Elephants, Englishmen and India:
Early Modern Travel Writing and the Pre-Colonial Moment

M. G. Aune
North Dakota State University

Aune, M. G. "Elephants, Englishmen and India: Early Modern travel Writing and the Pre-Colonial Movement". Early Modern Literary Studies 11.1 (May, 2005) 4.1-35 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/11-1/auneelep.htm>.


    Fig. 1. Title page from Thomas Coryate, Thomas Coriate Traueller for the English Wits. (London: W. Iaggard and Henry Fetherston, 1616). By permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library.


  1. Describing and analyzing the dynamics of the initial English encounter with the Mogul Empire has attracted greater and greater scholarly attention in recent years.  No longer are early modern English relations with the Mogul court seen as an originary point for an inevitable British domination of the subcontinent.  Instead, awareness of the power and sophistication of the Mogul Empire, the relative weakness of the English, and the English attempt to compensate for this inequality have begun to dominate the discussion of the early relations and especially of English depictions of those relations.  Rather than proto-colonial or proto-imperial discourses, recently scholars have referred to a pre-colonial imaginary that while not necessarily functioning as a teleological point of origin, can be seen as contributing to a later colonial discourse of India.

  2. While previous studies have used travel writing, drama, and East India Company documents to examine the social, political, and economic constructions of India, I intend to extend these studies by using these sources to describe how the English constructed a pre-colonial imaginary of India that drew on depictions of Indian fauna and linked them to Mogul culture through the figuration of the Emperor Jahangir.  Centuries of stories about the natural wonders of India had prepared the English to see fantastic creatures such as elephants and unicorns and to regard the land as a space of opportunity and profit.  At the same time, the difficulties of accessing these riches via trading relations exacerbated a sense of English anxiety about economic weakness.  In managing these anxieties, English travellers like Thomas Coryate and ambassadors like Sir Thomas Roe generated depictions of the Moguls and their Emperor which relied on a cultural understanding of fantastic animals like elephants and a recognition of tropes of the civilization and barbarism in distant, non-Christian cultures.

  3. I begin with a discussion of the recent scholarly work on the early modern English encounter with India and the construction of the pre-colonial imaginary.  I then turn to documents of the English encounter itself, focusing on Roe’s depiction of his frustrations and in particular his portrayal of Jahangir’s wealth.  The aspect of these portrayals on which I focus, the Emperor’s elephants, is then contextualized in terms of European traditions, myths, and expectations of such creatures.  I conclude by demonstrating how the English representations of Moguls as barbarous and civilized can be found not only in depictions of economic, religious, and social behaviour, but also in depictions of the exotic fauna of India.

  4. II

  5. In her book, Colonial Narratives/Cultural Dialogues, Jyotsna G. Singh introduces and develops a post-colonial model to describe the early modern English encounter with Mogul India (28-29).  Singh begins her study with an invocation of the trope of discovery deployed by European writers to depict distant lands and cultures as open and receptive to constructions of the cultural other.  She quickly acknowledges that the trope acquired “shifting, multiple meanings” during the age of exploration.  What is important for Singh is how the trope of discovery allowed the British to “gain … a privileged epistemological position, whereby … they could claim new knowledge” which could then be constituted as the colonial binaries of civilized/barbarous, tradition/modernity and Christianity/heathendom.  These binaries, as they appear in English travel writing of India, constitute a “colonizing imagination [her italics] which ‘discovers’ new lands via demarcations of identity and difference …” developed from binaries such as civilized and barbarous (2) (1).  Singh is careful here and elsewhere not to overstate the claims for the influence of early modern English travel writing as somehow foundational in a discourse of colonialism.  She acknowledges that travel writing is often largely an uncritical mixing of fact and fantasy and thus easy to include into a teleology of colonial development in India.  Instead of making formative claims, Singh suggests the presence of a “modality of colonialism from one historical moment to another, rhetorically structured by the trope of discovery” (Singh 8, Kamps and Singh 2-3).  She also elaborates that “early modern representations of the non-European ‘others’ served as a context for empire building by prescribing actions and strategies” (Singh 24).

  6. In his discussion of the early modern European construction of India, Shankar Raman also invokes a similar notion, the “colonial imaginary,” which he describes as “enmeshed habits of thought and modes of behaviour that have asymmetrically shaped … the lives and histories of people and places on different sides of the globe.”  Drawing largely on dramatic texts, he goes further to suggest how the colonial imaginary became material practice and shaped not only how India was perceived, but how it was encountered.  This shaping, for Raman, “serv[ed] not only to establish a particular distribution of power and authority, but also to generate new forms of conceiving, seeing, and acting” (3) (2).  As Singh was careful not to identify a uniform narrative of colonialism beginning in the early modern period, so Raman suggests that a sense of European inferiority due to Muslim, Scandinavian and Hungarian expansion helps to inform the motivations for voyages of exploration of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and the particular constructions of distant and powerful cultures (6).  The colonial imaginary then is a fragmented discourse, which arises out of a sense of inferiority to inform the constitution of the subject and to construct a sense of India that establishes a sense of Europe as discoverer of, or visitor to India (21-23) (3).

  7. More recently, Pompa Banerjee has made use of the colonial imaginary in her discussion of the twin discourses of Hindu widow-burning (sati) and European witch burning making a finer distinction between the “pre-colonial imaginary” and the colonial (8).  The advantage of this formulation is that it adapts the notion of the imaginary and the process by which it describes an identity formation in the presence of not just an alien other, but a powerful alien other.  That the English formulated a particular identity of themselves as travelling subjects with specific cultural and economic goals is clear, but the point at which these goals can be imagined as colonial, at least in the East, does not arrive until later in the seventeenth century.  The Jacobean encounter with India is a pre-colonial moment.

