Saturday, 30 December 2006

Day two, 13th December 2006, Colombo

Two thirty A.M. is never a good time to arrive anywhere, and it was with a great deal of trepidation that I arrived at Colombo.

With all of the recent news about the renewed unrest in Sri Lanka, I had had distinct reservations about even transiting through this country. However it must be done, if our tight schedule was to be met.

What I had not anticipated, having visited a considerable number of south Asian airports over the years was just how pleasant and friendly place Colombo would turn out to be. The terminal was light and airy, and the airport staff were far more pleasant and attentive, than would have been the case for instance in Luton or Stansted.

For a country engaged in a bitter war, the security was either very light, or extremely unobtrusive, although as we flew out in daylight, it was evident that the airport is surrounded by a dense set of field fortifications.

Our flight to Cochin was due to depart at 7.40 am, so we had hours and hours to kill.

Fortunately, we were not the only travellers so placed, and it was obvious that the locals were well prepared, so as they say, “when in Rome….”

We soon found a row of chairs in a remote part of the terminal and bedded down. Our companion’s were middle-aged Sri Lankan’s (?) who appeared to be travelling on business.

Quite where they were going, we sadly never discovered, but we did discover that they were taking prodigious quantities of duty free drink and cigarettes.

Where ever they were going must have been ready to take these goods in plenty, as small groups of these men spent the night in huddles on the floor, disassembling the duty free packaging, and elaborately consolidating the cigarettes and drink into more compact parcels.

The skill and confidence with which these men carried out their repacking, spoke of years of experience.

What with the snores of my companions, and the tearing sound of sellotape being deployed, it was not the most restful of nights, or the most comfortable, but it will be remembered for quite a while for its fascination.

Buoyed up with anticipation, and a certain amount of apprehension we moved at dawn to the departure lounge. Airports are a great place for people watching, and people watching has long been a fascination of mine.

Working twenty-five years ago in the Gulf, one of our pastimes was to visit the bazaars on a Friday, and to try to identify where all of the myriad of expatriates came from, going by clues contained in their appearance and dress. This past time has proved surprisingly profitable in succeeding years, as I have often been able to break the ice at business meetings, by correctly guessing a person’s original place of origin.

Sometimes I have been extremely accurate, and at others less so, but it always breaks down barriers.

As in ancient times, Colombo is a melting pot of peoples from all the parts of the Indian Ocean fringe. Where does Air Sri Lanka get such a set of elegant hostesses?

Line upon line of the most elegant young ladies passing to and from their planes.

As the morning drew on, an ominous gap appeared in the departures flight announcement board where our flight should have been. Our gate changed, and the staff grew steadily more edgy. Something was amiss with our onward flight. As those who know me will attest, I hate being late, and I am not the most patient of people.

I left Sri Lanka feeling that I would love to go back there, and next time to go past the airport doors.

Our host in Cochin, the Raja would be waiting.. at this point steam would have normally have been coming from my ears, but so much was I enjoying Colombo airport, that I was enjoying even the wait.

Totally out of character, I found myself telling myself to relax, this is Asia, these things happen.

Soon enough, and only two hours late, we were in the air for the 55-minute hop to Cochin. My son and I had contested the window seat, and he had won. Still it was with great anticipation that we both craned to look down past the clouds as our descent began.

A world of watery beauty, juxtaposed to mountains came into view. The coastal plain was one mass of palm trees, with dozen’s upon dozen’s of houses scattered evenly amongst the trees. Running through the inland mountains where long narrow treeless light green strips. These soon resolved themselves into paddy fields.

Soon we were on the tarmac. The first hour in any country is always the worst, and transiting any Asian frontier can be a nightmare. As the doors opened, the entire planes passengers, with the exception of two rose on mass and commenced a mad scramble for the exit. And how could I blame them, for two or more years, these men have been stuck far away from their families in some Middle Eastern hell hole, being treated like dirt, by people far less intelligent and cultured than themselves.

The sight of these men leaving the plane took me back twenty years to the huge sense of liberation and relief that I had felt on that last Air France flight home out of Riyadh.

Arriving at the immigration, it appeared that we had filled in the wrong card, ours was intended for returning Indian’s. At this point my heart sank as I realised that I would have to rejoin the scrum again at the back.

