The Dutches and the Danish: Lesser known colonists of South India- Part I

As a kid, I never enjoyed History classes in school, mainly because the teacher had the softest voice that would always put me to sleep right away. Even reading History textbooks was boring, as it had nothing but dates, names and other such facts which came last in the list of boring items below watching ants crawl*. But in my final year of middle school this changed when my teacher gave us an assignment on some war or other. As per my usual modus operandi, I procrastinated to the last possible minute. As the deadline approached and I had no material other than the meager stuff our textbooks had, I did what desperate kids do and asked my dad for help. Now, my dad belonged to the give-the-beggar-money-and-you-feed-him-for-a day-teach-him-a-skill-and-he-eats-for-ever school of philosophy. He would never give you a straight forward answer to any question, he would instead give you a list of 5 reference books, his library card and wish you all the best. And there in the library I came across the book** that changed my whole concept of History. It had stories, narratives and perspectives that carried me away and I ended up with a 10 page report (assignment had a 2 page limit). My teacher, amazing lady that she was, commended me on a well researched report and said that if I but worked on my summarizing skills I was sure to be a top scorer in the subject. Needless to say, I spend the rest of the year chasing my teacher after every class handing over unassigned, “well researched” reports on every topic discussed in class and she ended up giving me top grade out of sheer exhaustion.

Unfortunately, History was not offered as a subject in my high school and so I didn’t get to carry on my obsession with it and eventually it whittled down to a hobby. Now that I am an earning adult, I feed my long lost obsession by spending a great part of my time and money visiting places of historical significance. However, while being a history buff is all well and good, when it comes to trying to find present day relics of historical sites, I am completely stumped! Even if TripAdivsor will rate the site and give you some sort of direction, convincing your local “guide” to take you to these out of the way places is a completely different story. This is further confounded by the fact that I have no sense of direction***. Never was this more in evidence than when I went looking for relics of the lesser known colonists of Tamil Nadu.

Obligatory history lesson: While the Portuguese were the first to colonize and last to leave India and the French and British the largest and most influential, the Dutch and the Danish also had a significant presence in the subcontinent. While the Dutch colonized mainly the Malabar coast, they also had a few trading posts on the south east coast. Their first and major trading post in present day TN was at Pulicat and Nagapattinam respectively, but they also had significant presence at Sathurangapatnam****, in present day Kalpakkam. They traded in muslin, spices and of all things, chinese pottery!

The Danish settlers, on the other hand, were the biggest traders of tea, even surpassing the British. More interestingly they were the only colonists who had a solely mercantile presence in India and no governing body. They didn’t have many ports, but the one in Tranquebar***** is most significant simply from a story telling perspective. The settlement at Tranquebar was a serendipitous one. The original fleet of ships from Denmark set out to aid the king of Ceylon in his wars against the Portuguese. However, as perhaps the single most Charlie-come-lately episode in colonial history of any country, they arrive 3 years late and after the signing of a peace treaty between the warring kingdoms. So not only did the Danish fleet suffer diseases and inclement weather on their journey losing half their fleet, but they also found themselves as unwanted guests and an acute embarrassment to the host king. They were thus promptly packed off to a disused temple in the outskirts of the capital to keep out of trouble. The commander of the fleet then launches a few ships under his deputy’s auspices to see if he can find other patrons while trying to come to some kind of understanding with the Ceylonese king. Unfortunately, the scouting ships meet with the Portuguese off the coast of Karaikal and get throughly bombarded. The deputy, Crappe, and a hand full of his men manage to escape and wash up at Tharangambadi where they fall into the hands of the soldiers of the ruling Nayak and get arrested. But luck finally decides to shine on the beleaguered Danes as they get an audience with the Nayak of Tanjore who shows interest in trading with them. He gives them a piece of land off the rockiest part of the shore and allows them to trade off of it as long as they pay him tribute. Crappe quickly agrees and sends word to his commander, Gjedde, in the nick of time. Their ill luck never really leaves them as they battle lost ships, hostile natives, hostile colonists, bankruptcy etc for the 200 odd years of their stay in Tranquebar. But the then king of Denmark never agrees to let go of his troublesome possession simply because, I can only imagine, he doesn’t want to give up his membership of the great european colonial superpower club. Nevertheless, they manage to build a fort and cling to it through their adversity trading as a neutral player during the european wars until they are finally bombarded out by the British sometime in the mid-1800s. The current Danish government has set a project in motion to rebuild the fort with the help of the Indian ASI and set up a museum to commemorate the Danish presence in India.

On a white hot, sunshiny day, bored out of my wits, I visited TripAdvisor to see if there was anything to do nearby. Wading through innumerable suggestions for malls, movie theaters, eateries and the one and only Dakshin Chitra*****, I found a passing reference to the “Sadras fort”. My interest piqued, I went chasing this elusive reference and found that it was only 20 km from Chennai and better still quite close to Mahabalipuram. After reading a bit more about it (basically everything summarized above), I printed out sketchy directions to the place and called our trusty FastTrack driver. Since for him 3 pm would be too hot and 4 pm would be too late, we chose 3:30pm as our departure time.  My sketchy directions said to take ECR to Kalpakkam and then follow signs to the town. Although getting on ECR and getting to Kalpakkam was a breeze, finding signs to the Sadras was turning out to be a nightmare. However, we were not fazed by this too much as this is not a new thing for me. I have led this particular driver on various wild goose chases earlier. He knew from prior experience never to trust my directions as I have on various occasions given him completely misleading ones that led to some interesting detours. So completely ignoring my constant repetitions of, “but the website said…” he pulls over to ask for directions******. While the first few people gave us blank stares, we finally hit the jackpot with an old gentleman******* waiting at a bus stop. He not only knew where Sadras was, he also knew about the fort and gave us clear directions and a quick history lesson. It turns out that Sadras is the current name of the erstwhile Sadurangapatnam and originally encompassed Kalpakkam which got a separate identity when the nuclear power plant was built in the1980s.

