Mirza Abu Taleb Khan: Europe Through Indian Eyes

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The British Museum, the Tower of London, the Louvre and Parisian cafes are on the itinerary of most Indian tourists who visit Europe. While social media and the Internet have introduced a great deal of familiarity to these places, imagine how exotic and strange they must have seemed to the earliest Indian travellers to Europe.

While there are numerous travelogues of European visitors to India, we hardly hear stories about Europe from an Indian perspective, dating back to the early 19th century. The most interesting among these is the fascinating account written by Mirza Abu Taleb Khan, an Indian munshi from Bengal, who travelled extensively across Europe and the Middle East between 1799 and 1803. Here are some snippets from Masir Talib fi Bilad Afranji, or the ‘Travels of Abu Taleb Khan’.

From his amazement at well-stocked European kitchens to his surprise at political cartoons in newspapers, we get a riveting glimpse into Europe through Indian eyes.

Who was Abu Taleb Khan?

Abu Taleb Khan was born in 1752 CE into a family of high-ranking Shiite Turks in Awadh. While his relatives held senior positions in the court of the Nawab of Lucknow, in 1766 CE his family had to move to Murshidabad and Calcutta, due to a political misstep that his father took.

Abu Taleb had worked briefly in the Awadh administration before court politics made him opt out and seek employment with the British East India Company. It was when he was assisting in the collection of revenue from Awadh for the British that he struck up a close friendship with Capt David Richardson, a Scottish military officer and translator for the East India Company in the Lucknow court. Years later, in 1799 CE, when Richardson returned to England, he invited Abu Taleb to accompany him.

Bank of Tigris, Baghdad, 18th century
Bank of Tigris, Baghdad, 18th century

It was the beginning of a fascinating journey, which would take Abu Taleb through present-day South Africa, Ireland, England, France, Malta, Turkey and Iraq before returning to India in 1803.

The Start of an Odyssey

Natives of Nicobar Island
Natives of Nicobar Island

Abu Taleb and Richardson left Calcutta on 7th February 1799 CE, stopping at the Andaman and Nicobar islands to pick up provisions and to rest. It was here that Abu Taleb encountered Nicobarese tribes, who had lived in isolation for centuries. He wrote what is perhaps the earliest description of the Nicobarese from an Indian perspective:

“Several of the inhabitants (of Nicobar) came off to us from all the three islands, and brought with them an abundance of delicious cocoanuts, pineapples, plantains, limes and other fruits, also ducks and fowls, all of which they readily exchanged for cloth, tobacco, and any kind of cutlery; but they did not appear to set much value upon gold or silver, these precious metals not being yet current among them… The inhabitants are well made and very muscular. …Their clothing consists merely of a narrow bandage round the waist.”

Abu Taleb and Richardson sailed for Cape Town in South Africa. As they approached the African coast, Abu Taleb spotted whales, which he called “wonders of the deep” and wrote how each of them was “four times the size of a largest elephant”.

A view of the Table Top Mountain at Cape Town
A view of the Table Top Mountain at Cape Town

Much like any modern-day traveller, what Abu Taleb found most interesting there was the Table Top Mountain, which offers a jaw-dropping view of Cape Town and Table Bay below.

The pair left Cape Town in late September and arrived in Cork, Ireland, in December 1799 CE. Interestingly, they halted at the Island of St Helena, off the coast of West Africa, where French dictator Napoleon Bonaparte would be exiled 16 years later. Taleb was very impressed with the beauty of the Island, which he described as “one of the most romantic spots in the world”.

The duo disembarked in Cork and travelled onwards to Dublin. Funnily, the first thing Abu Taleb found amazing about Europe was just how well-stocked their kitchens were. Staying in the house of Captain Baker, an acquaintance of Abu Taleb from India, he writes:

“I was particularly pleased with his (Captain Baker’s) cook-room, it being the first regular kitchen I had seen: the dressers for holding china, the racks for depositing the dishes after they were washed, the pipes of cold and boilers of hot water, which, merely by turning a cock, were supplied in any quantity that could be required, with the machinery for roasting meat, which was turned by smoke, all excited my admiration.”

But the next thing that struck him on his way to Dublin was the poverty in British-ruled Ireland. Taleb writes:

“The poverty of the peasants, or common people, in this country (Ireland), is such that the peasants of India are rich when compared to them… Whilst on our journey, the boys frequently ran for miles with the coach, in hopes of obtaining a piece of bread.”

