The best way to reach Sadras, is to get lost on your way from Chennai to Mahabalipuram or Pondicherry. I, on the other hand, have lived near Sadras Fort all my life. For years, I passed by its walls on my way to and from school. The 17th century fort, was just part of the background. Visiting it never struck me as something to do. Today, after burrowing into the fort’s history, I feel differently.
The story of Fort Sadras started about 111 km to its north, on the shores of Pulicat lake. Here, in 1606 a Dutch Ship drifted in from the sea, and got stuck on the shores of Karimanal village. The sailors were tired and thirsty. A request for water advanced into a trade deal between the Dutch and the Vijayanagara Empire. But they were not the first foreigners on India’s south eastern Coromandel Coast. The Portuguese had arrived here almost a 100 years earlier in 1502 and built a trading outpost. They were not very happy about the new competition. The Dutch eventually pushed them out and established a colony.
By 1612 they had expanded their territory to Sadras. Before the Dutch reached Sadras it was called, Sadurangapattinam and later Sadirai. The town was an established weaver’s colony, known for producing high quality cotton, pearls, edible oil and bricks. Seeing a business opportunity, the Dutch started laying claim to it, by building a fort and renaming it Sadras. By 1654 the fort enclosed a large muslin factory. But the elaborate fortifications were completed only in 1749, almost 100 years from when they began. The fort and the booming business inside it, became the envy of other colonisers including the British up north in Madras, and the French down south in Pondicherry. Things were only heating up. War from continents away, was riding towards India.
The American Revolutionary War, fought between 1775 and 1783 saw the British and the French on opposite sides. Since your enemies’ friend is you enemy, the British declared war on the Dutch as well, after they refused to stop trading with the French. Using the same excuse, the British East India Company had gone on to capture French and Dutch outposts on the Coromandel Coast. The French navy was sent post haste to sort things out. As a result, on February 17th, 1782, the Battle of Sadras was fought. British and French fleets met in the sea before Sadras Fort to fight a battle that lasted for three hours. No one won. But the British had to give up and return to their colonies. Sadras Fort however, was not forgotten. Finally, in 1818, the British raided the fort and razed it to the ground.
What remains of Sadras Fort today are its ruins. Broken, chipped structures of elephant mounts, grand dining halls, cannons and granaries, lie scattered in the compound, buried deeper everyday under the sand that blows in from the beach. The fort is an ASI (Archaeological Society of India) protected monument, but has little to show for it. What has survived best, are the beautifully engraved Dutch graves of men and women buried here, far from home. Local legends, talk ominously of the ghost of the noisy Dutchman lurking inside a fort well.
It is difficult to imagine the place as it must have been 400 years ago. A bustling, well-manned fort, overlooking, a bay criss-crossed with ships, traveling across the world, carrying muslin from Sadras. Today, Sadras is reduced to a tiny, obscure fishing community and a beach lined with brightly painted fishing boats. It is truly a piece of history forgotten in plain sight.
To hear other tales from the annals of history, join us on one of our walking tours.
Image credit: Arjun Duvvuru [CC BY-SA 3.0]