As soon as you leave Kalpakkam nuclear power plant campus behind, you see the sea unravelling on your right and in a little while the compound wall of the fort starts to rise up on your left. The turn to the entrance to the fort is hard to miss, but the road itself is not well maintained. The first impression of the fort is neglected grandeur. We parked our car under the shade of a conviniently located peepal tree rousing some destitute looking folks who seem to be enjoying an afternoon siesta. Making my way to the entrance I notice the gate is unlocked but closed and is shrouded in dead silence except for the occasional chirping of some birds. I had read earlier in TripAdvisor that the caretaker of the area is an exceptionally knowledgeable person and keen on imparting it to everyone who enters. So once I entered the enclosure, I looked around for this individual and couldn’t find him. I did however notice a room off to the left of the fort that seemed to have some occupants and in the center of the compound around a cement bench surrounding yet another peepal tree, I found someone else napping. Unwilling to disturb anyone, I carried on with my exploration of the fort.

Since TripAdvisor said the fort was renovated, I was expecting something like say, the Gingee Fort, but unfortunately, although the structures were renovated, the area itself were overgrown with weeds. Perhaps one person fighting a sole battle against weeds, is sure to lose out. Nevertheless, since there was a clear path to the warehouses (two) I headed towards them. I wish I could describe better the ambience of the place. Imagine if you will: a baking hot sun, a late afternoon stillness broken only by the buzzing of insects in the overgrown weeds and an occasional breeze stirring, alleviating the otherwise pervasive feeling of suffocation. Then you enter the warehouses. Large arched doorways and windows, the occasional breeze amplified to whistling wind currents and a cooling shade with something scuttling around in the darkness********. Inside the warehouses are interconnected corridors which eventually lead to an abruptly cut off stairway. Presumably they led to a watch tower when the fort was in operation.  The approach to the well, although overrun with weeds is still accessible and so is that to the square dyeing stations. The Dutch having settled in a weaving community seem to have maintained a strictly mercantile communication with the locals. The practice of using square troughs over circular dyeing vats is said to have been learned from the locals. According to the ASI they apparently found a Adu pulli attam*********grid on a brick wall at the site, but as I couldnt find it, I am going to assume they took it to wherever it is they took all the ceramic pottery and other relics they found at the dig. After climbing all over the fort wall and seeing the sea on the near horizon and imagining British ships amassing to bombard the wall I was standing on, I reined in my imagination and went to rouse the caretaker. I wanted to see the famed cemetery, the only enclosure that is kept under lock and key. Once roused the caretaker was profusely apologetic at having failed to show me around the other parts of the monument and quickly opened the gate. The cemetery is by far the best kept part of the monument. The tombstones and engraved grave stones are incredibly preserved. The care-taker is surprisingly well versed in deciphering the Dutch writing (presumably he has had a lot of practice). He also showed me a “secret” room off the side of the cemetery which the ASI people stumbled upon much later in the dig. The top had tumbled down, but was remarkably very well preserved! If you had the strength of an elephant you could lift it up, flip it over and place it on top and it would fit snug with no more repair work necessary.

The fort is small and all in all doesn’t justify a separate trip, but being close to Mahabalipuram (at the most 40-45 min) it would be a great combined trip. I spent about 3-4 hrs on this trip (including round trip driving time) and came home very well satisfied as an afternoon well spent. It is a great way to learn more about the history of our home town. (photos up here)

*Clearly this list is in ascending order.

**For the longest time I thought it was the one by Bhashyam, but much later when I managed to find a copy of his book and read it I found it to be dry and not at all the life-changing one that I remembered. So either my younger self is less critical or my memory is playing tricks.

***Obviously, Geography assignments never had the same effect on me.

****Apparently named after the residing deity Saduranga Perumal. Why Saduranga I dont know. Perumal who liked square things?!

*****Although they still managed to butcher a perfectly good name.

*****Try googling for “things to do around Chennai” and you will see what I mean!

******Usually Chennai FastTrack drivers are notorious for not stopping to ask for directions. Even when it is clear that neither the passenger nor the driver has any idea how to get to a place, they are such staunch believers in the concept of random walk that they will just drive around randomly trusting that eventually they will have to hit upon the right place by sheer power of probability.

*******A word about old gentlemen of India (well OK Tamil Nadu). They are by far the best direction-givers out there. Google maps should hire them to plot accurate maps to all interior places!

********A cat, not, as I feared a mongoose.

*********Something like Snakes and Ladders, I am guessing.



  1. Sounds like too much fun! You’re pretty brave and stubborn to have gone out with such meagre directions. Kudos to you. It can’t be that easy in the madras heat without a clear promise of finding something worthwhile at the end. Hope to go to this place on my next visit!

  2. Hmmm nice narrative. Never knew you were into History. One suggestion, some of the “starred” notes can just as easily be left in the narrative. Would add more to the humour and less need to go back and forth.

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