On the Spot: Nandini Das

‘No historical record is an unmediated window into the past.’

Goa, India, c.1595. Plate from Jan Huyghen van Linschoten’s ‘Itinerario’. His books were written after returning to the Netherlands after a period in Goa, 1583-89. Wiki Commons/National Library, Singapore.

Why are you a historian of early modern travel?

I am intrigued by how we articulate what is familiar and what is strange, who belongs and who does not.

What’s the most important lesson history has taught you? 

That no historical record is an unmediated window into the past.

Which history book has had greatest influence on you?

Iris Origo’s The Merchant of Prato and Natalie Zemon Davis’ Trickster Travels: The Search for Leo Africanus.

What book in your field should everyone read?

Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s Three Ways to be Alien.

Which moment would you most like to go back to?

1583, when the first English merchant ship arrived in Goa.

Which historian has had the greatest influence on you?

Giambattista Vico.

Which person in history would you most like to have met? 

Thomas Coryate, the inveterate writer who walked across Europe and the Mughal Empire in the early 1600s.

How many languages do you have? 

I have a smattering of quite a few, but I wish I was fluent in many more.

What is the most common misconception about your field? 

That its boundaries need be defined and defended.

What historical topic have you changed your mind on?

The idea of ‘first meetings’ between cultures.  

Which genre of history do you like least?

Military history that reduces the deaths of thousands to oversimplified binary oppositions.

What’s the most exciting field in history today?

When different fields and interests intersect and speak to each other.

Is there an important historical text you have not read? 

I’ve been repeatedly defeated by Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande.

What’s your favourite archive?

India Office Records at the British Library.

What’s the best museum?

World Museum, Liverpool, for the glorious cacophony of excited children.

What technology has changed the world the most? 

The microchip.

The Mediterranean or the Indian Ocean?

Both!

Historical drama or documentary?

Historical drama.

The Parthenon or Machu Picchu?

Machu Picchu.

What will future generations judge us most harshly for?

For claiming to preserve history by erasing huge swathes of it. 

 

Nandini Das is Professor of Early Modern Literature and Culture at the University of Oxford. She is project director for Travel, Transculturality and Identity in Early Modern England (TIDE).