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Encyclopédie des historiographies : Afriques, Amériques, Asies

Nathalie Kouamé
Éric P. Meyer
Anne Viguier


Indian Travellers in Early Modern and Modern Britain

Voyageurs indiens à l’époque moderne en Grande‑Bretagne

Michael H. Fisher


Des milliers de voyageurs indiens, hommes et femmes, qui se rendirent en Grande‑Bretagne à l’époque moderne, laissèrent à la postérité des traces de leurs voyages. Si la plupart des récits furent écrits par des Britanniques, six d'entre eux, très détaillés, furent rédigés par des Indiens. Chaque auteur choisit un genre et une langue en fonction de l'audience à laquelle l'ouvrage était destiné. Quatre optèrent pour le persan ou l'arabe et les deux autres pour l'anglais, faisant publier leurs travaux en Grande‑Bretagne.

Texte intégral

Indian Travellers in Britain and Autobiographical Accounts

1From the start of the 17th century onward, a growing number of male and female Indians of all social classes travelled to early modern Britain, leaving historical evidence about their lives and experiences there. By around 1800, several thousand Indians had travelled to Britain, some settling or sojourning there, others making one or more shorter visits. Some of their names, and occasionally even their words, are preserved in English newspaper articles, in letters and works of art by Europeans who observed them, in ship’s logs listing Indian passengers and crew, and in British church, judicial court, government, and East India Company records.

2In particular, East India Company records, while incomplete, list the names and dates of travel of several categories of Indians. From 1657 to 1813, the East India Company required all people (including Indian travellers) who were leaving for England to purchase its permission prior to departing for India. From 1769 to 1856, the East India Company required all people (including Indian employers) bringing servants from India to England to post a substantial bond for them, redeemable only on the return or death of that servant. From 1811 to 1844, the East India Company inconsistently required ship‑owners to post bonds for Indian seamen (lascars) sailing to Britain as well. Some of these records are currently in the British Library, others are in the Indian National Archive or in the Bengal, Tamil Nadu, or Maharashtra state archives.

3In addition, at least six travellers from India to early modern Britain wrote extended autobiographical accounts in Persian, Arabic, or English. Each author selected the language and specific genre that best suited his expertise and his intended audience. None of these authors seems to have known about the others, so they wrote a series of independent works. Collectively, however, these writings provide rich source material about Indian travellers in early modern Britain that complements British‑authored material about them.

4Four of these Indian authors selected a form of the Persian siyahatnama [travel account] genre, creating a chronological narrative that combined factual and descriptive accounts of real‑life scenes with the author’s moral reflections on the people and cultures he observed, sometimes punctuated by apt poetry. All four were Muslim men born into families with scholarly, scribal, and administrative traditions who had recently shifted to serving British officials or officers. To different degrees, they tended to regard British society as advanced in technology but deficient in morality, especially concerning the public behavior of British women and the theological limitations of Christianity compared to Islam. None of these four authors published his travel books. All these works remain today in limited circulation in the original language, but the first and last have been published in later English translations and editions.

Persian Siyahatnama

Shaikh Ictisam al‑Din: a diplomatic mission

5The first, Shaikh Ictisam al‑Din (1730‑1800), wrote in an extensive account of his voyage to and from France (briefly) and Britain (1766‑1769) (Ictisam al‑Din 1784/85 [2001, forthcoming]). He was part of a two-man diplomatic mission from Mughal Emperor Shah Alam ii (r. 1759‑1806) to British King George iii (r. 1760‑1820), seeking military support. While Ictisam al‑Din learned much about British culture and politics as he travelled in England and Scotland, his personal interactions were constrained by his lack of English language skills. Further, his diplomatic goal was frustrated by East India Company authorities in London. Yet, after his return to India, he continued his career serving East India Company officials. Since he only wrote his Shigrif‑namah‑i Wilayat (“Wonder‑book of Europe”) about fifteen years after his travels to Britain, it tends to be general rather than specifically detailed.