  8. Richmond Barbour does not address the conception of the colonial imaginary directly in his book Before Orientalism, but he does trace the shifting use, in early modern England, of tropes of the exoticism of the East.  Using the term proto-orientalism, Barbour examines Thomas Coryate’s travel writing of India and Roe’s ambassadorial letters and reports, as on the one hand commodifying the exotic east, and as on the other hand participating in a compensatory rhetoric that alternately constructs India as wealthy and powerful as well as poor and corrupt (4).  Singh’s binaries seem to be at work here, especially in Barbour’s readings of Roe’s accounts.  Barbour, however, does not see the engagement with India as colonial or pre-colonial.  Coryate and Roe’s representations betray more anxiety than confidence about the English presence in India.  For Barbour, Roe and Coryate find what they imagine to be in India, but their descriptions are ambivalent at best and in this way conform to the sense that the English had yet to develop a colonial sensibility, but could imagine a measure of superiority over the Moguls.

  9. A formulation used to describe an analogous, though not identical moment, imperial envy, has been used by Gerald MacLean to describe the early modern English encounter with the Ottoman Empire (“Ottomanism” 86-88; Rise 86-7, passim).  Drawing on travel writing and Orientalism, MacLean uses the notion of imperial envy to investigate how Europeans represented and misrepresented the Eastern Other, as well as themselves.  This Eastern Other not only practised a different religion, it had a rich, powerful empire.  The resulting discourse, similar to that described by Singh, also operates via binaries.  The Ottoman Empire is a space of mortal and spiritual danger, but also a space of wealth and opportunity.  While the English experiences in the Ottoman and Mogul Empires are distinct, they do share a roughly similar chronology, similar forms of representation, and most importantly a similar desire for wealth.

  10. This article will use early modern English and European depictions of India and the critical positions described above to look further at the discourse of the pre-colonial imaginary.  It is my intention to take the formations described by Singh, Raman, Barbour, and MacLean, and used by Banerjee to continue to explore how the English constructed India not only as Other, but as a knowable, available Other.  This investigation begins with a brief rehearsal of sixteenth and early seventeenth century English encounters with India as represented in printed writing of the time.  The paper will then turn to the figures of the emperor Jahangir and his elephants, focusing on how travel writers used a hybrid of Singh’s pair of differences, civilized (superior) and barbarous (inferior) to represent Jahangir (1-3).  Perhaps somewhat reductive, nevertheless this distinction will help demonstrate the means by which the pre-colonial imaginary can be seen to function in verbal constructions of contrasts between the English and the Moguls, which attempt to acknowledge and reinscribe the wonder and power of Indian culture, yet also manage to set English culture in a superior position. 

  11. III

  12. When Europeans began arriving regularly in India, not long after Columbus landed in the New World, ideas of the exotic and fantastic accompanied them (Rubiés 20-34).  The earliest non-commercial, non-missionary traveller to reach India was probably the Bolognese Lodovico di Varthema.  Varthema apparently followed along Marco Polo’s route, between 1501 and 1508, claiming that he travelled out of curiosity rather than commercial interest (5).  Like Polo, he depicted the wonders of India: the abundance of food, spices, cloth and money.  It is a fantastic, “earthly Paradyse” where elephants have near-human understanding (Varthema in Eden, History, 384-85).  Rather than correct or challenge European fantasies of India, Varthema and other travellers tended to confirm them.  Sixteenth century sources in English also mixed the classical, the medieval and the first hand to perpetuate the construction of the rich, exotic India (6).  The important difference in the early modern period was that these exotic riches were now available to Europeans directly and a discourse of India as a space of commercial opportunity began to grow (Marshall 264-67; Jardine 104, 288-91; Brotton 164-78).  After 1600, through the trading projects of the East India Company, new eyewitness information became available from English sources, although many of these perceptions of India remained consistent from the previous century.  It was still a lush, rich, bounteous land.  The climate, especially when compared to England’s, allowed for multiple growing seasons and an abundance of food.  English traveller Thomas Coryate writes that there is “no part of the world yeelding a more fruitful veine of ground, then all that which lieth in his [the Mogul Emperor’s] Empire” (Coryate, Traueller 22).  The Dutch merchant Jan Huyghen van Linschoten devotes nearly fifty chapters to cataloguing the various fruits and vegetables available in India, along with the gemstones and precious metals.  Mandeville and Münster write of even more fantastic tropes of bounty (Münster, Treatyse B2v; Evenson).  Seemingly everything about India had the potential for material gain.  In the words of Robert Markley, India was part of a region onto which the English projected a “fantasy of infinite productivity and profit” (170-72).

  13. These accounts from regular, successful voyages to Southeast Asia and back helped to create an accumulation of knowledge about the trade routes that made India a more familiar space than before and proved beneficial in generating financial support in England.  In India itself, however, progress was much slower.  Late-comers to India after the Portuguese and the Dutch, the English had a particularly difficult time establishing trade relations (Marshall 270-72).  In large measure, this was due to the ignorance and arrogance of the English merchants.  They assumed that practices that proved successful with the Ottoman or Muscovy empires would work in India as well (Wood 31; Chaudhuri 15).  Part of the difficulty may have originated in the sophistication and power of India, China and Japan, as well as their suspicion of outsiders (Bitterli 44).  Russia and the Ottoman Empire both expressed an implicit, mutual sense of the importance of trade with England.  In contrast, the Mogul Empire had a thriving trade throughout Southeast Asia, the Persian Gulf, and as far as Holland and Portugal.  It had no particular need to trade with the English.  Thus, English notions of the wealthy, exotic India remained (initially) beyond reach.

