The Storyteller Firangi: An Interview with Professor Jonathan Gil Harris (Part 1)

by Nabina Das

Filed under: Blog, Nabina Das |

I first met Prof. Jonathan Gil Harris in January of 2013, when it was bitter cold in Delhi, and not sunny enough to meet outdoors. I found my way inside the food court of the opulent and sprawling Ambience Mall in Vasant Kunj, having first got lost in the meandering alleyways of the garish superstores, showrooms and malls, all strung together on the piece of land flanking Jawaharlal Nehru University. Prof. Harris was patiently waiting for me at a coffee shop and I was embarrassed, for I was late beyond the polite limit, but something about his flaming hair was heartwarming, as was his disarming smile. I realized that unlike many academics I’ve encountered, our “Gil-sahab” (“Call me Gil, after KPS Gill,” he had quipped. “I promise to be softer though!”) was a down-to-earth scholar — a thorough expert with his ears to the ground. Further proof of this is his latest project, the forthcoming book The First Firangis. The book is about early migrants from Europe to India who were not exactly a part of the colonial project, and weren’t in specific power positions vis-à-vis the colonized Indian subjects. Most of them were stragglers and low-income misfits. Indeed, Prof. Harris’ work, which employs an unassuming storytelling style, serves as a counter-narrative to what we know as the colonial history of the Indian subcontinent given to us by historians and political experts. Given this, and the fact that the excerpts that I’ve read from The First Firangis are all tales of fascinating individuals, this interview had to happen.

Nabina Das: When is your book The First Firangis scheduled to be out in print?

Jonathan Gil Harris: Early 2015.  It will be published by Aleph Books.

ND: Would you explain the term Firangis a little for us at Prairie Schooner? I’m told in the Indian context its use is slightly pejorative. Is that so?

JGH:  Firangi is a broad synonym for the Hindi videshi (alien) and pardesi (outsider).  But these two Hindi words are also a world away, quite literally, from firangi, a Mughal-era Persian loan word from the Arabic farenji, meaning “Frank” or Frenchman – specifically a Crusader.  A variant form should be familiar to aficionados of Hobson-Jobson and British Raj literature, in which “feringhee” is a common Indian term of abuse for white colonists.  Another form will ring bells for fans of Star Trek, in which the “Ferengi” are a race of unscrupulous intergalactic traders.  As this suggests, the term has somewhat negative connotations, which is not surprising given that it was long used in India as a synonym for syphilis as well as for the British invaders.  Perversely, however, firangi has also been repeatedly employed as an affectionate name for Indians, especially in lower-caste and rural circles.  One of the Dalit leaders of the Quit India movement in Bengal was named Munshi Firangi.  And British Raj court records list dacoits from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh named Firangi Rai and Firangi Singh.  In its rural underworld usage, the name “Firangi” possesses more than a hint of outlaw glamour.  This connotation may derive in part from a buried memory of the sixteenth-century military regiments in the Deccan sultanates known as the firangiyan, foreign soldiers who had gained a double-edged reputation as experts in artillery and as low-life drunks.  From pre-colonial military culture to modern rural culture, then, the name “Firangi” is associated with foreignness, but it also signals one’s place – liminal or criminal though it may be – within a specifically Indian community, and in a way that pardesi or videshi does not.  In addition to Indian bandits named “Firangi” and the firangiyan regiments loyal to the Deccan sultanates, we find several foreigners entering into service with an Indian master and being given the new name “Firangi Khan.”  In other words, “Firangi” could name a local partisan as much as a foreign enemy.  This gives some suggestion of just how slippery the term firangi is.  A Portuguese migrant to India in the mid-sixteenth century insisted that firangi should be understood as referring exclusively to European Christians, on the basis that north African Coptic Christians were distinguished from farenji Christians living in Cairo.  Yet the term’s multiple Indian usages tell a much more complicated story.  First employed by the Mughals as a blanket term for Christians, firangi has been subsequently applied to white Europeans, brown Armenians, “black” mixed-blood Portuguese Indians, Muslim Africans, and even (as we’ve seen above) Dalits and Hindu dacoits.  In other words, its referent is far from self-evident.  I like to think that firangi doesn’t so much describe a specific ethnic or religious identity as it troubles the very idea of identity itself.

ND: Could you name the first firangis your book focuses on?

