An Emperor, an Indian and an Englishman

The story of Mariam Shah - first Indian to visit and live in England

I covered the story of the Portuguese and English tussles with the Mughals and the hijacking of the Queen (Begum Maryam uz Zammani) mother’s ship Rahimi in a more serious tone earlier. As I was studying that topic, I got sidetracked by this interesting account related to a protagonist in the Rahimi story, one of the early Englishmen came to India to set up a trading post for the EIC.

His story is certainly interesting, pioneering, and partly tragic but his wife’s story is even more adventurous. While one came and settled briefly in Agra to understand life in India and to get closer to the emperor to achieve his means, the other accompanied Hawkins all the way back to England. It is the story of both these people; especially the latter who incidentally was our very first NRI, the first Indian to visit and live in the Blighty or the Island of Britain.

I do not want to write too much about the Mughals, their rule from Agra, the splendid Mughal courts and their intrigues, their luscious harems and the lovely gardens, for many know about them, after regular doses during school. But a quick rejoinder- The Mughals ruled over a wide swath of land and established control with, military conquests, inter marriage with local leaders and by establishing a line of suzerainty with the regional leaders. In the west coast, the Portuguese controlled the Arabian seas and frequently had tussles with the Mughals. A quick whiff of the times can be had if you read the previously mentioned rahimi story. But then, there were other interested people, namely the Dutch and the English, who had been sniffing around for a while, trying to find places where they could establish themseves o n the West coast of India and take part in the prosperous trade with the Indies.

One person who ventured out for the east India Company in this search was a young lad named William Hawkins. William was born Bet. 1565 - 1585 in Tavistock at Devon. He duly married Agnes Edgcombe in Sep 1590 in St. Stephens. She died around 1607 (some say 1608 which would be after Hawkins left for India) and just after that Hawkins decided to man the EIC sails of the ship Hector and set out on voyage to the Indies. There is some controversy around this point, for some experts opine that he was asked to join the Hector only because he spoke Turkish which was understood in the Mughal courts and that he was just a bluff sailor. He carried with him a letter addressed to the Governor of Gujarat (Actually emperor Akbar Who was by then dead) from King James. Assisted by Reave and Marlow, he set sail to the Surat area of Cambay. Though a second to William Keeling who commanded the fleet of ships, he was provided clothing meant to signify power and dignity once he landed in India. Scarlet and violet gowns, taffeta and silver lace to top an image of the then not so powerful English – and not as the Portuguse later explained to the Mughals that Britain was just a island of no import with just some fishermen…. The vessels set out from Plymouth around April 1607. After a difficult voyage, where they spent time playing Shakespeare plays on boars for entertainment….they reached the mouth of Tapti river in Cambay and anchored at Suvalli or Swally during Aug 1608.

Hawkings was a different type, liking pomp and swagger, as soon as he landed, he announced himself as a British Ambassador. The governor did not meet him straight away (as Hawkins put it -an old man under the influence of opium) and referred him to the Shabandar. Later he was pushed to (you can see how the bureaucracy in India worked even then) Mukkarrab khan, inspector of the ports. The next day he met the governor who however again sent him back to Khan who eventually granted trading permission for that particular landing. Hawkins proceeded to load his ship with the exports, but the Portuguese who controlled the seas arrived and took the laden boats over with his people and sent them to Goa. Finch and Hawkins remained in Surat. In the meantime, Mukarrab khan seized the pricey goods Hawkins had offloaded from his ship and offered to pay only a price he thought was right. No compromise was reached and the Portuguese it appears tried to assassinate him on a couple of occasions when they heard he was planning a trip to meet Jahangir..Hawkins though one is not sure how much exaggeration he put into his texts, escaped and had to wait.

By Feb 1609, Hawkins had slunk out to Delhi, leaving a sick Finch in charge of the remaining goods in Surat. He was in Agra by April and kept a low profile for a few days. Jehangir, sent out a summons for him to attend this court, after hearing that a British ambassador was in town. Hawkins, who had only courage and bluster, went in, presented the James letter and asked for trading rights. Jahangir was willing to give it right away but was stopped by some Portuguese friars in attendance who impressed Jahangir with the argument about England being an island of fishermen with nothing of importance to give to the great Mughal. Hawkins promised many presents when other ships would land in Surat.