  14. In particular, negotiating with the Moguls and the Emperor Jahangir proved to be persistently frustrating for the English.  The East India Company sent what it called ambassadors to the court of Jahangir to negotiate trade relations.  These men, however, were not at first ambassadors in the diplomatic sense; their interests were entirely commercial.  The company, however, overestimated Mogul interest in English goods and English ability to make a strong impression (Marshall 270-72).  Barbour succinctly characterizes the English experience noting that the Moguls “had small need of English goods, and its state pomp eclipsed analogous English shows. …the English were tolerated rather than welcomed” (Barbour, “Power” 343).  Barbour analyzes the attempts of English ambassadors to establish stable trading relations through an examination of the theatrical and rhetorical statements used by both sides and interpreted by the English.  He argues that these strategies ultimately belittled the English in Jahangir’s eyes and that it would eventually be maritime power rather than diplomacy or economic advantage that helped the English establish a sense of power and dignity in India.

  15. It is in this first decade of English commercial presence in India, where we can begin to see some formations of a pre-colonial imaginary; the most familiar example of which is a frequent trope in discourses of cultural power at the time, the synecdochic figuration of a culture as represented by its ruler.  This practice functions to homogenize and simplify a culture, making it more easily knowable and thus inferior.  At the same time, it positions the ruler as despotic if not tyrannical, controlling all aspects of his subjects’ lives.  The Ottoman sultan, figured in this way as the Great Turk, becomes subject to discourses of exoticism, cruelty, and sensuality that characterize Ottomans, if not all Muslims, in such a way as to make them knowable (MacLean, “Ottomanism” 86-88).  In the English writing of India, the emperor quickly becomes the locus of the civilized/barbaric binary and via this synecdochic function Mogul culture becomes figured as simultaneously civilized and barbaric.

  16. The representations of Jahangir, the Great Mogul, by English travellers, merchants, and diplomats who visited and resided in India in the early seventeenth century largely perpetuate this binary.  Most of these writings were collected and printed by Samuel Purchas in his immense anthology Hakluytus Posthumus in 1625.  Coryate had walked to India, arriving in 1615, and his writings were printed in two pamphlets and later included in Purchas’ book.  William Hawkins, serving as the East India Company’s ambassador to the Mogul court from 1608 to 1612, kept a journal of his experiences as all Company employees were required to do (7).  Edward Terry served as chaplain to Sir Thomas Roe, befriended Coryate, and assembled his writings for the East India Company upon his return.  Some of this material was printed by Purchas and much more appeared later in the seventeenth century.  The most detailed account of Jahangir comes from Sir Thomas Roe, who arrived in India in 1615.  Invested with the title ambassador, carrying letters from King James, and well furnished with staff and gifts, Roe remained for three years, keeping a detailed diary and writing consistently to his employers and friends alike (8).

  17. Roe depicts Jahangir as at turns generous and neglectful.  While he was more successful in pursuing trade relations than previous ambassadors, Roe constantly writes of his frustrations in attempting to negotiate a binding, reliable agreement that would allow the East India Company to trade freely within the Mogul Empire (Teltscher 20-22).  Even after several years, Roe could not obtain a reliable written document enumerating English trading rights.  Jahangir might initially grant a farman or permission, only to contradict it with an oral statement later.  Understandably, Roe expected that the negotiating of written agreements was the proper means to establish trading rights.  When these strategies failed, rather than examine his own assumptions, Roe concluded that the Moguls do not respect the authority of the written word (Roe 110, 123).

  18. Contemporaries of Roe at the Mogul court, Coryate and Terry, focused on the Emperor’s personal appetites.  Along with concubines, Jahangir is described as keeping a number of young boys around him for his pleasure.  The suggestion can be found as an aside in Terry: Jahangir keeps “some boyes about him (which he was conceived to keep for such a use as I dare not name)” (Terry 403).  A nearly identical anecdote shows up, in nearly an identical manner, in an anonymous pamphlet.  The Emperor has “about him a great number of Boyes, some 200.  Or thereabouts, which hee keepeth for vnnaturall and beastly vses” (True Relation 5).  Coryate describes Jahangir’s polygamy, that he “keepeth a thousand women for his own body” (Coryate, Traueller 26) (9).  He also describes a fair during the New Year’s celebration, in which Jahangir entertains “all the Trades-mens Wives” in his palace with “no man present.”  Coryate concludes the anecdote by writing, “by this meanes hee attaines to the sight of all the prettie Wenches of the Towne: at such a kind of Faire he got his beloved Normahal [Nur Jahan]” (“Certain Observations” 600) (10).  In a marginal note Coryate’s editor Samuel Purchas labels the scene as “Profligate lust.”  Jahangir’s excesses extended beyond his sexual appetites.  Roe was particularly anxious about Jahangir’s drinking and how it affected his governance, and writes, “Nor euer saw I man soe enamord of drincke as both the King and the Prince are of redd wyne” (119) (11).  An earlier English ambassador, William Hawkins, describes Jahangir’s daily routine, which includes “strong drinke” and opium.  At the late night meal, “at which time he is not able to feed himselfe; but [food] is thrust into his mouth by others” (Hawkins 222).  The sexual and gustatory excesses further amplify the sense that Jahangir cannot control his primal urges and thus he is uncivilized.  The suggestion that Jahangir and his nobles keep concubines, multiple wives, and boys, whether true or not, establishes a corruption brought on by extraordinary wealth.  Sexuality is uncontrolled and therefore more animalistic than human.  The Emperor’s wealth allows him to support multiple wives and concubines.  Eating is no longer a necessary part of survival; it is a demonstration of wealth, so Jahangir has himself force-fed.  The access to unlimited resources has allowed Jahangir to become gluttonous and further corrupted.

