In 1570, a period of unprecedented interaction began between Britain and the Islamic world. In that year, Pope Pius V excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I of England (r.1558-1603), isolating her both diplomatically and economically from Catholic Europe. While this development was potentially ruinous for Britain, which was dependant on Europe for its trade, Elizabeth quickly realised that it also held out an important opportunity: unlike her European neighbours, she could now ignore papal edicts banning trade with the wealthy Islamic world.
Thus, commencing in 1570, and with the active encouragement of its royal court, Britain began receiving regular visits from Muslim merchants, diplomats, translators, and others. While many of these individuals have since been lost to history, some are still identifiable. There was Aura Sultana, for example, a Muslim Tartar slave girl who entered the service of Elizabeth in 1562 and became a notable figure about court. From the 1580s, several Muslim diplomatic missions arrived in London, most notably the 1599 Moroccan delegation headed by Abd el- Ouahed ben Messaoud. Styled the Legatus Regis Barbariae (Deputy of the King of Barbary), Abd el-Ouahed and his retinue stayed for six months, became local celebrities and exposed Londoners to Islamic practices.
Less well known, however, are the British Muslim converts who began to appear over this period. Initially, these individuals were merchants captured by Muslim pirates who, after being sold into slavery, were forced to embrace Islam. Although therefore initially unwilling converts, many later settled down in their new lives and found great prosperity. Samson Rowlie, for example, a merchant from Great Yarmouth captured in the Mediterranean in 1577, rose to become chief eunuch of Ottoman Algiers. When British officials later asked him to return to England, he refused, stating he preferred North Africa to Norfolk.
Precisely how many sixteenth-century British people shared Rowlie’s experience is unknown. Shortly after Elizabeth’s reign ended, however, Sir Thomas Shirley, a British adventurer held captive in Constantinople between 1603 and 1605, spoke of “many wylde youths of all nations, as well Englishe as others” who had embraced Islam and made a life for themselves in Ottoman lands. Unlike Rowlie, some of these ‘renegades’ eventually returned to Britain over the course of the early seventeenth century, where they continued to practice Islam. In 1637, their presence prompted a Parliamentary debate, in which William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury, proposed measures to re-acculturate them.
In the longer term, however, India provided Britain with its most sustained exposure to Islam. In 1612, the British East India Company (EIC) established its first trading station on the subcontinent, at Surat. By 1649, the first conversions were being reported: in that year the head of the EIC in Asia, Francis Breton, who would himself eventually be buried in a Muslim-style mausoleum on the outskirts of Surat, reported the conversion of Joshua Blackwell, the 23 year-old son of the ‘King’s Grocer’. In 1654, 23 members of the EIC deserted en mass to join the Mughals; converting to Islam, they moved to Firingi Pura (Foreigner’s Town), a suburb of Delhi inhabited chiefly by Portuguese, English and French soldiers who had ‘gone over’ to Islam. Led by a Frenchman called Farrashish Khan, these converts avoided the harsh conditions of Europe’s early Asian possessions while also enjoying more social and religious freedom.
Far from being confined to the seventeenth century, conversions of this sort continued until the early nineteenth. While the majority involved mercenaries and adventurers, one in three wills kept at the EIC archives in London show officials of that organisation making bequests to Indian wives and/or companions, many of whom were Muslim. These included well-known British officials like Major William Palmer (d.1816) of the Bengal Artillery, who married the Mughal princess Faiz Bakhsh of Delhi and raised an Anglo-Indian family, and James Achilles Kirkpatrick (d.1805), the British Resident of Hyderabad, who married Khair un-Nissa, the granddaughter of the Hyderabadi prime minister. Converting to Islam, Kirkpatrick had two children with his Muslim wife and reportedly began representing the interests of her family against those of the EIC.
While conversions of this type became rarer as the nineteenth century progressed, they represent an early and oft-forgotten inter-mixing of cultures. As modern debates continue to rage about the place of Islam in contemporary British society, it behoves us to remember that British Islam did not emerge merely with the introduction of migrant communities, but with the willingness of British people to embrace that religion.
Author: Alexander Wain (IAIS Malaysia Bulletin on Islam and Contemporary Issues No. 41 (Nov.-Dec. 2017))