Sunday, 27 November 2016

Helen Baber, her life & final resting place

Helen Baber's grave stone, the English Church, Tellicherry. 
Photo courtesy of Jissu Jacob.

Throughout much of history there have been strong wives who have supported their husbands through thick and thin. These husbands would not have been nearly as effective as they were without their wives.

It is quite clear that Thomas Hervey Baber, was extremely fortunate in his choice of wife, and that Helen Somerville Baber must have been a remarkable woman in her own right.

Like so many of these wives, however it is extremely hard to discover their complete story because she was essentially a private person in the manner of those days, and one who was hidden away from sight. She only very rarely appears in the official records, and then we only occasional catch tantalising glimpses into her life. Yet when she does enter the records, the strength of her character, and the enduring nature of her love and support for Thomas Baber comes though very clearly.

Thanks to a great deal of good luck, and a great deal of kindness on the part of Jissu Jacob a local man from Periah, Helen has suddenly been brought into view.

View of Helen Baber's table tomb, in the newly cleared church yard.

On my visit to Thalassey in 2006, I had been so overwhelmed by hospitality, that I had run out of time for adequately exploring the town. Reaching the fort as dusk fell, and only able to view over the fence into the overgrown churchyard as dusk was falling, I had feared attempting to climb into the churchyard, lest I fell down a hole, or encountered a snake.

As a result of this blog, I have been having a substantial correspondence with quite a few local people from Kerala and especially Thalassey. One of these Jissu Jacob, a local historian and tour guide was good enough to go recently to the churchyard and to take the photos in this post.

We know very little about Helen Baber's early life beyond the following passage in a note book kept by my great great great grandfather Henry Hervey Baber, Thomas Baber's elder brother.

On February 7th 1798 Henry in England, records that his father had received the following letter from his brother: -

“Feb. 7 Father hears from Tom -- Letter dated Bombay August 1797 – about the same receives a letter which came overland enclosed (by just favour) with government dispatches, requesting his consent to marry a Mrs Cameron (wife of a Major Cameron who was lately killed in an excursion down the country) she is not 18 the daughter of Mr. Fearon of Edinburgh & niece of Mr Douglas of Fitzroy Square London. She had been married to the Major about a twelvemonth.

Thomas’s fiance, whose maiden name had been Helen Somerville Fearon, had previously been married during 1795 at the age of only 15 to Captain Donald Cameron, of the Bombay Army at Portsmouth. With the East India Company recruitment camp on the Isle of Wight nearby, this many have been a last minute affair prior to Cameron boarding an East Indiamen before setting out on the long journey east.

It had not been uncommon for girls, especially daughters of soldiers aged 15 or less to marry soldiers during this period, however it was much less common for officers to marry such young girls. Her father came from Edinburgh, and one wonders if she had perhaps run away with the Captain.

Following her marriage, she must have almost immediately boarded the East Indiaman for the voyage to India. One can only imagine what it must have been like for a teenage girl, who would still have been at school had she been born today. She would have travelled in a tiny cabin constructed towards the stern of the ship, divided from her fellow passengers by temporary timber and canvas curtains.

The ship would have been crammed full of soldiers, sailors and fellow travellers.

Conditions on-board would have often been cold, wet, and the air fetid with the smells coming up from the other decks. The relative seniority of her new husband probably meant that she ate with the ships captain and the other senior passengers in captains stern cabin. She will have been able to visit the upper deck for exercise, where no doubt she would have been an object of curiosity to the sailors.

The war with France was raging, and Britain had not yet achieved naval supremacy, so she faced not just storms and the possibility of shipwreck, but also capture by the French.

Helen will have arrived in India during 1796, probably arriving first and Surat where her husbands Battalion was stationed.  Very soon after her arrival, the Battalion was mobilised to proceed to Tellicherry. Presumably Helen travelled on with the Major to Tellicherry. Given the smallness of the fort, at Tellicherry, it is quite possible she lived in tents with the Major. However, she was not to experience married life for long, for hardly had she arrived in India than she had become a widow.

Major Cameron was killed on the 18th of March 1797 whilst fighting his way down the Periah Pass. (See )

One can only image the pain and grief that she must have experienced at that moment, on learning that her husband was missing and was believed to have been killed.

