Early English travellers in India: a study in the travel literature of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods with particular reference to India
Prasad, Ram Chandra
The narratives of travel and exploration written by the English voyagers and merchant adventurers who visited India during 1579 -1630 are of great literary and historical value for many reasons. For the first time they brought the ordinary Englishman in contact with the peoples of the East and made it possible for tradesmen to see through the mind's eye new and unlooked -for splendours in the Indies, the glamour of the Mughal court, or the power of the Great Turk. The common man found in the narratives of travel not only a romantic literature more fascinating than fiction, but a call to personal adventure. These were the stories, not of King Arthur or of fabulous knights, but of men who had lived and had their being in Elizabethan England. To any apprentice might come adventures that would have dazzled even Guy of Warwick -, as Captain John Smith2 himself had witnessed. Nor was rhetorical decoration needed to adorn these tales. The plain narratives were sufficiently attractive without adornment. No one has yet appraised the influence on modern English prose of the matter -of -fact relations of the voyagers; but merely as evidence of the development towards verbal simplicity many of these accounts deserve the study of literary historians. Out of utilitarian works on geography and the homespun narratives of merchants and seamen grew a vast literature, perhaps more completely than any other inspired by and appealing to the middle class. For the modern reader, these narratives not only throw considerable light on one of the most crucial periods of Indian history, but also reveal the beginnings and gradual growth of English power in the East. Compiled by men to whom everything in India was new and strange, they form a valuable supplement to the records of the native chroniclers; for the latter took for granted many local institutions and customs unfamiliar to Europeans, and all too often sacrificed objectivity to eulogies of the reigning sovereign.The number of English visitors to India during this period was remarkably large, and for this reason, detailed examination of all of them is outside the scope of such a study as this. In order to avoid swelling the dimensions of this already lengthy work to unreasonable proportions, I have omitted all but a few absolutely important travellers and have employed the word 'traveller' to signify only those who left extensive records of their experiences in India. Amongst them, how - ever, I have included, at the very outset, a Jesuit who is hardly a traveller except in an extended sense of the word, since no account of the early British transactions in the East can be deemed complete unless some notice is taken of this pioneer of British `gravel to India. The importance of Fr. Stephens (for this was the name of the Jesuit in question), which has led me to devote one full chapter to him, will be sufficiently clear in the following pages, but the particular circumstance which has made his inclusion imperative is the fact that he is little known in this country, whereas he deserves to be much better known by his countrymen, perhaps as well known as some of the distinguished poets of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries or the Orientalists of later ages.From what we have seen..., it is clear that although there were notions current about Indian people, Indian traits, Indian climate, long before there was any regular contact between England and India, precise information about the latter began to find its way into Europe after the discovery of the Cape route, and into England after the return of the British pioneers, such as Ralph Fitch, Newberry, etc. The modern European knows much about India, and in this sense at least these early travel -accounts may appear to be outdated; but their importance lies in the fact that they throw considerable light on the India of the great Mughals and that their writers had a certain advantage over the chroniclers of the court. Having nothing to fear or to expect from the powers that were, they could fearlessly tell the unvarnished truth regardless of official frowns or favours. Having come from other lands, they recorded with meticulous care matters seemingly unimportant which a native of India would ordinarily have dismissed as commonplace. Moreover, their narratives and journals have been drawn upon by English poets and prose- writers, some of whom read them extensively and thus broadened and enriched both their knowledge of the world and their general outlook on life. Through these accounts accessions were made to the English language of many Hindi, Arabic and Persian words.It is these travellers, sailors and sea- captains who ask us Indians not to be led too far astray by complacent dreans of the days of glory that are no more, but to see and realize our most degrading varieties of superstition, our most grotesque forms of idolatry. They had no desire to hide things. They spoke more plainly than we do, and far more strongly, and they believed, as we do, that what we think of ourselves is not necessarily what the world thinks of us.