Through her research with the Portuguese and Dutch records at the State Archives in Kochi, academician Ananya Chakravarti has been able to piece together the life in Kerala during the 16th and 17th centuries
Photos: A. Sanesh
By Shevlin Sebastian
When academician Ananya Chakravarti woke up one morning at a hotel in Fort Kochi, in mid-July, she saw an image of an 11-year-old African boy who was staring, with round eyes, at the Raja of Kochi.
Ananya shook her head and got up from the bed. She realised that she had read about the boy a day earlier at the State Government Archives at Kochi. “I found a sale deed of the boy who was sold by a man named Antonio Fernandes to the Kochi king, Rama Varma (Shakthan Thampuran) on October 11, 1793, for 200 rupias (old currency),” says Ananya. “It was very clear from the archival material that the Raja had a deep interest in acquiring black slaves from Africa.”
An associate professor of history at Georgetown University, Washington, USA, Ananya had secured a long-term senior fellowship from the American Institute of Indian Studies to study the regional history of the Indian Ocean coast. “I am a historian of the 16th and 17th centuries,” says the 36-year-old.
As she browsed through the archive, she realised that there was an interesting mix of Portuguese and Dutch collections. “My advantage is that I know how to read and write in both languages,” says Ananya.
The documents were fascinating. Ananya found everything including long theological disputes in the early 19th century in Portuguese relating to internal disputes within the Catholic Church. “It was very learned with lots of references to canon law,” she says. “There were documents which showed that the leading Konkani merchant cum broker Malpa Poi loaning money to a wide variety of people: wealthy European merchants, the deacon of the Dutch Reformed Church, and the king of Kochi himself.”
Ananya was also looking at migrations, like the members of the Konkani community who escaped to Kochi from Goa where they were facing persecution by the Portuguese in the mid 16th century.
There were letters from the Dutch Governor and the Director-General to the King of Kochi often interceding on behalf of their subjects. There were also missives from native Kings asking the Dutch king for military aid in the late 18th century. “All these small kingdoms had complicated relationships with the other kingdoms as well as the Dutch and the Portuguese,” says Ananya. “The Kochi Raja himself was often asking for military aid.”
In other documents, there were complaints by officials against the way they had been treated by the higher-ups. “The Dutch would intercede on behalf of people that the Raja had kicked out of the kingdom, like the Konkani merchant Kali Prabhu for a perceived misdemeanour,” says Ananya.
There were financial issues, too. The King often took money or land from the minority communities. “The members of these communities would insist they were subjects of the Dutch and did not have to pay money to the King,” says Ananya. “They played one against the other.”
Ananya discovered that the relation of these European powers to the natives was much different from the supreme power displayed by the British in the 19the century. “The Europeans did not have the superior military strength and governance technology that the British had,” she says. “The balance of power between the Europeans and the locals was much more equal. They were participating as players in a landscape where the terms of politics and trade were set by the natives. The Portuguese did not have a land-based empire. They were just traders. The Dutch had a trading company called Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie or the Dutch East India Company. In fact, the birth of capitalism took place with these trading companies.”
And what will come as a surprise to most people was the incredible quality of the 16th-century paper. “It was thick and robust, which is why it has lasted for 500 years,” she says “In fact, you will see much more deterioration in 19th and 20th-century papers.”
Meanwhile, the archives staff was happy with her presence. “Because we do not know Portuguese and Dutch, Ananya was able to show us the subject matter of the various papers,” says P Sajeev, archives superintendent. “She was very kind and helpful.”
Ananya was having 16-hour days, doing field work and research at the archives. So engrossed was she in her work that she frequently forgot to have lunch or tea. “But then the subject is so fascinating,” she says.
The daughter of a career diplomat, Ambassador Sarvajit Chakravarti (retd), Ananya was born in Spain and grew up in Tanzania, Bangladesh, Namibia, and Holland. But she stayed in Kolkata with her grandparents for three years from the age of 12. “My grandmother Nonda Chatterjee was a history teacher and that’s how I got interested in the subject,” says Ananya.
Despite this inherent interest, Ananya did a degree in economics with a minor in Latin American studies and creative writing from Princeton University. After that, she worked for a year at the National Bureau of Economic Research at Cambridge. That’s when she decided she did not want to pursue a PhD in Economics and switched to history. She got her doctorate in the subject at the University of Chicago in 2012. It was the basis of her first book, ‘'The Empire of Apostles: Religion, Accommodation and the Imagination of Empire in Early Modern Brazil and India’' (Oxford University Press, 2018).
Following a brief stint at the American University in Cairo, she is now based in Washington.
And she has a clear aim. “There is a lot of distortions of historical facts to suit a particular agenda,” she says “Hence, I want to put out an accurate and evidence-based history.”
(An edited version was published in Sunday Magazine, the New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)