Skip to main content
The Folger Spotlight

Collection Connections: 'The East Indian' by Brinda Charry

Held on the first Thursday of the month, the Folger’s virtual book club is free and open to all. To spark discussion, speakers provide historical context, throw in trivia, and speak to relevant items from the library collection in a brief presentation to participants before small-group discussion begins.

Here, we revisit the presentation by Su Fang Ng, Professor of English at Virginia Tech and current Folger Long-Term fellow for 2023-24, working on East India Company diplomacy in Asia and early modern drama from Shakespeare to Dryden. Discussion questions for the novel can be found here.

We would like to thank the Capitol Hill Community Foundation and the Junior League of Washington for their generous support of this program.

There is a plethora of fiction about Europeans in foreign cultures but few feature non-European protagonists. The changeling “Indian boy” that Oberon and Titania fight over in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream has no speaking lines of his own and is nameless, but he plays a critical part and is an evocative character. Inspired by Shakespeare, in The East Indian (2023) Brinda Charry creatively invents a biography for an Indian boy who feels a connection to Shakespeare’s play. Her protagonist, Tony, was also separated from his mother who died of cholera, and taken from  Armagon (originally Duraspatam), a small port north of Pulicat on the eastern coast of India, to London. But his travels do not end in London. He is stolen off the streets and transported with other children to labor in the new colony of Virginia. There he encounters abusive masters, is gambled away, goes on an exploratory western expedition, meets a Native American tribe, becomes apprenticed to a doctor, and even gets married and settled in Maryland.

The novel references one of the early English voyagers, “our own English hero, Sir Francis Drake” (97), who circumnavigated the world in 1577-80. The account was only published in 1628 as The World Encompassed from Francis Fletcher’s notes, who also sailed on the voyage, but edited by Drake’s nephew to be more flattering to his uncle. The frontispiece shows Drake’s portrait while an inset world map incorporates portraits of several famous circumnavigators: Drake in the top left corner, below him Ferdinand Magellan, also referenced in the novel, in the top right the English Thomas Cavendish who followed in Drake’s footsteps, and Oliver van den Noort below, a Dutch merchant, pirate, and the first Dutchman to circumnavigate the world. Across the top are the elements and to the right, associated with earth, is a depiction of an elephant.

The World Encompassed by Sir Francis Drake (1628). Folger Shakespeare Library: STC 7161.
The World Encompassed by Sir Francis Drake (1628). Folger Shakespeare Library: STC 7161.
Thomas Coriate traueller for the English vvits: greeting. : From the court of the Great Mogul, resident at the towne of Asmere, in easterne India (1616). Folger Shakespeare Library: STC 5811.

Another traveler, and one of the most flamboyant tourists to the Mughal Empire, Thomas Coryate had himself pictured riding an elephant. Attached to the household of Henry, Prince of Wales, and a customer at the Mermaid Tavern he was acquainted with Ben Jonson and John Donne. Like Master Day in the novel, he would die in India, in Surat in the northwest. Coryate was an enterprising fellow who even learnt Persian to deliver a speech to the emperor Jahangir, and gained favor where the English ambassador Sir Thomas Roe failed.

Traffic went both ways. Scholars have been uncovering the presence of East Indians, as well as Africans, Native Americans and others in the archives. One such East Indian was christened Peter Pope, brought to England in 1614 from Bengal by East India Company chaplain Patrick Copland (c. 1572-after 1648). The boy was taught English and Latin to be useful in converting his countrymen. Peter Pope’s baptism was at St. Dionis (Denis) Backchurch in the commercial area of East London, to promote trading in the East Indies. Two weeks after his baptism, Peter was sent back to India.1 Copland published his sermon, Virginia’s God be Thanked (1622), after the safe arrival of the Virginia Company’s ships, and included some of Peter Pope’s literary productions, letters in Latin and their English translations.

Our novel’s main story, however, takes place in the Americas, particularly the Virginia colony, of which many maps were produced.  As in the one by Willem Blaeu (1658), they also offer ethnographical information, with depictions of different ethnic groups in the margins as well as plans of cities and important ports and bays. While these appear to be types, the engraver and printmaker Wenceslaus Hollar also engraved a delicate portrait of a Native American man: “Unus Americanus ex Virginia, Aetat: 23” (An American from Virginia, Age 23). Hollar is best known for the panoramic “Long View of London from Bankside,” that is from Southwark Cathedral (then St Saviour), the church at which Shakespeare worshipped. Hollar’s Native American was a real person, as it says it was delineated from life (ad vivum).

Unus Americanus ex Virginia, aetat. 23 W. Hollar ad viuum delin. et fecit. [graphic]. Folger Shakespeare Library: ART Box H737.5 no.29.