  19. But it is Jahangir’s, and India’s, riches (and the potential access to them via trade) that draw the most attention.  The descriptions of Jahangir’s material splendour vary so in detail and quantity that it would be impossible to distil any accurate sense of the actual wealth.  This indeterminacy adds to the exoticism of a land so bountiful that diamonds are rumoured to be simply dug out of the ground (Jourdain 164; Terry 392-93) (12).  The abundance of gold, silver, and gems also meant that the Moguls had no need of foreign capital and instead only traded goods such as textiles and spices.  The use to which the wealth is put, and Jahangir’s almost flippant attitude toward his riches, activates the notion of the ignorant barbarian.  The Moguls seem unaware of the value of what they possess.  The Emperor is thus uncouth and barbaric in his wealth.  Coryate writes that he is richer than either the Ottoman or the Persian Emperors (Traueller 23).  Terry later adds, “I believe that there is never a Monarch in the whole world that is dayly adorned with so many Jewels.  […] enough to exceed those women … who in the height and prosperity of that [Roman] empire Were said to wear /The spoils of Nations in one ear” (Terry 392, 393) (13).  The immense quantity of the Emperor’s elephants, horses, camels, and other livestock, wives and concubines is another measure of his wealth (Coryate, Traueller 24-6; Fitch 1733; Jourdain 164-65) (14).  Hawkins reports that Jahangir’s fortune is so great that he has divided it into three hundred sixty parts and viewed a different portion every day of the year (Hawkins 218).  Terry describes his daily clothing as “bedeckt and adorned with Jewels” as “it is for the fashion the Habite of that whole vast Empire; so that he who strictly views this, may see the dresse of the man throughout that whole great Monarchy” (Terry 364).  Barbour chooses Roe’s description of one of Jahangir’s processions to illustrate the Englishman’s wonder and difficulty in apprehending the Emperor’s wealth.  Jahangir wears a turban with long plumes, a ruby and diamond, both the size of a walnut, surrounding a large emerald, a pearl, ruby, and diamond chain around his waist, around his neck a “three double” chain of pearls “so great I neuer saw,” and rings on nearly every finger.  The procession itself consisted of elephants that
    had diuers flages of Clothe of siluer, guilt satten, and taffeta.  His Noblemen hee suffered to walke a foote...  His wiues on ther Eliphantes were carried like Parrakitoes halfe a Mile behynd him … Hee passed all the way betweene a guard of Eliphants, hauing euery one a turred on his back; on the fower corners fower banners of yellow taffety; right before, a sling mounted that carried a bullett as bigg as a great Tennis ball; the gunner behind yt; in Number about 300. Other Eliphants of honor that went before and after, about 600 (qtd. in Barbour, Before 187-88).
    Roe goes on to describe his audience with Jahangir in similar terms of wonder at the material wealth.  For Barbour, Roe is only able to assess the wealth and splendour through an accounting of what he saw.  There are occasional moments of comparison, but the enumerated list seems to be the only way to represent what he had seen, a “sheer otherness” according to Barbour (Before 189).

  20. Even if the hyperbole of travel writers and the importance of reaffirming India as a worthy trading partner are taken into account, the sense of material riches suggested is incredible.  As with imperial envy of the Ottoman Empire, it is easy to see how the wealth of India, especially as represented in the figure of a gluttonous, lustful, greedy emperor, would have generated envy and desire.  The profits made by the East India Company voyages, even when losses and costs were figured in, were irresistible.  The wealth as figured in Jahangir, in part because of its distance and because of the ancient and medieval discourses of India, seems to “offer a counter-point to the ideological distinctions between ‘civilization’ and ‘barbarism,’ only to temporarily elide ‘barbarism’ into exoticism” for Singh (39, 40).  Jahangir’s wealth and splendour do not civilize him; they at best invoke the exotic.  The barbarism remains because the wealth does not bring a sense of moral elevation or responsibility; instead, it corrupts.

  21. As Roe’s quotation above indicates, along with the emperor, the elephant is a persistent element of early modern travellers’ depictions of India’s wealth and exoticism.  In large measure, Europeans brought positive, almost mythical conceptions of elephants with them to India, which enabled further constructions of the civilized and barbaric Mogul other.  These notions when confronted with Jahangir’s own interest in, possession and treatment of elephants give rise to a particular manifestation of the ideologies of barbarism and civilization.  In the European imaginary, the elephant represented power, exoticism, as well as a certain sense of humanity.  The rarity, size and power of the creatures made them objects of wonder.  Their distant native habitats made them exotic.  Their temperament gave them human like qualities; yet a consciousness of a divine hierarchy meant that despite their exoticism and temperament, elephants were still beasts.

  22. The following section will briefly examine English conceptions of and attitudes toward elephants from the middle ages through the early modern period.  As they did when encountering the Mogul Emperor, once in India, the English travellers and merchants were forced to reconcile the elephant of their cultural imaginary with a material reality that included the use of elephants as beasts of burden, and symbols of wealth, but also as blood-sport competitors.  The clash of the preconception with the reality created an opportunity for the English to use depictions of elephants as part of their compensatory rhetoric of civilized and barbarous Moguls.

  23. While knowledge of elephants was widespread in England and on the continent, encounters with live animals were rare and their appearances the stuff of legend.  Their use by the Romans in combat and in gladiator games was well known.  In his 43 CE invasion of Britain, Claudius is reputed to have brought one as far as Colchester.  Their value as gifts was established as early as 802 when the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid sent an elephant to Charlemagne.  The eleventh century manuscript known as the “Marvels of the East” features a colour drawing of an elephant (15).  In 1514, the King of Portugal sent an elephant as a gift to Pope Leo X, possibly inspired by a similar practice in Southeast Asia (16).  The second time an elephant is known to have set foot in England was, according to Matthew Paris’ Chronica Majora, as a gift from French King Louis IX to Henry III in 1224/5 (3.115).  This creature lived for twenty-five years and is reputed to be the source of the symbol of the Cutlers’ Company of London (chartered 1416) and eventually the Elephant and Castle area of London (17).  Richard Hakluyt included Robert Gainsh’s account of African elephants, taken largely from Pliny, in the first edition of Principall Navigations (93-94).  Images of elephants made regular public appearances during the 1584, 1609, and 1610, Accession Day celebrations (Barbour, Before 85-87).  Probably written in the 1590s, John Donne’s “First Satire” refers to a trained elephant given to Elizabeth in 1591/2 that apparently knelt at the mention of her name, but not the King of Spain’s (18).  Sir Thomas Browne may have been referring to this animal when he wrote in 1646 that “not many years past” an elephant had been shown in England (159).  Thus, the English had integrated their historical encounters with real elephants into their cultural imaginary as powerful, exotic, and rare creatures.  Visually and verbally the elephant represented a set of powerful ideas that were available for cultural reference.