Something totally expected then happened, the immigration official smiled, and said “is that your son?”, to which I replied “yes”, and turning resignedly to go to the back of the queue, the official said, that will not be necessary, I can give you a card here, and you can fill it in on the adjacent counter.

I wonder how many government tourist boards consider the effect the frontier officials can have on their countries reputation? This delightful and polite official should be receiving an award from his countries tourist board shortly, for promoting his countries best side.

It was with great relief that we spotted the Raja even as we collected our bags. Our meagre bag paling into insignificance amongst the other huge cases and monstrous cardboard parcels on the carousel. What presents where in these, and with what delight would their families be opening these boxes over the coming hours? I do hope that my fellow travellers had as happy an arrival as we did.

Soon we were being introduced to Menon, the Raja’s driver, or Jeeves as he was described to us. And off into the maelstrom of traffic that is the Ernakulam road.

Whilst I had been in India twenty-five or more years ago, and was to some extent prepared for the traffic with its eccentric ways, nothing had quite prepared me for the sheer madness of it all. The volume of traffic beggar’s belief, and it is all squeezed into an infrastructure built forty or more years ago.

Driving about 30,000 miles a year, and experienced in driving in many countries, I have developed a fast but defensive driving style, and one that has saved my life on more than one occasion.

Almost every minute I spent in a car in India caused my heart to leap and I instinctively braced myself for the impeding crash. My foot was repeatedly plunging to the floor seeking out the brake in an instinctive reflex brought on by the sight of yet another truck or bus careering towards our car….

Can Menon really think he can squeeze his car through that gap…?

Oh God protect us…

F---! Where on earth did that lunatic rickshaw come from... ?

Oh Lord, look at that idiot driving headlong against the traffic, and at that man sauntering out into the traffic wilfully looking in a fixed way away from the oncoming traffic, as if in the belief that if he does not see the oncoming bus, then in some divine way it cannot not hit him.

By the time we reach our hotel, I am reduced to a shaking wreck.

Our host who had most generously made arrangements for us that can only be described as being fit for a Maharajah, then took us to lunch. His concern for our welfare, and the evident reason why he had been testing out our palates in restaurants in London in the previous year, became immediately apparent as we commenced our first genuine Malabar meal.

The afternoon was ours to enjoy. Richard and I managed a brief stoll along the MG Road and down to the cornice. The faded buildings, and collapsing dock infrastructure spoke volumes of a failing local government, starved of resources, and one which has been increasingly been overtaken by events. Our host who lived and who was educated within yards of our hotel spoke wistfully of the area in the 1950’s, when apparently the population had numbered perhaps 10,000 at most.

Currently Ernakulam has a population of some 2.8 million, and growing at perhaps 25% or more this decade.

Suddenly sleep and the time spent travelling overwhelmed us. Richard and I had to beat a retreat to our room….

Friday, 29 December 2006

A brief history of the Pazhassi Raja.



A Nair grave monument showing one of these fierce warriors, and dated about 1700 AD. [1]

Part 1

When the Pazhassi Raja finally decided to break with his English allies during the spring of 1797, it followed many years of conflict and encroachment into his and his family’s lands and entitlements by the East India Company.

Before about 1680, the Kolattiri family had controlled an area running inland from a point on the coast situated about twelve miles north of Cannanore [Kannur] and then in a line across heading in an easterly direction towards the base of the Ghats. Their inland territorial boundary had then run south along the base of the Ghats down to a point just north of the Kotta River, and from there along the northern bank back towards the coast.

Arab and Muslim traders had been visiting his ancestors coastal villages regularly for centuries, but these landings had tended to last for only a short duration whilst these overseas traders had bargained for pepper, cardoman and sandal wood.

The first European’s to arrive had been the Portuguese who were then followed by the Dutch. Although these traders had settled at Cannanore and had had posts at Calicut, they had not thought the Kottayam area important enough for carrying on these trades to have set up permanent trading posts or to have established permanent settlements in.

With the arrival of the French in the 1690’s this had all changed.

The Raja’s grandparents and great grandparents had been part of a divided family. Nominally headed by a matriarch, the real power was however wielded by the five senior men in the family. The Kolattiri had been the most senior, with the Tekkalankar (or southern regent) controlling the Mahe area, and the Vadakkalankur (the northern regent). These petty rajahs behaved like many modern day politicians constantly jockeying for power with their fellow rulers. They each had their own gangs of thugs and supporters, with whom they enforced their will on the local villagers.

