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I’tesamuddin, Mirza Sheikh


I'tesamuddin, Mirza Sheikh was the first Indian traveller to the West who wrote about his experiences, in a Persian manuscript titled shegurfnama-i-vilayet that has been preserved in the British Library in London and the Khuda Bukhsh Library in Bankipur, Bihar. An abridged English translation by James Edward Alexander was published in London (John Taylor, 1827) under the title Shegurfnama-i-Vilayet or Excellent Intelligence Concerning England, Being the Travels of Mirza I'tesamuddin. There is a complete Bengali translation by Professor abm habibullah, titled Vilayetnama. A complete modern English version, based on the Alexander and Habibullah translations, has been done by Kaiser Haq under the title The Wonders of Vilayet.

The likely dates of Sheikh I'tesamuddin's birth and death are 1730 and 1800 respectively. His family claimed descent from the Prophet Mohamed (Sm), a claim that cannot be verified. His family tree goes back to the sixteenth century. His ancestors came to India to escape a Mongol invasion of Persia, and settled in the village of Panchnoor in Nadia district of West Bengal. The family distinguished itself for piety and scholarship, and its scions never lacked employment in the administration and the judiciary. I'tesamuddin's elder brother was a Mufti, or advisor on Muslim law, to Nawab alivardi khan. I'tesamuddin completed his education under Munshi Salimullah, who was employed at mir jafar's court. The instruction prepared him for the career of Munshi, which means 'clerk' or 'scribe', but in those days was an exalted post and referred to a scholar whose knowledge of Persian, then the official language, was indispensable in the fields of administration, diplomacy and the law.

Most of I'tesamuddin's life as a Munshi was spent in the east india company's employ. He begun his career under a Major Park and witnessed the campaign against Asaduzzaman, ruler of Birbhum. After cessation of hostilities he accompanied Major Park to Azimabad, where he had an audience with Emperor shah alam II. He then joined seven other Munshis employed by the company in Calcutta. Subsequently he served under a Captain Mackinon as paymaster of an orphanage. When war broke out between the company and Nawab mir qasim, he accompanied the Captain on the campaign and witnessed the battles of Gheria and Udainala. Then for a year he worked as Tehsildar (tax-collector) of Kutubpur under a Mr Bardette. In 1765 he took service under the British Commander-in-Chief, Colonel Carnac, and had an audience with Emperor Shah Alam at Jahajgarh. Shortly after Colonel Carnac fought as an ally of the emperor against the combined forces of the Marathas and Shujauddaula. Hostilities ended with a peace settlement made at Kora-Manikpur, where a dramatic turn in I'tesamuddin's life occurred. He was offered a position as Munshi, with the title of Mirza, at the imperial court, which he gratefully accepted. The title, which was roughly comparable to a knighthood, elevated him to the status of a courtier. Immediately afterwards came the opportunity for travel to the West.

After granting the revenue rights of Bengal in perpetuity to the East India Company, Shah Alam II, beleaguered as he was by tenacious enemies, implored the protection of His Britannic Majesty's troops. Since it was not in robert clive's power to place British soldiers in the service of a foreign court, it was agreed that a letter containing the request would be despatched, together with a present of 100,000 rupees from the emperor to his British counterpart. The mission was entrusted to one Captain Swinton, and at the emperor's suggestion that an Indian well-versed in Persian should be there so that the letter's contents could be properly explicated and interpreted, Mirza Sheikh I'tesamuddin was chosen to accompany him.

Thus began an extraordinary adventure for the Mirza lasting three years (1966-69). Though nothing came of the mission, it provided material for a fascinating memoir. After three weeks at sea the Mirza learned from Captain Swinton that Clive had held back the letter, saying that there was no point in sending it with them as the present intended to accompany it hadn't yet arrived from the emperor. Clive had promised Captain Swinton that he would himself follow with both letter and money and catch up with them in England. But in England the Mirza discovered that Clive had suppressed the letter and presented the money on his own behalf. The reason for such duplicity was that Clive felt, with good reason, that it was in the company's interest to prevent any direct contact between the English king and the Mughal emperor. Shah Alam's letter to George III has survived the vicissitudes of time, and an English translation of it by Professor Habibullah was presented at a conference of the Indian Historical Records Commission in 1939.

