Fitch, Ralph

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FITCH, RALPH (1550–1611), English merchant. Ralph Fitch, the first English merchant to reach India, wrote home to London from Portuguese Goa, where he had been taken prisoner by the Venetians from his captured ship Tiger. "Here be Moors and Gentiles," Fitch reported. "They worship a cow and esteem much of the cow's dung to paint the walls of their houses. They will kill nothing, not so much as a louse. . . . They eat no flesh, but live by roots and rice and milk. And when the husband dieth his wife is burned with him if she be alive" (letter of 1853, in Locke). Fitch thus reported such exotic Hindu customs as sati and cow worship, but he also wrote of how fabulously rich many Goan merchants were, and how palatial and sumptuously furnished were their homes.

Fitch escaped from captivity in 1584, venturing north to great Mughal emperor Akbar's capital, Fatehpur Sikri, which at the time had twice the population of London, as did the other great Mughal capital, Agra. His letters home now praised the fabled jewels many Indians wore on their elegant silks and satins, and spoke of the rich profusion of spices, which England desperately needed to preserve its meats and mull its ale. Enterprising Fitch went on to Varanasi, where he observed Hindus bathing from its ghats and the cremation of bodies on the bank of the busy Ganges; he then sailed farther east to Bihar's capital, Patna, where he met many wealthy merchants from Bengal and Burma. He left India in 1586 to sail off to Malaya, starting home from Southeast Asia in 1591.

Fitch's firsthand accounts of fabled India and its amazingly rich variety of peoples and produce helped whet the appetites of London merchants, who eagerly sought to sail east in the next century, when England's East India Company vessels first headed for the Indian Ocean, determined to break the Catholic Portuguese monopoly of the spice trade and run their blockade, as would the equally bold Protestant Dutch sea captains from Antwerp and Amsterdam. Haarlem-born Jan Huygen van Linschoten had arrived in Goa as secretary to its archbishop just two years before Ralph Fitch was brought there as a prisoner, and Linschoten returned home a year after Fitch did, carrying priceless secret Portuguese navigation maps in his baggage, allowing Dutch vessels to cross the Indian Ocean without being blown to its bottom by monsoon winds. The Dutch quickly established themselves in force on the Spice Islands they coveted, massacring English merchant "allies" there at Amboina in 1623. The English company then fell back to buy spices along India's Malabar coast, and at the great Mughal port of Surat, seeking silks and saltpeter from the rich province of Bengal, all of which they first learned about in reports by Ralph Fitch.

Stanley Wolpert

See alsoBritish East India Company Raj ; Goa ; Portuguese in India


Chaudhuri, K. N. The Trading World of Asia and the East India Company, 1660–1760. Cambridge, U.K. and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

Furber, Holden. John Company at Work. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1948.

Locke, J. C. The First Englishmen in India: Letters and Narratives of Sundry Elizabethans. London: G. Routledge, 1930.