Thursday, 1 March 2018

Serampore's Danish Tavern Re-opens

Serampore’s Denmark Tavern was formally inaugurated on the 28th of February, 232 years after it was first opened by British innkeeper James Parr. Part of the “Serampore Initiative” of the National Museum of Denmark, the restoration of the Denmark Tavern took 3 years and was led by the National Museum of Denmark, INTACH, MASCON and Continuity Architects. Manish Chakraborti was the restoration architect with inputs from Danish architect Flemming Aalund. Ambassadors from 5 Nordic countries, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland attended the inauguration ceremony. With the restoration project making news around the world, a little-known chapter of India’s history is also highlighted.

 

THE DANES IN INDIA

The earliest Danish settlement in India was Tranquebar in present day Tamil Nadu. The Danish East India Company had arrived in India in 1620, after a 2-year voyage under Ove Gedde who established the Fort Dansborg at Tranquebar which still stands. But this first company was never very successful, being plagued by poor administration and investment since national resources were being redirected towards the 30 Years’ War at home. The bankrupt company was finally dissolved by the Danish King Frederick II. But although the company had been dissolved, the colony remained royal property and trade between Tranquebar and Denmark resumed, with a 2nd East India Company being formed around 1669. With this 2nd attempt, the Danes expanded their footprint in the south, with the Tranquebar settlement expanding to the 3 surrounding villages, and managed to make inroads into Bengal, establishing “Dannemarksnagore”, southeast of the French settlement of Chandannagar. But by 1714, Dannemarksnagore had all but collapsed and the company was dissolved in 1729.

The following year it was re-founded as the Asiatic Company (Asiatisk Kompagni) with King Christian VI signing, on 12 April 1732, a charter granting them 40-year monopoly on Asian trade with India and China. In 1753, Carey writes that the Danish chief in Bengal was residing and trading from Chandannagar. But this arrangement was frowned upon by the Nawab of Bengal’s customs officers, convincing the Danes that they needed their own settlement in Bengal. Negotiations with the Nawab proved fruitful and the Danes were granted 60 bighas of land to establish a factory. However, upon visiting the site, the Danish chief Soetman realized that occupying 60 bighas in Serampore would be an expensive proposition, since it would involve buying up all the houses in the area, for a price of almost 12,000 rupees. This proves that Serampore was already a town of some importance by the time the Danes arrived. Soetman finally took 3 bighas of riverfront land in Serampore, and 57 bighas in a place further inland, called Ackna. On the 8th of October, 1755, the Danish flag was hoisted at Serampore for the first time.

One of the bedrooms inside the tavern

In this 3rd attempt, the Danes were successful. Serampore proved popular and lucrative. As England became embroiled in hostilities with America, France, and Holland, British trading ships in India became exposed to the attacks of “privateers”. Privateers were something like officially sanctioned pirates, with orders to attack and confiscate ships belonging to the enemy, no matter where they were. British ships, or any ship sailing under a British flag, began to be looted by French privateers. But since Denmark was not a party to the conflict, traders chose to sail under the Danish flag, from Serampore, ensuring their safety. While the trade was profitable for the Danish East India Company, it was even more profitable for its factors, who “drank champagne at 80 rupees a dozen” with salaries “not exceeding two hundred rupees a month”. But ultimately, it was a military conflict which would prove to be Serampore’s undoing. European wars spilled over into the colonies, with rival companies fighting each other in India.

The "cut-out" floor above the cafetaria

The English Wars were a series of conflicts between England and Sweden with Denmark and Norway as part of the Napoleonic Wars. On 2nd April 1801, a British fleet led by Admiral Hyde Parker and Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson fought a huge Danish fleet anchored just off Copenhagen in what was to be the first “Battle of Copenhagen”. In Bengal, EIC troops occupied Fredericknagore, as Serampore was then known. But possession was restored to the Danish after the peace treaty of 23rd October 1801. But the 2nd Battle of Copenhagen, which began with a British landing in Zealand on 16th August 1807, would spell disaster for Serampore. EIC troops crossed over from Barrackpore and occupied the town and seized ships anchored in the harbour. The occupation would continue till 1815, and the Danish Government’s bankruptcy from continuous warfare ensured that Serampore would never recover from this blow. Turning down the offer made by the Goswami family of Serampore Rajbari to purchase the town for a sum of 11 lakh rupees, the Danes sold their possessions in India to the EIC and left India for good at the beginning of 1844. On the 11th of October, 1845, 90 years and 3 days after Soetman had raised it, the Danish flag was lowered in Serampore for the final time.

