Vengurla: Konkan Port with a Dutch Connection

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The picture-postcard town of Vengurla on Maharashtra’s Konkan coast is an idyllic getaway for visitors looking to soak in sun, surf and a slice of slow living. Located 109 km north of Goa, it is emerging as a popular tourist destination. But beyond the spectacular scenery, Vengurla is steeped in history.

The earliest mention of Vengurla comes from Greco-Roman records. The 1st century CE Greek text Periplus of the Erythraean Sea refers to ‘Sesecrienae’, a group of islands believed to be the Vengurla Rocks, 8 km from Vengurla port.

Arab records dating to before the 15th century CE refer to the place as ‘Tomaschek’. In Portuguese records, from the 16th century CE, this coastal town is referred to as ‘Bamda harbour’, possibly named after the town of Banda, 30 km inland from the Vengurla coast. In the 17th century CE travel accounts of the Dutch, French, English and Italian officials and travellers, the town is referred to as Fingarle, Mingrela and Wingurla.

Vengurla rose to prominence with the emergence of the Dutch East India Company. The Dutch first sailed into the Indian Ocean in the early 17th century CE, to trade in textiles and spices. They gained control over Indonesia, ports in Sri Lanka, Cape Town and the Coromandel region on the east coast of India.

They also wanted control of the Malabar coast of Kerala, on India’s west coast, but the Portuguese, who had established themselves in Goa, thwarted this ambition. The Dutch figured that to weaken Portuguese control in the region, they would have to block Portuguese trade from Goa.

To do this, they would have to establish themselves in a port close to Goa. Vengurla presented the perfect opportunity, apart from the fact that it also produced cloth, millets, cardamom, and had salt pans. It also gave ample access to the Deccan region, which was another advantage for inland trade.

Dutch Foray into Vengurla

At the time, Vengurla was under the rule of the Adil Shahi dynasty of Bijapur. Muhammad Adil Shah wanted to boot out the Portuguese from Goa and thus gave the Dutch access to Vengurla. The arrangement would benefit both of them.

A diorama of Vengurla's Dutch Factory
A diorama of Vengurla's Dutch Factory | Author

In 1638 CE, Johan van Twist, an envoy of the Dutch East India Company, secured permission to build a fortified warehouse and a factory in Vengurla. Construction was completed in the 1650s. The fort was protected by walls, bastions, and guards with cannons and guns.

To weaken Portuguese power in the region, the Dutch blockaded the port of Goa, from 1636 to 1644 CE, and then from 1657 to 1662 CE. They blocked the departure of Portuguese ships headed for Lisbon, Macau and China.

The Dutch set down roots in Vengurla and continued to trade from here. During this time, the town reached its zenith as the Dutch traded with countries like Persia, Batavia (modern Jakarta), Malacca and Japan and many others.

French traveller and merchant, Jean Baptist Tavernier, mentions a few of the many goods which Vengurla exported to the world. His list includes cotton yarn, motooto, cashew nuts, incense, pepper and candle wax. In return, the town imported copper, camphor, pewter, cloves, mace, lead, vermillion, zinc and occasionally tea.

By 1663-64, Vengurla became part of the newly created Maratha kingdom. Maratha ruler, Chhatrapati Shivaji, had cordial relations with the Dutch, which was beneficial for the town’s progress. As Shivaji began to rule over an independent kingdom, he required vast quantities of copper to mint coins.

In his article The Dutch East-India Company Trade at Vengurla in the Seventeenth Century, Ishrat Alam says that the Maratha king bought more than 600,000 pounds of copper from the Dutch East India Company at Vengurla. The Dutch also paid him a toll to allow them to trade in commodities at Vengurla port.

After the death of Muhammad Adil Shah in 1656 CE, the region became unstable due to conflicts between Bijapur, the Mughals and the Marathas. In 1663 CE, the Dutch took control of Cochin in present-day Kerala, after which the strategic importance of Vengurla declined.

