Monday, 31 December 2007

Mahé, its establishment & its role under the EIC. Part 1

Today Mahé is an attractive sleepy little town only five miles to the south of Thalassery. It's major claim to fame is the ready availability of alcohol to young partying groups of students from as far away as Bangalore.

To this day, it still retains some semblance of it's former French status as a colony, although very few French have lived there since the early 19th Century.

The town changed hands frequently during it's history being captured by the British in 1779, then returned to France in 1783, before being captured once again in 1793.

It has a different atmosphere from that of surrounding towns. It has a history of being on the edge, and had a colourful role in many of the wider regions affairs.

Oddly enough, the original French settlement on the Malabar Coast was at the current site of Thalassery, and not Mahé. This French built mud fort, almost certainly predates Mahé as a French settlement. It was only later that they moved south.

In August 1664 the French Government under Colbert the Minister of Finance, established La Compagnie Royale des Indes in an attempt to compete with the Dutch and English East India Companies.

As relatively late arrivals on the Malabar Coast the French had to try to find locations where they could set up trading posts. The best locations at Cochin, Calicut and Cannanore had already been secured by the Portuguese, Dutch and English.

These existing traders used all their available influence, and if necessary military force to drive out subsequent competitors from the best locations.

With constantly changing allegencies, in Europe, as Britain fought the Dutch, as allies of the French, and then the French whilst allied to the Dutch; the political background was highly confused. News took so long to get from Europe to India and back that settlements could be at war in India a year or more after peace had been declared between their respective governments at home in Europe.

Then there were the interloping freelancers, pirates and privateers, who often intervened at highly inopportune times, plundering local traders, and even East India Company ships, and destroying fragile political arrangements.

All these factors were in addition to the highly complex situation amongst the local Indian rulers, who were operating in much the same way that the European rulers were, forming alliances, fighting local wars, and intriguing against and in turn with each other.

The smaller and less influencial rulers along the coast north of Calicut and south of Cannanore had been left out of much of the prosperity that had come to their neighbours and rivals in Calicut and Cannanore from the Arab and Dutch and Portuguese traders.

The relatively small amounts of pepper they had available for sale, by comparison with Cochin, Calicut or Cannanore was such that it was not worth the while for the Arabs, Dutch or Portuguese to set up factories along the coast in their fiefdoms.

If you had arrived in 1660 by ship at the locations where Mahé or Tellicherry were to be built after 1675 you would have seen very little,if any habitation along the coast. A few fishermen lived in huts along the beach, but all the significant local settlements were several miles inland from the coast.

The sandy beach would have been backed by a dense palm forest as far as the eyes could see, inland to the distant ghats.

The French had to find a suitable location for a small depot or factory on the coast. Traders could not expect to fill a ship in a single location, and they could not allow the ships to weight off an exposed shore. What was needed was a place where three or four merchants or factors could be left from one year to the next, assembling cargoes that could be loaded onto the ships, in the space of a week or less, before these ships set out for France.

The area around the Mahé River and the present site of Tellicherry was a no man's land, or boundary between two powerful local rulers, the paramount Rajah's in this area came from the Kolattiri family, but this was a fractured family with a complex set of smaller local rulers or Regents. The Tekkalankur was regent of the southern part of the Kolattiri families domains. The Valadakkalankur was regent of the northern division. These rulers were in a heirachy, so that when the Kolattiri died, the next ruler down moved into his position. Depending on whether the wider community agreed with these moves, or whether their were challenges from rival relations, the situation on the ground could rapidly descend to civil war.

These conflicting rulers needed all the staus and support they could find, and it was the Tekkalankur who appears to have granted the French the settlement at Mahé. Later on Vadakkalankur would grant the use of the Tellicherry site to the English.

Each ruler would expect their respective European tenant to side with them in their power struggles. These power struggles would colour relationships between Mahé and Tellicherry for most of the 18th Century.

The French had settled there during the 1670's and had established a small factory and a mud fort or bastion on the beach at Tellicherry, before the British arrived there. It was probably on the site of the existing fort, or possibly slightly further north near Overbury's later folly.

The French soon realised that the Mahé River mouth offered a better site, and one with good access by water to the interior, down which pepper could be brought by canoe. They abandoned the initial settlement in Tellicherry.

With the constant wars between France and Britain underway for much of the 18th Century, relationships between the two settlements were often very tense even in peacetime.

The settlement was first captured by the British from the French on the 19th of March 1779, however it had had to be restored to France under the peace treaty signed at Versailles on the 20th of January 1783.

With the onset of renewed hostilities in the Revolutionary War, it was a key objective of the East India Company to secure this French outpost, especially as it was being used as a conduit of weapons and expertise to Tipu Sultan at Seringapatam.

Murdoch Brown a Scottish adventurer, who had been in the Danish and French service had set himself up in the French territory at Mahé. From Mahé Brown was providing credit to arms dealers supplying weapons to Tipu.