One can only imagine how frightening, must have been her situation, she was only 17, widowed. She was in a foreign town thousands of miles from her family, and she was dependant on the charity of others.

It is not clear how Thomas first met Helen Cameron. However it is very likely that she was staying either in Tellicherry, or at Cannanore with its fort and cantonment.

As Helen had only become a widow in March 1797, and that we know that Thomas was already writing to his father via Bombay by August 1797, we can only presume that their courtship was brief and intense as are many wartime courtships.

There were very few unmarried European women living in India at this time, and those that were their were considerably out numbered by European men, so Helen Cameron must have attracted quite a lot of attention from the single officers and officials in the settlement, who would otherwise have had little opportunity of marrying, until they either went on leave after ten or more years, or chose to live with a local woman.

Aged only 20 and with only a very small salary, it must be wondered how Thomas Baber expected to be able to support his new wife. East India Company staff generally had to wait for many years and have achieved promotions before they were in a financial position to be able to marry.

Helen will have had only a very small pension entitlement from the annuity that the East India Company would have set up for her following the Majors death, and a sum from Lord Clive's fund.

This would only be payable in England, and Helen would have been expected to return to Great Britain on the first available ship.

The Major's uniform and associated belongings would have been auctioned and the proceeds handed over to his widow following his death to his fellow officers, and in other similar occurrences, it was not unknown for very high prices to be paid for items like swords at these auctions by brother officers as a way of giving support to recently widowed survivors.

Sadly we don’t know what Thomas father wrote in reply to his letter. Thomas however had not waited for his father’s permission, for as Henry wrote on 24th August 1798: -

“Father heard from Tom – when he informs us of his being married Jan 16 – 1798 to Mrs Helen Cameron – soon afterwards was appointed assistant in the revenue department at Callicut - Mrs Baber writes to my Mother.”

During December 1798 Helen was delivered of a daughter, possibly on the 1st of December, or shortly before. It has not been possible to trace this daughter beyond this brief notice, so we must presume that she died shortly afterwards, like so many other children in India in those times.[2]

Throughout the early years of their marriage Thomas was fighting the Pazhassi Rajah who was trying to oust the English from his territory. Helen must often have been left on her own, and with every chance that she would become a widow once again.

We don't know where they lived before 1809, but by then they were living in the fort.

Thomas was by then a magistrate.

Most of Thomas Baber's East India Company colleagues would have lived in houses in the fort or in bungalow's nearby. The unmarried ones would have shared houses, and probably lived a male dominated life, which probably included a fair amount of drinking and hard living.

Surviving Bungalows inside Tellicherry Fort, one of which may have been the home of Helen & Thomas Baber

It is very likely that Thomas had missed out on much of this communal life, with its echos of an English boarding school common room. This was because following his arrival in Calicut in 1797 he had almost immediately been sent out into the district near Ponnani many miles down the coast to the south, in the company only of his Indian bodyguard and subordinates.  Once he married he was living with his wife and was therefore living away from the other officials.

This may account for his having very different attitudes to those held by his colleagues on many issues such as slavery. These attitudes in turn may well have had the effect at setting him at odds with these same officials.

His ability to retreat to his home and to the support of his wife, probably enabled him to survive in the face of the active hostility of his fellow officials. for years.

Thomas and Helen Baber’s first son, Thomas Francis was born on the 12th of May 1802 at Tellicherry.

Writing in 1832 [3] Thomas recorded how he had first learnt of the existence of slavery in the Malabar quite by chance, when out riding one day in 1803, he had met a man by the roadside who tried to sell him two slaves.

Appalled, he bought the two slaves, a boy and a girl in order to free them. He appears to have sheltered them, and to have provided them with an education, as he recorded how one later rose to become a gentleman’s butler and the other an ayah.

Helen must presumably accepted these two children into her household, and to have played a large part in developing them. One begins to wonder if she was not just as committed a reformer as he was.

By 1808 Thomas and Helen’s eldest boy had reached the age at which he was old enough to travel back to England to commence his education. Henry, the boys uncle, recorded his arrival in England on 27 August 1808: -

“Returned to town & saw my nephew at Mrs Jones’s – this little fellow arrived in England 14th augst: he went to his grandfather augst – 29.”

