Thursday, 13 December 2007

Arriving at Tellicherry in the 1830's.

Tellicherry in 1778

For most people travelling to Tellicherry, [or Thalassery as it is now known.] in the 1830's, the usual arrival route was by sea.

Henry Bevan, an officer from the 27th Regiment of the Madras Native Infantry, describes the town in the 1830's his book "Thirty Years in India: Or A Soldier's Reminiscences of Native and European in the Presidencies from 1808 to 1838".

Bevan had commanded the Wynaad Rangers in the 1820's, and knew the area well. He like Thomas Baber, gave evidence in the House of Lords to the Select Committee on the Affairs of the East India Company in August 1832, which enquired into conditions in India, and it is very likely that they knew each other well.

"Tellicherry ,a large town, with a good open roadstead, is about fourteen miles south of Cannanore. It has a considerable trade with Bombay and the Persian Gulf, to which it exports shark’s fins, rice pepper, arrow-root, cocoa-nuts, and coir; importing in return horses, dried fruits, and Chinese and European goods. It is a civil station, and consequently the residence of ten English functionaries. It was famed at this period for the hospitality and good feeling which prevailed in its social circles. But European society in India is subject to sad vicissitudes; death, and an anxiety to retire with the fruits of long toil to the parent land, soon break up the communities formed at the stations; and of those who, in 1824, rendered Tellicherry one of the most delightful stations to visit, scarcely one remains." [1]

Lieutenant Robert Mignan, a much travelled officer serving in the Bombay European Regiment, arrived by sea at Tellicherry during April 1833, to try to recover both his own health, and also that of his wife. Travelling with four small children, he was heading for the Nilgiri Hills which were becoming popular as a health resort, where officials and soldiers could recuperate after several years in the plains or on campaigns.

Arriving in a Pattimar [2], a fast fore and aft rigged Indian coastal sailing vessel off the coast.

“At the mellowed sunset of an April evening, we caught a glimpse of the coast of stretching in a fine outline from North to South. The prospect of land to a “sea-sick landsman,” is an event with which few others in this chequered life can be compared. We had been for seven monotonous days, tossed about with fair wind one day and foul the next -- our chief comfort being tea without milk, and a basket of Leggett's musty bread. Is it then to be wondered at, that lying on deck the last morning of our voyage, I should feel a great accession of pleasure, when I saw the sun rise from behind the hills of Malabar, in place of rising from the level ocean? But we were still ten or twelve miles off shore, with little prospect of nearing it; for it had fallen a dead calm -- in vain we whistled to the winds --in vain when a puff of air at times curled the water, was the sail “let fall” no ripple was heard at the prow and a current which was setting from the eastward gradually increased our distance from the land but as I was ever fond of the sea I could not much regret being thus becalmed.

A light breath of wind which stole off in the afternoon in occasional unsteady flaws, carried us within half a mile of the shore, and anchoring directly opposite Tellicherry -- Signalized a boat, in which we were soon seated with the little luggage we had brought with us, and to our great satisfaction, saw the distance between us and the town every moment diminish.

With the appearance of Tellicherry itself we were rather disappointed, Viewed from the most favourable point, nothing is seen but a dead mass of mean looking buildings, and irregular rows of smoking huts, intermingled with the cocoa nut, palmyra, plantain jack, and other trees of the tropical broad leaved tribe, rising above their dingy roofs. And so low do many of these dwellings lie on the water's edge, that a stranger almost fancies a high spring tide would overwhelm them. A very strong tide does sometimes set in, and there is often a heavy swell, but the waves are partially broken before they reach the landing place by a reef of rocks, which extend like a dike in front of the beach, nearly opposite to the Custom House. The entrance into this natural port of security is very narrow, but the water thus sheltered from every wind, is as smooth as glass; and the basin, or harbour, spacious enough to contain a great number of boats. We counted no less than thirty, lying all in a row -- touching the inner ledge of the black rocks, and as still as if a dead calm prevailed beyond them, as still as if a dead calm prevailed beyond them, notwithstanding the heavy swell, which rolled inwards to the very verge of the reef, and along the whole line of coast.

The anchorage for shipping, is upwards of two miles from the shore, which makes it fatiguing for boat's crews -- especially those from a northern climate, to pull so far under the rays of a vertical sun. A harder duty can scarcely devolve on a seaman, than being obliged to row against a heavy swell in taking off cargo, or provisions, to the roadstead.

The boats used along this part of the Malabar Coast, are long, narrow, and flat bottomed; with high sides formed of planks sewed together with koir rope. They are used not only in fishing, but also in carrying considerable cargoes to the ships. Dozens of them are always hovering about sometimes with only a boy to manage them. I have seen a couple of black urchins go out to fish and they worked away in a rough sea, apparently with more ease than a Deal boat's crew could have done. They are not afraid to venture out in the stormiest weather, for although the boat may overset, they say she will never sink. It is very to amusing to watch them in a stiff breeze, they sail so easily, and so beautifully. The boys seated on the stern, ride away over the billows with helm in hand, managing their skiff like a practised rider on d smooth plain, would curb his steed: and after they have spent the day, and not unfrequently the night also, in fishing; they return to the shore, seated in their chair of state high above the water, laden with their spoils, and drying their wet clothes in a tropical sun.

