FITCH, RALPH (fl. 1583–1606), London merchant, one of the earliest English travellers and traders in Mesopotamia, the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean, India proper and Indo-China. In January 1583 he embarked in the “Tiger” for Tripoli and Aleppo in Syria (see Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act I. sc. 3), together with J. Newberie, J. Eldred and two other merchants or employees of the Levant Company. From Aleppo he reached the Euphrates, descended the river from Bir to Fallujah, crossed southern Mesopotamia to Bagdad, and dropped down the Tigris to Basra (May to July 1583). Here Eldred stayed behind to trade, while Fitch and the rest sailed down the Persian Gulf to Ormuz, where they were arrested as spies (at Venetian instigation, as they believed) and sent prisoners to the Portuguese viceroy at Goa (September to October). Through the sureties procured by two Jesuits (one being Thomas Stevens, formerly of New College, Oxford, the first Englishman known to have reached India by the Cape route in 1579) Fitch and his friends regained their liberty, and escaping from Goa (April 1584) travelled through the heart of India to the court of the Great Mogul Akbar, then probably at Agra. In September 1585 Newberie left on his return journey overland via Lahore (he disappeared, being presumably murdered, in the Punjab), while Fitch descended the Jumna and the Ganges, visiting Benares, Patna, Kuch Behar, Hugli, Chittagong, &c. (1585–1586), and pushed on by sea to Pegu and Burma. Here he visited the Rangoon region, ascended the Irawadi some distance, acquired a remarkable acquaintance with inland Pegu, and even penetrated to the Siamese Shan states (1586–1587). Early in 1588 he visited Malacca; in the autumn of this year he began his homeward travels, first to Bengal; then round the Indian coast, touching at Cochin and Goa, to Ormuz; next up the Persian Gulf to Basra and up the Tigris to Mosul (Nineveh); finally via Urfa, Bir on the Euphrates, Aleppo and Tripoli, to the Mediterranean. He reappeared in London on the 29th of April 1591. His experience was greatly valued by the founders of the East India Company, who specially consulted him on Indian affairs (e.g. 2nd of October 1600; 29th of January 1601; 31st of December 1606).
See Hakluyt, Principal Navigations (1599), vol. ii. part i. pp. 245–271, esp. 250–268; Linschoten, Voyages (Itineraris), part i. ch. xcii. (vol. ii. pp. 158–169, &c., Hakluyt Soc. edition); Stevens and Birdwood, Court Records of the East India Company 1599–1603 (1886), esp. pp. 26, 123; State Papers, East Indies, &c., 1513–1616 (1862), No. 36; Pinkerton, Voyages and Travels (1808–1814), ix. 406–425.