A Jewish trader in Calicut – The story of Isaac Surgun

Posted by Maddy Labels: ,

When Calicut Heritage Forum wrote about the Jew Street in Calicut, there was an animated discussion in the comments section, as to whether it was indeed right and if a second thought was needed. The person who precipitated the matter in the first place was a young chap from Cochin, who has varied interests in Calligraphy and history and who I met in Bangalore some weeks back.

For me, it was clear that a trading community like the Jews would never be missing from Calicut. It was just a question of time lining & detailing their life in Calicut. I had initially hoped to find details of their existence in Calicut and Pantalayani detailed in Prof Jussay’s book, but did not find anything other than a trace mention. So I thought it should be detailed somewhere but it was not that easy. While we do have brief mentions detailing their stay in Pantalayani, Mangalore and well documented records on Cochin, the references of their presence in Calicut and thereabouts were vague, barring the fantastic Abraham Ferrisol mentions. But to summarize,

With the coming of the Portuguese to India, travelers such as G. Sernigi (1499) refer to the Jewish association with Calicut. L. di Varthema (early 16th century) mentions a Jew in Calicut who had built a fine galley and had made four iron mortars. ... While the Portuguese historian Correa speaks in 1536 of the great number of Jews in Calicut, the Yemenite traveler Zechariah b. Saadiah (16th century) looked in vain for coreligionists there. Half a century later Pyrard de Laval lists Jews among the various religious groups in Calicut with their own quarter and synagogue. The outstanding Calicut Jew in the 18th century was Isaac Surgun (d. 1792), a wealthy merchant who hailed from Constantinople.

It was as if Calicut was reserved for Arabs and those from mainly the Middle East or those aiding the trade of the Arabs, for we read that even the Chinese were perhaps driven out. But it is quite clear that there were visiting Jews like the person I will now cover.
To look at his life to see what it was like, and for that we have to go to the troubled times, when the Zamorins were weak, when the Mysore sultans had laid their cursed eyes on the wealth down south. I am sure they always knew there was wealth in the temples, as you can see now from the trove at Anathapuram. I am also absolutely positive that when the Malabar rulers fled to Travancore seeking asylum, they took their riches to Anatapuram and those form part of what you see there, but all of that is not important, it was just my mind going astray..

Many years ago, when I used to live in Istanbul, I knew a Jewish family living in a place called Beyouglu near Taksim . It was a stately avenue with old high rise buildings and the location where the wealthy Jewish gentry lived. My son’s friend from the Levi family lived there, and we got to know those nice people. I had no inkling then or until recently that there was one person who actually came in the exact opposite direction to India, many years ago. He had come from Istanbul to Calicut in the 18th century. His name was Issaac Surgun and it was an act of kindness at Calicut that earned him an entry into history books.

The year is 1766. At that time, the main traders of Calicut were Isaac surgun and Moplah Haji Yusuf. In the Cochin region trade was in the hands of a group of Konkani business men and Ezechiel Rahabi. The traders were profiting immensely from the latest pepper boom after the collapse of Surat and the safvid dynasty collapse in Persia. Calicut was the port of choice, but trouble loomed ahead. The Zamorin had threatened the Palghat Raja, who appealed to Hyder. Hyder did not lose the opportunity as we all know and later invaded Malabar. However he was provided a large bribe and consequently left the traders in peace, while he and his son tormented the Nair’s and other classes.

Let us get to know this Isaac Surgun and his activities at Calicut. What did he look like? What kind of person was he? What was he upto? If he was travelling often to Calicut, did he stay amongst a group of Jews in Calicut as it usually is? But first things first…Let’s draw his caricature…To figure out how he looked, we have to check out the words of Elizabeth Fay the English lady whose ship had reached Calicut and who was imprisoned by the new Mysore governor left behind by Hyder at calicut.

Isaac, then, is a fine venerable old man, about eighty five, with a long white beard; his complexion by no means dark and his countenance being yet majestic. I could look at him till I almost fancied that he resembled exactly the patriarch whose name he bears, were it not for his eye which is still brilliant. His family, I find, according to ancient custom in the East, consists of two wives, to whom I am to have an introduction………..

Strangely I had nearly completed reading the story of Elizabeth Fay some months back, but I had glossed over an important fact, the persona of Surgun himself and his Jewish house in Cochin and the Jews of Calicut.