We were also disappointed at the first view of this part of the continent of Southern India. The country in the neighbourhood of Tellicherry lies very low, and as far as the eye can reach, the horizon is bounded by wood. The gloomy waving of the trees, overshadowed by the dark and lowering clouds which announced the speedy approach of the Southwest Monsoon, made the landscape peculiarly dreary, and although we were assured that the phantoms of gloom with which we had peopled these impervious jungles would be dispelled upon a more intimate acquaintance with their recesses.

I never experienced a more delightful reality, than the consciousness of being stretched in a snug camp cot on shore, after having been cramped up for a week or two in a dirty pattamar. At first it is a reality that we hardly believe in; because the heaving and pitching to which we had been for some time accustomed, seems communicated to every surrounding object: the walls totter, the roof bends, and the bed creaks; and it absolutely requires one to be thoroughly awake, in order to have a perfect conviction of the reality, and the deception. As to the children, they all dreamt both long and loud, and we even, fell asleep in the belief that we were rocking about in Neptune's car, and slept soundly, and much longer than we had intended.

Robert Mignan and his family had arrived at the beginning of the hottest part of the year, as the temperature rose during this period before the onset of the monsoon.

"The climate of Tellicherry, during our stay, was excessively enervating, and therefore any thing but agreeable. In the day-time the thermometer ranged from 88 (degrees) to 92 o; and at night frequently from 89o to 93o. On the 25th of April, Fahrenheit's thermometer in the coolest part of the shade at two o’ clock, P.M., indicated 91 o, and in the sun 121 o; giving a difference of 30o. At midnight it was 88 o, giving a difference of only 3 o between the temperature of mid-day and midnight. A thermometer plunged into the sand, indicated a temperature of from 130 o to 135 o. Between half past four, and nine in the evening, the heat was sometimes suffocating. If the morning broke with a clear sky over head, and the sun rose unconcealed by haze; and when also the horizon was broken in a dark tremulous line, a northerly wind was sure to set in about half past eleven o’ clock, and dissipated the bodily and mental exhaustion caused by the hot nights, and sultry mornings, of this low latitude. About sunset, the breeze gradually died away, and was succeeded by a calm which lasted throughout the night. From sunrise till the when the sea breeze commenced, there never was a breath of wind; or, if the surface of the ocean was occasionally ruffled, it was only here and there, by those little tantalizing puffs, which we all know so well by the name of “cats paws".

On a few occasions, the morning broke with dark clouds, and the sun was dimmed by vapours; then a strong south-westerly wind followed during the day, and we were always covered with sand and dust. Heavy rain sometimes accompanied these brisk gales, and a high swell, which rolled in from the sea, and raised so high a surf on the beach, that it cut off all communication between the shore, and the vessels at anchor".

With the final capture of Cannanore in December 1790, and domination by the East India Company, of Calicut by 1793, Tellicherry's usefulness as a port subsided. Mahé was also captured from the French on the 16th of July 1793. Most of the East India Company merchants and officials based in Tellicherry, under Mr. Torin soon moved out to Mahé, and Tellicherry ceased to be a factory.

The town however remained the centre of justice for the area, however the former garrison moved away to the extended fort and cantonment at Cannanore, leaving just a small Lieutenant's guard for the prison in the fort.

Henry Bevan recognised the importance of these courts to Tellicherry, when he arrived in 1833.

"The judges of the circuit-court at Tellicherry generally employ half castes, or Anglo-Indians and Portuguese, in such subordinate offices as do not require a knowledge of Hindoo or Mohammedan law. There is a large half-caste population round Tellicherry, principally descended from the Portuguese settlers, who came out here soon after the discovery of India. A large portion of the fortified factory erected by the first Portuguese colonists still remains [5]. It is surrounded by a high wall, secured by towers, and is now used as a court-house and gaol. Most of the half-castes speak English with great fluency, and all are anxious to have their children instructed in that language. There is a very good English school at Tellicherry supported by voluntary contributions of the officers and by the small stipends paid by the natives the teacher however when I visited it was a Portuguese but he was perfectly competent for his situation. I found also that he was a good mathematician, and the answering of some of his pupils whom I examined would not disgrace an European academy. There were several Hindoo and Mohammedan children at the school, and they joined in the studies and sports of their Christian fellow pupils without ever quarrelling on account of their religious differences."[6]


An anonymous writer, whose article appeared in 1854 in the "Home friend, a weekly miscellany of amusement and instruction; By Society for promoting Christian knowledge", described a trip to Tellicherry. This trip appears to have taken place many years before the article was written. It is perhaps the most comprehensive description of life and conditions in the town available.