Seeing that Hawkins spoke Turkish, the two soon retired to Jehangir’s Diwani Khas or private quarters where the emperor offered to sort out all of Hawkins difficulties. It appears that Mukkarab Khan’s enemies had already updated Jahangir of the man coming to Delhi. Soon the emperor sent a letter to Mukarrab khan castigating him and asking him to be courteous with the English. Impressed with his visitor, temporary lodgings were provided by the emperor and Hawkins was asked to attend court daily. The jealous Portuguese continuously tried to warn the emperor that he should not listen too much to the young English man’s stories of pomp.

Jahangir now wanted Hawkins to stay in Delhi as resident ambassador till another ambassador was sent from England. To further entice the young single Englishman, Jahangir offered him a ‘mansab of 400 horses’ rank. He was also allowed to stand ‘within the prestigious red rails’ i.e. closer to the throne where only great nobles usually stood. He was also titled the Engriz or Ingliz Khan.

And so Hawkins took his place among the gentry, dressed in Mohammedan cloaks and turban, an Ingliz khan in the Mughal court. But his stay was far from joyous for the Portuguese and Mukkarrab khan tried hard to poison the ears of the emperor as well as his food. When he complained to the emperor, he scolded the Portuguese, then laughed and suggested that Hawkins get married to a girl from his palace so that his food and comforts would be the women’s responsibility. Hawkins, as some accounts state was initially taken aback and tried to counter it with what he thought was an impossible demand. He stated that he would marry, not a recently converted Christian or a moor, but only a regular Christian.

The emperor thought for some time, working his royal brain, and after clapping his hands grandly announced that there was one such. It was none other than the daughter of Mubarak Shah (Some say Khan, not Shah), a deceased captain of Akbar. The young maiden’s name was Mariam.

In the meantime another ship named Ascension was nearing Surat. Based on Hawkins’s assurance that many gifts were on the way for Jahangir, a new firman to trade was granted to the English by Jahangir. But the ship ran aground and much was lost. To top that Hawkins had too many enemies in the court who kept on telling Jahangir that Hawkins was nothing but a bluff. When a bunch of disorderly survivors reached Agra, Jahangir knew that Hawkins was making a fool of him, a belief abetted by his courtiers who were regularly bribed by the Portuguese and Mukarab khan.

Soon Hawkins was moved out of the red rail position by Jahangir’s chief Wazir Abdul Hassan. Hawkins entreated Jahangir to either reinstall him with his previous privileges or allow him to depart. Jahangir accepted his resignation. Hawkins tried once again when news of another three ships at Surat was received, but the palace politics was not something he could counter and he had to leave.

So in Nov 1611, Hawkins and his wife Mariam left Delhi and boarded Middleton’s ships that were returning to England. Hawkins biggest problem was his arrogance and his lack of diplomacy , he did not know how to be a diplomat, instead he instigated the Emperor often against Mukarab khan who by the way had many friends in the court. Mukkarab khan had in the meantime offered to compromise, but the Hawkins arrogantly declined it and pissed Khan off even further. Mukarrab khan on the other hand was well regarded by Jahangir and knew him since childhood, earning his place with bravery, being a good fighter and with his skill with surgery. Khan eventually prevailed. Then there was the Finch Indigo case and the rahimi ransom that I mentioned in the Rahimi story where Finch outbid the emperors mother. The courtiers and the queen mother used all of that against Hawkins. Abdul Hassan further informed Jahangir that all English were drunkards and Jahangir promptly warned Hawkins not to come after drinking. The problem was that Hawkins indeed drank a lot as testified by Jourdain and smelt of drink if anybody approached him. Jahangir soon found this out himself and that went against Hawkins.

Now we get to Mariam the other person in the story. But before that let us figure out what Armenians were doing in the Mughal terrains. Akbar the previous emperor had invited Armenian traders to settle in Agra in the 16th century, and by the middle of the 19th century, Agra had a sizeable Armenian population. By an imperial decree, Armenian merchants were exempted from paying taxes on the merchandise imported and exported by them, and they were also allowed to move around in the areas of the Mughal Empire where entry of foreigners was otherwise prohibited. In 1562, an Armenian Church was constructed in Agra. Later they settled down in Surat as well where much trade with Basra was conducted. Armenian Churches were built in Surat as well. Mubarrak Shah or Khan as the case may be, served Akbar and had a rank higher than that of our friend Hawkins. Some books say that after his death, Mariam was adopted by Jahangir, or perhaps she was a member of the royal harem. Anyway she was offered to Hawkins.

