Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Forests, Conservators and other Evils

Kerala Rainforest picture courtesy of http://biggestteak-john.blogspot.com/2011/11/teak.html

Like so many of the other Englishmen sent out to India, Thomas Baber had an in-built love of hunting and therefore affection for forests. When he arrived in India in 1797 the areas immediately surrounding Calicut and Tellicherry had already largely been cleared of all the larger trees, which had previously felled for many miles around the actual settlements themselves.

These had occurred by the middle of the 18th Century when drawings clearly shown barren treeless hills.  The records of the factory at Tellicherry are full of correspondence arranging for the acquistion of wood for fuel from locations up the coast as far as Mt Deli, or from Calicut.

However further inland the situation was very different, as is apparent from the following account by James Welsh, written to describe his experience when marching through the Wayanad in 1812, where he assisted Thomas Baber and the other troops to put down the rebellion that had broken out there.

"On 15th, two parties formed, under Captain James and myself, Mr. Baber accompanying mine. We saw no more rebels in arms, but many of them came in with Mr. Baber, who appeared to know every man in the country; and pledged themselves to give up their leaders in six days on a promise of a pardon to the rest. This part of the country is strong, wild, and beautiful; consisting of a number of small hills, covered with jungle, and separated by narrow valleys, in which there are neither rivers or paddy fields. Yesterday in particular, we passed through a narrow defile, nearly a mile in length, in which we discovered trees of such enormous height and magnitude, that I am fearful of mentioning my ideas of their measurement, further, than that some of them did not commence spreading from the parent stem, until they had reached the height of the topmast-head of a man of war; the name of these trees is Neer parum, the wood of which is not valuable, and the Ayany, or wild jack, the tree from which the largest canoes are made, as well as the best beams for building".[1]

Welsh's observations must have been a regular experience for Thomas who had been travelling within these regions since 1797.

That Thomas Baber was aware of the great potential of the huge trees contained within these forests is demonstrated by the events in 1807.

"Extract of a letter from Sir E Pellew to the Hon’ble Wm Pole Secretary to the Admiralty dated his Majesties Ship Culloden Bombay Harbour 20th May 1808.

A twelve month since I had an opportunity of receiving much valuable information from Mr Baber at Cannanore one of the Coll’tors of the Province of Malabar by whom I was satisfied that great impositions had heretofore been experienced by the Confederacy & the Merchants on the Coast from whom as the only dealers in timber the Naval Service had been formerly supplied & he gave me management to make the experiment of procuring them by means of an agency which supported by his authority would enable me to obtain a considerable supply at a trifling comparative expense –

The result has proved most satisfactory, a native agent has been employed under my directions to cut 50 large spars for the use of the squadrons who has accomplished his undertaking by bringing the whole of them down to the beach in Tellicherry at an expense of less than 6,000 rupees from which they will be conveyed to Madras & Bombay by the men of war which touch thereon their passage along the coast without any further charge & creating a nett saving for His Majesties government of £18,730.

I have the honour to enclose a list of their dimensions and have not to observed the price at which 52 large spars have thus been procured, has heretofore been paid at Bombay for two only by individuals as well as for the King’s service.

I consider the supply has been obtained upon these very advantageous terms entirely under the Benefit of Mr Baber’s local authority in preventing imposition & by the aid he has been able to give to the agent & proceedings."

The Royal Navy in the Indian Ocean was engaged at that period in a life and death struggle with the French Navy and privateers based on Bourbon and Isle de France.

In the days of sail, suitable masts were vital not just to victory, but also for very survival.

With the French in possession of most of Continental Europe's ports, and controlling the routes to the vital Baltic forests, which traditionally provided the masts so important to the Royal Navy, it was becoming difficult to refit the navies ships.

Although a large dockyard existed at Bombay, the nearby forests on the Konkani Ghats were exhausted, and masts had to be brought up from Malabar or half way around the World from a less than friendly America.

The merchants were taking the maximum advantage of the navies desperate need for new masts, by applying very high margins to the price of these mast timbers.

The details of the naval events in the India Ocean, are too complex to set out here, but are ably described in Stephen Taylor's recent book "Storm & Conquest, The Battle for the India Ocean, 1809."

