Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Loner’s Battle Against Slavery: Thomas Hervey Baber and Slavery in Malabar

Looking back at a single person’s historic battle against the practice of slavery in Malabar on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the release of slaves found in an English plantation in 1811.

IN the Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad describes a moment when the mist lifts unexpectedly, revealing a view of the mysterious surrounds: A momentary revelation of the interior of a Dark Continent, converted into an area of darkness by the marauding forces of Imperialism.

In Malabar, an area which had come under European powers much before Africa surrendered itself to the builders of Empire, such a momentary flash of lightning that revealed the miserable plight of the natives after the arrival of these civilizing forces came exactly 200 years ago, when a young and energetic East India Company officer conducted a search on the premises of a European planter to discover a large number of kidnapped people, forced into slavery. The incident of search on the premises of a European, discovery and the eventual release of slaves despite heavy odds, was one among a series of developments that finally led to the formal ban on slavery in British India three decades later, in 1843.

Slavery was widely practised in Malabar even before the British East India Company took power there in 1792; it was mainly in the form of agrestic bondage, with slave castes attached to the agricultural lands for generations being bought and sold along with the lands. The Indian Law Commissioners in their report on slavery in 1841 noted that castes like Cherumas [slave castes in Malabar] were treated as “absolute property; they are part of the livestock on an estate.” Traditional Hindu and Mohammedan laws had both accepted it, and the EIC’s own fledgling legal system refused to meddle with it, accepting the practice as normal and legitimate. But in the case of Europeans and especially British citizens, the laws were definitely in a grey zone: Most of them owned slaves and used them in their domestic employ, but trading in slaves and forcing people into slavery were treated as criminal offence. The order passed in 1793, by Jonathan Duncan, then Commissioner for the Bombay province, did not prohibit sale of slaves within the province, but disallowed “the practice of shipping kidnapped and other natives as slaves.” The early English approach to slavery is explained in an observation made by Sir William James, chief justice in Calcutta, in 1785. He said, ”It is needless to expatiate on the law (if it be law) of private slavery; but I make no scruple to declare my own opinion, that absolute unconditional slavery, by which one human creature becomes the property of another, like a horse or an ox, is happily unknown to the laws of England, and that no human law could give it a just sanction; yet, though I hate the word, the continuance of it, properly explained, can produce little mischief.”

Though the slaves in Malabar were generally attached to agricultural lands and were employed as agrestic labour, buying and selling of slaves and massive shipping of them for sale outside the province were quite common. Arab ships operating from Muscat and other islands in the Persian Gulf, and many adventurous sailors of European origin operating in the twilight zones of law and anarchy, carried out this lucrative business and various ports in the subcontinent were known to be hubs of such illegal activities. In the Malabar coast, the French-controlled Mahe was known to be a major base for such operations.

Post -1792, Malabar was going through a period of disturbances mainly because of the challenges posed by rebels like Pazhassi Rajah, which continued for more than a decade.The rebels were often in control of the routes that connected the spice-producing Wayanad hill region with coastal towns, making it difficult for the East India Company to procure hill produces like pepper, cinnamon and other spices for export to Europe. In spite of an EIC monopoly on spices trade, a huge network of shady traders and dealers had sprung up, a black market for contraband wares developed, and many EIC officials were making exorbitant amounts in such deals working in cahoots with local traders who operated these networks.

It was then an idea was mooted with the presidency’s rulers in Bombay (Malabar was under Bombay presidency till1800) by a private trader in Mahe called Murdoch Brown (1750-1828) who suggested development of a plantation to cultivate spices in an area closer to the coastal town of Thalassery. In 1797, Duncan, by then governor of Bombay, agreed to the proposal and a 2000-acre plantation was decided to be set up at Anjarakkandy, with Murdoch Brown appointed as overseer of the project. Later, the company transferred ownership of the estate to Brown on a 99-year lease agreement executed in 1802. This gave him the unique distinction of being the first English landholder in India and its first planter.

