09 May 2017 15:34 IST

Dane and dusted

Joining the missing links of India’s shared history with Denmark

From the Denmark Tavern in Serampore — a town about 25 km from Kolkata on the Grand Trunk Road — the waterfront looks picturesque. River Hooghly narrows here and the horizon dips beyond the greenery of the opposite bank while tiny fishing boats float on the blue-grey water. This is where the traders who came on boats to the Danish warehouse stayed overnight. This is also where, later, British officials stopped on business up and down the river or on visits to the country residence of the Governor-General Marquis Wellesley in Barrackpore, India’s oldest cantonment town.

As early as 1698, the Danish East India Company had established a small trading post called Dannemarksnagore next to Chandernagore, a French colony less than 40 km from Kolkata. But success eluded the company’s expansion plans, hence its dissolution and the subsequent abandonment of the post. By 1732, the Danes were back as the Danish Asiatic Company in which the country’s government was a major stockholder. IC Soetmann, a member of the Danish council in Tranquebar, was asked to obtain permit for a trading post from Nawab Aliwardi Khan, the then ruler of Bengal. In 1755, the Danes came with a parwana (official letter) to acquire land in Serampore and conduct trade in Bengal, Bihar and Odisha, against a payment of 2.5 per cent duty.

By then the other major European powers had established posts or factories (warehouses) along the lower part of the Hooghly, providing easy access to the rich markets of northern India. Apart from the French-owned Chandernagore, Bandel and Hooghly belonged to the Portuguese, Chinsurah to the Dutch, and the British were rapidly growing at Sutanuti, one of the three villages that were later merged to found Calcutta.

Good times

The Danish settlement began modestly and trade was poor till 1777, when the Danish crown took charge of Danish possessions in India. The country’s good times kicked in 1783, post the American War of Independence. The armed conflict had earned Britain the wrath of North America, France and Holland. This resulted in constant attacks on and loot of English vessels in the sea. Things improved for Britain when it started to use ships that belonged to Denmark, a neutral party, to continue trade. Merchants from Bengal, too, went with the flow — using Danish vessels with Danish admirals to transport cotton, silk, sugar and saltpetre. Flush with funds, the Indian middlemen and the Danish agents built palatial houses on the western side of Serampore.

An interesting character at the helm of things was Ole Bie, head of Danish operations in Serampore between 1776 and 1805. Bie liked to be called the governor. And as trade prospered, he enlarged the Government House twice, added a compound wall and built a prison. During his later years he ordered the construction of St Olav’s Church, whose steeple then rose high above all other buildings in the riverside town.

The fact that the Danish officials were allowed to make up for their extremely low wages with private business did not help the Company’s interests. Add river sedimentation and growing sandbanks and it made Serampore a rather unpopular port. By 1836, the end of the Danish period was near. The Danes left Serampore and of the 572 brick houses, 111 were left uninhabited. The town was eventually sold to the British in 1845.

Wasting away

Today all over Serampore are old, crumbling structures in the grip of vines and obliterating trees. Some buildings, it is said, date from the Mughal era; others are European villas. And the Indo-Danish legacy would likewise have vanished had it not been for the Serampore Initiative, which took off in 2008 at the ethnographic department of the National Museum of Denmark (NMD), Copenhagen. Funded by the Realdania Foundation, also from Denmark, a team soon landed in Serampore for archival and field studies.

From November 2008 to April 2009 Flemming Aalund (restoration architect) and Simon Rastén (historian) scouted Serampore. And it is through their interactions with local residents and government officials that the basic links of collaboration were formed. And a healthy informal cooperation between stakeholders propelled change.

Restoration Project

Take the Denmark Tavern which, post Independence, had slowly reduced to piles of bricks. Come December 2017 and the West Bengal tourism department will have it running as an all-suite hotel with a café and a bakery. The Tavern’s renovation is being overseen by the NMD. It is one of the three restoration projects in the subdivisional headquarter that Realdania, Denmark’s ministry of culture and The Association to Preserve Serampore’s Heritage are jointly financing.

Built in 1771, the Government House was the official residence of Bie and was used by the British and Indian governments till 1999. Altered and extended in various ways, the building was abandoned when a roof collapsed. A little over a month ago, when I arrived at Serampore, the Government House and a later British structure behind it, known as the Red House, were being restored by the West Bengal Heritage Commission. The project, led by architect Gopa Sen, has been on in phases for nearly a decade. Adding to the overall optimism was an exhibition, which I saw, of drawings of Serampore’s old houses and ghats — part of a survey by postgraduate students of CEPT University, Ahmedabad. INTACH and NMD were also there, distributing prizes for a competition they had jointly organised for architectural proposals to restore the square outside the Government House. Rajat Nanda, subdivisional officer of Serampore, said two gateways and a boundary wall are being recreated and efforts are on to relocate a bus terminus in the town square.

By 2016, the Danish Initiative had spent about ₹3 crore in restoring the Lutheran Church of St Olav. Once the focal point of Serampore, the church had fallen into disrepair and decay. The project got a booster when it won an Unesco Asia-Pacific Distinction for Cultural Heritage Conservation award for 2016. The church floor was relaid with sandstone from Rajasthan. The roof was restored with earthen tiles while lime concrete, instead of cement, was chosen for water proofing the structure. Iron beams have replaced the wooden ones, one of which collapsed in 2010 due to termite infestation.

Striding confidently through Serampore’s narrow lanes — many with open drains and mazes of shops and shacks — Rastén said that he had discovered several documents pertaining to Bengal’s Danish history in the West Bengal State Archives, Hooghly District records and Serampore College Library. He added that this could be of interest to researchers.

Up the narrow staircase to the top floor of the Danish Tavern, we found a huddle of architects studying paintings of the structure — such as the one from 1790 by Peter Anker, the Danish governor of Tranquebar. Rastén informed that the Danish saluting cannons are likely to be restored by the flagstaff at Nisan Ghat, which was their original position. “When we first came here, very few locals knew of the historical link between India and Denmark. We showed them paintings and photographs. Then they started showing interest,” he said.

For the team at work, however, it’s the renewal of cultural ties between the two countries that hold greater importance than bringing back Denmark to Serampore.

(Sebanti Sarkar is a freelance writer based in Kolkata. The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.)