The Malabar (Wynad) gold rush 1877-1892

Posted by Maddy Labels:

Some years ago, you may have come across those huge hoardings in Calicut advertising a company’s wares, the company named as Malabar Gold and the model being Sania Mirza, the teen tennis sensation. That was the period when we had a Sania Mania in India. What most people may not be aware of is that once upon a time Malabar’s Gold (the mineral itself and not the company) started a mania of sorts which found its way into history books as the Malabar gold rush of 1879-82.

The temple of Solomon at Jerusalem and the land of the Ophir – Once in three years came the navy of Tharshish, bringing gold, silver, ivory, apes & peacocks. They sailed to Ophir and brought back 420 talents of gold, which they delivered to King Solomon. (1 Kings 9:26-28). Since historic times, this sentence has made many a treasure seeker set out for the land of the Ophir. While historians point out a few candidates in Africa, one strong contender for this locale was Malabar and the main reason was the presumption that no other location in the world but Malabar can provide all 5 articles above (Francis Ford – The planting industry in S India).

So where were the gold mines of ancient Malabar as alluded to later by Pliny & Megasthenes located? They were actually hidden in the jungles and hill regions of Wynad, where gold was laboriously dug from the bowels of the earth, some 70 ft below, by the Korumbers (a hill tribe) or panned from rivers downstream by the Paniyas (another tribe) of Waynad. (Well, it may seem that the wood at Solomon’s temple i.e. Rosewood or teak for the temple also came from the forests of nearby Nilambur – see my earlier blog on Connolly’s teak).

So this article takes you to the Wynad area, a region lush with vegetation, left largely to natures own methods save for the tribal population and the estates with planters and support staff. You will not hear much more than noises of birds and insects; you will hardly see any traffic but you may even chance on wild life amidst the tea and coffee estates. This incidentally was also the area I spent my vacations months as a child. My father used to work in the estates at Mango Range, Annamalai’s, Ripon, Talapuzha, Murugali and so on…

A few decades before the turn to the 20th century these densely wooded areas were also home to all kinds of nefarious people on the run such as those who went against the EIC, the Moplah rebels, Opium cultivators, tobacco planters etc. Later it became a center for tea and coffee plantations (Coffee plantations started in 1840, tea planting in Wynad started in 1854 after some tea plants were brought in from China!! These were supplanted next with tea seedlings from Assam & Manipur)

That is until the whole area, the scattered populace and people from many other parts of the world came in to be involved in a mania of sorts. That was the gold mania of Malabar or the Malabar gold rush during 1879-1882. Like the tulip mania that I wrote about some days ago, this came to be known as the Malabar mania and like the Tulip mania, immense sums were spent by foolish people till the scam imploded as suddenly as it started.

Today, you will see accounts that conclude with the fact that it was nothing, but for a brief distraction for the planters, who were until this time toiling first for black gold or pepper, then the cash crops of spices and later tea &coffee during the EIC (East India Company) times. The distraction was unfortunately also the reason for a good amount of destruction of vast tracts of coffee plantations.

Let us now move to the hilly Nilgiris - Wynad region and find out what happened.

It was the 1849 time frame that all kinds of problems started in Malabar. The period 1849-1885 witnessed the bloody Moplah revolts. The garrisons of the British EIC and the officers were tied up in bringing the revolt under control. SE Wynad was being administered by the Malabar district. Between Sutan’s Battery and Nilambur – Gudalur area lies a place called Devala. Nearby are the towns of Pandalur (about 70 miles from Calicut) & Nelliyalam. The plateau where Nellialam is located lies roughly 3000’ above sea level. The previous rulers Ummatur Araus of Badaga extract had disappeared from the scene and the hilly tract was being leased and administered by the Nilambur Thamburan.

Since the turn of the 18th century, it was common knowledge that gold reefs were present in the hills and that the tribals had their own laborious methods of extracting small amounts of gold. However the finds were never analyzed in greater detail till the EIC got involved.

The joint commission of Bombay and Bengal in 1792 brought attention of British administrative eyes to this fact. By 1807, the fact was confirmed by Dr Buchanan. Mr Young in 1827 attested to fine specimens of gold particles in the Nilgiris streams. In 1813, Dr Aimslie confirms the SE Wynad regions as auriferous quartz reef locations. Later in 1830, Mr TH Baber attested to the fact that gold is obtained not only in the Coimbatore region but also around the Nilgiris and Kunda mountains during a deposition at the House of Lords. He estimated that about 2000 square miles of area was impregnated with gold deposits. Sheffield the Malabar district collector and British gold buyer also formed a strong impression about the availability of gold. Further credence was provided by the claim by the Rajah of Nilambur of 10% royalty for all gold found in his region.

