The Curious Case of Thomas Coryate, Renaissance Traveler to India

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This is the fifth in a series of blog posts by guest contributor Nabina Das on Indian books and authors.

Trying to read a concentrated academic tome called In Defiance of Time by Dr. Angus Vine is perhaps not quite the way to relax, especially on a writing residency in bonnie Scotland, which is more like a retreat. But once I stumble upon the chapter “A Peripatetic Education: Antiquarian Travellers and the Apodemic Arts,” my interest is heightened by the accounts of a gentleman traveler of antiquarian interests. Not to be put off by the rather long and mysterious title of the chapter, further readings about an Englishman’s travels across continents spur some refreshing thoughts related to writing itself.

Stumbling upon the accounts in Vine’s chapter where two names are particularly discussed, I definitely understand that nothing of this is “travel writing” as we know it as a genre today. The exploits of Thomas Coryate, the Renaissance traveler and lover of antiquity, are not in any way analogous to modern travel writers’ ways and means.

Then it sets me thinking of the end of the 17th century, when people were “modern” in the sense that they wished to learn about other cultures. Also, it brings to my mind the word flâneur, a term that supposedly dates to the 16th or 17th century (denoting strolling, idling, often with the connotation of wasting time). Later as we know, in the 19th century, flânerie acquired a rich set of meanings and definitions. A quick glance at the Wikipedia entry will tell you the flâneur was defined in Larousse’s Grand Dictionnaire Universel du XIXe Siècle (in the 8th volume, from 1872), where it described the flâneur in ambivalent terms: “…equal parts curiosity and laziness and presented a taxonomy of flânerieflâneurs of the boulevards, of parks, of the arcades, of cafés, mindless flâneurs and intelligent flâneurs.”

Armed with this sort of information, my own flâneur mind wants to extend the analogies to my understanding of the character of Thomas Coryate as outlined by Vine. Nothing better at this point than talking to the author himself. And so I find myself following Dr. Angus Vine around in the University of Stirling (where he teaches in the English Studies department). My concerns and questions about Coryate are mostly around the antiquarian writer’s rather loosely reported or recorded travels in India. What brought him to those parts? And if we know what did, what exactly did this sojourn seek? Was Coryate going to a specific destination? We know, for instance, from the records that he breathed his last in Surat, having undertaken a rather lengthy and arduous trek.

As far as we know, in the November of 1617, Coryate left for that journey all alone. Charles Nicoll, another writer who has an essay on the “fakir” traveler, noted that the river-port of Surat was the chief point of entry and departure for English shipping at that time. Was it that Coryate was thinking of returning to England? According to Nicoll, the approximate day of his departure from a British camp to Surat is established by a bill of exchange “which records that he deposited 35 rupees with the Ambassador and was authorised to draw the same amount from the English factors in Surat. The date of this bill is 13 November 1617.”

In absence of records thereafter, we can only surmise the route of Coryate’s last lonely trudge. To quote Nicoll: “A probable route would be to strike south-west from Dhar, via the village of Bagh, to rejoin the Narbada river which flows past Mandu. There he could take passage down into the coastal lowlands of Gujarat, to the small but ancient river-port of Bharuch (now often called by its Anglicised form, Broach) and from there by the caravan-road to Surat.”

Vine points out that while Coryate made it to Surat, he was suffering badly from dysentery, and on top of it having been supplied with sherry by merchants, he died a few days after his arrival at his “destination.” Vine quietly sums up this abundance of loose ends saying, “The journey matters at the end, not where he was going.”

Vine’s chapter also discusses George Sandys alongside Coryate, travelers who have been defined as “the man of culture who was touring Europe to complete his education, or to satisfy his curiosity, or occasionally just to seek notoriety.” Coryate was eccentric in his own methodical ways no doubt. Even while looking for ancient remains and traces of the classical world, Vine mentions that during a visit to Padua in 1608, Coryate omitted the city’s “chief attractions… its universities and colleges.” His habits, nonetheless, were thoroughly antiquarian and he focused on collection of items reminiscent of the past.

In his chapter, Vine raises a pertinent question: “How far might their (Sandys and Coryate) works be conceived as a particularly literary kind of collection?” The answer may be seen in the fact that a traveler-writer such as Coryate also kept manuals, wrote letters and maintained lists. Known collectively as the Apodemic Arts, these works have thrown open to us a curious world through the peregrinations undertaken by the gentleman traveler. To be precise, the apodemic arts are manuals on “how to travel, travel guides, if you like,” says Vine. “They’re not, however, some early modern equivalent to The Lonely Planet or Rough Guide.”

“In the true Renaissance spirit, Coryate believed in personal investigations in unknown cities and regions. Educated in the Classics as well as contemporary disciplines, his primary interest lay in finding out the expanse of the classical world. From what I tried hinting in my book, you could say Coryate’s inquiry also looked beyond this,” Vine surmises.

As was the norm, these extensive travels were inspired by Christianity’s central thesis. The antiquaries were concerned with restoring knowledge, with gathering together fragments of the past. “This restorative urge is closely bound up with the idea of the fall. The idea goes something like this: with man’s expulsion from Paradise, there was fragmentation of knowledge,” says Vine. Early modern scholars, therefore, including those of an antiquarian bent, were driven on by an urge to restore knowledge and make things “whole” once again. “Coryate, as I suggest in the chapter, shared this urge,” Vine summarizes. What needs mention though is that, while Coryate was known to be particularly steadfast to his creed, he was not interested in proselytizing in any manner during his travels.

