Every year millions of tourists, including a growing number from India, visit Paris, one of the most popular destinations in the world. Visitors strolling down the Champs Elysées, taking in fine art at the Louvre, or sampling French cuisine are following in the footsteps of generations before them, without realising it. Tour guides and travel narratives about Paris have been in print since the seventeenth century, when British aristocrats began taking the Grand Tour of Europe.
At the dawn of the 19th century, Mirza Abu Taleb Khan, an Indian voyager, offered his own account of Paris. Written in Persian in 1805 and subsequently published in English and French translations, Abu Taleb’s travelogue offers far more than a typical recitation of Paris’ obligatory monuments. He used Paris as a stage on which he could showcase his identity, subtly criticising British power while affirming his connections to it. Playing tourist in the Eternal City was no holiday from the politics of empire.
‘The Persian prince’
Abu Taleb grew up in Lucknow, where his father had served the nawab of Awadh. By the time he came of age, the nawab’s power had been eclipsed by that of the British, who installed a Resident at Lucknow in 1773. When the time came to start his own career, Abu Taleb thus sought the support of both local elites and British agents. In spite of a broad education that included history, poetry and astronomy, he fumbled in factional conflicts and struggled to secure employment. In 1795, he moved to Calcutta in search of better prospects, but failed to discover any. Four years later, approaching the age of forty and increasingly desperate, Abu Taleb let himself be convinced by a British officer to travel to London in order to open a Persian-language school. Perhaps a man like himself who was fluent in Persian and familiar with the British East India Company could find in London opportunities that had eluded him in Lucknow and Calcutta?
Abu Taleb’s ambitions did not bear fruit. As some scholars claim, they might have been a cover for a shadowy ploy prepared by the Company for the eventual annexation of Awadh, in which Abu Taleb was supposedly meant to play a part. But although he found no job awaiting him in London, he did find himself transformed into an overnight celebrity. He was greeted in the press as “the Persian Prince”, and influential people flocked to meet him. Members of the British elite had reasons of their own for rolling out the red carpet – by focusing on Abu Taleb, they could build much-needed goodwill for Britain’s imperial ventures in South Asia. Tarnished by the Hastings Trial and decades of war with Mysore, the Company’s image could be bolstered by association with an urbane and cosmopolitan Indian traveller who collaborated with its rule.
Abu Taleb was no mere tool of British propaganda, however. During his stay in London, he grew angry with his hosts’ frequent assertions about the superiority of British culture and morality, particularly regarding the status of women. He wrote an essay, widely read across Europe, defending purdah, polygamy and arranged marriage. Held back in London for two years due to the Napoleonic Wars, which complicated travel across the English Channel, Abu Taleb crossed over to France in 1802, during a brief lull in the Franco-British conflict. There he would begin a long overland journey home. He kept notes on all the sites he visited, from Calais to Karbalah, but it is his account of Paris that best embodies the peculiarities of his position.
In love with art
Abu Taleb was charmed by French culture and its sophisticated art de vivre (art of living). He admired the statues and fountains at public parks such as the Tuileries. He exclaimed that French sweets exceeded those of South Asia, the Middle East or Europe. He seems to have also savoured the French language, learning at least enough to slip French phrases into his later Persian poetry. And he adored the elegance of French manners, which were far more pleasant than those of the “irritable and surly Englishman”.
But Abu Taleb’s highest praise was saved for the Louvre, which had been recently opened to the public and was filled with artistic treasures that Napoleon had seized during his campaigns in Italy. When he came to its famous Grand Gallery (now rated a top Paris attraction on TripAdvisor), he was awestruck both by the architecture – a “magnificent room” with an “abundance of light” – and by the “thousands of the most beautiful and valuable paintings the imagination can fancy”. All the museums he had seen in London were “child’s playthings” compared to the Louvre.
Abu Taleb was not the first Indian visitor to enjoy the delights and artistic treasures of Paris. Fourteen years earlier, in 1788, the city had hosted an embassy from Mysore, whose ruler, Tipu Sultan, hoped for an alliance with France against the increasingly aggressive East India Company. The embassy was a failure, as the bankrupt French government had no resources to spare in the Subcontinent, but Tipu’s ambassadors spent their stay passing from one high-society salon to another. Their visit was recorded by the celebrated painter Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun and in sculptures held at the Louvre.
The decadent East
The circumstances of Abu Taleb’s visit were rather more awkward. After all, he was an agent of the British, touring the capital of his employer’s most dangerous enemy. Napoleon nursed hopes of one day intervening in India and fulfilling Louis XVI’s empty promises to Tipu Sultan. Abu Taleb, in contrast, dismissed Tipu Sultan as a hothead who had been drawn by an “evil destiny” into an unwinnable struggle with Britain. He seems to have regarded Napoleon in much the same light, and insisted that the French were an apathetic and feeble people who would never be able to defeat the manly and energetic British.
While savouring Paris’ delights, Abu Taleb found everywhere signs of French weakness and degeneracy. Paris was “much inferior” to London; it was dirty, cramped and poorly lit. Its servants and waiters were lazy, its streetwalkers brazen and wicked. Beneath their glittering refinement, the French suffered from inertia and “want of exertion”. It was amazing, Abu Taleb reported, that they had managed to hold out for so long against the British, given that they were inferior to them. Indeed, as long as he had been travelling from Calcutta westward to England, he wrote, civilisation seemed progressing – but the moment he stepped on French soil to begin his return to India, signs of decay appeared. The decadent East began at Paris.
In short, Abu Taleb had absorbed all the anti-French and Orientalist stereotypes of his former British hosts. France and India both appeared inferior to Britain, and both French and Indian leaders seemed fated to fall. This may have been what Abu Taleb truly thought or what he thought his British employers would want to hear or some combination of the two. Subtly praising the cultural achievements of Britain’s foe, but presenting Britain’s global hegemony as inevitable, Abu Taleb’s travelogue is anything but vacation reading. It is a theory of empire, and a sketch of the tensions felt by one imperial agent.
Modern editions – Mirza Abu Taleb Khan, by Mushirul Hasan (Oxford 2005) and Daniel O’Quinn (Broadview 2009).