The king of Cambay (in present day Gujarat) from “Figurae variae Asiae et Africae," a 16th-century Portuguese manuscript in the Casanatense Library in Rome. 
Photo: Codex Casanatense 1889
The king of Cambay (in present day Gujarat) from “Figurae variae Asiae et Africae," a 16th-century Portuguese manuscript in the Casanatense Library in Rome. Photo: Codex Casanatense 1889

Before empire

How should we read the Europeans who wrote about Southasia before colonial domination?

Amanda Lanzillo is a lecturer in Southasian history at Brunel University London. She is the author of Pious Labor: Islam, Artisanship, and Technology in Colonial India (University of California Press, 2024).

James Fraser was a Scottish writer for the East India Company, and was based in Surat and other port cities throughout the Indian Ocean world for various stints from the 1730s to the 1750s. Over the course of these decades, Fraser feuded with the British governor of Bombay, wrote a history of Nadir Shah, learned Persian in Surat, studied Sanskrit with a Brahmin in Khambayat and amassed an extensive collection of Indian manuscripts, most of which are still housed at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Throughout his tenure in India, Fraser was frequently critical of attempts by East India Company (EIC) administrators to expand their power on the Subcontinent's western coast and wrote of the Mughal dynasty as the primary legitimate source of political power in the region.

How can scholars working in the context of postcolonial, 21st-century Southasia make sense of the careers of individuals like Fraser? How should we view Europeans who wrote about the Subcontinent in the centuries and decades preceding European military and political domination? Given what we know about the expansion of imperial control in the late 18th century, how do we accurately contextualise the writings and careers of Europeans who operated in moments of shifting power? And what do answers to these questions tell us about European production of knowledge of Southasia?

Europe's India: Words, people, empires, 1500-1800, the latest offering from prolific historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam, draws our attention to these questions by examining European writing about the Subcontinent from the 16th through 18th centuries. Through biographies and microhistories, as well as close attention to the shifting political and social pressures in the region, Subrahmanyam examines European projects of 'cultural translation' in those centuries.

Beyond Orientalism

One of the strengths of Europe's India, and of Subrahmanyam's work more generally, is its ability to contribute to theoretical discussions without getting bogged down in theoretical jargon, and to do so while retaining a narrative structure. For this reason, the book will appeal to both those familiar with debates on the history of European orientalism and depictions of Southasia, and those who simply seek detailed and fascinating stories of encounters between Europeans and Southasians prior to the 19th century. Terming his work "post-Saidian", Subrahmanyam states explicitly that he is not seeking to revisit old arguments raised in the wake of Edward Said's seminal Orientalism, which he views as flawed in its presentation of historical details, but nonetheless vital to our understanding of European representation of Asia. He makes no attempt to build a grand theory of pre-19th-century European knowledge production as based primarily on imperial political power dynamics. Previous attempts to do so, he argues, have overlooked the diverse and fluctuating intersections of political, social and cultural history that informed intellectual production. His aim, therefore, is to fill this gap by analysing the "varied social positions and intellectual stances that Europeans (even those from a single nation) could take in and on India" prior to the rise of British imperial domination.

'Europe's India: Words, people, empires, 1500–1800' by Sanjay Subrahmanyam. Harvard University Press, 2017.
'Europe's India: Words, people, empires, 1500–1800' by Sanjay Subrahmanyam. Harvard University Press, 2017.

Depictions of social, cultural and religious life of the Subcontinent, as articulated by servants of the British East India Company after 1757, and by those working for the British crown after 1857, was often intrinsically linked to the development and maintenance of colonial power. These representations were typically dependent on British relationships with Indian interlocutors, and responsive to preexisting, localised social order. But they were nonetheless rooted in the emergence of British hegemonic power. Subrahmanyam contends that European depictions of the Subcontinent before the 19th century had a wider range of political and social underpinnings, as the Europeans who produced them fell into a broad range of hierarchies and loyalties within the region. For instance, take the case of one Augustin Herryard, a French craftsman skilled at cutting jewels, whose interests seem to have been divided between his drive for personal profit and his close relationship with the Mughal emperor Jahangir. Embedded for many years in a complex system of Indian patronage, Herryard nonetheless portrayed India as foreign and exotic to his own personal benefit.

At the same time, he articulates an abiding frustration with modern scholars who use the lack of a strong European hegemonic power in the region before the mid-18th century to portray European knowledge production as benign or straightforward acts of cultural translation.  He sees works that attempt to rescue European orientalism from its postcolonial critics – books like Robert Irwin's 2006 For Lust of Knowing and Michael Curtis's 2009 Orientalism and Islam –  as naïve and largely a result of the authors' modern-day anxieties of European identity politics. For Subrahmanyam, the contradictions that shaped the European attempts at "translating" India held true even in periods in which Europeans had not yet built up the structures of political and military domination in the region. While the book draws on a few examples from the late 18th century, for the most part, Subrahmanyam is interested in the evolution of European reading of India before Robert Clive's victory in the Battle of Plassey in 1757 and the subsequent expansion of Company rule.

For instance, in his lengthy discussion of James Fraser's Indian career between 1730 and 1750, Subrahmanyam roots Fraser's experience in the context of the Scottish connection with the East India Company. He also, however, introduces us to Fraser's milieu within Indian Ocean port cities, describing in detail the Scotsman's education in Persian and his close engagement with Surat's munshi (secretarial) class. Fraser's affiliations with this community sometimes put him in conflict with expanding imperial interests of his employer, the East India Company. Fraser took on the posture of "a well-born Surati Muslim" in his attitude towards British Governor William Wake, who he argued was reliant on Indian intermediaries – Fraser mentions the "Paultry Banian" or the merchant – who were not well-respected by the Mughal court. And so for Fraser, despite the political influence of Europeans in port cities like Surat, the Mughal court remained – and should continue to remain – the primary source of regional power. He also saw his intermediaries, who were primarily Parsi businessmen and Muslim elites, as arbiters of good literary and cultural taste, and appears to have based his manuscript collection on their advice. Fraser was ultimately suspended from his post in Surat by the East India Company's Bombay Council for pursuing interests that conflicted with the Company's. He thus reflects the entangled influences that could shape a European's view of India beyond simply an attempt to further European political power.

In his introductory biography, that of Frenchman François Bernier, Subrahmanyam likewise emphasises the complex political and social calculations that shaped European writings about the Subcontinent in the era preceding European domination. Trained as a physician, Bernier found employment at the Mughal court in the 1660s through patronage of an Iranian migrant noble with whom he discussed and debated Greek and Latin classical traditions and European intellectual trends. In addition to acting as a "translator" of these traditions at the Mughal court, Bernier positioned himself as a cultural translator for French and other European elites eager for knowledge of India. With his 1671 Histoire de la dernière révolution des Estats du  Grand Mogol, Bernier established himself as the leading French-language writer on both the Mughal political context and the religious composition of northern India. Both this book and several of his subsequent works were rapidly translated into a plethora of European languages, bringing Bernier to audiences across Europe. While much of his published work was aimed at popular audiences, he also advised ministers of the French king Louis XIV, telling them that power and influence could be gained in India by concealing French ambitions and winning the trust of the Mughals.

For Subrahmanyam, Bernier and others like him represent the challenges of simplistic characterisations of European writing on India. This was especially true before the 19th century, when individuals like Bernier were rooted in a variety of indigenous social and political institutions which the Europeans did not fully control. Bernier's narratives of the Mughal Empire may have sometimes been aimed at the expansion of French political or economic influence, but they were written in a context in which he was often beholden to an Indian regime, the Mughals. Portraying Bernier as a cosmopolitan physician who moved fluidly across political contexts and provided straightforward knowledge translation for his contemporaries risks overlooking his engagement with the French Empire and his own social biases. At the same time, viewing him only as an agent of French imperialism risks diminishing his career at the Mughal court and those of his interlocuters there, who might have influenced his portrayal of the Subcontinent for a European audience.

Subrahmanyam finds no easy answers for how to navigate these complexities, and instead embraces the messiness and revels in the occasional contradictions posed by figures like the Swiss-born Colonel Antoine-Louis-Henri Polier. In the mid-18th century, Polier produced a Persian letter book with an Indian munshi and served at various overlapping points in the British East India Company, the Awadh court and the Mughal court. In these interactions, he styled himself an "Indo-Persian gentleman". But in the 1780s, he modeled his writing and comportment on members of the Asiatic Society, founded in Calcutta in early 1784, playing up his ability to secure Sanskrit manuscripts for the advancement of British knowledge. This shift reflects both the emerging British interest in north Indian Sanskrit traditions and the consolidation of East India Company's power that marked the late 18th century. Subrahmanyam's description of Polier's reinvention of himself as a consummate Orientalist and Sanskritist later in his life forces readers to consider how European epistemological approaches to the Subcontinent might change radically even over the course of a single lifetime.

Europe's 'Hinduism'

Although the book avoids making generalisations about European writings on India, Subrahmanyam does point to several significant themes within the evolution of European knowledge of the Subcontinent. These include the pre-19th-century differences between approaches to knowledge among Europeans in northern and southern India, the shifting political status of the Europeans' Indian interlocutors, and the development of European tropes about Indian religious practices. Navigating deftly between these themes, he shows, for instance, the diversity within early European texts about religion in India.

The engraved cover of a Dutch work titled 'Naauwkeurige beschryvinge van Malabar en Choromandel' (1672),​ that attempted to explore Hindu practice and belief.<br />Photo:
The engraved cover of a Dutch work titled 'Naauwkeurige beschryvinge van Malabar en Choromandel' (1672),​ that attempted to explore Hindu practice and belief.

