Ralph Fitch and Peter Mundy, Observations of India

[Click on image to enlarge] The merchant Ralph Fitch traveled extensively on the Indian subcontinent in the course of an eight-year trading mission (1583–91) that took him as far as modern Malaysia and Vietnam. Fitch was the first early-modern English traveler to produce a written account of India and its inhabitants. Yet he did not view them through entirely fresh eyes. The Portuguese had already established a military and trading presence in many of the areas he visited. They undoubtedly served as Fitch's main informants about India, though they were also his rivals (and, at one point, his captors). The Portuguese were wise to be suspicious of a snooping English merchant; the East India Company, which would eventually eclipse the Portuguese and establish virtual sovereignty over India, was established in 1600, a decade after Fitch returned from his travels.

Fitch's travel narrative appeared in the second edition of Richard Hakluyt's Principal Navigations (1599). We know that among the early readers of his account was the playwright William Shakespeare. The first stage of Fitch's journey took him from London to Aleppo in a ship called the Tiger. In Shakespeare's Macbeth, one of the three witches reports of a woman she wishes to punish, "Her husband's to Aleppo gone, master of the Tiger." Are there aspects of Fitch's account of India that might have prompted Shakespeare to think in terms of the supernatural?

The second extract is taken from the diary of Peter Mundy, who traveled in India in the years 1628–34. Mundy gives an eyewitness account of an incident of suttee (or sati), in which a woman voluntarily burned herself alive with the body of her dead husband. In addition to providing a detailed description of the event, Mundy speculates about the purpose of various ritual actions, revealing the cultural chasm between himself and those he observes.


The Voyage of Mr. Ralph Fitch, Merchant of London

* * *

The tenth of November we arrived at Chaul, >> note 1 which standeth in the firm land. There be two towns, the one belonging to the Portuguese, and the other to the Moors. >> note 2 That of the Portuguese is nearest to the sea, and commandeth the bay, and is walled round about. A little above that is the town of the Moors which is governed by a Moorish king called Xa-Maluco.

Here is great traffic for all sorts of spices and drugs, silk, and cloth of silk, sandals, elephants' teeth, and much china work, and much sugar. The tree is called the palm, which is the most profitable tree in the world. It doth always bear fruit, and doth yield wine, oil, sugar, vinegar, cords, coals, of the leaves are made thatch for the houses, sails for ships, mats to sit or lie on. Of the branches they make their houses, and brooms to sweep, of the tree, wood for ships. The wine doth issue out of the top of the tree. They cut a branch of a bough and bind it hard, and hang an earthen pot upon it, which they empty every morning and every evening, and still it and put in certain dried raisins, and it becometh very strong wine in a short time.

They have a very strange order among them >> note 3: they worship a cow, and esteem much of the cow's dung to paint the walls of their houses. They will kill nothing, not so much as a louse, for they hold it a sin to kill anything. They eat no flesh, but live by roots, rice, and milk. And when the husband dies, his wife is burned with him, if she be alive. If she will not, then her head is shaven, and is never any account made of her after. In Cambay, they will kill nothing, nor have anything killed. In the town they have hospitals to keep lame dogs and cats, and for birds. They will give meat to the ants. . . .

I went from Agra to Bengal, in the company of one hundred and four score boats laden with salt, opium, hing, >> note 4 lead, carpets, and divers other commodities down the river Jumna. In these countries they have many strange ceremonies. The Brahmin, which are their priests, come to the water and have a string about their necks made with great ceremonies, and lade up water with both their hands, and turn the string first with both their hands within, and then one arm after the other out. They live with rice, butter, milk, and fruits. They pray in the water naked, and dress their meat and eat it naked, and for their penance they lie flat upon the earth, and rise up and turn themselves about thirty or forty times, and use to heave up their hands to the sun, and to kiss the earth, with their arms and legs outstretched along out, and their right leg always before the left. Every time they lie down, they make a score on the ground to know when their stint is finished.