In the following letter written by M. Descomber from Isle De France, on the 5th of March 1798 to Tipu Sultan at Seringapatam, Brown's role is described. Originally in French, a translation by Macaulay was later published as part of the justification of the East India Companies attack on Tipu in 1799.

"Your Minister Asheruff Ali Khan arrived at Mangalore in the beginning of the year 1793. He there received the fusees and was satisfied with them; I was paid only in part; he gave me an order for 14,000 Rupees upon Brown of Mahé who gave me a bill on another person, and I have not yet received payment but it is no longer your Highness who is responsible to me for the amount." [1]

With Brown playing a very complicated part in affairs, being excluded from the East India Company, because he was not in their employment, and also because he had been apparently profiting by private trade with Tipu who might at any time attack the EIC settlement at Tellicherry, many employees of the East India Company felt that Brown should be made to face justice for his deeds. Walter Ewer, wrote the following in a letter addressed to Henry Dundas in 1796.

Murdoch Brown. As this gentleman’s name makes a very conspicuous Figure in the affairs of Malabar, it would not be doing him Justice to pass him over in silence; He is a Merchant at Mahé, a man of abilities, & perfectly acquainted with everything relating to the Province. He has given a great deal of useful information to Mr. Duncan, who in Return, has appointed him Malabar Interpreter to the Commissioners to the exclusion of some young gentlemen in the service who had applied themselves to the language.

This gives him great influence with the Commrs. This much I must mention on this “Gentleman’s" Behalf, as I do not wish to detract from his Merit. But I am firmly of Opinion, that if he had his Deserts, he ought to be hanged as a Traitor to his country, or sent Prisoner of War to Bombay. He is said to be, & really appears to be, a Scotchman, if he is, he is fortunate in having escaped the former of these Fates; He has lived at Mahé as a Dane, & an Austrian, & finished his career of Countries, by defending the Place in Arms, as a Frenchman, in which situation he was taken; Let him chuse his Country being found in arms, he is certainly a Prisoner of War; Tis said he was concerned in the War before last, with some Merchants of Bombay, in supplying the Enemy with Provisions & Stores; this is not so much to his Discredit as to theirs, & I only introduce it, because it is said to have given him Considerable Interest, both at that place and in England.

It is supposed he is to receive some great mark of Distinction, & to be taken into regular service of the Company. If this is done it will fix Disgrace on that Service which never can be wiped off. The Company are already indebted to him, for the loss of some very able young men who would have made a conspicuous Figure of it. He may do very well as an interpreter, with a check over him, but no persons at all acquainted with mankind, would put confidence in such a character.

It is not entirely clear who the "Merchants of Bombay" were who were supplying stores to Tipu, but evidence supports the theory that these merchants many have included Mr. Torin. Torin was to play a significant role in engineering the down fall of the Pyche Rajah, as Ewer's correspondance makes clear.

That Mr. Torin was not above using his public office for private gain, is apparent from events in also tried to fix the price of pepper by privately buying up the supplies, before reselling it at a higher rate to his employer, the East India Company, for his private gain.

Thomas Baber alludes to this in his correspondance to Thomas Warden in the years before 1809.

"On the Consultation of the 3inst of January 1809 is recorded a letter from Mr. Warden complaining that Mr Baber had declared himself to be in possession of papers if brought to light would ruin Mr. Warden, Mr. Torin, and Mr. Fell, and that upon being called upon for an explanation he evaded it. The Governor in Council directed Mr. Warden’s letter to be sent to Mr Baber for his explanation, but it does not appear from the Records that he ever offered any to Government. From this period till 1815 there appears to have been a want of cordiality between Mr Warden & Mr. Baber, which ultimately led to consequences that issued in the removal of the latter from Malabar to Canara."[3]

The East India Company forces under Lieutenant Colonel Hartley, were able to capture Mahé once again on the 16th of July 1793.

The recapture of Mahé acheived two main objectives for the English. Firstly, it was much more difficult for the French to enter India, and secondly, it enabled the East India Company to set the price of pepper on the coast. The Dutch settlement at Cochin was soon effectively blockaded as the Netherlands fell under French control.

Pepper could no longer be sold to European's except via the English. This impacted very rapidly on the local Rajah's already reeling from the devastation of their plantations during the war with Tipu Sultan.

For the East India Company officials at Tellicherry, there was one added bonus to the capture of Mahé. It offered far better living accomodation for officials than Tellicherry.

Tellicherry was a very cramped settlement, and one that had only recently undergone a prolonged siege and blockade. The garden houses that officials liked to build for themselves had been destroyed or fortified during the siege.

The surrounding forests had been destroyed, and it was surrounded by the detritus of war, with shanty towns full of refugees from the interior, and economic migrants.