Munshi Ismacil, a Persian language teacher

6Next, Munshi Ismacil traveled to and from Britain (1771‑1773) as a Persian language teacher to an East India Company official returning to Britain (Ismacil ca. 1773 [1989]). He had little interest in Britain itself. Instead, he explicitly wrote that he only made the voyage out of a desire to improve his family's dire financial condition, noting that another Persian language teacher had been paid well for accompanying a Briton on a voyage between two Indian ports. His Tarikh‑i Jadid (“New History”) has never circulated widely.

Mir Muhammad Husain ibn cAbdul cAzim Isfahani: Essays and Travel Narrative

  • 1 Khan, 1998, p. 93.
  • 2 Husain, 1776 [1998].

7Third, Mir Muhammad Husain ibn cAbdu cAzim Isfahani (d.  790) went to England (1775‑1776) as a Persian‑language teacher. Unlike the two earlier travel authors, he explicitly sought to acquire new knowledge from Britons, both in Calcutta and then, even more so, in England. He stated: “Since the mysteries and principles of the new sciences were not yet diffused in India, consequently, to satisfy mental curiosity, I undertook a trip to the countries of Europe in order to enjoy direct access to the mines of ideas and knowledge”.1 He wrote essays plus two written versions of his travel narrative, which included line drawings of some of the scientific discoveries which he described. One version he composed in Arabic at the request of a friend. Its concentration on science and technology apparently made Arabic seem appropriate since there was a long tradition of Islamic sciences in that language. However, he soon produced a Persian language version, Risalah‑i Ahwal‑i Mulk‑i Farang wa Hindustan (“Letters/Essays about the Conditions of the Land of Europe and India”), since that was more accessible to his class of Indian scholar‑officials.2 This work also has remained in manuscript.

Mirza Abu Talib Khan Isfahani, “The Persian Prince”

  • 3 Talib Khan, 1801.
  • 4 Talib Khan, 1803 [1810].

8Fourth, Mirza Abu Talib Khan Isfahani (1752‑1806) toured England and Ireland (1799‑1802), entering high society as “The Persian Prince”. While in London, he composed and supervised the translation into English of his essay “Vindication of the Liberties of Asiatic Women”.3 In this work, he argues that because his own Islamic Indian society enabled women to live more in accord with their true nature, out of degrading public life, therefore it was morally superior to Christian European society. This reversal of the usual colonial gendered assessments of European and Indian societies later circulated widely in at least ten English, French, Dutch, and German republications. On his return, he wrote but did not publish his multi‑volume autobiographical travel narrative Masir Talibi fi Bilad Afranji (“Talib’s Travels in the Lands of the Franks”) which remained in manuscript during his lifetime, but was soon translated into English and partially published.4

Autobiographies in English

9In addition, two men from India selected the emerging English genre of autobiography and published their works in early modern Britain for readers there. The first was born Armenian Christian, the second converted from Shicite Islam to Anglican Christianity (at least nominally). Both men adopted English culture and adapted their personal identities in order to advance themselves in British society.

Emin Joseph Emin, an Armenian Merchant

  • 5 Emin, 1792 [1918].

10Emin Joseph Emin (1726‑1809) was an Armenian, whose merchant family had fled Isfahan for Calcutta [Kolkata] in 1745, where he was educated in English. He worked his way as a seaman on a British ship to London in 1751. There he worked as a manual laborer until he was befriended by Edmund Burke (1729‑1797), the royal Duke of Cumberland (1721‑1765), and other British elites. They sponsored his training as gentleman officer. He then served during part of the Seven Years’ War (1757‑1762), attached to the British and Prussian armies. Subsequently, he fought for the liberation of Armenia against the Russian Empire. On his return to Calcutta in 1770, joined the English East India Company’s Bengal Army, including on an expedition against Iran. In retirement, he sought British patronage, writing and publishing his 640‑page autobiography The Life and Adventures of Joseph Emin, An Armenian, Written in English by Himself.5 This book chronologically details his travels, daily life, adventures, and sentiments.

Sake Dean Mahomet, an educated gentleman

  • 6 Mahomed, 1820; Mahomed 1822, 1826, 1838.

