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Thomas Baber and the Nair’s of Malabar

Posted by Maddy Labels:

ThomasBaber was an official of the East India Company, who is generally remembered today, as the man who tracked down the Pazhassi Raja Kerala Varma on the 30th of November 1805 (Thomas Hervey Baber (1777 to 1843) is also Blogger Nick Balmer’s great great great great uncle and Nick has introduced him in detail in his early blogs).

Thomas Baber after joining the EIC, sailed from England to Bombay, arriving in the New Year 1797. It appears that within months of his arrival in Bombay, Thomas was sent to Tellicherry where some of the EIC factories were located. From 1798 to 1808 he served in the EIC revenue department. In 1804 he was sub collector of Malabar under Thomas Warden. He then held a position as Zillah Judge (District judge) 1808-1816 in Tellicherry after which he was transferred to Mangalore as the third judge of the Western provincial court during 1816-1824. After those years, he moved to Bombay on account of health problems and then back to Dharwar as Principal Collector & political agent 1824-1827. Later he was appointed as the first Judges of the Western provincial court. In 1838, he retired and moved back to Telicherry. In all he spent over 30 years in the western Konkan, Maratha & Malabar regions.

It was in 1830 that he was summoned to provide evidence at the House of Lords on various EIC matters. Let us take a look at what happened. These responses will tell you quite a bit about the historical settings of the early 19th century Malabar and TH Baber himself.

Affairs of the East India Company Minutes of evidence: 2nd April 1830, House of Lords - England

Thomas Harvey Baber Esquire is called in

What follows are a few extracts from the statement. The complete document is available in various books and public domain websites

Had you any opportunity of becoming acquainted with the inhabitants of any other Part of Hindostan besides the District of Malabar?

Yes; the Southern Mahratta Country, lying between the Kisna and the Toongbudra Rivers.

Do you think that the natives of the Malabar Coast were more strict observers of truth than the other inhabitants of Hindostan whom you had an opportunity of observing?

Certainly; decidedly so.

To what Cause do you attribute that?

To their keen sense of honour, and high notions, and spirit of independence.

An extraordinary instance of the former occurred in a trial which came before me. A female of the Nair caste had cohabited with a relation within what they call the prohibited degrees. The circumstance coming to the knowledge of their family, an application was made to me to punish the offending parties, (both the Man and the Woman.)

I observed that the case was not provided for in the regulations as a matter of criminal cognizance; that perhaps an action for damages might lie against the man, but that I saw no advantage that would result there from to the family; I therefore recommended to them to refer the matter to their own caste; observing that they had the power to expel the delinquents from their caste; that this was the only remedy I knew of or could suggest.

They then petitioned me to have the parties taken up, and banished the country; they particularly requested that I would send them to His Highness The Rajah of Coorg, whose district adjoined that country. This I told them also was not in my power. The two seniors of the family, who had waited upon me, went away, evidently much dissatisfied.

A few days afterwards a report reached me, from one of my police officers, that this man and woman had disappeared. I immediately set on foot an inquiry of what had become of them; and in my instructions to the police officers directed them to call before them particularly the two persons who had come before me as above. As soon as the two individuals in question heard of the inquiry the police officers were making, they went and delivered themselves up, acknowledging they had put them to death, and not therefore to annoy any other person on that account; that if there was any guilt they were the guilty persons. The bodies of the man and woman were found horribly mangled.

The Proceedings of the Inquest, together with the two Prisoners, were forwarded to my Court, when they acknowledged that they were the perpetrators of the murder; and then reminded me that they had appealed to my authority before to redress the family grievance, and thereby vindicate the family's honour; that I had not complied with their request, and therefore they had taken the law into their own hands.

They were committed for trial, and sentenced by the Court of Quarter Sessions to be hanged. As usual, the trial was referred to the Foujdarry Adawlut (Faujdari Adalat – Military tribunal), which court confirmed the sentence of death, and the warrant was returned shortly afterwards for carrying the same into execution. It was my province, as Magistrate of that part of the country, to attend at the execution, in order to make those observations which would naturally occur to a magistrate on those awful sentences of the law.

Both at the time that the prisoners were brought before me to have their sentence read, and afterwards at the gallows, the younger of the two brothers fainted away; when the elder encouraged him, by saying, "Be a man. Recollect by this act, for which we are now going to suffer, we have saved the honour of our family."