To add strength to their cause during these power struggles, they had each individually begun to invoke the support of the powerful new arrivals along the coast. The Tekkalankar was one of first to do so, agreeing to a French request to be allowed to establish trading posts in his area.

The French built forts during the 1670 to 1685 period at Mahé, on Dharmapattanam Island, as well as a mud fort, sited on the beach located at a small fishing village that was later to become Tellicherry.

Due to lack of skilled staff, and because of its emphasis on building forts, they expended all of their trading capital, causing the French East India Company to be a poor trading partner. They had too high an overheads to be able to make a profit, and consequently the French company struggled to prosper and to extend its operations in India in the early years. Only the settlement at Mahé really succeeded to any great extent. This settlement was located in the Vadakkalankar’s territory, and he was the Tekkalankar biggest rival.

The English East India Company operated in a more commercial manner than the French in the early years, avoiding defended settlements with their expensive walls, whenever possible and garrisons that soon ate up any profits made.

The English had factories (warehouses linked to accommodation blocks) at Calicut, Cochin, and Anjengo, but faced with rapidly growing demand for pepper caused by the economic boom of the 1690’s to 1710 in northern Europe, they needed more and more supplies of pepper and spices, if they were to meet demand.

They could no longer afford to let the French gain unfettered control of the Kottayam pepper crop, and the valuable cardoman coming from the inland area of the Wyanad coming down the Periya Pass . Sandalwood from Mysore, was also reaching the coast from across the Wyanad.

The Tekkalankar had found the French poor allies, and needing a counter force to equal the Vadakkalankar’s French allies, he switched his allegiance to the English.

He reached agreement with the English and in about 1699 leased the site of the abandoned Tellicherry fort to the English. It was not however until about 1705 that the English started to built a fort on the site of the current fort.On the 20th of August 1708, the Tekkalankar formally made over the fort to the English.

Over the following years the demand for pepper and other goods grew exponentially.

This caused huge tensions inside the existing Kolattiri family, as they fought amongst themselves over who should control the trade and the associated revenues.

The family’s retainers and attendant dependant castes were expected to adapt their cultivation to provide more and more cash crop pepper. This agrarian society with its strict caste system, and entrenched custom’s and practise based on subsidence farming, could not readily adapt to large scale agricultural practise required to meet demand. The trade and prosperity brought about by the protection of the English fort and ships increasingly attracted in large numbers of Muslim traders from the north.

The English East India Company officials received very low pay, and were expected to take part in their own country trade, to supplement their pay.

They were not allowed to ship directly to Europe, but the EIC did not mind them trading between different Indian and Asia ports.

Lacking the necessary capital and language skills to trade directly with Indian's, these officials allied themselves to Muslim’s from the north from Surat and Bombay.

In this way the Muslim’s benefited from English protection, as the Muslim merchants goods became “English”, thereby escaping many internal tolls.

The savings in tolls achieved were split with the English partner. In this way many EIC officials amassed a fortune far above their nominal salaries.

By about 1760, these Mopillas had become firmly established in Tellicherry as middlemen. They were establishing plantations and villages of their own.

They had discovered that there was an excellent way to force out the less well organised the Hindu farmers from their pepper gardens. These farmers would run short of cash for basic items like food in the run up to the pepper harvest.

The Mopilla merchants would lend these farmers cash based on the predicted forward price of the coming harvest’s pepper. If the money were not repaid, they would convert the outstanding amount into a mortgage on the Hindu’s land.

When that was in turn defaulted on, they would attempt to seize the lands.

In this way the Mopilla’s acquired more and more land beyond the boundary of the English settlement, and up towards the foothills of the Ghats.

The ousted destitute Hindu farmers would then appeal to their overlord or Rajah for support.

The Hindu’s lived in thinly scattered plantations, whilst the incoming Muslim’s built villages and especially Mosques.

These incoming Muslims were often aggressive and militant in their own right, and soon began to demand extra territorial rights.

This led to a series of wars, the overt ones between the Raja’s Nairs against the EIC, and a far more vicious low intensity conflict between the Moppilas and the Hindu Tiyars and Nairs in the villages in the fringes of the Jungles and plantations a few miles inland of the European settlements.

