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Once upon a time in Pulicat near Chennai

Flipping through the forgotten pages of history, Professor Xavier Benedict talks  about the spurring of forced labour and shipping of human cargo by the Dutch in the 1600s.

Published: 24th August 2019 05:10 AM  |   Last Updated: 24th August 2019 05:10 AM   |  A+A-

Fort Geldria was the seat of the Dutch Republic's first settlement in India

Fort Geldria was the seat of the Dutch Republic's first settlement in India

Express News Service

CHENNAI: About 50-odd kilometres north of Chennai is a lagoon that’s soaked in rich history. The famed town of Pulicat or Pazhaverkadu has layers of history seeped into its crevices — from reigning as a prosperous port under Pallavas, Cholas and the Vijayanagara kingdoms to becoming a trading post for the Portuguese in 1502; becoming the Coromandel capital of Dutch East India Company by the 1600s, and being Asia’s second-largest brackish water lagoon, to providing sanctuary to several migratory birds.

But, this tourism-driven town has a dark past that’s seldom revisited and of which little is known. The region, once the seat of power of the Dutch East Indian Company or Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), was a hotbed of slave trade — a slaver’s lagoon.

On International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition on August 23, CE spoke to professor Xavier Benedict, founder, AARDE Foundation, involved in the promotion and conservation of Pulicat Lagoon, about the Dutch slave business in the region. 

Origin of slavery

The Dutch occupied Pulicat in the early 1600s. For almost 200 years, the megacorporation led the flourishing trade off the Coromandel coast. Barrels of spices, rice, soybean, sugarcane, tea, silk and pearls were traded across VOC’s settlements. However, they were notorious for their organised slave trade. 

While the evidence of European slave trade is fragmented, the earliest report of Indian slaves being traded dates to 1622 when East India Company officials at Batavia (Jakarta, Indonesia), former capital of the Dutch East Indies, asked their counterparts at Pulicat to send them 10 to 15 male slaves between 16 and 22 years of age.

American historian Richard B Allen, in his book European Slave Trading in the Indian Ocean, 1500-1850, writes, “Although Pulicat could not honour this request immediately because the Dutch had reportedly already purchased all the slaves in the area, the factory shipped 22 slaves to Batavia later that year.” “Slavery was present in India even before the Europeans arrived.

But, it was recorded only when they came in, and that’s how we can estimate the scale and degree of the issues,” says Xavier, adding that the available archival material indicates slave trade only after proper communication was established between Pulicat and Netherlands. “Roughly during 1621, the trade was scaled,” he says. 

In the 17th century, approximately 32,000 people from the Coromandel Coast were captured as slaves by the Dutch. “There might have been more. But it may have not been recorded,” says Xavier. 

The number of slaves at the time were so high that English factories Thomas Mills and John Milward reported in July 1622 that most of the slaves bought by the Dutch near Pulicat had been “stolen upon the highways or taken forcibly from their parents and friends. So great was the fear of being kidnapped, they continued, that country people no longer frequented local markets,” writes Allen.

The Indian slaves were primarily transported to Batavia, Suriname, Reunion, Malaysia, Vietnam and Southeast Asian countries. “Slaves were taken from hinterlands of major trading posts in Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea. Pulicat and Musilipattinam were big ports.

The slaves came from far away places inside the mainland,” says Xavier, who, about a decade back, released an 85-page pictorial account of Pulicat’s and Sadras’s history. Brokers in Madras were employed for slave-catching and in his book, Allen shares a vignette about Venkata, a Brahmin who in 1654 served as a company merchant at Madras. He was fined 16 pagodas for accepting bribes to facilitate the sale of four kidnapped children to Dutch brokers at Pulicat. 

Guidelines

Xavier shares that procuring slaves also came with strict guidelines, and generally young, strong men between 18 and 30 years were preferred. “About 65 per cent were male, 30 per cent female and five per cent were children,” he says.

During peak seasons, the slaves were sold for an average rate of 30 Guilders (Dutch currency) — an estimated `2,000. “People from communities that were considered at the bottom of the hierarchy were usually taken as slaves. But, few stories say that people from ‘upper castes’ were also enslaved — some even on one’s own free will,” he shares. Famines depressed local slave prices, often dramatically, so a large number of desperate people sold themselves, writes Allen. 

We quoted an excerpt from an article to Xavier: “Normally, 150-400 slaves were shipped each year from central Coromandel ports, including Pulicat, Madras, Nagapattinam, and Devanampattinam. This trade increased greatly during several famine periods.”

He was quick to say that he doesn’t believe in the ‘famine story’, primarily due to lack of research to support it. “According to me, it is fake. Our coast is prone to calamities, but we were well-equipped with vernacular knowledge to safeguard or be resilient. However, the Europeans who were inside a confined area or fort were always prone to such calamities,” he says.

The slaves were given different chores - from cleaning clothes, repairing ships to agriculture/plantation work. Missionaries even used them for carrying them into hinterlands in a palanquin. Several men, women and children died in the slave-carrying vessels as human cargo were thrown into the sea.

The Dutch slave trade continued till the end of the 18th century and gradually phased out in the early 19th century after The Indian Slavery Act 1843 was passed in British India under East India Company. “But, in many places, informal, confined or bonded labour procurement were practised until Independence. Even today, we hear a few stories,” he shares. 

AARDE Foundation will conduct its 7th Annual Trace Origin of Madras heritage walk on August 25 at Pulicat. To register, call 9884453409/9884013409 or visit: www.aarde.in

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