Thursday, April 19, 2012

An enduring Dutch presence

Cultural anthropologist Dr. Bauke Van Der Pol highlights the Dutch occupation at Fort Kochi in Kerala. He has also written a definitive history of the Dutch East India Company

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 7 a.m., on a summer day, Dutch cultural anthropologist Dr. Bauke Van Der Pol steps out of the Brunton Boatyard hotel in Fort Kochi, armed with a 17th century map, and accompanied by a group of visitors. After a few minutes, he says, “According to the map, this is the entrance to the fort,” says Bauke. Of course, today, there is nothing to distinguish it. There is an auto-rickshaw stand at one side, a bus stop on the other side, and wayside shops selling cold drinks and trinkets.

Again, after walking for a while, he points at an elevated section of ground, and says, “This was where a bastion was located,” he says. A bastion is a fortification projecting outward of a fort. There were seven of them at Fort Kochi. They were connected by a rampart, which is a wall between two bastions.

"A rampart had a width and height of 15 feet," says Bauke. "So, the soldiers, in their blue tunics, could walk on it, and observe the people, both inside and outside the fort.”

The Dutch defeated the Portuguese in 1663 and took over the fort. And more than three hundred years later, many buildings remain the same, including the house of Ivan D’Costa, a former assistant collector in the excise department.

At the outer verandah of his home, there is a cement seat. “It was here that the people would sit in the evenings and have gossip sessions,” says Bauke. Inside, the rooms have red stone floors, high ceilings, wooden beams, and thick walls. D’Costa owns another seven-room house nearby. Amazingly, Bauke saw a Dutch sale deed of 1760 for the house.

Meanwhile, the David Hall, which was restored by the CGH Earth group, as an art centre, was also a Dutch house. It was in this home that Governor Hendrik Van Rheede did research on the medicinal properties of the local flora and fauna, and published a 12-volume book called ‘Hortus Malabaricus’ (Garden of Malabar) in 1678. More than 700 plants had been identified.

Outside, Bauke points at a street sign: Burgher Street. “A burgher is somebody who has been set free from his landlord, and has voting rights,” he says. “The people who lived on this street did not work for the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie [or VOC, also known as the Dutch East India Company]. They were free men. They made a living on their own and got married to women with Portuguese blood.”

Another road sign evokes mirth. “Princess Street had been initially called Prince Street in honour of Dutch Princes Maurits and Wilhelm,” says Bauke. “But when the British took over, in 1795, they would pronounce Prince Street quickly, so over a period of time, it became Princess Street.”

Bauke halts at another sign: Petercelli Street. “Many people in Fort Kochi ask me who Mr. Petercelli is,” says Bauke, with a smile. “I have to tell them that it is not a person. Petercelli is the Dutch word for parsley, an herb. So, this might have been an area where a vegetable market would have functioned.”

Suddenly Bauke stops in front of a bakery, which sells a Dutch bread called bruder. It is chocolate brown in colour and has a sprinkling of raisins. “This is the only shop that makes it,” says Bauke. “And it tastes exactly like the bread in Holland.” But the price is steep, at Rs 100 a loaf.

Bauke came to Kerala in the 1970s and fell in love with the people, culture, and history. Thereafter, he has made more than 50 visits. To study the Dutch impact in India, Bauke did a three-year research at the National Archives in The Hague, Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Cambridge University, the British Library in London, and the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, as well as the Asian Society library in Kolkata.

He also visited many places in India where the Dutch had a presence, including Tuticorin, Masulipatnam, Patna, and Surat. The research and travels were made possible by a grant from the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science.

The end result is a book that Bauke authored on the Dutch East India Company called, 'The VOC in India'. “The book has sold well in Holland, because the history of the Dutch in India is fascinating,” he says.

(The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

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