A great deal has been written about India's
Coromandel Coast and the VOC activities there in the seventeenth century.
Most attention has always been paid to the VOC trade in Indian textiles.
What is far less well known, if known at all, is the fact that the Dutch
ran a flourishing gunpowder factory at Castle Geldria, their headquarters
in Pulicat. The absence of information on a matter so pivotal as the
manufacture and supply of gunpowder is all the more stupifying, considering
the fact that it was indispensable during the highly turbulent seventeenth
century, a period when large sailing vessels roamed the seas armed to
the teeth, a period, moreover, when the Dutch, occasionally with brute
force of arms, sought to establish their hegemony throughout the East.
This brief article attempts to shed some light on the VOC's flourishing
gunpowder factory in Pulicat and its importance within the VOC's vast
network of trade and conquest in the first half of the seventeenth century.
Pulicat was strategically located for the distribution
of gunpowder, as its excellent shipping facilities enabled the Dutch
to keep most of the VOC's major establishments in the East (such as
Batavia, Malacca, and Ceylon) well stocked. The Dutch began manufacturing
gunpowder there at least as early as the 1620s, if not earlier. Almost
from the presumed start, they predicted that they would be able to meet
the Company's needs throughout the East Indies. In fact, so many of
the VOC establishments came to depend on Pulicat's gunpowder that Batavia
(the Company's headquarters in the East) once complained to its governor
in Coromandel that, even though they were far from wasteful, they would
nonetheless have been hard pressed to supply the homeward-bound ships
as well as the Moluccas, Amboina, Banda, and Taiwan with gunpowder had
it not been for the fleet that had arrived from the Netherlands. Thus,
Batavia was implying that they had been obliged to distribute Dutch
gunpowder because Pulicat had failed to provide them with a quantity
sufficient to their needs.
In time, Pulicat became the mainVOC centre in the East
for the manufacture and distribution of gunpowder, so that the Dutch
there could boast: 'A few days ago we received from Masulipatnam 18,000
lbs of refined saltpetre and an additional 8,000 lbs from the southern
comptoirs, so that
we are once again zealously manufacturing gunpowder. Consequently, we
have been able to ship 15,000 lbs of freshly made gunpowder to Batavia
and 10,000 lbs of the same to Malacca. Ceylon has ordered a further
50,000 lbs, which we expect to have ready by the beginning of October.
By that time we shall also have manufactured an additional 10-15,000
lbs for Batavia to fill Your Honour's order for 100,000 lbs. Please
let us know how much gunpowder Your Honour requires for the year 1654.
However, we shall first need to be supplied with Dutch or Taiwanese
refined sulphur, without which the manufacture of gunpowder will come
to a standstill. What is left of the Achinese sulphur here in Pulicat
is little better than dirt from which nothing can be refined.'
The Pulicat factory produced gunpowder costing at most
three to four stivers a pound. It was of excellent quality and more
durable than that sent from the Netherlands. At Pulicat, the powder
was stored in Burmese Martaban jars in which it could be kept for years
on end without needing to be turned or stirred. First, the jars were
tightly sealed with plaster, then a piece of lead sheeting was spread
across the top, and finally the pots were covered with gunny sacking
and plastered over. Thus sealed, the gunpowder kept perfectly for at
least ten years. In fact, so impressed was Batavia with Pulicat's way
of storing gunpowder that they pried open the ceiling of one of their
storage cellars and installed eighteen large Martaban jars in order
to store gunpowder in the Pulicat way.
Transporting gunpowder by sea required meticulous care.
When no powder kegs were available, the gunpowder would sometimes have
to be shipped in Martaban jars. But Pulicat was extremely wary of this,
for if the glazed pots were jolted or indeed shattered, the powder could
ignite, for even though the jars were first lined with jute sacking,
the powder always seeped through. Gunpowder in Martabans on sailing
vessels was a dangerously combustible cargo under any circumstances,
so that the Dutch in Pulicat preferred wooden casks (of about 105 lbs
each). These were secured with wooden pegs and bound with rattan. To
economize, Batavia would return the casks and pegs to Pulicat after
having transferred the gunpowder to the Martaban jars in their cellars.
