It’s an instinct that’s as old as man himself – the drive to leave home, see what else is out there, perhaps somewhere better to settle than the place you call home. Many a traveller has pushed geographical boundaries, to trade, spread religions, extend political influence and build ties with neighbouring countries.
Often, the accounts they left behind were riveting – telling us as much about what they saw as the prism through which they saw the new lands they reached and the people they encountered. But more than just engrossing reading, their accounts are also a valuable repository of history because they took down tiny details that no Indian would bother to write about, everyday activities, habits and customs that might otherwise have been lost to time.
Details like these, including some entertaining insights, form the memoirs of Niccolao Manucci, a fascinating and versatile traveller, whose adventures in India are fit for a work of fiction. Born in Venice in 1638, Manucci spent almost all his adult life in India and breathed his last in Chennai c. 1720. He arrived in Surat as a 17-year-old in 1656 and never went back.
He was in India for over more than 60 years!
Manucci’s life itself was full of twists and turns. Being Italian, he wasn’t a part of a particular European imperial presence and could thus choose his loyalties. He travelled the length and breadth of the country and had many allegiances. Over more than 60 years in India, he worked for the Mughals, Portuguese, British and at times was a free agent.
For a long time, Manucci’s life was shrouded in mystery till UCLA scholar Sanjay Subrahmanyam pieced it together and gave us a timeline of his life. On first arriving in Surat in 1656, he joined the Mughal army under Dara Shukoh as an artilleryman. In his first decade in India and after Dara’s execution, he travelled to Patna, Bengal, Agra and Delhi, eventually joining the service of Raja Jai Singh. ‘The most sumptuous of European courts cannot compare in richness and magnificence with the lustre beheld in Indian courts’ is what he said about the Mughal court.
In 1666, Manucci left Mughal service, and attempt to try his luck in the Portuguese settlements of Bassein (present-day Vasai) and Goa. During this time, he had reinvented himself as a doctor with the help of books sent by his relatives as well as local vaids and hakims, and attached himself to Mughal princes as a ‘physician’.
But that game plan didn’t last long as Manucci returned to Daman and Bandra with the Portuguese. Despite being in their service for a long time, he had great contempt for them.
He served the Mughals as a physician to Prince Shah Alam in the Deccan
However, this move to Portuguese territories didn’t last long as in 1678, Manucci suffered losses in a shipwreck and returned to Mughal service as a physician to Prince Shah Alam in the Deccan. From 1682 to 1686, he again see-sawed between the Mughals and the Portuguese, distrusted by the former and having altercations with the latter, before settling in Chennai and marrying a English Catholic widow, Elizabeth Hartley Clarke, in October 1686.
Manucci occasionally served the East India Company and the Mughal administration in Arcot and enjoyed good relations with some of the British governors. From this point, he lived primarily in Madras, focusing on writing and getting his memoirs published.
He was complimentary towards the English, particularly those whom he met in Madras and also had a preference for the French. When it came to natives of the land, his contempt was blatant. He recommended against life in India for all Europeans and is meant for all natives, although he preferred life with the Mughals as opposed to life with the Gentiles (Hindus)!
He preferred life with the Mughals as opposed to life with the Hindus
In 1700, Manucci sent his memoirs to Paris, where they ended up in the hands of the Jesuits. In 1705, François Catrou (1659–1737), a monk suppressed the memoirs and wrote a distorted version of the text as ‘Histoire générale de l’empire du Mogol depuis sa fondation, sur les mémoires portugais de M. Manouchi’ (Paris, 1705). This made Manucci livid, and although he made efforts to have his memoirs published for the rest of his life, the first proper translation somewhat true to his original would appear only in 1907.
In 1706, after the death of his wife, Manucci sold his house in Madras and divided his time between Pondicherry and Madras, interestingly territories under the control of the French and British, respectively. He died in 1720, which is known because his will was deposited in Pondicherry in August 1720 by a Capuchin monk, Father Thomas.
Manucci and his work had fallen into obscurity till it was translated into English by William Irvine of the Bengal Civil Services in the early 1900s and published in 1907 as Storia do Mogor or Mogul India; 1653 – 1708. The text, written in Portuguese by an Italian living in India, was first popularised by a French adaptation and finally an English translation!
Traveller, hustler, observer, ‘doctor’, emissary and soldier, Manucci wore many hats during his time in India. But one thing is certain, he lived in exciting times!
Catch the observations made by Manucci in his memoirs here
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