Wednesday, 27 December 2006

Setting Out


Setting Out

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Standing cold and shivering at dawn on my local railway station, it was hard to tell if it was apprehension, or cold, that was affecting me most.

For here at last, I was after two years of planning, and five years of research, setting off for the Malabar Coast.

A journey that had begun in a dusty trunk with a small piece of paper inherited from by last remaining Baber “cousin”. A journey that had taken me through the doors of the Oriental and India Office Library via its many letters and documents into a world of colour and fascination inhabited by Rajah’s, Nairs and Teers. For who could have fore told that this would have led to my having been invited to Cochin by members of its former Royal Family.

As I boarded my Airbus time machine for Cochin, I little realised, just how vividly this world would come to life over the coming days.

Initially my research began with the intention of briefly detailing the bare outline of his life. However, as my research began it quickly became apparent that the quality and quantity of material available was much greater interest and volume than I could ever have expected. His letters and files contain much valuable information to anybody who has an interest in Indian affairs, slavery, or the effects of the early multinationals and globalisation on Indian Society in the 19th Century.

I had also been surprised to find that Thomas Baber is still remembered in Kerala. He appears for instance in several modern historical text books and even in novels as the man who tracked down and killed the Pazhassi Raja.

Quite understandably to most modern day Indians, he is seen as the villain of the piece. A colonialist who brutally suppressed an Indian Freedom fighter, considered by many in India, as the first in a line that led to Indian Independence.

However my research shows that the situation was far more complex than it would at first appear. By the standards of the day, Thomas was seen by his colleagues to be a reformer with radical ideas.

In time he came to be deeply disliked and even hated by many of his fellow officials, for this campaigning for the rights of Indian’s.

Many of these East India Company officials were to feel his wrath for not having acted in the best interests of the local population, as he felt it was their bounden duty so to do.

Thomas first went out to India in 1795, as a Writer at the point when the East India Companies affairs in India hung in the balance. In Europe the Napoleonic Wars were underway, and the French were hoping to create additional difficulties for England by aiding Tippoo Sultan in his efforts in a bid to oust the EIC from the south of India.

Tippoo Sultan was growing daily in stature and abilities as his reforms took effect, his army grew stronger, and as he sought to drive a route to the sea.

One year after arriving in Bombay, Thomas was sentdown to the Malabar Coast, where he witnessed the aftermath of the EIC’s successful repulse of Tippoo's attack on Malabar.

The effect of the domination of the pepper and other local markets by the East India Company on the complex local Indian communities had been fairly disastrous.

The area surrounding Tellicherry had previously been a fertile region growing subsistence crops. With the arrival of the European traders throughout the 18th Century, the demand for pepper had stimulated the local farmers to change to growing pepper as a cash crop.

Inland beyond the Ghats a complex web of races, tribes and castes were living by a system of shifting cultivation amongst the dense forests that covered much of the hinterland.

For many centuries Arab and Far Eastern traders had travelled to Calicut [2] Cannanore, Cochin and the other ports on the coast to trade spices like Cardomen and Pepper for rice, textiles and other goods. Arriving in 1498, the Portuguese had been the first Europeans to arrive, followed in turn by the French, Dutch, English, and Danish East India Companies. Each of these countries traders founded settlements at Goa, Tellicherry, [3] Mahé, and a dozens of other villages and estuaries along the Malabar Coast. The demands of these merchants, for pepper and other goods like sandalwood grew rapidly during the 18th Century stimulating the local farmers to change over their farm production from subsistence produce to cash crops.

At first this change was relatively limited in its effects, because the farmers had a range of potential European and Islamic customers, which ensured the maintenance and stability of market prices. However as Hyder Ali and Tippoo Sultan became increasingly aware of the growing prosperity of the area, they recognised the opportunity of increasing their revenues by annexing the area.

Tippoo was also becoming ever more fearful of the growing strength of the European settlements. Between 1795 and 1805, a series of wars took place, between the various parties. The British emerged as the strongest of the contending parties, causing the closure of all of the other countries factories.

The market became distorted for the farmer’s products, as they now only had one significant customer left, with whom to do business, and the price of many commodities fell dramatically, as the East India Company manipulated the markets to force down the prices paid to farmers. Thomas spent the years from 1797 to 1806 in the Revenue Department trying to collect the taxes demanded from this local population. During this period it appears that he came to know and understand the local community, probably at first through his contacts with local language teachers and his native staff. In time he came to associate himself with the local Nair community.

He saw at first hand how inequitable the revenue collection system was. As the East India Company extended its authority into the foot hills and up the Ghats into the Wynaad, they were attempting to tax subsistence farmers who were unused to cash economies, and who were not used to paying taxes. The EIC took to seizing property in lieu of defaulting payments, which of course prevented the families from farming the land in the following years, thereby compounding the problems. This led to the Pyche Raja’s Rebellion from 1803 to 1805. Thomas took a very active part in suppressing the revolt. He appears to have come to understand that the methods being used by the EIC and its armies were not working, and were merely making things worse. He took his own revenue servants, and set off into the Raja’s jungle stronghold for in the month of November 1805, emerging with the Raja's body. Within a year the rebellion was over.

