The Portuguese show the way

I am just back from the Mylapore Festival, heartened by the fact that it has become bigger and better over the years. More about the festival later. Mylapore is one of Chennai’s oldest villages – its history goes centuries back, hundreds of years before the British or the Portuguese arrived – and I’m sure it has a fascinating past. Talking about Mylapore, I am often reminded of the history of Madras, of the years of yore…

For people of our generation, in this day and age, it is difficult to picture the days of yore when residents travelled in palanquins, when the President’s guards were armed with bows and arrows, swords and shields, and men wore large conical hats. Although Madras might have been more colourful then, the ways of people remain largely unchanged. The crowds that visit the city’s temples and bazaars are similar to those in the past. Madras fishermen still venture out to the sea in frail craft as their forefathers did years ago.

Before we arrive at 1639, when the British found their settlement at Fort St George, it is worthwhile to take a broad sweep of ‘the great world without’ if only to understand the reasons for the formation of the East India Company. A thousand years before the British came to India, Indian colonists had set sail from ports such as Mahabalipuram (the Pallavas were then in power) and spread Indian culture in Siam, Cambodia, Malaya and the East Indian Islands. Cotton, spices, jewels and perfumes were transported up the Red Sea to the courts of the Roman emperors, and from Egyptian ports to the courts of European kings.

Things changed in the 15th Century after the Portuguese discovered the route around the Cape and began trade with India. The Portuguese got a stronghold on the trade in spices and cotton goods and soon became the monarchs of all they surveyed, monopolising trade on both sides of the Indian peninsula. However, the locals hated their haughtiness, arrogance, religious intolerance and immortality. It was in 1522, when Henry VIII was King of England, that the Portuguese occupied Santhome. Low sand hills by the mouth of a small river, which expanded near the shore into a lagoon, became the site of the early Portuguese settlement, later a fortified town of wealth and importance.

In the 16 Century, people in England wore clothes made of wool, silk or linen. South India was the main source of the much sought after cotton goods. The Portuguese were in the right place at the right time – they charged heavily for the material and earned high profits. They traded in pepper in similar manner, importing it from India and selling it to the English at a high price.

The Portuguese earned the wrath of the Dutch, too. The Dutch were the great merchants in Europe, the rich traders of Amsterdam who bought spices each year from the Portuguese in Lisbon. In 1580, the Dutchmen formed themselves into the United Provinces. When Philip II of Spain took over as King of Portugal, he excluded the Dutch from trade. Equal to the task, the Dutch ventured into Indian seas, hoping to outdo the Portuguese. Those were days of long voyages in small sailing ships, usually not larger than 300 tonnes.

Targetting the Malay Archipelago or the Spice Islands, the Dutch in 1600 erected a factory at Bantam in Java; trade expanded to Batavia, which became their centre of trade and the seat of the Dutch Government in the East. As the Portuguese power waned, the Dutch were ready to take over. In 1610, they erected a fort at Pulicat, then part of an area loosely controlled by the Vijaynagar Rajah. The news of the Dutch success in South India reached the ears of the fuming English merchants in London who now became desperate to have a share of the Indian trade.