Of medicine, military & mediation at the Mughal court
No European traveller had lived so long in India. Normally the firangis’ travels to India didn’t last more than two or three years,” says author Marco Moneta. And this is perhaps what fascinated him to delve deep into and learn more about Nicolo Manucci’s life. Moneta’s work, A Venetian at the Mughal Court – The Life and Adventures of Nicolo Manucci, traces the life of a European, who made India his home for more than seventy years.
This work of non-fiction is a detailed account of the traveller’s life in the country when it was under the Mughal rule — during the times of Shah Jahan, Aurangazeb and Shah Alam (Bahadur I). From being an inexperienced teenager who wanted to travel the world to becoming a self-taught medical practitioner and a renowned diplomat, the book narrates the story of a man who has witnessed India’s power struggle in the 16th Century and watched it rise to power in an unknown world.
How did you learn of Nicolo Manucci?
Among the many encounters between Europeans and people of different cultures, I was particularly interested in Indian culture because it was a different kind of encounter than the one which Columbus experienced in the New World at the end of the 15th Century, a world that was totally unknown before then. The Indian world instead was certainly not unknown to Europeans, on account of relations dating back to antiquity (Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire…). Nonetheless, until the first European ship, of Vasco da Gama’s, reached the Malabar Coast after rounding the Cape of Good Hope, the European presence in India had been practically zero, with the exception of rare medieval pioneers (Marco Polo, Odorico da Pordenone, Afanasj Nikitin). The European presence in India (merchants, missionaries, mercenaries, adventurers and so on) became relevant only from the beginning of the 16th Century. Many wrote accounts of their travels and sojourns in India. It was by reading these accounts that I came across Nicolo Manucci and his Storia do Mogor.
What prompted you to write non-fiction?
It was immediately clear to me that Manucci’s figure, his manuscript and his Indian experience, stood out from those of other European travellers. Mainly because of the length of his stay in India; Manucci arrived in India at the age of 17 (in 1656) and spent the rest of his life there, never returning to Venice. He died in Madras (or Pondicherry) at the venerable age of 82 (1720). Secondly, Manucci’s manuscripts stood out for the width, quality and richness of the accounts in the Storia do Mogor. The manuscript consists of thousands of pages and furthermore, it contains an extremely articulated narrative of Manucci’s life as well as of the historical vicissitudes of his period, which is during the regencies of Shah Jahan, Aurangzeb and Bahadur I. Finally, they also stood out because of Manucci’s strong personality, which transpires from the pages of the manuscript. As I have written, it is “an absorbing account, overflowing with exuberant, uncontainable subjectivity and represented as an uninterrupted long take, of the experiences, the thoughts and emotions of an extraordinary firangi.”
Tell us about your research.
I was engaged in this project for about four to five years, during which, it took up more than 50 per cent of my time. Reading Manucci’s manuscripts (that had been partially transcribed by William Irvine and published in 1910 with the title Storia do Mogor), comparing his two drafts (the one sent to Catrou in France and the one sent to the Venetian Senate), and reviewing the critical literature, I travelled several times to India on Manucci’s footsteps, following the many itineraries that he had travelled along and stopping in the places where he had lived: Goa, the Deccan (Aurangabad, Bijapur, Gulbarga, Bidar, Hyderabad (Golconda), the North (Delhi and Agra), in Tamil Nadu (Madras, Pondicherry, Vellore and Arcot).
It has not always been possible to cross-test Manucci’s statements. When speaking about himself Manucci is often prone to exaggerating his own adventures, his successes and the role he played in events. He doubtlessly held a very high opinion of himself. But when he speaks of actual events his testimony appears to be substantially reliable. One example concerns the house and garden in the Blacktown of Madras (that is, the part of Madras inhabited by Catholic Europeans, Armenians and Hindus); this is where Manucci claims to have lived with his wife Elizabeth before moving to the house on Big Mount (or St. Thoma’s Mount). If one checks the map of the city produced by Herman Moll in 1726 on the basis of the one commissioned by Governor Thomas Pitt in 1710, the place where Manucci lived with his wife is clearly indicated as ‘Manoucha’s Garden’.
Will you introduce us to more such interesting personalities from Indian history?
Being so lucky as to find another character with a story comparable to that of Manucci is very improbable, indeed it can be excluded. Therefore, instead of seeking the adventures of a single person, I thought that it would be interesting to investigate the entanglements of the adventures — at times curious, at times amusing, and at times unfortunate, always interesting — of some European travellers who were in India at the same years as Manucci. The project I have in mind and on which I have already started working is provisionally named “Wondering souls in Mughal India”. It will be a collective history in which the European travellers should be the screenwriters and the leading actors at the same time.
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