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The Peirce Leslie Saga

Posted by Maddy Labels: , , ,

Many scholars and sociologists have concluded that Kerala stands out among the other states in India and mention about the peculiar statistics concerning women, how they are balanced or even more in number in Kerala, how educated they are and how the gender equality situation is much better in Kerala, thereby constituting to its uniqueness in the world. But what most of you may not know is how that came about, especially the involvement of certain foreign companies and individuals who set out training and employing many hundreds of thousands of women from Kerala’s backward castes in the 19th and 20th centuries starting after the fact that Travancore boasted of the first girl’s school as early as 1819 (even though informal education for upper caste women was available much before that).

The Basel Evangelical Mission, the early entrepreneurs like the American James Darragh (read this article for details) and the partners Peirce and Leslie were some of the early employers of large numbers of women in their factories, and they deserve some praise for what they did. They were the people who laid the keel for the boat of development which set sail in the 1860’s. WKM Langley in his book on the PL (short for Peirce Leslie) saga and his times in Malabar, the veritable Garden of Eden as it was termed in those years, records all this for posterity. He remarks, in grand poetic style this, while writing about the cashew industry – ‘Malabar has no monopoly on this tree (cashew) which is indigenous to Brazil and grows more extensively in east Africa, but what Malabar does possess above all others are the nimble fingers and unrivalled skill of its beautiful women who alone make its benefits available to the markets of the world’. Amazing isn’t it , that it was those hard working ladies who delivered produce to various parts of the world, well beyond the age old but dwindling spice trade. They were the lassies working in the tea or coffee estates, or factories producing cashews, coir and rubber and quietly kept the Malabar, Cochin and Travancore economy going, even in those last depressing decades of British rule.

Peirce Leslie was a company that was such an important fixture at Calicut for a long period, located at a vantage location at the beach, close to the AIR station there. Its story is of course intertwined with those of the two founders of the company. Robert Hodges Peirce and Patrick Leslie were early Englishmen who put their trust in the value of the produce of the rain-washed Malabar, sometimes beyond the mandatory spices which as you know were and are treasured by traders of all times. Their fortunes impacted not only the coffers of the company but also so many people of Malabar who worked in this early commercial establishment in the region. Unlike Cochin and Aleppey which by then boasted of many overseas investments and factories, the Zamorin’s Malabar had been forgotten after the Brits had got themselves firmly entrenched in India. Thus was born the company we knew as Peirce Leslie. Until recently they had a presence in Calicut and PL as it was more commonly known, was not just trading Indian produce, shipping and forwarding, they even dabbled in travel and tourism. Why and what did these founders plan, when they started? I thought the story might be interesting for the avid Calicutphile. As you can imagine, it goes back a long way, to the dank dark days of 1862.

Calicut as you will realize did not have a good harbor and the closest was at Beypore or Vaypura as it was known then. The British had very ambitious ideas about the harbor and wanted to use it not only as a link point to send out material to Bombay or Arabian ports but also as a link point for mail and passengers. It was to become their Southwestern terminus for sea traffic to the Arab lands and rail traffic eastwards. The gold rush of 1850 had shaken the trading populace, the Moplah incidents of 1855 had passed, and the region was somewhat calm. The British now wanted to improve their businesses in Malabar, for Cochin and Travancore were separate kingdoms and time was ripe for Calicut to get connected to the British railway network. In March 1861, the first locomotive chugged into the Beypore station. The Madras Railway Company opened the Madras-Coimbatore-Beypoor (Calicut) railway line for traffic in 1862.

European businessmen started their move to Malabar in right earnest after the 1833 charter renewal of the EIC, and the first was the Basel Mission in 1834. Carpenters came, tile works were set up and as the EIC ended its charter in 1858 (258 years after its commencement in 1600), Pierce Leslie, Best, Rally, Volkart, Gordon Woodroffe, Ripley, Harrisons and Crossfield, Aspinwall and so many others established their businesses in India, many branching to Calicut.