The Cafetaria

THE DENMARK TAVERN AND HOTEL

During their heyday, the Danes were helped by capital from British traders in Calcutta (Kolkata). John Palmer, the prince of merchants, whose house once stood where Lalbazar Police Headquarters stands today, was an agent of the Danish East India Company. Little surprise then, that the Denmark Tavern and Hotel was established not by a Dane, but by an Englishman named James Parr. Parr had previously operated the London Tavern, presumably in Calcutta. Carey writes, that there was another tavern in Serampore, owned by a certain Mr. Meyers. “A trip up the river…on pleasure, excursions was a very common custom at the time. Large parties used to proceed as far as Bandel and other stations on the riverside…A wayside inn like those at Serampore, must therefore have been a treat for the voyagers”. From an advertisement in the Calcutta Gazette, dated 16th March 1786, we find the Denmark Tavern offering the following amenities – “Gentlemen passing up and down the river may be accommodated with breakfast, dinner, supper and lodging, and may depend on the charges being very reasonable…Dinners dressed and sent out at short notice; also liquors sold by the single dozen, for ready cash. A good Billiard Table and Coffee-room with the Newspapers etc”.

Parr’s enterprise was clearly a successful one, considering that an advertisement placed in the same publication on 3rd April 1788, mentions that the establishment was already well-known, only 2 years after having started. Ownership had changed hands at this time, and the owner in 1788 was another Englishman, John Nichols, who formerly ran the Harmonick Tavern in Calcutta, which once stood where Lalbazar Police Headquarters is now. The Kolkata Police now have a lounge inside Lalbazar, which they call Harmonick Tavern, in memory of the original. It is unknown when the Denmark Tavern shut down, but it may have happened at some time in the early 19th century as Serampore transformed into an industrial town and a hub of jute manufacturing. The building was being used for a very long time by the police as a barracks and they agreed to move out for the building to be restored to its former shape and purpose, although the police continue to occupy one wing of the building.

Historian Simon Rasten (left) with Flemming Aalund inside St. Olav's Church

THE REBIRTH

In 2015, when the restoration began, the Denmark Tavern was an absolute and complete ruin. The western façade and spiral staircase had collapsed, as had parts of the central portion. The northern, river-facing façade had partially collapsed and the Public Works Department had hung a notice on the wall, declaring the building to be condemned. A close study showed that the building had been modified several times already, but since there were no photographs or documents specifically of the tavern, reconstruction and restoration would have to based partially on research by experts. The proposal was made to restore the Denmark Tavern as a riverside café with limited accommodation. The central atrium was to be modelled on the double-height central atrium of the College Street Coffee House of Calcutta, with the central portion of the first floor being cut out to allow more light and ventilation.

While some modern choices have had to be made for the restoration, such as the use of steel beams instead of wood for the roof, Manish Chakraborti has stuck to original materials wherever possible, such as the use of surki and lime, instead of modern cement. A team of craftsmen from Murshidabad, Sunderbans and Serampore worked on the project. While masons had the difficult task of stitching together partially collapsed walls, carpenters recreated old doors, windows and even an entire wooden staircase, made with Indian teak.

Historian Simon Rasten (2nd from left), Iceland ambassador H.E. Thorir Ibsen (rear), Gitte and H.E. Peter Taksøe-Jensen, Danish Ambassador, and Flemming Aalund on the streets of Serampore