Back to Isac Surgun, the person who wielded a lot of influence with the rulers of Cochin, Calicut and Travancore and worked often for the Dutch VOC. The first mention of Surgun was his accompaniment with the Jewish team sent to meet Hyder and Sudder (Sardar) Khan in 1766 carrying expensive gifts on behalf of the Cochin king with an entreaty not to attack Cochin. He was the linguist in the group and this signifies that he perhaps knew Persian or Urdu as well as Malayalam and perhaps Tamil. Next he is part of a team used by VOC’s Breekpot in 1767 used for a diplomatic settlement of troop movement complainst with Srinivasa Rao and Sardar Khan administering Calicut. In compensation an agreement to supply muskets and other armamanets was made by Surgun. Seven years later, he was the go between the remaining family of the Zamorin and the VOC – as they wanted safe passage to Parur. But problems between Calicut and Travancore prevented a settlement of the issue. He is seen again in discussions with Hyder and Sardar Khan at Calicut and Mysore during 1775-1788. He is also seen in discussions with the Ali raja of Cannanore. We find out from Dutch records that Surgun had a factory in Calicut, speaks a Moorish language, apparently Persian or Urdu and has many friends among the courteris of the Mysore sultans. He even had a not so good meeting with Tipu at Calicut on April 5th 1788, and that happened to be his last diplomatic experience.

Fay meets him in 1779, under telling circumstances, but one can now understand from the previous paragraph that Isaac Surgun indeed had the required influence with Sardar Khan (Hyder’s brother in law) the Nawab of Calicut. As is apparent, Surgun is known as Isaac of Calicut, even though hailing from Cochin, signifying that much of his trade was perhaps conducted around Calicut. The delay in their release was related to Hyder’s search for foreign gunners and his need to figure out if the men in Fay’s ship were suitable for that purpose. The final release was made after the conclusion that none were fit for soldierly activities, Fay’s husband was coming to practice as an advocate at the Supreme court in Calcutta. The other issue was the friction between the EIC and the Mysore sultans with a possibility of armed conflict.

Interestingly, Isaac Surgun spoke no English (he later ensured that his son was sent to Surat for English Studies)and the conversations between Fay and Isac was through interpreters. Isaac was introduced to them by another European Jew named Franco. And it was the utterance of Franco’s name and Constantinople (and their camaraderie in that city 60 years ago) that made him help the Fay’s.

The general introductory letter which as you may recollect Mr. Franco gave us at Leghorn had remained in Mr. Fay's pocket book from that time till we reached Calicut. We had been told that Isaac, the Jewish merchant, who agreed to freight the Nathalia and received £700 as earnest on that account, was immensely rich, and had great credit with the Government of which he held several large contracts for building ships, etc., besides a very great one with Sudder Khan- Everyone also, even Ayres, spoke highly of his general character. …………Mr. Fay, therefore, petitioned the Governor for leave to go out under a guard, which being granted, he immediately delivered his letter to Isaac, who seemed highly gratified at hearing from Mr. Franco, whom he had personally known at Constantinople, where they were both young men, about sixty years ago, for, like him, he enjoys a full possession of his faculties, both bodily and mentally, being equally remarkable for temperance and sobriety. Mr. Fay could not speak to our strangely acquired friend except by an interpreter so that no confidential conversation could take place. He was apparently touched with pity for our sufferings, especially on hearing how much I was afflicted with illness.

After 15 weeks of imprisonment, the Fays were released by Sardar Khan, thanks to Surgun and taken to the Surgun house in Cochin. It is Feb 1780 now.

This morning, about eleven, we arrived at our long wished-for Port, and were landed close to the house of our good friend Isaac which is pleasantly situated by the river side, about a mile from Cochin, and rendered in every respect a most delightful residence. Here we were welcomed by the two wives of Isaac who were most splendidly dressed to receive us, rather overloaded with ornaments yet not inelegant. Indeed I think the Eastern dresses have infinitely the advantage over ours. They are much more easy and graceful; besides affording greater scope for display of taste than our strange unnatural modes. They were extremely hospitable and very fond of talking.

I mentioned before having learned a little Portuguese during my imprisonment which was of great advantage to me here; for, except Malabar, it is the only language they speak, and a miserable jargon indeed is what they call Portuguese here. However, we contrived to make ourselves mutually understood so far as to be convinced that each was kindly disposed towards the other. …….. We were entertained with all the profusion that wealth can command and generosity display. Though religious prejudices banished us from their table, ours was loaded with every delicacy—all served on massive plate. Among many articles of luxury which I had never seen before were numbers of solid silver peekdanees, which serve the purpose of spitting boxes (excuse the term,). They stood at each end of the couches in the principal room. Some of them were nearly three feet high with broad bottoms; the middle of the tube twisted and open at the top, with a wide mouth for the convenience of such as had occasion to expectorate. These are not what we should call indulgences in England, but in a country, where smoking tobacco and chewing betel are universally practised, they must be allowed to be necessary ones……….

The younger wife of Isaac attached herself to me in such a manner as I never before experienced, and really appeared as if she could not bear to part with me even when I went to see the town of Cochin, which is truly a very pretty romantic place.