Brown was a very industrious and colourful character, who was born in Edinburgh in Scotland. He travelled to Lisbon as a young man and from there reached Calicut in 1775 as a consul for Empress Maria Theresa of Austria; served various European powers, then in constant conflict in the Indian Ocean region, and eventually became one of the most influential persons on the western coast of India. Duncan, with whom he had cultivated a close relationship, described him in 1792 as the most considerable of any British subject on that side of India.

But unlike Duncan, others in EIC service had different, and not that flattering, opinions on Brown. When Brown was appointed by Duncan as Malabar interpreter to the Commissioners, Walter Ewer, another senior officer, wrote directly to Henry Dundas, company chairman in London, in 1796: “He is said to be & really appears to be, a Scotsman... [though] he has lived in Mahe as a Dane, & an Austrian, & finished his career of countries, by defending the place in arms, as a Frenchman, in which situation he was taken; let him chuse (sic) his country; being found in arms, he is certainly a prisoner of war; it’s said he was concerned in the war before last, with some merchants of Bombay, in supplying the enemy [Tipu Sultan] with provisions & stores....”

But neither criticisms nor adversities affected the fortunes of Murdoch Brown: He is said to have lost 11 ships, East Indiamen, of 1000 tons or more in the war with France; and later in 1803, in an attack on his plantation by the Coteote [Kuttiadi] rebels, all his buildings and nearly all the productive vines and coffee plants were destroyed. In those days, the plantation was a constant target of rebel attack and Francis Buchanan, who visited Malabar in January 1801, writes in his Travels:” The plantation has of late been much molested by the Nairs, and the eastern part of it has fallen into their hands; so that for the protection of what remains, it has been necessary to station a European Officer, with a company of Sepoys, at Mr Brown’s house. The Nairs are so bold, that at night they frequently fire into Mr Brown’s dwelling: and the last officer stationed there was lately shot dead, as he was walking in front of the house.”

Brown was a highly innovative planter, experimenting with a variety of plants brought from various parts of the world and introducing commercial plantation of many items like pepper, coffee, cinnamon, cotton, etc, in those early days which involved many years of trial-and-error experiments. In a letter published in Asiatic Journal in 1844, his son F C Brown, who inherited the plantation, recalls that “coffee, originally termed Malabar coffee, was produced from seeds which my father obtained from Arabia, nearly half a century ago, years before Java coffee was extensively known in Europe as an article of import.”

Murdoch Brown used local labourers for his extensive and ambitious agricultural operations, his plantation having a large number of coolies, mainly Thiyyas and Mappilas, besides many slaves, mostly Cherumas, Pulayas and other slave castes. Brown had claimed that he was doing everything to help their uplift, “educating them and Christianizing them by native catechists and German missionaries,” giving them a weekly day off and setting up a school for their children, etc; but in spite of all his philanthropic pretensions, he was rumoured to have kept a large number of natives abducted from the southern parts of Malabar and Travancore as slaves in his estate.

Having come to know about slave-running ”by the merest accident”, as he put it later, North Malabar’s English magistrate, Thomas Hervey Baber (1777-1843), decided to investigate and ordered a team of officials to search Murdoch Brown’s premises at Anjarakkandy towards the end of 1811. He found 71 persons, many of them children, stolen from the southern parts like Travancore, in Murdoch Brown’s possession and altogether 123 persons were restored to liberty and were allowed to return to their country. But there was considerable resistance to such a firm action, not only from Brown who challenged it in court, but even from EIC’s own establishment, as Baber describes in his 1832 note to the Commissioners for Indian affairs. It was ”after a considerable opposition on the part of the provincial court of circuit, [that] I succeeded in putting an end to this nefarious traffic,” he points out.

