Esther Fihl is the Research Leader of the Tranquebar Initiative of the National Museum of Denmark, and Professor at the Department for Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies, University of Copenhagen. She has compiled a monumental work, which brings to us detailed essays by different authors on the historical legacy of the Danish Governor’s house in Tharagampadi, otherwise known as Tranquebar. By looking at maps, architectural drawings, renovation plans by contemporary architects, photographs taken in the 19th century, and what is called Company Art, a huge corpus of materials is brought to our attention. Material culture has always been significant to sociologists, and by looking at what people used or owned, and how objects passed from families to state museums, a very interesting history has to be written.
The Danish representatives were very absorbed by their colonial legacy in Tranquebar, and men and women together wrote about their experiences at great length to family members back home. Occasionally, the men cohabited with local women, and their offspring if suitably westernized, could make alliances with European men. The book begins with the case of Catherine Noele Worlee, who was born in 1762 in Tranquebar. Her father was a French official, but when he migrated to Chandernagore, the 16-year-old girl met a British official, named George Francis Grand, stationed in Calcutta. They were married in 1778, but soon after, she was banished from her home as she had an affair with Philip Francis, a member of the Supreme Council.
By 1783, Madame Grand had become the mistress of a well to do banker in Paris. After many adventures and complex escapes, she returned to Paris after the Revolution, and became the mistress of Talleyrand. He wrote to a friend, ‘She is Indian, very beautiful, very lazy, the most idle woman I have ever known’ (p. 21). Napoleon forced them to marry, but Talleyrand’s passion cooled, and he sent her to England, where he financed her. Though she was a marginal figure, she represented the exotic, and the mosaic of cultures, (namely Danish, British, French) that Tranquebar symbolized in the 18th century. The history of Tranquebar shows us how colonial masters took over the hinterlands, and posted themselves in trading ports where fine cottons, pepper, spices, sandalwood and ivory could be accessed. The Danes had to deal with powerful men, who as dubashes (knowing two languages) set up contacts and produce, but then became immensely catalytic and power hungry.
‘The business of the dubashes centred around trade, but by the end of the eighteenth century they also tried to invest their wealth in agrarian activities, which provoked the Vellala and Brahmin castes. Presumably because of the close connection they had with members of the Danish government and other leading figures, some dubashes had succeeded in becoming agrarian revenue collectors, much to the chagrin of the traditional agrarian elites, and disputes subsequently arose’ (p. 59). Fihl and her collaborators look at the way in which local communities buttress the lives of the Danish elite, and the manner in which architecture represents the life of the colonists. A suitable residence for the Governor, and the manner in which it is procured, the floor maps that describe the layout of the Governor’s house and garden is the central motif of the book, concluding with 21st century renovation details. Told through a few biographical notes, with the key themes becoming almost novelistic, we are led gradually into the geomorphology of the terrain and the habitations that slowly accumulate. The colonial landscape is quite grand, and not surprisingly, once renovated, the Governor’s House, facing the beach, becomes a Neemrana hotel in the 21st century. It is the story of the Danish Governors that begins to preoccupy the authors, as these are beset with personal tragedies, the role of sisters or wives who are in attendance, and occasionally the ‘cohabitee’ who pours tea for the Governor to the dismay of the conservative traders’ wives.