Shortly after the monsoon of 1613, Portuguese traders captured a ship called Rahimi off the port of Surat. At the time, the Rahimi was the largest Indian ship plying the trade route to the Red Sea from India’s west coast. According to some European accounts, it was 153 feet long and 42 feet wide and had a capacity of more than 1,000 tones.

When she was captured, the Rahimi was carrying a commercial cargo along with 700 passengers headed to Mecca. But the most remarkable fact about this ship was that its owner was a woman, Maryam-uz-Zamani or Mary of the Age, the then reigning Mughal emperor Jahangir’s mother and his predecessor Akbar’s wife.

Instances of royal women who were warrior-politicians are well-known: Chand Bibi, who lived from 1550 to 1599, the Deccani regent and warrior from Ahmednagar who held off Akbar’s incursions; Tarabai, who lived from 1675 to 1761, the Maratha queen who facilitated Maratha expansion into northern India; and perhaps the most famous of all, Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, who lived from 1828 to 1858 and defended her kingdom against the British in the 1857 uprisings. Stories of women like Maryam-uz-Zamani, active in the world of capital and commerce on the other hand, are less known and deserve to be illuminated.

As queen mother, Maryam-uz-Zamani ‒ a Kachhwaha Rajput princess from Amber who was married to Akbar in 1562 ‒ was probably the most powerful and privileged woman of her time. She was also extraordinarily wealthy as Mughal women had several sources of income ‒ they had regular allowances, they could inherit and own land, and they were recipients of material gifts of all kinds. But Maryam-uz-Zamani was by no means a mere squanderer of her wealth. “No other noblewoman on record seems to have been as adventurous a trader as the queen mother,” writes historian EB Findly.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, India was part of a flourishing network of global trade. This was also the time when several European traders and trading companies ‒ the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the English ‒ made their way to the subcontinent’s urban commercial centers, particularly Surat, hoping to benefit from India’s wealth and profit from its diverse commercial products. Maryam-uz-Zamani took advantage of this expansive network of exchange both as a consumer as well as an investor. Her ships regularly travelled the routes from Surat to Mocha, a thriving port at the mouth of the Red Sea, bearing trading goods and hundreds of passengers headed to Mecca for the annual Islamic pilgrimage.

No queen was as great an adventurer as Maryam-uz-Zamani, writes hsitorian EB Findly. Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)

But even for the regent, trade was by no means risk free: there was always the danger of her ships sinking on their journeys or run-ins with pirates and predators. What is more, the queen mother also had to face the challenges of doing business in an increasingly competitive milieu involving merchants from across the globe. For instance, one important item that was produced in, and exported from, India at the time was indigo. Maryam-uz-Zamani too was invested in that line of business, but it appears, so were the English who had only recently made their way to Indian shores.

Around the end of 1610, William Hawkins, commander of the English East India Company’s first mission to India, instructed one of his fellow merchants, William Finch, to travel about 80 km South West from Agra to Bayana, a town well known for its high quality indigo production.

Wealth and prestige

At this time, one of Maryam-uz-Zamani’s ships was being readied for a voyage to Mocha. An agent had consequently been sent on her behalf to procure indigo, presumably an important part of the royal cargo. But just as the deal was being concluded, Finch swooped in with a higher bid ‒ an infraction no Indian would have dared to commit knowing her social standing ‒ and made away with the indigo the queen mother had reserved. An insult to the queen mother was an insult to the emperor himself: while Finch was long on his way out of Bayana by this time, his boss, Hawkins, already in trouble with Jahangir for other reasons, had to suffer consequences.

This encounter with the Europeans not only highlights Maryam-uz-Zamani’s importance but also refutes the popular misconception that the Mughals were not invested in trade but only interested in extracting agricultural revenues. The subcontinent was a thriving commercial and productive economy long before the establishment of colonial rule in the late 18th century. In fact, in the 16th and 17th centuries, European merchants struggled to establish a foothold in India. They had to depend on indigenous mercantile networks and the favours of the Indian ruling elites.

