This little Dutch settlement has always attracted me with its brilliant blue skies and the expansive ocean. Last week we drove into this seaside village, which was a twenty five mile long stretch of coast leased out to the early Dutchmen by the Tanjore king in the late 1700s. The Dutch called it Tranquebar. The Tamils call it Tarangambadi, translated loosely as ‘the land of singing waves’. The last couple of hours remained of the day light as we entered this town and took up a hotel by the sea side. The evening wore a calm look and a quaintness that is hard to find along the dense and busy east coast road in Tamil Nadu. The intact (and partially restored) arch at the entrance of the Dutch settlement physically marked a time travel zone that we were about to enter. The narrow road led to an old church, the fort – called the Dansborg and a lovely sea side villa which now is a heritage hotel run by Neemrana group.
I have been visiting this place on almost all my rides along this coastline much like the Danish, Portuguese, British and the French ships which did the same but from the other side. From the records of protestant missionaries and the Portuguese trade documents I learn that this was one of the busiest regions in maritime trade along with other now disappeared ports like Porto Novo (about 80 kilometers north of Tranquebar). We stopped to take a look at the statue of Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg, the first protestant missionary to India, who traveled to India to spread the word of God. A marble slab underneath the statue listed many other minor firsts that the local Diocese could dig up, or perhaps imagine, about the man and made a laundry list of achievements down there. The statue didn’t cut much an impression on me, especially with its gold paint but the little tidbit of a history there – of he being the first protestant missionary in India – set my thoughts wandering into a past that I have often loved to imagine and recreate. A past much like a movie set in which fort Dansborg rises in the horizon with the Danish red flag fluttering and the young Zigenbalg hoping to set foot as he approaches the land, at this very place on the eastern coast.
The other details blurred out as I read the history of protestant missionaries in Madurai, Tirunelveli and the incursions of the Tranquebar mission. These men were clearly fired with a spirit of adventure and fascination of ideas which captured their imagination. An imagination which saw a world made possible by their God, their faith and that these are supreme – and that the rest, the ‘heathens’ must be brought to the fold. In my reconstruction of the 17th and the 18th century India when the Dutch arrived, I was inclined to think more about their adventure and rawness of the endeavor of these men who set sail in a direction they hardly knew of. And yet when they arrive they have plans – of trade, commerce and evangelism. Perhaps they were fired by the enthusiasm of the newly formed Dutch Republic back home when they declared independence from England and formed a federation during the end of 16th century. One can see Tranquebar as a consequential small story in the larger canvas of the Dutch Golden Age (“Gouden Eeuw”) during which the Dutch Empire became one of the major seafaring and economic powers in the 17th century. Interestingly, many economic historians regard Netherlands as the world’s first thoroughly capitalist country.
Well, in the heat of such a splendid economic and power charged run the Dutch were understandably getting adventurous and sure had plans for it. And from the many ships sent out in the world, one of them was to reach India and hit the coast somewhere around the place where I stood that evening. Fort Dansborg was rather unimpressive and likely so to an Indian who has seen the massive, intimidating and fascinatingly beautiful forts in the Rajputana – Mehrangarh, Jaisalmer, in the Deccan – Golconda, Gingee, Vellore and in the high hills of the Konkan coast. Meanwhile, the fishermen on a small landing spot were busy sorting their nets and separating the catch after an early morning round of fishing. The scene was mildly strange – a bright 21st century morning with motorized fishing boats on the coast and a very busy history in the background with Zigenbalg’s grave marking the end of a generation of adventurers.
Reading accounts and papers of the colonial era and experiencing them often generates different narratives. And that is the point I was reflecting upon. On the Sunday morning in Tranquebar, gospel music flowed in the air from the church nearby, interspersed with hymns in Tamil. The church is as old as the fort. The hymns stood in contrast to the reality of the day. This in a way appeared as the way in which the dead Dutchmen’s conquest lived. In these hymns and a formerly alien faith which arrived by the ships that laid anchor on this coast over three hundred years back. Colonial era may have been past and the research papers mark that historical juncture fairly well. But at the core of the post-colonial times lies the colonial, healthy and mutated. Those hymns were by the ‘heathens’ who embraced protestant Christianity and years later venerate the man who brought this alien faith to them. The faith that makes the people of this settlement sing these hymns and regard Sunday as a day of prayer and mass is clearly not theirs. It was a part of the conquest, of men charged with commercial and technological prowess and a part of the project of shaping the world into becoming what they imagined it as.
Conquests I now think are little about physical forms like forts, territories and countries. They are more about conquest of minds, of people’s faith, practices and of their beings, into becoming what the conqueror wants it to be. This variety of conquest impregnates generations to come and lives, as strong as ever. The physical forms, even of the conqueror are gone yet the effects remain.