For long-term storage on land, however, the huge Martaban jars were
considered the most suitable by far.
The Dutch in Pulicat could only continue producing gunpowder
for as long as they were kept well-supplied with sufficient quantities
of good sulphur and saltpetre. There was an abundance of good sulphur
in places such as Macassar and Tanshui on Formosa more than the
Dutch needed, but the sulphur available on the Coromandel Coast, Burma,
Tonking, India's west coast, and Surat was not of the same high quality
as the Dutch product and considerably more expensive. A further consideration
was that, if the Dutch had to buy sulphur in the East, it would eat
into their capital, whereas, if they were supplied with high-grade Dutch
sulphur, this would only enhance their financial position seeing that
it was a very profitable article of trade as well.
High-grade saltpetre, on the other hand, was readily available
in India. The Dutch procured much of it through their southern comptoirs
(Tegenepatnam and Nagapatnam) at 10 pagodas or 52,50 guilders per bahar
of 480 lbs, often through the mediation by prominent Indian traders,
with whom the Dutch in Pulicat maintained close relations. One of these
was Malaya, among the town's most renowned and influential merchants.
Malaya's family had enormous influence, not least because of its close
links to various courts. Until his death on 8 March 1634, Malaya was
the VOC's principle agent or intermediary and the Dutch keenly felt
the loss of their trusted associate. With obvious regret, Pulicat reported
Malaya's passing to Batavia: '...his death will cause a tremendous decline
in the acquisition of textiles, which will surely be felt hence forth.
For 25 or 26 years he conducted excellent trade on our behalf.' Not
only had Malaya assisted the Dutch in procuring textiles, but also,
and perhaps more importantly, he had exercised his considerable authority
to arrange for regular supplies of saltpetre for the VOC's gunpowder
factory. By September of the year of his death, the Dutch were brooding
on their change of fortune. While Malaya was alive, they were assured
of a steady supply of saltpetre, allowing the manufacture of gunpowder
to proceed apace. Now, however, matters were not quite so certain and
the entire enterprise could be on very shaky ground indeed if from one
year to the next they could not be guaranteed a sufficient quantity.
A further worry was that saltpetre had to be brought from 'The Land
of Ma[r]dre' (Madurai) and that the transportation together with the
tolls along the way cost considerably more than the saltpetre itself,
seeing that its bulk and weight made it a prohibitively expensive commodity
to transport overland. What is more, refining took a great deal of time
and could not be done properly during the wet season. The worried Dutch
contacted Malaya's brother, Cinanna, who promised to supply them with
150-200,000 lbs of saltpetre in the course of the next ten months and,
if they wished, he would see to it that they received a yearly supply
of 400,000 lbs. At last, the uninterrupted production of gunpowder at
the VOC's factory in Pulicat seemed, once again, assured.
The VOC's gunpowder factory in Pulicat was undoubtedly
of major importance to the Company from the early 1620s to at least
the late 1650s. It kept some of the key Dutch establishments in the
East as well as the homeward-bound fleets well-supplied with excellent
gunpowder. Thus, we are now left with the question: when did the Dutch
close down the factory and why? Unfortunately, I have been unable to
find any additional information on the matter. However, considering
the fact that the VOC-archives at the ARA (Algemeen
Rijksarchief / General State Archives) contain an enormous
number of documents on all aspects of the Company's activities on the
Coromandel Coast in the seventeenth century without any further mention
of this factory, one must assume that, at the end of the 1650s or the
early 1660s, the VOC's production of gunpowder in the East became more
localized, thus diminishing the need for a large, centralized factory
on the Coromandel Coast. Still, while it lasted, the VOC's gunpowder
factory in Pulicat served the Company very well indeed. *