Danish India: The Castaway Raj

While Britain, France, and Holland struggled desperately to get into India, one European nation was struggling desperately to get out.

Indeed, it was something of a mix-up that Denmark was even there. Danish merchants had flushed green with jealousy at the profits of the Dutch and English traders, but had regarded Dutch control of the Indian trade as impregnable until a Dutchman, Marcelis de Boshouwer, arrived in Copenhagen in 1618 with an offer that seemed too good to refuse. The Emperor of Ceylon, Cenerat Adassin, was locked in a bitter conflict with the Portuguese and was offering a monopoly on trade with the whole island to whatever military power could help him oust the unwelcome Iberians. De Boshouwer explained that he had brought this offer to his countrymen, but that they had shortsightedly refused it, and so he was presenting it to His Majesty Christian IV. Flattered that someone had thought of him, Christian issued a charter to a Danish East India Company and dispatched them to the besieged Sri Lankan emperor’s aid post-haste.

When the fleet arrived two years later, however, having lost half their crew along the way, they found that the emperor had made his own peace with the Portuguese three years earlier and was no longer in need of any help. To add insult to the injury, Admiral Gjedde also found that the self-declared “Emperor of Ceylon” was not the only, or even the most important, king on the island. With no trade contract and no prospects in Denmark if they returned unprofitably, the crew seized a local temple in a standoff with the locals, where word reached them from the mission’s trade director, Robert Crappe.

Crappe had sailed ahead of the main fleet to perform reconnaissance but had been intercepted by the Portuguese, who sank his ship, killed almost the whole crew, and put two of the crewmen’s heads up on pikes on the beach as a warning to future Scandinavians. Crappe, however, had escaped with a handful of other men, coming ashore only to be captured by Indians, who took him to the Nayak of Tanjore (now Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu). Crappe, who clearly deserved his job, managed to negotiate a trade agreement in which Denmark received the village of Tranquebar, the right to build a fort (which would become their colonial capital, Fort Dansborg), and to levy taxes (making them the first Europeans to hold such a power in India since Alexander). The Danes left the temple and Ceylon and flocked to Tranquebar.

The new colony, however, was poorly administered and even more poorly funded—a situation that arose naturally from the loss of almost two-thirds of the trading vessels sent by Denmark. The few ships that did make it back to Copenhagen turned a profit, but not nearly on the scale the Company’s directors had hoped for. The reason for the Nayak’s willingness to give away the village quickly became apparent as well, as everything built was periodically destroyed by high tides. Before long, the colony’s governors simply gave up on trying to trade for themselves and positioned themselves as neutral carriers of goods for other companies. The inability of the colony, which was nearly bankrupt, to pay the agreed sums to the Nayak triggered hostility from the Indians, while the mere existence of a Danish trading company triggered hostility from the English and the Dutch, who nonetheless could not move against it without adverse diplomatic consequences back in Europe. By 1638, the Company’s stockholders were trying to liquidate their holdings but King Christian was having none of it. The tension between a management that no longer wanted to run the Company and a government that refused to let them stop caused the two ships that left for India in 1639 to be the last for twenty-nine years.

The Danish settlers in India were left to fend for themselves. In 1640 they attempted (for a second time) to sell the fort to the Dutch, but the Dutch—who apparently felt that even they could not stop its flooding problem—had no interest in it. With no meaningful sources of revenue, the tiny outpost had no recourse but to unilaterally declare war on the Mughal Empire two years later and raid its shipping, which was surprisingly successful, turning a healthy profit from auctioning the loot in independent Indian markets. In 1643, however, Holland and Sweden declared war on Denmark and in short order Dutch fleets had captured nearly all of the Danish factories outside Tranquebar itself. By the time Christian IV died, in 1648, the Company was bankrupt and its directors were put out of their misery two years later when it was dissolved.

The fort, however, was still standing and manned. It was also under siege by the Nayak, who had not been paid the promised tribute in quite some time. Locally raised forces managed to defend it and appointed Eskild Andersen Kongsbakke, who was the last Dane left in the colony, as its leader. He would defend and administer it in the total absence of the company that founded it or the government that had chartered them, for eighteen more years, until the arrival of the frigate Færø in 1669.

This sad tale would be bizarre enough without its final twist, which is that, for reasons known only to God, the Danish government decided to charter a second company in 1670 to rebuild their unprofitable holdings in the East. Between 1696 and 1763, Danish outposts spread through the Malabar coast, Calicut, West Bengal, and the Nicobar and Andaman Islands, trading in spices and textiles. Although these outposts fared considerably better than the first company’s ventures, their overall level of support from back home may be judged by the fact that when, on 9 June 1706, the first Protestant missionaries in India arrived on a Danish ship, their own countrymen suspected them of being spies. The whole of the Company’s holdings were finally turned over to the Danish Crown in 1777 and organized into a crown colony in 1779.

By this time, however, the rise of British power on the Subcontinent had become irresistible, and by the end of the eighteenth century it began to sweep away Danish holdings as surely as the high tides had swept away the roads and houses of Tranquebar. The Napoleonic Wars gave Britain a long-awaited excuse to raid Danish shipping and British forces even occupied Fort Dansborg. The Danish colonies went into an inexorable decline and, one by one, they were sold to Britain between 1839 and 1868. The last province to be sold—the Nicobar Islands—had already been abandoned.

By the time of the Great Rebellion, then, the entire Danish colony was in British hands or emptied. Nothing but a handful of vestigial French and Portuguese outposts remained to stand between Queen Victoria and the truth of the claim she would make in 1876 by assuming the title of Empress of India. In our next installment, we will see how the tides of history took Denmark’s colonies away from her, too.

Author: R. Joseph Capet


  1. Ha! Nice account. It is a peculiar story. I always thought that it said something interesting about the politics, and national culture, of both the Danes and the Tamils. At the point at which the colony was nearly abandoned and clearly a very badly conceived enterprise, with only one Dane left, Eskild Andersen Kongsbakke. The locals actually rose to defend the fort from the forces of their previous ruler, the Nayak, and made Kongsbakke their leader. Why did the locals do that? I like to think it may have been because Kongsbakke, a barely educated, but apparently very resourceful man (who married a local woman) was everything Scandinavians like to think of themselves as; down to earth, pragmatic, open minded, and fun. Otherwise, why should the local Tamils (along with a motley crew of foreign wanderers and outcasts) choose to follow the essentially abandoned citizen of a clearly forgotten outpost? Beyond that, he appears to have maintained the fort through privateering and marketing of the goods liberated from some of the neighboring powers. He certainly did not do that all by himself. Kongsbakke must have been quite a guy; he brought the Viking spirit to the Tamils, and I think they liked it.

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