Sunday, January 16, 2011

18th century India

The greatest Tamil diarist in history, Ananda Ranga Pillai, died 250 years ago today. He served under the French in Pondicherry, rising to becoming chief dubash (interpreter, broker and guide) under the governor general Joseph Fran├žois Dupleix. All 12 volumes of his diaries translated into English are freely available online, and provide a remarkable first-hand account of colonised India in the 18th century.

Ananda Ranga Pillai was born in 1709 at Ayanavaram near Perambur, a suburb of Madras. His father, Thiruvengada Pillai, was persuaded to settle at Pondicherry by a brother-in-law, and eventually became a broker for the French, who ruled Pondicherry (now called Puducherry) mostly from 1673 until 1954. When his father died, in 1726, Ananda was appointed to the accounts service. He married Mangathayi Ammal and they had five children, although two of his sons died very young.

Over the next 20 years or so Pillai rose slowly to become, in 1748, the chief dubash of French India under Joseph Fran├žois Dupleix, the governor general. Soon after, hostilities with the British broke out (again), and for a year or two, France’s power increased. Eventually, though Dupleix’s fortunes declined and he was replaced as governor general in 1754. With Dupleix’s departure, Pillai’s influence in the colony declined. Ill-health added to his woes, and he died on 16 January 1761 - exactly a quarter of a millennium ago - aged only 51. Wikipedia has a good biography (more substantial by far than the one for Dupleix).

Pillai kept detailed diaries for much of his life. These were handed down through the generations until discovered in a decrepit state in the 1840s. They were then translated from the original Tamil into French. Some decades later, in the 1890s, Lord Wenlock, the then Governor of Madras, ordered the diaries to be translated into English. They were edited by Sir J Frederick Price (assisted by K Rangachari), and then printed in 12 volumes (between 1904 and 1928) by the Government Press in Madras as The Private Diary of Ananda Ranga Pillai, Dubash to Joseph Francois Dupleix, Knight of the Order of St Michael and Governor of Pondicherry. The volumes - all available at Internet Archive - were subtitled ‘a record of matters political, historical, social and personal from 1736 to 1761’.

Here are two entries from the first volume:

21 November 1739
‘A remarkable incident which occurred this evening at 5, was the following. The ex-chief of the peons, actuated by jealousy at the appointment of Muttaiya Pillai in his place, instigated one of his men to commit thefts in the town. This individual had long been engaged in the business, and was at last apprehended, four or five months ago. When he was beaten, and pressed in other ways, he made a clean breast of the whole affair, from the very beginning, and mentioned the names of all the persons who had either seen his acts or heard of them, or who had either concealed the goods stolen by him, or harboured him.

These abettors, who were about fifteen or sixteen in number, were thrown into prison with him. The Council having heard their statements, discharged them all, with the exception of the thief, and five of the abettors, who were found to be seriously implicated. . . The offenders received the following punishments, under an order of Council. The thief was publicly hanged; a punishment which was carried out at 5 in the evening at the centre of the town in the bazaar-road, opposite to the court-house, on a gallows which had been temporarily erected there for the purpose; . . .

Of the remaining five criminals, Odavi . . . and the goldsmith were each awarded fifty stripes, their ears were cut off, and they were expelled beyond the bounds of Pondichery. The other three . . . were ordered to stand in a line and were whipped; each receiving twenty-five lashes. On two or three further charges, the punishment of whipping will again be inflicted on them, and they will then be released.’

7 February 1746
‘At noon, the Portuguese ship St Louis, . . arrived here from Madras, cast anchor, and fired three guns to salute the vessels in the roads: these were returned by a like number. Seven guns were then fired by the St Louis, in compliment to the fort, which replied with a similar salute. Four English sail came in pursuit of this ship. Having caught sight of her, they hove to at a distance. The captain inquired why they were following him. It appears that when the St Louis was on her way from Chandernagore, the English sailors at Madras seized and detained her in the roads there. When inquiry was made as to her nationality, the reply was she was Portuguese. . .

Those in charge of her were asked to sell all the merchandise that was on board, and to buy goods there in exchange. They agreed to this, pretended to bargain, deceived the English, set sail, and escaped during the night. The St Louis was therefore pursued on the following morning. Such was the explanation given. The three ships and the sloop which chased her arrived in the roads between 3 and half-past 4 in the afternoon, and cast anchor on the north-eastern side of the fort. Two others came from Fort St David, and anchored to the south-east. Of the four vessels which came from the north, one fired a gun, and then started southwards for Fort St David, bearing news to that place. When she arrived abreast of the anchorage, the Governor went to the fort, summoned all the soldiers who were there, distributed them in the batteries on the beach, directed them to load all the guns and mortars that were in these, and to keep ready powder, shot, shells, and grenades; in short, he made all the necessary preparations, and then, at half-past 5, proceeded home.

The inhabitants of the town who went to watch this strange sight numbered 10,000. The Governor noticing all these people, said to them: “You have been looking at this long enough; you now had better go home.” I also went, and saw what was going on. The goods which were brought in the Portuguese ship St Louis were wheat, rice, and candles; it is said that there were also some sundry goods from Chandernagore. This cargo was being unloaded by boats until 2 in the morning.’

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