When ‘Gujarat Model’ was injurious to business

400 Years Ago, England’s First Ambassador to Mughal India Found Only Harassment And Abuse In Surat

China’s growing naval might worries India, but it is nothing like the stranglehold the Portuguese had on our sea routes 400 years ago. For trade or pilgrimage, all boats left harbour at their mercy. So when a rival sea power offered to do business with India, what should our Mughal rulers have done? Perhaps, roll out the red carpet.

What they certainly should NOT have done was harass the newcomers. But harassment and abuse is what the English experienced in Surat — Gateway of Mughal India — at the hands of corrupt and greedy officials manipulated by the Portuguese.

The diary of Sir Thomas Roe, England’s first ambassador to the Mughal court, gives a detailed account of his experiences in India. A few years ago, I started writing out Roe’s diary in contemporary English, but the project found no takers and I abandoned it after finishing the chapter on his arrival and stay in Surat.

It’s a rather long read (click here) but there are no dull moments in it. The unreliability and corruption of Mughal officials, and a comical standoff on the question of precedence, make it very entertaining. There certainly is a movie waiting to be made on Roe’s book.

A lesser man might have returned home exasperated but Roe had spunk, and it is easy to sympathise with him. From the moment he landed on Surat’s coast, on September 26, 1615, to the day he pushed off for Agra, on October 31, he experienced a ‘Gujarat Model’ that, many businessmen will swear, exists to this day and is responsible for India’s low ease-of-doing-business rankings (we are still ranked 130 in a class of 190).

Slights are offered wilfully. The officials sent to welcome Roe keep sitting on their carpet until he points out their discourtesy. The governor, Zulfikar Khan, has assured Roe that he and his men will not be searched, but the welcoming party repudiates his word, and at one point Roe has to draw his pistols to make them observe due ceremony.

Arrived at the city’s gates, Roe is pushed to pay a visit to the governor. He reminds the officials that he is an ambassador representing a sovereign king, and so, higher in stature than Khan, who is only an appointee of Prince Khurram (the future Shah Jahan). When he stays firm on not visiting Khan first, the Surat officials refuse to release his baggage.

For the next couple of days, Roe is blackmailed with his seized baggage to go visit Khan, and you witness this hilarious game of protocol.

He sent me a message that he could not come to see me first, but if I would agree to visit him, he would come out of his house and meet me in his hall of audience. If not, my baggage would be searched.

I replied that I did not care what he did with my things but to meet him in his hall was an absurd idea. Instead, we could meet in a neutral place, on horseback, both arriving at the same time. That way, neither of us would dishonour his master although he (Khan) would break all rules of courtesy. If not, we could stop this exchange of letters.

To compel me, he issued an order that nobody in the town should sell us anything other than foodstuffs, and those who did were imprisoned.”

The greedy governor meanwhile sounds out English merchants on his hopes of getting a present from Roe. “He kept them waiting till after he had eaten, and then pestered them with demands for presents. He asked them what jewel or diamond I would give him if he came to see me, and so showed himself to be a very greedy man.”

When Roe allows the general of the English fleet to send a precious gift to Khan in the interest of business, “this made the greedy governor change his mind about visiting me. I guess he thought he could disregard me completely as the general had gifts for him while I didn’t.”

Their first meeting, at Roe’s house, is also comical: “He came in a large group, dressed in fine linens and rich brocade. I received him at the door, but he shot into my house like a horse. I guess he did it deliberately to show he was superior to me. I checked him by walking faster and reaching the stairs before him. There I told him I would lead the way, but one of his servants pulled me aside and said I could not walk before the governor. But the governor thrust him back and followed me.”

The governor never keeps his promise. Roe requests some horses to return his visit, but Khan does not send them for days after promising to. Roe’s messengers are always sounded out about gifts, and at last Roe relents: “knowing that he wanted some of the hard liquor he had seen in one of my chests that had been held up at the customs house, I conveyed that he could have one case of bottles as a trifle between friends.”

When at last Khan sends horses, he does not stay home to receive Roe but goes to the custom house to inspect English cloth. “I got very angry and said this was not how I had treated Zulfikar. I announced I would go and see the fields instead and moved on. Zulfikar got to know of this and rushed to his house by a back road and sent me a message to come see him there.”

It is beyond funny. Even when the English party reaches Khan’s house, it is kept waiting. Next, Khan makes it clear that he is not happy with his gifts. “One Portuguese ship gave him more than our entire fleet, he said, and we should not land any more goods in Surat till the general sent him a really nice present.”

The governor visits the custom house and takes “some of our cloth and whatever else he wished to, and even stole some out of a window… we cannot land lead and cloth until he has seen and taken his fill of liquor, swords, telescopes and other light commodities.”

Things get worse when Prince Khurram gives the English one month to leave Surat, and the arrival of a firman from Emperor Jahangir for Roe’s onward journey does little to improve their position.

Roe finally abandons all hope of fair play from Khan and takes the road to Agra. “I waited for the merchants and the five loaded carts till night when I got a message from the governor showing that he had again backed out of his promise. Now he wanted 30 cloth pieces at his own rates to stamp the pass for our carts. I replied that his false conduct had freed me from my promise of friendship, as I had given it on condition that he would help our merchants.”

(Read the full text)


Hopefully, doing business in and with India is not so difficult now, and today’s ‘Gujarat Model’ raises the hopes of investors. India’s rank should improve too, eventually.