Accordingly Lt Woodly Nicolson was deputed in 1831 to carry out prospecting. As his progress was not satisfactory, by 1833 it was decided by a commission that the whole thing was ‘inexpedient’.

Early pioneers
By 1857, attention was again drawn to the deposits by the Malabar Collector, and two Australian miners Stern & Withers (1865-1868) working in Wynad applied for leave to prospect for gold forming a company Alpha Gold Company . Stern had 8 years experience in gold mining. While Stern was not very successful, Withers working with Minchin hit some success and their company Wynad prospecting company was established. Work commenced in the Skull reef (an old Korumbar mining location – called so since a skull was found in the diggings) in 1874. By 1878, two more companies came into being, the Wynad prospecting company and later, the Prince of Wales Co. However all three companies suffered from digging at wrong locations, using wrong methods, mismanagement and plying defective or wrongly specified machinery. They all shut their doors within a year of starting.

In 1875 Dr W King of the Geological Survey department was deputed to the area to form a report. He did so in great detail and added to it a detailed map. King followed it up with a second edition giving a factual update in 1878, by which time the area was annexed to the Nilgiris district.

The next to report on the area’s gold was by the Australian expert and reputed Brough Smyth in Oct 1879 (he reached Malabar after being fired for despotic behavior in Australia). It was correct in parts and wrong in others. Without getting into too much boring detail, this was the report that was picked up by various speculators in England and used cleverly to create the necessary ‘hype’. The returns on UK government stocks were low, trade was flourishing and gold was in shortage. Coffee sales were down and the estate owners were looking for a way out (Nilgiris Gazeteer – Francis). In Dec 1879, the mania started. By 1880 Wynad was the hub of the wildest, maddest and grossest speculation. (Wynad - Gopalan nair)

The mania
41 companies were started in England with a capital of over 5 million pounds (another 6 were formed in India). Land was sold to these companies and their promoters at exorbitant amounts in Wynad and more local companies formed (B Smyth was a manager of two of these companies and he retired in 1882 when the tide turned). The shares of the said companies were sold at high premiums and a boom was awaited from all the gold that was to be mined. A number of mining experts landed up in Wynad (some were even bakers & clowns masquerading as miners).

The shares started to climb. Pandalur soon had its own race course and other amenities to boot. Machinery started to arrive from Australia & other places. The big mania money meanwhile, circulated amongst the UK share holders and never found its way to India.

Much of the coffee estates around the area were dug up. No mining had yet started by then though the hype went on and the bubble got bigger and bigger. By 1881 crushing started and slowly the situation started to become clear, that there was not much gold on the surface. At first based on erroneous information that one mine made 4 oz of gold per tonne, prices had jumped sky high. A telegram a few months later stating that the 4 oz came from only the first tone threw cold water on all the speculations. The prices bombed and the bubble burst. Many of the fraudulent promoters had by then sailed off to claim their ill gotten gains and were protected by clever contracts that could not be refuted. The only other gainers were the land sellers and the machinery vendors. The wealthy Bombay traders and Madras Chettys cleverly stayed away from this ‘unknown’ speculation on something invisible.

The mine workersInterestingly the mine workers were mainly Moplahs and Canarese. But the boom brought in a lot of other castes and workers from Tamil Nadu as well into the fray. Kunjalikutty Haji of Pandalur was one of the leading manpower suppliers for the British. He brought a large number of people from Malabar to work on the estates, and became very close to the British administration, being recognized as Khan Bahadur Kunajalikutty.

ConclusionThat there was and that there is gold in the area is proven. How much and how economical it is to mine it out has always been the issue. If the mining work was done systematically without an eye on quick gain, the outcome may have been different. However, the mania passed. The only advantage gained was the slight drop in malaria due to the clearing of all the wild bushes and the reduction of mosquitoes. Many of the gold prospectors, realizing that there was no gold boom, retired to the normal estate life of growing coffee & tea. The hustle and bustle died away to be replaced again by the hum of birds and insects and the occasional growl of a wild animal.

Nobody really remembers the Malabar mania anymore…

But then avarice has no limits. People never learn do they? Close behind the heels of the 1882 end to the Malabar Mania came the Bengal gold mania of 1890.