Images of American life from the earliest English colonies were watercolors produced by John White (d. 1593), governor of Raleigh in 1587, reproduced in engravings by Theodor de Bry and published with Thomas Hariot’s account as A Briefe and True Report of the new found land of Virginia (Frankfurt, 1590). Charry’s novel takes its title for Chapter V, “Invisible bullets,” from Hariot’s book recording how Natives described the devastating effect of European diseases that were decimating them. White included imaginative depictions of the Picts, inhabitants of ancient Britain, inspired by Native Americans. This anachronistic parallel between contemporary Natives and ancient Britons was replicated in the print edition. The visual program of Hariot’s frontispiece extends this anachronistic representation by featuring Adam and Eve tempted by the serpent, a juxtaposition erroneously suggesting that Native Americans were in the state of nature or even hark back to Paradise.

A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia. Thomas Harriot (1590). Folger Shakespeare Library: STC 12786.
A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia. Thomas Harriot (1590). Folger Shakespeare Library: STC 12786.

While Tony was kidnapped, adults would have signed contracts to work. Indentured servant contracts were so common that standard forms were printed with blank spaces for the parties to fill in their details, such as one signed by “Alice Lewell Spinster Aged 21” to work for William Thompson Marriner at Pennsylvania or another signed by “John Boswell of Branford Aged 21” to work for Rich Moss in Maryland. Encouragements for English colonists to populate the Virginia colony included such pamphlets as John Smith’s Advertisements for the unexperienced planters of New-England, or anywhere, or, The path-way to experience to erect a plantation (1631). Crucial in establishing the Jamestown colony, Smith was captured by the Powhatans and supposedly rescued by Matoaka (c. 1595-1617, known as Pocahontas), daughter of the Powhatan chief Wahunsenaca, in what might have been a kind of adoption ceremony. Matoaka married John Rolfe, converted to Christianity, and was renamed Rebecca. As publicity for the Virginia Company, she was taken in 1616 to England, where she died and was buried. Smith’s treatise includes a foldout map showing his portrait with a poem below praising him. At the bottom you can see the curve of Cape Cod, then called Cape James and the bay Milford Haven. The place-names replicated English place-names, such as London, Oxford, and New Plimouth.

Indentured servant contracts for the colonies of Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Barbados, 1682/3 January-1683 December. [manuscript]. Folger Shakespeare Library: V.b.16 (1-66).
Member of British Book Illustrations, The generall historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles. John Smith. (1624). Folger Shakespeare Library: STC 22790.

Tony’s medical work with the doctor would have been aided by the kind of recipe books Europeans kept. The Earl of Chesterfield, Philip Stanhope’s Pharmaceutical recipes (c. 1690), includes one on how “To make India pickle.” The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London’s medical miscellany (1634) is more learned, quoting Aristotle in Latin and Theophrastus. It references the ancients’ humoral system to explain why spices come from the East Indies:

“now seeing no Coction is made without heate, for this reason it happeneth in hott Countries there are more plants growing of pleasaunt & sweet sents then in Cold, as wee finde most of our Spices are brought from the Moluccas, Zeilan, Sumatræ And other parts of the Orientall India which all are in ^a hot Climate.”

Pharmaceutical recipes, ca. 1690, ca. 1750-ca. 1870. Folger Shakespeare Library: V.b.286 9 (Pg. 26-27)
Medical miscellany, ca. 1634. Folger Shakespeare Library: E.a.5 (folio 161 verso – folio 162 recto)

While the “Indian boy” was barely a minor character in Midsummer Night’s Dream, there would be more characters inspired by the India and the Americas on the English stage in the plays of Shakespeare’s successors. Aphra Behn’s The Widdow Ranter, or, the History of Bacon in Virginia (1689) uses the romantic plot of Matoaka (Pocahontas) and John Rolfe for her fictionalized story of Nathaniel Bacon’s 1676 rebellion to overthrow the government of Sir William Berkeley. These depictions often relied on stereotypes and were rife with inaccuracies when exploring these characters, cultures, and settings. The road to more accurate depictions of Indigenous peoples and non-Europeans would be a long one. Though its plot is fictional, The East Indian’s incorporation of rich scholarship and intricate characterizations helps to further this work of exploring a fuller picture of history.

Join us for an upcoming event!

Folger Book Club:
Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton

Folger Book Club: Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton

An "eco-thriller" that asks questions about morality and ambition, drawing on themes and relationships from Macbeth.
Thu, Aug 1, 2024, 6:30pm
Folger Virtual
Folger Book Club:
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Folger Book Club: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Our September book club selection looks at a frequently banned book about a plague year in 17th-century England.
Thu, Sep 5, 2024, 6:30pm
Folger Virtual
Folger Book Club:
Edith Holler by Edward Carey

Folger Book Club: Edith Holler by Edward Carey

A macabre tale set in 19th-century Norwich, our October selection ruminates on childhood in a theatrical setting.
Thu, Oct 10, 2024, 6:30pm
Folger Virtual
  1. Imtiaz Habib, Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500-1677 (Ashgate, 2008), 240-43.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *