Admiral Ove Gjedde was going through the ship’s log when the king’s summons came. He hurried to the audience hall. The King of Danes, Christian IV, was dressed in his royal finery. There was a gleam in his eye and a smile on his face. He had never seen his king this excited.
“Admiral Gjedde, meet Marchelis de Boshouwer, the royal envoy from the Emperor of Ceylon”, said the king, “He brings to us an interesting proposition.”
Gjedde turned around. The king was not alone in the audience chamber. A man came forward from the shadows. He was sun-tanned and looked travel worn. His face was wrinkled beyond his years and his eyes were weary. He wore an ivory necklace and had gold rings on his fingers. The jewels stood out in stark contrast from his Dutch navy uniform. He bowed to the King.
“I have been sent as an envoy by His Majesty, Senarat of Kandy for military assistance. The kingdom of Ceylon is plagued by the Portuguese, who are laying waste to island. The king offers monopoly on all trade with the island in return for military assistance against the Portugese.”
Gjedde understood his king’s excitement. The success of the Dutch and British spice trade in India was a source of envy for the Danes. The king also wanted a bite of the luscious apple. Now, opportunity had come knocking at his door.
The Admiral had his doubts. The Dutch had the resources and the men in India to help out the Lankan king. Why did he come all the way to Europe? Why was a Dutchman approaching the King of Denmark instead of his own king? Why did he not have any documents or the king’s seal to prove his credibility?
King Christian IV was too tempted and excited by this opportunity to pay heed to his Admiral’s doubts. He ordered the Danish navy to sail to Ceylon and offer assistance to the Lankan king.
The voyage was long and arduous. The journey was punctuated with storms, shipwrecks and sickness. Gjedde cursed to his luck and kept on sailing. In the end, only half his crew managed to reach the shores of Sri Lanka.
A lot had happened in the two years that the Danish naval expedition took to reach Lanka. The political climate had changed. The king of Kandy and the Portuguese had signed a peace treaty. The king did not need any military assistance any more. The trade deal was torn and thrown out the window.
Gjedde stormed out in rage. The Danish navy had no where to go. They occupied a village near the shore called Koneshwaram. The Lankan king had warned him to the leave the island at the earliest. He had lost a lot of good men on this fool’s errand. The rest of his crew were seething. A mutiny was close at hands. They were far from home with no place to go. He had to do something before all was lost. He told his orderly to summon his Trade Director, Robert Crappe.
It had been two months since he had sent Crappe on a scouting mission on a freighter. Gjedde knew that turning back and going to Denmark was impossible. The rough seas and an imminent mutiny meant that he would never make it home alive. If he somehow managed to reach home by a miracle, the king would likely chop his head off for failing on the mission. He could not go home without a trade deal.
That was why he had sent Crappe to make contact with the Indian kings on the Coromandel coast and secure a trade deal. Why was there no news from him?
The news finally arrived. Gjedde’s hands were trembling as he read the letter from Crappe.
The Danish freighter was attacked by the Portuguese at Karaikal and sunk. Most of the ship’s crew had either died at sea or were captured by the Portuguese. The heads of the sailors were mounted on spikes. They were placed on the beach as a warning to the Danish Navy.
Crappe and a dozen of his crew escaped drowning by hanging on to flotsam. They made it to the shore. They tried to escape capture by the Poruguese under the cover of darkness, but ran head-first into an armed Indian encampment. They were captured by the Indians and taken to their king; the Nayak of Thanjavur.
The capture by the Indians turned out well for Crappe and his surviving crew. The Thanjavur king was enthralled by the Danes and was interested in trade-treaty to Denmark. The king gave the Danes the fishing village of Tharagambadi to build a ‘stone house’.
Gjedde collapsed on his chair. His prayers were answered and he had found a way out. The Danish contingent left Koneshwaram and set sail for Tharagambadi.
Gjedde and his navy finally reached Tharagambadi in 1620. They named the place Tranquebar and built a trading center there. They built Fort Dansborg on the seashore. He sent a message back the king of Denmark. The Danish East India company had arrived.
P.S. – It did not survive long.
The fishing hamlet of Tharagambadi is off the beaten path and not an easy place to reach. It has the distinction of having the first Protestant church in India, the first printing press in India and the second largest Danish fort in the world (after fort Kronborg in Helsingør).
The fortress on the beach is a beauty to behold. It was recently renovated and has a museum inside. The rusted canons still face the sea. Old churches and Danish bunglows are scattered around the town. The Danish Collector’s bunglow is refurbished as a hotel, and staying there takes you 300 years back in time.
Tharagambadi, the land of the singing waves, captures the imagination.