The Serampore Initiative
In 1755 the local ruler of Bengal, Nawab Ali Vardi Khan, granted the Danish Asiatic Company the right to establish a trading post at Serampore (Srirampur) at the banks of the River Hooghly in Bengal, about 25 km north of Calcutta (today Kolkata). The aim was to acquire commodities such as silk and cotton textiles as well as the important saltpetre, used for production of black powder. The trading post was given the official Danish name of Frederiksnagore, though in daily use the Indian name of Serampore or Srirampur was maintained. The size of the Hooghly River made it possible for the European trading ships to enter up the river with commodities, and the British, the French, the Dutch and the Portuguese similarly established trading posts along the attractive river.
The development of Serampore
Serampore already existed as several small villages when the Danes arrived, but it grew substantially under the Danish rule. The administrative centre of the town was the Danish trading post, which was surrounded by a high wall and contained both official buildings and living quarters. Though Serampore was managed by the Danes, it was in reality more international than Danish. It was populated by European newcomers from nearby towns and on the main street and along the river, elegant villas shot up from the end of 18th century. Indians from all levels of society were also attracted by the opportunities for trade and production and the wealthiest of them built great palatial houses side by side with the European houses.
In 1777 Serampore was transferred from the Asiatic Company to direct administration under the Danish Crown. The town flourished particularly under the administration of Head Ole Bie (1776-1805) and the present historical town centre originates from his era. Bie remained in office till his death, and his grave is still to be found in the town’s Danish cemetery. An important factor for the flourishing time was the neutrality of Denmark during the American War of Independence and the wars that followed the French Revolution in 1789. The British, the French and the Dutch all took refuge in Serampore, either on account of their nationality or because they were in debt. Apart from the extra taxes obtained from the newcomers, the Danish trading ships additionally profited on bringing back British fortunes from India to Europe under neutral flag.
The Baptist Mission and Serampore College
Of the many newcomers a group of British missionaries acquired a particular significance during the first decades of the 19th century. For many years, the British colonial administration prohibited Christian missionary activities in India because of fear for causing disturbances for the trade. Serampore, however, welcomed the missionaries and their work. Led by the pioneers William Carey, William Ward and Joshua Marshman a printing house was founded and a large number of books were published in a variety of Indian as well as other Asian languages, many of them being printed for the first time. As part of their missionary work they furthermore founded Serampore College for education in religion and Asian languages. In 1827 the College was officially recognized by Frederik VI and thus became the third Danish University after Copenhagen and Kiel. Even more remarkably, with the recognition by the Danish King, Serampore College also became the first modern university in Asia.
The sale of Serampore in 1845
The British occupation of Denmark from 1807 to 1814 became a turning point in the history of Serampore. The British had monopolized the majority of trade in India and imposed great taxes on commodities, and there was no longer any economic interest in maintaining a Danish trading post. As a consequence, in 1845 Denmark sold Serampore and Tranquebar to the British East India Company after protracted negotiations. The corvette Galathea was shipped out to assist with the practical transference, to investigate the remaining Danish possessions in Asia, the Nicobar Islands, as well as to perform scientific investigations during the ship’s global circumnavigation.