"Tellicherry Proper, or the town of Tellicherry, is built on a low ground, almost on a level with the sea. The town consists of some two hundred-irregularly built European houses; the bazaars; the market-place; a few so-called shops; an immense prison built on a lofty bastion facing the sea, which prison includes the dens for criminals and the debtor’s gaol comprising also a lunatic asylum; the Zillah Court, and a species of chapel. Besides these, there is a Catholic chapel and a Protestant church, and the burial-grounds of both creeds, situated on a high mound nearly overhanging the sea.[7]

The decaying Protestant Church at Tellicherry, between the Fort and the sea, taken in 2006 by Lindsay Gething, to whom I am indebted for this photo.

Outside of the town itself, and between it and Deramapatam, are a few straggling country-houses, and the court-house of the now no longer existing judges of circuit, who were three in number besides the registrar. Beyond these again, runs a rapid and deep stream, over which a couple of ferry-boats are continually plying; and on the other side of the stream rise the lofty cliffs and high tableland which constitutes that portion of Tellicherry styled by the natives Durhamupatnum, consisting of a few scattered villages, occupied almost exclusively by native fishermen and two immense mansions, more like palaces than private houses and heretofore the residence of two of the stationed at Tellicherry.”[8]

These two houses survive today. One is called "Ayesha Manzil," which was once he home of Mr. Stevens, the Judge. It is owned by a member of the Mousa family, whose ancestor's were the great pepper merchants in Tellicherry in the first half of the 19th Century. It is currently a very comfortable guest house. The current owners believe that it once belonged to Murdoch Brown, and that it was first built in 1862.

It is quite possible that the current building is on the site of an earlier building.

There appears to be some confusion also about who lived in the building, because this cannot have been Murdoch Brown, if it was only built in 1862, as Murdoch Brown had died on the 9th of January 1828 aged 78, so it was probably, in fact owned by his son Francis Carnac Brown, rather than by Murdoch Brown himself. Francis Brown was born on the 10th of November 1792, on Brown's plantation at Randattara, and died eventually on the 23rd of September 1868. [9] In future postings, the stories of both of the Brown's will feature prominently.

The other surviving Judges House is at Pallikunnu. It is in private hands and is not open to the public, but is described elsewhere in this blog.

Text not available

The Dharmapattanam Ferry.

Most travellers remained in Tellicherry for only a few days before, either their ships moved on, or like Robert Mignan, he travelled inland. This was not always particularly easy to arrange, as the following passage illustrates.

In forming the plan of our journey through the interior, (no easy business, with four young children, and their female attendants,) we were most materially assisted by that intelligent and obliging Parsee, Darashah Cursetjee, who has resided on this part of the Malabar Coast for the last five and thirty years; and who will readily procure palankeen bearers, and baggage coolies, for the trip hence, to any inland station, without expecting, or even consenting to receive any remuneration, for such service. We were entirely guided by his advice; and it may not be unimportant to mention, for the benefit of those persons who contemplate a similar course to ourselves, that Cannanore in preference to Tellicherry, is perhaps the best point of disembarkation, as in addition to the assistance of their friends, they will experience little trouble in securing bullock carriage -- a desideratum, not so easily obtained either at Tellicherry, or Calicut.” [10]

I wish thank Google Books for making the following texts available online. Without this fantastic new service, it is highly unlikely that I would have been aware of more than a fraction of the above material.

[1] From Thirty Years in India: Or. A Soldier's Reminiscences of Native and European in the Presidencies from 1808 to 1838. By Henry Bevan. Published 1839 London. Pages 144 & 145.

[2] A Pattimar, was a singled masted lateen sailed vessel, much like an Arab dhow. They could sail very much closer to the wind than could the squared European ships. They were also more able to deal with the light winds encountered alond the coast.

A particularly fine pair of water colours of Pattimars by Thomas Cussans, and army officer active in Cannanore in the 1820's can be seen in the Collect Britain online collection at

It is to be hoped that Robert Mignan's vessel was slightly better provided for with sails than the latter vessel.

[3]Notes Extracted From a Private Journal Written During a Tour Through A Part Of Malabar etc. 1834. By Robert Mignan. Lieutenant, Bombay European Regiment. Pages 2 to 18.

[4] Mignan.

[5] Incorrect, the Portuguese had had no need for a fort, because of the proximity to Cannanore. The French in the 1670's are credited with building a mud fort on the site of the existing stone fort, which was actually built by the East India Company betwen 1690 and 1710.

[6] Henry Bevan.

[7]Home friend, a weekly miscellany of amusement and instruction; By Society for promoting Christian knowledge. Published in 1854. Pages 193 onwards. Although this article was only published in 1854, it appears to have been written by someone who was in Tellicherry during the 1830’s. It has proved possible to identify some of the people mentioned in the book.

[8] Home friend.

[9] Information from Madras, Lists of Inscriptions on Tombs or Monuments by Julian James Cotton, published Madras 1905.
See also Strange (Thomas Lumsden) 1808-84. Handwritten account of his life and times in India and Persia. Mss Eur J706 in British Library OIOC Computer Catalogue, Mss Eur D358 Page 131 –133.

[10]Robert Mignan.

Copyright Nick Balmer December 2007.

1 comment:

Adil Hisham said...

Thank you for this nice vlog about my home town... Like to know more about those British days of my Tellicherry.. Thank you