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Review of The Governor's Residence in Tranquebar(2017).NTJensen

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  • Danish National Archives

Abstract

This is a book review of Esther Fihl, ed., The Governor's Residence in Tranquebar: The House and the Daily Life of Its People, 1770-1845 (Copenhagen, Museum Tusculanum Press 2017) .
Book review of Esther Fihl, ed., The Governor's Residence in Tranquebar: The House and the Daily Life
of Its People, 1770-1845 (Copenhagen, Museum Tusculanum Press 2017)
1
The Governor's Residence in Tranquebar: The House and the Daily
Life of Its People, 1770-1845
Esther Fihl (ed)
Copenhagen, Museum Tusculanum Press, 2017
312 pp., DKK 398 ($61, €54), ISBN 9788763543880
Review by Niklas Thode Jensen
Some books are long underway and some of them are worth waiting for. This is the
case with the anthology under review here, which employs a micro-historical and
multidisciplinary approach for the exploration of the house, which from 1770 to 1845
was the residence of the governors in the Danish-Norwegian colony of Tranquebar on
the Coromandel Coast of India. The book is the final achievement of The Tranquebar
Initiative, a large-scale Indian-Danish research project carried out during the period
2004-2016 and headed by the Danish National Museum. The aim of the Initiative was to
promote cross-cultural understanding by presenting and preserving Indian-Danish
cultural heritage. It produced more than twenty research projects employing approaches
from archaeology, ethnology, museology, history etc., including a project to document
and restore the governor’s residence in Tranquebar. This cross-cultural approach is also
prominent in The Governor’s Residence, which itself is the result of several years of
dedicated research by an international group of experts.
Tranquebar (Tarangambadi) was founded in 1620 by the Danish East India
Company as the first Danish-Norwegian colony in India. The land was rented from the
ruler of the Indian kingdom of Thanjavur (Tanjore), a relation that continued until 1845
when all the Danish possessions in India was sold to Britain. In the intervening 225
Book review of Esther Fihl, ed., The Governor's Residence in Tranquebar: The House and the Daily Life
of Its People, 1770-1845 (Copenhagen, Museum Tusculanum Press 2017)
2
years, Tranquebar was the administrational centre of Danish-Norwegian (from 1814
only Danish) trade and trading stations in the East Indies. The colony consisted of the
fortified town itself with approximately 3800 inhabitants and about 50 square
kilometres of surrounding agricultural lands containing 14 villages and about 20.000
inhabitants (figures from around 1790). In the town itself, about 80 percent of the
population was Indian. The colony remained roughly this size through most of its
history; in other words, it remained in the mode of the small colonial trading post of the
seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in which the claims to authority of both
European and Indian culture remained fluent and necessitated continuous negotiation.
The Governor’s Residence offers a new and refreshing analytical perspective in
the historiography on Danish colonialism because it employs the governor’s residence,
everything and everyone in it and all that took place there as a prism through which the
authors can analyse previously understudied aspects of the multi-layered and
multicultural life in colonial Tranquebar and beyond. The aspects studied range from
Indo-Danish architecture, the use of furniture, the meaning of spatial arrangements and
emotions of belonging to the multiple cultural encounters, exchanges and co-
productions that took place between the Danish residents of the house and their Indian
staff, European guests, Indian delegates, priests, traders and many more.
With this approach, the book positions itself at the forefront of one of the two
dominant research trends in the historiography of Danish(-Norwegian) colonialism in
Asia. This trend was initiated in the early 1980s and is inspired by theoretical insights
from anthropology and post-colonial studies. The other trend focuses on economic
history or trade history and dates back the 1940s. One of the initiators and leading
researchers of the anthropological/post-colonial trend has been anthropologist Esther
Fihl, Professor Emerita of University of Copenhagen, who is also the editor of The
Book review of Esther Fihl, ed., The Governor's Residence in Tranquebar: The House and the Daily Life
of Its People, 1770-1845 (Copenhagen, Museum Tusculanum Press 2017)
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Governor’s Residence and one of its authors. Since the beginning of the new
millennium, this research trend has been the more active of the two. This is reflected
both in the research projects of The Tranquebar Initiative, which was also headed by
Esther Fihl, but also in the publication in 2017 of the new standard reference work of
Danish colonial history titled Danmark og kolonierne [Denmark and the Colonies]. As
the main focus in this five-volume collection, including one volume on the Danish(-
Norwegian) possessions in India, is on the perspectives of the colonized and the local
rather than the metropole, it is also clearly part of the same historiographic trend. The
Governor’s Residence complements Danmark og kolonierne both theoretically by
taking a micro-historical approach instead of a comprehensive one and in terms of
language since the latter work is as yet only available in Danish.
In relation to the international historiography of colonialism in India, The
Governor’s Residence is also offering a different approach. By presenting perspectives
from Danish Tranquebar, a minor European player on the Indian subcontinent, and
based on other records than the predominant history of British colonial experiences in
India, the book is a valuable contribution to a growing literature concerning experiences
of other European powers and agents in colonial India, such as the Dutch, French and
Portuguese.1
The approach in The Governor’s Residence to the house as a prism is further
enhanced by the inclusion in the text of 25 ‘vignettes’ and many more illustrations. The
vignettes are small stories focusing on a person, an object or a theme that branch off
from the main narrative but still informs it. The many beautiful illustrations, at least one
on each double-page and many of them never published before, also support the