The Brahmins mark themselves on their foreheads, ears, and throats with a kind of yellow powder. And their wives do come by ten, twenty, thirty together to the waterside singing, and there do wash themselves, and then use their ceremonies, and mark themselves in their foreheads and faces, and carry some with them, and so depart singing.

Their daughters be married at or before the age of ten years. The men may have seven wives. They be a kind of crafty people, worse than the Jews. . . .

Here be many beggars in these countries which go naked, and the people make great account of them. Here I saw one which was a monster among the rest. He would have nothing upon him, his beard was very long, and with the hair of his head he covered his privities. The nails of some of his fingers were two inches long, for he would cut nothing from him, neither would he speak. He was accompanied with eight or ten, and they spake for him. When any man spake to him, he would lay his hand upon his breast and bow himself, but he would not speak. He would not speak to the king. . . .

We went to Benares, which is a great town, and great store of cloth is made there of cotton, and the sashes for the Moors. In this place they be the greatest idolaters that ever I saw. To this town came the gentiles >> note 5 on pilgrimage out of far countries. Here alongst the waterside be very many fair houses, and in all of them, or for the most part, they have their images standing, which be evil-favored, made of stone or wood, some like lions, leopards, and monkeys, some like men, and women, and peacocks, and some like the devil with four arms and four hands.


From The Diary of Peter Mundy (1628–34)

Now, before I take leave of Surat, I will relate one incident that happened at my being there, viz. a Banian >> note 6 woman that voluntarily burned herself alive with the body of her dead husband. The manner of it was as followeth:

A certain Banian dying at Surat, his wife resolved to burn herself alive with the body of her husband, it being an ancient custom, but now not so much by far as in former times. The Mogul having conquered their country >> note 7 hath almost abolished that custom, so that it may not be done without special license from the king or governor of the place where they dwell. This woman through much importunity go leave of the Governor of Surat to effect her desire.

The body of her husband was carried to Phulpara, which lies on the river Tapti, where are many of their pagodas or churches, and great resort thither at several of their festivals. There was it laid at the brink of the river, with his feet and part of his body in the water. His wife by him, with other women in the said river, stood up to the middle performing on themselves certain washing ceremonies, for they attribute much holiness to great rivers (especially to Ganges), and much of their religion consists in washings. In the mean time there was ready made the pile or place for the funeral fire, laying a good quantity of wood on the floor round about, which were stakes driven in, on which are put a great quantity of a small kind of dry thorns and other combustible stuff, fashioned like a little low house with a door of the same to it.

First the dead body was brought and laid on the said pile, on whom they set more wood and dry ox dung (a great fuel in this country). Then came his wife from the river accompanied with Brahmans (who are their priests). Then, compassing >> note 8 the cottage three times, she taketh leave of her kindred, friends, and acquaintances very cheerfully, without any show of fear or alteration at all, and entereth into it, where, sitting down, she taketh her husband's head on her lap. The door is presently >> note 9 shut upon her, one of her kindred holding a great pole against it, and others with long poles in their hands to right the fire if need be (or rather, I think, to knock her down if she should chance to get out).

Then she herself, with a little torch she carried with her, made of oiled linen, kindleth it first within, when her friends without with the like torches set it on fire round about, which on the sudden burneth with great violence. The spectators meantime making all the noise they can, some with drums and country instruments, beating of brass platters, crying or hollowing, clapping their hands, all in a confused manner, while the fury of the flame lasteth. This I conceive is to drown her voice if she should chance to cry.

The sides and upper part of the place was quickly consumed. Yet sat she up with life in her, holding up both her arms, which might be occasioned through the scorching and shrinking of the sinews, for she held her hands under his head until the fire was kindled. So at last, not able to sit up any longer, she fell down upon her husband's body, when by their friends they were covered with more fuel until they were both burned to ashes, which presently is thrown into the river.

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