The Dutch Konnect

Updated - October 21, 2016 06:36 pm IST

Published - May 06, 2016 05:41 pm IST - CHENNAI

The Dutch cemetery at Pulicat   Photo: B. Jothi Ramalingam

The Dutch cemetery at Pulicat Photo: B. Jothi Ramalingam

The Netherlands Business Support Office in Chennai, the oldest of the NBSOs in India, turned 20 last week. That is a small period of time when compared with the 414-year-old connection our region has with the Dutch.

The United East Indian Company of the Netherlands (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie aka VOC in Dutch), founded in 1602, soon made Pulicat the capital of the Dutch Coromandel, its chief product being cloth for export. The subsequent history of the place is well known. Suffice it to say that there was an unbroken Dutch presence here till 1824, when they ceded everything to the British and left to seek their profits elsewhere.

Two enterprising Dutchmen — Jan de Wilum and Herman Rosenkrantz — got the Danish king Christian IV to found that country’s East India Company in 1616. A flotilla of five ships set off in 1618 and one managed to reach Tarangampadi in 1620. Roland Crappe, a Dutchman in command, helped negotiate with the Nayak of Thanjavur for the setting up of a Danish trading post there. It was to this location, named Tranquebar by the Danes, that German priests Ziegenbalg and Grundler arrived in 1706. They painstakingly learnt Tamil and also made it the world’s first non-European language to be printed.

The British, arriving in 1639 in Madras, picked up the tricks of the cloth trade from the Dutch very easily. The latter had pioneered the concept of the dubash or translator, who became a powerful broker over time. The Dutch dubash, Malayappa Chetty, traded with the British in the 1620s. His nephews Koneri Chetty and Seshadri Nayak were among the early dubashes of Madras. Without them and their machinations, it is doubtful if the British could have been as successful as they were here.

In the early years of Madras, San Thome was a Golconda fort that the French and the Dutch eyed, much to British discomfort. The French under de la Haye managed to occupy it in 1672, only to have the Dutch and the Golconda forces unite and lay siege. The French had to leave in 1674, whereupon the Golconda sultan took over. The Dutch prevailed on him to demolish the walls of San Thome fort. Today, the only record of its contours before demolition is by a Dutchman — Francois Valentijn. A wooden pole, named the Dutch flagstaff, stood for years near the San Thome basilica before being removed. It reappeared post the tsunami, rechristened the St. Thomas’ staff.

The Dutch connection waned since the 1820s, but Indo-Saracenic architecture made liberal use of the Dutch gable. Let us not forget Wavin, the Dutch company in Ambattur that is still remembered in name as a bus stop. Set up in 1963, it was one of the pioneers of PVC pipes in India. And there are loan words in Tamil — Tapal for post may not be so popular in today’s world of emails, but not so the colloquial Tamil word for toilet from the Dutch kakhuis.

The writer is passionate about Chennai history and Carnatic music, and has several books to his credit

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