Tamil Nadu’s Danish Connection
While the stories of the Portuguese, Dutch, French and British establishing trading ports and colonies in India are well known, few people know that so important was India for trade in the medieval period, that every European power wanted a piece of the pie. Even the Danes made an attempt to establish colonies in India. Their bid however, ended in financial disaster!
Two of the most important Danish settlements in India were Tanquebar in Tamil Nadu and Serampur in Bengal.
The success of the British, Portuguese, Dutch and French spice trade clearly stirred envy in Denmark by the 17th century CE. As a result on March 17, 1616, King Christian IV of Denmark signed a charter for establishing the ‘Danish East India Company’, which would have a monopoly for the spice trade between Denmark and Asia.
Sadly, the venture was a disaster from the very beginning. In 1618, the first expedition sent under Admiral Ove Gjedde to establish trading stations in Sri Lanka got terribly delayed. The ships took two years to reach Sri Lanka and lost half their crew on the way. Then, they failed to establish any trade with Sri Lanka. The last straw, in this disastrous expedition was a battle with Portuguese ships, off the coast of Karaikal on the Tamil Nadu coast, where they lost even more men.
It was two years later - only in 1620, that the Danish were finally able to establish a presence after negotiations with the Nayakas, the rulers of Thanjavur, who agreed to grant them the village of Tharangambadi to the Danes. They were also allowed to construct a stone fortification here.
– The success of British, Portuguese, Dutch and French spice trade stirred envy in Denmark
Tharangambadi, formerly Tranquebar, is a town in today’s Nagapattinam district of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. You can only imagine the beauty of the place from it’s poetic name. Tharangambadi means ‘land of the singing waves’. Perhaps it was the sound of these singing waves which made the Danish build a massive fort there. So big was this Fort called Dansborg, that it was only second to the largest Danish fort ever built, the Fort Kronborg in Denmark.
– Fort Dansborg, was the second largest Danish fort ever built . This was an indication of how keen they were to establish a strong presence in India.
However, the Danish East India company was not a financial success as the Danish government and merchants had hoped it would be. Of the 18 ships that departed from Denmark between 1622 and 1637, only 7 returned. Also, the geographical location of Tanquebar made it vulnerable to high tidal waves which kept destroying the buildings in the colony. The deteriorating financial situation made the Danish make desperate attempts to sell the possessions to the Dutch. By 1650, the Danish East India company was bankrupt and was abolished by King Frederick II of Denmark.
The sleepy colony in Tanquebar was unaware of the developments in far off Denmark. For almost 29 years, the colony kept the Danish flag flying and sending reports back home, without any reply or support. Finally, in May 1669, a ship from Denmark arrived, breaking decades of isolation. A new Danish East India company was formed and settlements were built at new places.
– The European nations turned the area along the lower part of the Hooghly River into a ‘Little Europe’
In 1755, a settlement of Frederiknagore was established at Serampore (Serampur) near Kolkata in Bengal. Earlier, in 1698 the Danish had also established the colony of Dannemarksnagore next to Chandernagore but this was abandoned in 1714.
The Danes were eager to return to Bengal and contacted the Nawab of Bengal - Ali Vardi Khan, with the aim of establishing a new trading post. They succeeded in acquiring rights to Serampore (Serampur) and the Bengal trade against a payment of a 2.5% duty.
The European nations turned the area along the lower part of the Hooghly River into a ‘Little Europe’ with the French being established at Chandernagore, the Portuguese at Bandel and Hooghly, the Dutch at Chinsurah, the British at Calcutta and the Danish at Serampore. The goods traded by the Danish at Serampore (Serampur) were mainly silk and cotton textiles as well as saltpetre (potassium nitrate used for gun powder) and sugar.
– By 1650, the Danish East India company was bankrupt and was abolished by King Frederick II of Denmark.
However, overall financially, the Danish trade did not yield much profits. In fact, during the Napoleonic Wars fought between 1803 to 1815, the British attacked Danish ships, and devastated the Danish East India Company's India trade. Between 1801 - 1802 and 1808 –1815, the British even occupied Tanquebar and Serampore . Finally, in 1845, the Danish sold all their possessions in India to the British and ceased to be a colonial power.
Today, Fort Dansborg, the churches and few houses there stand as silent testimony to the little Denmark in India. Danes are taking active interest in reviving and restoring these old buildings as an important part of shared history.