The town of Palaverkadu, also known as ‘Pulicat’, is a coastal idyll, whose claim to fame is the lagoon that stretches out in front of it like a giant watercolour. Located just 54 km north of Chennai, the shallow, brackish waters of the lake have made Pulicat a sanctuary for migratory birds.
Stand at the water’s edge and, as your eyes meet the horizon, images of galleons sailing into the lagoon from the open sea fill the mind’s eye. Slowly and ominously, the flotilla inches towards the shore, to pick up a grim cargo – boatloads of human slaves.
Today, Pulicat is nothing more than a sleepy town and it does a good job of hiding its ominous past. There is nothing, really, to remind you that it used to be the chief trading hub of slaves from India. A fort built by the Dutch and a couple of ruins are the only markers of the European powers who steered the destiny of this town 400 years ago.
Between the early 1600s and early 1800s, it is estimated that more than 50,000 Indians were shipped to Jakarta in Indonesia as slaves.
They mostly went as bonded labourers to work in the Dutch factories (trading posts) and plantations in what was then the Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia).
So how did Pulicat become the centre of the slave trade in India?
Due to its location at the mouth of a lagoon, Pulicat is one of the few good natural harbours on the Tamil Nadu coast. One of the earliest references to Pulicat is the 1st century CE Roman trading manual, The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, which lists Podouke (Pulicat) as ‘one of the three ports on the east coast of India’.
The wealth of Pulicat brought European traders here, and the first to arrive were the Portuguese, who built a trading post in Pulicat in 1502. A century later, in 1606, a Dutch ship landed at Karimanal village, just north of Pulicat Lake, looking for water. They struck a trade partnership with the locals, which effectively kicked off the Indo-Dutch trade in spices and textiles.
In 1608, the Vijayanagara rulers allowed the Dutch to build a fort in Pulicat called ‘Fort Geldria’. The Dutch soon forced the other Europeans to leave and Pulicat became the capital of what was known as the ‘Dutch Coromandel’. While the Dutch had hoped to trade in the lucrative Coromandel textiles and Golconda diamonds, they were soon transporting cargo that was far more grim – human slaves. It was a practice triggered by events that took place 8,000 km away, in present-day Jakarta in Indonesia.
The earliest reference to the slave trade by the Europeans is in 1510, when 24 slaves were sent from Calicut to Lisbon.
In 1619, the Dutch East India Company had sacked and destroyed the Javanese city of Jayakarta, and in its place, they built a new settlement known as Batavia. All the native Javanese were expelled from the new city and forbidden from entering the city walls. The Dutch needed labour to work in their factories, warehouses, plantations and homes, and hence they began importing slaves. Initially, African slaves were imported from Portuguese-controlled Mozambique. But this proved unviable as most of them died during the long voyages and terrible conditions out at sea. Hence they decided to import slaves from India.
By the 1620s, letters were being sent by officials in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) to the Dutch factories in Masulipatnam and Pulicat, to procure as many slaves as possible. On 8th May 1622, the Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies, Jan Pieterzoon Coen, sent a stern letter to officials in India. It read:
“The Muy (ship) is being sent to Coromandel to bring back as many slaves – young males and females as possible… Batavia (Jakarta) had expected to get no less than 1,000 slaves, but we have received only 124. It is a matter of great shame that such an important matter has been treated so lightly.”
During this time, the Dutch were frantically trying to buy as many slaves as possible from the Coromandel coast. William Methwold, a British merchant living in Masulipatnam between 1618 and 1622, wrote about how Indian traders carried rice and grain in the hinterland, “taking children in exchange, which cost not them above three or foure shillings a childe, and they sell againe in Masulipatnam and other places for forty shillings”. Similarly, Thomas Mills, another British merchant who lived in Pulicat in 1622, wrote about how the Dutch were ordered “to buy as manye as possible can be procured, to the nomber of four or five thousand”. Mills noted how a Dutch ship named New Zealand had sailed for Batavia from Pulicat with 460 slaves, and was planning to load 650 more at Tegnapatnam.
Dutch historian, Dr WO Dijk, in her research, The Dutch Trade In Asian Slaves: Arakan and the Bay of Bengal, 1621–1665 An End to the History of Silence?, said that between 1621 and 1665 alone, the Dutch used 131 ships to transport 38,441 Indian slaves obtained mostly from Pulicat brokers. In Pulicat, the price of a slave ranged from 27 to 40 guilders in ‘expensive years’ to as little as 4 guilders in ‘cheap years’.
Pulicat was the nodal point for trade in slaves, not just from South India but also Bengal. After the Northern Burmese Kingdom of Arakan raided the Bengal coast, they sold the captured Bengalis at Pulicat, who were then ‘exported’ to Indonesia. The scale of the trade can be gauged from Dutch records, which state that in a single year (1624), the Arakanese are said to have been transported 10,000 human cargo (slaves) to Pulicat and Indonesia. But due to inhuman conditions on board the ships, only a few made it to their destination alive. For example, in 1624, of the 400 “pieces of human cargo” sent on two Dutch ships, Verde and Medenblick, only 100 made to Batavia.
Unhappy with the high mortality rate, strict guidelines were sent from Batavia to Pulicat regarding the procurement of slaves. The 1628 letter from Jan Pieterzoon Coen states:
“We ask you to issue strict orders to all places wherever slaves are purchased that only young persons – boys and girls between the ages of eight to twenty years are to be bought. The old, the unsuitable and the useless are to be left out. If you cannot buy the right ones, do not buy slaves for a while.”
Slaves made up a large part of colonial Batavia’s population. According to the census of 1673, of the total population of 27,068 in Batavia and its vicinity, there were 13,278 slaves, roughly half the population. The condition of the slaves was pitiable, and the mortality rare very high.
In addition to Indian slaves, there were slaves from Sri Lanka, Burma , East Africa, China and the island of Bali.
Their numbers had grown so much that, in 1757, there were restrictions in place on the number of slaves in the inner city. In 1770, a law was passed barring slaves who had converted to Christianity from being sold. This led to mass conversions to Christianity. It was only in 1818 that slavery was formally abolished in the Dutch East Indies. Over time, the freed slaves intermarried and were assimilated into Jakarta’s native population.
Meanwhile in India, Pulicat began to decline in the second half of the 18th century due to political instability in its hinterland. Since there aren’t many references to ‘human cargo’ being transported from Pulicat during this time, it is presumed that the practice might have stopped or become financially unviable. There were instances of the French illegally acquiring slaves at their factories at Yanam (in present-day Andhra Pradesh) and Mahe, transporting them to Mauritius and the Reunion islands in the Indian Ocean, to work in sugar plantations. However, it was not a common practice and did not have ‘official’ sanction.
Ironically, while there was little resistance from Indian rulers against the practice of slavery, it was only the British East India Company that tried to stop it. British officers tried to stop slave traders from ‘buying’ or kidnapping people from British-controlled territories. By the early 19th century, slavery was banned in much of Europe and a dark chapter in history came to an end.
Today, unlike in America and Africa, there is little public awareness about the slave trade in India. In Jakarta, it is only now that people are becoming aware of a past that is linked to slavery.
On Gorée Island, 3 km off the coast of the city of Dakar, in Senegal in Africa, is a museum and memorial to the Atlantic slave trade. The museum attracts thousands of visitors from around the world, who come here to pay their respects in a place that served as the final departure point for slaves in Africa. Sadly, no such memorial commemorates Indian slaves, who were captured and transported to the corners of the world, even as far as the Caribbean islands.
Alas, we seem to have forgotten this dark chapter in our history.