Those familiar with the arrival of Europeans in India would have heard of the Danish settlement of Tranquebar (now Tharangambadi) in Tamil Nadu, where the Scandinavians had a presence until 1845. What is less known is the presence of the Danes in different parts of Kerala!
The Danes established a settlement near Varkala in 1696 called Oddeway Torre. The name was a Danish corruption of Edawa, a town that is close to Varkala. Unlike Tranquebar, which by most definitions could be considered a colony, Oddeway Torre almost seemed like an experiment by what was then the union of Denmark and Norway (known as Denmark-Norway or the Dano-Norwegian Realm) to get a piece of the lucrative spice trade.
In his four-volume 'History of Kerala', historian K.P. Padmanabha Menon briefly mentioned the Danish presence in southern Kerala. Menon quotes early 18th-century English army officer Alexander Hamilton as saying: “Here on the beach side, Denmark traders have a small warehouse with coconut-thatched roof. It is in a dilapidated condition. Their trading, likewise, is nominal.”
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Danes and Norwegians did venture out far beyond Europe’s borders but were no match for the British, French or Dutch, who would go on to build powerful empires. Oddeway Torre was classified as a “lodge” by the Danes.
“The Danish settlements were merely trading and transit stations without an appreciable territorial extension and without an export production and plantation economy of their own,” Rolf Dörnbach wrote in an article for the 'Journal' of the Scandinavian Collectors Club.
“They remained so even later when the British and Dutch expanded their possessions to become colonial empires in India and Indonesia, respectively.” Even the main colony of Tranquebar had no more than 300 Danish residents.
Oddeway Torre was finally abandoned in 1724, but the Danes came back to Kerala a few decades later. In 1752, they reached an agreement with the Zamorin of Calicut to establish a warehouse in the fabled city. The Scandinavians managed to set up a pepper procurement lodge by the Calicut shore. As per the agreement they signed with the Zamorin, customs duties were paid. The Danes also agreed to provide arms and military support to the Zamorin if his territories were invaded. The Calicut settlement existed for about four decades. Spices and even brown sugar made their way from Kerala to Copenhagen.
At the same time that the Danes approached the Zamorin, they also set up an establishment in Colachel, near Kanyakumari. The Danes supplied iron and copper to Travancore in exchange for pepper, a prized commodity in Europe. But their presence in Travancore became an irritant both for the royal family of the state and the British who by then had an eye on India.
The intrigues of the Danish presence in Kerala are well captured in K. K. Kusuman’s book 'A History of Trade and Commerce in Travancore, 1600-1805'. “Despite fair relations with Travancore, the Danes supplied arms to the Nawab of Arcot for his adventure against Travancore,” Kusuman writes. “The Danes bothered about neither scruples nor discretion. Providing the Nawab with weapons by no means prevented the Asiatic company from selling them to his enemy, Haider Ali of Mysore (and curiously enough Travancore also got a share of the distribution) on whose attack they had already supplied the Nawab.”
Travancore felt it needed British help to stave off a potential invasion by Tipu Sultan and largely kept the Danes at bay to not annoy the British. The Danish presence in Colachel lasted from 1755 to 1824. Colachel incidentally is famous for a 1741 battle where the Kingdom of Travancore decisively defeated the Dutch East India Company. Despite having superior technology and being battle-hardened, the Dutch lost the battle and never looked like a force that could colonise India after that defeat. The battle may been a reason that the Danes did not attempt to have a proper colony in Kerala.
The Danes had a far greater impact and legacy in Tranquebar and in Serampore in West Bengal, which still has some colonial Dutch architecture. Oddly enough, the Nicobar Islands are a part of India largely because the Danes colonised them first (naming them Frederiksøerne) and then sold them to the British.
It is still fascinating to know that spices from Kerala were a luxury that was used to liven up the cuisines of Denmark and Norway, and brown sugar from Kerala would have made Danish pastries tastier.
Efforts are now on re-establish links between Denmark and its erstwhile colonies and settlements. Perhaps in some corner of the Copenhagen City Archives building, there are stories of a Kerala that we, Malayalis, don’t know of. Stories of a people, time and place that are forgotten but waiting to be told.