Monday, 31 December 2007

Murdoch Brown, (1750-1828) the early days.

Murdoch Brown was a fascinating character, and one who played a central role in most of the major events that took place in Northern Malabar between 1790 and 1828.

Opinions differ widely over his conduct, and had he lived in this modern politically correct world, he would most probably have been condemned for his actions, as he was by Thomas Hervey Baber in 1811. However to most of his contemporaries, he was probably seen as a man of affairs, and as somebody who was highly capable, and who got things done, often in very difficult circumstances.

In the course of following two articles, I will try to outline his life and times, as well as his conflict with Thomas Baber. I will also explore his impact on the wider issues surrounding his part in the war with the Pazhassi Raja.

Originally a Scot born in Edinburgh in 1750, Brown travelled first as a young man to continental Europe, visiting Lisbon, where he is thought to have found work.

It is not entirely clear when he first determined to go out to India, or indeed why, but without any obvious source of patronage, he would not have stood much chance of acquiring a position in the English East India Company.

Like many other Scots trying to make their way in the World at that time, opportunities at home in Scotland were limited, and he decided that he needed to look outside the United Kingdom.

By 1770 several East India Companies besides the English one,[the East India Company, EIC.] had been formed in Europe, including the Dutch,[Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie,VOC.], French, Ostend, Danish, and Swedish East India Companies.

Many of these companies already employed substantial numbers of Scots. In some cases, these Scots played such an important roles, that there were frequent complaints from the Directors of the E.I.C. and the British Government that these foreign companies, were in effect flags of convenience, run by Scottish interlopers as a way to get around the EIC's monoploy of trade between Britain and India.

Colin Campbell (1686 - 1757) was typical example of these highly enterprising Scots, originally an E.I.C. employee, he became a director of the Swedish East India Company from 1731 to 1757. H did this as a way of re-entering trade with India following his dismissal from the East India Company.

It would appear that Murdoch Brown, decided in about 1775, to emulate these earlier Scots. He joined the newly formed österreichisch-ostindische Handelscompagnie. [Austrian Ostend Trading Company.] This company was a newly formed company, which followed in the footsteps of an earlier company that was originally based in Ostend, which was then part of the Austrian Empire. During the 1720's this earlier Ostend East India Company, had operated very largely as a flag of convenience for many excluded English and Scottish merchants who wanted to trade to India as interlopers, outside the EIC monopoly.

The new company had been founded in 1775 by William Bolt, a Dutch man who had been dismissed from the British East India Company in Calcutta in the 1760's for corruption.

Edward Baber, Thomas Hervey Baber's uncle, had been a Writer in Calcutta at that time, and it was Edward Baber who Bolt had tried to persuade to return bonds, so that Bolt could alter the documents, to suit his own purposes. Bolt had subsequently been dismissed as a result of these events, and had returned to Britain where he published a highly critical book "Considerations on India Affairs: Particularly Respecting the Present State of Bengal and its Dependencies..." on the affairs of the EIC.

Bolt commanded a ship called the 'Joseph und Theresia’ which sailed from Livorno on the 24th of September 1776 bound for India, intending to go first to the Portuguese settlement of Goa.

Livorno was known as Leghorn at this time by the British who used the port as their main trading centre in Italy. As Leghorn, the port appears in many accounts from the period as the preferred seaport for travellers on the Grand Tour trying to avoid the Alpine passes.

It appears that the British in India used diplomacy to obstruct the ships trade along the coast of India, so that Bolts sailed onto the Nicobar Islands where on the 12th of July 1778 and he claimed one of them as a settlement which he named as 'Theresia' in honour of the Austrian Queen, Maria Theresia.

The company was later transformed into the Asian Trading Company headquartered in Trieste in 1780 and was dissolved in 1785.[1]

It is very likely that it was as a member of the crew of the Joseph and Theresia that Murdoch Brown, then aged 28 first reached India.

In order to collect sufficient cargo from the ports along these coasts, it was usual for merchant ships to call at several ports along the coast to collect sufficient cargo to fill their holds. Ships could only spend a limited time on the coast due to the need to avoid the monsoon and to take advantage of the season winds that carried them back and forth with the rhythms of the weather patterns. This meant that is was usual to leave behind small shore parties to negotiate contracts for future seasons cargoes, so that these cargoes could be waiting on the shore when the ships arrived.

It would appear that Murdoch Brown was one of those intended to undertake this role for the new company. Brown may have in time also become Consul, in addition to his duties as a merchant or Supercargo.