Fay is effusive in praise for the efforts of Isaac at Calicut

Thus, by the indefatigable exertions of this most excellent man, we are at last released from a situation of which it is impossible for you to appreciate the horrors. To him we are indebted for the inestimable gift of liberty. No words I can find adequate to the expression of my gratitude. In whatever part of the world, and under whatever circumstances my lot may be cast, whether we shall have the happiness to reach in safety the place to which all our hopes and wishes tend, or are doomed to experience again the anxieties and sufferings of captivity, whether I shall pass all the remainder of my days in the sunshine of prosperity, or exposed to the chilling blasts of adversity, the name of Isaac the Jew will ever be associated with the happiest recollections of my life; and, while my heart continues to beat and warm blood animates my mortal frame, no distance of time or space can efface from my mind the grateful remembrance of what we owe to this most worthy of men. When we were plundered and held in bondage by the Mahometan robbers amongst whom we had fallen, when there was no sympathising friend to soothe us among our Christian fellow-captives, when there was no hand to help us, and the last ray of hope gradually forsook the darkening scene of our distress, kind Providence sent a good Samaritan to our relief in the person of this benevolent Jew, who proved himself an Israelite indeed. Oh my dear sister! How can I, in the overflowing of a grateful heart, do otherwise than lament that the name of this once distinguished people should have become a term of reproach! Exiled from the land promised to the seed of Abraham, scattered over the face of the earth, yet adhering with firmness to the religion of their fathers, this race, once the boasted favourites of Heaven, are despised and rejected by every nation in the world. The land that affords shelter denies them a participation in the rights of citizenship. Under such circumstances of mortifying contempt and invidious segregation, it is no wonder that many of the children of Israel in the present day evince more acuteness than delicacy in their transactions, and are too well disposed to take advantage of those from whom they have endured so much scorn and persecution. It gives me, therefore, peculiar pleasure to record their good deeds, and to proclaim in my limited circle, that such men as a FRANCO and an ISAAC are to be found among the posterity of Jacob. These sentiments are not overstrained but the genuine effusions of a thankful heart: as such receive them.

Now you have a vivid picture of the patriarch, who was also a scholastic and religious Jew from Cochin working in Calicut. The next reference we have is his granson’s quest for the original tribes of the Bene Israel and his discussions with a Cochin Jew settled in Cannanore and now we find that about 14-15 families traded around the English settlements there. Let us check what that quest reveals. Late in the 19th century, a study of the remains of the lost tribes of Israel was concluded and among them was a report by Surgun (this is Issac E Sargan – perhaps grandson of the person in this article). He states

I left Cochin for Cananore on the 1st of May and reached that place on the 12lh On my way I touched at Calicut where I had an opportunity of conversing with several gentlemen residing there and distributing among them a few of the Society's English tracts and where I am happy to inform you also I have been enabled to collect a few rupees in aid of the society On the 13th in the evening I walked out with a view to collect some information respecting the Beni Israel and met with a white Jew's free servant an intelligent man with whom I had a short conversation on the subject of my mission I first asked him if he was one of the Bern Israel He replied No Sir I am from Cochin and one of the white Jews free servants Q How long have you been in this place A I have been here now about fifteen years ever since the late war between the Honourable Company and the Rajah of Travancore Q Are there any of the Beni Israel here A There were about fourteen or fifteen families on my first arrival but as they met with much discouragement and ill treatment from their principal men or masters who are still here they left this purposing to go back to their native place The names of the master above mentioned Balajee or Benjamin Isaac and Mosajee…….

So we now know that a group of Jews indeed existed as a community. An important question from the prose is if Surgun was in Calicut or Cannanore on the 13th. If he was in Calicut, then we know that the Jewish community lived there.

Finally to conclude this piece on Surgun, a little bit about his family. He had 10 children from his two wives Miriam and Rachel and passed away around 1790. From reading the accounts above, one should be able to draw conclusions about the times, the communities and the relationships between foreigners and residents of Calicut and of course the 'Jew from Calicut' Issac Surgun.

Notes on the family name Sürgün and the connections to Istanbul

Those interested read this fine paper by Moshe Sourjourn – though he erroneously locates Isaac Surgun in Calcutta..........an extract on the name.....

The Turkish branch is almost certainly the older of the two and originates either with Romaniot Jews or those who came as refugees either in the wake of the Expulsion in 1492 or in subsequent smaller waves. While most of the Turkish Souroujons arrived from the city of Istanbul a smaller number came from Adrianople – Edirne.Here the name Surgun comes into the picture. There is a word in Turkish – sürgün, which means expelled or displaced. The scheme of relocating populations, which had its origins in ancient times, and which was chosen by the Turkish sultans was known as ‘the surgun system.’


Trade finance and power By Patrick J. N. Tuck, Pg 62
The Enigma of the Family Name Souroujon - Moshe Souroujon
Revue des études juives,, Volume 126
Critica Biblica edited by William Carpenter
The original letters from India of Mrs Elizabeth Fay

Map from Shalom Bombay restaurant home page – thanks