Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues


Our Asian and African Studies blog promotes the work of our curators, recent acquisitions, digitisation projects, and collaborative projects outside the Library. Our starting point was the British Library’s exhibition ‘Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire’, which ran 9 Nov 2012 to 2 Apr 2013. Read more

31 January 2023

Alexander/Iskandar: Ancestor of Malay Kings

Alexander the Great was born in Macedon in 356 BC, and by the age of twenty-five, he had defeated the Persian army. Over the next seven years, Alexander created an empire that stretched from Greece to Egypt and beyond the Indus river in the east, before his early death aged just 32 in Babylon in 323 BC. However, the focus of the current British Library exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth (21 October 2022-19 February 2023), is not on the historical Alexander, but on how the great hero was adopted by countless cultures, each of which remoulded him in their own image. Alexander appears in myths and legends in languages ranging from Greek to Hebrew, Syriac and Coptic, and notably in Arabic and Persian, where he is known as Iskandar Dhu al-Qarnayn, ‘the Two-Horned’. And it was from a Persian prototype that Alexander entered the Malay world as Iskandar Zulkarnain, legendary ancestor of Malay kings.

The Malay tale of Alexander the Great, Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnain, dated 30 September 1713
The Malay tale of Alexander the Great, Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnain, dated 30 September 1713. Leiden University Library, Cod. Or. 1970.

The Malay Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnain, the ‘Tale of Iskandar the Two-Horned’, was most probably translated into Malay in the early 15th century, from an Arab paraphrase of a Persian source, which can be traced back ultimately to the Greek ‘Alexander Romance’ attributed to the writer known as ‘Pseudo-Callisthene’. This literary adoption most likely took place in Pasai in north Sumatra, which had been the first Malay kingdom to embrace Islam in the 13th century. Two recensions of the Malay tale are known today, a shorter Sumatran version which ends with the marriage of Iskandar to the daughter of king Tibus of Damascus, and a longer one associated with the Malay Peninsula, which extends to the death of Iskandar.

In the eponymous hikayat, Iskandar Zulkarnain, accompanied by the Prophet Khidr and Greek wise men, leads expeditions to the West and the East, conquers Iran and Egypt, Andalusia and Ethiopia, Syria and India and finally reaches the edges of the earth. As noted by Vladimir Braginsky (2004: 176-177), the Islamic world of the Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnain ‘widened the limits of the inhabitable world for the Malays and disclosed the unity of humankind to them and their own place in it.’

The opening pages of a three-volume Malay manuscript of the Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnain
The opening pages of a three-volume Malay manuscript of the Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnain, copied in Melaka by Encik Yahya bin Abdul Wahid for William Farquhar, dated 15 February 1817. Royal Asiatic Society, Farquhar 2, Volume 1.

The towering presence of Iskandar is not confined to the eponymous hikayat, for he also appears in other Malay literary works, including the earlier Hikayat Amir Hamzah, narrating the adventures of an uncle of the prophet, which was probably rendered into Malay in the 14th century. In this heroic tale Iskandar is renowned for converting many peoples to Islam (maka segala raja-raja di negeri Zamin Tauran itu semuanya diislamkan oleh Sultan Iskandar Zulkarnain; MCP: AHmz 607:34), and when Amir Hamzah sets out from Zamin Ambar on his way back to Rukham, he is guided on his way by landmarks erected by Iskandar Zulkarnain (berpedomankan menara-menara perbuatan Raja Iskandar Zulkarnain itu, MCP: AHmz 676:35). Iskandar Zulkarnain is hailed as a conqueror, statesman and paragon of sagacity in the Taj al-Salatin or ‘Crown of Kings’, a ‘mirror for princes’ composed in Aceh in 1603, and in the Bustan al-Salatin, the universal history compiled by Nuruddin al-Raniri in Aceh in the early 17th century.