  24. Perhaps the most persistent and multivalent use of elephants can be found in medieval and early modern English discourses of morals and behaviour (Lach 140, passim).  In his Sacrorum Emblemata (1592), Andrew Willet includes a selection suggesting that God created the elephant great and powerful so as to remind us of his own might:
    Of beastes most great in might
    The Elephant call by right
    Whose picture to thy sight
                        is set forth here.
    For foode he grasse doth take
    Nor yet doth rest forsake,
    As oxe, but for strong make
                        he hath no peere.
    His taile as cedar tall,
    His bones of iron all,
    No gun maketh him to fall,
                        but he doth escape.
    The trees doe not him hide,
    The field scarce meate prouide,
    Nor riuers drinke, with mouth wide
                        for flouds he doth gape.
    The Lord his power to show
    Hath placed this beast below
    That we to God might bow,
                        of so great strength (k3r)
    This construction of the elephant as evidence of God’s power was familiar in early modern Europe.  It is certainly a beast, eating grass and needing rest, but stronger than domestic animals, its bones are iron and its body bullet-proof.  It is fantastic and familiar.  In Edward Topsell’s The Historie of Foure-footed Beasts, (1607) translated from Konrad Gesner’s earlier work (1551-58), the entry on elephants begins, “There is no creature among al the Beasts of the world which hath so great and ample demonstration of the power and wisedome of almighty God as the Elephant” (190).  When read side by side with Topsell, Willet’s last stanza seems almost plagiaristic in its reinforcing of the discourse surrounding elephants.

  25. The size and concomitant power of the elephant are the dominant aspects of these depictions and are used to instruct and guide.  As a mimetic representation, these aspects connote power and virtue.  In one of several emblems devoted to elephants Geffrey Whitney writes:
                The Olephante with stinge of serpent fell,
                That still about his legges, with winding cralles:
    Throughe poison stronge, his bodie so did swell,
    That doune he sinkes, and on the serpente falles:
                Which creature huge, did fall vppon him soe,
                That by his deathe, he also kill’d his foe.
    Those sharpe conflictes, those broiles and battailes maine,
    That are atchieude, with spoile on either parte:
    Were streames of blood the hilles, and valleys staine,
    And what is wonne, the price is deathe, and smarte:
                This dothe importe: But those are captaines good,
                That winne the fielde, with shedding leaste of blood (195).
    Here the elephant’s power is assumed and it becomes fully a didactic instrument.  The emblem suggests that the best generals are those who incur the fewest casualties and perhaps that defeating a foe, even one as great as an elephant, is not worth one’s own destruction.  The elephant stands in for the dominant physical power and the snake is the devious opponent successfully attacking from beneath, but dying as a result of its ignoble tactic.  Topsell too describes the phenomenon of serpents (dragons) attacking elephants from underneath only to be crushed by the falling carcasses (199).  Pliny seems to have picked up the idea from Pomponius Mela and explains the conflict between serpents and elephants, suggesting that serpents attack elephants in order to suck their blood (C8r-v) (19).  Edenic allegories notwithstanding, the moral in these two emblems seems to portray and demonize in the serpent a bestial cleverness and along with a foolishness that derives from single-minded ambition.  Power, exoticism and nobility are embodied in the elephant. 

  26. Topsell’s account of the elephant, over twenty folio pages in length, continually depicts them as powerful, often allegorical creatures native to distant lands like Ethiopia, Sumatra, India and Africa, and includes a large engraving of an African elephant.  Entirely secondary, Topsell’s research relies on sources like Aristotle, Pliny, Plutarch, and Strabo to build its account.  Working through the chapter, the anecdotes and selections accumulate to generate a representation of elephants as creatures of mystery, imbued with human qualities and a sense of divine favouritism. 

  27. The use of elephants in the English imaginary was not consistently postive, however.  In The Faerie Queen (1596), Edmund Spenser provides an uncharacteristic use of elephant imagery to describe the “wilde and saluage man”:
    And ouer it his huge great nose did grow,
    Full dreadfully empurpled all with bloud;
    And downe both sides two wide long eares did glow,
    And right downe to his waste, when vp he stood,
    More great then th’eares of Elephants by Indus flood. (IV.vii.6)
    Here the physical size of the elephant and to a lesser extent the exoticism are being used more than any sense of the humanity of the creatures.  This also seems to be the case with the earlier use of the name Ollyphant for one of the prenatally incestuous giants (III.vii.48) (20).  In both cases the creatures are fearsome and inhuman, but the elephant associations do not seem to move beyond a means to establish an intimidating sense of size and power.

  28. Contact with India provided opportunities for the English to experience elephants first hand.  The possibility of actually seeing such a creature in its native habitat and confirming its wonder is clearly behind Coryate’s ambition to visit Jahangir.  Coryate made this explicit when he attracted Jahangir’s attention one day during his morning audience.  After introducing himself as a poor English traveller, Coryate gave his reasons for seeking out the Emperor.  First, “to see the blessed face of your Maiesty, whose wonderfull fame hath resounded ouer all Europe & the Mahometan Countries.”  Second, “to see your Maiesties Elephants, which kind of beasts I haue not seen in any other country” (Coriat to his friends B3v).  While for the English, elephants functioned primarily as abstract representations of divine power and humanity, for the Moguls, elephants were important public representations of wealth and material power (21).  The Emperor’s elephants did not disappoint.  Terry tries to quantify their size for his readers, writing that they were “at the least twelve foot high, but there are amongst them … fourteen or fifteen foot in height” (Terry 142-43). Hawkins counts forty thousand elephants kept by Jahangir, three hundred of which are royal, that is, reserved for his own use in processions (Hawkins 218).  One of the first events Coryate witnesses in India is the presentation of a tribute to the Emperor from the Persian king and the experience must have fulfilled his travel goal.  Part of the gift was thirty-one elephants, two of which were outfitted in gold chains and ornaments.  Coryate writes “I neuer sawe the like, nor shal see the like again while I liue,” estimating the value at about eight thousand pounds sterling (Coryate, Traueller 31-2).  Not included, presumably, is the considerable cost of maintaining the creatures.  Furthermore, Jahangir did not keep these creatures simply as pets; he used them for hunting, warfare, executions, and entertainment (Hawkins 219) (22).

