Saturday, 31 January 2009

Straw hats, continued

In my post on the 11th of January this year, I mentioned my surprise and delight at finding fishermen on the beach at Tellicherry wearing hats identical to those drawn in early 19th century illustrations. (See )

Illustration taken from James Welsh's book showing Welsh travelling in Karanakera Menon's private boat to Ramnaad in 1817[1]

This drew some very interesting comments from Maddy, and an offer of help from Jissu Jacob a keen local historian and tourist guide, who was kind enough to travel to Tellicherry to take the following photographs of the fishermen on the beach at Tellicherry.

As can be seen from the following photograph, these hats are identical to those worn by the rowers in the illustration of Karanakera Menon's canoe.

A Thalassey fisherman wearing an Ola Kuda in January 2009. Photo courtesy of Jissu Jacob.

Maddy who is an excellent author from Kerala, who runs his own blog on Malabar history titled Historic Alleys [2] wrote to tell me that these hats are called Ola Kuda, and that they were originally much larger, often as much as four feet in diameter. Similar large Ola Kuda were attached to handles in much the same way as umbrellas, which were used at least as far back as the 16th century to shade dignitaries like Rajah's and their wives. Indeed one such Ola Kuda can be seen being held by the man in the bow of the canoe above.

It would appear that a large Ola Kuda was used as part of Thomas Baber's Tellicherry Chair.

A Tellicherry Chair, circa 1812, with a canopy made from an Ola Kuda.

Another type of straw hat with a more European flavour was also being worn on the beach. In my previous blog I had advanced a hypothesis that these hats had a European origin or inspiration, perhaps based on those used by Royal Marines and other British troops who had been in the West Indies in the 1790's.

This theory is based on the shape of these hats, which is very like those worn by marines and sailors at that time.

I also suggested that the wearers of these hats might also be the descendants of the large Portuguese community, or Indo Portuguese community that had been present in Tellicherry in the early 19th century.

The following gentleman would not have much difficultly passing for a local on the Algarve.

I can thoroughly recommend a visit to Thalassery beach and the fort. The Kerala authorities are restoring much of the historic area around the beach and fort, and the fish market is a very interesting spot.

Jissu Jacob runs his own blog and can be contacted at

He conducts tours to the Wayanad and as far as Cochin, and has shown several of my friends around the area.

[1] James Welsh, Military Reminiscences, published 1830, Volume II. page 85.


Sunday, 11 January 2009

Murdoch Brown, Overseer of the Randattara Plantation. Part 1.

Pepper Vines

In the eyes of the East India Company Directors in London, Tellicherry's primary purpose was as a source of pepper for export to Europe. This was a highly profitable trade, and it was important to maintain the supplies coming from the Malabar farmers, via the local Rajah's.

Black pepper is the grand article of European Commerce with Malabar. Before the invasion of Hyder, in the Malabar year 940 (176 4/5), the country now called the province of Malabar produced annually about 15,000 Candies of 640 lb. The quantity continued gradually diminishing until 959 (178 ¾) when Colonel McLeod’s army came into the province; since which the decrease has been more rapid, and continues every year to augment. A good crop will now produce 8000 Candies, a bad one only half of that quantity. Of this, 4000 Candies are produced in the territory of the Pychi Raja now in Rebellion, and of late the seat of a most bloody warfare.

The only diminution, I am inclined to think, that has taken place since the province has become subject to the Company has been owing to these disturbances. Mr. Torin states, that the annual quantity produced in the Pychi Raja’s country is now reduced to 2500 Candies.

Europeans purchased 5/8 th’s of all pepper from Malabar; and the price they gives regulates that of the whole. Since Mahé had fallen the whole crop had fallen into the hands of the company.

The East India Company in 1797 was faced with a situation where due to the wars with Tipu and Hyder, the hinterland inland of Tellicherry had been badly damaged. The villagers had been driven off, the plantations damaged and insufficient pepper and cinnamon was being delivered to the port. The war with the Pazhassi Rajah had made the situation worse.