Refuge of a Mughal Prince

When Mughal Prince Muhammad Akbar unsuccessfully rebelled against his father Emperor Aurangzeb, he sought refuge in Maharashtra under Chhatrapati Sambhaji. Akbar lived in the Dutch factory in 1683 CE and, from here, escaped to Persia, never to return. Aurangzeb turned his wrath on Vengurla and its Dutch factory, and his son Shah Alam sacked the town in 1684 CE.

Dutch Factory in 1992
Dutch Factory in 1992 | Author

The Maratha-Mughal wars that followed significantly compromised the Dutch’s inland trade. Officially, the Dutch ceased operations in Vengurla in 1692, but the factory was abandoned long before that, in 1685.

New Rulers: The Sawants

Vengurla’s fortunes changed hands after that and the port town passed to the Sawants of Wadi, local chieftains in the southern Konkan region. Originally, feudatories of the Bijapur kingdom, they switched allegiance to whoever was in power. Alternatively, they were loyal to the Marathas, Mughals and the Portuguese, at different points in time.

Whenever these higher powers became weak, the Sawants tried to establish themselves as independent rulers. Taking advantage of the Maratha-Mughal war, Khem Sawant II took over Vengurla. Their capital Sawantwadi or ‘Wadi’ was just 25 km from the port city. Vengurla became an important port for the kingdom for trading as well as naval activities.

Then, in 1766 CE, a treaty signed between the Sawantwadi kingdom and the British East India Company saw Vengurla fort being handed over to the British for 13 years with an extension, till 2 lakh rupees was paid by the Sawants. But the fort was forcefully taken back by Khem Sawant III in 1780 CE. In 1812, Phond Sawant III was forced to cede the port of Vengurla back to the British, including all his warships.

Vengurla Under Crawford

British rule brought major changes to the town. For some time, the taluka offices and subordinate judge’s court was housed in the old Dutch factory. Before the construction of the Southern Mahratta Railway, Vengurla was the only route connecting Bombay to Belgaum. It was also the port for military cantonments of Belgaum and Dharwad.

Vengurla Municipal Council & Market in 2021
Vengurla Municipal Council & Market in 2021 | Author

Under the British, Vengurla further flourished under the Assistant Collector and Magistrate of Ratnagiri, Arthur Crawford, who was later the first Municipal Commissioner of Bombay. Thanks to him, the town got a Municipal Council in 1876, whose offices were located on the first storey of a market that Crawford built.

Vengurla Jetty
Vengurla Jetty | Wikimedia Commons

In time, a new railway route from Bombay to Belgaum made Vengurla an unnecessary checkpoint, further reducing its importance. It remained a minor jetty for transporting goods and for fishing.

The town became part of the newly formed Sindhudurg district when Ratnagiri district was bifurcated in 1981. The Dutch factory slowly fell to ruin and is now an endangered site.

While today Vengurla is known only for its natural beauty and tourist attractions, it once played an important role in the region’s history.

Vengurla Lighthouse

The lighthouse in Vengurla
The lighthouse in Vengurla | Author

Mention Vengurla and its famous lighthouse comes to mind. What is so special about this lookout point? Also, did you know that there are two lighthouses in the town, not just one? The well-known lighthouse is the ‘Vengurla Point Lighthouse’. Built in 1869 by the British and located 70 metres above sea level, it is connected to the Vengurla port below by stairs.

The second lighthouse in Vengurla is 8 km from the port. It is called the ‘Vengurla Rock Lighthouse’ as it is located on ‘Vengurla Rocks’ or the ‘Burnt Islands’. These islands are a group of rocks which rise 20 to 50 meters from the sea.

This lighthouse can be accessed only by boat from the port of Vengurla. It was originally built on a rock to the west of its present location, and was shifted here in 1890 and mounted on a 9-metre-high masonry tower.

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