The existing colonial powers and companies will have used their influence wherever possible to make his life as difficult as possible, by turning the local Rajah's and merchants against him.

However at this period some of the local rulers were still independant enough to command the respect of the East India Companies. Calicut for istance had at least three separate trading company compounds along its beach at this period. The British, French and Danish each had a factory or settlement.

It is not possible at this stage in my research to be sure where Brown first settled in India. However it appears that after 1785, with the failure of Bolt's company, Brown aged 35, found himself out without an employer.

He seems to have transferred his allegiance to the Danish Company, for whom it appears that he worked as their Agent initially at Alleppey. In the course of his business, Brown appears to have become fluent in several Malayalam languages and dialects.

The Danes had had an area of ground at Calicut awarded to them by the Zamorin for a factory [2][nowadays known as Kozhikode]as far back as the 17th April 1752.[3] This piece of land was called "Valappil Kadute" and was located just south of the French Factory, near the site of the old Jail or Market Rooms.

Ansen Bonsaco Governor of Tranquebar, had sent Jacob Christovo Suytman to negotiate with the Zamorin for right to a factory in that year. The Danish factory appears to have been maintained in Calicut until 1788[4] when the area became embroiled in a violent conflict whilst Tipu Sultan was engaged in trying to put down a rebellion by the nairs who were fighting to recover the town following Hyder Ali's earlier successful invasion.

Murdoch Brown is believed to have married a lady called Eliza King, who was educated in a convent at St Omer in 1790.[5]

Manuel Bernades, the Danish Factor fled from the Danish factory at Calicut, when instructed to do so by Fouzdar Arsad Beg Khan. It is at this point that Murdoch Brown reappears in the documentary record, when in 1792 and 1793, he wrote from Alleppey as the Danish Agent to the East India Company at Tellicherry requesting that they restore the Factory to the Danish Company.

Brown then moved to Mahé where he was living by 1795. Being denied a post within the East India Company, Brown if he wished to remain in India, must have been forced to move to the nearest available town that was not commanded by the EIC. Calicut had come under British effective control by 1792.

Mahé was only five miles from Tellicherry, and although it had been taken by the British from the French on the 19th of March 1779, it had had to be restored to France under the Treaty of Versailles on the 20th of January 1783.

Murdoch Brown set himself up as a merchant at Mahé, where with the assistance of Wallapagata Assen Ally [6], who he appears to have employed as his business manager, forming a business partnership that was to endure until at least 1811. Ally may have come to Mahé with Brown from Alleppey.

With the renewed out break of the Anglo French Wars The East India Company forces under Lieutenant Colonel Hartley, was able to capture Mahé again on the 16th of July 1793.

Mahé was one of the few ports open to Tipu Sultan in the period between his first defeat in 1791, and his final defeat in 1799. Tipu was trying to break the steadily growing stranglehold that the EIC. was establishing on the remaining trade and communications routes out of India. The French and the Ottoman's were Tipu's best source of external support, and these could only be reached through a sea port.

In French hands, Mahé provided a conduit for embassies to Isle De France, and via Suez to Constantinople. Weapons and ammunition, as well as French military advisers and adventurers, could also enter India via Mahé.

It appears that Murdoch Brown played an important role in providing these resources and also in selling pepper produced inland via a route that was outside the EIC's control. This is illustrated by the following correspondance captured and published after the fall of Seringapatam 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.[7]

Feelings ran high against Brown in Tellicherry amongst EIC military men,and some civilian officials in the aftermath of the second war with Tipu, because he along with other British merchants based in Bombay, had been instrumental in supplying Tipu with muskets, and other military supplies.

During 1796 Walter Ewer, an EIC. official was sent from Calcutta to the Malabar Coast to report on the state of affairs there. He wrote privately to the Right Honourable Henry Dundas (1742-1811), who was from 1794 to 1801 War Secretary, and was responsible for the colonies under William Pitt.

These letters which appear to have gone directly to Dundas bypassing East India Company channels, and they offer a very acutely observed set of observations on events in the Malabar area. Ewer thought that Brown was a cause of a lot of the difficulties that were arising in the region, as can be seen in the following extracts.

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 Mahe 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.

Walter Ewer returned to the subject of Murdoch Brown when discussing customs revenues.