The Dutch, French, Ali Raja of Cannanore and Canarese all intervened in these conflicts, sometimes aiding one side and then another, and often trying to stop the wars because it meant that the pepper supplies often dried up.

In 1761 the Mysore Government also became involved in the dispute that had broken out between their co-regionists, and the Kolattiri Regent over a mosque built with a golden spire.

This golden roof was in contravention of a custom whereby only the Raja’s were allowed such roofs on pagodas. By 1766 the Kolattiri family’s possessions had been overrun.

Hyder Ali reduced them to vassals.

The European’s became involved in these wars, as first the Dutch, then the French and finally the English became intervened. In 1782 Tipu Sultan succeeded Hyder Ali.

Tipu was a very effective leader and a great reformer, and he intended to challenge the growing dominance of the English. He recognised that India had to reform many of its practises and industrial and agricultural methods if it were to develop to a point where it could beat off the European's.

As the French Revolutionary War’s commenced, the English were able to extinguish the other European powers factories one by one.

The Indian commodity producers now only had one customer, and this enabled the EIC to force the price paid to producers lower and lower in the confident knowledge that the farmer’s had no where else to sell their crops to.

Tipu understood the seriousness of the situation and aimed to break the EIC stranglehold on the Indian overseas trading routes.

Like Hyder Ali, he also understood that he needed to establish a viable route to the sea, and to do so he needed technical assistance, and alternative markets.

He first tried to force a route down to the Coromandel Coast, but in this he was unsuccessful, so he turned his attention towards the Malabar Coast and it's ports.

These routes had however to be captured from both the local Rajah's whose lands sat across the tracks down the Ghats to the coast, as well as from the European's who controlled the ports themselves.

A series of campaigns followed with attacks on Mangalore proving successful after a fierce siege.

Tipu needed support if he was to remain successful so he sent emissaries to the French at Isle De France, and to the Ottoman and Egyptian courts.

By doing this Tipu demonstrated to the British East Company that he represented a very real threat, and probably the only remaining credible threat to the EIC remaining in India.

This multinational company was expected by its shareholders to return a profit, but the constant wars were eating up any margin made on the trade.

The prices paid on pepper etc. had to be forced down if they were maintain a sufficient margin to be able to pay for these wars. Prices had to be maintained in Europe as well, and most pepper in Europe by now was travelling through London.

Competition had to be stifled if dividends were to be maintained.

The Director’s in London knew they had to destroy Tipu’s country before it became powerful enough to challenge their growing monopoly position.

It was the misfortune of the Pazhassi Raja that he and his subjects lived on the only alternative trade route from Tipu's Seringapatam to a coast.

When Tipu invaded the Wayanad and then the Malabar Coast, the English initially lacked the power to fight Tipu directly, and therefore sort to fight him asymmetrically by using local allies and by relying on the traditional defence of the peoples of the Malabar coast against the Mysorean’s and the other largely Muslim dominated inland people’s.

This defence was the forests of the Wyanad, and the Western Ghats. The monsoon and the rain shadow effect produced dense forests, ill suited to the cavalry dominated Muslim led armies. The Pazhassi Raja and his Hindu allies were ideally placed to fight a guerilla war of stockades, ambushes and forest warfare.

For previous generations, this had worked, for even if the armies of Hyder Ali had reached the coast, they could not remain there indefinitely due to their long supply chain, and the insurgent attacks on their posts and supply convoys in the rear.

Where Tipu differed from previous Muslim rulers was in his determination and ability to innovate. Learning lessons from the failure of his and Hyder Ali's previous campaign’s and learning from European advisers and deserters, he set out to build supply and gun roads across the forests, supported by a series of fortified posts like that at Sultan Battery. (The Sultan’s gun position).

By 1790 the situation for both the English and the local Malabar rulers had become critical. Tipu’s troops were raiding right up to the bounds of the settlements. Reinforcements were shipped down the coast and General Medows was appointed commander in chief.

Tipu’s rocketeers and cannon out gunned the Pazhassi Raja and the other Hindu’s.

Soon Tipu’s army, aided by intelligence from the indigenous and immigrant Moppila community was hanging Christian’s in Calicut, and slaughtering thousand’s of Hindu’s and brutally defiling many others. Hindu women were being gang raped and turned over as concubines to the Muslim troops.

