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Courting India

England, Mughal India and the Origins of Empire

Nandini Das

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01 June 2024
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WINNER OF THE BRITISH ACADEMY BOOK PRIZE A SPECTATOR, WATERSTONES, BBC HISTORY MAGAZINE, PROSPECT AND HISTORY TODAY BOOK OF THE YEAR A profound and ground-breaking new history of one of the most important encounters in the history of colonialism: the British arrival in India in the early seventeenth century.

‘A triumph of writing and scholarship. It is hard to imagine anyone ever bettering Das's account of this part of the story’ - William Dalrymple, Financial Times

‘A fascinating glimpse of the origins of the British Empire . . . drawn in dazzling technicolour’ - Spectator ‘Beautifully written and masterfully researched, this has the makings of a classic’ - Peter Frankopan


When Thomas Roe arrived in India in 1616 as James I’s first ambassador to the Mughal Empire, the English barely had a toehold in the subcontinent. Their understanding of South Asian trade and India was sketchy at best, and, to the Mughals, they were minor players on a very large stage. Roe was representing a kingdom that was beset by financial woes and deeply conflicted about its identity as a unified ‘Great Britain’ under the Stuart monarchy. Meanwhile, the court he entered in India was wealthy and cultured, its dominion widely considered to be one of the greatest and richest empires of the world.

In Nandini Das's fascinating history of Roe's four years in India, she offers an insider's view of a Britain in the making, a country whose imperial seeds were just being sown. It is a story of palace intrigue and scandal, lotteries and wagers that unfolds as global trade begins to stretch from Russia to Virginia, from West Africa to the Spice Islands of Indonesia.

A major debut that explores the art, literature, sights and sounds of Jacobean London and Imperial India, Courting India reveals Thomas Roe's time in the Mughal Empire to be a turning point in history – and offers a rich and radical challenge to our understanding of Britain and its early empire.
Imprint:   Bloomsbury
Country of Publication:   United Kingdom
Dimensions:   Height: 198mm,  Width: 129mm, 
ISBN:   9781526615664
ISBN 10:   1526615665
Pages:   480
Publication Date:  
Audience:   General/trade ,  ELT Advanced
Format:   Paperback
Publisher's Status:   Active

Nandini Das is professor of Early Modern Literature and Culture in the English faculty at the University of Oxford. Brought up in India, she was educated at the Jadavpur University in Kolkata, before moving to England for further study. Among other books, she is co-editor of The Cambridge History of Travel Writing. A BBC New Generation Thinker, she regularly presents television and radio programmes, including Tales of Tudor Travel: The Explorer's Handbook on BBC4.