In Dublin, Abu Taleb marvelled at the concept of street lighting, which he had never experienced before. He compared it to the illumination of the Bara Imambara in Lucknow. In Dublin, he also met Sake Dean Mahomed an Indian living in Ireland, who is said to have invented shampoo and in 1794 CE had published The Travels of Dean Mahomet, the first book by an Indian translated into English. Abu Taleb was very impressed with the friendliness of the Irish people but noted how “the common people consume immense quantities of a fiery spirit, called whiskey, which is the peculiar manufacture of this country and part of Scotland”.

Another thing he found extremely interesting in Europe were political cartoons, a concept which was quite alien to him. He writes:

The painters from these (European) countries sometimes draw ridiculous figures, called caricatures, which it is impossible to behold without laughing. They, in general, are intended to exhibit the defects or follies of the Ministers or other great men, and sometimes to turn into ridicule the prevailing passion or vice of the people at large.”

Sojourn in London

A view of the 19th century London
A view of the 19th century London

Abu Taleb and Richardson arrived in London on 21st January 1800. Thanks to a letter of recommendation from Lord Cornwallis, a former Governor-General of India, Abu Taleb was able to meet the who’s who of British society, from the royal family and the Prime Minister to the social and cultural elite of the city. Queen Charlotte, King George III's wife, is said to have commanded him "frequently to court", and he became a sought-after social celebrity dubbed 'The Persian Prince', whose movements and meetings were reported by newspapers. Interestingly, among the numerous people who entertained Abu Taleb was the Second Lord Spencer of Althrop, a forefather of Princess Diana!

An early view of the British Museum
An early view of the British Museum

Abu Taleb also visited many places which a modern tourist would, like the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, Oxford University and the British Museum, which had then begun its life as a museum of Natural History. He says in his travelogue:

“The English are fond of making large collections of everything that is rare or curious. The place where these articles are deposited is called a museum. The most celebrated of these, in London, is the British Museum… This building contains nearly 100 apartments, each of which is named from the articles it contains. …All Nature has been ransacked to procure them.”

The London Stock Exchange, which Abu Taleb describes as being across the street from the Bank of England, was truly a remarkable institution in the way it facilitated England's trade and industry. It was an institution Indians had never heard of, nor were accustomed to encountering.

This was England at the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution and Abu Taleb visited a number of mills and factories. He remarks,“On entering one of the extensive manufactories in England, the mind is at first bewildered by the number and variety of articles displayed therein.”

French Stopover

Paris in the late 18th century
Paris in the late 18th century

From London, Abu Taleb travelled to France on 7th June 1802, which was then under the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte. Interestingly, he also mentions the French Revolution in his travelogue, which was generally ignored by most Indian writers. Oddly enough, Abu Taleb had a poor impression of the French countryside and even disliked French cuisine. He saw and visited the famed cafes of Paris, of which he wrote, “were abundant and can be found at every nook and corner of the city”. Abu Taleb writes extensively of his visit to the Louvre: “In the Louvre, all persons of science or liberal education may find an inexhaustible fund of amusement and information. The Louvre is a repository of all the pictures, select statues, and other curiosities plundered by Buonaparte and other French generals, from all the countries they have overrun. But the most valuable of them were brought from Rome…. In short, after viewing the Louvre, I considered the pictures and other curiosities I had seen in Dublin and London merely as children’s playthings.”

Abu Taleb proceeded to Constantinople (present-day Istanbul)and met Selim III, the Sultan, and from there, he headed overland through Kurdistan and Persia, visiting the Shia shrines of Karbala and Najaf, before returning to Calcutta via Bombay in August 1803, ending a four-and-a-half-year journey.

Back in India

Abu Taleb found himself employed upon his return as an administrator in Bundelkhand, and devoted his time to writing an account of his travels, which he circulated in very limited numbers as Masir Talib fi Bilad Afranji before his death in 1805.

Abu Taleb sets out his purpose in writing the book in its preface: to describe, for the benefit of his countrymen, the “curiosities and wonders he saw”, noting that many of the “customs, inventions, sciences and ordinances of Europe might be used to good effect in Asia”.

A copy of Abu Taleb's Persian-language text found its way to the well-known Orientalist, Charles Stewart, who translated it into English and published it in 1810. Today, Mirza Abu Taleb Khan's travelogue is a rare peek into early 19th century Europe through the eyes of Indians.

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