Academician Ananya Chakravarti was holidaying in Fort Kochi sometime in mid-July, when she woke up one morning at her hotel to an image of an 11-year-old African boy staring at the Raja of Kochi. A bit shaken, Ananya got up from the bed. She realised that she had read about the boy a day earlier at the State Government Archives at Kochi. “I found a deed of sale recording that the boy was sold by Antonio Fernandes to the Raja of Kochi, Rama Varma (Shakthan Thampuran), on October 11, 1793, for 200 rupiyas (old currency),” says Ananya. “It was very clear from the archival material that the Raja had a deep interest in acquiring black slaves from Africa.”
An associate professor of history at Georgetown University, Washington, US, Ananya had secured a long-term senior fellowship from the American Institute of Indian Studies to study the regional history of the Indian Ocean coast. “I am a historian of the 16th and 17th centuries,” says the 36-year-old. As she browsed through the archive, she realised that there was an interesting mix of Portuguese and Dutch collections. “My advantage is that I know how to read and write in both languages,” says Ananya. This interest is helping her unearth some fascinating facts and the archive staff couldn’t be happier. To them it is a godsend that someone knows the two languages—something which even they do not follow.
The daughter of a career diplomat, Ananya was born in Spain and grew up in Tanzania, Bangladesh, Namibia, and Holland. But it was her stay in Kolkata with her grandparents from the age of 12 that got her hooked on to history. Though she professionally studied economics, she followed her heart and history for further studies. Her PhD became the basis of her first book, The Empire of Apostles: Religion, Accommodation and the Imagination of Empire in Early Modern Brazil and India. While delving into Kochi’s archival history, she has a clear aim, “There is a lot of distortions of historical facts. I want to put out an evidence-based history.”
At the State Government Archives, the documents were fascinating. There were long theological disputes in the early 19th century in Portuguese relating to internal disputes within the Catholic Church. “There were also documents which showed that the leading Konkani merchant-cum-broker Malpa Poi loaned money to a wide variety of people: wealthy European merchants, the deacon of the Dutch Reformed Church, and the king of Kochi himself.”
Ananya was also looking at migrations. Besides, there were letters from the Dutch Governor and the Director-General to the King of Kochi often interceding on behalf of their subjects. So even as the world troubles itself with what lies ahead, there is this historian who is buried up to her nose, digging out long lost history. “I get so busy that at times I forget to eat,” she laughs.