11Sake Dean Mahomet (1759‑1851), born in Patna, India, also served in English East India Company’s Bengal Army. He rose from a camp‑follower to an officer as he fought across north India (1769‑1784). He then resigned in order to follow his patron, Godfrey Evan Baker (d. 1790), to Cork, Ireland. There he married an Anglo‑Irish gentlewoman, Jane Daly. In order to prove his status as an educated gentleman, he wrote and published his two‑volume autobiographical epistolary travel narrative: The Travels of Dean Mahomet, A Native of Patna in Bengal, Through Several Parts of India, While in the Service of The Honorable The East India Company Written by Himself, In a Series of Letters to a Friend (Mahomet, 1794). In this work, he describes sympathetically his own culture, travails, and accomplishments to his elite Anglophone readership. He includes poetry and classical citations, perhaps reflecting assistance from his wife or Anglo-Irish friends. He ends this work at the point of his arrival in Britain. Later, he emigrated to England, taking the honourific Sake (Shaikh) and Anglicizing the spelling of his name to Deen Mahomed. He also married another Englishwoman, Jane Jeffreys, and began London’s first restaurant run by an Indian in 1810, but went bankrupt in 1812. He then moved to the coastal resort town of Brighton and proclaimed himself as surgeon uniquely expert in Indian therapeutic massage, “Shampooing,” and the “Indian Medicated Vapour Bath.” There he published two further books using self‑promoting genre of medical advertising.6



Emin Emin Joseph, 1792, The Life and Adventures of Joseph Emin, An Armenian, Written in English by Himself, The Author, London; 1918, A. Apcar ed., Asiatic Society of Bengal, Calcutta.

Husain Mir Muhammad ibn cAbdul cAzim Isfahani, 1776, “Risalah‑i Ahwal‑i Mulk‑i Farang wa Hindustan,” Aligarh Muslim University Library, Arabia ulum no. 33 and Persian Collection No. 18/1; partial translation in Khan Gulfishan, 1998, Indian Muslim Perception of the West during the Eighteenth Century, Oxford University Press, Karachi, p. 92‑5, 114‑15.

Ictisam al‑Din Shaikh, 1784/85, Shigrif-namah‑i Wilayat, Persian manuscript OR 200, British Library; Haq Kaisar (trans.), 2001, The Wonders of Vilayet; Being the Memoir, Originally in Persian, of a Visit to France and Britain in 1765, Peepal Tree Press; Mohammad, Leeds.

Mahomed Sake Deen, 1820, Cases Cured by Sake Deen Mahomed, Shampooing Surgeon, and Inventor of the Indian Medicated Vapour and Sea-Water Bath, The Author, Brighton.

Mahomed Sake Deen, 1822, 1826, 1838, Shampooing, or, Benefits Resulting from the Use of the Indian Medicated Vapour Bath, The Author, Brighton.

Mahomet Dean, 1794, Travels of Dean Mahomet, A Native of Patna in Bengal, Through Several Parts of India, While in the Service of The Honorable The East India Company Written by Himself, In a Series of Letters to a Friend, The Author, Cork.

Talib Khan Mirza Abu Isfahani, 1803, Masir Talibi fi Bilad Afranji, Add 8145‑47, British Library; Charles Stewart, (trans.), 1810, Travels of Mirza Abu Taleb Khan in Asia, Africa, and Europe during the years 1799 to 1803, 2 vols, Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, London.

Tavakoli‑Targhi Mohamad, (trans.), forthcoming, The Book of Wonders: Mirza Ictisam al‑Din’s Journey to England, 1766‑1769, Toronto: Nameh Books.

Paper and Contribution to Books

Ismacil Munshi, ca. 1773, “Tarikh‑i Jadid,” manuscript collection of the late Simon Digby; partial translation in Digby Simon, 1989, “An Eighteenth Century Narrative of a Journey from Bengal to England: Munshi Ismacil’s New History,” in Shackle Christopher, (ed.), Urdu and Muslim South Asia: Studies in Honour of Ralph Russell, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, London, p. 49‑65.

Talib Khan Mirza Abu Isfahani, 1801, “Vindication of the Liberties of Asiatic Women” Asiatic Annual Register, Miscellaneous Tracts, p. 100-07.


1 Khan, 1998, p. 93.

2 Husain, 1776 [1998].

3 Talib Khan, 1801.

4 Talib Khan, 1803 [1810].

5 Emin, 1792 [1918].

6 Mahomed, 1820; Mahomed 1822, 1826, 1838.


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