Subrahmanyam traces European understandings of 'Hinduism' from the 16th-century writings of the Portuguese Duarte Barbosa through the 18th-century work of Bernard Picart, finding the precursors to tropes popular among British writers of the Victorian-era, particularly the evolution of European depictions of sati, the forcible immolation of widows. Barbosa's depiction of religious and social practices, which were later termed Hinduism, were rooted in his close and long-term exposure to Kerala society, and reflected his understanding of the plurality of its traditions. It was later Portuguese writers, influenced by the increased presence of the Catholic missionaries, especially in southern India, who insisted on the religious unity of the tradition. Later writers from France and Great Britain, too, approached Hinduism, and caste in particular, as "concrete and systemic reality," often generalising across diverse regions of the Subcontinent. Like their Portuguese counterparts, they looked at the Sanskrit and vernacular traditions of southern India to conceptualise Hinduism in the 17th and early 18th centuries. Meanwhile, those working in the heartlands of the Mughal Empire and its northern successor states remained focused on what they perceived to be the Indo-Islamic canon of Persian and Arabic writing.

However, Subrahmanyam is reluctant to dismiss these 16th- to 18th-century writings as only exercises in "epistemology of empire-building", or as precursors to British colonial understandings of Hindu practices. For instance, he points out that in early Portuguese depictions of what came to be called 'caste', writers like Barbosa made no attempts to posit a coherent social system across regions of India. Later Portuguese texts, however, were concerned with dividing the social practices from the religious, a process which helped European missionaries as they attempted to proselytise in an unfamiliar cultural context. Subrahmanyam views these as comparative projects: they were neither exclusively written to serve the purposes of expanding European control in the region, nor were they exclusively used in that way. They may also have been written for the purposes of proselytisation, or for projects of self-definition vis-à-vis an Asian, non-Christian 'other', or as Enlightenment-era attempts at religious comparison and categorisation.

It is useful here to compare European categorisations of Indian religious practices to a mid-17th-century Persian work called Dabistān-i mazāhib (School of Sects), composed by a Zoroastrian writer. Like his European contemporaries, the author, Mirza Zu'lfiqar Azar Sasani, attempted to organise observations about myriad Indian religious traditions into "a single, comparative, and then universal framework." If nothing else, Subrahmanyam argues, the existence of works like the Dabistān-i mazāhib should lay to rest myths of "European intellectual exceptionalism" that posit Europeans as uniquely interested in projects of religious comparison and categorisation in this period.

Whither 'native informants'

A variation on this theme resurfaces in the conclusion of Europe's India, which mounts a vigorous defense of pre-19th-century historical writing produced by Southasians. Subrahmanyam offers vociferous critiques of scholars who treat 16th- to 18th-century historical writing in Southasian languages as formulaic, dogmatic and, thus, irrelevant. It is, therefore, not only possible to reconstruct the diversity of Europe's India, but also the variances in Indian perceptions of Europe and Europeans. Persian writing, which provides the largest corpus of Indian writing about Europeans during this period, is a case in point. By the 16th century, these works delve into detail about the practices of Europeans in India. In later works, the Indo-Persian writers go on to examine the practices and political structures of European dynasties and nations. While focusing on Indo-Persian texts, Subrahmanyam also provides fascinating notes on understudied depictions of Europeans in other Indian languages, including Malayalam and Sanskrit texts. The most interesting of these is a travel account in Malayalam of a Syrian Christian who traveled to Iberia and Rome in the late 18th century, and which provides insight into Keralite Syrian Christian perspectives on, and conflicts with, Iberian Catholicism.

'Shah Jahan and his four sons' by mid-17th-century Dutch painter Willem Schellinks.
'Shah Jahan and his four sons' by mid-17th-century Dutch painter Willem Schellinks.

Subrahmanyam's ability to shift between these various literary idioms and traditions points to another of the book's strengths: it assimilates materials from across the Subcontinent, and resists the urge to generalise experiences across the region. For the most part, this involves drawing comparisons between European perspectives on coastal south India and their depictions of the Mughal heartlands of north India. He points out, for instance, that in the 16th and early 17th centuries, Jesuits in south India tended to focus on so-called vernacular languages like Tamil and Telugu, while in the north those at the Mughal and regional courts emphasised the importance of acquiring Persian. This early divide continued as orientalists writing about north India emphasised the Indo-Persian and Indo-Islamic traditions through the mid-18th century, with many Sanskritists focused on the South. He argues that these patterns of European knowledge formation only shifted in the closing decades of the 18th century, after institutions like the Asiatic Society contributed to the increased preference for visions of both north and south India that referenced Sanskrit texts.

