“Europe’s India: Words, People, Empires 1500-1800” by Sanjay Subrahmanyam

Comportment and dress of the Engraving: Portuguese citizens and soldiers in East India (1599), after Jan Huygen van Linschoten Comportment and dress of the Engraving: Portuguese citizens and soldiers in East India (1599), after Jan Huygen van Linschoten

It might be thought that all that can be said about earlier European contacts with India has been said, and that no further interesting approach to the study of those contacts could be developed. Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s Europe’s India: Words, People, Empires 1500-1800 proves how wrong such a supposition might be.

It was Cicero who once remarked “Quot homines, tot sententiae,” namely, there are as many opinions as there are people, and this book amply demonstrates how this was the case with “Europe’s India”. There was no monolithic view which could apply to all who went there: some, for example, thought India was a seething hotbed of ignorance and superstition, others thought that it was surprisingly enlightened. The knowledge they demonstrated, even when mistaken or misguided, was complex, and involved almost as much self-knowledge and self-presentation as it did knowledge of the “other”.


Even five centuries after Vasco da Gama, the consequences of how India was represented in and by Europe … still weigh heavily on us.

Attitudes changed as the centuries wore on and people realized that there was no one “idea” of India, no “true” interpretation of what was going on there. What people wanted to see and what they actually saw sometimes didn’t coincide, and the reasons they ventured there in the first place were defined by who they were and what they did. There was intellectual exchange as well as trade, and once the Europeans found a relatively easy way to get to India they didn’t look back; by 1800 they had amassed a great deal of knowledge about India which would eventually find its way into their own culture. People became interested in Indian art, architecture and literature, and a beginning was made in the study of Indian philosophy and religion which would change the West in ways it never suspected.


Europe’s India Words, People, Empires, 1500–1800, Sanjay Subrahmanyam (Harvard University Press, June 2017)
Europe’s India
Words, People, Empires, 1500–1800
, Sanjay Subrahmanyam (Harvard University Press, June 2017)

Sanjay Subrahmanyam, an eminent Indian academic who currently holds a position as Distinguished Professor and Irving and Jean Stone Chair in Social Sciences at the University of California, always emphasises that knowledge of India, or indeed of any other foreign country, cannot be seen in a simple dichotomy based on what is “true” and what might be romanticized, fantastic, or merely used as part of a plan to enhance the writer’s standing in the world.

The elephant in the room of many studies such as this is the ghost of Edward Said and his idea of “orientalism”, which has, over the years since Orientalism first appeared on the scene in 1978 and turned even the most innocuous philologist into an agent of European imperialism. Subrahmanyam doesn’t worry too much about this, and adopts a refreshingly balanced view between Said and his critics; even as he is concerned that Said’s enemies may be “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”, he is still of the opinion that Said was “quite careless and slapdash”, that Europe’s India is “very much a post-Saidian book”, and that he does not seek either to “revive old quarrels or merely pick at old scabs”. Said was, unfortunately, a one-position writer; Subrahmanyam goes to great pains, as noted briefly above, to present readers with the incredibly wide variety of ways that Europeans (French, Portuguese and British) looked at India. There was no one “French”, “Portuguese” or “British” way of explaining India, because as the years rolled on the foreigners became more and more influenced, indeed sometimes “transformed” (Subrahmanyam’s word) by India.

In the 16th century, Subrahmanyam argues, the Europeans developed a number of what became topoi or commonplaces to deal with India. One of these he calls “textual and philological”, the other “oral and ethnographic”. The first was largely employed by historians and chroniclers (Subrahmanyam discusses Duarte Barbosa and Diogo Couto among others), some of whom had never been to India, and the second by people such as Christian missionaries and, one assumes, on-the-spot traders and administrators.

Subrahmanyam argues that these topoi, which included such things as caste (first discussed by Couto as simply a community), government and religious practices, became “intellectual anchorages” through which later writers explained India. Not a word here yet about closet imperialism or a need to dominate or control, although by the time Subrahmanyam reaches Chapter 4, which is entitled “The Transition to Colonial Knowledge”, we know that the paradigm will be changing. The Portuguese had begun the process via cartography and exploration, and by 1800 the East India Company was in control of some important areas of the country, and the familiar names of Robert Clive, Warren Hastings and others are already established in its history. The same could not be said for the period between 1500 and, say, 1750. The “Saidian moment”, insofar as it happened, took place after 1800.


Subrahmanyam’s method in this wonderful book is not to load the reader down with complex or arcane theoretical speculation couched in opaque scholarly language, although the book is certainly scholarly in the best sense of the word, an intelligent, well-argued, clear and engaging read, backed with prodigious scholarship. He presents, in each chapter, a number of people who went to India with whom readers may or may not be familiar, together with Indians’ reactions to Europeans. I had not, for example, heard of Augustin Herryard, who made a throne for Jahangir, nor of James Fraser, a Scottish employee of the East India Company who wrote a History of Nadir Shah in 1742. Fraser, a man of admirable principles, made a genuine and sympathetic attempt to understand India as far as possible from the point of view of its people as well as his own, and he collected a number of artworks and manuscripts. Physical objects such as these, as well as maps, Subrahmanyam argues, played a significant role in the way Europeans saw, or rather constructed its India, and together with commerce they shaped the perceptions of those who interacted with them.

The last part of the book, entitled “By Way of Conclusion”, reverses the story and discusses at length what Subrahmanyam terms “India’s Europe”, which he prefaces with a quote attributed to the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. He thought Europeans “would be a great people” except for the facts that they follow the wrong religion, eat pork, and don’t wash their private parts properly. And then there’s Tahir Mohammed, writing in about 1578, who chided “Franks” for being dirty and even “pimply”, not to mention ineffectual warriors when they’re not in ships.

Subrahmanyam has many examples of Indian misconceptions, and many of them are quite hilarious, or at least as funny and odd as the misconceptions Europeans had about India. There were, in the end, all sorts of ways in which Indians and Europeans “understood” one another. “The central argument of this book,” Subrahmanyam tell us,


has been to suggest … that even in the absence of an apparatus of political and military domination, European relations with and understandings of India in the centuries from 1500 to 1800 were the product of layered and intermittent conversations and distinct symmetries in perception.


Throughout all this the topoi mentioned earlier persisted, and eventually, as imperialism triumphed, Indians were treated to attitudes ranging from infantilization to contempt, and “authority” assumed by Europeans based, in many cases, on the most superficial observations and assumptions. “Even five centuries after Vasco da Gama,” Subrahmanyam writes, “the consequences of how India was represented in and by Europe … still weigh heavily on us.”

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His latest book is an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012).