The emblematic appearance of Iskandar in Malay literature is in the chronicle of the great sultanate of Melaka, the Sulalat al-Salatin, commonly referred to as the Sejarah Melayu or Malay Annals. Iskandar is the first actor on the scene in this text, from the manuscript below: ‘according to the teller of tales, one day Raja Iskandar, son of Raja Darab, of the race of Rum [Constantinople], from the country of Macedonia, entitled the ‘Two-Horned’, set out to see where the sun rose, and so journeyed until he reached the border of India.’ (kata yang empunya ceritera, pada suatu masa, bahwa Raja Iskandar, anak Raja Darab, Rum bangsanya, Maqaduniah nama negerinya, Dhu al-Qarnain gelarnya, sekali baginda berjalan hendak melihat matahari terbit. Maka baginda sampai pada [sarhad] negeri Hindi.)

After defeating the ruler of this country, Raja Kida Hindi, Iskandar is married to his daughter at a wedding officiated at by the prophet Nabi Khidir, and the story of their encounter and marriage is related at length in Firdawsi's 11th century Persian epic the Shahnamah. It is from this union that Malay kings trace their descent, for the Sulalat al-Salatin narrates how three princes, progeny of the line of Raja Iskandar Zulkarnain, suddenly appear on Mount Siguntang at Palembang in Sumatra. The eldest became ruler of Minangkabau, the second ruler of Tanjung Pura, and the youngest stayed at Palembang and founded the line of the sultans of Melaka. Ever since, Iskandar Zulkarnain has often been a favoured regnal name for Malay kings, and the greatest ruler of Aceh in the early 17th century was named Iskandar Muda, ‘the Young Iskandar’.

Opening passage of Sulalat al-Salatin
Opening passage of Sulalat al-Salatin, introducing Raja Iskandar Zulkarnain. Copied in Melaka in 1873. British Library, Or 14734, f. 3r. Noc

Space constraints mean that there are no Malay manuscripts featuring Iskandar Zulkarnain in the British Library exhibition, but the accompanying book (Stoneman 2022: 154) includes the royal Malay seal shown below. This is the seal of Sultan Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain Saifuddin of Ternate in the Moluccan islands, who reigned from 1714 to 1751, and it is impressed in lampblack on a letter in Malay addressed to Governor General M. de Haan of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in Batavia, dated 27 Muharam 1140 (14 September 1727). The seal is inscribed: al-mu'min billah Paduka Seri Sultan Kaicili Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain Raja Ternate sanat 1128, ‘the believer in God, Paduka Seri Sultan Kaicili Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain, Raja of Ternate, the year 1128’ (1715/6), and is decorated with scattered star motifs. Note the use of dots in the date to indicate 'place value': three dots next to the numeral 1 standing for 1000; two dots next to the next numeral 1 indicating hundreds; and one dot above the numeral 2 indicating tens.

Seal of Sultan Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain Saifuddin of Ternate
Seal of Sultan Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain Saifuddin of Ternate, dated 1715/6. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Mal.-pol. 210, f. 12.

Another sultan of Ternate who ruled later in the 18th century also adoped Iskandar Zulkarnain as part of his regnal name, as can be seen in his red wax seal below, which reads: Billah Paduka Seri Sultan Kaicili Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain Azimuddin Syah Raja Ternate sanat 1188, ‘Through God, Paduka Seri Sultan Kaicili Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain Azimuddin Syah, Raja of Ternate, the year 1188’ (1774). This seal is stamped on a contract between Ternate and the VOC, dated 16 August 1774.

Seal of Sultan Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain Azimuddin Syah of Ternate
Seal of Sultan Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain Azimuddin Syah of Ternate, dated 1774. National Archives of the Republic of Indonesia, Ternate 131

A century later, a sultan of Maguindanao – on the island of Mindanao now in the Philippines, just north of Ternate – assumed a similar regnal name. His seal, with the characteristic ‘trefoil crown’ of Maguindanao royal seals, stamped on a letter of 1888, is inscribed: wa-tawakkal ‘ala Allah huwa Datu Seri Muhammad Iskandar Zulkarnain, ‘And trusting to God, he is Datu Seri Muhammad Iskandar Zulkarnain’.