JGH: The underground Jewish Portuguese physician Garcia da Orta, personal doctor to the Sultan of Ahmadnagar, who wrote a revolutionary treatise on tropical medicine based on his knowledge of Arabic and Indo-Islamic medicine as well as his dialogues with local hakeems.  The dissident English Goan priest Thomas Stephens, who wrote an 11,000-stanza Marathi poem on the history of the world that turns Christ into a swami and the tree in Paradise into a kalpataru.  The Russian slave-turned-Gujarati general Malik Ayaaz, who fortified Diu and successfully repelled the first onslaught of the Portuguese.  The Macau slave-turned-warrior Chin Ali, who also fought the Portuguese with his master the Kunjali of Marrakar near Calicut.  The Dutch captain Eustachius de Lannoy, who joined the army of Travancore.  The Ethiopian slave-turned-soldier, regent and urban planner, Malik Ambar, who designed and built the multicultural city that was to become Aurangabad.  The Basque jeweller Augustin Hiriart, known to the Mughals as Hunarmand, who created the Peacock Throne and other ingenious devices in Agra using a mixture of Hindustani and European techniques.  The English fakir Thomas Coryate, based in Ajmer, who performed an oration to Jahangir in Farsi that was a blend of Persian, Hindustani and English theatrical styles.  The Armenian-Jewish Sa’id Sarmad, who migrated to Karachi, Hyderabad, and finally Delhi and wrote three hundred and twenty-one Persian rubaiyyat (or quatrains) that amounted to a gloriously homoerotic manifesto for interfaith tolerance.  The Portuguese salt-trader turned pirate Sebastião Gonçalves Tibau, who forged a unique island “kingdom” in the Sundarbans that made fellows of European, Burmese, and Bengali freebooters.  And Niccolo Manucci, a young Venetian runaway who served as a Mughal artilleryman before becoming a siddha vaidya – a traditional Tamil physician – near Madras.

ND: Among the first firangis, do we know any women? Pirates, stragglers, female dons, wives or plain travelers?

JGH: I devote a chapter to two women, the Armenian Juliana Firangi and the Portuguese Juliana Dias de Costa, both of whom served in the Mughal court and lived in the Mughal harem.  Before the British ascendancy, it is very hard to find European women in India outside of Goa and the other Portuguese territories.  That’s partly because, in a fiercely patriarchal age, not many women had the opportunity to travel.  But it’s also because the records, already scant when it comes to male migrants, are close to non-existent when it comes to their female counterparts.  Even if one turns to Indian sources, such as the sixteenth-century Mughal historian Abu’l Fazl’s Akbarnama, women are barely permitted entry into the official record.  The Mughal harem is one place where we find mention of foreign women – not just among the Mughal wives, but also among the slaves.  For example, many of the harem’s guards were Ethiopian and Circassian women.  And the wife of a Polish visitor to India in the 1530s was housed in Humayun’s harem.

ND: Elsewhere you have said that many migrants who came in the 16th and 17th centuries were lone wolves, not a part of organizations like the British East India Company or the Portuguese Estado da India. From the Indian point of view, what marked them apart from the colonizing forces?

JGH: Most of the foreign migrants to India in the centuries before the British ascendancy came not to conquer and command, but with much humbler ambitions: to escape poverty and persecution.  They were viewed by Indians, or at least by Indian rulers, not as potential overlords but as potential servants and employees.

ND: What were the kind of accidents that might have driven the visitors to take off to the Indian subcontinent?

JGH: The threat of the Inquisition in Portugal and Spain drove a number of underground Jews like Garcia da Orta to India.  So did the Protestant Reformation in northern Europe, which prompted dissident Catholics like Thomas Stephens to migrate to Goa.  Other migrants were economic refugees; some were criminals; some were political dissidents; some were even what we might call sexual dissidents; and many had no choice at all in the matter of their migration, having arrived in India as slaves, indentured servants, or possessions of their lords, masters, fathers and husbands.  

ND: You mention “Firangiyan” troops in the Deccan Sultanate. Tell us a little more about it. A special army of white strongmen? The fire power advantage?

JGH: Most of the Deccan Sultanates filled their armies with foreigners.  The firangiyan was just one regiment among several; the most potent foreign troops were the Habshis, soldiers of largely Ethiopian origin.  The white Deccani soldiers were valued less for their strength than for their supposed skill with artillery, a new and devastating technology of the time.  Although the firangi recruits gained a reputation for drunkenness, some of them did very well for themselves.  Sancho Pires, a Portuguese migrant to Goa in the 1530s, fled to the sultanate of Ahmadnagar following a charge of murder. There he converted at least nominally, though probably not with full conviction, to Islam. Pires proceeded to find service in the Ahmadnagar army first as a bombardier and later as captain of the cavalry; he became a special favourite of Burhan Nizam Shah, the sultan, and eventually came to be known as Firangi Khan.