THE INAUGURATION OF THE DENMARK TAVERN

I was contacted by Bente Wolff, curator of the National Museum of Denmark. She had chanced upon my earlier posts on Serampore and asked if I would like to attend the inauguration of the Denmark Tavern. I generally stay away from large gatherings, since with photography I work slowly and need concentration, but this was an event, a major one, and I decided to take it up. The drive from Calcutta to Serampore took almost 2 hours. The train would have taken only 20 minutes, but with the kind of gear I was carrying, travelling in a local train would be difficult. Meeting Bente at 11 at the tavern, I walked with her to the Ferry Ghat, where the Nordic ambassadors arrived via a WBTDC catamaran. They were then taken around town on foot for a heritage walk by Flemming Aalund and visited the old Danish Government House which was still under restoration and the St Olav’s Church, which had recently been opened. What did the ordinary people of Serampore think about all this, French Consul General Damien Syed asked. “They are very happy”, Bente said, “They are comparing it to Chandannagar’s strand”. For me, photographing the group was a challenge. With architecture, its simple – get the right light, get the right composition, and you’re done! Buildings don’t move. But people do, constantly. As I walked around I was thinking of contemporary photojournalists like Rashbehari Das, Atanu Biswas and Achyut Ray and all the news photographs I had seen all my life. How did they do it? Infinite patience, waiting for the right moment, watching for interesting gestures, never being obtrusive but always present when the something important happens – all the tips I had been given now had to be put into use. 

Flemming Aalund (left), French Consul General H.E. Damien Syed (centre) and Norwegian Ambassador H.E. Nils Ragnar Kamsvåg

The walk was followed by a closed-door session at the Serampore College, followed by the inauguration event in front of the Danish Government House. I chose to skip both these events, instead having a leisurely and delicious lunch at Hotel Samrat. Even if World War III were to break out, a Bengali boy must have his rice! After lunch, I walked into the tavern to do some photos of the interiors. This was my chance, I thought, the tavern would be empty. The police outside made no attempt to stop me from entering – anyone carrying such a large camera and a tripod, was obviously a photojournalist! I walked in to find the staff engaged in last minute preparation. Everywhere was the smell of new paint and polish. For the exterior shot of the building, I needed an elevated position. Luckily, the ghat opposite the tavern had steps leading to the roof, and I climbed on top waiting for the right light. At this time, the event at the Danish Government House concluded and the ambassador, Peter Taksøe-Jensen walked out of the court compound to inaugurate the tavern, followed by what looked like a tidal wave of people! Ambassador? It looked like he was a film star! Given the sheer diplomatic presence, this was probably the most high-profile event this little town had ever seen. To the cheers of the huge crowd, the ribbon was cut and celebrities and members of the local administration joined the Nordic ambassadors inside the tavern for refreshments. 

The crowd at the ribbon-cutting ceremony

On the street, Manish Chakraborti was speaking to the press. “The inauguration has been attended by almost the entire population of Serampore”, he gushed. He had been working on the project from its inception and had been extremely high strung all day. This was, clearly, his moment of triumph. But what is the future for the Denmark Tavern? At least one Times of India article expresses some doubts about its future, now that the Serampore Initiative is coming to an end. Home Secretary Atri Bhattacharya has assured that West Bengal Tourism will carry on the work that the Danes have started. I continued to wait on the rooftop for the light to go down so I could get a long exposure shot of the building. Waiting patiently next to me, was my chauffeur of more than 20 years, Bhola Da. “So, this is a hotel? But who will profit from it?” he asked. “We will”, I said, “The government will now run it”. “But then, why did these foreigners spend so much money here? What will they get out of it”? “Well”, I said, “their ancestors built it, you see? So it’s part of their history. They want to preserve it”. “Oh! So they want their name to be remembered”, said Bhola Da. I nodded in agreement, not wanting to confuse a simple man’s understanding of things with the complicated socio-cultural impact of heritage preservation. People do things for many reasons – for fame, for glory, for money. Remembrance seems as good a reason as any other.

- by Deepanjan Ghosh

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ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

  • My sincere thanks to Bente Wolff for inviting me to the event and arranging all necessary permissions.


SOURCES

Smith, George - The Life of William Carey (John Murray, 1885)
Carey, W. H. - The Good Old Days of Honorable John Company (W.H. Carey, 1882)
Stephen, S. Jeyaseela (Ed) - The Indian Trade at the Asian Frontier (Gyan Publishing House, 2008)
Hansen, C. Rise - Sources of the History of North Africa, Asia and Oceania in Denmark (K. G. Saur, 1980)
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