On the April 25th 1790 the English moved columns out of Tellicherry with cannon insupport of 3,000 Kottayam and Chirakkal Nairs. This force almost certainly included the Pazhassi Raja. Their target was the recovery of the stockade at Katirur and the Kottayam Raja’s Palace.

This palace was liberated with the assistance of a hurriedly brought up 18 pounder cannon used to smash down the stockade, where the lighter guns had tried and failed.

Throughout the following months leading up to the monsoon, the local armies increasingly supported by the East India Company took back town after town.

Tipu’s fort at Palghat was besieged by Colonel Stuart commencing on the 21st of September.

With only two days provisions and an empty military chest, Stuart and his army was in a desperate condition. However the Nairs and others in the Malabar community realising that Stuart represented their best hope of ridding themselves of Tipu’s by now hated army brought in so much food that Stuart was able to capture the fort, and to leave its new garrison supplied for six months.

Tipu’s army was over stretched, and the East India Company was mobilising its Madras based forces, to the east of Seringapatam. He had to withdraw.

In February 1791 Lord Cornwallis led his army out from Vellore to Seringapatam.

Tipu was on the point of being defeated, when the EIC armies supply chain failed.

Cornwallis had to retreat, destroying his guns as he went.

When however Cornwallis and the Madras Army made a further attempt on Seringapatam in February 1792. Tipu submitted, rather than face defeat; he agreed to sign a treaty.

At this point the Pazhassi Raja along with the other Malabar local rulers had assumed that the English would return to their coastal bases, and that the situation would return to it’s previous state. The Raja hoped as the dominant new leader would become the Kolattiri and reap the rewards of power.

What he had not understood was that the East India Company was a multinational company, albeit one with a powerful government shareholder. It had to yield a dividend, and it had just expended a huge sum on driving out Tipu.

The Raja was just one of many petty rulers whose territory they had liberated.

The treaty with Tipu had handed over many of these rights to the East India Company. The EIC did not see why they should abandon these rights and lands that they believed they were entitled to by right of conquest.

Like a modern day oil company, whose oilfields have been the scene of war, and had to get oil back flowing again, the EIC had to get the pepper crop going again in this devastated land as fast as possible if it was going to recoup its wartime expenditure.

Due to the structure of the Raja’s community’s society, and the rigid caste system, it was impossible for the Raja to restore and re-develop the pepper plantations sufficiently fast, to meet demand. Only part of this Hindu population would consent to farming, whilst most would refuse for fear of losing their caste.

The EIC had obtained the rights to large areas of land in the treaty with Tipu including the Rangatarra district. This area had been the home territory of the Vadakkalankur (the northern regent). The Kurumbrand Raja was the Kolattiri, or most senior Raja. The Pazhassi Raja was his nephew, and under the complex traditions of the family, the person who was most likely to inherit the Kurumbrand lands.

The Pazhassi Raja may well have been trying to supersede the Kurumbrand Raja, who appears to have been disposed to pass the land on to his own children, in contravention of the customary practise.

The Kurumbrand Raja on more than one occasion seems to have gone out of his way to create conflict between the Pazhassi Raja and the EIC. The East India Company determined to get production up and going again, decided that their Muslim partners, with their more egalitarian society, and greater available working population, and access to capital, should be the means of increasing production.

Soon traders like the Mousa family began to take on more and more of the farms. This caused the Rajah and his increasingly marginalised community to greatlyresent both the EIC and the Mopillas. Soon reprisals commenced.

The Rajah used increasingly brutal ways to try to collect taxes from the Moppillas, and many of the later took to the forests on the foothills of the Ghats operating as bandits.

Kerala Varma Raja was by April 1793, Raja of the Padinyaru Kovilakam (or western palace).This was located at Palassi.

During this month he pulled down a Mopilla mosque recently built in Kottayam bazaar, and in September 1793, he went on to refuse the Mopillas of Kodolli permission to build a mosque.

When they went ahead anyway, he sent men to arrest the leaders. A fight broke out in which several of the Raja’s men were killed. The Raja in turn ordered all of the Mopillas in Kodolli killed.

A Commission had been appointed by the East India Company to try to administer the newly occupied lands. At first it tolerated the Raja, probably because of the fear of alienating him and his community.