Between 1807 and 1809 the East India Company and Royal Navy were to come within an ace of loosing control of the Indian Ocean, and suffered some appalling loses due to the unmanning and the weak condition of many of their ships.

Thomas Baber had more cause than most to dislike the French on Isle de France and Reunion. His younger brother John Baber (1783-1807) had been captured by French privateers operating out of Isle de Reunion.

It appears that for some reason John, possibly from ill health, who had arrived in India in 1802, as an EIC infantry officer was travelling aboard the East India ship Phoenix, which was captured on 20 Vendemaire an 14 (12th October 1805), by the French Corsaire ship “La Henriette.”

French records show that a “Jean Barber Lieutenant d’infanterie passager” was landed as a prisoner on “1er Brumaire an 14” (23rd October 1805) on the Ile de la Reunion.

Presumably Jean Barber was as close as the French clerk could get to spelling John Baber.

It is possible that John was already ill, or that perhaps the conditions in the prison killed him, for he died on 20 Pluviose an 14 (9th February 1806)

The records say “cet homme est rest√© malade √† l’Ile de la Reunion – mort le 20 Pluviose an 14" [3]

There was considerable uncertainty over the date of his death. According to Hodsons' Index of officers of the Bengal Army, he died on Mauritius 16th July 1807.

It is clear that for a long time after the event that the Baber family in England had no idea what had become of their brother. In the flyleaf of his “Memoranda relating to the life of Henry Hervey Baber” is a rough draft by his eldest brother of a family tree. Sadly it is not possible to exactly date the tree, but from the dates given by later additions on January 28th 1809, it would appear that as late as January 1809, John was thought by the family in England to have “perished by some unknown means (supposed shipwrecked) in the East Indies.”

Thomas Baber in India, may have been the first to learn of the loss of the Phoenix.

The death of his brother, may well have strengthened Thomas resolve to get back at the French, or at least prevent this happening to others.

It appears that he identifed fifty suitable trees and organised for them to be brought down to the coast for shipment to Bombay.

"-- Of the Duty of a Conservator of Forests I never could understand that it extended beyond receiving and paying for timber felled in the Malabar Forests when brought down to the coast, the whole timber being contracted for with the proprietors and former timber merchants – A greater misnomer than conservator cannot be conceived, Mr Fell, to my certain knowledge, never has seen the Forests, and although his assistant Captn Pinch has occasionally visited them, it is the most ridiculous idea conceivable to suppose that it is in his or any mans power to superintend such a prodigious extent of mountain jungle as the Malabar Forests, with an establishment of 3 inspectors and about 40 peons (that is I believe at utmost extent) and if they could, eui bono when not a tree can be exported, nor brought down to the coast without permission from the Collectors of land or sea Customs – So that in fact all that the Conservator & his officers have to do is, to take care of the Timber, which can be done just as well, and to a great deal better by a Collector than any other person – That never was a more useless appointment or establishment than that of Conservator of Malabar, and if my opinion was allowed to have any weight it should be in favour of a petition from the Merchants I sent up to Government in 1808 praying to be restored to their rights in the Forests, and to be allowed to continue to trade in such timber as the Government do not its self require for naval purposes, and all such timber they offered to give to the Company at ---- cost, and to give security, required of them, that they would not cut down any trees than such as the Government permitted them to __ I know not what the profits to the Company are upon the timber they sell, but they must be very trifling and go a very little way to defray the enormous annual expense of the Conservator & his establishment. I never heard that the cost of Timber before it reaches Bombay is more Now then when the trade was open and the company were obliged to buy their wants from the Merchants – But the monopoly is so odious a measure and one that has given rise to so much discontent , that one sacrifice a little for the care and welfare of those whom we are bound to conciliate there is most objection which seems wholly to have escaped the Consideration of Govt and that is, that the monopoly has put a total stop to ship building amongst the coast merchants, and this indeed may be considered as one of the causes of the great stagnation of trade in Malabar – The old Bupee of Cananese wanted to build a new ship of 4 to 500 tons burthen, and applied to the conservator of the Forests for the necessary Timber – who answered He has no orders to sell timber – I send the original answer, as a specimen of the uncourtly reception the old Lady’s application met with." [4]

From our knowledge of Thomas Baber’s forthright opinions, and his directness, I imagine that poor Mr Fell must have felt the full weight of Tom’s displeasure on more than one occasion.

