When Tolerance Became Good for Business: Sir Thomas Roe, the Mughal Empire and Early British Capitalism

By Rajeev Kinra

Scholarship on global early modernity has become quite sophisticated in recent years, particularly when it comes to questions of the "connected" or entangled histories of Eurasia, as well as the Indian Ocean and Atlantic maritime worlds. Nevertheless, we still have much to learn in the effort to truly globalize the history of "modern" values like religious tolerance, reason, rationalism, historical consciousness, respect for science and scientific research, and so on, which are still often viewed as always-already European first, and only transplanted to other parts of the world belatedly.

It is increasingly clear from the historical record, however, that many early modern Europeans might have learned just as much about values like religious tolerance and respect for cultural diversity from their counterparts in places like the Mughal Empire as the other way around. Seventeenth-century travel narratives often presented what Rahul Sapra has described as an "overall picture of the Mughal empire ... [as] a highly evolved civilization with a high level of religious tolerance, a fact that [was] of great interest to the English in view of the sectarian struggles in their own country" (2011: 60). Indeed, at a time when Catholics in Britain were barred by the Test Acts from attending university, joining parliament, or holding virtually any civil or military appointments, the Mughals not only tolerated but clearly seemed to encourage people from all faiths, and all corners of the world, to participate in their imperial project. As a result, many European travelers to India-particularly those from religious minorities, or those of the "middling" and lower orders-could not help but note that they enjoyed far greater freedom and social mobility in India than they ever could back home in Europe, and in turn took the opportunity to experiment with various forms of native South Asian dress, cuisine, literature, art, religion, and love. Quite a number of these "White Mughals"-to use the phrase popularized by William Dalrymple (2003)-went so far as to desert their European trading missions and enter the service of Indian courts, not unlike contemporaries who sought employment and opportunity in the Ottoman lands (cf. Matar 1999: 43-82). But even those who did not fully "turn Turk," as the old-fashioned pejorative had it, did write about such matters in letters, memoirs, and travelogues that had a wide readership back home. Thus, as a number of scholars looking afresh at such materials are beginning to show, there is growing evidence that these experiences of social and religious freedoms in Mughal India directly influenced some of the early Enlightenment debates on topics like tolerance, trade, philosophy, and science back in Europe.  

Jahangir investing a courtier with a robe of honour watched by Sir Thomas Roe, English ambassador to the court of Jahangir at Agra from 1615-18, and others. Wikimedia Commons. Uploaded by Sridhar1000.To illustrate this dynamic, I offer the example of Sir Thomas Roe (1581-1644), the well-connected and influential English diplomat whose career took him all over the world, including a stint as James I's envoy to the Mughal court of Jahangir from 1615-19. Contrary to how he is sometimes represented in postcolonial criticism, quite anachronistically, as a voice for the English discourse of "colonial authority" ever intent on denigrating India, in fact Roe's attitude toward India was quite mixed, and he often marveled at the extraordinary degree of social and religious tolerance he observed there. These experiences clearly stayed with him, for in 1640, some two decades after his return from India, Roe delivered a rousing speech in the English Parliament wherein, as part of a series of proposed reforms to improve England's global commercial competitiveness, he drew specifically on the Mughal example to make the economic case for pluralism. The English government had been presented with an opportunity, Roe argued-if only "we knew how to use it"-to take advantage of the sudden availability of "new drained Lands in the Fens" for economic development. These areas, he argued, were "most fit for Flax and Hempe, to make all sorts of Linen for the body, for the house, and sailes for ships"-skills that, as Roe himself pointed out, were not widely cultivated in England, being mainly "a Dutch and French trade." He therefore proposed to create economic incentives to rent the newly available lands to expert "Hollanders" at a discount, making it "easie to draw the manufacture into England, which will set infinite people a worke." In so doing, he added, England would "be able to serve other Nations with that which we buy deare from them, and then the State and Kingdome will be happy and rich, when the Kings customes shall depend upon commodities exported, and those able to returne all things which we want, and then our money must stay within our Kingdome, and all the trade returne in money" (Roe 1641: 6).  

The most significant barriers to implementing this relatively sensible economic policy, as Roe acknowledged, were the onerous policies of social and sectarian exclusion then still being enforced by the English government and clergy. Thus, in his list of the "internall" and "externall" causes of "the decay of Trade and of Wollen commodity" in England, Roe lamented that a major "internall cause hath sprung from pressaries [i.e. "pressures"] upon tender consciences, that many of our Clothiers and others have forsaken the Kingdome, and carried their Arts with them to the unexpressable detriment of the Common-wealth" (Roe 1641: 7). In other words, in Roe's judgment England's habit of state-sanctioned intolerance not only discouraged skilled foreign labor from coming there to work (where they could help improve production, reduce costs, narrow the trade deficit, and add to the state tax coffers), it also caused skilled craftsmen, artisans, and laborers who were already there to "forsake the Kingdome" and carry their talents with them elsewhere, often to the direct economic benefit of England's geopolitical rivals. It was precisely to "incourage" his colleagues to rectify this state of affairs that Roe held up but one counter-example: that of the Mughal state, which, he believed, served as ample precedent for the proposition that tolerance was good for business. By not putting up artificial social, ethnic, and sectarian barriers to trade, commerce, and governance the Mughals were able to draw not only on the talents of India's diverse indigenous populations, but also on those of foreigners who emigrated there seeking opportunity, adventure, or asylum. As a result, Roe insisted, "the severall sorts of Callicoes made of Cotton woolls in the Moguls and Dans Dominions, doth clothe from head to foot all Asia, a part of Europe, Aegypt, much of Africa, and the Easterne Islands as farre as Sumatra, which makes that Prince without Mines the richest Prince in the world" (Roe 1641: 6).  

Here the larger commercial and economic context of global early modernity comes into sharp relief. Besides calling our attention to the continuing dynamism of the intra-Asian trade during this period, even after the encounter with Europe, Roe also acknowledges, however obliquely, the tremendous resource advantage that silver and gold bullion from New World mines like Potosi in Bolivia was beginning to give European powers in international commerce-again, if they "knew how to use it." The Mughal emperor had no such advantage, and yet, paradoxically, "that Prince without Mines" nevertheless managed to dominate the world's textile trade and remain "the richest Prince in the world," thanks in large part to the Mughals' general policy of non-interference with the spiritual lives and "tender consciences" of their subjects, giving them a distinct economic edge over international competitors. The English, Roe clearly thinks, would do well to emulate this policy.  

How does a text like this complicate the received wisdom about state tolerance being a uniquely European value? How do we integrate a speech like this, delivered nearly a full half-century before John Locke's celebrated Epistola de tolerantia ("Letter Concerning Toleration," 1689)-widely viewed as the text to augur the "rise of toleration" as a tenet of modern liberal political philosophy (cf. Langerak 2010: 607-09)-into the larger narratives of early modern cultural, economic, and political history? And what lessons may we draw from such earlier moments of global encounter for our present-day political moment, which is of course so fraught with tensions surrounding precisely the question of religious and cultural tolerance in a global context?  

Rajeev KinraRajeev Kinra is an Associate Professor of South Asian & Global History at Northwestern University, where he currently serves as director of the Asian Studies Program and co-director of the Global Humanities Initiative.  He specializes in the literary and political culture of the Mughal Empire, but his research and teaching interests range across the cultural history of the Indo-Persian and Indian Ocean worlds more broadly.  His most recent work is entitled Writing Self, Writing Empire: Chandar Bhan Brahman and the Cultural World of the Indo-Persian State Secretary (University of California Press, 2015).