Red fort documents: Edward Colebrooke’s letter

Posted by Nandini Chatterjee

On behalf of Prof. Chander Shekhar

The Red Fort’s collection of Persian documents continues to tell us much about the colonial use of the Persian language and the evolution of letter-writing and legal drafting styles. The mammoth series, Calendar of Persian Correspondence, recently republished by Primus books with introductions and annotations by Professor Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, have alerted scholars to the continued used of Persian for diplomatic purposes. In a previous post, a letter to Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1808CE offers an example of such correspondence. 

In this post, we present an instance of routine administrative documents still being written in Persian in the early nineteenth century. The document is a kind of passport or safe-conduct, bearing the seal and signature of Sir Edward Colebrooke, Baronet. The letter enjoins safe passage for a consignment of lead, being taken from Delhi to Bahadur Garh, a suburb of Delhi, approximately 20 kms away on Rohtak road.

The seal on the following document may be read as:

Roshanud Daula Ziaul Mumalik Sir Edward Colebrooke Baronet Bahadur Jang Fidwi-yi Alhamd Akbar Badshah Ghazi. As Kathleen Prior, L. Brennan and R. Haines described in an article published in Modern Asian Studies in 2001, Edward Colebrooke was Resident at the Mughal court in Delhi before his dismissal from his position on various charges of corruption in 1829.  The case against Colebrooke rested, among other things, on the misuse of his seal by his Bengali secretary and agent, Ram Gopal Mukherjee.

The document presented here, although routine, offers a broader picture of the usage of Persian by Company officials in the early nineteenth century. The Persian seal with elaborate Mughal mobility-style epithets adds to similar other instances presented by the British Library. More specifically, Colebrooke’s seal shows the resumption of ceremonial obedience to the Mughal empire, which had been discontinued by Governor General Hastings after success in the third Anglo-Maratha war. In terms of style, this document is very similar to a standard Mughal dastak-i rahdari, a model of which is provided, for example in the Tarikh-i Shakir Khani. Perhaps the only difference is the use of the iswi or Christian (Gregorian) calendar, rather than the Hijri-Qamri.

Summary of contents: On behalf of the east India company officer, it has been conveyed to all the thanedars and other road keepers that they must allow the unhindered passage of the lead, sought by Khan Bahadur Jung (cousine of Nawwab of Jhajjar. The text is as follows:


تہانہ داران و گذربانان و چوکیداران و سایر(سایہ) داران و جمیع مستحفظان

طرق و شوارع متعلقہ ممالک محروسہ سرکار دولتمدار کمپنی انگریز بہادر بدانند

موازی چھار من سرب مطلوبہ خانصاحب مشفق بہادر جنگخان بہادر

از مقام دارالخلافت شاہجہان آباد بہ بہادرکدہ(گڈہ)

A passport or safe-conduct issued by Edward Colebrooke, Resident at Delhi, 1829

میرود باید کہ احدی در اثنای راہ بعلت اخذ وجہ

محصول سرکار بوجہ من الوجوہ مزاحم و متعرض نگردیدی

از حدود متعلقہ خود ھا بحفاظت و سلامت بگذارنند

درینباب تاکید دانستہ حسب المسطور بعمل آرند۔ فقط

مرقوم شانزدہم ماہ اپریل ۱۸۲۹ عیسوی


Collaboration with Leiden/Nijmegen project on the ‘Hidden History of Colonialism’

Nandini Chatterjee

Right at the start of the lockdowns imposed by our various countries due to the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic, we had a conference in Leiden cancelled. We have been particularly looking forward to this, because we had planned with meet with members of another research team on the sidelines, to discuss potential collaboration.

That research team consists of the members of the NWO-funded Colonialism Inside Out project, led by Alicia Schrikker (Leiden University) and Dries Lyna (Radboud University). 

Colonialism Zoomed In!

In keeping with the emerging research culture of this pandemic-afflicted world, we managed to meet instead on Zoom, on 20 March. This was a most productive and enjoyable session, which, as readers can see, brought smiles to our faces. We had already collected abstracts of potential papers that members of both teams could write; Dries Lyna had used these to generate a word cloud to identify the common materials, ideas and concepts that we were dealing with. 

It became obvious during the meeting that we were dealing with colonialism in South Asia and the Indian Ocean in a way that was both familiar and unfamiliar. We are interested in bureaucracies, in the everyday, in indigenous subjects and agents, but we wanted to tell the story of writing and recording, of law, using materials that are often swept under the all-encompassing myth of uniform European colonialisms. It helps that we are dealing with many empires – Mughal, French, British, Dutch, among others – and many languages – Dutch, French, English, Arabic, Persian, Sinhala, Tamil, Bengali. We share an interest in the hidden archive, and a commitment to the material history of records. 

Fahad Bishara, with his penchant for neatly turned phrases, suggested that what we are working on are ‘Paper Empires’, and that is the working title with which we are now working to produce a collection of essays in the coming months. 

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