Looking for Interpreter Zero: Imperial Intermediaries III  

Sir Thomas Roe and his interpreters at the multilingual Mughal Court

by  Christine Adams—  28 February 2020 

Image: Sir Thomas Roe MP being received by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir in 1616.  (www.parliament.uk)

The conversation was in Persian, the language of the Mogul Court, of which Roe was entirely ignorant. Besides Latin, he had some French and Italian and a little Spanish, but the languages needed were Persian, Arabic … Hindustani … and Portuguese, of which some of the indigenous inhabitants had acquired a knowledge after many decades of contact with them. [1]

English travellers to India on East India Company (EIC) business were well aware of the need to find ways to communicate with locals on their journey and at their destination. Sir James Lancaster, who led the first EIC fleet to explore trade prospects in 1601 had an original way of replenishing the ships’ stores while at the Cape of Good Hope. He

made signes to them to bring him downe sheepe and oxen. For he spake to them iu the cattels language, which was never changed at the confusion of Babell, which was "moath” for oxen and kine [cows], and "baa" for sheepe, which language the people vnderstood very well without any interpreter.  [2]

There are references to interpreters elsewhere in the account that make it clear that most exchanges required more than mooing and baaing. These explicit references to the intermediaries involved show how much travellers depended on them.

The frustrations of poor communication

Sir Thomas Roe (1581-1644) was the first royal ambassador to the Mughal Court under Jahangir (reigned 1605-1627), the heir to Babur, the Muslim warrior from Central Asia (modern-day Uzbekistan) who defeated Lodi, the Sultan of Delhi at the 1526 Battle of Panipat. 

Roe’s journal and letters reporting on his attempts to negotiate favourable conditions for the EIC during his 1616-19 stay give a strong sense of the need for interpreters and the frustrations of poor communication. This awareness may be at least partly due to his experience of a 650-strong embassy to Spain in 1605 as well as his expedition to Guyana in 1610-11, where his interpreters were Indians who had spent time in England. [3] 

His accounts of life at court don’t go so far as to acknowledge just how difficult it is for him, an Oxford- and Middle-Temple-educated Latin speaker with a smattering of French, Italian and Spanish to negotiate the Persian-speaking Mughal Court, but he does give us a telling introduction to the English presence in India, the cultural and linguistic gaps between the visitors and the Mughals; tensions between traders and diplomats, business and power, profit and settlement that informed much of the EIC’s long presence in India.

A diplomat, not a merchant

There had been EIC representatives at the Mughal Court before Roe, but they were merchants, not diplomats, and ill-versed in the theatrical rituals of high-level meetings. Roe felt strongly about his role as James I’s representatives and had mixed feelings about the EIC’s interest in trade, which he may have felt was beneath him as he aspired to high office at court in England. 

“At the heart of the Roe Embassy was, if not an ambiguity, then a multiplicity of interests: James’s and the nation’s, the Company’s and Roe’s own.” [4]

He did not see himself as a Company man. He even refused to adopt local clothing as the English factors did, preferring to distinguish himself and his household from all others – displaying grand, English-style clothes wherever they went – to assent his identity as a courtier. [5]

The flexible approach of his predecessors

His predecessors may have lacked class but had a flexible approach to the representation of English interests that could stand them in good stead.

John Mildenhall, a merchant who took it upon himself to speak for England before Akbar (reigned 1556-1605). The Portuguese at court “plotted against him, bribed counsellors, won away his long-faithful interpreter; in retaliation he learned Persian.” [6] He also claimed that England would send a resident ambassador to the Mughal court.

The next “ambassador”, William Hawkins, was the captain of the first English ship to reach the coast of India, in 1608. He spoke Turkish which meant that he could communicate directly with Jahangir whose paternal language, Chagatai, was a Turkic language. Hawkins bore a letter from James I addressed to Akbar and drafted by the EIC. Jahangir – assuming that he was the envoy promised by Mildenhall – sent an official party to escort him to court where he did well for himself without really advancing the cause of English trade. [7] 

The next three EIC representatives did not accomplish much either and there was a strong sense in London that someone like Roe, “a gentleman of civil behaviour, of good breeding, personage and very good parts” would persuade Jahangir to grant them the right to trade in India. [8]

The need for intermediaries

Roe’s account of his journey to the Gujarat port of Surat, where the EIC had a factory (a warehouse for the storage and sale of goods) refers to Arabic or Portuguese speakers met  en route as well as acknowledging the need for intermediaries. He was unable to confer with the local ruler when his ship stopped at Socotra (off the coast of Somalia) because “all the interpreters followed the generall” (the Commander of the fleet) [9]