In his 1830 evidence to the House of Lords Thomas explained the difficulties brought about by the timber monopoly.

Was there not, during the Period of your Residence in Malabar, a Monopoly of Timber?

There was, both of the Timber and of the Forests, which were taken Possession of by the Government.

Did that Monopoly extend, not only to the Forests but to Timber in the Gardens and Fields of the several Proprietors?

It was not, I imagine, so intended in the first instance; but the Conservator, the Officer whose Province it was to superintend the Monopoly, extended it to Timber grown in Gardens; but I believe it was that Officer's own Act. Great Complaints were frequently made, but I never heard of any Redress, until Sir Thomas Munro abolished the Monopoly altogether. This, I think, was in 1823.

During that Time was the Price of Timber much raised, so as to stop Shipbuilding on the Coast of Malabar?

It was not procurable on any Terms. The Company took the whole Quantity, except what was called the Refuse, which was of little Use in Shipbuilding.

Was Shipbuilding stopped on the Coast of Malabar in consequence?

Entirely. I have seen Applications from the principal Shipbuilders to the Conservator of the Forests and to the Government, to sell to them, or to be allowed to purchase, Timber to build and repair their Vessels. They offered to purchase at any Price.

Since the Monopoly was taken off, has Shipbuilding improved?

Yes; Four or Five Vessels have been built, or are building.

What is the State of the Government Forests since the Cessation of the Government Monopoly?

The Forests were given up wholly to the Proprietors.

Are there no Forests belonging to the Government now?

In the Northern Part of Canara, that is, from the Subramanny Pagoda, East of Mangalore, there are; all the Forests to the Eastward, or on the Ghaut Mountains that is, are the Property of the Government; I never, at least, heard of any Individuals laying Claim to them. But the whole Tract of Forests South of Subramanny is claimed, and I have no doubt is the Property of private Individuals. I have seen many of these Title Deeds upwards of a Century old.

The Reason for the Monopoly originally was, that the Timber might be supplied at a lower Rate to the Dock Yard at Bombay?

The ostensible Reason given in the first Proclamation by the Principal Collector of Malabar, dated 18th July 1806, stated, "That The Honourable Company had Occasion for Teak Trees for the Purpose of building Ships, and therefore the Government had resolved to grant a Monopoly to one Chowakkara Moosa, in order that it might be furnished with the Trees it wanted at a low Price," &c. The subsequent Proclamation by the Madras Government, dated 25th April 1807, announced, "the Assumption, in pursuance of Orders from The Honourable Court of Directors, of the Sovereignty of the Forests in the Provinces of Malabar and Canara."

Was Timber cheaper in consequence of that Monopoly at Bombay than it is at present?

I rather think the Price was considerably enhanced to what it was before the Monopoly, owing to the Expense of the Conservator's Establishment.

Was the Conservator sent by the Government of Bombay, or by the Governor of Madras?

By the Governor of Bombay; the Forests were re-transferred to Bombay by Orders from the Court of Directors.

There was no Survey originally of the Forests?

There never was. I beg to refer their Lordships to a very able Minute, one of the Documents published in Sir Thomas Munro's Life, containing full Information on this Subject:

Once Thomas had decided on a course of events, or on the rightness of his opinions, he would pursue his cause, through thick and thin, and in the face of any amount of opposition.  No wonder he was often deeply unpopular.

[1]James Welsh, Military Reminiscences volume 2, page 12.
[2]Taken from the Appendix to the Report on Indian Affairs letter 188. OIOC Collection.
[3]I am much indebted to Philippe Lahausse,and Marina Carter for this information taken from the Mauritius archives.
[4]From letter written by Thomas Hervey Baber to Sir Thomas Munro, 5th May 1817. OIOC Private Papers IOR:MSS. F151 / 43 folio 30 -- 31. to Sir Thomas Munro