The Travels Of Sir Thomas Roe

One of the most successful diplomats of his era, Thomas Roe (1581–1644) got an early start on success in life.  In his era it helped to be a part of the nobility.  He was born in Essex, the son of Sir Robert Rowe, and was educated at Oxford; his genteel manners and refined ways soon gained him access to the court of Elizabeth I.  A knighthood followed in 1604, and with this came increased opportunities for advancement and commercial success.

In those days exploration and diplomacy were closely allied; a diplomat had to be able to function independently in unknown lands for long periods of time.  Roe’s first mission came in 1610, when he was sent to the West Indies.  He was able to see some parts of South America during this sojourn, but it would be in the lands of the east where he would truly make his name.  From 1615 to 1618, he represented British commercial interests at the court of the Mogul emperor Jahangir at Agra, India.  His tact and courtesy won him many friends, and he was able to gain the personal confidence of the emperor.  How much in human affairs comes to rest on personal relations!

His journal of his stay at the Mogul court is wealth of information about this era.  Like many good observers, he is quick to remember and record, but not so quick to judge.  The following quote, taken from Roe’s journal, is a partial list of the commercial demands he presented the Mogul king.  The scope of the rights requested cannot fail to raise eyebrows:

The ſubſtance of the Articles deliver’d Articles of to the Great Mogul was,

1. That there be perpetual Peace and Amity between the King of Great Britain and his Indian Majeſty.

2. That the Subjects of England have free Trade in all Ports of India.

3. That the Governors of all Ports publiſh this Agreement three times upon the arrival of any Engliſh Ships.

4. That the Merchants and their Servants ſhall not be ſearch’d, or ill us’d.

5. That no Preſents ſent to the Mogul ſhall be open’d.

6. That the Engliſh Goods ſhall not be ſtop’d above 24 hours at the Cuſtom Houſe, only to be there ſeal’d and ſent to the Merchant’s Houſe, there to be open’d and rated within ſix days after.

7. That no Governor ſhall take any Goods by force, but upon payment at the Owners price; nor any taken upon pretence of the King’s Service.

8. That the Merchants ſhall not be hinder’d ſelling their Goods to whom they pleaſe, or ſending them to other Factories, and this without paying any other Duty than what is paid at the Port.

9. That whatſoever Goods the Engliſh buy in any part of the Mogul’s Dominions, they may ſend down to the Ports without paying any Duty more than ſhall be agreed on at the Port at ſhipping them, and this without any hindrance or moleſtation.

10. That no Goods brought to any Port ſhall be again open’d, the Engliſh ſhowing a Certificate of their numbers, qualities and conditions, from the Governor or Officers of the Place where they were bought.

11. That no confiſcation ſhall be made of the Goods or Mony of any Engliſh dying.

12. That no Cuſtom be demanded for Proviſions during the ſtay of Engliſh Ships at any Port.

13. That the Merchants Servants, whether Engliſh or Indians, ſhall not be puniſh’d or beaten for doing their Duty.

14. That the Mogul will puniſh any Governor, or Officer, for breach of any of theſe Articles.

15. That the Engliſh Ships ſhall ſuffer all others to paſs and repaſs freely to the Mogul’s Ports, except their Enemies; and that the Engliſh aſhore ſhall behave themſelves civilly as Merchants…

These terms were initially resisted, but modified versions of these articles were eventually negotiated.  Here Roe describes how the Mogul ruler disposed of convicted thieves:

[On] the 9th [of March], a hundred Thieves were brought chain’d before the Mogul with their Accuſation:  Without further Ceremony, as in all ſuch caſes is the Cuſtom, he order’d them to be carry’d away, the chief of them to be torn in pieces by Dogs, the reſt put to death. This was all the Proceſs and Form. The Priſoners were divided into ſeveral quarters of the Town, and executed in the Streets, as in one by my Houſe, where twelve Dogs tore the chief of them in pieces, and thirteen of his Fellows having their Hands ty’d down to their Feet, had their Necks cut with a Sword, but not quite off, being ſo left naked, bloody, and ſtinking to the view of all Men, and annoyance of the Neighbourhood.

Here he describes the richness of the king, as displayed during the monarch’s birthday:

He was ſo rich in Jewels, that I own in my Life I never ſaw ſuch ineſtimable Wealth together. The time was ſpent in bringing his greateſt Elephants before him; ſome of which being Lord Elephants, had their Chains, Bells, and Furniture of Gold and Silver, with many gilt Banners and Flags carry’d about them, and eight or ten Elephants waiting on each of them, cloth’d in Gold, Silk, and Silver. In this manner about twelve Companies paſs’d by moſt richly adorn’d, the firſt having all the Plates on his Head and Breaſt ſet with Rubies and Emeralds, being a Beaſt of wonderful Bulk and Beauty.

They all bow’d down before the King, making their Reverence very handſomly; this was the fineſt ſhow of Beaſts I ever ſaw. The Keepers of every chief Elephant gave a Preſent. Then having made me ſome favourable Complements, he roſe up and went in. At night about ten of the clock he ſent for me. I was then abed. The Meſſage was, that he heard I had a Picture which I had not ſhow’d him, deſiring me to come to him and bring it and if I would not give it him, he would order Copies of it to be taken for his Women. I got up, and carry’d it with me.

Roe’s mission to India was judged successful, and after three years was recalled home.  During the 1620s, he was selected for diplomatic service again, and sent to Constantinople.  He was able to secure favorable commercial terms for British merchants in the Ottoman Empire, and in his spare time was an avid hunter of classical manuscripts and antiquities, most of which were presented to the Bodleian Library on his death.  His last major post was in 1629, when he was tasked with negotiating peace terms between warring Sweden and Poland.  He never seems to have encountered any severe setbacks in his career, a fact that is a testament to his astuteness, bearing, and consummate diplomatic skills.


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