Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXXII No. 3, May 16-31, 2022

Unheard Voices of Tranquebar – II

-- by Anantanarayanan Raman,

(Continued from MM, April Vol. XXXII No. 1, April 16, 2022)

The Tranquebarian Society (TS) was the third oldest of the learned European societies, east of the Cape of Good Hope. The other two were the Koninklijk Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen established by Jacob Cornelis Matthieu Radermacher in ­Jakarta in 1778, and the ­Asiatic(k) Society by William Jones in Calcutta in 1784.

Christoph Samuel John (1747-1813) was a German by birth and ordained as a priest in Copenhagen. He spent nearly four decades in Tarangampadi. In 1789, John argued for a botanical garden with Tarangampadi’s administrators to maintain plants from all over India and also for creating an entertainment and educational space for the locals. He could establish a garden that housed medicinal plants from all over peninsular India and Dutch Ceylon (Sri Lanka). John was in touch with William Roxburgh in Madras, for he would regularly send plants for determination and description.

John was passionate to know more of animals than of plants in and around Tarangam­padi. He documented his notes on animals in a professional manner.

Copiously supplemented with photographs of tombstones and obelisks in the Aatankarai Street (previously Nygade, New Street) cemetery in Tarangampadi, the chapter The Old Cemetery recalls the lives and works of DNK medical doctors such as Friedrich Wilhelm Rühde, Theodor Ludvig Frederich Folly, and Samuel Benjamin Cnoll, between 1620 and 1767. Cnoll is remembered for the Laboratorium Chymicum (pharmacy) established in 1732. The text referring to the general health of Indians in Tarangampadi by Rühde (vide Classenske Litteratureselkskab, 1831) fascinates. As an example, I will quote PSR’s words paraphrased from Rühde on German measles and malaria:

‘In temperatures ranging between 37 and 60oC, people tended to develop Rubella German measles. After a few years, the skin (of the European settlers) became less sensitive and people suffered less. During periods of flooding, malaria became prevalent. Intermediate fevers were cured with quinine – however this did not seem to work with Indians. In the case of two Europeans treatment with quinine was not enough: Rühde cured them with strychnine.’

The above text attracted my attention for diverse reasons. Given that foundations of immunology laid by Emil Adolf von Behring (1854-1913) through serum therapy and by Paul Ehrlich referring to ‘specialised cells of the immune system’ happened only in the later decades of the 19th century, Rühde’s use of ‘less sensitive’ struck me as prophetic, because much science has progressed in later years, referring to tissue sensitivity, susceptibility, resistance, and of course, the emergence of immunology as an independent medical discipline. Rühde’s comment linking flooding with the greater incidence of malaria evoked my interest, since we know today that the mosquito, the intermediate between humans and the pathogenic protozoan, necessarily requires water during its early development stages. The rest of the chapter refers to Rühde’s observations on various aspects of medicine: methods used by vaidyans, children’s common diseases, public healthcare, daily consultations, and inflammation of intestines. PSR renders Rühde’s notes on leprosy:

‘Leprosy is a bigger problem in the colony. It was brought to the Coromandel Coast by Africans kept as slaves by the Dutch in Nagapattam.’

Leprosy (Hansen’s disease, causal agent: Mycobacterium leprae, Mycobacteriaceae) was known in India for ages as kustha, recorded in ancient scriptures and the later-time medical treatises. That the African-bonded labour brought to India by the Portuguese introduced leprosy into India does not sound right. Moreover, few published articles speak of African population in Pazhaverkadu, a popular port of the Coromandel Coast, when the Portuguese arrived there in the 15th century. Thought-provoking comments on diabetes mellitus (DM) occur in p. 270:

‘DM affects a lot of Indians. It is incurable because the locals refuse to give up vegetable diet. During later stages of the disease, people get carbuncles in the face and/or neck, when DM is lethal.’
In the 1700s, physicians knew that food habits and dietary changes would help diabetes management. Curiously, they advised their patients to eat fatty foods and meat and consume large quantities of sugar. Therefore, Rühde’s comment that locals refusing to give up vegetable diet does not surprise. Only in the early 1870s, French physician Apollinaire Bouchardat clarified ‘food rationing’ was an ideal measure in DM management and we fully know that this explanation changed the course of DM management in later years.

