The Indian Heritage of Jakarta. Part I: Origins from the Coast of Coromandel

'Negapatnam van Choromandel’, 18th century Dutch engraving of Nagapatnam after original engraving by Johannes Kip c. 1680. Photo credit: unknown engraver after Johannes Kip (1653-1722), public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

IO – There was a time when the largest number of inhabitants of Jakarta or Batavia as it was known in the past were Indians. After the VOC (Vereinigde Oost-Indische Compagnie) or United Dutch East India Company destroyed the harbour town of Kelapa in 1619 it began to build a walled city and then it began to look for inhabitants for its new city. Mainly, the VOC needed labourers, traders, skilled craftsmen and soldiers. For traders and skilled craftsmen, the VOC brought in the Chinese, for soldiers they recruited mercenaries or forced prisoner-of-war from islands all over the Indonesian Archipelago to become VOC troops and for labour they brought in slaves not only from the islands of the Indonesian Archipelago but also from foreign lands, in particular from India.

Among the favoured textiles from India that Indonesians sought were patolas like this 19th century Western Indian patola from Gujarat. Photo credit: unknown author, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Originally, the VOC came to Indonesia to trade for spices but soon found that the inhabitants of the Archipelago were not interested in Dutch merchandize. What they were interested in were ceramics from China and textiles from India. They wanted patolas from Gujarat and brocades, chintzes and other painted textiles from the Coast of Coromandel.

A Qing dynasty plate. Photo credit: by Paulo Alexandrino + Masayuki Kondo – Macau Scientific and Cultural Centre Museum (The Macau Museum), CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons index.php?curid=106278909.

It was because of this that the VOC looked for places they could establish trading posts along the  Coromandel shores. The Dutch enclaves that they established and controlled were in the states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh and were usually situated along the seashore. The Dutch with their knowledge of water systems also favoured towns that were on river estuaries. The forts they built in Coromandel were nearly all facing the sea and wherever possible were also located in estuaries.

The Cholas

 Before proceeding further, it is perhaps of interest to mention that Dutch Coromandel was in areas that were once under the suzerainty of the Chola Dynasty when it was at the height of its power from the 9th till the 13th century CE. (The Indian name for Coromandel is in fact Cholamandalam.) The heart of the Chola dynasty was in the valley of the Kaveri River which runs through Nagapatnam district to the sea. Nagapatnam was once known as Cholakula Vallipattinam and was one of the Chola dynasty’s important ports which was used for the kingdom’s east-bound naval activities as well as commerce.

Statue of Rajaraja Chola.
Photo credit: Nittavinoda, CC BY-SA 4.0 < https://creativecommons .org/licenses/by-sa/4.0 >, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Chola dynasty had good relations with Srivijaya and King Sri Mara Vijayatunggawarman of the Sailendra dynasty of Srivijaya built the Buddhist Chudamani Vihara in Nagapatnam under the patronage of the Chola king Rajaraja Chola. Later of course, the Chola dynasty helped bring to an end the Sailendra dynasty of the Srivijaya kingdom when under Rajendra Chola I, it sent a naval force to invade Srivijaya in 1025. This was a very unusual event in Indian history for India usually had very peaceful relations with Southeast Asia. The invasion facilitated the further expansion of Tamil merchant associations into Indonesia especially Sumatra. Tamil merchants had long traded in Indonesia and one of their most important trade goods was Indian textiles.

The Portuguese

By the time the VOC arrived on the Coast of Coromandel in the 17th century and this continued into the 18th century the European powers were rivalling each other for control of the India trade on the Coromandel Coast. The first to arrive were the Portuguese who managed to gain dominance over the textile trade from Coromandel to Asia. By 1530 the Portuguese had three settlements or trading posts on the Coast of Coromandel namely Nagapatnam (now known as Nagapattinam), São Tomé de Meliapore (now called Mylapor), and Pulicat (now Pazhaverkadu) which they had controlled since 1502. All three are all located in India’s state of Tamil Nadu. At the height of the Portuguese authority in Pulicat which was in 1545 there were 600 to 700 Portuguese families living in Pulicat but by 1600 there were only about two to three thousand Portuguese inhabitants left in Pulicat.

The Dutch

Masulipatnam in 1676 by the artist: Rama. Photo credit: Rama, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Photograph by Philip Baldaeus.