Vine’s chapter mentions that prior to undertaking his tour of India, Coryate had published his famous Coryat’s Crudities (1611). The “tradition of learned travel” had one kind of manifestation in the Crudities (literally French “crudités” or raw presentations, a bunch of “indigestibles”), as Vine points out that the book is prefaced with its own ars apodemica that also challenges political and literary hierarchies.

Further conversations with Vine reveal the fact that in his peregrination, the eccentric Coryate – several versions attest to his unique bearing and entertaining power amounting to a “learned” eccentric behavior – was a unique character. For instance, Coryate was not a merchant, a Christian missionary, or even a member of the English embassy. He had been to the Levant earlier and much of those travels are recorded in meticulous detail. It is to be considered a part of Coryate’s colorful disposition that he belonged to the ilk of Elizabethan and Jacobean entertainers, who reveled in presenting a burlesque version of themselves. Interesting though, Coryate, known as “a butt for courtly wits” enjoyed the company of famous poets like John Donne and Ben Jonson who knew him well. But once one begins to read about Coryate, there is no denying that descriptions we get in Vine’s evocative chapter fits the Renaissance man. Coryate’s attempt was to recapture lost time or recovery of classical and ancient knowledge, for he has been trained in Greek and Latin languages and ethnography; but he definitely transcends the mere classical traveler’s tag as far as accounts about his travels go.

I start mulling if Coryate was any traveler-hero per se at all. For we’ve heard about the formidable Ibn Batutah and Hsuan Tsang among the legendary footwalkers across continents. What captures my imagination is how Coryate’s much celebrated, and rightly so, antiquarian spirit – somewhat well defined in the beginning of his journeys – gradually turns into more unstated treks as he delves deeper into the heart of colonial India at the cusp of the British Empire’s nascent march across the fabled “Orient.” If he is present in India not as a trader, a missionary, or an administrator, as would suit any member of the English society at that time involved in the colonial project, what was Coryate even doing here? Surviving on very little money, on gifts obtained from entertaining officers and civilians at English posts and factories, and the generous scope of availing rations from the latter, what antiquarian breakthroughs did this Oxford-educated man attempt to achieve here?

No wonder then, the reading of the chapter and subsequent reflections on it spin a few more afternoons of animated discussions with Vine, who is kind enough to oblige. He promptly begins with the story of Coryate’s shoes preserved in Odcombe, the English hamlet the Englishman was born in about 1576. He called himself “Odcombian” (or “Odcombiensis”), perhaps a well-thought adjective. (“Tom of Odcombe, that odd jovial author,” Jonson had called him.)

I wonder whether Coryate carried any map of “India” at that time. It appears that he was a self-fashioned traveler, and being a linguist and man of wide experiences, he was certainly recording routes and combining walking with other local modes of transport –-“peregrinating,” as we have learned earlier. Vine lays stress on the term “self-fashioned”–a term famously coined by Stephen Greenblatt–in order to highlight how the quaint traveler is “of his time” and at the same time, not a part of the establishment. Indeed, tourism or travel writing as we understand these notions today, do not suit Coryate’s passion, he asserts. It’s more to do with curiosity.

And as I speak more with Vine about this strange, odd traveler, I wonder what he might have thought of Agra during his visit; the city was sans Taj Mahal at that time! Did a vast paddy field stand there? What did the river Yamuna look like? From my reading of the chapter I find out Coryate took particular care to learn Persian and deliver a speech to impress Emperor Jahangir in Ajmer, much to the consternation of the then British ambassador to India as an East India trading post. Coryate also taught himself Hindustani to get by in the subcontinent.

The text of Coryate’s oration to Jahangir figures in Coryate’s last letter to his mother. Beginning “Lord Protector of the World, all hail to you. I am a poore traveller and world-seer, which am come hither from a farre country,” Coryate uses the word fakir to describe himself in Persian. This is a new color Coryate dabs his own portrait with. If in the context of the Jacobean court he could only be a buffoon; in India he is the wandering fakir or dervish. A new dignity he cherished in a new country. Once again, therefore, we see Coryate the “self-fashioner.”

In no way, however, should Coryate be understood as a “subaltern” in the contemporary sense, Vine demurs. The son of a rector, a product of the hallowed circles of Oxford and the who’s who of writing in England at that time, he always donned a certain persona and often lingered on multivalent act and speech. This too is a part of the Renaissance man’s bearing; for “identity,” as Vine explains, was often understood as a kind of performance in the Renaissance.

It’s interesting to learn from Vine that later in the seventeenth century, after Coryate, the Royal Society sent out questionnaires for traders in the East by way of assessing the colonial acquisition–financially, geographically and socially. Was it an indirect effect of Coryate’s travels and accounts enclosed in his letters back home? Who knows? Perhaps; although sadly, no proof exists.

While I wonder if Coryate had lived to tell his full story, would his travel accounts have influenced life and administration in the immediate colonial context in some ways, or for all of us in posterity? Then of course, Vine alerts me to the historical complexity of the times: “It is important to understand what the colonial context means, because the ‘empire’ changes drastically with time.” Coryate too might have changed. Whatever the speculation we make today, perhaps the accounts of the “legstretcher” would eventually have captured those nuances.