While focused primarily on regions that today fall within modern-day India (and to a lesser extent Pakistan and Bangladesh), Subrahmanyam occasionally cites examples from elsewhere in Southasia and the greater Indian Ocean world. After all, the region as understood by many of his subjects comprised of the port cities of the Indian Ocean. Likewise, for the Asian writers profiled in his conclusion, Indian Ocean port cities were often where they expanded their contacts with Europeans. Subrahmanyam also references a 16th-century Sinhala text composed in Colombo and a Malay text focused on Portuguese expansion in Melaka. He thus underscores a multitude of contexts in which Europeans encountered the region, illustrating how access to a variety of Southasian interlocutors shaped European approaches to cultural translation.

The interlocutors – often termed 'native informants' – occupy a central position in Subrahmanyam's narrative, but their motivations and positionalities are less explored than their European counterparts'. In one case, Subrahmanyam goes so far as to term one European's writing as an act of "ventriloquism" on the part of his Indian interlocutor. In this instance, Abraham Rogerius, a protestant minister with the Dutch East India Company, who was based north of Madras in the early 17th century, worked closely with one individual interlocutor, a Smarta Brahmin named Padmanabha. As a result of his discussions with Padmanabha, Rogerius produced a highly detailed account of varying sectarian groups and regional practices that Subrahmanyam speculates would have been nearly incomprehensible to most contemporary European readers. Subrahmanyam touches on Padmanabha's motivations, noting his apparent conflicts with other members of the local Smarta Brahmin community. However, the conditions surrounding his contributions to the body of knowledge on Southasia, and those of other similar interlocutors, remain relatively opaque.

Claiming access to illustrious 'native informants' gave Europeans a degree of credibility with audiences in Europe. Nonetheless, many European writers seem to have made their Indian interlocutors marginal in their writings about the Subcontinent, and developing techniques to analyse the experience of these interlocutors remains crucial for contemporary historians. Europe's India takes important steps on this front, by interrogating how Indians participated in European knowledge-making processes, and by asking how their interests intersected with and diverged from those of the Europeans profiled in the book.

Still, this is one area in which Subrahmanyam's book raises more questions than it answers. Individuals like Padmanabha, Polier's munshi Kishan Sahay, and Fraser's Persian instructor Shaikh Muhammad Murad seem to be equally, if not more, compelling subjects than their European counterparts. Subrahmanyam's previous writings, especially those with his frequent collaborator Muzaffar Alam, have often brought Southasian voices into world history narratives. Future work will thus hopefully interrogate more fully the Southasian participation in European knowledge-making processes.

Europe's India should also inspire further scholarship on the history of European practices of collecting literary and artistic material from Southasia. Subrahmanyam argues that while British East India Company servants in the late 18th and early 19th centuries looted Indian libraries, temples and tombs to create their collections, earlier methods of gathering artefacts reflect the fact that Europeans did not yet occupy a position of imperial dominance. As a result, processes of collection included imperial gift-giving and exchange, as well as personal projects of purchase and collection by individual Europeans, often under the tutelage and with the guidance of their interlocutors.

Subrahmanyam argues that the process of collection and representation were uncoupled in the late 18th century when Europeans started writing about India with greater supposed authority and assumed greater political control. By the 1800s, paintings and writings from the Subcontinent were no longer "key sources for writing a history of India", but seen as exotic, aesthetic objects. "'Real' visual representation of India," he writes "was increasingly left to visiting European artists and engravers, who produced an academic vision of an India of ruins and picturesque landscapes." Prior to that, the collection of manuscripts and art produced by Indians shaped European understandings of the region.

Then how should present-day scholars of Southasia approach archives collected by Europeans and housed in the West? Subrahmanyam calls our attention to the political and social contexts in which Europeans amassed these collections, but the original question remains unanswered. Bibliographical notes of recent work on pre-Independence India reveal the continued preference for Europe-based or European-amassed libraries and archives, whether colonial archives or private collections. Subrahmanyam's discussions of pre-19th-century collection practices will hopefully prompt scholars to develop further work on the degree to which the personal and political considerations of collectors run through histories of India composed today.

Europe's India is a wide-ranging book that reminds its readers of the importance of examining the origins of received historical knowledge. When we consult materials amassed by European orientalists, do we understand why they preferred certain records over others, and how their interlocutors might have shaped these preferences? When we write or speak of Southasian religious practices today, might we be reproducing assumptions that originated in centuries-old European attempts at a comparative understanding of religions? And when we describe knowledge produced outside of a system of direct imperial domination, do we still take into account the complexities of regional culture and politics that shaped how writers attempted to 'translate' between cultures? In response, Subrahmanyam makes a convincing claim that attempts made during the 16th to 18th centuries at 'translating' India for European audiences continue to inform the way we depict and discuss Southasia today.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian