Saturday, April 05, 2008

Churches in Cuddalore, Part 1.

Ziegenbalg and the early history of Christianity in Cuddalore.


The following article attempts to describe the early history of the churches in Cuddalore. Since I first began my blog I have received a lot of enquiries about the churches in the town, very largely from people whose ancestors, like mine lived in the town. Whilst I was researching these churches, I began to realise that the town had actually played quite an important role in the development of the Protestant movement in India, and that many of the best surviving accounts of early events in the town are actually those that are preserved in the letters that the missionaries were sending back to Europe to their sponsors.

I make no apologies for concentrating on the Protestant church, to the near exclusion of the Catholic churches and indeed the Muslim and Hindu temples, beyond that of my having so little knowledge of Portuguese, Dutch, and the local Indian languages, as to make it very difficult, if not impossible for me to access the necessary sources in those languages.

This is a great regret of mine.

I would be very interested to hear from anybody, be they from any faith whatsoever, that could help fill this gap for me. It would be especially interesting to determine when the first mosques were built in the town and when the first communities of Muslims arrived in Cuddalore, as well as the story of the establishment of any Madressas that are in the town.

For most of Cuddalore's history, the nearby Hindu temples were clearly the most important religious sites, in terms of their influence on events in the area.

Experience gained from my research in Thalassery and elsewhere on the Malabar Coast, where I have found that the temples hold the most incredibly detailed written, and especially accurate oral traditions concerning the events of the past four or five hundred years, I would be very pleased to learn more about any of these traditions that survive to this day, especially where they involve the interactions with the European's.

In this first part of my article, I recount the events up to 1718.

From Earliest Days to 1718.

St. Thomas, one of the first apostle's arrived in Kerala in AD. 52, and travelled onto Chennai before dying at Little Mount in 72 AD.

Did he travel through Cuddalore?

I don't suppose any one can tell.

The first Christian churches on this part of the Coromandel Coast in the modern era date back to shortly after the arrival of the Portuguese.

Christianity had existed in India, between the end of the Roman period and the arrival of the Portuguese, through the medium of the Syrian Church which was first established on the Malabar Coast in the area around the port of Cochin. These early Christian’s had arrived amongst the travellers and merchants from the Roman Empire who traded to India during the first and second centuries after Christ.

It is not entirely clear if these early Syrian Christian’s who settled in India were refugees from Roman persecution, or traders, who happened to be Christians. They belonged to the Nestorian Sect, and preserved a particularly early and unchanged form of Christianity, uncorrupted by the later controversies and schisms that occurred within Christianity in Europe.

They had no knowledge of the Pope or Protestantism. This later led to their being studied with great interest by early 19th century Anglican clergy, seeking to strip away centuries of accumulated changes in church doctrine, by studying their liturgy that was thought to have developed and changed far less than European liturgies had over the centuries.

While it is not clear whether the Syrian christians ever travelled onto the Coromandel, it is quite possible that individual mechants and traders had visited the Coromandel Coast. However, with the growth of the Muslim World, the Syrian Christian’s became cut off from the support of their original community, and dwindled away in both power and influence. It was not until the arrival of the Portuguese on the coast in the 1500’s that Christianity returned in the area in strength.

Following the same routes as the Syrians and Romans, to India several thousand Armenian traders also arrived over the following centuries, however they seem to have kept within their own communities, and not to have attempted to convert Indian’s from Hinduism.

The most active of the Middle Eastern religions to arrive in India, were of course the Muslim’s who following centuries of contacts as traders, and then as invaders, had carved out huge new states in India. In many ways, it was the damage done to the existing Indian Hindu states by these conflicts, that had occurred over many centuries of internicine warfare, that had weakened India to the point where the newly arriving European’s could overwhelm both the Hindu’s and Muslim’s by exploiting the balance of power to their own ends.

Whilst Cuddalore does not appear to have had a Portuguese settlement, the area was still a significant port, and one which was almost certainly visited by Portuguese merchants and shipping in search of trading opportunities. However the Portuguese do not appear to have been allowed by the local rulers to base themselves at Cuddalore. The nearest permanent settlement where the Portuguese were allowed to be established was nearby in Porto Novo, which was their regional base.

The arrival of the Danes at Tranquebar.

Over the following century the Portuguese had only the local rulers to contend with.

However shortly after 1600 other European’s began to feel their way along the coast. Amongst the most significant of these new arrivals from the point of view of the establishment of Christianity in Cuddalore were the Danish who established a settlement in 1621 at the port of Tranquebar.

