Tranquebar (Tharangampadi) is a village in Tamil Nadu with an intriguing intercultural history – it has been the home to two Danish East India Companies. From 1620-1845, Tranquebar hosted a Danish trading post due to an agreement between envoys of the Danish King Christian IV and Raghunatha Nayak, the King of Tanjore.
The first ship had arrived in the small fishing village on the Coromandel Coast after trying to found a settlement in 1620 on the island of Ceylon (Sri Lanka). After a short period in Trincomolee, the Danes were expelled by the Portuguese and set sail for south India. On arrival, the company began to build Fort Dansborg and other administrative buildings, as well as later establishing the Lutheran Tranquebar Mission in 1706.
The first company soon ran into trouble as it suffered with poor administration and little investment, eventually being declared bankrupt in 1650. Twenty years later, the second company was formed that traded until 1729. Inconsistencies and competition in the India trade – and a forced loan by King Frederick IV which was never repaid – forced this second company into liquidation.
The final trading company was given its charter in 1732 in the name of the Danish Asiatic Company, which took over the trading posts established by the earlier companies, including at Serampore (Fredericks Nagar), 23 km from Kolkata, giving them a strategic foothold in West Bengal. This better-managed and better-financed company heralded ‘the golden age’ of the Danish-Indian trade, which lasted from 1772-1808. The trading post Tranquebar was always a worry to the company at home, as it often failed to find full return cargoes, lessening the profit from trips.
In the medieval period, Tranquebar had formed part of the powerful Chola-dynasty (mid-9th/early 13th century) empire with the coastal village becoming part of a larger regional and international trade network, which had first attracted Muslim and later Portuguese traders, before the Danes established a settlement. Tranquebar was already a well-functioning Indian town with some idependent commercial activity before the Danes with a large population of fishermen, as well as having a fertile agricultural hinterland.
By the mid-18th century, Tranquebar had developed into an international trading post, helped by the interests of suceeding Kings of Tanjore, to whom they paid a yearly tribute. They had become part of a complex political system in south India based on the reciprocal exchange of gifts and tributes between princely states. As Tranquebar had links to global trade it naturally attracted merchants, administrators, soldiers in the service of the company.
However, the Danes constituted only a small minority in Tranquebar’s population, numbering at most 200-300 people out of an approximate total of over 3,000 inhabitants. The everyday life of the Danish community was centred in the fortified part of town, in the streets close to Fort Dansborg, where they attempted to uphold a Danish way of life. The period under Danish rule slowly transformed Tharangampadi from an Indian village into a hybrid Danish town encircled by a wall, a grid-pattern street layout and the defence fortress on the coast. The trading company had previously had a policy of non-interference with the local population, but with the arrival of the first missionaries, schools were established as well as the first Tamil printing press (in 1712) to print Bibles in the local language.
One of the main trades encouraged by the Danes was the production of textiles for the export market with local Indian dyers and weavers engaged in producing silks, as well as plain and painted cotton cloth, scarves and shawls. A large amount of these textiles were hand-painted (kalamkari) and were amongst some of the most important merchandise to be traded alongside pepper and other spices, which were in constant demand.
However, the Danish trading station in Tranquebar never generated much profit and after 1800, it gradually lost importance as a centre of trade due to tough competition from the rapid influence and expansion of the British East India Company. In the 1820s, European merchants and local Indian weavers moved out of Tranquebar and left the fortified town depopulated, dilapidated, and impoverished. In 1845, Tranquebar was sold for a minor sum to the British, along with Serampore, the Danish settlement in Bengal.
Until Tranquebar was sold to the British in 1845, an annual tribute was paid to the Nayaks (South Indian dynasty that ruled circa 1529-1736) and later to the rajahs of Tanjore, a payment that was closely connected to ceremonial honours and symbols at the court. Rajah Serfoji II (r 1798-1832), who had been placed on the throne by the British East India Company, considered the receipt of the tribute from a European power particularly honourable and received it in public with great ceremonies every year as an important symbol of his sovereignty.
The state of Indo-Danish relations is revealed in a paper (2009) by Simon Rastén that analyses a dispute over a tribute that arose in the aftermath of the British occupation of Tranquebar in 1808-1816 to explore Indian, British, and Danish perceptions of the Tranquebar tribute. The paper also seeks to understand Tranquebar in a south Indian context of the time by focusing on diplomatic relations and disagreements.
Today, vestiges of the Danish era are still visible in Tranquebar – Fort Dansborg, the original straight streets, several colonial-period houses, the Land Gate, as well as churches and churchyards In 1984, the Tamil Nadu Government declared Tranquebar a protected cultural heritage site and the village was listed a heritage tourism destination.
The Dansborg Archaeological Museum is situated inside the fort and holds a collection of curios and artefacts dating back to the Danish period, as well as some Chinese porcelains, coins, paintings and manuscripts. Other attractions include the 700-year-old Masilamani Nathar Temple built in 1306 by the Pandya King Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan, which is unique in its architecture as it combines Chinese architecture with Tamil architectural techniques.
To experience and explore today’s Tranquebar, stay at Nayak House (Bungalow on the Beach), built in the 18th century, opposite the Fort Dansborg, or at The Gate House.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
The Governor’s Residence in Tranquebar: The House and Daily Life of its People, edited by Esther Fihl, Chicago of University press, 2017
Information on Tranquebar Collections in the National Museum and The Tranquebar Association on https://en.natmus.dk
For accommodation, neemranahotels.com