There was nothing surprising in this response: Murdoch Brown, as overseer of the company’s plantation, had been receiving the active support and connivance of EIC’s European as well as local officers in procuring workmen, and also purchasing as many slaves as necessary for his use in the plantation. The tehsildars and their peons (armed persons with badges of office) were frequently used for such purposes and the evidence recorded after the search proved that even local police officers, called daroghas, were used for kidnapping and forwarding freeborn children as slaves to the north to work in Brown’s estates. Brown had been involved in this activity for over 12 years, from 1798 to 1811, under the authority of the Bombay Government as he had impressed upon them the need for official support as the “price of labour was more than what he was authorised to give.”

Magistrate Baber’s action, exposing the underbelly of the civilizing mission of Imperialism, in a remote part of the British Indian empire, turned out to be a huge embarrassment for the EIC establishment and a severe indictment of its own duplicity and double standards as it proved beyond doubt that the Company’s own officers were directly involved in the act of slave-running. Though there was an underlying tension between the Bombay and Madras establishments of the Company administration (Malabar was shifted from the control of Bombay presidency to Madras in 1800) that added a twist to the internal debates over slavery triggered by this incident, the Company’s governing council in India or the Board of Control back home could not ignore it altogether. First, Baber, though a lower ranking official then, his contributions had already been widely noticed with appreciation within the Company administration, as he was primarily responsible for the defeat and slaying of its principal enemy since the demise of Tipu, Pazhassi Rajah of Kottayam, in a remote and dense tropical forest in Wayanad in 1805, an action which earned him encomiums from the Governor in Council; and secondly, the most despicable practice of slavery in the western hemisphere had become quite an embarrassment for the British rulers in the succeeding decades forcing them to take firm and stringent steps to prevent such occurrences in its Indian possessions, especially at a time when more and more people were turning to plantation business in various parts of India that required huge numbers of cheap labour. Baber’s detailed replies to the questionnaire circulated by the Law Commissioners for their report on slavery in India had been extensively reported and quoted not only in Indian and British journals, and mentioned even in Parliament; but also across the Atlantic, in various journals and pamphlets brought out by anti- slavery campaigners and associations in the United States.

By the time of the 1811 search on Anjarakkandy estate, T H Baber had been for 14 years in the EIC service, having joined it early in 1797 as a 20-year -old writer in Bombay, after completing his course at the Haileybury College of the East India Company in London. The second son of a solicitor, the family had lived initially at Yorkshire, then at Lincolnshire and London. Like most of the early recruits to EIC service, he too had influential contacts within the Company administration, including his uncle Edward Baber who had been secretary to the Governor-General, Warren Hastings, in Calcutta. Thomas Baber was sent to Malabar, a newly acquired territory that has been experiencing high level of rebel activity and his immediate task was to chase rebels and restore peace in the region. His moment of glory came when he was able to trace the most powerful rebel, the Pazhassi Rajah, who was, for almost a decade, carrying on a guerrilla warfare against the Company rule with deadly effect, in his forest hideout and shoot him dead, a task in which even Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, had failed.

Thus the searches in the plantation brought two interesting personalities, who represented two distinct streams in the history of colonialism, face to face: One was described as a person among the last of the “rascally adventurous”, who always “looked after his pocket, whether as a Scot, Dane, Austrian, Frenchman or North Briton”, the flags of nationality Murdoch Brown had waved in his long career as a fortune-seeker. The other was a true representative of the new bourgeois, who had visions of civilizing the pagan lands, whose services were remembered by a native at the end of his 40 years of career, as “sterling and meritorious”, whose talents “entitled him to the highest estimation amongst the natives” and the “impartial manner of conducting his duties earned the unremitted (sic) satisfaction of the ryots and interest to the government.” But in spite of all these, Baber found himself pitted against an unresponsive and even hostile administration and he had complaints about the judicial system which put up “considerable opposition” against the release of kidnapped slave kids.

