Elephants, Englishmen and India: Early Modern Travel Writing and the Pre-Colonial Moment

Elephants, Englishmen and India: Early Modern Travel Writing and the Pre-Colonial Moment

Aune, M. G.

Early Modern Literary Studies 11.1 (May, 2005)


Describing and analyzing the dynamics of the initial English encounter with the Mogul Empire has attracted greater and greater scholarly attention in recent years. No longer are early modern English relations with the Mogul court seen as an originary point for an inevitable British domination of the subcontinent. Instead, awareness of the power and sophistication of the Mogul Empire, the relative weakness of the English, and the English attempt to compensate for this inequality have begun to dominate the discussion of the early relations and especially of English depictions of those relations. Rather than proto-colonial or proto-imperial discourses, recently scholars have referred to a pre-colonial imaginary that while not necessarily functioning as a teleological point of origin, can be seen as contributing to a later colonial discourse of India.

While previous studies have used travel writing, drama, and East India Company documents to examine the social, political, and economic constructions of India, I intend to extend these studies by using these sources to describe how the English constructed a pre-colonial imaginary of India that drew on depictions of Indian fauna and linked them to Mogul culture through the figuration of the Emperor Jahangir. Centuries of stories about the natural wonders of India had prepared the English to see fantastic creatures such as elephants and unicorns and to regard the land as a space of opportunity and profit. At the same time, the difficulties of accessing these riches via trading relations exacerbated a sense of English anxiety about economic weakness. In managing these anxieties, English travellers like Thomas Coryate and ambassadors like Sir Thomas Roe generated depictions of the Moguls and their Emperor which relied on a cultural understanding of fantastic animals like elephants and a recognition of tropes of the civilization and barbarism in distant, non-Christian cultures.

I begin with a discussion of the recent scholarly work on the early modern English encounter with India and the construction of the pre-colonial imaginary. I then turn to documents of the English encounter itself, focusing on Roe’s depiction of his frustrations and in particular his portrayal of Jahangir’s wealth. The aspect of these portrayals on which I focus, the Emperor’s elephants, is then contextualized in terms of European traditions, myths, and expectations of such creatures. I conclude by demonstrating how the English representations of Moguls as barbarous and civilized can be found not only in depictions of economic, religious, and social behaviour, but also in depictions of the exotic fauna of India.

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