Seal of Sultan Muhammad Iskandar Zulkarnain of Maguindanao
Seal of Sultan Muhammad Iskandar Zulkarnain of Maguindanao, ca. 1888. National Archives of the Philippines, Mindanao y Sulu, SDS 9241, f. 899

The seal of a sultan of Bacan – an island to the south of Ternate – is inscribed with his name of Sultan Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain Azimuddin, suggesting the strong appeal of Iskandar Zulkarnain as a regnal name in these north-eastern islands of the archipelago, a long way from the mountains of Palembang where the descendants of Iskandar are said to have first appeared in the Malay world. In view of the founding myth, it is however hardly surprising that the Malay region where the name of Iskandar Zulkarnain still resonates most strongly is in the Minangkabau highlands of west Sumatra. The letters of an 18th-century royal minister were impressed with a seal inscribed Sultan Iskandar Zulkarnain, while the 17th-century Minangkabau prince Sultan Ahmad Syah, who fomented rebellion against the Dutch, used a seal inscribed Paduka Seri Sultan Ahmad Syah ibn zuriat Iskandar Zulkarnain, ‘Paduka Seri Sultan Ahmad Syah, descended from the seed of Iskandar Zulkarnain’ (Gallop 2019: 183-185). Even in the late 19th century, a sultan of Inderapura on the west coast of Sumatra bore the seal shown below which laid claim to the whole panopoly of Minangkabau kingship in its grandiose inscription: bi-'inayat Allâh al-‘Azim Syah al-Sultan Maharaja Alif Sultan Maharaja Dipang Sultan Maharaja Diraja ibn Sultan Hidayat Allah ibn Sultan Iskandar Dhu al-Karnain khalifat Allah fi al-‘alam johan berdaulat bi-‘inayat Allah marhum Syah, ‘By the grace of God, the Most Supreme One, Syah, Sultan Maharaja Alif, Sultan Maharaja Dipang, Sultan Maharaja Diraja, sons of Sultan Hidayat Allah, son of Sultan Iskandar Zulkarnain, vicegerent of God on earth, the champion endowed with sovereign power, by the grace of God, the late Syah’ (Gallop 2019: 178).

Seal of Sultan Firman Syah of Inderapura
Seal of Sultan Firman Syah of Inderapura, on a decree of 1888. British Library, EAP117/11/1/5

And indeed, one of the latest acquisitions for the British Library, a new publication in Malay on the history of Minangkabau, is entitled Minangkabau: from the dynasty of Iskandar Zulkarnain to Tuanku Imam Bonjol.

Book on Minangkabau
Minangkabau: dari dinasti Iskandar Zulkarnain hingga Tuanku Imam Bonjol, ed. Amir Sjarifoedin. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 2020. British Library (shelfmark pending).


MCP: references to Iskandar Zulkarnain in the Hikayat Amir Hamzah were sourced through the Malay Concordance Project created by Ian Proudfoot.

V.I. Braginsky, The heritage of traditional Malay literature: a historical survey of genres, writings and literary views. Leiden: KITLV, 2004.
Annabel Teh Gallop, Malay seals from the Islamic world of Southeast Asia: content, form, context, catalogue. Singapore: NUS Press in association with the British Library, 2019.
Richard Stoneman (ed.), Alexander the Great: the making of a myth, co-editors Ursula Sims-Williams with Adrian S. Edwards and Peter Toth. London: British Library, 2022.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia Ccownwork

Alexander the Great: the Making of a Myth is on at the British Library, 21 October 2022 - 19 February 2023

We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.