They were aware that Tipu was preparing for another round of fighting, and did not wish to alienate the Hindu’s. The Pazhassi Raja was also connected by marriage to the Wyanad families who controlled the best of the pepper production.

The Pazhassi Raja realised that his only viable means of resisting the English was by passive measures. He was worried that the English were trying to arrest him, and so he refused to go to Tellicherry for talks.

In November 1793 he threatened to cut down all of his pepper vines if the EIC officials persisted in trying to count them.

Because the Kurumbrand Raja was more tractable, than the Pazhassi Raja, the EIC entered into agreements with the Kurumbrand Raja and ignored the claims of the Pazhassi Raja.

This proved to be a mistake because the Pazhassi Raja was in fact the younger and more able of the two. He was the emerging leader. By 1795 the Raja was being increasingly supported by people like Narangoli, a Iruvalinad Nambiar of the priestly caste, whose men had killed three Mopillas is response to a killing by a Mopilla of one of his retainers.

In June 1795 the Raja caused two Mopillas who had robbed the house of a Chetty to be impaled alive in the village of Venkad. Later that month he also shot a Mopilla through the body as he left a meeting where he had given the Raja a gift.

The EIC Commissioners finally felt that they had to act, and in August 1795, they issued orders for the Pazhassi Raja to be tried for murder.

Guarded by 500 Wyanad warriors, the Raja was too difficult to arrest, and despite troops sent to Kottayam and Manattana, he could not be seized.

Meanwhile the revenues that the East India Company had expected to raise were not coming in. The Kurumbrand Raja who had undertaken to collect them in return for a percentage, was unable to do so.

Tipu’s original assessment, which was being used, had proved to be far too high. The collections themselves were further alienating important sections of the community like the warrior Nairs, who had not previously been expected to pay tax.

The Pazhassi Raja acted as a focus to this opposition.

On April the 11th 1796 a plan was formed to arrest the Raja.

On the 19th of April this was put into effect when 300 men from the 3rd Battalion of Native Infantry under Lieutenant James Gordon marched out from Tellicherry to arrest him. By chance, or possibly because he had been forewarned, the Raja had left for Manattana four days earlier.

The Raja no longer felt safe on the coastal plain so he moved into the fastness of the Wyanad.

[1] East Hill Museum, Calicut.

To be continued…. Nick Balmer 29th December 2006. Revised October 2009.


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.

[2]

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.


Wednesday, 27 December 2006

The Death of Major Cameron

On December 18 1796, the East India Company Commissioners issued a proclaimation against the Pychy [Pazhassi]Raja. This led the Raja to seek aid from his former enemy Tippoo Sultan.

Tippoo agreed to supply the Raja with ammunition and to station 6,000 of his soldiers in the Wynaad.

Colonel Dow was given command of the EIC troops tasked with defeating the Raja. His men commenced the arduous climb up the Ghats towards the upland plateau that forms the Wynaad.

The Periya Pass. [1] As can be seen from the photo below this pass with its wooded slopes, and twisting nature was an ideal place for an ambush. The pass comes down the centre of the photograph, before turning towards the bottom left hand edge of the photo.














Colonel Dow's force marched up to the Wayanad via the Tammarasseri Pass from Calicut, and then travelled across the Wynaad heading north along the line of the peaks, on top of the plateau until the force reached the head of the Periya Pass with no opposition. They were in place by the 9th of March. A second party under Lieutenant Mealey was less successful. Comprised of two companies of Sepoys, it climbed the Karkur Pass. Over three days, the 9th, 10th and 11th of March this detached had to fight its way opposed by "some thousands" of Nairs and Kuchiars. It had to retreat via the Ellacherrum Pass. One subadar, 2havildars, 2 naigues, 1 waterman and 32 sepoys were killed or missing, and 67 more wounded, including Lieutenant Millinchamp. About half the force had become casualties.

Colonel Dow had left the coastal plain with inadequate supplies, and though his forces lack of control of the passes, he was unable to get further supplies. By the time he reached the head of the Periya Pass he had only five days rations left.

Major Anderson who was expected to bring further supplies up from Cannanore and Tellicherry, found that his Mappillas guides refused to turn up. Six armed messengers arrived from Tippoo Sultan who remonstrated with Colonel Dow for his marching through the Wynaad.