Aged only six this little boy must have had some tales to tell to his uncle and grandparents when he arrived in England. He had just sailed half way around the world in the midst of a convoy at the height of the Napoleonic Wars.

The boy appears to have been sent on to school almost immediately. On 14 October 1808 his uncle Henry recorded: -

“Took my nephew to school at Mr Rowes’s Bromley – Kent.”

It must have been a terrible moment for Helen as she had to part with her boy, knowing well that they would not see each other for many years, and quite possibly never again, should either of them die.

Life must have often been very anxious for Helen, as for instance when smallpox raged through Tellicherry and the district.

Judicial from 29th February 1809. 59261.

Soon after he was established in his Cutcherry at Tellicherry the smallpox broke out and raged with considerable violence, throughout the Zillah, Mr Baber made great efforts to stop its progress by the introduction of vaccination, in which his conduct was highly approved by the Court of Directors.

Thomas and Helen's attitudes towards the Indian's and slavery caused a substantial rift with his fellow English & Scottish colleagues, and I expect that a lot of the local EIC officials came to see him as both as a threat and well as a very great nuisance.  After all, judged by the standards of 1809, what was wrong with having a few slaves? There were masses of slaves in the Americas, and West Indies, and the Indian’s had had slavery themselves for centuries.

Everybody knew that you went to India to make money. The previous generation of Nabob’s like Barwell, Clive and the others had been able to make many thousands of pounds.  Why shouldn’t they too also have the opportunity to make a fortune?

What was all the fuss about?

One of the disputes that Thomas had entered into came to a head in 1809, and led to his eventually fighting a duel.

Thomas Lumsden Strange later recounted the story of the duel.  The local officials and offices had taken such a dislike to Thomas that they recruited a army office who had a reputation for fightinf duels.  This was with an officer by the name of Fortune.  The two were placed back to back to measure out six paces each, when Fortune, after taking but a step or two, turned round and fired and wounded Mr Baber on the thigh, before immediately bolting.  Strangely enough his second encouraged him, saying “run Billy, run!”

Billy however in his hurry to escape fell, and Mr Baber came up to him and shook his pistol in his face saying that he would be justified in blowing his brains out. [5] 

Thomas survived the duel, and was morally vindicated by the mores of the time, but he was in mortal danger. Helen immediately began to nurse him back to health. She realised that it would greatly help if he could be taken up the Ghats to a higher and cooler location.

She travelled to Ponnani, and it was there that an extraordinary event occurred, which was related to me by one of the descendants of the Brahmin priest who had taken part in the events.

During 1809 the Rajah's of Travancore and Cochin had been ousted from power, by an official supported by the East India Company.  This official had them begun to persecute many of the inhabitants of Cochin and the surrounding districts.  The Queen Mother and Aunt of the deposed Rajah had at first tried appealing to the EIC official in Cochin to prevent these abuses, before writing to Madras to no effect.

After several months they determined to try another way of getting help. They had somehow learned that Thomas Baber was an EIC official who was sympathetic to the plight of the Indian's so they determined to send three local officials to seek him out, and to try to get his support.

The story goes that these officials found Baber at Ponnani in a house with two floors.  They arrived at the house to try to meet him, but were told that they would have to wait as Thomas was too ill to come down to see them.  After a few minutes Helen arrived at the head of the stairs carrying a baby in her arms, and invited them to come up the stairs to see Thomas Baber.

As the three Indians climbed the stairs, all of a sudden the baby gave a great wringle and fell from Helen's arms.

Fortunately at that moment the Brahmin was stood immediately below Helen and was able to catch the baby, preventing its tumbling to the foot of the stairs.

As the Brahmins descendant related to me in 2006, this broke the tension for them.

Eventually the truth of the situation in Travancore and Cochin came out and an expedition was mounted to remove its abusive ruler.

Helen was to go on supporting her husband for many years ahead, through both thick and thin, as I will relate in future blog posts.

[1]Henry Hervey Baber’s Memoranda relating to the life of Henry Hervey Baber.
[2] The Asiatic Annual Register, or a View of the History of Hindustan, 1799. Page 147.
[3]Thomas Hervey Baber “An Account of the Slaves Population in the Western Peninsula of India”, page 36.
[4]OIOC O/6/9 folio 6.
[5]OIOC Mss Eur D.358, 20th Sept 1870 Page 131 to 133.


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