24 December 2022

A beloved in every port: Iskandar's encounters with women

The story and character of the Persianate Alexander the Great, known as Iskandar or Sikandar, underwent a great deal of transformation in poetic and prose texts over a millennium. What is most striking in the various works written for different audiences is the increasingly imaginative itinerary of the hero’s travels, especially with respect to his relationships with the women he encounters in each place.

The earliest known verse treatment of Alexander is Firdawsi’s Persian epic, the Shahnamah (Books of Kings), completed ca. 1010 CE, in which Iskandar is represented in the line of ancient Iranian kings. Although not a translation of the Greek romance, the main women of Iskandar’s life are the same with the addition of a few more.

Queen Qaydafah confronts Iskandar with his own ortrait
Queen Qaydafah confronts Iskandar with his own portrait. From Firdawsi's Shahnamah, copied at Shiraz, 967/1560 (IO Islamic 133, f.349v)
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The story of Qaydafah, ruler of Andalusia, is similar to Candace, ruler of Meroe, in the Greek romance. She at first refuses to submit to the conqueror, and when Iskandar appears before her disguised as his own messenger, she recognizes him because she had seen his portrait beforehand. In the end, she makes a pact with him. Qaydafah is not an Amazon and nor does she live in a city solely inhabited by women. The Amazon story is a brief interlude and comes a bit later when Iskandar is honoured by the women of Harum, a city inhabited solely by women.

Iskandar and the women of Harum
Iskandar's message is delivered to the women of Harum. From Firdawsi's Shahnamah, Rajaur, Northern India, 1131/1719 (Add. MS 18804, f.122r)
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It is in the India section, in a version which is unique to Firdawsi, that we learn about a physician who treats Iskandar’s over-sexed temperament that has led him to become weak and suffer from insomnia. When Iskandar started sleeping alone, he regained his health. This picture of him as a Lothario is in sharp contrast to the scholarly Iskandar of the later Persian poets.

The authors of the later courtly romances were doubtless familiar with Firdawsi’s work but took more artistic liberties in developing Iskandar’s character. Nizami’s Iskandarnamah  (1202 CE) is a mixture of epic and romance, and in this work Nushabah, an avatar of Qaydafah and Candace, is a composite character who is an Amazon queen. Nushabah’s name itself means water of life and is linked to Iskandar’s quest for immortality. The setting of this episode is changed from Andalusia to Barda‘, which falls in the poet’s native land, and which was the winter capital connected to two royal women, Mahin Banu and her niece Shirin, characters in Nizami’s earlier romance, Khusraw and Shirin.

Nizami describes Barda‘ as a virtual paradise on earth, which he links to Harum, the land of the Amazons in Firdawsi’s text. Iskandar hears about the hedonistic lifestyle of these women: the entire land appears as an idol temple (sanamkhanah) replete with beautiful and chaste women. Iskandar camps near the city from where Nushabah sends him gifts daily. This only piques his curiosity and he wants to discover the secret behind such a mythical woman and place. In the guise of a messenger sent by himself he enters her splendid court, but being a king cannot play the part appropriately. Nushabah has no difficulty recognizing him, not just by his behavior but also from a portrait her artist has made of Iskandar for a rogues’ gallery of the rulers of her time.

Nushabah shows Iskandar his own portrait
Queen Nushabah is not deceived by Alexander’s disguise. From Nizami's Iskandarnamah; artist Mirza ʻAli. Tabriz, Iran, mid-16th century (Or. 2265, f.48v)
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Iskandar persists in claiming to be a messenger and vehemently denies being the king. Nushabah shows him the portrait declaring: “I am a lioness, if you are a lion. / What is female and male among fighting lions?” This is a reminder to him of her position and ability, as well as a warning to disregard her sex since he is only conscious of her as a beautiful woman. Although Nushabah’s behavior threatens Iskandar’s masculinity, he is open to learning from her. She orders a feast for him, and her attendants arrange a repast that has precious gems instead of food on the plates. When Iskandar expresses perplexity at this, Nushabah laughs and asks him why he cannot eat what he spends his whole life pursuing! Iskandar experiences a major revelation and praises her, “A thousand blessings upon a wise woman / Who in a manly way becomes my guide.” She visits him with her magnificent entourage the next day and they spend the day and night in feasting—on real food. Such a sensual setting does not lead to any lovemaking and Nushabah remains one woman Iskandar does not conquer: “Iskandar son of Filqus was aroused, / But did not succumb to those beauties. // One, because he was abstentious, / Secondly, because one cannot hunt in a sanctuary.”

