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History of Forts in the Colonial Period

The story of the European struggle for power in India has its roots in developments that happened way back in the 7th century. With the decline of the Roman Empire, the Arabs established dominance over the regions of Egypt and Persia through which Indo-European trade routes ran. The situation was further compounded by the fall of Constantinople in the 15th century into the hands of the Ottoman Turks. Since the Red Sea trade routes were already under their control, now all the Indian merchandise went through the Arab intermediaries before reaching Europe. In this scenario, the Europeans were desperate to find a direct sea route to India. Following the Portuguese, the Dutch, English, French and the Danes also arrived in India. In the struggle for monopoly and dominance over India’s profitable trade in spices, calicoes, silk, precious stone and pepper, these powers established defensive structures to protect their interests. They built factories, ports and fortified establishments to further their commercial activities. The presence of the Europeans was contested by the indigenous rulers as well. Hence, forts also became sanctuaries for protecting the colonial agents against rebellions and assumed a multi-functional role overtime.

It was in 1498 AD that the Portuguese adventurer Vasco Da Gama first arrived in India. He was warmly welcomed by the ruler of Calicut. The Portuguese intention, however, was to monopolize the profitable trade in India, especially that of Indian pepper. The Portuguese set up trading factories at Calicut, Cannanore and Cochin which proceeded to become their main centers of trade. This led to conflicts with the local traders who resented their activities. Around the turn of the 16th century, the factory at Calicut was attacked by the local Arab merchants and several Portuguese died. In anger, the Portuguese killed hundreds of the Arab merchants and seized their cargo. Gradually, under the pretext of protecting their factories, the Portuguese fortified these settlements. The first fort built by the Portuguese was Fort Emmanuel in Kochi, Kerala. The permission for building it was granted to them by their ally, the local maharaja of Kochi in 1503 AD. The structure was simple and used local materials. The main building was square in shape and the defensive walls included two rows of coconut tree stems packed with mud and rubble. The activities of the Portuguese gained ground in the Malabar coast region and this was linked to their naval supremacy.

However, soon after their arrival, their presence was contested by the coming of the Dutch. They founded their first factory in Masulipatnam, (present) Andhra Pradesh in 1605 AD. Fort Aguada was built by the Portuguese (in present Goa) to defend and guard against the Dutch. The fresh water spring inside the fort ensured fresh water to the large navy of the Portuguese. This fort together with its bastions, moats and a lighthouse, overlooks the vast Arabian Sea. The Dutch overpowered the Portuguese and captured their trading centers along with their fort in Kochi.


Fort Aguada, Source: Wikimedia Commons

The English arrived in India in the first decade of the 17th century and soon established a factory at Masulipatnam and Surat. The Dutch were the principal opponents of the English at this time and what followed was a period of intense Anglo-Dutch rivalry. In 1639, the ruler of Chandragiri gave them permission to fortify the factory at Madras. This developed into the famous Fort St. George and replaced Masulipatnam as their headquarters in the South. It was the first English fortress in India and evolved into a city fortress. In European circles, the fortress historically came to be known as the “white town”, and the city around it was termed as the “black town”. It has a grey granite exterior and its architecture is typical of the 17-18th century British constructions which involved the Baroque style of architecture. This style was originally born in Italy and travelled to India through the Portuguese. Various churches used this style throughout the colonial period as well. The Fort St George was further enlarged as the news of the arrival of the French East India Company reached the British. The French established a factory at Surat in 1667 AD which was followed by another factory at Masulipatnam soon after. They also established a township near Calcutta.


Fort St. George, Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The designs of the earlier forts were mostly simple, probably due to a lack of skilled engineers. But as the forts gained military and commercial importance, the designs became more complex and improved. In the first decade of the 18th century, the French established Fort St. Louis on the east coast of India in Pondicherry. By this time, major advancements were made in the field of engineering as well. This French fort was made based on a French plan designed by Vauban, the famous military engineer under Louis XIV in France. Of a pentagonal shape, it included five bastions and gates with underground chambers for ammunition, arms and other such items. The entire fort is surrounded by a moat. The town which developed nearby was again divided into a black town for the natives and a white town for the French.

The British destroyed this French fort in 1761 AD. Meanwhile, the Dannes had already arrived in India attempting to share her wealth. Though better known for their missionary activities than for commerce and military strength, they built the iconic Fort Dansborg on the Eastern coast of India in present day Tamil Nadu. This two-floored fort is constructed in a trapezium shape and is typical of Danish style of architecture. With high ceilings, it has large rooms and columned structures. It has a center made of brick and has numerous guard rooms. It also has bastions constructed with black stone. Instead of being a strong defensive structure, this fort uniquely proved to be a safe haven for the citizens while their settlement was under raid.


Fort Dansborg, Source: Wikimedia Commons.

We see that colonial forts were primarily built for the purposes of defense and commerce. Additionally, they spread their influence and might over the region they fortified. Some of these developed into fort cities and others became ports of commercial value or spaces of respite during attacks. The designs of the forts came to be refined as the struggle for supremacy intensified. Colonial agents also bought in new styles of architecture from their homelands which are now embedded in India’s architectural history.