The hue and cry following the discovery of kidnapped people, forced into slavery, at an English citizen’s estate continued for decades. References to this incident were made in Parliament, and there were several articles in various journals and other publications. It was widely noted that the plantation itself was started by the Company; its official establishment was pressed into service to procure slaves and even to transport kidnapped people; and attention also focused on the miserable plight of the peasantry and slaves ever since the Company took the reins of power in Malabar. Baber contended that the practice of separating the slaves from their lands and selling them for revenue arrears of their masters, even splitting their families, was an “innovation” brought in by the British administration; he argued that the practice of kidnapping children for slavery had its origin directly in the ”impolitic action“ of permitting Brown to procure slaves; and Assen Ally, the agent of Brown, who had arranged most of these children, acknowledged at trial that during the time he was in Alleppey, in Travancore, in 1810, no less than 400 of them had been transported to Malabar.

The liberation of the slaves had other reverberations too, especially in those regions from where they were abducted. In 1812, Colonel J Munro, British resident in Travancore, wrote to Baber expressing gratitude of the rulers there for their release. He said, “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 Alleppey. I received numerous complaints of the disappearance of children; but all my enquiries at the time could not develop the causes of them... 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.”

During the trial, Murdoch Brown took the defence that it was a widespread practice in Malabar and there was no family among the Mohammedans and Christians in Malabar towns where they did not have slaves brought from other places. Later on, he blamed his agent, Assen Ally, for providing him with kidnapped children without his knowledge, though a few children, who were born high caste, had given evidence that they had been forced to eat with the low-caste boys by Valia Achan (Brown) with a view to polluting them so that they could be [legally] kept as slaves. With reference to the evidence produced before the court, Baber noted that these slaves had been ”kidnapped in Travancore, and sold to British subjects, and even the free-born children of various castes of Hindoos, subjects of the Cochin and Travancore rajahs, reduced to slavery in the Honourable Company’s dominions, who had been procured by the most fraudulent and violent means, and deprived of their caste by cutting off their lock of hair (the distinguishing mark of their caste), by making them eat prohibited food, and by otherwise disguising and polluting them.” The Advocate General in Madras, Ansthruther, who had examined the case more than once, refers to “Mr Baber’s perseverance in restoring the kidnapped children, in spite of very extraordinary opposition” and to the “extraordinary support Mr Brown appears to have received in these dealings in stolen children.” Ansthruther further remarks in his observations following a reference of the case to him in 1813: “The conduct of Mr Baber, in the whole investigation as to the slaves, appeared to me at the time to be highly praiseworthy... I see every mark of a strong feeling of compassion for the children who had been stolen from their parents, and a determination to restore them to liberty, zealously pursued in spite of very extraordinary opposition, without any symptom of that personal rancour which is strongly charged against Mr Baber.”(quoted in report on Slavery in India, Asiatic Journal, December, 1828.)

However, no one was surprised in the outcome of the case: In spite of the hard evidence Baber had marshaled, none of the accused --only the agents of Brown, who were persons in his employ, were brought to trial-- were found guilty and the case was dismissed on some technical grounds in Mohammedan Law, then practised in criminal courts in Malabar, as Baber himself points out in his deposition before the Select Committee of House of Lords on East India affairs in April 1830. He never concealed his bitterness about the provincial court of circuit-- to which he himself had been elevated later as a judge --taking a view that helped continue and legitimize a practice he thought reprehensible and nefarious; and he openly spoke about the considerable opposition he faced from the court in putting an end to this practice in Malabar. Even the report of the Law Commission on slavery, while praising the substantial work done by Baber for the “suppression of the trafficking in slaves” from the south to Malabar, refers to the fact that the court had an opinion quite different from that of Baber in the matter.

For Baber, this incident of discovery and release of slaves in an Englishman’s estate was not just a matter of a legal case; he considered it as an issue of principle and policies pursued by the British administration in India, and he had to take on a reactionary establishment; in the process earning himself powerful enemies that put his life and career at stake in the ensuing years. In his 1832 note, he says that “unfortunately the measure was not supported by those in whom the legislature had reposed the controlling authority, over the acts of the executive administration, but on the contrary, I had to contend even against their systematic opposition in those individual acts of violence and cruelty; the conspiracy that was formed against my life, through the machinations of the principal slave-owner,. ..but all this had no effect in deterring me from persevering in that righteous cause I had engaged in, and it was not until I found myself deserted by the Government itself, by an avowal of their apprehension of repeating the expression of their approbation of my conduct, lest it should aggravate this distempered feeling, as the struggle between the ardent zeal of an individual and the selfish views of a party, was called.”