Tranquebar had previously been used by the Portuguese as a port, and the Jesuits had established a church there after 1540. This was a Roman Catholic church. The newly arriving Danes however were Protestant’s.

At this time in Europe the Thirty Years War was at its height. Relations between the northern European nations like England, Denmark, and Holland, who were predominantly Protestant, were extremely strained by these wars, that they were fighting against the southern Catholic nations including the Spanish, who were the most powerful, and who ruled the Spanish Netherlands (modern Belgium) and to a lesser extent the Portugese.

For many years during the 17th century, the existence of these European settlements along the Coromandel coast was very precarious, with their presence barely tolerated by the local Indian rulers. The existing India and Arab traders greatly resented the European's presence, as they damaged the existing trading system, by their competition and often with raw piracy undertaken against Arab and Indian shipping.

The Rajah’s, whilst appreciating the benefits of the revenues accruing from trade, also feared that the European's settlements might be the thin edge of a wedge that would develop into colonies just like those already established by the Portuguese at Goa, Cochin and Daman.

It was therefore absolutely vital for the survival of these settlements, that the rulers were placated along with the other local communities, like the merchants, and religious leaders who were often deeply offended by the European religious practises.

The European's were predominantly there as traders, and they did not individually intend to stay beyond a few years, before hopefully retiring to Europe with their pagodas. They had little or no interest in converting locals to Christianity.

In most cases, they lacked the language skills or indeed the desire to convert local peoples. So the Christian religious services that took place were generally undertaken in private, and inside rooms of buildings normally used for other purposes for the rest of the week.

“Such was the state of things when at the commencement of the eighteenth century, Frederick IV King of Denmark on the suggestion of the Rev. Dr. Lutkens, one of his majesty's chaplains, who had proposed the subject to him when only prince regent, determined notwithstanding the advice of some who thought the design premature and ill timed to establish a mission for the conversion of the heathen at Tranquebar. With this view the king directed an application to be made to the celebrated Dr. Francke, professor of divinity in the University of Halle, in Saxony ,whose well-known devotion to the cause of religion, and recent establishment of the Oriental College of Divinity in that place, peculiarly qualified him for such a task; requesting him to recommend from among his pupils those whom he might deem best calculated, by their learning and piety, to lay the foundation of this important work. Dr Francke made choice of Bartholomew Ziegenbalg, a young man of eminent talents and religious excellence, who had been educated at Halle under his own immediate superintendence, and who happening to be at Berlin when Dr. Lutkens was inquiring for suitable persons to be employed as missionaries, joyfully accepted the proposal. He was soon afterwards joined by his friend and fellow student, Henry Plutscho, who was actuated by a similar desire of engaging in the first Protestant mission to India. These pious men, having received holy orders from the bishop of Zealand, embarked at Copenhagen on the 29th of November, 1705, and after a pleasant voyage, arrived at Tranquebar on the 9th of July, 1706. Here notwithstanding their commission from the king of Denmark the missionaries instead of being kindly received, were discouraged and opposed by the Danish authorities.” [1]

The attitude of the locally based Danish authorities at Tranquebar is also reflected by that of the nearby English officials, and indeed also of the Dutch ones at Cuddalore and Tegnapatnam at this time. The purpose of these settlements was trade, not converting Indian’s. The risk of upsetting the Hindu and or Muslim authorities, was very great, and this could easily result in their being attacked and over-run.

Self preservation, if nothing else, meant not upsetting the Indian's who massively outnumbered the traders.

Disputes would cause the settlements to have to spend fortunes on fortification and soldiers for self defence. These costs went onto the overhead and damaged the bottom line.

Unlike the Portuguese and French settlements, which were largely controlled by state run organisations, organised by centralised Catholic governments in Europe, who were engaged actively pushing forward the re-vitalised Catholic church in the Counter Reformation, and who were prepared to devote considerable importance to promoting their form of Christianity,even at the expense of profits.

The Danish, Dutch and English East India companies on the other hand were run by privately owned joint stock companies run by merchants for profit.

These northern European merchants knew that they had to keep the overheads down, and that avoiding disrupting trade by conflict was key to acheiving this aim. This was indeed a lesson the French and Portuguese ultimately learned, when their companies failed. The same fate visited the English company in the years leading up to 1833, as it too moved away from pure trading, and when as a consequence of this change, it became no longer profitable.

These early Danish missionaries although based in Tranquebar, however soon came to greatly influence events in Cuddalore, as I shall shortly demonstrate. They also left some of the best early accounts of the state of both the churches and settlements at Cuddalore.

Following their arrival at Tranquebar, the missionaries realised that first they must learn Portuguese, which was the common language for all communications between the traders and their Indian business partners. Once they had mastered sufficient Portuguese, they could commence learning Tamil. In acheiving these aims these two men seem to have been very effective. One of their tutors was a young man called Modaliapa, who went on to become their first Protestant convert. Shortly afterwards a “female of high rank” was also converted.

These conversions drew the attention of the local Rajah of Tanjore, who tried to lure the converts away into the interior, presumably to rescue them from the influence of the missionaries.

Leaving one's Hindu, or for that matter Muslim faith for Christianity was an extremely serious event, because it immediately damaged ones caste.

The European Christian’s were seen as being pariahs by most Indian's, polluted by their habits including the drinking alcohol, their meat eating diet, and strange beliefs. By becoming a convert to Christianity, you too would also become a sort of odd untouchable, by association. By implication you also damaged your families reputation. It was not something to be undertaken lightly, and this is why so many of the later converts to Christianity came from the poorest sections of society, who had little more to lose by converting.

A mass conversion of Indian converts followed in May 1707, however it is not clear how many individuals were converted. On the 14th of June 1707 the first stone Protestant church was commenced at Tranquebar. It is very probable that this was the first permanent Protestant church on this part of the coast.

The Dutch had become established in Cuddalore by the 1670’s, before the English. It is very likely that this was initially done by renting a house on a seasonal and then annual basis. The English then adopted the same method of establishing a base in turn in the 1680’s. The exact location of these properties is unknown, but it was probably at the northern end of the old town of Cuddalore.

Indian merchants from other regions and states in India like Gujerat already occupied residences in this area, conveniently adjacent to the quays along the shoreline. One of the largest of these houses was a distinctive white building described in sailing directions, as being a landmark to be looked out for when approaching the Penny River.

Both the Dutch and English East India Company had strict instructions in their standing orders that daily prayers should be said and services held on Sundays. These instructions were often honoured more in their breaching, than in their observance, however services must have been a regular event, probably taking place initially in the mess hall or courtyards of these buildings.

Both the Dutch and the English had pressed for the construction of their own settlements. The Dutch were the first in the 1670’s to get permission for one these settlements were granted, but only to the north of the town. In 1686 the English led by Yale were able to buy the town of Cuddalore and an area bounded by a fence several miles in circumference.


They also secured the use of an existing fortified tower facing the river bar, located at a spot that later formed the south east corner of a much larger Fort St David.

In Britain private individuals based mainly in the City of London merchant community, were becoming aware of the potential for missionary work in India. Close connections existed between the City and Denmark, due to the crucial importance of the Baltic trade to England. At this time, this trade far outstripped that with India in its importance to Britain's economy. Most of the timber required for developing our naval and merchant fleet, especially for masts, tar, rope and other crucial materials came from the Baltic states. Several hundred English ships travelled through Danish waters every year.

These merchants were often deeply religious and had considerable sums of money they could devote to what they saw as good works. At this time several Baltic States had East India Companies. Those of Sweden and Denmark were often financed and staffed by merchants origining from Britain, who were excluded from the English East India Company that had a restricted shareholding, made up of men, unhappy to see their control of the shares diluted by more shareholders.

“It was in this year [1709] that the Danish mission became first known in England, by the translation of some letters from the missionaries addressed to one of their friends in London. The attention of religious persons was powerfully excited by this interesting publication, particularly that of the Rev Mr Boehm, chaplain to Prince George of Denmark, one of the earliest members of the Society for promoting Christian Knowledge, which had been then a few years established. A present both of money and books was immediately sent by the Society to Tranquebar, and a brief but cordial notice of the mission was inserted in the report of its proceedings for that year. Such was the commencement of the disinterested and important patronage afforded to the Danish mission by that venerable Society; which, while it reflected the highest honour on its members contributed so effectually to the extension and support of Christianity in India.” [2]

Prince George of Denmark [1653-1708] had been the late husband of Queen Anne, and as such had considerable influence in the English Court. With powerful sponsors like the Prince, the East India Company had to adapt its attitude for missionaries.

Being established in Tranquebar, with close links with the British, one of the Danish missionaries set out for Madras, passing through Cuddalore on the way.

