Sunday, November 16, 2008

White Mughals in South India: The Life and Times of East India Company Officers in Malabar

WILLIAM DALRYMPLE's The White Mughals is a book which describes the fascinating life of the early British officers who came to India in the service of the English East India Company in 18th and early 19th centuries. Many of them fell in love with this exotic land of orient and became a unique society that was a heady mix of the east and the west.

There were so many British officials who came to South India during the same period, as the conquest of India started with the many wars they waged in the south, mainly against Hyderali and Tipu Sultan of Mysore.

After the second Anglo-Mysore War, Malabar, then under Tipu Sultan, fell to the British control in 1792. One of the fiercest resistances they faced then was from Pazhassi Rajah of Kottayam. It was Thomas Baber, the commander of British forces, who defeated Pazhassi Rajah. One of the natives who helped him was Pulapre Karunakara Menon who identified Pazhassi’s body.

Mr. Nick Balmer is a descendant of Thomas Baber and he was in Kozhikode recently visiting the places where colonial history was made. He has written extensively on this in his blog, Malabar Days. ( He recently wrote a few letters to me about the life of his great ancestors, and other things that came to him through the large collection of private letters he has seen.

I paste an edited version of his letters which are of immense value to an understanding of the life and times of the early British who came to our region a few centuries ago:

Dear Mr Chekkutty,

As an Englishman I feel that I should be very careful about interfering in India's affairs, and I can well understand that many people there must have very mixed feelings about things associated with what must appear to many as a dark period in India's existence.

But I believe that things like that palanquin [donated by EIC to Pulapre Karunakara Menon that was missing from Calicut University for some time] point to another side of those events a long time ago.

K Menon [Pulapre Karunakara Menon, an official with the English East India Company] was obviously a very effective individual, and he would have been an outstanding leader even if the British had never been there. As it was he worked within the British system to protect his community. It is very telling that in all the correspondence (several thousand letters) I have read he is almost the only Indian mentioned apart from criminals, rebels or rajahs.

He was also deeply respected for his abilities and knowledge by people like T Baber, Sir Thomas Munro and Graeme. They turned to him to explain how societies worked in Malabar.

Influenced by Menon they were trying to design systems of governance to enable the laws to be re-written to suit the local conditions. It was very sad that Sir Thomas Munro died of cholera before he could implement many of the reforms. That cholera bug set back India considerably.

Sadly most Brits were never able to get close enough to the local societies to become able to appreciate its good points. The generation of EIC civil servants who went out in the 1790s and early 1800s were quite different from the later 19th century ones.

I am afraid that my 4 x great uncle is responsible for a lot of the Malabar material in the British library, and the Victoria & Albert Museum. His brother, my 3 x great grandfather was Keeper of the Printed Books at the British Library from 1809 until 1835. He was a Vicar and was very interested in religious texts.

Thomas brought home at least 27 Granthams that he presented to the library. I cannot read Malayalam, or date Granthams, but a very kind and erudite lady from Cochin went with me to look at two of these Granthams. She thought they were of 16th century, and of the highest quality.

I don't know if he was given them, or if he acquired them by fair means or foul, but I do know that he was very interested in old Malayalam texts and spent so much time in Tellicherry temples that these temples hold a belief to this day that he became a Hindu.

I think that is one step too far, but he certainly had a great interest in Hindu texts. It would be surprising if he didn't, his father, grandfather, and especially great grandfather all had very big libraries. His great grandfathers took 11 nights to sell [the books] at auction in 1766, and was catalogued as being the largest collection of Spanish and Italian books in England, although it had Latin, Greek, French as well.

Thomas also appears to have collected and preserved many of the best of the weapons his men confiscated from the Pazhassi Rajah’s forces as well as the other insurgents (freedom fighters) he fought against. Many of these survived until 1924 in his house at Tellicherry. I held the last remaining spear when I was there. The rest went into a river to avoid there being used in the revolt.

However in 1832 he presented the best of his collection to the Royal Asiatic Society. I have discovered a list of these weapons with a very detailed description of each weapon. These went to the Victoria and Albert Museum in the 1880s. I am currently trying to find the time to go to the museum to see if I can track them down.

It is very likely that they are in the reserve collection there.

Thomas commissioned portraits of many of the Nambootiris who taught him about Hindu culture.

I really enjoyed my trip to East Hill and the Collectors building. I spent several hours in the building which is very interesting for what it tells me about the mindset of the original builder. I don't know for definite who he was, but it could well have been Mr.Pearson.The bungalow and court appears to be built on a model derived from Classical Roman ideas, possibly to work like a Roman villa. At that time Rome provided the inspiration for many buildings in Britain and indeed across the world being built by these classically educated British.

I have contrasted it with the entrance room at Thomas Baber's house at Pallikunnu. The East Hill building was built 5 to 10 years before Pallikunnu. I believe Thomas Baber had visited East Hill, but I believe he understood that Roman, and indeed British law was not entirely applicable to the Malabar.

I have some very vivid accounts of Connolly’s death. He seems to have been a man with a genuine interest in the welfare of the villagers, and appears to have put great effort into developing teak plantations. I expect these must have affected many villages, and perhaps the villagers didn't like that.

I have a copy of a very interesting account of a trip made from Calicut in the late 1820's by Thomas Baber to Sullivan near Ootty. In it Thomas Baber describes and compares the landscape he is passing with its appearance when he had previously been along the same route in about 1803. It clearly shows that there had been a tall canopy forest over much of the route in 1803, but that forestry had removed most of the canopy trees by the late 1820s. If that was the case, there would only have been low re-growth scrub over much of the area formerly before 1803 covered by tall jungle.

It is odd that we think deforestation is a modern issue, but it exercised many minds as far back as 1820. But of course we never really learn.


Nick Balmer

1 comment:

sHihab mOgraL said...

Rare experience of reading..
Thank you for bringing these informations in your blog

with warm regards,

Shihab Mogral
Dubai- UAE