As a result officials like Mr. Stracey, and Mr. Torin moved to Mahé leaving Tellicherry. At Mahé there were vacant houses abandoned by the previous French officials.

Similarly the garrison at Tellicherry was greatly reduced when it was moved Cannanore Fort after it was captured. In 1794 Tellicherry, which had cost far more to run, and particularly to defend, than it had ever made from its trade, was reduced to a settlement. This settlement would in future be occupied in the main by the judical officials, who for some reason never made the move to Cannanore.

William Ewer writing in 1797, offers a short description of Mahé.

"Mahe. This is a beautiful little place four miles from Tillicherry, taken from the French this war; & if possible it ought to be kept; it was at all Times; when in their Hands a place of Political Intrigue & gives them a footing in the Coast; it is a Residence of Foreign Merchants out of Controul of the Company who interfere very much with the Company's concerns. The Road to the southward is through it, be sides this; the French will always have it in their Power to create & encourage Disturbances amongst the Natives." [4]

The British residents of Tellicherry during the period of the Napoleonic Wars were ever concious that the French might return to the town following any eventual peace treaty. As many of the officials engaged in private trade, and would find this challenged by a French return to Mahé, they appear to have deliberately set about destroying much of the infrastructure there. This may have been deliberate official policy. Certainly similar demolition and destruction had taken place in the erstwhile Dutch colony in Cochin after 1809, when many warehouses seem to have been torched to prevent their re-use, should the Dutch reclaim the settlement at the peace table.

By 1812 Mahé had become a back water, offering suitable day excursions from Tellicherry for the resident officials. One such trip is described by Colonel James Welsh.


Being detained here as a Member of a General Court Martial, I had now more leisure to see a little of the surrounding country, and consequently, accompanied Colonel Webber first, and afterwards Mr. and Mrs. Baber, to pass a day at the French settlement of Mahé, five miles beyond Tellicherry. Passing south from Tellicherry, we first came to the old fort of Mylan, or Moylan. Though built upon a rock on the sea-shore, and now very old and entirely abandoned, yet it once completely commanded the only road,and is certainly judiciously chosen, and strong. A small fishing town lies under it's brow, to the eastward ; and the spot is altogether interesting. Crossing a rapid river in a jungar, at the fifth mile, you land in Mahe", a place now going fast to decay, but formerly one of singular strength, beauty, and consequence. It is even now a lovely spot, situated on the bank of a clear navigable river, close to the sea, which forms a bar in sight of the town, and gradually rising and embracing some strong heights, once fortified, which command not only the passage across the river, but all the surrounding country for a considerable extent. The town still contains some good houses, but few respectable inhabitants. We put up in an up-stair house on the river side, belonging to a Moplah, called Moosah Puckee, a man of immense fortune, said to be worth at least eleven lacs of rupees. He is a great merchant, and owner of much property in land, as well as several ships. Another capital house, built on the landing- place, belongs to an old French merchant, M. Dineure, whom we visited ; he and another gentleman, M. Jussain,being the only two respectable men left out of a once rich and flourishing port. They were both very old and infirm,but very agreeable companions; and joked each other,with great good humour, about which should first pass the gulf, then yawning to receive them. Having seen all their old companions laid in the silent grave, they seemed left for a little longer space, almost solely to point out to strangers the spot where such an one resided ; where such a building once stood ; and to tell how the English wantonly destroyed the finest and most sacred edifices, as well as the works of the place. For, setting aside the mild and more recent precepts of the Divine Law, and acting on the
lex talionis principle, because the French, on the other coast, had destroyed both public and private edifices in Madras, they not only pulled down the Governor's Palace, the ruins of which still tell what a magnificent building it must have been, but also destroyed a public School, and dismantled the Church, an uncommonly large one. I feel a glow on my cheek, while writing this sentence, Protestant though I am : how must these men have despised and execrated, in their hearts, the perpetrators of such barbarous acts! These gentlemen are both since dead, and their mortal remains mingled with the dust of their former companions." [5]

To be continued.

[1] From Official Documents, Relative to the Negotiations Carried on by Tippoo Sultan with the French Nation etc. Published 1799, at Calcutta. By Neil Benjamin Edmonstone. Page 107.

[2] British Library OIOC. IOR H/438 Walter Ewer Folio 148

[3] British Library OIOC. Personal Records O/6/9 folio 5

[4] British Library OIOC. IOR H/438 folio 147.

[5] James Welsh, Military Reminiscences, Published 1830, Vol II page 41 & 42.


Unknown said...

I am surprised by the contents of this blog. Hats off to you.
I am a native of Mahe. My father (late)- Mr. Pondayat Ananadan Nair - was one of the leaders of Mahe Freedom Struggle.
Thank you for such a master piece !

Bala Kottarath

Premnath.T.Murkoth said...

A big thanks for throwing light on the past.