This is one out of many instances I could mention of the extent to which the natives of Malabar carry their nice, though mistaken, Notions of Honour and of Family Pride.

While answering other questions he adds

Your Lordships will, I trust, pardon a little enthusiasm, while pleading the cause of the Inhabitants of Malabar. I have been placed in a variety of situations of very considerable peril during times of trouble. Often have I been opposed to persons in open rebellion, with no other defenders but Nairs, and invariably have I found them faithful, nay, devoted to me; and even have been killed and wounded by my side; and in order to shield my person from danger, they have surrounded me; and forced me behind a tree. From a principle of gratitude, therefore, I am bound to speak with more than ordinary feeling of them.

Were those occasions where you were subject to attack from other Nairs?

Yes, and Mopillas. At times I have had no other defenders but the Nair’s themselves.

Notes

The case presented above does sound a bit on the extreme side. As such, it may have occurred in the North Malabar regions where tempers can be a bit shorter and the family honor aspect is taken very seriously. The medieval times had some traditional laws and practices to take care of such situations. Usually the couple is excommunicated (see my blog on Revathi Pattathanam) or the girl is expelled from society. However death sentences are rarely administered by anybody (though they have been reported) and the family never had the right to take law into their hands. Such being the case, this story is a testament of an event and the mood of those troubled times signifying the decline of Nair authority over Malabar.

Certain unclear aspects were if the relationship was between willing parties and if they belonged to the same family line (matrilineal). If they belonged to the same matrilineal line, it was definitely against the law of the land.

In the third Para of Mr Baber’s statement, he alludes to expulsion of the offending parties to a location adjoining the district belonging to the Raja or Coorg. This matter will be clarified in detail by me in my next article which will covers the Mannanar’s of Chirakkal.

References
Nick Balmers blog – Tom’s early years
Where Tom Baber would have conducted the above court session –
Pallikunnu house
British History online, Journal of the House of Lords,
Vol 62
Asiatic journal & Monthly miscellany – Vol2, Series 3, Nov 1843

6 comments:

  1. Calicut Heritage Forum

    Interesting post. Thank you for highlighting a little known aspect of the social norms and value system of North Malabar Nairs.
    Usually, in 'honour killings' it is the woman who is sacrificed for the 'honour' of the family. But in a matrilineal family, the man cannot go scot-free !
    Regarding Baber's affection for Malabar and its people, one finds that many of the colonial administrators shared this love of the place and the people they ruled. J A Thorne, ICS who functioned as the receiver of the estate of the Zamorin of Calicut during the early years of the last century had this to say: 'We foreigners who have lived and worked in Kerala hold ourselves to be singularly fortunate:whatever else India may come to mean to us, we remember with gratitude and affection the country and people whose civilisation is bound up with the dynasty of the Zamorins.'

  1. PN Subramanian

    I am enlightened. It is for the first time that I am learning about the value system so meticulously followed in the matrilineal families.

  1. Vijay

    Maddy,
    Intriguing post. I have heard that in medieval times, Nayadis and others from the lowest rungs of the caste ladder would make it a high risk game to touch Nair women and bolt away. Nair militia would then catch and immediately cut down the offender. The unfortunate Nair woman would be immediately out caste, and would have to live out the rest of her life in hovels. In some cases I have heard that the Nair woman was put to death as a result of the "pollution". Is this a lot of hooey, or is there an element of truth to this? Thanks.

  1. Maddy

    Thanks CKR & PNS...
    I have been trying to dredge up details on Thorne too..

    Vijay - In the later part of the medieval period when the caste system had gotten horribly twisted, these things were common. It was some time before Vivekananda came to Kerala. What you heard has been documented, it is not hooey!!

  1. udayan

    Punishment for violation of social law varied from caste to caste in medieval times. In case of warrior caste of Nairs, unlike other castes who followed excommunication[higher and lower], breach of social law was punished by death for both man and woman.

    Guilty ones are hacked up by swords by their own clansmen. If they dont,then whole clan would be outcasted by caste assembly or might become a butt of jokes even for subordinate castes. As honour was all important for a medieval Nair, he would chose to kill or die rather than suffer such a humiliation.

  1. KESHVENDRA

    an excellent piece of historical writing..my best wishes.