So much has been written about the voyages that the Europeans undertook, in the sixteenth century especially towards Asia with India and China in mind. In this context let me describe one such voyage to you. European affinity for India had grown from the medieval times and for compelling reasons—trade links. But it was only around 1600, when the East India Company was formed in London that concept of organised trade voyages to the Indian Ocean started gaining grounds.
In 1583, a group of Englishmen sailed from Falmouth a town and port on the River Fal on the south coast of Cornwall, England, United Kingdom, on a ship named ‘Tyger’ that was bound for West Asia. This group included local businessmen John Newberry, John Eldred and Ralph Fitch. It also carried a jeweller by the name of William Leedes, and a painter James Story—whose job was to draw sketches of, merchandise and sites, as cameras were not invented then.
Newberry was a merchant-explorer who had two years of experience before undertaking a daring overland trip to Hormuz in the Persian Gulf and back, picking up Arabic on the way. Fitch was a leather merchant, and perhaps the most senior member in terms of age in the group. Eldred was a thirty-one-year old trader in Levantine silks which was from East Mediterranean. The trio Newberry, Fitch and Eldred had been close to two shareholders of the English Levant Company. These shareholders partly sponsored the expedition. The Company had been doing business in Constantinople also known as Istambul, for some years now, and even brought back samples of cotton cloth from India, silks from China, and spices of the Indonesian archipelago. The goal of the expedition was to explore a way to reach the original source of these goods.
The party reached Tripoli in Syria, crossed the Lebanese mountains to reach Aleppo, (in present day Syria) and from there they sailed along the Euphrates, a river in South-West Asia, rising in Eastern Turkey and flowing south across Syria and Iraq to join the Greek river Tigris, and then to Al-Fallujah—Al Fallujah is a city in the Iraqi province of Al Anbar, located roughly 69 kilometer west of Baghdad on the Euphrates. At this point Eldred stayed on to trade in spices, and the rest of the group journeyed on to reach Hormuz. Hormuz belonged to the Persian Empire, but in practice, the Portuguese ruled this port, so vital, to their policy of blocking the Indian Ocean routes to all but friendly ships. Their friends, the Venetian merchants, did not want English merchants in West Asia.
So, it was not surprising, they were promptly arrested at Hormuz. The Portuguese chief justice gave a judgement that they were spies, ignoring the letters of introduction that they were carrying from Queen Elizabeth-1, addressed to the emperors of India and China.
The party was sent on a Portuguese galleon—a sailing ship in use especially by Spain from the 15th to the 18th centuries, originally as a warship, later for trade, to Goa to be interrogated by the viceroy Don Francisco de Mascarenhas. There they were sent to captivity and were released after thirteen days. Once freed, the party lost no time setting up business in Goa. However, the Jesuits kept the pressure on them to convert to Catholicism, and allegedly hatched a plot to get them rearrested. Fearing further trouble the party escaped Goa late in 1584.
The group then travelled to Belgaum overland. From there they went to Bijapur, Burhanpur, Mandu and Ujjain. A few miles before Ujjain, the group came across a colourful procession of Emperor Akbar. Early the following year, the group reached Agra. Although, the party appeared to have been well received at Akbar’s court, it is not known if any of these men actually met the emperor to deliver the letter of the Queen to him. The group now divided itself. Fitch was to travel to Bengal. Newberry was to go to England by the land route, and return with a ship to Bengal and meet Flitch there. Newberry did set out on the journey, but was not heard of again. Leedes took up service with the Mughal court and never ever returned to England. The others moved on to ‘Bengala’, the legendary land that supplied so many finely woven cloths to the markets of East and West Asia.
From Agra Fitch went to Benares, the Bengal port of Saptagram (colloquially called Satgaon), and navigated through the treacherous waters of the Sunderbans to reach Bakla. Since he does not mention about a land journey or about changing a ship, it’ll be safe to assume that the town and kingdom of Bakla were located somewhere on the lower Meghna River or one of its tributaries, possibly the Tentulia, which is not very clear. The Ain-i-Akbari of Abul Fazl, the Mughal court officer and chronicler, mentioned some years after Fitch visited the place, that the town was destroyed by a giant tidal wave from the sea, taking two hundred thousand lives with it. Bakla reappeared as a Mughal zamindari—an estate run by a tax-collecting landlord or zamindar, but on a different and safer location. From old Bakla, Fitch travelled to Sripur and Sonargaon, two midsize kingdoms of the lower Bengal delta. He carefully noted all tradable goods to be found in India, from the pepper of Cochin, cloves of the Moluccas, (a group of islands in eastern Indonesia between Celebes and New Guinea; settled by the Portuguese but taken over by the Dutch who made them the center for spice monopoly, and at that time they were known as Spice Islands). Fitch also discovered the diamonds of Golconda, rubies of Pegu (Myanmar), to the ‘great store of Cotton cloth (from Bengal), and Rice, from where they served all India, Ceylon, Pegu, Malacca, Sumatra, and many other places.’ From Pegu, Fitch sailed for England, where he reached in April 1591.
Master Ralph Fitch, one of the minor members of the party, became the most famous among them when the records of the travel appeared in print. This was the first travelogue of India by an Englishman. Fitch became a hero. The expedition had not achieved anything to serve the trade directly. But it sowed the seeds for the concept that a trade treaty between two kingdoms, Mughal India and Tudor England, is possible. This objective was better served some decades later by means of an organised body of merchants, and a united Company.
By Kamlesh Tripathi
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