It was decided that the EIC would start a plantation of its own at Randattara, in order to grown pepper directly. This land had belonged to what William Logan later referrred to as "some petty Nayar chiefs, called Achanmar, feudatories of the Kolattiri Raja."[2]

As far back as 1730 the EIC had been trading with this region, which appears to have been amongst the most fertile areas on the coast. On the 1st of March 1741, the "Achamars of Randatara" mortgaged their property to the EIC for 60,000 fanams.[3]

The EIC seem to have used the Achamars slowness in repaying the mortgage as a way of controlling the destination of the pepper from Ranattara.

In 1760 a further treaty was signed on the 9th of September. Article 2 of which, stopped the farmers sending their pepper to the Dutch in nearby Cannanore.

The local EIC officials arranged amongst themselves to set up the plantation forcing aside the local farmers. These farmers greatly resented this action, and would return to attack the new plantation.

Probably due to these attacks, the plantation managers encountered difficulties in obtaining labour locally. It appears that the officials in London and Bombay were also unhappy at the decision to set up the plantation. After two years the EIC Directors decided to abandon the cinnamon plantations it's local employees had set up at Randattera, because they were unprofitable.

Murdoch Brown who had been managing the plantation, offered to resign his EIC appointment and to take out a 99-year lease on the plantation from the EIC, which subsequently made his fortune, although not until after he had renegotiated the lease in 1817.

At first Murdoch Brown like the EIC, had considerable difficulty in obtaining labour locally. The local population would not work on the plantations for the rates allowed in the EIC budget, and in any case these farmers by custom only worked until midday on their own land.

Brown became aware that the local farmers themselves relied on slave labour from the lower castes who were tied to the land, and were expected to carry out all the heavy tasks.

These slaves could be made to work from dawn until dusk, and were far cheaper to employ than ordinary labourers.

The higher caste Indians would not accept employment in the plantations because if they did they would lose their higher caste status, and become Teers themselves.

He decided to adopt the local practise and began to buy slaves from the Southern Malabar. Many of these came from the Darogha, who was Head Police Officer in Chonghaut.

These slaves were often men and women who had formerly been owned by local farmers who had defaulted on their revenue payments. The farmer's slaves had been seized by the EIC revenue assistants as saleable chattels, along with implements, cooking pots and household fittings to be sold at auction in order to recover these outstanding revenue amounts.

Some of the Darogha’s slaves came from neighbouring independent native states, and Thomas Baber subsequently had good reason to believe that many of these had been kidnapped. For 12 years up until 1811, Brown was actively acquiring slaves to work his plantations.

In evidence given to the House of Lords committee in 1832, Thomas Baber, who was a magistrate described some of the evidence that he had come across concerning abuses of slaves and labourers at Brown’s estate.

Para. 2. It has been shewn from reports furnished by the collector himself, (Mr. Vaughan) that slaves are subject to the lash, as also to imprisonment, putting in stocks and chaining. Repeatedly I myself have observed on their persons marks and scan from stripes inflicted by the rattan, and even wounds; the worst instances of the kind I recollect seeing “were on the persons of some of Mr. Brown's slaves, whom I had cited to give evidence in a case of murder, several of whom bore the marks of severe flogging one of them in particular upon whose back and shoulders were several deep sores, and the flesh of their legs much lacerated;” and on a subsequent occasion, during the search upon Mr. Brown's plantation for the kidnapped children two of the slaves complained to my officers of severe treatment one of them having been recently punished with 25 strips from a rattan. the other with 24.