It was not the commercial victory of the colonial merchant, but the East India Company’s capture of political centres after the Mughal empire’s decline in the 18th century that enabled the English among the competing European powers to take over the production and trading networks. As I have written in an earlier column, the eastern “merchants without navies” lost to the use of naval power.

Maryam-uz-Zamani was extraordinary but by no means a singular exception. Her daughter-in-law, Nur Jahan, who lived from 1577 to 1645, continued in her footsteps. Married to Jahangir in 1611, Nur Jahan is better known as a powerful consort and as an able politician. What is less known is that she too owned ships, dabbled in indigo, was particularly interested in the embroidered-cloth trade, and collected duties for goods that came in from Bhutan and Bengal.

Nur Jahan maintained commercial relations with the Portuguese despite their constant obstructions to Mughal trade. But she also did not hesitate to undercut them by granting favours to the English in order to ensure that her own cargo made its way overseas.

Later, Jahanara Begum, who lived from 1614 to 1681, Maryam-uz-Zamani’s great granddaughter, had more access to liquid cash and immovable capital than any Mughal woman in history. Her father, Shah Jahan, who ruled from 1628 to 1659, granted her the revenue of the empire’s most lucrative port: Surat. Surat was a rich commercial centre attracting business people from around the world. Indian merchants and financiers ‒ Hindus and Muslims alike ‒ flourished here and hundreds of pilgrims gathered annually to make the journey Mecca. The revenues from this port were therefore massive ‒ Rs 7.5 lakh a year, according to a contemporary account.

Jahanara’s unprecedented patronage of great public charities, saints, architectural projects, and paintings reflects her wealth and perhaps independent clout. It appears she also invested some of these funds in structures that facilitated “business” travel. If the accounts of two contemporary visitors to India ‒ the French merchant, Jean Baptiste Tavernier and the Venetian, Niccolao Manucci ‒are to be believed, Jahanara owned a grand caravanaserai in Delhi in which only the great Mughal and Persian merchants were allowed to stay.

Jahanara Begum's patronage of great public charities and architectural projects was unprecedented. Credit: British Library (Public domain)

Limits of being a woman

The wealthy women of Mughal India had their constraints too. As any woman of her social class, Maryam-uz-Zamani would have been restricted in her ambition and movements because she was in parda, the institution of seclusion. This meant that despite her extraordinary stature Maryam-uz-Zamani would not have the same freedoms as her male counterparts. She had to rely on a complicated network of servants and agents to conduct business, and her transactions would have constantly run into problems of misinformation, miscommunication, and a bevy of middlemen trying to take advantage of her situation. Even the most prominent woman in one of the most prosperous empires of the world was not at liberty to practice without restraint anything akin to a profession.

Much of what we know about Mughal noblewomen’s active encouragement of and participation in trade during the 16th and 17th centuries comes to us from European men who interacted with them or their agents. Indian sources, primarily Persian-language Mughal accounts, do not tell us much about the Mughal involvement with trade, let alone their women’s close association with it. After all, Akbar is easily among the best known of India’s rulers but the story of his astonishing wife, mostly revealed through European accounts, is hardly familiar to most. If so little is known of these royal women and their interest in making their own world, it is even harder to glean anything about the struggles of their less elite colleagues, ordinary women from diverse backgrounds, who too would have participated in the world of trade and commerce.

The stories of privileged women like Maryam-uz-Zamani matter nonetheless. They suggest two important correctives to the conventional understanding of women’s roles outside the home. First, the desire to step beyond domesticity in a world dominated by men is neither the innovation of a particular place nor even an invention of modernity but an impulse that can be traced across different cultures and contexts. Taking a closer look and reading the available sources against the grain would divulge several instances of this globally. Second, Maryam-uz-Zamani’s story is almost certainly the tip of the iceberg of women’s work outside the home in the “pre-modern” past, and so a reminder that even in those distant times, despite formidable obstacles, women managed to step beyond the threshold. The fact that these women’s struggles to overcome barriers remain the struggles of women to date is a tragedy but also a source of strength.

Aparna Kapadia is a historian of South Asia at Williams College in the US. She is the author of In Praise of Kings: Rajputs, Sultans and Poets in Fifteenth-Century Gujarat.