One of the principal disputes Baber had with the Company administration was over the way the slaves were treated as commercial property; auctioning them off to recover revenue arrears of their masters, often dividing families in the process, separating parents from children and husbands from wives. As a judicial officer in the Company’s provinces, he took cognizance of such complaints and demanded explanation from the Revenue authorities which evoked considerable friction and enmity as the latter thought no action was improper in the pursuit of revenue collection as demands of taxation were exorbitant and hence called for every ruthless act on their part to realise it. In fact, James Vaughan, collector of Malabar, makes this view explicit in his comments when the issue of prevention of sale of slaves for revenue arrears came up for discussion in 1819. He argues for the continuance of this practice, saying ”that the partial measure of declaring them not liable to be sold for arrears of revenue, will be a drop in the ocean; though, why Government should give up the right every proprietor enjoys, is a question worthy of consideration.”

These larger questions of policy seem to have been underneath many of the disputes Baber had with his superiors, especially after the untimely death of Governor Sir Thomas Munro (1761-1827), with whom he had maintained a very cordial relationship and who generally approved of his views, until his suspension from service in January 1828, on an alleged charge of assault in Mangalore where he served at that time, and afterwards. It was S R Lushington, Governor of Madras who took over after Munro, that ordered the suspension, an action which Baber fought successfully in London, and was eventually reinstated as principal collector and political agent at Dharwar in the Bombay presidency a few years later. It is interesting to note how this battle went on uninterrupted, even years after. In 1833, on his return to service, Baber hits back at his detractors, keeping in mind a dig taken at him by Lushingtons’s brother in some official records, some time back, as follows: “...and here it will not be out of place to notice Mr C M Lushington’s most wanton attack on me, in his report dated the first of July 1819, (for no other reason that I can see, than that like his brother the late governor of Madras, he would prosecute every man who had not his political prepossessions--for I never saw the man in my life), wherein, after vindicating this custom of “selling human beings like so many cattle”, and “this system of perpetual labour,” (as he himself writes), he insolently observes, “it is however possible that the advocate of freedom may think with Cicero and the third judge in Malabar [a reference to Baber], “Mihil liber esse non videtur qui non aliquando nihil agit”[Only a free man can be idle], and this further calumny (instead of returning the letter as every authority that did not countenance these attacks upon character would have done) the Board of Revenue actually incorporate in their own proceedings without a single comment upon the impropriety of such personal allusions in official documents.”

These tussles, however, were not confined to official files and internecine sniping within the administration; but as Baber himself notes, his unconventional views and bold actions had earned him many enemies who were conspiring to finish him off. One of the incidents, widely discussed in official documents, refers to an attempt to provoke him into a duel, a practice that had been prevalent in colonial outposts in the early 19th century. Baber had complained to the authorities that Lt. F C Brown, then a young man with the 80th Foot Regiment of Her Majesty’s Army, came to his residence at Thalassery in October 1812 and demanded an explanation on the rumours that were allegedly spread by Baber against his father, Murdoch Brown. Baber denied he was involved in any false campaigns against Brown, but Brown Junior was not satisfied and he and his friends, all EIC servants, challenged him to a duel.

Baber refused to oblige, asserting he was not answerable to them on matters concerning his official responsibilities. Brown Jr, who accused him of being a professed enemy and persecutor of his father, proceeded to put up posters in the town accusing Baber as “a liar and a coward.”

That led to another round of troubles, and after an investigation, the Government resolved to remove from Thalassery the persons involved in the affairs, namely Lt. Brown, and his friends Douglas, Gahagan and Harrison. The Government also allowed Baber to proceed with criminal action against them, which resulted in jail term for all the accused. The sentences were as follows: “Brown Jr to be imprisoned for two months and two weeks, and pay a fine of 100 pagodas; Douglas, to be imprisoned five months and two weeks, and pay a fine of 1000 pagodas; Gahagan, to be imprisoned three months and two weeks and pay a fine of 100 pagodas, and all of them bound to keep the peace for three years.”

