Sunday, 11 January 2009

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


Maddy said...

That was interesting nick - I can assure you that the people of Malabar are still quite averse to getting wet. But the hats that were used Toppi kuda or Ola kuda - the straw hats were actually much bigger (the versions in the photo seem to be some modern mutant). The normal diameter would be about 4 feet. Such hats are explained by Abe in his blog though pictures show the version with the stick handle as used by Namboothiris and upper caste people, especially women. The other version can be worn directly on the head!! It predates Vasco da gama..

Nick Balmer said...

Hello Maddy,

Thank you very much for pointing me in the direction of Abe's blog. I would not have found it myself.

I wonder if it wasn't a very large version of an Olakuda that has been built over the Tellicherry Chair.

It would be great fun to make one.

I greatly enjoy Abe's other postings.


Maddy said...

they are still available and made by the calicut craftsmen (typically used by field workers). in fact we used them while studying in college over a period of 3-4 years for the walk between the hostels (dorms) and the academic buildings - it was a fad at that time which came out in the newspapers with photos.

I think the olakuda shown over the pallak should be the same size - about 4 feet dia.

fedricsonya said...

Women’s hats accept absolutely developed, as several hundred years afore the twentieth century, ladies hats were alone associated with the aristocratic classes.


hotels hollywood florida said...

Normal diameter would be about 4 meters. These hats are explained by Abe, blogs, even if the images with the version attached to the handle used by upper caste people and Namboothiris, especially women.

orlando moving company said...

The normal diameter is 4 feet. These hats are explained by Abe on his blog that the photos show the version with the handle of a cane used by the Namboothiri caste people and especially women.