Later in the story, Nushabah makes another appearance. Kidnapped by the Rus, Iskandar vows to rescue her. On his way, Iskandar passes the Qipchaq Turkish tribes; his army is tired and has been away from women, but when they see beautiful unveiled Qipchaq women, they do not dare make any move out of fear of their king. He complains to the tribal elders about the unveiled state of their women: “A woman who shows her face to a stranger / Does not regard her pride and her husband’s dignity.” They respond that it is their custom and “Anyone who hides their eyes in a veil / Looks neither at the moon nor at the sun.”

The talisman and the Qipchak women
A black stone sculpture acts as a talisman which causes the women of Qipchaq to veil themselves. Nizami's Iskandarnamah; artist Mukund, Lahore 1593-5 (Or.12208, f.266v)
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Iskandar consults one of his wise counsellors and by a trick they manage to institute the custom of veiling among the Qipchaq women! As Farzaneh Milani explains, “Perhaps the veil, because of its symbolic potency, becomes a vessel in which to place both the anxieties and the exhilarations of love and creativity.”[1] Iskandar then launches into a major expedition against the Rus and finally rescues Nushabah and restores her kingdom to her. However, in a surprising move, he weds her to Davali, king of Abkhaz, and sends them off with his blessings. Thus, the Amazon queen is transformed into a respectably married woman.

In Amir Khusraw’s A’inah-yi Iskandari (1299 CE), Kanifu is first introduced disguised as a male warrior fighting on the Chinese side against Iskandar’s troops. When Iskandar engages in single combat with her, Kanifu is captured and her identity as a beautiful woman is revealed to him. Not only is Kanifu not an Amazon, there are no Amazons in Amir Khusraw's work. In fact, Kanifu is the only woman Iskandar has a dalliance with in this work—the marriage with Rawshanak is also not included by Amir Khusraw. Although Kanifu is ready to be his slave and they feast in his tent, their love is not consummated until later. It is when he returns from China that he takes her back as part of his booty.

Iskandar with Kanifu
Iskandar with Kanifu. From Ayinah-yi Iskandari (Iskandar's mirror) by Amir Khusraw, late 19th century (Add. Ms. 7751, f.167r)
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Tarsusi’s twelfth century Darabnamah is an epic in prose that includes some exploits of Iskandar, including his relationship with Burandukht (Rawshanak). Another work is the anonymous prose Iskandarnamah dating from the twelfth to fourteenth centuries that survives in a single manuscript in a private collection,[2] whose author picks up on the image of a concupiscent Iskandar. With seemingly inexhaustible sexual drive he boasts that “God has given me such prowess that in one night I have entered ninety chambers.”[3]  There are many episodes in which women, including his old aunt, plot to thwart or kill him, and the poet expounds on their wily and inherent evil nature. In the end, most either perish or are forced to marry the conqueror. Iskandar travels easily from Kashmir, where he marries the infidel king’s daughter, Mahafarin, to Ceylon, then onto Mecca, Yemen, Egypt, Andalusia, and China. In this text he is a holy warrior and love involves religious conversion. The second half of the work veers into the genre of dastan with even more fantastic adventures with mythical creatures and descriptions of marvels. A major part of the narrative is taken up by Iskandar’s clash with and subsequent marriage with Araqit, queen of the peris.