narrative, especially since the captions are substantial and form yet another layer of
minor stories.
Book review of Esther Fihl, ed., The Governor's Residence in Tranquebar: The House and the Daily Life
of Its People, 1770-1845 (Copenhagen, Museum Tusculanum Press 2017)
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The narrative of The Governor’s Residence consists of an introduction followed
by eight chapters. The chapters are based on extensive research in literature and archival
records in more than five European languages. References to the sources are found in
endnotes in each chapter. Furthermore, cross-references between the chapters enhances
the sense of cohesion, of the text as one narrative, which is always a challenge in edited
books.
In the first chapter, Esther Fihl situates Tranquebar in time and space by
elucidating the colony’s relations to the land and its people, i.e. the kingdom of
Thanjavur, the local political hierarchy and the existing webs of performances of
tribute, gift giving and rituals. In the second chapter, historian Simon Rastén presents a
thorough archival investigation of the former residences of the governors of Tranquebar
and the conditions under which they lived and worked before the takeover in 1784 of
the house that is the focus of the book. The third chapter, authored by conservation
architect Niels Erik Jensen, explores the architectural history of the governor’s
residence based on archaeological and archival evidence. It was a three-winged house in
the typical English colonial style yet presenting a distinct combination of Danish, Indian
and English elements. In the fourth chapter, historian Louise Sebro analyses the
governor’s residence as part of the townscape and spatial order of Tranquebar with its
multiple intersecting divisions based on ethnicity, religion, occupation and economic
standing. From the townscape, Sebro enters the governor’s residence along with various
guests and employees and sees it though their eyes, or rather through their descriptions;
the layout and divisions of public and private, of inside and outside etc. Sebro pays
special attention to the female residents and areas in the house, which offers insights
into intimate spaces that have not been studied previously.
Book review of Esther Fihl, ed., The Governor's Residence in Tranquebar: The House and the Daily Life
of Its People, 1770-1845 (Copenhagen, Museum Tusculanum Press 2017)
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The fifth chapter, authored by historian Martin Krieger, explores the furniture
and decoration in the European houses in Tranquebar based on archival records with the
aim to reconstruct what the long lost furniture of the governor’s residence may have
looked like. The furniture in the European houses were predominantly European in their
function while the materials and styles were Asian. In chapter six, Louise Sebro returns
with an investigation of the governor’s residence as the meeting place of the Pan-
European community on the Coromandel Coast and in the wider region. Based on
memoires and other accounts she reveals the importance of this expat community
during war and conflict, and how social networks were established and maintained by
travel and visits. In chapter seven, Sebro continues with an exploration of how India and
Indian culture influenced the lives of the Danish(-Norwegian) governors and their
families, both while they lived in India and when they had been repatriated. Sebro
brings out several interesting points, for instance that the understanding of “India” was
influenced during the voyage to India by stories and experiences from fellow
passengers. Another important insight is that one of the main characteristics of being a
colonial family was distance and a sense of missing loved ones and familiar places.
However, what the author of this review found most fascinating was Sebro’s
investigation of the life that took place in the European gardens surrounding
Tranquebar. Sebro interprets this kind of garden as a secluded, European space, which
can be seen as a cool and airy extension of the town house. Still, it seems much more
could be said about the role of gardens in Indo-Danish relations in Tranquebar and that
this could be a field for further research. In the final chapter, the four authors, engineers
and architects Atin Kumar Das, Renate Hach, Niels Erik Jensen and Ajit Koujalgi,
examines how the governor’s residence was used after Tranquebar was sold to the
British in 1845 and the process of restoring the building, which took place in the period
Book review of Esther Fihl, ed., The Governor's Residence in Tranquebar: The House and the Daily Life
of Its People, 1770-1845 (Copenhagen, Museum Tusculanum Press 2017)
6
2006-2012. At the end of the book is a number of appendices with useful information,
for instance glossary and a list of online resources. In recent years, archives and
libraries in several countries have made quite a lot of material concerning Tranquebar
available online, but since there is no coordination between them or a common point of
entry, a list is a very useful tool.
To conclude, The Governor’s Residence is a well-written anthology based on
solid research and with refreshing analytical perspectives that point out new directions
for further research. Yet, at the same time, its skilfully crafted mosaic of vignettes and
rich illustrations will also make it accessible and an interesting read for the broader
audience and not just for those with scholarly interests.
Notes
1 See for instance Agmon, A Colonial Affair; Mailaparambil, Lords of the Sea; Anjana, Fort
Cochin in Kerala; Vink, Encounters on the Opposite Coast; Zupanov and Xavier, Catholic
Orientalism.
References
Agmon, Danna. A Colonial Affair: Commerce, Conversion, and Scandal in French India.
Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2017.
Mailaparambil, Binu John. Lords of the Sea: The Ali Rajas of Cannanore and the Political
Economy of Malabar (1663-1723). Leiden: Brill, 2012.
Singh, Anjana. Fort Cochin in Kerala, 1750-1830: The Social Condition of a Dutch Community
in an Indian Milieu. Leiden: Brill, 2010.
Vink, Markus. Encounters on the Opposite Coast: The Dutch East India Company and the
Nayaka State of Madurai in the Seventeenth Century. Leiden: Brill, 2015.
Zupanov, Ines and Ângela Barreto Xavier. Catholic Orientalism: Portuguese Empire, Indian
Knowledge (16th-18th c.). New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2015.
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