February 22, 2011

Jahangir's Turkey: Early Modern Globalization and Exotic Animals [Updated Nov. 2017]

The above image is one of my favorite examples of the cross-pollinations that early modern globalization brought about. It is a detail from a lavish watercolor painting created in 1618 by Bichitr for the Mughal emperor Jahangir (1569-1627). Here we find the strange juxtaposition of King James of England alongside a self-portrait of the artist, Bichitr. He is holding a small panel that seems to also depict Bichitr as he bows deeply while surrounded by an elephant and fine horses, probably animals from Jahangir's imperial menagerie.

At left is an official royal portrait of King James that probably served as the basis for Bichitr's more colorful depiction (you can click the image to see a high-res version). I suspect that a copy of this painting was presented to the Mughal court during the 1615-1619 embassy of Sir Thomas Roe, one of the early English emissaries sent to establish trade relations in India, as an attempt to demonstrate the grandeur of the English state.

The Mughals, however, were decidedly unimpressed. This is amply illustrated by Bichitr's full painting (see below) which depicts Jahangir turning away from both James and the Shah of Persia in order to converse with a humble Sufi holy man.

What I find most interesting about this work, however, is the painting of animals that Bichitr is holding. Why are they there?

Another work, by the celebrated Mughal court painter Ustad Mansur, offers an even more intriguing depiction of an animal from Jahangir's court. Jahangir described this creature in the official chronicle of his reign, the Jahangirnama, as an "extremely strange" wonder. The turkey was offered as a mate to a peacock and the bird's exotic looks and behavior became an object of debate among Jahangir's advisors, who couldn't guess where it had come from.

Ustad Mansur. India, Mughul period, 1612 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London).

As you likely have guessed, this is none other than a turkey. A domestic turkey, or Meleagris gallopavo, to be exact – a bird domesticated in Pre-Columbian Mexico and widely distributed throughout the indigenous cultures of North America. Now this iconic New World fowl was sitting in the throne room of one of the most powerful emperors in Asia.

To lock gazes with the turkey as it peers out at us from a Mughal watercolor is to confront a mystery.

By what route did this “true original Native of America,” as Benjamin Franklin called it, happen to arrive in the most powerful imperial court in Asia? In fact, this encounter was not as strange as it may at first seem. Emperor Jahangir (when not on an opium or alcohol binge) was a keenly observant man with an intense interest in nature. He kept an extensive menagerie of exotic creatures and delighted in recording their behaviors in his journal.

It was at Jahangir’s bidding that Mansur produced over one hundred natural history paintings that rival the work of any painter of the European Renaissance.  Two years earlier Mansur had painted a Mauritian dodo that is still cited by biologists as the most accurate surviving representation of the bird. In other words, Jahangir was exactly who a canny merchant or courtier would go to if they came across a highly unusual-looking bird.

From Wikipedia: "Two live [dodo] specimens were brought to India in the 1600s according to Peter Mundy, and the specimen depicted might have been one of these. Other birds depicted are Loriculus galgulus (upper left) Tragopan melanocephalus (upper right), Anser indicus (lower left) Pterocles indicus (lower right)." Hermitage, St. Petersburg.
By the beginning of Jahangir’s reign (1605-1627), Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and English ocean-going vessels were plying the spoils of American nature throughout all the major emporia of the Old World, from Senegal to Japan. Although Jahangir regarded the Portuguese and other Europeans as a negligible presence in his domain, he was well aware that the people he called ‘Franks’ had access to trade networks that were closed off to his own subjects. Indeed, Jahangir’s sole reference to the Portuguese colony at Goa in his self-authored chronicle of his reign, the Jahangirnama, was to note that his turkey had been obtained along with several other exotic beasts by a servant sent to the “vice-rei” at “the port of Goa… to purchase any rarities he could get hold of there for the royal treasury.”

To Jahangir, the Portuguese were simply go-betweens. It was the American animal – and not the European merchant – that interested Jahangir and his court.   Nor was Jahangir the only Asian potentate to be fascinated by the exotic beasts carried by the Portuguese. I've written previously, for instance, about this fascinating Japanese nanban screen from the 16th century that depicts Portuguese creole traders selling animals from faraway lands in a Japanese market:

A detail showing a richly attired Portuguese trader with a shrewd-looking Indian or African monkey.
Jahangir's turkey was, ultimately, a harbinger of great changes. It had been carried to Jahangir's court in Agra by an underling Jahangir sent to purchase 'rarities' from the Portuguese. Although the Mughals were still secure in their power in this period, with Europeans serving as little more than petty traders in the periphery, times would change. By the reign of Jahangir's grandson Aurgangzeb (1658-1707), the British, French and Dutch had made serious territorial gains and were beginning to dominate trade in the Indian Ocean.

Many global trade networks in the early modern period tended to be based around exotica likes gems, drugs and animals, but these trades had very real effects. The appearance of strange objects from unknown lands (from tobacco to turkeys) was often the first harbinger of the epochal changes that brought the colonial powers of Europe into conflict with the vast 'gunpowder empires' of Asia.

The balance of world power was shifting. In its own humble way, Jahangir's turkey had something to do with it.

Further reading:
The history of animals is still a relatively new field, so I don't believe much has been written specifically on exotic creatures and early European empires. Three exceptions I can think of are Elephant Slaves and Pampered Parrots and The Emperor's Giraffe. Virginia DeJohn Anderson's Creatures of Empire is a very interesting and provocative study of the role of the more prosaic (but perhaps most important) domesticated animals in the service of British imperial expansion. Finally, the British Library's Asian and African Studies blog is a great place to start for those interested in the material cultures of premodern Asia.

Jahangir, The Jahangirnama, (Oxford University Press, 1999), Wheeler Thackston, ed. and trans., 133-4. Som Prakash Verma, Ustad Mansur: Mughal Painter of Flora and Fauna (Abhinav Publications, 1999).

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