Para. 3. -- How or whence this oppressive and cruel practice, not only of selling slaves off the estate where they were born and bred, but actually of separating husbands and wives, parents and children, and thus severing all the nearest and dearest associations and ties of our common nature, originated, it would be difficult to say; but I have no doubt, and never had in my own mind, that it has derived support, if not its origin from that impolitic measure in 1798, of giving authority to the late Mr Murdoch Brown, while overseer of the Company's plantation in Malabar, upon the representation of the “difficulties he experienced, even with “the assistance of the tehsildar (the head native authority) and “his own peons,” (armed persons, with badges of office), “to procure workmen and of the price of free labour being more than he was authorized to give to purchase indiscriminately as many slaves as he might require to enable him to carry on the works of that plantation; and of actually issuing orders to the European as well as the native local authorities, to assist him (Mr. Brown), and even to restore slaves who had run away, and returned to their homes (without any orders to inquire the reason of their absconding), and who, as has since been ascertained from the surviving slaves themselves, have been actually kidnapped by the darogha (head police officer of Chowghaut, in the southern parts of Malabar people), and sent up to North Malabar to Mr. Brown, which person had continued, up to 1811, or for a period of 12 years, under this alleged authority, granted by the Bombay Government, to Import slaves and free-born children from the Cochin and Travancore states; a when by the merest accident this nefarious traffic came to my knowledge, and to which, after considerable opposition on the part of the Provincial Court of Circuit, I succeeded in putting a stop, after having restored to liberty and their country 123 persons who had been stolen, of whom 71 were actually found in Mr. Brown's possession.

Para. 4 This, however, was but a small portion of the number originally supplied him, many having absconded, but more than half having died, as ascertained from the survivors. Mr Brown's agent, Assen Ally, himself acknowledged that during the time he was at Aleppi, in Travancore, in 181l, no less than 400 children had been transported to Malabar. [4]

Colonel J Munro, who was Resident of Travancore, wrote late in 1812 to thank Thomas for his activities. The letter supplies some interesting details of the trade in child slaves: -

“I have every reason to believe that many of the unfortunate persons purchased by Assen Ally were procured in the most fraudulent and cruel manner, about the time when he was carrying on his proceedings at Allisrey. I received numerous complaints of the disappearance of children; but all my enquiries at the time could not develop the causes of them. I have been subsequently too much occupied by other important matters to be able to enter into so fully into an investigation of this subject as I was desirous of doing, but I trust that on my arrival at Allisrey I shall have an opportunity of obtaining further information regarding it.

I cannot deny myself the gratification upon this occasion of returning thanks to you in the name of many families in Travancore for your zealous and indefatigable exertions in restoring so many children to their parents and homes, and in checking a practise of a most cruel nature."

To be continued.

[1]Buchanan Vol 2, page 230.
[2] William Logan, A Collection of Treaties, Engagements and other Papers of Importance. Page xxxv.
[3] Logan, A Collection... Page 43, para XLIX.
[4] House of Lords Committee
[5] Extract of a letter from Colonel J. Munro Resident of Travancore to Mr Baber Judge & Magistrate dated 29th Nov 1812.OIOC MSS Euro F151/34 page 193.

Straw Hats, ghostly links with the past ?

Tellicherry Fort at Nightfall

Dusk arrives with startlingly suddenness in India. If like me, you come from northern latitudes, this rapid transition into darkness can easily catch one unawares.

We had had such an interesting day with Mr. Haris, that I had lost all track of time, and we had left ourselves with almost no time in which to visit the fort or its surroundings.

Setting off in haste, we had rushed around the fort, racing against the sun as it sank rapidly below the horizon. At one point we had even descended into the inky black dungeons and storerooms under the bastions with the aid of candle light, provided by the extremely helpful and kind workmen engaged in restoring the fort.

We had barely escaped being locked in for the night by the watchmen, as they departed for their homes.

The descent into those atmospheric dungeons had been a spooky and thought provoking experience. Knowing as I did, that they must have often contained men jailed quite probably by Thomas Baber, a magistrate and judge, in the courtroom that had be situated on the ground floor the largest building at the centre of the fort.

Leaving as we thought, any ghosts safely behind, we had turned out of the gate for a quick look along the shore.

