Knowledge Circulation between the Coromandel Coast and Europe

Vivek Neelakantan

In the introduction, Jeyaseela Stephen contends that the history of science in the Tamil country was the result of a long and slow evolution over the centuries. Although the basic idea of science in the Tamil coast (Coromandel) and its hinterland arose separately, they were gradually synthesised into new concepts, which in turn, were appropriated and transformed due to overseas trade. The book discusses the appropriation of Tamil knowledge by European missionaries, traders, botanists, physicians, chemists, and astronomers that added to the then existing corpus of knowledge in Europe.

A Meeting of the Minds is a baggy book, consisting of twenty-two chapters in which the author often tends to lose the main thread of the argument in favour of minute details. The overall thesis of the monograph is that the shift in British East India Company interests from commerce to colonialism by the eighteenth century was a result of scientific encounters between Tamil and Western science. In Chapter 2, the author notes that the ancient Tamils developed science as a rational exercise, intrinsic to human nature. The Tamil tradition did not make any distinction between the natural and human sciences, or between science and religion.

Appropriation and transformation of medico-botanical knowledge

Chapter 3 highlights botanical surveys of the British, French and Dutch East India Companies between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries that aided the studies of European apothecaries. Chapter 4 highlights the insatiable curiosity of the European plant collectors in the Tamil hinterland and their role in the development of systematic botany, whereas the next chapter examines the establishment of various botanical gardens in Tamil country by the Europeans. Chapter 6 discusses the introduction of plants for cultivation at various places in Tamil country. The Portuguese introduced medicinal herbs and perfumes from Southeast Asia to the Coromandel. Likewise, plants were also exported from Madras to London. Chapter 7 explores the metals, salts, acids, and dye-stuffs encountered by the European missionaries, merchants, and Company servants, whereas the next chapter dwells on diseases and their medical treatment among the natives employed in British East India Company service in Madras, and the war against smallpox. Chapter 8 highlights the conceptual and terminological ambiguities that characterise the nosology of disease in Tamil country, whereas the following chapter describes the ways in which European missionaries served as interlocutors in the circulation of Tamil medical knowledge to Europe. Chapter 10 details how Europeans coped with diseases in Tamil country, whereas the next two chapters describe the role of the European East India Companies in the development of hospitals and lunatic asylums, the institution of medical education in Madras, and the institutionalisation of vaccination against smallpox. Chapter 13 illustrates the medical encounters between the Western surgeons and native doctors whereas the next chapter describes the seventeen medical texts written at the court of Raja Serfoji II (1777-1832).

Scientific encounters in Tamil country

Chapter 15 describes the surveys carried out in Tamil country and the introduction of geography in missionary schools, whereas the next chapter describes European attempts at learning native technological practices. Chapter 17 looks at the introduction of meteorology and climatology on the Coromandel Coast. The next three chapters describe astronomical observations in the Tamil country by Europeans and natives alike. The author concludes Chapter 21 with the thesis that science, in a large measure, helped to build British control over Tamil territory.
In a lengthy conclusion, Stephen enumerates the factors that led to the emergence of port towns on the Coromandel Coast, particularly Madras, Tranquebar, and Pondicherry as centres of scientific activity. He points out that the concept of locality (in the context of Coromandel) helps in examining the dialectical encounter between traditional knowledge systems and Western Science.


Eclectic in its use of archival materials, the monograph puts the Coromandel Coast on the centre stage in the European shift towards modernity. Where Stephen’s book seeks to make an original contribution, relates to the immense knowledge the Europeans gleaned from the Coromandel in terms of understanding local plant dyes, the pharmacology of metals, the Tamil knowledge on toxicology, and plant drugs, and the way in which the Madras press— appropriated and translated into the local language—information regarding smallpox vaccination. In effect, the circulation and translation of scientific and biomedical knowledge between the Coromandel Coast, on one hand, and Europe and Southeast Asia on the other, paved way for the establishment of colonial science in the nineteenth century.
The book suffers from a few organisational drawbacks. The writing style is not always engaging. A number of throwaway lines merit further historical investigation. For e.g., on page 808, the author states without adequate historical evidence that the publication of Tamil works in science remained neglected during the nineteenth century. In the conclusion, page 826, for example, the author makes an unsubstantiated claim that the coming of the rival trading companies (Dutch, Danish, French, and British) to the Coromandel in the seventeenth century was a watershed in the direction of scientific inquiry whereas the Portuguese had provided no impetus in this direction. While Stephen states that the colonisation of the Tamil world was accomplished through science, he fails to take note of the role of language in constructing colonial authority, particularly in the rendition of scientific texts —originally published in English— into Tamil, during the nineteenth century.
A Meeting of the Minds has forty-three appendices, listing out the botanical names of plants and their local equivalents. The monograph has a good bibliography and index. It will interest historians of early modern science of South and Southeast Asia.

Vivek Neelakantan, The Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras, Chennai, India (