At this point Colonel Dow decided to leave the force and to return to the coast. Major Cameron was left in command of the troops left at the summit of the pass.

It would appear that Major Cameron was killed on the 18th of March 1797 whilst fighting his way down the Periah Pass.

“On the night of the following day, 18th March, Major Cameron, left in command of 1,100 men at Periah by Colonel Dow, was forced by want of provisions to quit that post and to attempt a similar retreat by the same pass. But the enemy had by this time completed their arrangements and instead of attacking the party on the comparatively level ground above, they waited until the force had entered the pass. Both sides of it were lined by rebels, who had likewise stockaded it, and a melancholy loss occurred. Major Cameron and three other officers (Lieutenant Nugent and Ensign’s Madge and Rudderman were killed, two other officers were wounded and of the detachment “some European’s of artillery, with a considerable number of native officers and privates”, were either killed or missing. In addition to this loss of life, the detachment lost its guns, baggage, ammunition and cattle and the union colour of the battalion of Sepoys.

Major Anderson with his convoy of supplies, which Major Dow had expected to meet at or near the head of the pass on the 16th, arrived on the ghat on the 19th, just in time to help to carry off the wounded, of whom there were “great numbers”.



Poor Helen Cameron was already a widow by the age of 18.

[1] Periah village and pass is nowadays known as Periya. 11O 50’ 11.36” N 75O 50’ 08.20” E. The village is 24 miles due east of Thalassery, and 31 miles due east of Kannur The area at the top of the pass is 740 metres above sea level.

[2]William Logan’s “Malabar Manual” in two volumes.Originally published in 1887. This entry and the others in this book are taken from the 2000 edition edited by Dr. P.J. Cherian, and published by the Kerala Gazetteers Department.Volume 1, pages 517 & 518.

Tom's Early Years


Thomas Hervey Baber was born on the 29th of September 1777 at Slingsby Parsonage in Yorkshire. [1] This imposing three storey grey stone house still stands immediately behind the church in this small village on the edge of the North York Moors. He was the second son of Thomas and Elizabeth Baber.





























Slingsby Parsonage

Thomas’s maternal family was called Berriman, and it would appear that her family probably originated from the village of Slingsby [2] or the surrounding area as many of the tombstones and monuments in the churchyard carry the Berriman family name.

Slingsby Church.

Thomas’s father was a solicitor who had trained at the Temple in London. However we know very little about Tom’s father’s career.Possibly it was a change in his career that caused the family to moved south to Stamford in Lincolnshire [3] during 1780.

In 1782 his parents moved on again to London. Leaving Tom and his elder brother Henry to stay behind in Stamford at Mr Broughton’s school. During 1784 Henry and Tom left the school and travelled on down the Great North Road to London to rejoin their parents.

It is possible, but not certain that Tom went with his elder brother to St Paul’s school in London, for a short while. The family initially lived in New Ormond Street for a short period leading up to 18th September 1789 when they moved to Red Lion Street in Clerkenwell. [4]


Red Lion Street, Clerkenwell, London.

Thomas went to Haileybury, which was the East India Company College for aspiring Civil Servants. When Tom was seventeen his childhood home broke up, when his parents separated on the 9th of September 1794. Unfortunately we do not know the cause of the breakdown of his parent’s marriage, but eventually his parents became reconciled when Mrs Baber rejoined her husband in Newbury in March 1800. Whatever caused the rift, his brother Henry later recorded that on September the 16th 1794 the boys moved to a new house at 9 Great Shire Lane. [5]

Eighteen months later in 1796, Tom petitioned to join the East India Company. His file contains the following certificate showing: -

"that T. Hervey Baber has gone through a regular course of book keeping for merchants" signed Thomas Tompkins March 7 1796. "[6]

It would appear that Tom had been given additional training in book keeping with a view to his becoming a Writer in the East India Company, and following his uncle Edward Baber’s career. His uncle who had been Secretary to Warren Hastings in Calcutta, and who rose to become head of the Provincial Council in Murshidabad was most probably his sponsor. Tom’s "bond & cover" document signed before his entry into the East India Company was dated 12 April 1796. [7]
One can only imagine the excitement and anxiety that must have accompanied the arrangements being made for Tom’s departure for India half way around the world at the height of the war with France.