The VOC first gained control of Masulipatnam in Andhra Pradesh in 1605, then Tegenepatnam in 1608. In 1606 a Dutch ship arrived at village of Karimanal which is located just outside of Pulicat. The Muslim inhabitants there provided it with food, water and agreed to provide trade goods for the Dutch to take to Indonesia and other areas in the region. In 1608 the kingdom of Vijayanagara gave the VOC permission to trade and build a fort. This was very much protested by the Portuguese in Pulicat who tried to prevent the VOC from establishing a presence in the area. A large Dutch fleet ousted the Portuguese from Pulicat in 1610 and in 1611 King Venkatapati Raya who ruled the kingdom of Vijayanagara broke his agreement with the Portuguese and ousted them from Pulicat. In 1613 the VOC built Fort Geldria in Pulicat which was then turned into the headquarters of the VOC on the Coast of Coromandel from where the VOC ruled parts of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Sri Lanka. It was named Geldria because the first Governor of Pulicat, Wemmer van Berchem came from Gelderland in the Netherlands.

Portrait of Cornelis Speelman. Artist anonymous (1628-84). He holds a commando baton with mortar in front of him as he was also a military commander. Photo credit: Rijksmuseum, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Another interesting person from that period was Cornelis Speelman who came to rule both Dutch Coromandel and later the East Indies or Indonesia. Speelman became the Governor of Pulicat in 1663 but was suspended and fined after being accused of private trading which was illegal when he bought a diamond for his wife and resold it when she did not like it. However, by 1666 he was named admiral of the VOC fleet and supervised a military expedition to Makasar which he concluded with the Treaty of Bongaya. He was also admiral of the second expedition to Makasar which he then subjugated. On another expedition he helped the Sultan of Mataram put down the Trunajaya Rebellion in Central Java. In 1880 Speelman was appointed Governor General of the East Indies during which post he defeated Ternate and Banten. Speelman is buried in what is now the Wayang Museum but was then the Kruiskerk Church.

Pulicat became the headquarters of Dutch Coromandel in 1613 despite being attacked by the Portuguese in 1614, 1623 and 1633 as well as by Vijayanegara who was appeased by VOC payments of tribute to the kingdom. Except for two short breaks, the Dutch ruled Pulicat from 1606 till 1825. Today the only remains of the Dutch in Pulicat are the foundations of Fort Geldria, two Dutch cemeteries and the Dutch church which has been extensively renovated.

Entrance to the Dutch cemetery at Pulicat in 2013. Photo credit: DESTINATION8INFINITY, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Portuguese first came to Nagapatnam in 1507 and established an enclave for trade and missionary activities. In 1658, the Dutch made an agreement with the Kingdom of Thanjavur, by which ten villages were transferred from the Portuguese to the Dutch. Under a treaty in 1676, Nagapatnam which the VOC referred to as Nagapattinam and ten surrounding villages were handed over to the VOC. In 1687 the VOC began to construct Fort Vijf Sinnen (the Five Senses) in Nagapatnam and in 1690 it moved its headquarters from Pulicat to Nagapatnam where they remained until the Fourth Anglo Dutch War.

The British

In 1781 during the Fourth Anglo Dutch War after the Siege of Nagapatnam, Fort Vijf Sinnen was captured by the British. The War laid bare the vulnerability of the Dutch Republics economic and political foundations and marked the slow deterioration of the Dutch Empire as one of the foremost world powers. Under the peace agreement in 1784, namely the Treaty of Paris the town was not returned to the Dutch and the VOC moved its capital back to Pulicat. In 1825 Dutch Coromandel was finally ceded to the British under the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824.

Fort Sadras with view of clock tower. Photo credit: Balaji, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Today, in Nagapatnam the remains of Fort Vijf Sinnen and the Dutch cemetery have almost completely vanished. The Dutch church of Saint Peter’s is all that is still there. The only Dutch fort in India that the British do not appear to have destroyed is the fort at Sadras. Its walls, clock tower as well as stables for horses and elephants are still standing. It is a large 5 star shaped fort with a graveyard nearby.

The manufacture of cloth for export was an important industry in both Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. It was the sole occupation of several indigenous groups in Pulicat and the hinterlands of Tamil, Telegu and Kannada territories. In Pulicat alone there were thought to be more than a thousand handlooms.