Had the mission been successful Indian history probably, and the travel memoir certainly, would have turned out rather differently. India's fortunes might have fared better, and the memoir would have given us a close view of the court of George III. The loss of the letter is more than made up by the account of the Mirza's travels in Britain, which he might not have been able to undertake if he had become embroiled in diplomatic activities.

On his return from Europe the Mirza became a local celebrity and was given the nickname 'Vilayeti Munshi'; Vilayet is the Indian word for Britain and Europe. He reentered the company's employ and was involved in the diplomatic maneuvers that ended several years of warfare with the Mahrattas. In 1775 he accompanied Colonel John Hamilton to Poona, which was the setting of the peace talks with the Maratha warlords. In the ensuing negotiations he had to act as an emissary to the Marathas and, after discussion with the chief Maratha officials, Narad Sakharam and Nana Fadnavis, and with the assistance of a Captain Vansittart, he undertook the task of drawing up the treaty.

I'tesamuddin began writing his memoir at the behest of friends, and also to seek distraction from the anarchy he saw all around; he was no doubt alluding to the war in the Deccan between the company and Tipu Sultan. He also left behind a Persian Nasabnama, or genealogical compilation, which is the chief source of the Family History (History of the Family of Mirza Sheikh I'tesamuddin, Calcutta, 1944; Dhaka, 1984: Privately printed) compiled by Qazi Mohamed Sadrul Ola.

The Mirza was an Indian gentleman, proud of his lineage, and well educated in the traditional manner, who happened to live through the most crucial transition in modern Indian history. When he was born the East India Company was one of several European trading houses; when he died they were the effective rulers of the subcontinent. Yet he was not, we must remember, a 'colonial subject', and this coupled with his elite background makes his memoir extremely valuable. In the persona that comes across in the memoir he embodies the humane qualities as well as the prejudices of his culture. He is curious about alien cultures, and is a good observer possessed with an engaging descriptive ability. In this he is a refreshing contrast to the introversion that, as VS Naipaul points out in relation to Gandhi, often characterises the colonial subject's response to the West. Equally noteworthy is his comparison of Europe with India, which includes a clear-sighted critique of Indian decadence and a generous acknowledgment of the qualities that contributed towards European, especially British, ascendancy. His prejudices can be quite embarrassing, and his observations are often skewed by lack of scientific knowledge, but such flaws ' especially the latter ' generally add a delightful piquancy to the narrative, as do his foibles, like his obsession with halal food, which was often difficult to procure in Britain. Similarly, it is amusing to note how he absorbs the British prejudice against the French.

The reader is bound to be struck by what may be called the Mirza's sense of race. The Mirza's comments on the darker peoples encountered en route reveal his prejudice, as does his ecstatic celebration of European womanhood. The White Woman seems to embody a Platonic idea of beauty. A similar adoration of British beauty is seen in the travel memoir of a later generation, the Travels of Mirza Abu Taleb Khan.

Like the memoir of Abu Taleb, I'tesamuddin's account includes much documentary material. After the opening autobiographical section he gives a historical sketch of the Europeans in India, then moves on to the subject of navigation. This is followed by accounts of places touched on en route (eg Mauritius, Madagascar, the Cape of Good Hope, Ascension) together with descriptions of curious marine creatures.

The experiences in London, Oxford and Scotland are vividly recounted, and interesting sights meticulously described. Finally, aspects of British civilisation (system of government, judiciary, education) are discussed. Students of cultural history will find the account of Oxford of interest. There he met william jones, who later became a High Court judge in Calcutta and founded the asiatic society of Bengal. I'tesamuddin claims to have helped Jones with the Persian grammar on which he was working at the time.

I'tesamuddin's memoir, like those of his compatriots Abu Taleb and sake deen mahomed deserve careful study in our postcolonial context. [Kaiser Haq]