An interesting aside to this story is that F C Brown (1792-1868) later became one of the sharpest critics of colonial administration in India, and during his 1848 deposition before the House of Lords Select Committee on cotton production in India, he accuses the colonial rule of causing the complete destruction of Indian agriculture, anticipating and powerfully articulating some key arguments later developed by Indian nationalists like Dadabhai Naoroji and Ramesh Chander Dutt. His long experience and intimate links with the natives as a planter and an agriculturist in Thalassery had made him acutely aware of the tremendous negative impact of colonial policies in India. In fact, after his return to England in 1838, he emerged as a pioneer in reform movements focused on India, associated with launching the first of such organisations, the British India Society, in London a few months later, in July 1839.

For Baber, despite his huge efforts and some minor victories against his personal detractors, it was proving to be an uphill task: As most of the first-generation EIC officials were leaving the scene and new administrators taking their place, the colonial policies were changing and attitudes getting harder. He found himself abandoned by the Government, in his pursuit of a humane policy towards the native slaves, when the Government in an official minute (Dated 22 January 1823) made it clear that it thought “the simple intimation that Government approves of the conduct of Mr Baber, might even increase these evils.” A frank and forthright declaration of its abdication of the rule of law!

Then he goes on to declare: “Since that time, I have confined myself to occasional notice of the condition of Malabar slaves, as often as my public attention has been drawn to the subject, but with little or no benefit to the unfortunate slaves, who continue the same reprobated people as ever, as their half-famished persons, their sieves of huts, and the diminution of their numbers, while every other class of people is increasing, abundantly testify.” In a recent study on slavery in colonial India, historian Tanika Sarkar makes an objective assessment of Baber’s disenchantment with colonial policies: Baber, a British officer, wrote in indignation that it was colonial rule that really put into practice the evil custom of selling slaves off the land they habitually tilled and of separating slave families by sale. Even though the Indian slave-owners did possess the right theoretically, they seldom exercised it….Baber strongly criticized the stock anti-abolitionist argument that forced labour ought to be retained because the higher castes would otherwise be totally helpless, being as they were traditionally divorced from the cultivation process. According to him, such rigid caste prescriptions were being steadily eroded, and the upper castes were increasingly drawing closer to production, a process that would have been encouraged by the emancipation of captive labour. Colonial policy then, not only continued the old hierarchy but actively froze it and choked the potential for change. A similar process was observed in the case of slaves: “I have observed amongst the slaves in the vicinity of large towns a growing spirit of industry and independence which, but for the countenance their masters have received from us [the British]…would have ripened into an assertion of their liberty long ago.” (Tanika Sarkar, Chains of Servitude: Bondage and Slavery in India, eds. Utsa Patnaik& Manjari Dingwaney.)

Thomas Baber signed off his historic note referring to himself as Late First Judge, Western Division, Madras territories, an office which he had held for a long time, bringing him into close contact with the lives of common people. A few years later, Baber tendered his resignation, and having been relieved on first of March 1839, he returned to live among the natives in Thalassery where he had started off his career four decades earlier. After the death of his wife Helen Somerville Fearon in 1840, the lonely crusader was practically alone-- as his only surviving son Henry Fearon Baber had shifted his base to far-away Kurseong in Darjeeling--and he died in Kannur in 1843. Now, two centuries later, his words remain a powerful testimony of the injustice done to a section of Indian people oppressed by a cruel caste system, and a harsh critique of the insensitive colonial policy towards these people, who, unfortunately have to struggle even today for their true emancipation in a liberal and democratic Republic of India.

(I am thankful to Dr John E C Roberts, New York, and Nicholas Balmer, London, for their comments on an earlier draft and support in the research work for this article.)

A version of this article has been published at www.infochangeindia.org, January 2011.