Once in India, his descriptions of his dealings with the authorities in Surat include references to his interpreters. He needed an interpreter to defend his status as representative of James I: he was offended that his effects were searched on arrival and sought to restrain the Mughal officials: “by my interpreter, that I was content they should lay their hands upon my servants, not with intent to search but to embrace …” [10] 

In the presence of imperial power

It was difficult for Roe to get the recognition that he felt he deserved once he had made his way to Ajmer, where Jahangir held court in 1615 and 1616. He needed interpreters in his dealings with the Emperor and his coterie, including his son Prince Khurram or his brother-in-law and adviser, Asaf Khan. In the presence of imperial power, he was not the only one with interests to defend; his first broker (interpreter) didn’t dare

 to speake any thing that would displease Asaph Chan, not would hee in any thing deliver me truly to the King. Soe I sought out a third [second?], an Italian Jeweller, a protestant, that useth much liberty with his tongue, and in whom the King takes often delight to heare him rayle at the Jesuits and their factions, who undertook to say all I would deliver him.  [11]

Here we have an Englishman, able to speak Latin to his adversary, Father Francesco Corsi, the Jesuit representing Portuguese interests at the Mughal court who was dependent on an Italian jeweller employed by the court – one John Veronese – to make his pitch for a trade agreement. 

A linguistically complicated situation

Asaf Khan was initially inimical to Roe’s presence and realised that he could easily thwart him. Roe reports that four days after his introduction at court, on March 13, 1616

 … I went to the Gussal chan (Privy Chamber), when is best opportunity to doe business, and tooke with me the Italyan, determining to walke no more in darkness but to prove the king, beeing in all ways delayed and refused. I was sent in with my ould Broker but my enterpreter was kept out, Asaph Chan mistrusting I would utter more than he was willing to hear.  [12]

Even when he demanded that Veronese be allowed to join him, Asaf Khan had the interpreter pulled away and made it difficult for Roe to approach Jahangir,

 so I commanded the Italian to speake aloud that I craved audience of the king, wherat the king Called me and they made me way. Asaph Chan stood on one side of my interpreter and I on the other; I to enforme him in myne own cause, he to awe him with winking and Iogging.  [13]

Asaf Khan’s discourtesy to the interpreter for James I’s representative at the Mughal Court is tantamount to his molesting Roe himself. The pulling, pushing, winking and jogging described give a physical description of what was also a linguistically complicated situation. 

At a meeting with the Emperor two months later, Roe describes himself and “speaking in broken Spanish” to his interpreter, Veronese, who proved unable to do the job. Roe ended up relying on “Persian Prince offering himself to interpret, because my Italian spoke better Turkish than Persian …” [14]

Roe gives a good sense of the sheer physical difficulty of communicating at court. His hands were tied by his language problems and his unfamiliarity with local traditions. A diplomat having to resort to broken Spanish so an Italian jeweller could convey his messages in Turkish was never going to become part of the inner circle. He was further hindered by his investment in being James I’s ambassador and not the EIC’s representative. 

 The persistent ideology that Roe wished to project for the moment of his arrival in South Asia is clear: that as an ambassador he was to be permitted special rights, and he would not suffer himself to be used in any fashion he deemed disrespectful to himself and his king.  [15]

A self-important, over-stated role

During his years at court he did become familiar with court practice, learned about the cartography of the Empire and understood the powerful role of world trade on national status, but was not in a position to get a strong sense of the Emperor’s geo-political, military or economic priorities.

By stressing his king’s – and his own – significance, he over-stated his role at court in his letters home. He made much, for instance, of Jahangir’s preference for him over Muhammad-Riza, the Persian ambassador, sneered at the latter’s willingness to prostrate himself before Jahangir – which he had refused to do – and indicating that he was favoured over his rival.

The theatricality of his descriptions made for good reading, but his self-important accounts show little grasp of court priorities. The fact is that Jahangir’s memoirs betray his scant interest in Europe or England; they emphasise the importance of the Ottoman, Persian Safavid and Mughal dynasties as well as the other Asian nations. Sir Thomas Roe doesn’t get a mention – an omission that seems ironic in the light of future developments.

Jamal-Uddin Husain, the elderly governor of Patna whom Roe met at court, proved to be an exceptionally open and helpful contact. He had much to say about the history and customs of the Empire and allowed himself some advice to the Ambassador:

 I should never be rightly understood, nor effect my business without abuse, or never clearly know my estate, until I had an Englishman that could speak Persian, and that might deliver my mind without passing the tongue of another.  [16]

Of course, there was no guarantee that being able to speak English to his interpreter would serve him better than working through Spanish and Turkish to convey his messages. 