There can be no doubt but the Customs on this Coast may be increased considerably, if properly managed, as at present immense Quantities of Goods, are smuggled, by Moupa, Murdoch Brown & other merchants at least tis so reported. It is whisper’d here, that Murdoch Brown is to be employed in the Customs, if it is on the Principle, that a reformed Thief makes a good Thief taker, it may be very proper, & I will engage that the Customs will increase, as he will take care that no one smuggles but himself. Though they will not increase so much, as if a Custom Master was appointed (with three or four European Writers under him on different stations) responsible only to Government, & not liable every moment to be worried by Commissioners, perhaps his juniors. [9]

However, other observers recognised Murdoch Brown's undoubted abilities, especially in regard of his knowledge of the local languages, and in the depth of his understanding of local conditions and cultures. In this respect, Brown was probably unrivalled at this period.

As Francis Buchanan describes in his book, "A Journey from Madras Through the Countries of Mysore, Canara, and Malabar."

From Cadrur Mr. Wilson was so good as to conduct me to the Companies plantation at Angara Cundy, where I was kindly received by Mr Brown, before mentioned. He has management of the Plantation, and collects the revenue of a small district named Randaterra, over which Mr Stachy is the magistrate. The country between Cadrur and the river on the banks of which Angara Cundy is situated, is almost entirely deserted, and overgrown with trees and bushes. It rises into small hills, intermixed with narrow vallies (sic) fit for the cultivation of rice; but the extent of these, in proportion to that of the hills, seems to be smaller than in most parts of the province. The whole seems to have been formerly cultivated; and the hilly ground is less steep than usual for Malabar.

The road all the way was good even for a cart.

The plantation has of late been much molested by the Nairs, and the eastern part of it has fallen into their hands; so that for the protection of what remains, it has been necessary to station a European Officer, with a company of Sepoys, at Mr Brown’s house. The Nairs are so bold, that at night they frequently fire into Mr Brown’s dwelling: and the last officer stationed there was lately shot dead, as he was walking in front of the house. Many valuable experiments are now carrying on in the plantation, which in an afternoon’s walk Mr. Brown was so good as to explain.

The "Dictionary of Indian Biography" held at the Society of Genealogists' Library says of Brown.

"BROWN, Murdoch. Born at Edinburgh 1750; left Scotland for Lisbon merely for the voyage but never returned: found work in Lisbon, made his way through Europe: in 1775 went out as Consul to Calicut for the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria: engaged in trade, of which Jonathan Duncan, Governor of Bombay, wrote, 1792, as the most considerable of any British subject on that side of India: he lost eleven ships, East Indiamen, of 1,000 tons or more in the war with France: in 1798 he took over from Government as a plantation "Five Tarras of Randaterra" (The Anjrakandy estate) in Malabar: was granted, in 1802, a 99 years' lease, being the earliest English landholder in India: the natives regarded him as their Raja: none but the lowest caste would work on the estate, which was wasted by war: he educated his tenants and Christianized them by native catechists and German missionaries, raising them to the scale of civilisation: he spoke seven European languages and five or six Oriental languages: died at Tellicherry, 1828."[11]

How Murdoch Brown came to be running the plantation at Anjarakandy, and the serious consequences and events that followed, will be outlined in my next article.

If you have read this article and have any comments, or are able to offer additional information or corrections to anything I have written about Murdoch Brown's earlier life, I would welcome your comments by email to

Nick Balmer Copyright 30th December 2007.

[2]Factory, here is used in an older form of meaning, as a warehouse or Godown combined with living accomodation for the merchants, rather than a building where things are manufacturered.
[3]See William Logan's "A Collection of Treaties, Engagements and other Papers of Importance" published 1879, 1891, 1951, 1989, page 104. CXV.
[4] Logan gives two conflicting dates, in this book "Treaties", on page 106 he says 1778, and in "Malabar Manual" page 502, he gives 1788.
[6]The Asiatic Journal July 1828, page 673.
[7]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.
[8]OIOC. IOR H/438 Walter Ewer Folio 148.
[9]OIOC. IOR H/438 Walter Ewer Folio 158.
[10] Buchanan Vol 2, page 546.
[11] From, and The Dictionary of Indian Biography, by C.E. Buckland.


Murali RamaVarma said...

Dear Nick,

This post on the wonderful Scot, Murdoch Brown made some fascinating reading.

The land registration department of the government of Kerala has richly recognized the role of Murdoch Brown and probably considers him as the father of this department. In fact the first sub registry office of the government was started from his bungalow at Anjarakkandy in 1865.

However, I think the period he spent in Malabar and the dates thereof are not correctly recoreded in the government web site. The URL is

Thanks, again for the informative article.

Anonymous said... hello sir,
iam from kochi working in registration kerala .i want to know more about Murdoch Brown ,the father of registration in kerala,and the evolusion registry offices in kerala .can you help me?