Friday, January 7, 2011

Danish East India Company c.1750

The Danes gained possession of their first colony, Tranquebar, on 19 November 1620 and renamed it Dansborg. They also maintained temporary trading stations (known as “lodges”) on the western coast, at Oddeway Torre (between 1700 and 1724), Calicut (1752 – 1791), & Colachel (1755-1824) and on the eastern coast at Balasore (1763-1845).

Dansborg Fort - Built 1620

The Company didn’t prosper and payment of the troops in its employ was problematic. Garrison strength was a perpetual issue. In 1733 men were detached from Danish ships  to replace the dead and deserters. Dansborg required a garrison of 50 Europeans, but that still proved  impossible to fill and 20 Indians were hired.

In 1739, the Governor of Tranquebar recorded that Negro troops comprised most of the garrison, but were “useless” as they were kept at starvation levels. Things were worse in 1754 when the Governor reported that the entire garrison consisted of  22 NCOs and 14 privates. Half the former were incompetent or not required. All of the latter were so old as to be unemployable! There were no more than 150 sepoys which had replaced the Negro troops. All were unfit for service and were replaced by sepoys who had previously been in French service.
It was not until 1777 that the Company permanently fixed- and funded- the establishment of the garrison.
There is a noticeable lack of information regarding the troops of the Company - which is understandable since its interests were mercantile, not military. An excellent article appears in an issue of Military Modelling. The author of that article, a Dane, dates the earliest picture of a Company soldier to 1726. Unfortunately, the original picture is not coloured.  The musket shown is the Danish snaphaunce musket of the late 1600s with a later period bayonet. Christian native troops serving in the “European” units apparently wore an identical uniform. Grey was a common coat colour in Denmark at this time.

The next picture that I have been able to view is a watercolour dated to 1791 and shows the troops with red jacket with yellow collar and cuffs, white waistcoat, breeches and leggings. The hat has a black broad rim with grey crown. Again, there is a representation in the Military Modelling article.

In the Foundry publication Rivals of the Raj, the author Peter Abbott makes reference to a carpet (the Tranquebar-dug) made in India in the 1740s depicting Danish soldiers in:
“…black tricornes with white braid and red coats…single breasted with a row of eight or more brass buttons, and have mid blue cuffs with three white strips of braid… The waistcoat is not visible in most cases, but one partial glimpse suggests that it may have been blue, as were the stockings. There are three musicians in similar uniform, except that the hat is replaced by a black pokalem – style hat with blue piping.”
Abbot describes the European artillery in the same uniform as the infantrymen. There is also a native gunner in:
“…a similar coat and stockings but a blue and red turban with a feather in it, and a black and yellow cummerbund.”
Unfortunately, I have been unable to locate a picture of the Tranquebar –dug. There is the possibility that these troops  are Danish Marines which had red  coats, blue vests and cuffs. The sources that I have (notably Manley’s The War of Austrian Succession) indicate, however, that the Marines’ breeches were red and buttons were brass. I have also read that on occasion Royal troops would serve in India for additional pay. It is possible that the troops depicted in the Tranquebar-dug are these. Interestingly, Abbott also appears to rely heavily upon the Military Modelling article.
As an aside, a plate by the Company of Military Historians shows the Danish West Indies Company in red coat, yellow cuffs and lapels with white vest and breeches, but black gaiters. I am not aware of the authorities upon which the plate is based, and it illustrates a uniform of the 1760s when lapels were introduced to Danish uniforms.
So, based on all the above I came to the conclusion pretty much anything goes. The figures which I chose to use were Foundry Russians in vest. Only the officers have a proper coat which at this time had no collar. The rank and file have a cheaper version. 

I also liked the officer mopping his brow – still not acclimatised to India.

I could find no information on flags other than two prints of the Fort which showed the Danish flag hoisted. Therefore the unit has that and a plain white flag. All hypothetical, mind!

 As usual, painted by Peter, based by me.


  1. Does this goodness ever end? They really capture the feeling of some poor European bastards sweltering under an Indian sun. Wonderful as ever.


  2. Good stuff. :-)

    I was never terribly interested in India in the 18th century but your blog is winning me over with all this interesting and nicely illustrated material.



  3. Fascinating post sir! My imagination (Duchy of Tradgardland) has a presence in the area which was in many ways inspired by the Dansh experience...
    best wishes

  4. By the by I would be interested in your thoughts upon the Foundry book as I have been tempted to buy it...

  5. Tradgardmastare,

    I was a bit disappointed in the book from a SYW point of view. No information on flags : ( Some of the information is in captions, not the main text - For example the Portuguese in Goa.

    I will do a short review soon.


  6. Tell you what, they look better than I thought they would. The red choice wasn't too bad.

    The man's a damn genius, I tell you!


  7. great effort in gathering this on Danish early life in India. I hope to find out if I have any Indian blood, via Anglo-Indian blood lines.

    My family line went from Denmark to Tranquebar then moved later to Australia. The family name is: Von Muhldorf

  8. No problems Oldfields! It has been a popular posting and I enjoyed doing it.

    I have some pictures of Danish houses as well if you are interested.