What I wonder were his mother’s thoughts?
By 1796 she was living in Greenwich, [8] probably to be nearer to Tom’s younger brother James [9] who was at that time studying at the Woolwich Academy to be an Indian army officer.
Tom set out shortly afterwards for India. His brother Henry Baber wrote in July 1796 that he: -

“Went to the Isle of Wight with Webb to see
Tom July 5th returned Oxford 13.
Tom sailed in the Albion (Capt Timbrel) to Bombay
Augst 12. Went out Writer”.

The East India Company maintained a depot on the Isle of Wight in which recruits were assembled before joining the convoys of East Indiamen setting out for India.
In 1798 Henry wrote in his diary: -

“Jan 4 Wrote to Tom.”

As Henry’s diary only records major events in Henry’s life, one is left wondering how often he otherwise wrote to his brother.

Tom’s younger brother James was also appointed to be a cadet in the East India Company service at Madras in January 1798, and sailed in the HEICS Good Hope commanded by Captain Hilton on the 14th of April 1798.

Tom had sailed to Bombay, where he appears to have rapidly found his feet. Leaving England in August 1796 it would have taken the ship about four months to reach India, arriving in the New Year 1797.

It would appear that Toms first months in India were spent at Bombay, where he was an assistant to the Secretary in the Public Department.[10]

On February 7th 1798 Henry records that his father had received the following letter from his brother: -

“Feb. 7 Father hears from Tom -- Letter dated Bombay August 1797
about the same receives a letter which came overland enclosed (by just favour) with government dispatches, requesting his consent to marry a Mrs Cameron (wife of a Major Cameron who was lately killed in an excursion down the country) she is not 18 the daughter of Mr. Fearon of Edinburgh & niece of Mr Douglas of Fitzroy Square London. She had been married to the Major about a twelvemonth.
Tom’s first appointment (upon his arrival at Bby was assistant to the Secretary in the Private Department.)” [11]

It would appear that within months of his arrival in Bombay, Thomas was sent down the coast to Calicut.


[1] Henry Hervey Baber’s Memoranda relating to the life of Henry Hervey Baber.
[2] Slingsby in Yorkshire. 54O 09’ 57.62” N 0O 55’ 55.11” W
[3] Stamford in Lincolnshire. “Jan 4 Wrote to Tom.”
[4] Great North Road. The original London to Edinburgh road, nowadays known as the A1.
[5] Henry Hervey Baber’s Memoranda..
[6] IOL Microfilm reference J/1/16 folio 20.
[7] Microfilm O/1/3 f.28.31.
[8] Greenwich, A seaport and the site of the Royal Naval Hospital situated on the River Thames several miles downstream of the City of London. Two miles from Woolwich where most Artillery and Engineer offices were trained, including many aspiring cadets destined for the East India Company.
[9] James Hervey Baber. (1780 to 1819) Served in the East India Company rising to become a Major in the Madras Infantry, he was invalided 30th April 1819, and died on the 27th November 1819. His wife was born in 1795.
[10] Henry Hervey Baber’s Memoranda..
[11] Henry Hervey Baber’s Memoranda..

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


Malabar Days





Malabar Days is my personal account of a journey that I have been taking both through time and space.

This description of my trip can be taken almost literally. For in December 2006 I set out to visit the places and locations that my great great great great uncle Thomas Hervey Baber (1777 to 1843) had lived and worked in.

Thomas was an official of the East India Company, who is generally remembered today, if at all, as the man who tracked down the Pyche Raja on the 30th of November 1805.

The Raja, who is also known today as the Pazhassi Raja, is widely recognised as one of the first Indians to have been able to resist the English in their efforts to take over the subcontinent.

My blog will seek to describe the events between 1795 and 1843, that were to shape the future for the Malabar Coast and Kerala, and to show how the events of 1805 and the ensuing years were to change the way Thomas Baber saw the East India Company rule, and how he in turn became just as great opponent of the East India Companies policies and operations.

Conventional wisdom would have us believe that the Raja was a Freedom Fighter, and that Thomas was a colonial oppressor, but as my journey will show, nothing is quite as straightforward as it at first seems.

In time it is hoped to publish my research in the form of a book both in Malayalam and English.

Nick Balmer
December 2006