In this two-part series, Anusha Parthasarathy visits Pulicat and gathers information on how the Dutch established trade relations with the locals in the early 17th century, eventually making the place their seat of administration

In Pulicat, the view from the lighthouse is of the sea, the lagoon, a clear perimeter of what was once Fort Geldria, the small and big mosques, the ancient temples and the cemeteries. The story of this ancient trade port goes much deeper than its well-known Dutch heritage, but it is still possible to imagine a time when Danish ships with tall sails crowded these waters, traded in textiles and spices, and the Dutch eventually built a stronghold. Pulicat or Pallaicatta, till 1690, was the capital of the Dutch Coromandel.

According to Asia in the Making of Europe: A Century of Advance: South Asia by Donald Frederick Lach, the Dutch first got trading rights in Masulipatnam in 1605 and explored Pulicat the following year. In 1609, they landed in Pulicat in search of water. They went on to strike up trade relations with the Muslims there (since the Arabs had reached Pulicat earlier). With permission from Queen Eraivi, wife of Venkata II (the Vijayanagar King), they established a factory and began trading, mostly in textiles and diamonds. The Portuguese in Pulicat attacked the Dutch who began to feel threatened. And so, they established a fort in 1613 — Fort Geldria — to protect themselves from the other local kings and the Portuguese. This fort is now overgrown with bushes but its perimeter and moat are still visible.

AARDE (Art and Architecture Research, Development and Education) Foundation, a non-profit architecture and design service organisation, has been active in Pulicat since 2007 and has tracked its heritage. Xavier Benedict, its founder, says, “The fort was named after a place called Gelderland in the Netherlands. The Dutch East India Company or Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) was the first to start share markets here. They issued about 25 shares in Pulicat to the Dutch living in the area.”

“They also established the first European administration in Pulicat. The Dutch, it should be clear, first came to trade. Both their forts, here and in Sadras, predominantly focussed on trade, and governance didn’t come into question till trade began to flourish,” he says.

Pulicat became the headquarters of the Dutch Government in 1616 A.D., according to Pulicat and Sadras, a coffee table book authored by Xavier. The chief of Pulicat was the Governor of the Coromandel Coast.

This settlement was of great advantage to the Dutch as the best cotton goods could be procured here and from the surrounding districts. What was locally made was a material with checks and stripes and Xavier explains that the kings and queens of the Netherlands wore the Palayakat checks. The Palayakat lungis were popular all over South-East Asia. This would, in time, evolve into the famous Madras Checks. Pulicat also had a gunpowder factory as early as 1620 which helped Dutch trade flourish.

The British, after many attempts at establishing trade in Pulicat, struck a deal in 1621 with the Hollanders of Pulicat, but the union was soon terminated, says Vestiges of Old Madras by H.D. Love. They continued their efforts until the Dutch eventually conceded in 1825.

D.F. Lach observes that since the Dutch Company allowed its soldiers to marry Indian women, Pulicat began to look more like a Dutch colony by the 1630s. The most popular languages spoken there were Dutch, Tamil and Portuguese. Sanjay Subrahmanyam in The Political Economy of Commerce: Southern India 1500-1650 says the Dutch had built such a comfortable settlement on the coast that they were much envied by others in Europe. Therefore, there were constant efforts to overthrow the Dutch. And so, finally, in 1806, Fort Geldria was destroyed. “The reason the Dutch thrived in the area for nearly 200 years was because they were great navigators, engineers and good at drawing maps. The Portuguese were more religious and so didn’t establish an administration here. The Dutch, despite their efforts, couldn’t stand up against the British and left Pulicat for Jakarta in the 1820s,” says Xavier.

Apart from the fort, Pulicat has the old and new Dutch cemeteries. The old cemetery is not on the tourist map since it is overgrown with bushes and one can barely navigate inside. Several old Dutch graves (and some Portuguese as well) remain unknown within its premises. Among its oldest graves is one that dates back to 1758 with Tamil inscriptions. The new cemetery, protected by the ASI, has 77 Dutch graves and is about three centuries old. The entrance arch has two skeletons on either side and inside, the obelisks on the tombs tower over the entire yard.

In the town, one can occasionally come across old Dutch buildings and houses in different stages of ruin. “One of the houses dates back to 1640,” says Xavier. The pillared columns, tall doors and sloping roofs of the houses stand out among the others.

(To be continued…)

(The headline has been corrected for an error)