  29. Travellers sent home depictions confirming English notions of elephants as, beyond their function as symbols of Mogul wealth and power, possessing an element of humanity and human awareness.  Hawkins writes of an elephant that had been “misused by his Commander,” being forced to travel long and hard.  When his master had fallen asleep the elephant managed, using two halves of a piece of cane apparently like chopsticks, to snag the man by his hair and drag him close enough to crush with his trunk.  In another anecdote, an elephant is so docile that Jahangir allows it to pick up and carry his son and other children.  “Many other strange things are done by Elephants,” concludes Hawkins (219).  The East India Company factor John Jourdain also reports that the Emperor’s elephants “come as dulie to the Kinge to doe their dutye as the men … they all att once putt their truncks over their heads giving the salam to the Kinge” (Jourdain 163).  Terry finds them intelligent as well, “of all those we account meerly sensible [elephants] come nearest unto reason.”  In another example, Terry writes that elephants cannot stand to be viewed when they copulate, as opposed to some humans who have “lost all modesty … [and] are not ashamed when they commit any act of filthiness” (153, also Varthema in Eden, History 386r).  Perhaps the most poignant elephant anecdote is related by Terry, who claims to have heard it from an English merchant “of good credit.”  One day an elephant went mad and began rampaging through a marketplace, scattering stalls and causing people to flee in terror.  An herb-seller, who had given the elephant food in the past, in her fear left her baby in the elephant’s path.  The elephant came upon the child, recognized it, and “took it up gently with his Trunk, not doing it the least harm, and presently after laid it down […] and then proceeded on in his furious course” (Terry 148-49).

  30. These human qualities, including memory of past kindnesses, understanding, a social organization, modesty, a sense of revenge, and an overall strong sense of morality embodied in a powerful animal are in great part derived from accounts of elephants that populated the English imaginary of the East.  However, the fact that these travellers are writing from a position of first hand experience perpetuates the earlier accounts, adding a new level of veracity to the tropes of elephant humanity for readers in England.  Of their admirable traits, the elephants’ ability to experience emotions is the most human quality they possess (23).  Hawkins and Topsell write of revenge.  Terry describes shame, determination, and motherly empathy.  These emotions, excepting perhaps revenge, show a particular self-awareness.  The elephants have a sense of themselves as members of a larger group and a concomitant awareness of social responsibility.  In every example but Hawkins’s, these emotions enable a sense of subservience to humans.  The vengeful elephant in Hawkins’s anecdote could even be justified as rebelling against a tyrannous master.  Terry and Topsell invoke these qualities as correctives to misbehaving humans.  However, the anthropomorphism also seems to justify human domination over elephants.  The animals are self aware enough to recognise their place in the natural order and they are morally sensitive enough not to disturb that order.

  31. Recalling their use in emblems described earlier, the English venerate elephants for their sensitivity, power, and docility and as evidence of a Christian hierarchy.  Elephants occupy a higher position than dogs or beasts of burden.  This admiration creates a tension when in India elephants are described performing labour for or entertaining humans.  Most depictions of elephants describe ordinary field labour akin to English use of horses or oxen (24).  But, returning to the sense of the barbaric, Jahangir’s use of elephants is described as much less humane.  This sense of misuse is most vivid in the descriptions of using elephants to execute convicted criminals by walking on them and elephant fights staged for Jahangir’s entertainment.  Of the English who write of the fights, Coryate provides the earliest account.  The fights are “the brauest spectacle in the worlde… they seem to justle together like two little Mountaines, and were they not parted in the middest of their fighting by certain fire-workes, they would exceedingly gore and cruentate one another” (Coryate, Traueller 25-6).  As part of Jahangir’s retinue Roe also witnessed elephant fights, but he sees the events as another example of the Emperor’s excess and decadence.  “At noone hee … sitts some howers to see the fight of Eliphants and willd beasts … from whence hee retiers to sleepe among his woemen” (qtd. in Barbour, Before 179).  Barbour sees Jahangir’s pastime as further evidence of his preference for sensual pleasures.  The spectacle of the combat is consumed passively by Jahangir, just like time spent retired among his concubines (Before 178-80).  Unlike the process described earlier, elephants are no longer constructed as objects of wonder and enumeration.  The fight makes no impression on Roe; what had once been evidence of the Emperor’s wealth and power is now evidence of his decadence. 

  32. For English readers, the depictions of the explicit cruelty of forced animal against animal combat may also have been reminiscent of accounts of English bear-baiting and added an element of class bias.  In her examination of animal representations in early modern England, Erica Fudge uses depictions of bear and monkey baiting to illustrate how the borders between animals and humans could become blurred, inducing an anxiety about being human.  As humans were thought to be at the centre of a universe created by God, animals were perforce, marginal.  Yet the anthropomorphism of animals moves the two closer together, humanizing the animals and/or animalizing the humans.  For Fudge, those who organized such events become especially barbaric and this barbarism, in turn, becomes associated with the lower classes.  The literate witnesses of higher status are able to deploy depictions of such cruelty as a means of establishing difference and superiority, much like the travel writers in India (Fudge 12-17).