“In 1710 Ziegenbalg undertook a journey to Madras, to ascertain what prospect there might be of gaining access to the heathen, either by the way and in the neighbouring country, or in the town itself, with a view to their conversion to Christianity. The congregation at Tranquebar entreated him with tears not to quit them, or to return as soon as possible. At Chillumbrum, quitting the territory of Tanjore, he entered what were then the dominions of the Great Mogul, and proceeded to Porto Novo and Cuddalore, and from thence to Fort St David's; and on the tenth day, having touched at St Thomas's Mount, arrived at Madras in the evening. There he was kindly received by the Rev. Mr. Lewis, chaplain to the factory, with whom the Society for promoting Christian Knowledge were in correspondence on the subject of the Danish mission. During his stay at this place, Ziegenbalg made many inquiries respecting the religious wants of its inhabitants. “Madras,” he writes,” is advantageously situated for spreading Christianity if the English who command there would but second our endeavours, or join with us in propagating the gospel in the East."[3]

It is quite possible that Ziegenbalg’s Indian converts realised just how much more dangerous it was likely to be for somebody to be preaching Christianity in the Islamic parts of India ruled over by the Great Mogul, than it had been under the less powerful rulers further south. These Indian's in the regions ruled over by the Rajah of Tanjore, seem at this time to have exercised great tolerance towards religious deifferences as seems to be traditional amongst most Hindu's.

Also illustrated by the extract, is how the missionaries were operating in the face of considerable official English EIC discouragement. This missionary campaign was clearly at first a privately run effort, organised by, and financed by dedicated and committed individuals.

Using monies largely raised by the Society for promoting Christian Knowledge, an edition of the New Testament was produced in Europe in Portuguese, which was sent out to India together with a printing press equipped with Roman and Italic fonts. Large quantities of blank paper were also sent.

This printing press was unfortunately seized at sea by French ships and sent onto Brazil. Somehow the society was able to buy it back, and then to despatch it once more on to India. In Germany a separate set of Tamil fonts was made, which was sent separately to Tranquebar, which enabled Tamil editions of the bible to be printed by 1714, along with many other pamphlets and texts. These imported Tamil fonts were found to be faulty, but it proved possible to make better versions at Tranquebar.

By 1714 the Danes had made over 300 converts and had established a school at Tranquebar with more than 80 pupils. Later in 1714 Ziegenbalg commenced the long voyage back to Europe, arriving at Bergen in Norway on the 1st June 1715. From there he travelled with one of his Hindu converts to Halle in Germany, and then on to London, where he was introduced to King George the First.

“who made many inquiries respecting the mission, and assured him of his royal patronage. The Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Bishop of London, treated him with the highest consideration and kindness. By the former of these prelates he was introduced to the Society for promoting Christian Knowledge, and received a congratulatory address in Latin, to which he returned an admirable reply in Tamul, immediately adding a translation of his speech into Latin. The Society made Ziegenbalg a liberal present both of money, paper, and books; and the Directors of the East India Company having generously given him a free passage on board one of their ships, he embarked at Deal on the 4th of March, and after rather a dangerous voyage during which he improved his knowledge of the English language, landed at Madras on the 10th of August, 1716 where he was most hospitably received by the governor, and the Rev Mr Stevenson, chaplain to that Presidency.”[4]

With such strong patronage behind him, the missionaries’ reception in Madras this time was far more positive than it had been before. The local EIC officials dare no longer stand in his way.

Christian Schools Founded in Cuddalore.

“After a few day’s refreshment at Madras, Ziegenbalg rejoined his excellent colleague, Grundler at Tranquebar, and resumed with renewed vigour the arduous work of his mission. They immediately instituted a seminary for the education of native youths, to be employed as catechists and schoolmasters; and shortly afterwards, at the suggestion of the Society for promoting Christian Knowledge, and with the assistance of Mr. Stevenson, and the approbation of the governor of Madras, they established Tamul and Portuguese schools at Madras and Cuddalore.” [5]

As far as I can current ascertain, this was the first formal European run school for Indian's in Cuddalore. Undoubtly the temples and mosques had had schools within them for centuries, before this, and Indian’s had an established system of home tutoring for the children of the most senior merchants and religious officials.