Richard Steel, a Persian-speaking Englishman, travelled to India on with the 1617 fleet. However, he was no more reliable than earlier interpreters “shamelessly used his linguistic abilities to promote his own interests” which included introducing piped water supplies to Agra. [17] 

An enduring trend of linguistic challenges

There seems to be consensus among historians that Roe was hampered by his lack of Persian, though he did obtain authorisation to trade, albeit not on a permanent footing and went on to serve as ambassador for the Levant Company in Istanbul, then had postings in Europe before being appointed to Charles I’s Privy Council in 1640. It would perhaps be fair to say that he advanced the EIC’s cause and his own more than his King’s during his time at the Mughal court. 

Roe’s need to compromise on the language front endured in India. There weren’t many EIC officials in India until the mid-eighteenth century: there were just 100 of them in 1665, and they lived in port cities, often in their factories during their short stays on the sub-continent. 

It was not until the eighteenth century that any of them invested in learning classical languages like Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian or Hindustani and other common languages. It was to their advantage to be able to communicate directly at high level meetings, but the Company was always going to need linguists, brokers and interpreters:

“… specialists who were multilingual and had command of the specialized languages necessary for the various levels of communication between foreigners and Indians.” [18]

With thanks to Dr Eivind G Kahrs, Sanskritist and Life Fellow of Queens’ College, Cambridge. 

Download all chapters of  Looking for Interpreter Zero (pdf):

  1. Looking for interpreter zero: (1) Christopher Columbus and the ‘Indians’
  2. Looking for interpreter zero: (2) Enrique, Magellan’s slave interpreter
  3. Looking for interpreter zero: (3) Melchor, Julián, Pedro, Géronimo and Marina
  4. Looking for interpreter zero: (4) Marina/Malintzin/La Malinche
  5. Looking for interpreter zero: (5) Dragomans
  6. Looking for interpreter zero: (6) Tupaia
  7. Looking for interpreter zero: (7) Rodrigues Tçuzzu, a Jesuit interpreter in Japan
  8. Looking for Interpreter Zero: (8) Wanchese and Manteo
  9. Looking for Interpreter Zero: (9) Thomas Savage, Henry Spelman and Robert Poole
  10. Looking for Interpreter Zero: (10) The Guinea Coast Interpreters–Part I
  11. Looking for Interpreter Zero: (11) The Guinea Coast Interpreters–Part 2
  12. Looking for Interpreter Zero: (12) Hasday ibn Shaprut and Recemund, intermediaries and interpreters in 10th-century al-Andalus
  13. Looking for Interpreter Zero: (13) Merchants, Mudejars, Jews, Mercenaries, Diplomats or Renegades
  14. Looking for Interpreter Zero: (14) The First Crusade & the Byzantine Story
  15. Looking for Interpreter Zero: (15 ) The First Crusade & the Latin Story
  16. Looking for Interpreter Zero: (16) Wealhstodas, Interpreters or Latimers*
  17. Looking for Interpreter Zero: (17) The Strasbourg Oaths of February 842: an early assembly
  18. Looking for Interpreter Zero: (18) The Ancient World I – Cicero and Caesar on Interpreters
  19. Looking for Interpreter Zero: (19) The Irony of Themistocles
  20. Looking for Interpreter Zero: (20) Imperial Intermediaries I
  21. Looking for Interpreter Zero: (21) Imperial Intermediaries II


[1] 1989 Strachan, M. Thomas Roe 1581-1644 A Life. Great Britain: Michael Russell,1989 pp. 79-80.

[2] 1877. Markham, C, B. (ed) The Voyages of Sir James Lancaster, Kt., to the East Indies. London: The Hakluyt Society, 1877. p.63.

[3] Strachan. p. 27.

[4] 2014 Mishra, R. Diplomacy at the Edge: Split Interests in the Roe Embassy to the Mughal Court.  Journal of British Studies, Vol 53 No 1, 2014: pp. 5-28. p.13.

[5] Ibid. p.14.

[6] Barbour, R. Power and Display: Early English “Ambassadors' ' in Moghul India.  Hunting ton Library Quarterly, Vol. 61. No 3/4,1998: pp. 343-368. p. 353.

[7] Ibid. p. 356.

[8] Strachan. p.56.

[9] Foster, W. Ed. The Embassy of Sir Thomas Roe to the Course of the Great Mogul 1615-1619. London: The Hakluyt Society, 1899. p. 35.

[10] Ibid. pp, 48-49.

[11] Ibid p. 142.

[12] Ibid p. 145.

[13] Ibid p. 145.

[14] Ibid p. 148.

[15] Chida-Razvi, M. The Perception of Reception: The Importance of Sir Thomas Roe at the Mughal Court of Jahangir.  Journal of World History, Vol. 25. No 2/3 (June/September 2014). pp. 263-284. p. 269.

[16] Strachan p.95.

[17] Ibid. p. 109.

[18] Cohn, B. Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India. Princeton: Princeton University Press,1996. pp16-17.

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