  33. The veneration the English show for elephants, as well as their scarcity in England, sets off sharply the neglect the Moguls are shown to have for elephants and their barbaric disregard for the welfare of such important animals.  Like bear and monkey baiting, English depictions of anthropomorphized elephants and Indian humans function to emphasize the humanity of the elephants and the primitive, pagan cruelty of the Indians.  Abusing or working an elephant that has near-human understanding is uncomfortably near to abusing or enslaving humans.  And further, it may have suggested a specifically lower-class sense of barbarity.  For writers like Coryate and Roe, who wrote for audiences of higher status, the barbarity of Jahangir would have seemed even more deplorable.  Once this discourse of Moguls as not just primitive and cruel, but also behaving like lower class bear-baiting fans, becomes established, it becomes easier for the English to imagine themselves, in print most particularly, as possessing a superior culture and status, however economically and militarily inferior. 

  34. As mentioned above, descriptions of elephants were quite common and mostly uniform in the writings of early modern English travellers.  The elephant human-interaction almost always involves locals.  Only Coryate writes of physically encountering one, and he is quite proud of the moment.  His pride is reflected in his desire to be depicted doing so (25).  In a letter home to his mother Coryate writes, “I haue rid vpon an elephant since I came to this Court, determining one day (by Gods leaue) to have my picture expressed in my next Booke, sitting vpon an Elephant” (Coryate, Traueller 26). The printers of his book were sensitive enough to his request, and probably the excellent advertising image it created, to use an engraving of Coryate astride an elephant as the cover, as well as twice more inside (see figure 1) (26).  It depicts Coryate, sitting on top of a fierce-looking elephant with its left front foot raised as if to paw the ground.  Coryate is wearing English clothing, a feathered cap, cloak, boots, spurs, and a sword.  He is moustachioed, carries a roll of papers in his right hand – perhaps his travel notes -- and has his left hand posed on his hip.  The effect borders on the absurd.  No saddle or means of guiding the elephant are present; Coryate looks perched on top of the animal, almost side-saddle.  The sword and spurs are also incongruous; spurs would be useless in riding an elephant.  While the papers reflect literacy, their use on an elephant’s back would be limited.  It looks as if Coryate had been intending to ride a horse and was instead assigned an elephant and is making the best of the situation.  Further, if we recall the great size of a typical elephant, the figure of Coryate is out of scale, much too large.  Reminiscent of Roman use of captured elephants, the moment is triumphant.  Coryate is on top.  He appears to be, however awkwardly, in control and at ease on an angry elephant.  The engraving is both a souvenir-style image and a depiction of Coryate’s determination to reach his goal, no matter how distant.  To read this image as we have read the depictions of Jahangir adds further levels of meaning.  If Coryate stands in for the literate, adventuresome Englishman and the elephant stands in for an exotic and dangerous Mogul India, the image becomes one of a precarious English endeavour in an alien land.  The binary of civilized and barbaric is clearly re-established.  Even more, the fierceness of the elephant and the civilized attire of the Englishman re-define the border between the animal and the human.  Thus, at least for the printer of early modern English travel writing the image that will sell books is one that establishes the English as civilized and dominant, however comically so. 

  35. Returning to the imaginary, can this image and the unequal relationship between English and Mogul cultures it constructs, reflect an aspect of the colonial imaginary?  It can be seen as reflecting an English anxiety about their commercial enterprise in India and to an extent, a desire for greater influence.  The comic aspect, however, subverts these desires and instead establishes a sense of novelty more than desire.  The Englishman is on top but he is, despite his literacy, materially incommensurate to the task of domination.  In the most allegorical sense, the image seems to reflect a sense of the Englishman as intelligent and resourceful.  Unlike the lowly serpent, he is depicted as knowing that the best way to control an elephant is not from below, but from above.

  36. The comic aspect of the woodcut aside, the depictions of Jahangir and his elephants demonstrates an ability on the part of the English to imagine and to represent the Moguls as culturally inferior.  As has been suggested, this discourse seems to have arisen out of a sense of weakness or inferiority on the part of the English.  But do these discursive tropes relate to, or participate in, a discourse of colonialism, and if so, how?  With Singh, Banerjee and especially MacLean and Barbour, in mind, it is difficult to find clear traces of colonialist thought here.  Barbour suggests that the image projects a sense of touristic safety for the English in India; but he also notes that the reality of this impression is belied by Coryate’s own death in India in 1617 (Before 144-45).  The material reality of Mogul economic and military power and English weakness more readily suggests a formation of MacLean’s imperial envy: that the English did not necessarily imagine themselves dominating India as they had in Ireland or colonizing as the Spanish had done in the New World.  Rather, they saw a trading relationship with India as a means to increase economic power, stabilize their own economy and protect themselves from foreign threats, all goals that could be met without the colonial investment made by the Portuguese or the Spanish.  They could in metaphorical terms ride the elephant without having to dominate it, however comic the experience may appear.

  37. This is not to say that seventeenth century English writing of India was not used for colonialist ends in a later period.  This is clear from the reprinting of Purchas’ anthology through the seventeenth century and especially the nineteenth century projects of the Hakluyt Society which sought to valorise and institutionalize early travellers through extensive reprinting of their writing.  Singh begins her study with the trope of discovery and this study will conclude with it.  The discovery of India was the dissonance between what the English anticipated, a rich, exotic, barbaric culture available for commercial entrepreneurship and what they actually encountered, a powerful, sophisticated culture with highly developed commercial practices and little need for English trade.  This dissonance required not only a reimagining of a Mogul other, but a reimagining of the English self.  Still relying on received constructions of India and the East, the English formed the pre-colonial imaginary that opened a discursive space for them as culturally superior and thus allowing for an incipient and dynamic commercial relationship.


I would like to thank Pompa Banerjee, Imtiaz Habib, and Gitanjali Shahani and the anonymous readers at Early Modern Literary Studies for their feedback on an earlier version of this article.

1 While critics like Homi Bhaba and Gayatri Spivak have characterized these differences as more dialectic than binary, the European discourse under examination here is clearly univocal.