At the same time another school seems to have been established for children of the garrsion and officials. Another German had been selected. Writing in 1733 Mr. Sartorius stated that: -

[in 1733] Mr. John Beck, the schoolmaster, had died four days ago. Mr. Beck was a Wurtemburgher, and came out to India in the service of the English East India Company. In 1716, when the English established a Charity-school for the children of Englishmen, at Cuddalore, he was appointed Ĺ’conomus; and as they were unable to procure a suitable schoolmaster, he took that duty also, teaching, first Portuguese, and, afterwards, English.[6]

It is possible that limited teaching had taken place previously in the homes of the earlier European’s, and the garrison, but it was probably very limited in it's extent, with teaching restricted to basic reading of the Bible, taught together with the commercial mathematics needed to cast up accounts. This teaching may however of been of a high order, especially when you consider the complex fractional maths involved in casting up accounts with such complex exchange rates and units of measurement, as existed at that time.

The town of Cuddalore was crowded, and no doubt insanitary, and security was never really assured for the European inhabitants, as their existed considerable potential for a rebellion amongst the indigenous population, whether supported externally or not.

Over time this led to the English officials and officers moving into newly constructed garden houses, located to the north of the town across the river, and away from the original town. The Fort appears to have gone through a series of building phases. It is very probable that initially an old tower down by the shoreline built by Indian’s formed its core, with earthworks and palisades built first. There appears then appears to have been a significant building programme during 1717 to 1718, which may have been when the majority of the brickwork buildings in the fort went up.

“Thursday The 28th February. Present
Thomas Frederick Esq. Chief.
Richard Horden. John Legg.
Josiah Cooke Randall Fowke.
General Letter from the President & Councill at Fort St. David dated 26th. Instant read, inclosing a draught of the Fortifications and Buildings of Cuddalore, with Messrs. Way and Hugonin’s reports of what is necessary to be done thereto, which is agreeable to their Sentiments, and they desire our approval or reasons against it.
The foremention’d draught and report, being thoroughly examin’d into, & fully debated, the board cannot but think the resolutions of the Hon’ble President & Councill highly to the benefit of the place, and agreeable to the Hon’ble Companies orders.

Agreed to prepare a Letter forthwith advising them with our approval of the Measures they have concerted about the Cuddalore Buildings.” [6]

This first letter considers the town, and the next one deals with the Fort across the river.

“March Monday the 4th. Present
Thomas Frederick Esq. Chief.
Richard Horden. John Legg.
Josiah Cooke Randall Fowke.
From the President & Councill at Fort St. David dated the 2nd instant, inclosing a Plan of that place, explaining therein what they think necessary to be done for compleatg. The Buildings and Fortifications within the Fort. Of which they desire our approval or dissent, and advising they have completed a Contract for eighteen hundred bales to be brought in by the end of December, and that the Ship Fort St. David Monchu is affiv’d with the stores sent upon her.

Rge foremention’d Plan of ffort St. David being laid before the board, fully debat’d and consider’d. We cannot find any reason to disapprove of what th Hon’ble President and Councill have agreed upon in relation to the Fortification of the Fort, and buildings to be erected therein but on the contrary think they have concerted measures for the best, & fully agreeable to Hon’ble Companies directions Wherefore.” [7]

It is highly probable, although not certain that at least one of these buildings inside the fort was designed in such a way that it could serve as a garrison chapel.
Sadly Ziegenbalg like so many others, was to have his life cut short, and it is perhaps significant that he was at Cuddalore when he died.

“But the labours of Ziegenbalg were drawing rapidly to a close. In the autumn of the year 1718, the health of this indefatigable man began to fail. He languished for a few months amidst great weakness and pain; and with a faint hope of relief from travelling, he commenced a journey along the coast. Having reached Cuddalore, he found his end approaching, and sent for his friend Grundler, to whom on his arrival he expressed the most humble yet exalted hope of heavenly happiness; and having received the communion, and a favourite Lutheran hymn to be sung, he expired in perfect peace, on the 23rd of February, 1719, in the 36th year of his age deeply lamented by his excellent colleague and the native converts, and esteemed and regretted by the Pagans themselves.” [8]

[1] Pages 11 & 12. “Memoirs of the Life and Correspondence of the Reverend Christian Frederick Swartz, To which is Prefixed a Sketch of the History of Christianity in India” By Hugh Pearson, published 1833, London, Courtesy of Google Books.
[2] Pearson page 17.
[3] Pearson Page 18.
[4] Pearson Page 22.
[5] Pearson Page 25.
[6] Mr. Sartorius’s Account of a Journey to Tranquebar.
[7] Records of Fort St George. Diary and Consultation Book 1716-17. Pages 42.
[8] Records of Fort St George. Diary and Consultation Book 1716-17. Pages 43.