A later prose romance dates from the nineteenth century but is thought to have its origins in the Safavid period. The seven-volume work, Iskandarnamah-yi haft-jildi, is attributed to Manuchihr Khan Hakim and exists in several Qajar era illustrated lithographed editions, although the text varies in them quite a bit.[4] The narrative and geography are even more imaginative, freely mixing ancient Persian and Islamic characters along with historical and epic events involving demons and fairies. In the many places he and his companions visit, they encounter beautiful women and romantic dalliance usually ends with the hero being drugged or captured by inimical forces. This work belongs fully to the dastan  genre, but with its context updated. In one reconstructed modern text, Iskandar roams from Europe to India, even arriving in Calcutta![5]

Iskandar visits the city of the pharoahs
Iskandar visits the city of the Pharoahs,  from Manuchihr Khan Hakim's seven-volume Iskandarnamah. Tehran, 1284/1867 (14783.h.4)
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In the range of texts comprising verse and prose Iskandarnamahs, whether he is an over-sexed young man or a philosopher-scientist with only a passing interest in women, the Persianate Iskandar was not portrayed in a same-sex relationship, which is somewhat surprising since homoeroticism was a commonplace feature of classical Persian literature.

Sunil Sharma, Professor of Persianate and Comparative Literature at Boston University
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The British Library exhibition Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth is open at the British Library until 19 February 2023. Visit our dedicated website to find out more.

We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.


[1] Farzaneh Milani, Veils and Words: The Emerging Voices of Iranian Women Writers  (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1992), p. 7.
[2] Persian text edited by Iraj Afshar, Iskandarnāmah (Tihran: Bungāh-i Tarjumah va Nashr-i Kitāb, 1343/1964), and partially translated into English by Minoo S. Southgate, Iskandarnamah: a Persian medieval Alexander-romance (New York: Columbia UP, 1978) and Evangelos Venetis, The Persian Alexander: the first complete English translation of the Iskandarnāma (London: I.B. Tauris, 2018).
[3] Minoo S. Southgate, “Portrait of Alexander in Persian Alexander-Romances of the Islamic era”, Journal of the American Oriental Society, 97 (1977), p. 282.
[4] Yuriko Yamanaka, “The Eskandarname of Manuchehr Khan Hakim: A 19th Century Persian Popular Romance on Alexander,” Cahiers de Studia Iranica, 26 (2002), pp. 181-9.
[5] Iskandarnamah, az Farang ta Hindustan, ed. A.R. Zakavati Qaraguzlu (Tehran: Sukhan, 1388/2009).

19 December 2022

A Baniya Letter from Surat

Today's blog post looks at a mischaracterized letter shedding light on the relationships between South Asian merchants and European powers in the 17th century.

Text in Arabic script written in black ink on a sheet of dark beige paper with repeated patterns of small and large green plants with three fronds
A full view of the petition included in Thomas Hyde's letters. (Allah-o-Akbar, India, January 1655. Royal MS 16.B.XII)
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The letter forms a part of the papers of the celebrated Thomas Hyde (1636-1703), Professor of Arabic and Hebrew at Oxford, and eastern interpreter at the court. Hyde misstates in his covering note that it is “A Persian Petition to the King of Cambaia”. It is in reality a petition (‘arzdasht) written by three baniya merchants of Surat to the rulers of England in January 1655.

A text in black ink in Latin script written on the top two-thirds of a blue sheet of paper
The contents of Royal MS 16 B, indicating the fifth item as "A Persian Petition to the King of Cambaia". (Royal MS 16.B.XXI)
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The petition is headed Allah-o-Akbar, which is somewhat unusual. It is written on behalf of Cauth, Tulsidas and Benidas, humble merchants of Surat, to the Padshah and other high authorities at the Foot of the Caliphate (pa-yi khilafat) in England. They state that the Padshah must be aware that for some years now, the humble petitioners have been living under the protection of the Company, as this is a fact well-known to everyone. The Padshah of Hindustan (as they term the Mughal emperor) too knows that they are the servants of the English (naukaran-i angrez).

There is a short section referring to some past disputes between the Dutch and the English, in which some people had been killed. There were negotiations, in which it was demanded that several brokers (dallals) be handed over. After much argument, it was agreed that some guarantees (qauls) should be produced by the two brokers, and that normal trading affairs (sauda) should be resumed. In the context of this agreement, the Dutch commander had given over a written document, which was to be transmitted to the Padshah in England.

Text in Arabic script written in black ink on a sheet of dark beige paper with repeated patterns of small and large green plants with three fronds
A detail of the text of the petition. (Allah-o-Akbar, India, January 1655. Royal MS 16.B.XII)
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This brings us to the main question addressed in the petition. An English ship (jahaz-i angrez) had been seized by the Dutch, and they had taken an amount of Rs 115,549 in cash and goods (naqd-o-jins) from it, some of which belonged to Surat merchants including the petitioners. But the Dutch and their commander in Surat were refusing to answer for their role in this. It was pointed out to them that the custom in Hindustan was that looted goods were returned to traders who were third parties in the conflict. But the Dutch were refusing to listen to reason. The Dutch commander had even told the Surat petitioners who had suffered losses that since they were clients of the English, they should weep and wail with their masters in England.

The petitioners had then taken the matter to the local authorities (mutasaddis) of Surat. But they too had refused to intervene in the matter and said that the matter should be taken to the English Padshah. On account of all this, the present ‘arzdasht is being sent, in the hope that the matter will be properly resolved. It is known that the English Padshah is just, and those unfortunate people who appeal to him will find favor.

The document ends with wishes for peace.

A text in both Latin and Gujarati scripts written in black ink on a dark beige piece of paper. The pattern of alternating green large and small plants found on the reverse of the sheet is partially visible.
Detail from the reverse of the petition. (Allah-o-Akbar, India, January 1655. Royal MS 16.B.XII)
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On the reverse, we find three Gujarati signatures with their rough English equivalents:

Thus: Coth Thakur [Gujarati] – Chout Tauker

Thus: Tulsidas Parekh [Gujarati] – Tulcidas Parrack

Thus: Venidas Visangji [Gujarati] – Benidas Bissuingee

Signed by them on Swally Marine

January 26th, 1655.

image from
A portrait of a heavily-armed East India vessel painted by Isaac Sailmaker around 1685. (Royal Museums Greenwich BHC1676)
CC-BY-NC-ND provided graciously by the Royal Museums Greenwich.

This document refers to fallout of the Anglo-Dutch conflict in the Persian Gulf in the first half of 1653, in the course of which the Dutch seized several English ships off Bandar ‘Abbas (or Kamaran). References can be found to this episode in both the English and Dutch factory records. The Surat-based ship in question that was seized was the Supply, which the Dutch renamed Cabo de Jask. Unlike the Blessing from Coromandel, the Supply did not offer resistance and negotiated its surrender. Its goods, like those of the other seized ships, were rapidly sold by the Dutch on the Persian Gulf markets and amounted according to the Dutch records to 140,336 florins. The earlier episode of violence referred to may be one of several involving the Dutch at Surat in the late 1640s. The Dutch commander who dismissed the pleas of the Surat merchants was Gerard Pelgrom. All three merchants are known to us from references in the English factory records, which also contain at least one other letter (in English, with a Gujarati signature) written by Tulsidas to the Company. In the published edition of the factory records, the name of the third merchant is usually rendered as Chot or Chota, when it is clearly written as “Cauth” (in Persian) and “Coth” (in Gujarati). Finally, it may be noted that the Surat merchants were possibly unaware that there was no longer a king (or Padshah) in England at the time of the Commonwealth and Cromwell's regime.
Dr. Muzaffar Alam (University of Chicago) and Dr. Sanjay Subrahmanyam (UCLA)
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