However the underlying problems with running the Malabar persisted, and often in even worse forms than had previously existed. The Company had failed to foresee the power vacuum that would develop, and had insufficient experienced adminstrators available.

The East India Company had now to build up a large and expensive counter insurgency police force and army presence in the area. These forces needed feeding and paying for, and the individuals in authority often abused their powers. In some cases, this abuse was criminal, and in others, it was due to lack of understanding or ineffectiveness on the part of the individuals concerned.

The local native leaders along the coast had practised a system of slavery for generations before the arrival of the EIC. In an attempt to get increased production of cash crops, the EIC started setting up its own plantations, which required labour. They however failed to recruit this workforce due to the reluctance of the local population to work in plantations.

Murdoch Brown who had promoted the first plantation for the EIC, and who later took it over as his own property, decided to adopt local methods to get his labour, using Indian agents to kidnap labour, including even children.

Thomas who came from a broken home, and who had lived in reduced circumstances, compared with that experienced by earlier generations of his family, appears to have acquired a deep dislike of slavery, even before he had arrived in India.

In this he was many years ahead of most of his contemporaries. It is of course possible that he had been aware of the anti slavery campaigning that had been going on in England during the 1790’s.

Baber used his promotion to Magistrate to try to change the way revenues were collected, and to stop slavery. In doing so he earned the hatred of most of his East India Company colleagues. This led to his fighting a duel, and to his being challenged to a second duel. As a result of these events and numerous legal cases, letters and transcripts have survived, which fortunately ensure that a considerable amount of material about his life and times survives in the collections at the Oriental and India Office Library (OIOC), the Public Records Office (PRO) and elsewhere.

Working from Thomas Baber’s often-hurriedly written letters and from many an EIC clerk’s beautiful written copy plate entries in the ledgers I have attempted to reconstruct the story of his life. Throughout I have retained the contemporary spellings for places and personal names. In a country with many languages and ethnic groupings, and where many places have more than one name, and with the conventions for converting local names into Anglicised versions not yet settled, this can result in situations where the same name appears in more than one version.
Wherever possible I have used Thomas Baber’s original punctuation and capitalisation.

I am acutely aware that I will have made many mistakes, as I when I started out I was unfamiliar with the local languages, customs and the often-complex background to these events. If you are aware of errors, or believe that you are able to offer improvements or additions to my book, I would welcome these, especially from correspondents who live in Kerala and the Malabar, and who believe that they can help me at balmer.nicholas@googlemail.com to increase my understanding of the many issues raised.

I would like to acknowledge the enormous help that I have received over the past five years from many people ranging from the staff of the British Library, Calicut University, and the very many modern inhabitants of modern day Kerala.

[1] Nairs, pronounced “Nye-ahs”, a hereditary class of farmers and warriors, in many ways analogous with Medieval European Knights and Yeomen.

[2] Modern day Kozhikode. 11O 15’ 20.49” N 75O 46’ 31.50” E

[3] Modern day Thalassery. 11O 44’ 53.90” N 75O 29’ 11.41” E


1 comment:

The Guide said...

It is nice to know that some one on the lineage of Thomas baber takes up the responsibility of enquiring into the colonial days of Malabar.
As a keen student of the history of ancient kerala and imperial India, I landed in your Blog. I have seen that history had been distotrted , misrepresented and mis understood by many western historians because of many facts. Compulsions from their governments, communication and cultural gaps and lack of magnanimity to give credit to the local kings, soldiers, chieftains and common man. The only exception to this was William Logan. Even his 'Malabar Manual' fails to understand and comprehend the value and importance of the great local Medicinal system 'Ayurveda' when he say it was borrowed from greek and it was obsolete. Today he stands disproved and even western society accepts its supremacy at least in certain areas.

I do hope that you would do justice to your work and would see colonial history from a new perspective.

We have been trampled, destroyed, culturally denigrated, lured, deceived and what not else in the last 500 years.The reason was Ignorance,lack of education, sober and saintly philosophy. Though Christ sacrificed his life for the rest and propagated peace as the mission the western invaders like the other muslim invaders of the country looted and plundered India and its wealth both material as well as cultural.

Things are not different today. What I see in kerala is the total lack of cultural affinity. Kerala lost its face and body.Fundamentalists like cult Zombies want to see this land lose its identity, religion,and even its language. Today we have English, Hindi,Arabic and much more but no Malayalam.
As a seeker of truth and an independant blogger if this blog could make any changes in the minds of the youth about the great legacy of this part of the land I would say that you have succeeded in your endeavour!

Keep up the god work.

I would follow you with enthusiasm.