For directly below and outside the walls of the fort, is the beach across which the fishermen have brought their catch for several hundred years.

This fishing community has been here from the earliest days. In the 1730's the fishermen are recorded bringing scarce firewood to the fort from Mt. Dili, and dying from epidemics in their huts just outside the walls.

It is a scene that can have changed little since the years between 1797 and 1817 when for much of the time Thomas Baber and his family had lived in quarters in the fort.

It was then that emerging out of the dark, that I almost literally thought that I had indeed seen a ghost!

Fish porters or Moekhurs or Muckwahs wearing straw hats

For standing amongst the fishermen were several men in straw hats who looked just as if they had stepped straight out of one of the illustrations in James Welsh's Military Reminiscences.

They were wearing identical hats to those worn by the men in these illustrations, and that James & Thomas had hired to carry their palanquins or to propel their canoes, when travelling from place to place.

Illustration taken from James Welsh's book showing Welsh travelling in Karanakera Menon's private boat to Ramnaad in 1817

In his book Welsh describes the boat. He writes "The accompanying sketch of this canoe, gives the costume of all the fishermen on the Malabar coast."[1]

Most of the men in the current market were either bareheaded, or more often wore a simple turban, as shown in the following photo.

Modern Tellicherry fishermen wearing turbans [2]

Thomas Baber and the other officials had used the ancestors of these men to carry them around the settlement in their Tellicherry chairs. Welsh provides the following delightful illustration of one of these chairs in action.

A Tellicherry Chair, circa 1812

Welsh describes these chairs as follows, and again mentions that the bearers were fishermen.

"A large arm-chair, so made as to have a square frame over the head, is placed on an oblong platform, projecting about two feet in front, to form a foot-board ; and from the front of this platform, two upright supports are carried to the frame above, over which is fixed an enormous mat umbrella, without a handle; and to finish the concern, two thick bamboos, about seven feet long, are attached horizontally on either side of the seat, for the purpose of carrying. The rider of this veritable bone-setter gets in by the front. The moekhurs, or muckwahs, as they are generally called by Europeans, being the fishermen of this coast, are the bearers; and four of them in regular service, will carry a person about the station, and do other little jobs besides. They carry on their shoulders, and, inchanging with a preconcerted signal, they lift the chair over their heads, and bring it down with a sudden jerk on the opposite shoulder, the most unpleasant and sea-sickening motion I ever experienced ; and if one of them stumble in going over stony or rough ground, the rider may get a fall, easier imagined than described."[3]

To see men in turban's had not surprised me in the least, as these are widely worn by nearly every local inhabitant, but the straw hats had. There appeared to be two types of straw hats used by the porters. One was shaped not unlike an upturned fruit basket, with a slightly conical form, with a very wide brimmed, similar to those worn in South East Asia, and a taller straw one, with a much more European feel to its profile.

These hats set me thinking. Where had they come from?

What had been their origin?

The wider brimmed one shown worn by the paddlers in Menon's canoe, appeared to have been inspired by Chinese designs. This must surely be an example of the China straw hat, described by Welsh as it looks so similar in design to a Chinese hat.

The Chinese had been present on the Malabar Coast in the period leading up to the 1430's, and had left a permanent legacy in the form of the Chinese nets at Cochin.

Why not their hats as well?

Welsh gives us a tantalising description of a potentially very nasty accident he had suffered in 1812, in which he had been saved by one of these hats. This had occurred whilst he was hunting in Coorg shortly after he had left the Tellicherry area.

He had been out hunting, when he fell into a vast concealed trap.

