Abu Talib was born in 1752. His father was a Turk from Isfahan who fled to India and later from India to Bengal. He died in Murshidabad in 1768, and left young Abu Talib to care for his family. Abu Talib returned to Lucknow and found a position as a collector. During the political rivalries and upheavals in India, he tried to find shelter and employment in the East India Company by associating with Lord Cornwallis. The Company’s support was unreliable as it had little regard for its indigenous employees and collaborators. Therefore Abu Talib’s employment and status was precarious and marked by many reversals resulting in many crisis in his life. He lost many of his children and friends who died or moved away. He was “homesick and sad at witnessing such separations and at the length of stay in Calcutta.” It was at this time that a Scottish friend, Captain Richardson, who knew Farsi and Hindi and was about to leave for England visited him and encouraged him to embark on the journey with him. “If you decide to travel to England you will emerge from this homesickness and you will get to see many wonders and curiosities; and I will teach you English and guide you in any way I can in order to benefit from your company.” Abu Talib’s explanation of why he decided to travel is most interesting:
Thinking that the journey is long and full of dangers, and certainly, during the travel on water or the return trip on land during which I must pass through many territories and deal with many peoples, I will die and be free of the anxieties of this world and the injustices of people. I fortified my will to travel, and made a solemn promise to him [Captain Richardson]. The next day I rented my passage on one of the Company’s ships named Charlotte. As it happened, that ship burned a few days later. Because the journey was destined to happen, in spite of such delay, my resolve to travel did not falter. Along with same Captain I rented a cabin on another ship, Christina, whose owner was Captain Nuttleman who was from Hamburg which is German and Danish.
Once again, the existing English translation of Abu Talib’s travelogue is replete with colonial bias and errors. I translated the excerpt above, staying as close to the wording and spirit of the original. In it, we encounter Abu Talib as an intelligent agent who makes his own decision and pays his own way. Here’s the same passage as translated by Charles Stewart:
In this situation I was quite overcome with grief and despondency; when one day my friend Captain David Richardson a Scotchman, came to visit me. As this gentleman perfectly understands both the Persian and Hindoostany languages, we conversed on various subjects and at length he informed me, that, as he found his health on the decline, he meant shortly to embark for Europe, in hopes that his native air might renovate his constitution; and that he should return to India in three years. He added, “As you are without employment, and appear depressed in mind, let me request you to accompany me. The change of scene and the curiosities you will meet with in Europe will disperse the gloom that now hangs over you. I will undertake to teach you English during the voyage, and provide for all your wants.” After having considered his proposal for some time, I reflected, that, as the journey was long and replete with danger, some accident might cause my death, by which I should be delivered from the anxieties of this world, and the ingratitude of mankind. I therefore accepted his friendly offer, and resolved to undertake the journey.
That no time might be lost, I went on the following day and agreed for my passage in the Charlotte, one of the East-India Company’s ships; but in a few days afterwards, this vessel was unfortunately burned. Notwithstanding this unpropitious event, as Captain Richardson and I were determined on the business, we went immediately and engaged a passage in the Christiana Captain Netdeman bound for Denmark. [pp 66-67, 2009 edition]
The 19th century translator’s fictive embellishments aside, in the existing translation, which is the one that all the scholarly writings refer to, Abu Talib is portrayed weak and indebted to Captain Richardson who provides for all his wants out of pure kindness. There are many such reversals of agency in Stewart’s text. In keeping with the mentality of his readers, Stewart makes Abu Talib into a perfect Oriental: superstitious, emotional, weak, in need of guidance and assistance of the rational, strong and benevolent European.
As Tavakoli-Targhi points out, these sorts of translations were the trend in the 19th century in particular. Colonial officers and company men who worked in India or Bengal would translate with the help of a local munshi or outright commission the translation for a small sum, then they would embellish and Anglicize the text and publish it in England. In the heyday of colonialism and orientalism, these texts were fairly popular. They would not only garner a good money for the so-called English translator, but also give him (invariably him) a scholarly cache.
So, in short, as in Mirza I’tisam al-Din’s case, here, I have to translate. Once again, I’m finding myself a little challenged by the distant expressions and structures of the writing. But persistence is rewarding as I’m getting to hear his voice. Like I’tisam al-Din, Abu Talib is open, curious and not the least subject to identity conflicts and sense of inferiority before the Europeans. He is clear-sighted in judging his travel companions and the Europeans he encounters based on their actions and the way they relate to him, each other and other nations. His mild admiration of European industrial achievements is accompanied by his judgement of their moral and spiritual shortcomings. His travelogue chronicles his observations of natural and human diversity along his journey. Unlike I’tisam al-Din who wrote Shigarfnamah after his travels, Abu Talib was writing while traveling so his is very precise with dates and details. The Farsi title is very interesting: Masiri Talibi could roughly be translated as “Talib’s trajectory” as well as “the path of wishfulness” or “the path of aspiration” (talib means the one who wishes or aspires, often in reference to spiritual aspirations, hence the name “Taliban”). Clearly marking the book with his own name (another sign of his agency) he also plays with the meaning of his name to refer both to the function of the book as a sort of guidebook for future travelers (which he states as one of his reasons for writing) as well as the higher spiritual purpose of travel, a concept in Islamic thought: One travels in order to find spiritual clarity and fortitude.
This work shall continue in the coming days. I hope to finish selecting and translating passages from Masiri Talibi before I leave for Montreal next week.
Mirza Abu Talib Khan. Masir-i Talibi ya Safarnamah Mirza Abu Talib Khan. Hassan Khadivjam, ed. Tehran: Shirkati sahami kitabhayi djibi, 1352 (1973).
Mirza Abu Taleb. Travels of Mirza Abu Taleb Khan in Asia, Africa, and Europe, during the years 1799, 1800, 1801, 1802, and 1803. Translated by Charles Stewart. Daniel O’Quinn, ed. Toronto: Broadview Editions, 2009.
Mirza Abu Taleb. Travels of Mirza Abu taleb Khan in Asia, Africa, and Europe, during the years 1799, 1800, 1801, 1802, and 1803. Archive.Org. Retrieved 02/06/2014.
Khan, Gulfishan. Indian Muslim Perceptions of the West During the Eighteenth Century. Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Wright, Denis. The Persians Amongst the English: Episodes in Anglo-Persian History. London: I.B. Tauris & Co., 1985.
Impressions of Europe from Mirza Abu Taleb Khan’s The Travels of Taleb in Foreign Lands, 1810. Islamfiche, with revised annotation by Gail Minault
Sen, Amrit. “‘The Persian Prince in London’: Autoethnography and Positionality in Travels of Mirza Abu Taleb Khan.” Asiatic. Vol. 2, No. 1, June 2008
Narain, Mona. “Eighteenth-Century Indians’ Travel Narratives and Cross-Cultural Encounters with the West.” Literature Compass 9/2 (2012): 151–165