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'Don’t shoot! They weren’t scheming Orientalists!'

In the preface to writings by European travellers to Mughal India, William Dalrymple defends the pre-colonial writers.

books Updated: May 14, 2007 15:26 IST
William Dalrymple
William Dalrymple
Hindustan Times

Beyond The Three Seas: Travellers’ Tales of Mughal India
Michael H Fisher
Publisher: Random House India
Pages: 219
Price: Rs 350

If travel writing has, in general, had a fairly bad press from post-colonial writers and thinkers, then European travel narratives of the colonial world have a very bad press indeed.

Following the success of Edward Said’s groundbreaking 1978 work Orientalism, the exploration of the East — its peoples, habits, customs and past — by European travellers has be come the target for what has effectively become a major scholarly assault. ‘Orientalist’ has been transformed from a simple descriptive label into a term of outright academic abuse, and men as diverse as the sophisticated French jeweller and aesthete Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, Cornish pilchard merchant’s son Peter Mundy and the grand British judge and linguist Sir William Jones have all alike come to be seen as complicit in the project of gathering ‘colonial knowledge’ — and accused of being agents of colonialism attempting to ‘appropriate’ Eastern learning and demonstrate the superiority of Western ways by ‘imagining’ the East as decayed, degenerate and ‘picturesque’, fit only to be colonised and ‘civilised’.

Yet, as Colin Thubron has pointed out in an important article in the Times Literary Supplement (July 30, 1999), it is ridiculously simplistic to see all attempts at studying, observing and empathising with another culture necessarily “as an act of domination — rather than of understanding, respect or even catharsis... If even the attempt to understand is seen as aggression or appropriation, then all human contact declines into paranoia.” The point is well made.

As Michael Fisher’s wonderful compilation of European travel writing on Mughal India well demonstrates, travellers are individuals whose responses, motives, aims and enthusiasms vary from person to person; indeed travellers are often by their nature non-conformist, people who seek out the edge, and are often driven more by a fascination to see than by motives of power and profit.

So, any generalisation made about JeanBaptiste Tavernier may or may not be true about his Russian horse-trading predecessor, Afanasy Nikitin, or indeed his pious successor, Friar Domingo Fernández de Navarette. And while the buccaneering Elizabethan trader William Hawkins, an official emissary of the East India Company was certainly out to increase his country’s influence in India, the same cannot possibly be said about Niccolao Manucci, a Venetian stowaway who ran away from home aged 14, and who grew up to be a self-confessed con-artist and charlatan who used his “nimbleness of wit” to set himself up as a quack doctor and exorcist.

When reading travel accounts by these very early visitors to the East, we should certainly try to resist the temptation, felt by so many historians, to project back onto it the stereotypes of Victorian and Edwardian behaviour and attitudes with which we are so familiar. For these attitudes were clearly entirely at odds with the actual fears and hopes, anxieties and aspirations of these vulnerable early travellers in India, who did not look at South Asia with the hauteur of the high colonial, as much as with the anxiety and occasionally the suspicion of the weak and defenceless wanderer.

Note the fear and helplessness experienced by Afanasy Nikitin threatened with death or conversion by a local ruler; or Cesare Federici robbed and beaten by dacoits; see how craven and grateful William Hawkins was when finally granted an audience by the Emperor Jahangir. Although the early European travellers were sometimes surprised or even disgusted by what they found in India, their reactions seem to be far more the result of helpless vulnerability before this great Islamic power — one response to which was a retreat into self-conscious insularity — rather than the snide hauteur of some of the Victorians.

One of the most moving passages in this book is when the lonely Afanasy Nikitin worries that his Christian faith might have begun to ebb, living as he was surrounded by Muslims, so that before long he has begun to lose track of the Christian calendar and to calculate instead using that of the Muslim, substituting the Ramadan fast for that of Lent: “I forgot the Christian faith,” he writes, “and Christian festivals, and knew not Easter nor Christmas... and I am between two faiths... O true believing Christians! He that travels through many countries will fall into many sins, and deprive himself of the Christian faith...”

Nikitin of course was not alone. As the English ambassador to the Ottoman Porte, Sir Thomas Sherley pointed out in one of his despatches at this time, the more time Englishmen spent in the East, the closer they moved to adopting the manners of the Muslims: “conversation with infidelles doeth mutch corrupte,” he wrote. “Many wylde youthes of all nationes, as well Englishe as others... in everye 3 yeere that they staye in Turkye they loose one article of theyre faythe.” Islam, at this period, overpowered Europeans more by its sophistication and power of attraction than by the sword.

William Dalrymple is the author of The Last Mughal and White Mughals

First Published: May 14, 2007 15:03 IST

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