A little background on the founders may be of some interest to the serious reader, and so we get to the stories of RH Peirce and his great friend P Leslie, who had started out to Ceylon and Cochin in the 1850’s to procure coconut oil. Just imagine, their story starts with an oil that rose to fame, then declined to the dumps as an evil fat and has now re-surged again to become the oil of choice and touted to cure everything in the western world, after all of hundred and sixty six years! Well, anyway they went to Ceylon to buy coconut oil for the manufacture of candles, being sent there by Price and Co for the Patent Candle Co. Soon Peirce meandered to Cochin where he was recorded as dealing with spices and settling down there to manage Wilson, Ritchie and Co. Leslie incidentally was managing another company until then, named AC Brice and Co. Peirce then married Carolyn Gore in 1860 and decided to find fresh pastures. After forming Peirce Leslie and Co in 1862, dabbling in the insurance sector, Peirce decided to move to Calicut in 1863, leaving Leslie in Cochin. Interestingly these two good friends were also good business partners, with Peirce being the aggressive businessman while Leslie remained the sedate anchor in the company. Around this time, Aspinwall and Volkart Bros entered the scene in Cochin to become the new company’s competitors.

Why did Peirce decide to move to Calicut? Well, it was without a doubt connected to the business relating to the coffee produce from the estates of Wyanad. With good foresight, RF Peirce contacted the Zamorin’s family and leased land in Karaparamaba to be the base for their go-downs and factories. Peirce then quickly formed an association with Parry and Co (recall my notes on Parry?) whereby he would cure the coffee beans from Parry’s estates at his new Karaparamba curing outfit in Calicut. Coffee curing as you may know, covers a whole gamut of mechanical and manual wok during which raw beans brought down from the estates are cleaned up and converted to a green form, after removing the husk and parchment cover, for this is the produce acceptable for sale and export. PL could do this only for the year 1864, for Parry set up shop themselves in Calicut right where the district court is located these days. Peirce and Carolyn in the meantime produced some 12 children, of which three died infants and Carolyn left for England in 1871. Leslie on the other hand got married to Jane Elizabeth in 1871. PL continued curing for the Nelliyampathy coffee estates produce and for Stanes & Co in Coimbatore.

With the capital thus acquired from their first success, they left the coffee curing business and moved on to export of various kinds of produce (coir, cashews, coir products, coconut fiber, timber, ginger etc.), ranching out to Tellicherry as well in 1870. Sometime in 1873, Leslie went to London, after severing his ties with PL Malabar. DL Gilkison then became Peirce’s partner, but Peirce died soon after at Calicut, in 1878, leaving the business in Gilkison’s hands. Peirce was apparently buried in the Dutch cemetery close to the beach which later became the Connolly Park, after which the gravestones were moved to the St Mary’s church. Two of his sons came back to India and one worked as a tea broker in Cochin while the other worked in Madras, was involved with the Periyar dam construction and the fish research factory in Feroke. Leslie had three children, of which one died young, while the other an engineer died at Madras. Leslie though continued on as the PL agent in London until 1883, branched off to his own company and died in 1940. With these important actions and events which followed, the original founders became as they say proverbially, pictures on the wall.

Gilkison who took over on the other hand had been a true adventurer, venturing into the wars in Argentina and America before getting into business and marrying into money. He stewarded the fortunes of PL for the next 40 years starting from 1878. William Maylor who worked at the Beypore iron works and who built the screw pile pier at Calicut became his partner (he later built the Aleppey pier, fought with Gilkison over the profits of this venture and was the builder of the coffee pulper and donor of the bell at the St Mary’s church) until 1885. The next major partner was AW Macrae (Burnett was another but he left after a bitter argument with Gilkison).


Those were as Langley remarks, heady days when Gilkison would ride on his horse to Wyanad in the morning at a brisk trot uphill and ride back the same evening. A shrewd businessman, he was known to strike hard bargains while managing some very efficient and honest staff, but then again he spent considerable time traveling between Calicut and London, finally settling down in London in 1883. Soon he branched into not just exporting out of Malabar, but also importing various goods including white cloth into Malabar, instead of depending on Bombay agents. Their biggest import go-down was located at Palghat. Can you imagine that PL supplied used (imported) newspapers to local shops for packing, and can you believe that Kasavu gold thread was imported to Malabar, through PL, during those times?