Journal of the Statistical Society of London By Statistical Society (Great Britain)page 541,
Minutes of evidence taken before the Select Committee of the House of Lords, Pg 399-429,
Records of the Geological Survey of India By Geological Survey of India – king 1875, 1878)
The planting industry of S India – F Ford
The Rise of Business Corporations in India, 1851-1900 - Shyam Rungta
website (thanks for the pictures)
Gold Image courtesy of the
California Geological Survey.
Glenrock mines brochure - Google books

For those interested
How is a gold deposit formed? Simply explained, water from rains seep into the earths crust and once heated by the magma, shoots up through the various fractures in the crust. As it goes up it takes with it dissolved minerals such as gold. As the steam reaches cooler rocks above, the minerals separate to form veins near the earth’s surface. These are the gold deposits in gold reefs. See an example of a quartz vein in the picture beside.


  1. CKMadhusudan

    Kafka said that there are only two sins: lethargy and impatience. All of us are impatient and lethargic in one way or other. Your article reveals that this was the case with our predecessors also. Human nature remains the same; history gives us its account of how our impatience lands us in all sorts of trouble. Lethargy at times leads to impatience. We want to make money fast without much effort; this is the root cause for avarice. How many must have suffered, who knows? Wynad always remained an enigma to many. Nevertheless its magnetic attraction remained same even after the GOLD RUSH!!

  1. Calicut Heritage Forum

    It was early 1950s before the Gwalior Rayons had come up in Mavoor. As children on summer vacation, some of us used to spend our days on our farm in Vazhakkad on the banks of River Chaliyar. A familiar sight those days was that of women sifting gold dust from the river sand using a towel (thorthumundu). Chaliyar originated in wynad hills and flowed through the hills containing gold deposits.
    It was being said that a manisham (as unskilled women farm hands were called in Vazhakkad)would fetch as much gold dust as her daily earnings! But with the pulp factory polluting the river, this side business disappeared.

  1. Maddy

    Thanks CKM and CKR..
    Those times at Wynad are not documented so well, but in a way are, indirectly by the Estate settlers.

    That was interesting news about the Chaliyar..Yes, the Paniyans were experts at the sifting of the waters..

  1. SunSeven

    Interestingly, I came across a family (tharavadu) name called 'Ponneduthaparambathu', who had roots in Wynad. It seems that their ancestors lived there during 1850-1950s. May be a pointer towards those old mining area!

  1. prem nath paliath

    maddy can you please write about the badaga community that you mention who ruled the wayanad(whole or nellialam, because there is a talk of nellialam raani and remains of a kotta)? please mention the books you refer! by the way nice work again keep it up- premnath paliath (I would appreciate if you could send me your whole collection in a ebook form)

  1. prem nath paliath

    wow! I live in gudalur and I get goose pimples reading this. some sort of gold mining was(and is) going on recently after the srilankan re patriots were rehabilitated here by the government (1970s to present day)those dare devils have been trying to mine gold out and some have prospered. even now the wealthy among the srilankan re patriots are those who have gained by mining. when the churam(ghat section) of the gudalur nilamur road collapsed the geological survey reported that the whole area is hollow inside due to the labyrinth of mines which are still there. as for me I still secretly pamper a desire to explore one of these mines, of course not for gold but to relive the past- premnath paliath

  1. Lekha

    thanks for another informative and interesting article maddy! strangely enough, i've just returned from a holiday at a place called Sinnadorai's Bungalow close to Pandalur - and there was lots of reading material there, including a wonderful selection of essays called the Planter's Times. It was in an extract from an article by S Muthiah that I read about the Wayanad Gold Rush - when the British invested 5 million pounds and extracted some 30 oz of gold!

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Sunseven..
    Yes, I suppose that is names provide great pointers...

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Premnath..
    I will see what I can do..As regards the ebook, I will do it one of these days...

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Lekha..

    I did come across that book later.. Muthiah is such an interesting writer, even his madras miscelleny..

  1. Niraj Kedar

    Wonderful writeup Maddy. Many thanks. I visited the Mango Range bungalow last week and visited the Attikunna gold mine. Its a cave up in the hill, hardly visible from the foothills. Looking at the condition I could make out that there never was much yield out of it but I found an old man sifting thru crushed stones from inside the cave looking for gold. My guide told me he was a tribal. Dont know which though. Made me very sad to see that he almost had no fingers. A bunch of tribal kids too were moving in and out of the cave, probably they too help out in the digging. I could not go much deeper inside but there were atleast three shafts, one of them was going deep down the hill. Mango Range is now owned by Parry group and the bungalow was once owned by a British tea planter. It was built in 1920 and still has some old furniture and history of the Chettiars owning the Murugappa group. The old bungalow and its beauty made me very curious to find more about its history and the history of everything around it. The mine is within the boundary of the Parry group estate - Carolyn estate. I wonder why they named it Carolyn. Was this someone's name; someone special? --Niraj

  1. Harshal wayanad

    Hai sir
    Any chance to study about gold Rush