2 Singh prefers the term colonizing imagination (2-3). Also Kamps and Singh, Introduction, 2-3.

3 Here Raman expands his sources for the term, identifying Jameson’s "Imaginary and Symbolic in Lacan" in particular (338-95) but not mentioning Singh.

4 The term "compensatory rhetoric" I have taken from Markley, 170.

5 Varthema’s book Itinerario de Ludovico de Varthema (Rome: Stephano Guillireti de Loreno and Hercule de Nani, 1520) first appeared in English as part of Richard Eden’s The History of Trauayle, 363-405. Also Rubiés, 125-63.

6 See for example: Sebastian Münster, A Treatyse; Sebastian Münster, A Brief Collection and Compendius Extract of Straunge and Memorable Thinges (London: Thomas Marsh, 1572); Eden, History of Trauayle; Eden, Decades; Mandeville, (nine editions to 1625); Hakluyt, (1589, 1598-1600); George Abbot, A Briefe Description of the Whole Worlde (London: T. Judson, 1599); Giovanni Botero, The Travellers Breviat (London: Edmund Bollifant, 1601); Johannes Boemus, The Manners, Lawes, and Customs of All Nations (London: George Eld, 1611). First hand accounts include, Franciso de Támara, A Discoverie of the Countries of Tartaria, Scithia, & Cataya (London: Thomas Dawson, 1580); Fernão Lopes de Castanheda, The First Booke of the Historie of the Discoverie and Conquest of the East Indias, Enterprised by the Portingales (London: Thomas East, 1582); Juan González de Mendoza, The Historie of the Great and Mightie Kingdome of China (London: J. Wolfe for Edward White, 1588). See also, Teltscher, 17-19 and Wittkower, 159, passim.

7 For further background on the East India Company see Wood; Roe; George Birdwood and William Foster, eds., The Register of Letters &c. of the Governour and Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies, 1600-1619. (London: Quaritch, 1965); and Ram Chandra Prasad, Early English Travellers in India. (Delhi: Motilal Banarsi Dass, 1965).

8 Printed by the Hakluyt Society as The Embassy of Sir Thomas Roe to the Court of the Great Mogul 1615-1619, Ed. William Foster. 2 vols. For further background on the East India Company see William Foster, Early Travels in India 1583-1619. (Delhi: S. Chand & Co., 1968); Michael Strachan, Sir Thomas Roe, 1581-1644: A Life. (Salisbury: Michael Russell, 1989); J. Talboys Wheeler, A History of the English Settlements in India. (1878, New York: Barnes & Noble, 1972) and Prasad, passim. For contemporary accounts of East India Company ambassadors see Hawkins, 206-24; Jourdain, 154-67, passim; Downton, 500-14; Elkington and Dodsworth, 514-19.

9 Other travellers echoed Coryate’s report: Coverte 41-2; Fitch 1733; Terry 427; True Relation, 252, 254. Terry writes of it as characteristic of Islam (297, 302-3).

10 See also Hawkins, 223; Munday, 238. Jahangir mentions the annual festival, called Nawroz, but does not mention meeting Nur Mahal (121). Ellison Banks Findly writes that Jahangir did meet Nur Mahal at a Nawroz, but carefully describes the actual nature of the Nawroz as a New Year’s celebration (35-6).

11 See also Roe 214, 276, 303, 362, 363, 382, 446.

12 This idea can be found as far back as Herodotus (Wittkower 162).

13 Roe in several places describes Jahangir’s rich clothing (321-22, et al). While Terry compares the Moguls to the Romans here, the sense seems to be that despite having wealth comparable to the Romans, the Moguls lack the cultural sophistication and remain barbaric.

14 Hawkins gives a detailed inventory of the possessions and wealth of Jahangir (216-19).

15 British Library MS Cotton Tiberius B.V (pt.I), f.81. James, M.R. (ed.), Marvels of the East (De rebus in Oriente mirabilibus) (Oxford: Roxburghe Club, 1929).

16 For a study of this particular gift see Silvio A. Bedini, The Pope’s Elephant: An Elephant’s Journey from Deep in India to the Heart of Rome. (New York: Penguin Books, 2000).

17 A competing story exists that the name of the area is a corruption of "Infanta de Castile," perhaps Edward I’s wife, Eleanor of Castile.

18 In his edition of Donne, Herbert Grierson mentions several other references to the elephant (2.100-2).

19 Also, Pomponius Mela, The Worke of Pomponius Mela, the Cosmographer, Concerning the Situation of the World, Trans. Arthur Golding. (London: John Charlewood, 1585).

20 A.C. Hamilton suggests that Spenser may have picked up the name from the giant in Chaucer’s Sir Thopas, VII.807-9 (Spenser 373).

21 This was evident in other kingdoms in India (Methold 9).

22 For other instances of the use of elephants see Coverte 28; Fitch 1738; Federici 27r-29r; Hawkins 219; Jourdain 159, 163; Linschoten 29, 85-7; Münster Biiiir-Ciiiir; Roe 106, 108, 112, 123, 215, 252-53; Terry 141-53, 194, 372, 380, 403; Varthema in Eden, History 385r-86v; and Mandeville Jiiir. For a detailed study of the Mogul’s use of elephants in warfare and their cost see Gommans 121-26.

23 This belief was not uniformly held by Europeans. Browne is quite clear about the absurdity of elephant speech, for example. See Cummings 164-85.

24 Gommans writes that because they were difficult to handle in combat, the most frequent use of elephants at the time was as beasts of burden (126).

25 Coryate was not the first Englishman to ride an elephant. John Davis writes of doing so in Achen in 1599 (120).

26 Barbour sees the image as possibly derivative of Antoine Caron’s Night Festival with an Elephant (ca. 1573) or possibly Cornelius Cort’s Battle of the Romans and Persians (1567?) (Before 142). It may also have derived from Topsell’s woodcuts or those from another bestiary.

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