"I was precipitated forward, till my head reached the bottom of an elephant pit, twelve feet long, seven wide, and twelve deep. This trap had been covered over with a kind of bamboo mat, strewed with sand, to resemble the rest of the ground ; and so great was the impetus by which I was driven at the moment, that I not only pitched on my head ten feet forward, but also carried the whole of the roof along with me. I need scarcely observe, that in such a fall, the ground must have been very soft, to admit of my living to tell the tale : with a China straw hat, and luckily two handkerchiefs in it, my head was literally buried in the ground, and my double barrelled gun broken in my right hand, the stock giving way at the bend. So unexpected and unusual an adventure, left me a few seconds in doubt whether I was dead or alive; but extricating my head from the mud and sitting up, I found myself sound,..."[4]

Perhaps he had been so taken by these hats, that he had bought one from the fishermen.

These China hats are very practical for fish porters when you consider their daily task, which is bringing the fresh catch up the beach to the market, as it protects their bodies from slime and blood running down from the baskets which are carried on their heads.

The other taller pattern hat shown being worn by the Englishman in the chair, and by the three men in the modern photograph taken in the market, has a very distinctive cross section, and one quite unlike most other straw hats.

It is however almost identical to the straw hats issued to British soldiers, sailors and marines serving in the West Indies during the 1780's and 1790's.

During the 1790's the West Indies had been a major theatre of war. Many, if not all of the Royal Navies ships had passed through the Caribbean, including many that went on to visit India. With the ready availability of palm fronds, and a hot and humid climate similar to that experienced in West Indies, it would not be at all surprising if the veteran soldiers and sailors arriving on the Malabar Coast had not introduced the fashion for straw hats to Tellicherry.

As can be seen from the following illustration, the tall crown and relatively narrow brim was already fashionable in sailor's hats at this period, even before these men reached the tropics.

By halfway through the Napoleonic wars the sailors' formal hat - if he had one - was made either of leather or japanned canvas. Otherwise headgear varied between a simple cloth, often tied to keep sweat out of the eyes, to the straw hat, particularly affected by those who had been to the West Indies.[5]


With long periods of time when the sea was unsuitable for fishing during the monsoon, or whilst waiting for the boats to return, many fishermen and porters, must have presumably welcomed work for the English carrying palanquins or paddling canoes to towns along the coast or up adjacent rivers.

Did some of them adopt the tall straw hats worn by these British officials?

Are the men in the photos the modern descendants of these 19th century bearers?

Sepoys in the early days of the East India Company were frequently former mixed race off spring. These men often liked to demonstrate their difference from native born sepoys by wearing hats. They were called Topass or Topasses,[7] which means "men with hats", as distinct from the rest who wore turbans.

Are these men part descended from the Portuguese community in Tellicherry?

Over time, as the 18th Century elapsed, and as English recruits became more easily available, the Topasses were slowly disbanded and replaced.

Did they turn to fishing?

Francis Buchanan who visited Tellicherry in 1800 recorded that 438 households out of 4481 households in the town were of Portuguese descent.

How I wish that I had had the language skills to ask these men their story. For it is quite probably a fascinating one; and one with a heritage that is quite possibly linked to mine.

[1] James Welsh, Military Reminiscences, published 1830, Volume II. page 85.
[2] Photo by Gianna Vasca 2007.
[3] James Welsh, vol II, pages 39 & 40.
[4] James Welsh, vol II, pages 45 & 46.
[5] See
[6] Ibid.
[7] "TOPASS , &c., s. A name used in the 17th and 18th centuries for dark-skinned or half-caste claimants of Portuguese descent, and Christian profession. Its application is generally, though not universally, to soldiers of this class, and it is possible that it was originally a corruption."

2. TOPAZ, TOPASS: (page 934)

MADRAS.] 1673.-- "To the Fort then belonged 300 English, and 400 Topazes, or Portugal Fire<-> men."-- Fryer, 66. In his glossarial Index he gives "Topazes, Musketeers." 1680.-- "It is resolved and ordered to entertain about 100 Topasses, or Black Portuguese, into pay."-- In Wheeler, i. 121. 1686.-- "It is resolved, as soon as English soldiers can be provided sufficient for the garrison, that all Topasses be disbanded, and no more entertained, since there is little dependence on them."-From Hobson Jobson. See