Fort Geldria, Pulicat – History
This ruined fort was once the seat of power of the Dutch East India Company, or Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, which arrived in the continent in the 16th century. After gaining control of Masulipatnam of present-day Andhra Pradesh in 1605, Tegenepatnam in 1608, the Dutch made their way to Pulicat in 1610. With their large armed sailing vessels, the Dutch ousted the Portuguese, who had dominated the seaport for several decades after establishing a trading post in 1502. Pulicat was then turned into the Coromandel headquarters of the Dutch East India company.
For almost two centuries, Pulicat was the administrative stronghold of the Dutch, who led a flourishing trade off the Coromandel coast. Hundreds of diamonds were exported to western countries from this port. Thousands of barrels full of fine spices such as nutmeg, cloves and mace were shipped from Dutch settlements in Indonesia and Ceylon to be transported to Deccan India. Indigo, pepper and pearls were traded in bulk across its various settlements.
At Pulicat, the gunpowder factory set up by the Dutch proved to be invaluable as they sought to establish their hegemony in the East during the 17th century using arms and ammunition. The fort was built on the shores of Pulicat Lake, which provides access to the Bay of Bengal and the Coromandel Coast, an important area for trade and a scene of rivalry between the colonial powers of the Dutch, the Portuguese, and the British.
A Portuguese fort had existed previously on the spot, and Fort Geldria was built on its foundations, with the permission of Queen Oboyama, wife of Vijayanagara Emperor Venkatapathi Raya, based in Chandragiri Fort, who was supposed to contribute financially and become part-owner. This process, however, proved too slow for the Dutch, and they decided to finance and build it themselves. Local tradition holds that a Dutch ship, stranded in 1606, found aid among a group of expatriate Muslims, and thus began a trade partnership. Within one month of completion, the fort came under attack from a local chieftain, Etheraja.
After he was repulsed, the Portuguese attacked the fort from both land and sea but were fought off. The Dutch formed an alliance with the local traders and the Portuguese were kept at bay. The fort, which was supplied by the Gouden Leeuw in 1618 with 130 Dutch soldiers and 32 guns, became a focal point in the local turmoil and provided refuge to people from the Portuguese colonies. In 1619, the chief at Fort Geldria was accorded the title of Governor and Extraordinary Councillor of the Indies.
In the second half of the seventeenth century, the fort's importance as a trading post (it dealt mainly in cotton fabrics) began to decline, due partly to competition with the British but mostly as a result of the southward expansion of the Mughal Empire. By 1689, the government moved to Negapatnam and subsequently to Ceylon. When the director's seat moved, the fort was left with 18 guns and 40 men. The fort was restored in 1714, and was occupied by the British from 1781 to 1785. Fort Geldria's success as a trading post seems unaffected by the changes of power.
In 1786, for instance, caravans loaded with merchandise come in every month from places like Golkonda and Suratte and ships sail in from the Red Sea, Goa, and Malabar; there is a lively trade in cotton fabric and a flourishing industry in the dyeing of textiles. A 1792 description of Dutch trading posts in the East reports trade in sugar, arrack, Japanese copper and spices. In 1795, the Dutch surrendered the fort to the British and blew it up in 1804 or 1805, before finally giving ownership to the British on 1 June 1825.
British & Indian Ownership:
When a transfer to the British through a treaty was negotiated. But 20 years before that during the Anglo-Dutch wars, much of Castle Geldria was demolished by the British. Reporting on the act of transfer, van der Kemp, a Danish historian, recorded, “On the first of June 1825, at noon the official ceremony was held. A resident, Obdam, and the Englishman Krawley, both garlanded and carried in palanquins, arrived in procession, followed by dancing girls, drums and trumpets. At the flagstaff there awaited them the document of transfer on a silver plate covered with a gold cloth. After the proclamation was read, the Dutch flag was lowered and the ceremony closed with a 21-gun salute.”
The British held the fort from 1825 until Indian independence. Fort Geldria is currently maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India. Plans to restore the fort involve a cooperation between Dutch architects and scholars and the Tamil Nadu government, with financial help from the Dutch and Indian governments. The plans propose a restoration of the wetland eco-system of the area and of the remaining Dutch structures, including the well-preserved cemetery with 76 tombstones carved in the Netherlands.
Slave Trade Capital:
Evidence of European slave trade is scant and periodic. It began with Portuguese traders in the 1500s when they transported hundreds of slaves in large cargoes to Portugal, Manila and even Mexico, wrote Richard B Allen, in his book European Slave Trading in the Indian Ocean, 1500-1850. But the Dutch exceeded their numbers by far. Between 1624 and 1665, the Dutch shipped over 11,000 slaves from Arakan, now known as Rakhine State of Myanmar.
Slaves from Bengal and from settlements further in the South at Tegenpatnam and Carcal were brought to Pulicat, clad in dungarees made of coarse cotton cloth and sold at rates that varied each year. A slave in Pulicat could be sold anywhere between 4 guilders to 40 guilders, the currency of the Dutch. According to Dijk, slaves in Pulicat were occasionally categorized as Muslim, Hindu or even caffers, an offensive term for Black Africans. Natural calamities resulting in famine, failed harvests and food shortage only led to the growth of the trade.
When famines struck, the prices of rice and other food grains rose exorbitantly and the price of slaves became much cheaper. Dijk wrote:
“The insatiable demand by Europeans, especially the Dutch, for slaves thus procured on the South-Eastern Coromandel Coast appears to have become well known in the interior, and offered enslavement as an alternative to starvation during times of scarcity and famine. The trade was run mainly by the Dutch at Pulicat who employed brokers at Madras for slave catching. The shipping was done at Madras port itself.”
— Wil O Dijk, Seventeenth-century Burma and the Dutch East India Company, 1634-1680.
Even battles and revolts against rulers led to booms in slave trade. The export of Coromandel slaves spiked during a famine that took place at the time of a revolt in 1645 by the Nayaka Hindu rulers of Thanjavur, Gingee and Madurai against the crumbling Vijayanagara empire. The subsequent invasion of the Bijapur army led to the devastation of fertile agricultural lands of Thanjavur, pushing more people into slavery. In 1646, around 2,118 slaves were exported to Batavia, which is now the city of Jakarta in Indonesia. An overwhelming majority of these slaves were from Southern Coromandel, wrote Dijk, as far as Tondi, Adirampattinam and Kayalpatnam along the Tamil Nadu coast.
“For the Dutch, the Coromandel slave trade was the most useful means of augmenting the supply of labour in their colonies,” Dijk writes. “The Coromandel slaves were reputedly malleable and subject to disciplined control. They were agricultural workers and there was a fair proportion of skilled labourers among them.”
The Dutch slave trade continued towards the end of the 1700s, even with the competing slave trade of the French and the British.
“The traffic was large enough to attract the attention and incur the displeasure of local Mughal officials, as a result of which Governor Elihu Yale and his council banned the purchase and exportation of slaves from Madras and neighboring ports in May 1688 on pain of a 50-pagoda fine for each slave illegally purchased and exported,” wrote Allen.
Despite the ban, the Dutch slave trade continued sporadically till the end of the 18th century. The British East India company officials were well aware about this, especially in the late 1700s, when the VOC factories in Pulicat, Bimilipatnam (a neighbourhood of Vishakhapatnam) and Jaggernatpuram facilitated the acquisition and shipment of slave cargoes to Mauritius and the Reunion.
Allen even notes that in 1792, officials from the British East India company in Masulipatnam sent a note to their Dutch counterparts in Jaggernatpuram saying that they had received information that contractors of slave-carrying vessels openly resided in the factory, who had most recently transported 500 people as slaves from the country. “We are also informed that this traffic is openly countenanced by you, and written passes granted, in consideration of which, seven rupees per head is paid for each slave exported,” the note read.
In the 1780s and 1790s, abolitionist sentiments had grown among officials of the British East India company. Correspondence between the Madras Presidency and the Dutch in Pulicat led to the gradual phasing out of slave trade. Except for the works of a few scholars, very little is known today about this sordid past of Pulicat. Like the ruins of Castle Geldria, it lies buried in a largely forgotten history of Dutch colonial rule in India.