Having read so much about Tellicherry in books and in manuscripts found in the British Library, it was with considerable excitement and interest that I finally arrived in the town.
As we had passed over the bridge into Thalassery from the north, I had noticed a tall stand of very old and magnificent trees to my left. I knew from my research that Thomas Baber's house had been in this general area.
In the rapidly failing light of an Indian evening, there would be no time to visit the house that evening.
The view out over the river estuary from our hotel room, to the sea was full of people scurrying home into the dark. Fishing vessels were returning to the port, and numerous bats were leaving the nearby palm trees for their evening feed. I couldn't help wondering what it must have been like for those early East India Company officials, when they first arrived in the settlement.
How very different it must have been to anything they had encountered at home in England.
Shortly after dawn, I was up and out of the hotel making my way towards the hill, with all of the trees. Knowing my families propensity for planting trees, and being aware of trees from Suffolk, to Berkshire and beyond that had been planted at even earlier dates, but which have survived from even earlier dates than 1812, I was increasingly confident that I would find his house.
What I had not however expected to find, was that it was not just his house, I would find, but an entire estate village.
First on my right was a school, and then on my left, a sawmill. The sawmill looked quite modern, but the school had several hallmarks of being an early colonial building, judging from its style. Subsequent research showed this to be the case, as it was built in or shortly before 1817.
Soon I was climbing up onto a steep little hill, topped with a very large walled garden, filled with mature trees, and surrounded with houses, often modified over time, but having a standard set of designs for the underlying structures, obviously drawn from the various vernacular styles used by the different castes and religions in the area. One in particular was very similar to an old house that Kocha Rama Varma had shown me on our route to Thrissur, that had belonged to his family.
House built in the padinjata style normally adopted by Nairs or farm owners.
A lower caste house.
It appears that Thomas Baber had been trying to create an ideal estate, in the same way that many estate landowners in Britain were doing at this date, but instead of constructing Cottage Ornée, Thomas had chosen to build high quality vernacular housing to suit the needs of his domestic, plantation and sawmill staff.
To the west of the main house there was a line of very large trees, and evidently very old trees. I knew from drawings held in the British Library and available on the Collect Britain website, that there had been very few trees on the hills surrounding Tellicherry by 1800, most probably as a result of the sustained seige of Tellicherry in the 1780's, when the town had held out against Tipu Sultan's forces.
I knew that this hill called Pallikunnu had been one of the five outer bastions against held against Tipu's army, surrounding Tellicherry and keeping his army at bay, and was bare except for a single large palm tree. So it was very likely that these trees had been planted between 1790 and 1817.
The full painting, thought to date from approximately 1790, can be found on the Collect Britain website at http://www.collectbritain.co.uk/personalisation/object.cfm?uid=019WDZ000004355U00000000
On the 20th of August 1817, Colonel James Welsh visited Thomas Baber at this house, which had only recently been completed. Writing in the late 1820's he had recalled.
"Here I found every thing in status quo, excepting Mr. Baber’s residence, which was entirely new, and one of the loveliest spots in India; being erected on a small hill, five or six hundred feet above the level of the country, commanding a view, including the river and island, with both bridges, to the Periah Peak, and so diversified with hill and dale, that the eye never tired in surveying it.
This hill, when I was last in Tellicherry, was as wild as the rest of the hundreds with which this coast is studded; now a comfortable residence has arisen, and two good roads, up and down, had been made with much labour, whilst a young plantation was in embryo to complete the whole. It was about a mile inland, and the sea breeze blew over the tops of myriads of cocoanut trees; which however, obstructed the view of the shipping in the roads; the flag-staff on the citadel alone visible in that direction, though the more distant shore, on either side, was as distinct as the interior. The climate was also delightful, and I think Tellicherry one of the healthiest places in the East."
Following the public road on up the hill as it spiralled around the hill, it was quickly evident that there were more than a dozen, and quite possibly many more of these estate houses.
Eventually, I reached a set of imposing gates, at the bottom of a stone track. Taking my courage in my hands I started to climb the driveway to the house.
A veritable arboretum of trees was growing in the large garden surrounding the house.
The very finest and largest of these trees were at the very top.
Finally reaching the summit of the hill, I came into view of the front of the house.
It was definitely the one I was looking for.
Copyright Nick Balmer November 2007