Of the event Hawkins says thus - This past, the King was very earnest with me to take a white Mayden out of his Palace, who would give her all things necessary with slaves, and he would promise mee shee should turne Christian : and by this meanes my meates and drinkes should be looked unto by them, and I should live without feare. In regard she was a Moore, I refused, but if so bee there could bee a Christian found, I would accept it : At which my speech, I little thought a Christians Daughter could bee found. So the King called to memorie one Mubarique Sha his Daughter, who was a Christian Armenian, and of the Race of the most ancient Christians, who was a Captaine, and in great favour with Ekber Padasha, this Kings Father. This Captaine died suddenly, and without will, worth a Masse of Money, and all robbed by his Brothers and Kindred, and Debts that cannot be recovered: leaving the Child but only a few Jewels. I seeing shee was of so honest a Descent, having passed my word to the King, could not withstand my fortunes. Wherefore I tooke her, and for want of a Minister, before Christian Witnesses, I marryed her : the priest was my man Nicholas, which I thought had beene came over with lawfull, till I met with a Preacher that came with Sir Henry Middleton, and hee shewing me the error, I was marryed againe : so ever after I lived content and without feare, she being willing to goe where I went, and live as I lived.

According to writer Du Jarric, Hawkins applied to the Jesuit Father to perform the ceremony, but was told that this could only be done if he would acknowledge that the Pope was the head of the Church; whereupon he got his servant Nicholas Ufflet to officiate.

But well, they were soon out of favour with Jahangir and had to leave. But there was a problem. How would he leave? He did not want to leave overland via Persia and put Mariam in troubles way. Sea was the only course, and for that he had to reach a port where west bound ships plied. He asked the Portuguese who were glad to help get rid of the Englishman who was against their interests. But Mariam’s brothers and mother would not allow it. Eventually Hawkins bluffed them that he was going to settle in Goa and that he would take her no further than Goa. But he secretly got two passports from the Portuguese, one that allowed him to settle in Goa and the other that would allow them to travel to Lisbon and onto London. This does signify that his wife was by now very dear to him, for him to go to all these lengths. Meanwhile the Nurjahan faction came to the fore and Hawkins remained in Agra for awhile.

Soon came the news (1611) that British bound ships were reaching Surat and Hawkins decided to take the chance. To hoodwink the Mariam family, they went first to Goa and then went north to Surat to catch the ships. After touching bantam, the ships returned to London via South Africa, but tragedy was awaiting the eloping couple. Sickness hit the ships during this return voyage and Hawkins died enroute, onboard the Thomas. The ships finally reached Waterford in Ireland where Hawkins was buried.

The Pyer family maintains a very fine website with a lot of information on such matters. In fact they have a good amount of data on the Hawkins voyage – From there, we read about the trip as follows - Having finished his business in the Red Sea, Middleton departed in August 1612 for Sumatra and Java. Hawkins [S. 69] and his household were on board the Trade's Increase, which, after running aground near Tiku (in Sumatra), reached Bantam four days before Christmas. There they found the Hector, the Solomon, and the Thomas, all preparing to start for England. Hawkins and his wife embarked on the last-named, and the vessels sailed in January 1613. The Hector and Thomas reached the Cape of Good Hope in April, and after a month's respite the voyage was resumed on the 21st of May, Next day the two ships lost company, and of the rest of the voyage we know but little. Sickness broke out on board the Thomas, with the result that most of the crew died ; while at one time the vessel was in danger of being plundered by 'certain Newfoundland men'—probably rough traders tempted by the sight of a richly laden ship weakly manned. Fortunately, this danger was averted by the appearance of the Pearl, an interloping vessel homeward bound from the East. Her captain not only rescued the Thomas from the danger that threatened her, but also supplied her with much needed provisions. With this assistance she staggered home, arriving sometime in the autumn of 1613 ; but Hawkins did not see his native land, for it was his fate to 'dye on the Irish shoare in his returne homewards' (Purchas His Pilgrimage, p. 521). When and exactly where, this happened we are not told.

Mariam was alone when she reached England in 1614. She had no money, friends or any form of support, but she had over 6,000 pounds worth fine diamonds with her. And by then a suitor had appeared, none other than an opportunist trader who was with them during the voyage named Gabriel Towerson. By 1614, Mariam had married Towerson in Britain and went on to live there for the next 3 years, the first Indian NRI in Britain.

