Colonial views in the “Persianate” travelogue

Mirza I’tisam al-Din’s travelogue Shigarfnamah Velayat is believed to be the first Persianate travelogue about Europe. As I read a translation in English (I haven’t yet been able to find a Farsi version), once again I am struck by the inadequacy of the term Persianate particularly because in usage it often conflates a field of studies with an identity. What didn’t come through in reading Tavakoli-Targhi’s Refashioning Iran and Sohrabi’s Taken for Wonder is the precise identity of I’tisam al-Din as a Muslim Indian interpreter and secretary for whom, according to his own account, Farsi is a language acquired in adulthood, and who is hired in the service of Englishmen while English colonization is spreading in India. In fact, again by his own account, he spent the “prime” of his days “in the service of Englishmen,” perhaps including Clive and Carnac who solidified the British East India’s colonial domination, and instilled in east India the first of many rulers dependent on the English both militarily and economically. Mirza I’tisam al-Din was sent to Europe to accompany a certain Captain S. (Swinton, name originally concealed by the 19th-century English translator of the text) in delivering an ingratiating letter and a gift of gold by the “Emperor of Hindoostan” to the “English Sovereign.” The Mirza is chosen as a suitable candidate for this journey by “all the gentlemen” and is provided with 4,000 rupees for his expenses. I’tisam al-Din’s personal trajectory as a native collaborator in the colonial project comes through in his writing. Although he is occasionally critical of the French, for the most part he is deeply enamored by the English. He has already accepted English superiority and propagates it from English point of view as is apparent in what he relays about the Africans, the English and Dutch colonial ports in Africa, and even the French and the Scotts. He names the French “dirty eaters” (probably a poor translation for haramkhwar) and given to idolatry (a view forwarded by Captian S.), and the Scotts as stupid and inferior even as they are braver than the English.

Of course, my reading could be skewed by the fact that I am reading an English translation of his writing made by an English colonial officer. Here’s the only Farsi version I’ve found online but I haven’t been able to view and/or download the text yet.

Posted in Knowledge base, Reflections