In 1890, the Calicut post office relocated and that building became the new PL office. Pl which was previously HQ’d in the silk street moved to the beach. In 1901 it became a private limited company. Soon they moved to the more spacious Zilla buildings, leased in 1905. That was indeed a curious story dating back to Tipu Sultan, for the Zilla was hallowed property, which brought much misfortunes to the previous occupants. This was where Tipu killed a number of Brahmins after which the locale was considered cursed. The company Schlunk and Schonert occupied the area next and built offices and a bungalow (next door was Volkart brothers), but collapsed speculating in ginger. Meanwhile, Gilkison died in 1917 leaving Macrae in charge. WW1 ended, the German property which had been taken over by the British as enemy property was sold to PL in 1919. PL it appears, did not suffer from the Brahmin curse and went on to do very well. Soon their baling and printing factories were moved to this Zilla Location, from Karaparamaba. The Macrae’s were responsible for hosting many social events in Calicut, such as Christmas, the Saturday parade and sports day but also left back for London in 1911.

You know, they had interesting practices in those days, for example, Macrae filled one of his table drawers with letters stating that it was his principle that most letters if left long enough, answered themselves (but it is believed that he just parceled unimportant letters into that drawer). By 1916. Macrae was also gone, from a heart attack. John Christie took over, was a prominent Calicut Cole-hole lodge member and known to be very charitable, especially to the Anglo Indian crowd of Calicut and a sociable chap, famous for his breakfasts on Christmas and Good Fridays at the Malabar Club. And it is in Langley’s accounts where I found another nugget, that there was a golf course West hill, and a Golf club in Calicut of which Christie was a member. Langely who came in later, for example formed the Kerala cricket club in Calicut (remember my article on the Canterbury week and the cricket tournament at Calicut?).

Going back to the PL activities, coffee was of course prime in the beginning and as we saw, even Stanes & Co sent coffee from Mettupalayam via Coimbatore to PL in Calicut for curing, till Stanes set up his factory in Coimbatore with advice from Peirce, who surprisingly did it fully conscious that he would lose his business. The coffee business was affected by various disease and later the gold rush (see article linked), finally succumbing to cinchona cultivation. By WW2, there was little Wyanad coffee. As an offshoot, manure mixing and distribution became a profitable business for PL, located at West hill. Of course all the produce sourcing and export was another business, and soon coconut oil became a mainstay, used for the manufacture of glycerin, an important product for the war effort. Cashew kernels and cashew shell liquid (used for phenol production) became profitable and the Karaparamba cashew factory was not enough, requiring new PL cashew factories in other locations like Quilon. This cashew business was actually a windfall and mushroomed during and after the WW2. Rubber export too formed a leg in its operations. In general one can conclude that there was little PL did not dabble in, be it paints (Shalimar paints dealers) or tiles.

Post Second World War, the scene changed with Cochin becoming a year round port. As all other ports were closed during the war, Cochin rose to importance and PL did well with the shipping business. After India became independent, the import business collapsed, most of the British management comprising 123 or so Europeans left, and some years later, the company passed into Indian hands, in 1968. In 1969, the private limited company became a deemed public limited company and in 1995, a new subsidiary Company Peirce Leslie Cashews and Coffee Limited was formed to handle cashew and coffee business. PL Worldways Limited and PL International Limited became subsidiaries of the Company.


But we cannot leave the account without a quick mention of a prominent British PL manager, fondly known to people of Calicut as Bolland Sayip. His story has to be recounted in more detail separately, which I will do later, but here is a quick synopsis. Bolland came to India in 1946 to work for the British owned Peirce Leslie, worked in Kundara from 1947 to 1949 and in Kozhikode from 1950 to 1967. In 1968, Mr. Bolland relocated to Kochi and played a major role in turning the British company into an Indian one, Peirce Leslie India Ltd. He became its first managing director. His contribution to the arts of Kerala is priceless, and his efforts at archiving and recording various art forms unmatched. Bolland lived in Kerala for 25 years and documented the performances of some of the early masters of Kathakali, authoring a book, ‘A Guide to Kathakali’.He went back to retire in England and live in his aptly-named home Malabar in Somerset, England, passing away recently.

References
Century in Malabar – The history of Peirce Leslie and Co 1862-1962, Ed WKM Langley
Calicut city centenary celebration Souvenir

Pictures courtesy – WKM Langley book, CCC Souvenir