Peyer explains - His widow came on to London in the Thomas. Besides her claim to her late husband's property, she was reputed to have many valuable jewels ; and these considerations probably had a share in leading to her second marriage, early in 1614, to Gabriel Towerson, who had been captain of the Hector in the recent voyage. There was some haggling with the East India Company over the settlement of Hawkins's accounts. The 'Committees' who examined these reported that they included heavy charges for housekeeping, presents, 'goeinge to the campe with 60 horse,' and so on ; and that, after allowing his full salary of £200 a year up to the day of his death, with £300 for the expense of bringing his household down to the coast, there still remained a balance due from his estate of £600. However, the Company, considering that the widow was 'a straunger', and that liberal treatment of her might have a good effect in India, agreed to forgo all claims ; while in addition they presented her with a wedding gift of 200 jacobuses (about £240) as a 'token of there love'.

In 1617, the two of them returned to India and Mariam lived with her family. I am sure they must have been shocked to hear of all the events that transpired in the life of their dear Mariam and to see a brand new husband in tow, who was less interested in his wife and more interested in how he could get special treatment at the Mughal court and advance his business interests. This time, they had an English Ayah Frances Webb, a female companion Mrs Hudson and many more servants. However Towerson was not like Hawkins, for he treated Indians very badly, so much so that Towerson’s staff complained to the English factor in Surat. Not only that, Towerson found to his dismay that Hawkins’s investments in India had diminished in value by the time they returned. When Towerson left back for England, Mariam had only one English servant, a small boy. All Towerson left for her was 200 rupees.

As Peyer explains about their final days, In 1617 Mr. and Mrs. Towerson obtained permission from the Company to proceed to India in a private capacity, hoping to improve their fortunes by the aid of her relatives. From the journal of Sir Thomas Roe (who was much vexed by their vagaries) we learn that these hopes were disappointed. Towerson himself returned to England with the ambassador in 1619, leaving his wife with her friends at Agra, where, a couple of years later, we find her pestering the Company's factors for maintenance. Her second husband had evidently no intention of rejoining her, for in 1620 he obtained employment from the Company as a principal factor for the Moluccas. Three years later, while holding this post, he was put to death in 1623 by the Dutch in what is termed 'the Massacre of Amboyna'.

With the death of Towerson, the final English connection, no further information is available about Mariam. Perhaps she lived her final days in Agra with her family, coming to terms with the difficult 10 years of her life, the two husbands who died violently, the long voyage across the continents to the dark and dank Britain, new customs and languages, the politics of trade and the days when intrigue and scheming took much part of the living days. But it appears that her family continued to have connections with the English even later. John Dryden made Mariam his heroine in his play Amboyna, naming the character Ysabinda though the story line was changed considerably.

Hawkins was a pioneer in many ways, but sometimes more vain than practical, arrogant when diplomacy was required and not surprisingly, Thomas Roe the next ‘accredited’ ambassador to the Mughal court called him a ‘vayne foole’.

Armenians in India: from the earliest times to the present day: By Mesrovb Jacob Seth
Early English travellers in India: By Ram Chandra Prasad
Counterflows to colonialism: Indian travellers and settlers in Britain By Michael H. Fisher
Purchas his pilgrimes – Samuel Purchas
Early travels in India 1583-1619 William Foster
Payer’s pages
Visions of Mughal India: an anthology of European travel writing By Michael Herbert Fisher
Europe observed: multiple gazes in early modern encounters By Kumkum Chatterjee, Clement Hawes


Very very informative post.
Maddy said…
thanks PNS..
glad you enjoyed it..
sumal said…
Great post. Amazed how you manage to glean so much information on "obscure" personalities who should have been treated more fairly by History. Sir, When can I see your post on the history of alcoholism in Kerala?
Maddy said…
thanks sumal..
it took me so much of research actually - referring some 10 or 12 books/archives..
sometimes i am drawn into these forays by the topic or the person, sometimes i want to complete what i started, and then it takes more time..

I will write about that sad subject of alcoholism, but that will take time, so pls bear with me..
Vijay said…
What a lovely post, Maddy!There's a movie in this for the right script writer and producer! Thanks.
Maddy said…
thanks kuldip..
glad you liked it
Maddy said…
thanks vijay..
lots of history based movies coming up these days - you never know...
Good.......very well written..........
Maddy said…
thanks tolifetolifelachaim..
glad you dropped by & commented!!keep reading..
How enticing and absorbing!!!
You have assembled little known history in an indeed absorbing manner.