elephants and other wild beasts fight. After watching for an hour or two he went away to sleep. At four he appeared at the Durbar or audience, when he received the great men who came to visit him, and did the business of the state. Then after supper he went into another room which was very private, and where only the most honoured guests were allowed to come.

Every day was exactly the same as another, so that Sir Thomas said it seemed to him that the Great Mogul was as much a slave as the poorest in the land. For had he failed to show himself for one day the people would have broken out into riots.

It was at the Durbar that Roe first saw the Mogul. When eastern princes came to visit the Mogul they bowed themselves to the earth and fell upon their faces. But Sir Thomas refused to do any such thing. He was a stiff-necked Englishman with a very good idea of the importance of the King and of himself. He was quite willing to be as polite and courteous to the Great Mogul as he would have been to a European prince, but no more.

Sir Thomas found the Mogul seated upon his throne, and surrounded by his nobles who stood in three rows, one below the other. As Sir Thomas passed each row he bowed, and at last stood before the Mogul.


"Sir Thomas stood before the Mogul."

The Mogul was very gracious to Sir Thomas and seemed pleased with the presents which he had brought. What pleased him most was an English sword and scarf, although, pretending to be very grand and dignified, he did not pay much attention to them at the time. But at ten o'clock that night he sent for one of Roe's servants to come to show him how to wear the sword in English fashion. Then he strutted up and down the hall, drawing it and flourishing it like a child with a new toy, and for a month he was never seen without it.

But although the Great Mogul continued to be very friendly, Sir Thomas could get little out of him but empty promises. Neither he, nor his sons, nor his counsellors were willing to bind themselves to any treaty.

For nearly three years Sir Thomas remained in India. He followed the court about from place to place, seeing many wonderful and some dreadful sights. At last, finding that he could do but little good, he begged to be allowed to go home. This he soon did, carrying with him a letter from the Great Mogul to King James full of flowery language but little more.

It almost seemed as if Sir Thomas had failed in what he had been sent to do. But this was not so. He failed indeed to get any real treaty signed, but when he left India the position of the British there was far better than it had been. They were allowed to trade much more freely, and Sir Thomas had shown that Britons must be treated with dignity and that they were not to be trampled upon. Above all, danger from Portuguese rivals was over.

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