Reviews for Courting India: England, Mughal India and the Origins of Empire

A triumph of writing and scholarship . . . For Das the Roe mission is the lens through which to give sharp focus to a remarkably wide-ranging study that does much to illuminate the bigger story of the unpromising origins of British power – and initial powerlessness – in India . . . Her style, while nuanced and erudite, is also jaunty and often witty. The book is as full of lovely passages of prose and finely shaded pen portraits as it is of new archival research, of which there is a great deal . . . It is hard to imagine anyone ever bettering Das’s account of this part of the story -- William Dalrymple * Financial Times * A fascinating glimpse of the origins of the British Empire . . . The picture that emerges of the first official encounter between Jacobean England and Mughal India is a vivid one, drawn in dazzling technicolour. Courting India is as much about Britain as India, a glimpse of one of history’s turning points, and the start of a relationship that would change not just England but the world -- Sam Dalrymple * Spectator * The story of the very earliest years of British activity on the Indian subcontinent, Das’s book goes to the heart of the initial, heady meeting of courts and cultures and presents a novel look at the roots of colonialism -- Books to Read in 2023 * Financial Times * Skilfully reconstructs the slights and stand-offs, the escalating tensions . . . Courting India is a scholarly biography with an antiquary’s eye for detail . . . Das’s leisurely diversions into the world of Jacobean fashion, food and curiosities are fascinating -- Pratinav Anil * The Times * An utterly absorbing narrative . . . What makes Das’s account of Roe’s experiences in India so fascinating is the depth of her research. She has mined the East India Company archives . . . as well as Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and, particularly, Mughal sources, to present Roe’s four years in the round . . . Das has portrayed Roe and the unfamiliar world of the Mughal court in which he found himself with the piercing detail of a miniature painted with the finest squirrel-hair brush -- Lucy Moore * Literary Review * Captivating . . . A truly impressive work of scholarship and an enthralling read . . . Makes a major contribution to our understanding not just of the origins of empire in India, but of the seventeenth-century world -- Andrea Major * History Today * [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 … Das successfully rescues [Roe] from the stilted role of the progenitor of colonial rule and reveals something more interesting: an ambassador too honourable and too inexperienced to achieve anything much for either himself or his country … 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 * New York Times * A sparkling gem of a book. Beautifully written and masterfully researched, this has the makings of a classic -- Peter Frankopan Stretching from the dark waters of the Thames to the blossom-strewn floors of the Jahangiri Palace, Courting India covers a vast canvass with masterful aplomb. Nandini Das's debut is a marvellous piece of detective work -- Amanda Foreman What a joy to find the first official Indo-British encounter receiving the scholarly attention and enthralling treatment it deserves . . . A modern masterpiece, delightful, enlightening and faultless -- John Keay This is a book I wish I had written! It’s a glorious read by a talented historian about an important and rather overlooked journey. Marvellous -- Suzannah Lipscomb Startlingly eye-opening. . . . If we want to to truly understand the impact and legacy of the British Empire on our modern world, we have to start where it all began -- Pragya Agarwal, author of 'Sway' Jacobean London and Mughal India come face to face through the eyes of Thomas Roe. A figure previously marginalised, in Nandini Das’s layered exploration, Roe finds a new life. And with him, we encounter rich pictures of imperial Britain being formed. A fine achievement and a great read -- Professor Ruby Lal, author of 'Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan' This well researched and written volume is a work of authority and quality. It is essential reading for the understanding of Britain's early encounter with India -- Ian Talbot, Emeritus Professor in the History of Modern South Asia at the University of Southampton Nandini Das moves seamlessly between the inner worlds of the courts of seventeenth century England and India and with a mastery of both. This important book brings the earliest days of the British empire vividly to life -- Dr Yasmin Khan, University of Oxford This lucid and imaginatively written book tells us a great deal about the hesitant early days of the first British Empire, as a traditionally inward-looking island nation sought to engage with the wider world. Professor Nandini Das captures the mixture of excitement, prejudice, anxiety, misunderstanding and mutual interest that characterised an encounter that did so much to shape the contours of the modern world -- Professor Andrew Hadfield, University of Sussex Courting India is a tour de force of detailed archival research and riveting storytelling. Its main character, King James I's first ambassador to India Thomas Roe, emerges here in all his historical as well as individual complexity – a low-budget, over-dressed herald of the juggernaut that the East India Company would become, and a bit-part actor in a transnational theatre of state he couldn't begin to fathom -- Professor Jonathan Gil Harris, author of 'Masala Shakespeare' Courting India, by Nandini Das, is a brilliant and insightful study of Thomas Roe’s embassy at the Mughal court. It serves as a rich repository of cultural memories from the beginnings of the colonial encounter – memories that have continuing resonance and relevance in our own era as we grapple with the aftermath of empire. Das offers a compelling account in which deft archival research navigates through English intellectual, literary and political worlds as they interconnected with the Mughal empire -- Jyotsna G. Singh, Professor, Department of English, Michigan State University Nandini Das's rich, absorbing account of a critical juncture of global history, the Englishman Sir Thomas Roe's embassy to the court of the Mughal emperor Jahangir, charts both a remarkable personal narrative and the prehistory of colonial expansion, told from the perspective of an imperial go-between. This is a fascinating story of early modern political and cultural transactions, brilliantly researched and attractively written. It is destined to become the classic treatment of its subject. -- Professor Supriya Chaudhuri, Department of English, Jadavpur University Fascinating . . . India was a huge continental empire, England a minor maritime kingdom on the fringe of Europe; but with their itchy feet the English were pushing to expand global trade. Their paths would cross in ways they could never have dreamed of’ -- Michael Wood * BBC History Magazine, 2023 Books of the Year * Courting India is ostensibly a study of Sir Thomas Roe’s time as the East India Company’s representative to the Mughal court from 1615 to 1619, but it is so much more than that . . . [Nandini’s] book makes us rethink the idea that Britain was always dominant in India -- Hannah Cusworth * BBC History Magazine, 2023 Books of the Year *

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