Surat’s European Cemeteries: Rivalry to the Grave
For 200 years between the 15th to the 17th centuries, Surat was the place to be. So great was the economic clout of this port, that the Mughals called it 'Bandar-e-Mubarak' or the 'Blessed Port'. This thriving port was where ships from the West sailed in to access the wares from the rich Northern hinterlands of India. The European merchants, especially the British and the Dutch vied with each other in the docks and marketplaces for access and their rivalries were so great, that they even took it to their graves, quite literally!
Visit the cemeteries in Surat and you will find an almost macabre representation of European one-upmanship. The cemeteries here have opulent gravestones and in fact, full mausoleums built by the English and the Dutch, each an attempt to outdo the last and prove how wealthy the benefactor was. A must visit in the Katargram area of Surat, some of these structures are so opulent and grand, they can be easily mistaken for Mughal tombs.
Surat’s great rise came after the Mughals took control of the port from the Sultans of Gujarat in 1573 CE and it became their largest port on the West coast. So great was its importance that The Encyclopedia of World Trade termed it ‘One of the major centres of world capitalism’ between the 16th and 18th centuries CE. The Portuguese had been trading in the port since the early 16th century CE, but soon their monopoly was challenged by other European powers. The British East India Company set up their factory here in 1612 CE and this was followed by the Dutch in 1617 CE. Later the French also opened their factory in 1664 CE. Each of these European trading companies jostled for power and exclusion of trade privileges to the others.
The bitterest rivalry was between the British and the Dutch. While initially, the Dutch had secured better trading rights and custom rates from the Mughal emperor and the local governor, the British acquisition of Bombay after the marriage of Catherine of Braganza to King Charles II of England in 1661 CE turned the tide in Britain’s favour, as it gave them an independent base.
The thriving trade in Surat ensured that great fortunes were made here. The employees of the European factories often carried out private trade on the side, lining their wallets. But life was also tough. The tropical heat of Surat was stifling for the Europeans who hadn't faced it before. Many died. But in death too, it seems they wanted to make a big point. Inspired by the grand Mughal tombs, they commissioned ornate and opulent tombs for themselves and their loved ones.
The English Cemetery stood outside the old, walled city of Surat. Around 19 tombs stand here. The most grand are the tombs of Oxenden brothers, Sir George Oxenden, the President of the English factory in Surat and his brother Christopher Oxenden. Sir George Oxenden is famous as the governor under whom Bombay came under British rule. The Portuguese were reluctant to hand over the possession of the island and after much disputes, it was Oxenden who took the possession of the island. He was appointed the first Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Bombay in August 1667 CE. Oxenden died in Surat on 14th July 1669 CE. A grand and opulent tomb was built in his honour. The most interesting feature of the Oxenden tomb is the upper dome, which represents an open cross.
Another interesting tomb in the English cemetery is that of Gerald Aungier, the second governor of Bombay after Oxenden. He encouraged traders from Surat to migrate to Bombay, established the mint there and laid the foundation stone for St Thomas Church. Aungier passed away in 1677 CE and a grand tomb was built for him too.
The Dutch, rivals of the English in life, were not far behind in making a point, in death. The grandest monument in the Dutch cemetery is the tomb of Baron Adrian Van Reede, the Director of the Dutch East India Company. Van Reede’s most prolific achievement was a text called Hortus Malabaricus, the most comprehensive study of the plants of the Malabar region, published in 1678 CE. He passed away off the coast of Bombay in 1691 CE and was buried in Surat. The Dutch wanted to build him a tomb that would rival that of Oxendens. An opulent tomb with cupolas, columns and windows filled with wooden carvings was built in his honour. The Dutch Admiral Stavorinus, who visited this graveyard in 1775 CE, described the tomb of Van Reede -
'excels all the others in largeness of dimension, elegance of architecture, magnificence of ornament, and richness of material'
It is hard to say who won this battle of the tombs. But it seems grand tomb of Van Reede impressed even the English. Philip Anderson, the chaplain of the British East India Company in the diocese of Bombay and author of the early history of the company, wrote about the tomb of Van Reede -
‘It is not indeed to be compared with the Muhammedan tombs of Delhi, Agra and Bijapur, but no European structures of the kind, except, the tomb of Adrian at Rome and a few others, equal it’
As time passed, the Anglo-Dutch rivalry in Surat lost all meaning. The Dutch lost their dominance over the India trade and the British shifted their commercial energies to the city of Bombay. Today, the British and Dutch cemeteries stand in the middle of the busy and bustling city, attracting few tourists.