IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 26 | Regions | South Asia


The VOC's Gunpowder Factory ­
Ca. 1620­1660

Gunpowder ranked among the list of essentials during the seventeenth and, to cater to their needs, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) established a gunpowder factory in Pulicat, Tamil Nadu in the 1620s. Its output was so substantial that for several decades it was able to keep many of the major Dutch factories in the East Indies well supplied.


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.
Sulphur and saltpetre
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. *


Wil O. Dijk, MA earned her degree in Japanology at Leiden University. At present, she is a PhD candidate at the same university and is researching the VOC in Burma in the seventeenth century.

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 26 | Regions | South Asia