Part 1: Edward Terry: Leigh and Indian Food in Shakespeare’s time
What is the connection between Indian food, Shakespeare, vegetarians and Leigh? Dr Joan Thirsk, the well-known Oxford historian (who gave us a lecture on Alternative Agriculture last year) has come up with the answer. She is researching a book on English food and discovered a book by Edward Terry about his travels in India in the year of Shakespeare’s death, 1616.
Terry was born in Leigh, although his birth in 1590 is not recorded in the surviving parish registers – something that is quite often the case with this period when many of the records are incomplete. Edward was presumably from a well-to-do family, because he went to a good school in Rochester before going on to Christ Church , Oxford from 1608 until 1614, when he was ordained.
In 1615 he left England to be a chaplain for the East India Company. However, when Edward arrived in India , he met with Sir Thomas Rowe who was the British ambassador to the Moghul’s Court. Sir Thomas’s chaplain had just died and Terry was therefore providentially appointed “to save me from living the life of an aetheist”, as Rowe said.
Over the coming year, Edward Terry kept a detailed diary of his travels and in his retirement as a vicar in Great Greenford, Middlesex, he wrote the book which obtained for him a decent sized entry in the Dictionary of National Biography. Clearly the book was well received and influential because it was republished later.
In part it is his adventures which make the book attractive and in part it is his very detailed account of the lives – including the food – of ordinary Indians. What interests Joan Thirsk in particular is the description of what is one of the first accounts in English of a vegetarian diet – eaten not because meat was scarce or unaffordable but because “many natives desire to eat no flesh at all and nothing that may have had life”. He also says how healthy the poor were on a relatively meagre non-meat diet and how many of the people drink water which is “more pleasant and sweet than our water” – both things which would have caused surprise to Englishmen of the day who thought large quantities of food, including as much meat and alcohol as possible, was the ideal. What is clear, however, is Edward Terry’s surprise at the huge range and abundance of food in India which he describes in detail – from the strange fruits and vegetables, spices and sugar to meat and game, and even to drinks such as “lemon sherbet” and “toddy” made from liquid collected from tree bark.
So Leigh has one famous person from Shakespeare’s time. And he may – you never know – have started the current trend towards vegetarianism!
Part 2: Edward Terry – British Civilization for Africans 1612
However, his book also has a sad story of how one of his acquaintances, Sir Thomas Smith, tried to bring civilization to one particular African in 1612. Edward Terry had called in at African ports and describes Africans as “savages” who “were eating filth – food which a dog in England would refuse”. He then related how an African had been brought to England three years before and given a home with a good diet, clothes and lodging by Sir Thomas. “One would have thought that he would regard it as heaven on earth”. The problem was that Caroo, the African, did not agree and, as he was taught to speak English, he would lay on the floor and say “Caroo want to go home”. In due course he was taken back to Africa where, as Edward Terry says, clearly bewildered at the savage’s lack of appreciation, he shed all the English clothing and “returned to his sheepskin”.
The contrast between Edward Terry’s not very cheerful view of Africa and his fascination with all that he saw in India is great. However, perhaps his views were formed rather in the way that modern-day travellers generalize about a continent after a five day holiday in Miami or Morocco: perhaps we too are able to give a better analysis if we do a one year trip or work in a country long enough to know the people and the civilization. At least Edward Terry got it right in his splendid descriptions of India .
Parish Magazine Articles: Mar/April 2004: by Chris Rowley