The Dutch Slave Trade

The Dutch may have at first been drawn to the Coast of Coromandel because of its textile trade but their trade soon included something far more gruesome, namely the trade in slaves for use in the VOC colonies. This is where the VOC obtained most of its slaves as labour for the establishment of Batavia. There was a period when more than half of the population of Batavia consisted of Indian slaves who came mostly from the Coast of Coromandel. In Batavia these Indian slaves were referred to by the Dutch as the Moors.

Portuguese traders were the first Europeans to become involved in the slave trade in the Bay of Bengal especially along the Coast of Coromandel and Sri Langka. In the 16th century the Portuguese brought hundreds of slaves to their colonies in Manila, Mexico and even to Portugal itself.

The VOC however far outdid the Portuguese in the slave trade from India. Between 1624 and 1665 alone the VOC transported over 11,000 slaves from Arakan in Myanmar to its colonies. Slaves were brought to Pulicat from as far as Bengal and settlements as far south as in Tegenpatnam and Carcal. There a slave could fetch between 4 and 40 guilders. Slaves were sorted into Muslims, Hindus and Kafirs. Those sent to Batavia were mostly Muslims.

The Dutch historian, Dr Wil O. Dijk writes in Seventeenth-century Burma and the Dutch East India Company, 1634-1680, “The ‘master list’ of slaves transported in VOC ships within and from the Bay of Bengal from June 1621 to November 1665 shows a total of 26,885 men, women and children – of which 1,379 died.”

Natural disasters often resulted in failed harvests and famines when food prices rose exorbitantly and not just families but whole guilds or communities sold themselves into slavery in order not to die of starvation. When there was no monsoon in 1746 and the failed harvest brought terrible famine in the larger towns such as Pulicat and Santhome alone the death toll was 15,000 and only a third of the textile weavers, painters and washers survived.

The flag of VOC used in Dutch Coromandel. Photo credit: Himasaram, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

William Methwold, a British trader in Masulipatnam between 1618 to 1622 noted that native traders carried rice and grain to southern ports “taking children in exchange which cost them not above 3 or 4 shillings a child and they sell again in Masulipatnam for 40 shillings.” Another Englishman Thomas Mills living who was the factor in Pulicate wrote to his superiors how he was unable to procure 14 or 15 slaves for them because the Dutch were procuring as many as possible to the number of 4 or 5 thousand.

Battles and revolts also frequently led to famine and of course, an increase in the slave trade such as for example the revolt of the rulers of Thanjavur, Gingee and Madurai against the Vijayanagara Empire. There were many wars, natural disasters and famines that fed the slave trade and the enormous Dutch demand for slaves was well known not only on the Coast of Coromandel but also in the interior. People preferred to become slaves rather than die of starvation.

It is unimaginable today that anyone’s response to a famine would be, “Well, how would you like to become a slave? Then, you’ll be fed,” and in a way it provides an insight into the heartlessness of the VOC and many other rulers at the time.

“For the Dutch, the Coromandel slave trade was the most useful means of augmenting the supply of labour in their colonies,” Wil 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.”

It was only in the 1780s and 1790s that abolitionist sentiments grew among officials of the British East India company which led to the gradual phasing out of the slave trade.

The slaves that the VOC brought to Indonesia were not only labourers. Some were highly skilled craftsmen who often worked in guilds. During famines whole guilds might be forced to go into slavery in exchange for food and the VOC chose well. Besides textile craftsmen the Coast of Coromandel also had many very fine furniture craftsmen and the VOC brought many of these to Batavia. The expert on Indonesian colonial furniture Jan Veenendaal has said that he believes that they were the origins of the Indonesian furniture craftsmen of today. He believes that other slaves from the Archipelago learnt the craft from the Indians and that later these skills migrated to central and east Java probably with the Chinese who fled there after the Chinese Massacre of 1740. The Jakarta History Museum in Taman Fatahilah has an outstanding collection of colonial furniture and in its collection are 17th century chairs that Veenendaal believes were crafted around 1620 by Indian craftsmen from Coromandel who had been brought by the VOC to Batavia as slaves. They are the oldest known chairs in Indonesia if we exclude the thrones of local rulers. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

If you enjoyed reading this article you may also enjoy Part II of the article by the same writer: