The history of Tranquebar

One cold November day in 1618 the Danish King Christian IV stood together with a wide array of citizens in the country’s capital, Copenhagen, and waved goodbye to a small fleet of shipswith the naval ship‘Elefanten’ at the helm. The ship constituted the core of the Danish expedition that had been dispatched by the kingto establish a Danish colony in ‘East India’, as Southeast Asia was called at that time.

King Christian IV had decided that Denmark should also have a share of theprofitable spice trade from the East. After the Dutch model, he was the driving force in the establishment of the Danish East India Company, which was to have exclusive trading rights in the Danish colony he hoped to found.

The expedition did not reach its destination until May 1620, which in the first instance was Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka). By this time more than half of the expedition’s 500 crewmembers had already died – most of them fromscurvy. Their efforts to reach East India did not bear fruit in the first instance, however, and the Danes were denied entry by the local ruler.

Instead, ‘Elefanten’and the other ships, under the leadership of the just 24-year-old admiral Ove Giedde, sailedfurther north to the east coast of southern India. Instantly their luck changed, and another local ruler permitted the Danish fleet to establish a trading station at Tharangambadi. The name was immediately changed to the more DanishTranquebar.

Ove Giedde was appointed as Tranquebar’s first governor and his first order was to establish the fort of Dansborg out on the coast in order to protect the new colony.

The trade of exotic spices such as cardamom, coriander, cinnamon and, not least, pepper could begin. Later, cotton fabrics, silk and exotic types of wood, which were especially sought after in Europe, could be added to the list.

While trade may have been the basis for Tranquebar’s existence, missionary work wasalso an important aspect of the Danish presence in the area. The local residents would be converted to Christianity.More churches were erected for thispurpose, many of which still exist today andcontinue to function.

Three different Danish trade companies consecutively controlled Tranquebar until 1772, when the last company lost its exclusive rights to Danish trade in Southeast Asia. In 1771 Tranquebar was given over to the Danish king. Spices were no longer as valuable and cotton could be purchased far more cheaply from the American plantations.

Thus, in 1772, Tranquebar was placed directly under the absolute monarchy of Denmark. As it was now a royal colony, Tranquebar was fortified withartillery towers.

But time was running out for the colony.The war between Denmark andBritain from 1807-1814, when the British ran offwith the entire Danish fleet, almost ruined the country. In actual fact, the Danish state went bankrupt in 1813. By comparison, Britain had at the start of the 1800s invested in almost all trade in the Indian region – which slowly suffocated Tranquebar.

The deficit in Tranquebar continued to grow. With no money and without a fleet the basis for maintaining Tranquebar as a Danish territory disappeared.

In the end, there was nothing to do but to sell Tranquebar to the British in 1845. See more under the heading ‘Timeline’.

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