- Special Reports
The First Firangis: Remarkable Stories of Heroes, Healers, Charlatans, Courtesans & Other Foreigners Who Became Indian
This machine [of Western colonialism] did not yet exist in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Or rather, its incipient forms were eclipsed by other networks of globalization in which European nations were not yet at the centre. Global economic power at this point was still largely concentrated in Asian empires – Ottoman Turkey, Safavid Persia, Mughal Hindustan, Ming and then Qing China – who controlled the diverse trade networks linking them to the Spice Islands, Africa, Arabia and Europe. What was later to become the major artery sustaining European colonial supremacy in the subcontinent, the sea route via the Cape of Good Hope, dispatched sixteenth- and seventeenth-century migrants to a rather different India from that in which the white Mughals [the subject of William Dalrymple’s book of the same name] would live two centuries later. It was an India in which the chief powers were still Asian rather than European. Following Babur’s invasion in 1526, and Akbar’s radical expansion of the empire’s territories after 1556, Mughal Hindustan came to cover much of what is now northern India: by the 1650s, it spanned the subcontinent from Gujarat to east Bengal, as well as most of what is now Pakistan and even parts of Afghanistan. The five Bahmani Deccan sultanates – Ahmadnagar, Berar, Bidar, Bijapur and Golconda – extended across the middle band of the subcontinent; immensely powerful in the sixteenth century, they underwent a steady decline at the hands of the Mughals in the 1600s, culminating in Aurangzeb’s conquest of Golconda and Bijapur in 1687. And the Hindu-ruled kingdom of Vijayanagar, abutted by the Malabar kingdoms of Calicut, Cannanore and Quilon, was the principal power in the south until a military defeat by the Deccan sultanates in 1565 prompted its eventual demise in 1646.
The Portuguese militarized the East African coast and the Arabian Sea in the sixteenth century, wresting control of the old maritime trade routes from the Arabs, the Persians, and other local merchants. This allowed them to gain footholds in Goa and parts of the Malabar Coast, including Cochin; they also acquired Daman and Diu from the Gujarat sultan, as well as Hooghly in Bengal and the island of Bombay, though they ceded the latter to the British in 1668. But outside Goa and the tiny possessions of the Portuguese Estado da Índia, the subcontinent remained under the control of powerful Muslim and Hindu rulers. The glamour of such power is partly why Goa was not the final Indian destination for many Europeans who migrated there. Like Roch and Simitt, a number of less well-off Portuguese who made landfall in Goa proceeded to find reasonably remunerated positions as employees in the service of Indian masters elsewhere in the subcontinent.
To give just two examples: Sancho Pires, who came to Goa in the 1530s, fled to the sultanate of Ahmadnagar following a charge of murder. There he converted, though probably not with full conviction, to Islam. Pires proceeded to find service in the Ahmadnagar army, first as a bombardier and later as captain of the cavalry; he became a special favourite of Burhan Nizam Shah, the sultan, and eventually came to be known as Firangi Khan. Pires was not a lone figure. The Ahmadnagar Sultanate army, like those of the other Deccan sultanates and the Mughal Empire, welcomed hundreds of Portuguese recruits, many of whom – like Pires – became renegade converts to Islam. These soldiers, assigned in the Deccan armies to divisions called the firangiyan, were reputed for their prowess as artillerymen. But there were other non-military opportunities available to European migrants who chose to leave Goa. In the 1590s, Fernão Rodrigues Caldeira – like Pires a so-called New Christian, which is to say a member of a Portuguese Jewish family forced to convert to Christianity – quit Goa to serve as an advisor to Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, the sultan of Golconda. Pires and Caldeira were just two of a number of migrants who probably came to Goa less as colonists than as covert religious refugees, escaping not only the Inquisition in the Iberian Peninsula but also persecution in northern Protestant countries. Habituated to underground lives in the countries they had escaped, and therefore comfortable at a safe distance from European religious and political authority, these refugees sometimes forged stronger ties with local peoples, languages and customs than they did with other Portuguese.
Early English migrants had similar experiences. In the seventeenth century, the fledgling English East India Company – formed in 1600 – sent many men (and a handful of women) to the subcontinent via the same sea route as the Portuguese. Upon arrival, these migrants found themselves in far more precarious positions than did the white Mughals two centuries later. The first English factory at Surat, Gujarat – where [the Italian immigrant to India, Niccolo] Manucci disembarked with his master in January of 1656 – was hardly an economic powerhouse. The Company employees, many of them poor, operated in miserable conditions. Drunkenness and disease prevailed. The temptation to move elsewhere, to richer and healthier zones outside the limited reach of Company authority, was immense. The two dakaits i.e. bandits[ [Manucci encountered en route to Agra [both of whom were Englishmen who had become servants of Shah Jahan] had succumbed to this temptation. So had Joshua Blackwell, a Company official who converted to Islam and served in Shah Jahan’s army in 1649, and twenty-three Company employees who deserted Surat en masse in 1654. Several others who arrived from England via the sea route did not linger in Surat or the Company factories, but moved to Mughal-ruled areas where they assumed local clothes, customs, tongues, and even faiths. But these men did not become white Mughals in Dalrymple’s sense, as there wasn’t yet a colonial English political or administrative system that could grant them high offices. Instead, their trajectories were altogether humbler.