Thursday, 28 December 2006

Day one of my journey

Day 1, Tuesday 12th of December 2006

It was somehow appropriate that I was meeting my son at King’s Cross railway station for so much of the preparation for my journey had taken place in the Oriental and India Office Collection at the nearby British Library.

It was also fun to be passing by Platform 9 & ¾, and the shrine to Harry Potter, with its shopping trolley disappearing through the wall, visited by so many children and tourists from around the world. For the very first lines, of the first document that I had found written by Thomas Hervey Baber had read: -

“having resided a period of thirty two years, and been actively employed during that time, in every department of the public service, revenue, police, magisterial, judicial, and political, in various countries, where both domestic and agrestic slavery prevails;… in the Bombay territories lying between the rivers Kistna and Toonbudra – comprising the late Southern Mahratta States now partly administered by the honourable Company and partly by the Puturdun family”

“Also the western division of the Madras Territories comprising the Zilla of Canara, in which are the ancient countries of Konkara, Hauga, and Tulava, the Balagat Districts of Soond, Soopa and Bilghi, and to the south the Talook of Neelisheram; the Zilla of Malabar including the Balagaat District of Wynaad, and also the Island of Seringapatam.”

At the time I had read these place and family names in 2000, they had all seemed as odd to me as the names to be found in a Harry Potter book, or perhaps Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings.

Here at last I was setting out on my own quest to visit this world, remote in time and place, and a world that I had previously only known from accounts written two hundred or so years ago.

Would anything of those days remain?

Until we arrived at the baggage desk at Heathrow Airport, our journey had seemed a little surreal, for on a bitterly cold and damp morning, just after dawn, I must have cut a funny figure, to my fellow commuters, sitting in the train in my lightweight clothes.

Here in the queue to check in, we first met the people’s of Kerala and Sri Lanka. Somehow we seemed under packed, for never have I seen such small people, carrying such huge bags.

Such interesting and diverse faces, could I spot who was Sri Lankan, and who was from Kerala?

Having worked with nurserymen, labourers and office workers from Kerala in the 1980’s in the Gulf, I had assumed, that like those workers, the inhabitants of the Malabar Coast would be similarly dark. But no, I was presented with a fascinating kaleidoscope of people’s, many with faces that represented the fusion of many races.

Soon we were boarding our aircraft for Colombo. My travelling companion’s on the adjacent seats turned out to be two Kerala workers returning from London. One had spent six years in London, and the other four years without any leave.

My neighbour, who had been away for four years, was returning to his wife, and six year old daughter. I got the impression that he was entirely on edge about his return. For it must be incredibly hard on these families to endure such long separations. His daughter can have hardly had any recollection of her father.

I do hope that their reunion has been a success.

And yet this has been the pattern behind much of Malabar life for countless centuries, for being placed as Malabar is, it has been at the cross roads of Asia since time immemorial, its sailors provided much of the skills necessary for those great fleets travelling the ancient trade routes stretching from China to the Gulf, the Red Sea, and East Africa, but always passing by the tip of India.

Indeed the prolonged absence of father’s at sea had led to a situation where matriarchal societies had developed to the point where women controlled the property, and where partners visited her house.

Perhaps this culture of adaptation to separation lessens the blow, but having been away for more than two years from my family and friends in my younger days, I would not wish to live the life these workers do.

As the interminable flight crawled its way across the globe, I sat entranced by the in-flight monitor, with is flight tracking screen. Our flight passed over so many of the places that I have either worked or travelled in. Germany, Hungary, Rumania, Turkey, Iran, the United Arab Emirates etc.

My poor tolerant son was forced to hear me recount tails of my adventures, 30,000 feet below.

It was fascinating to see that we could make Tabriz in a little over four hours, when my four times great uncle John Croft Hawkins, a Bombay Marine naval officer, had taken37 days to travel the same route in 1832, carrying urgent despatches to India.

Leaving England in November, he had travelled via Vienna and Constantinople, reaching Tabriz by the 26th of December, only 37 days out from England. John wrote, “I arrived here yesterday in time for Christmas dinner”.He had only slept in a bed on 8 of the 36 nights.

“In 1832 Capt. Hawkins was employed by Lord Glenelg, then Mr. Charles Grant, President of the Board of Controul, to carry despatches overland to the naval commander-in-chief, and governments of India, on the prospects of a Dutch war, by a route through France to Vienna, Constantinople, Tabriz, Tehran, Shiraz, and Bushire to Bombay, in the depth of winter, with instructions to go with all possible speed; which duty was performed at the imminent risk of his life on several occasions, some of the guides having deserted their post, and others unable to continue their journey from the intensity of cold, the ground through Armenia and Persia having been throughout the journey covered with deep snow. This arduous duty was performed in a shorter space of time than had ever been before accomplished, and Cat. Hawkins’s disinterested services were handsomely acknowledged in a letter addressed to him by the Commissioner for the Affairs of India; whilst Sir John Gore, on the delivery of his despatches at Bombay, was pleased to compliment him in the most flattering terms on the performance of this service, which might have been of the greatest importance to our national and commercial interests in the East. When his guides failed him in Persia, Capt. Hawkins was compelled to proceed alone, or fail in the duty he had undertaken to perform. Thrown on his own resources, and finding the greatest disinclination on the part of the Persian Governors of the towns on his route to assist him with horses, he was obliged in the desperation of his position to use extraordinary means to obtain them. Thus, at night, alone, in the house of a governor of a town between Tabriz and Tehran, who was surrounded by his dependants, having been refused a horse, and told contemptuously to be gone, he instantly seized the governor with one hand, and with other presented a loaded pistol to his head, threatening to shoot him if a horse were not brought in a quarter of an hour, and never letting go his hold until the horse was brought.

Captain Hawkins passed that night alone in deep snow, in consequence of a high wind having covered the tracts with drift. A somewhat similar occurrence took place with the Governor of Gasveen, Sheriff Ally Khan, before he could obtain his assistance with horses. Captain Hawkins was also obliged to swim his horse across a deep and rapid river near Persepolis, where there was no ferry, and where caravans had been stopped for a fortnight. The horse fell back in attempting to mount the opposite bank, and precipitated Captain Hawkins into the river; his precaution however of having the despatches sewn up in oilskins prevented them from being injured.


His onward journey took him through Shiraz to Bulshire and on by ship to Bombay. When he arrived it was recorded as being the fastest journey ever made out from England at that date.Sadly, I do not know what the total duration of his journey was.

One can only wonder at the toughness of a man like Hawkins. Fortunately, whilst gruelling, my trip was to cause me but a fraction of the tiredness he must have experienced.

[1]The Late Captain J. C. Hawkins. DRO ref. D6104/46/1

[3] Low page 519.