Chapter 10 Philology comes to town consolidates the emergence of Tarangampadi as a dynamic hub of learning: for example, Christoph John was exploring local flora, fauna, and literature. Theodor Folly was documenting the medical skills of the vaidyan-s. Rasmus Christian Rask’s (1787-1832) arrival in Tarangampadi in 1823 complemented Danish explorations of traditional-Indian knowledge, wisdom, and biological wealth. Rask was a self-trained philologist, who looked for the root language. His inferences were made through comparing and contrasting languages. He considered etymology as a natural science and the encyclopaedic and grammatical connections in a language as critical links. He came to India to acquire and read palm-leaf manuscripts. While staying in Madras (Vépéry Mission, formerly Tranquebar Mission) along with Johann Rottler, Rask investigated the linguistic finesse of Tamil. The following text (p. 224) is one from several of Rask’s comments on the Tamil langauge
‘Tamulisk – (Tamla or Tamulah) called High Tamil, is estimated to be the oldest and most indigenous language and is a source for other languages. It is also distinguished by a richer and more self-contained literature.’

Chapter 10 is full of such amazing details (e.g., extracts from Rask’s diary for August 1821) that are not only fascinating, but they also offer exciting insights into the life and culture of the Tamils in the 1800s.

PSR talks elaborately about the DNK (Halle) missionaries Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg (1682-1719), Heinrich Plütschau (1676-1752), Gerhard König (1728-1785), and Johann Rottler (1749–1836). I choose to refrain from speaking about these men, because we know considerably about them. Nonetheless, I will briefly refer to the less-known Daniel Pulley, Thomas Christian Walter, and Gowan Harrop. PSR identifies these men as key players in Danish Tarangampadi.

Daniel Pulley, a half-Tamil dwi-bashi, a grandson of one Johann d’Almeida, lived in Tarangampadi in the second half of the 18th century. Born in 1740(?), he was proficient in the German language, which earned him the position of being an assistant to Christoph John. From 1755, he taught Tamil to missionaries arriving in Tarangampadi. From 1782, when Peter Hermann Abbestée (1728-1794) was the governor, Daniel was promoted as a ‘first-level’ dwi-bashi. In this role, he established a cordiality between the Danes and Tulaja Bhosle, the Raja of Thanjavur. Because of Daniel’s Urdu fluency, he, representing the Danes, mediated with Lala Saheb, commander of Hyder Ali’s army, and prevented an attack of Tarangampadi by Hyder’s army camping in Porto Novo near Chidambaram. In 1780 and 1781, Daniel served as a Danish emissary to Hyder in Mysore. The role played by Daniel in the political and religious life of Tarangampadi cannot be gainsaid. His letters written in Tamil in 1782-1785, archived at the Rigsarkivet, Copenhagen vouch for his influencing role. A photo reproduction of one letter written in Tamil by Daniel is available in p. 157. Daniel’s other letters, rendered in English in p. 158-185, offer clarity on troop movements and the problems faced by ordinary people during Anglo-Mysore wars. Daniel’s letters supplied in Unheard Voices will undoubtedly be relevant to many an investigator.

Botched by his unsuccessful jaunts in classical western music in Copenhagen, Thomas Christian Walter sailed to India and became a civil servant in Tarangampadi. He rose in ranks quickly as the chief financial officer, second to the governor. Details of his probate — a document that informs us of the lives and works of a few of his more-important colleagues — are available in chapter 13, A musician and his tragic fate.

Gowan Harrop of non-Danish lineage arrived in Tarangampadi in 1774 and joined the AC. He was appointed by David Brown, Governor in Tarangampadi, as an AC-representative and agent in Porto Novo. When Porto Novo was attacked by Hyder’s troops in 1780, Gowan was captured as a hostage. At that time, Gowan transcribed his experiences (available in det Ostindiske Governement: Kolonien Trankebar, Rigsarkivet), which PSR qualifies as ‘meticulous’. In pages 281-350, PSR provides us with a slightly edited, easily readable full text of Harrop’s notes – another invaluable passage.

One major strength of this book is the availability of plain-English texts of vital records made by various people associated with the Danish administration in Tarangampadi in the 17th-19th centuries. Thanks to PSR for providing us details from official documents and personal diaries, by translating many of them from Danish into English and some of them from ‘olde’ English into modern ‘plain’ English! A glossary of Indian terms, a bibliography of primary sources, a list of archived materials from Rigsarkivet (p. 373-374), notes (p. 375-408), and an index of keywords are extremely user-friendly. I will compliment PSR for thoughtfully including a ‘notes’ section that comprehensively explains every secondary yet important information. The section Tranquebar — a time capsule compactly captures milestone events in Tarangampadi’s history between 1618 and 1845; a diligent inclusion.

It will be impossible for me to analyze and discuss all details beautifully presented by PSR in this book. I have touched on some, as samples, especially those that appealed to me and those I thought would interest readers of this journal. On the whole, I experienced fulfilment. This book unveiled many dimensions that were new to me pertaining to a tiny segment of Tamil speaking India. I am confident that reading Unheard Voices will be a rich experience, as much as I experienced. The University Press of Southern Denmark deserves thanks for a splendid production. This book, I am sure, will be a prized inclusion in both personal and public libraries of India.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *