Calicut of the 1880’s

Posted by Maddy Labels: ,

From the reminiscences of an Englishmen….

Let me start by outlining a charming study of Calicut in the 1880’s, extracted from a chapter on Edwin Lester Linden Arnold’s capital two volume book on coffee plantation in South India. Lester was the son of the illustrious Indophile Sir Edwin Arnold, the founder of the Mahabodhi society and author of ‘Light of Asia’. Lester was born in India and after education at Cheltenham in England, first tried his hand at cattle breeding and then came to Cochin to work as an assistant coffee planter (chik-doree) for the Cochin Raja who had acquired a large tract in the hills. It was during this period that he wrote the books about coffee cultivation after spending a year setting up a coffee estate at Nelliyampati or Anamalai hills, after passing through Calicut. Later he went back to Britain after contracting malaria and settled into a career in journalism but later took to writing romance and mystery books as it was a time when Conan Doyle and others were making hay, with those genres.

Like my last article, this obliquely touches the topic of coffee, coffee plantations of Malabar and is set in May 1881, just a few years after Edward Lear had passed through Calicut and made his accounts, a subject which I had written about earlier. 

So here goes.

We are looking at a period when there was famine and rice shortage in Malabar and rice was being delivered from Ceylon. Lester’s ship ‘Africa’ laden with rice passes through Cochin where the waters are infested with crocodiles which the British used for shooting practice. Calicut then from the sea was not much, but just a line of open shanties on the beach, a white lighthouse, and the usual flagstaff, from which the Union Jack flutters gaily. The palm trees hide all the rest of the town, and fringe the coast northward and southward as far as the eye can reach. The author is surprised by the hat palm (toppi kuda) umbrella worn by people, and is told that what was once a great emporia for trade and a source for Calico cloth has gone down sadly in worldly prosperity, and is now nothing but a police station and the residence of some European coffee and mercantile agencies. He concludes that it once was a great place since it still had a Jewish colony southwards of the town comprising pale skinned Jews who are supposed to be the direct descendants of those Solomon the Magnificent sent to the "gorgeous East "to collect ivory and peacocks for his palaces.

The strand (shoreline – beach road) was a very animated scene : in the background long low lines of sheds for storing rice and merchandise, and a towering hedge of palm trees rising behind them, with the tall white lighthouse overtopping even the palms ; coolies were hurrying to and fro between the cargo-boats and storehouses, bending under the weight of great rice-sacks ; half-caste writers in white European garments, with white helmets on their heads, were standing at the doors, entering each bag in their day-books ; native women, some gaily dressed in white calicoes with green or red sarees, and some not dressed at all, were running about with loads on their heads nearly as heavy as those carried by the men ; scores of naked brown children, reveling and rioting in unlimited dirt and sand, were fighting with dozens of mangy dogs for bones and scraps of melon peel ; while above the busy crowd the cawing crows occupied every coign of advantage, and the kites swept round and in and out among the masts and palm trees in easy circles, every now and then coming down like meteors, and flapping away triumphantly with part of a dead dog, a fish's head, or some such tempting morsel.

He makes way to the club house (we talked about it before – near the previous French Loge and was a planters club) which he describes thus. This club house is a very comfortable place, and much frequented by the English residents and stray planters, who come down from the hills, when fever-stricken, to see the doctor here, and imbibe the invigorating ozone of the sea-breezes. It boasts a capital reading-room, with a wide verandah, well stocked with the peculiar long-armed easy-chairs of the country, and opening directly on to the beach. Behind is a billiard-room, and across the courtyard there is a row of half a dozen comfortable bedrooms under a low thatched roof, with the inevitable verandah and punkah ropes hanging by every door-post. Then one passes down a long passage under a shady grove of palm trees, where the ripe nuts hang in great clusters at the top of the tapering stems, until the feeding department is reached, where I " tiffined " with two or three other Englishmen, one of whom subsequently turned out to be bound for the same part of the jungles as myself.

A trip to the town in a bullock cart (buggy) is described beautifully, and he concludes thus - In this gilded pill-box I meandered down the various village streets and into the open country beyond, at a pace little above a walk. I did not understand then that, if you are in a buggy and want the bullocks to go faster, you have to beat the driver, who will then transmit the "walloping" to his "cattle." We soon pick up these things; but in my innocence, on that first day, after a couple of miles of dawdling, my usually serene temper was ruffled, and I got out and belabored the sleepy white oxen with my big white umbrella a proceeding which seemed to afford the "mild Hindoo " who was driving some gentle amusement, but did not take us on a hit faster. So I got inside again, and, lighting a cheroot, resigned myself to fate with the reflection that we must do at Rome as the Romans do.

He lodges at the bungalow of a British businessman, and is taken for dinner to the Bungalow of the local Police Supdt (another brit) on foot by his hostess and led by two torch bearers in front to light the path and scare the snakes away. After dinner they puffed at their long "Trichinopolies" (also called Trichies or Tritchies, is a type of cheroot associated with the town of Tiruchirappalli) and sipping iced brandy-pawnee (brandy, ice and water (pani)), with a white-clad servant behind each chair waving a peacock-feather fan over their heads to keep away the mosquitoes. We note from the conversation that Calicut was very poor then, for the town and all the neighborhood was inundated with famine-stricken coolies at the last extremity for a meal, and so the amount of crime was wonderfully small.

Next day he has hazri (refreshments before breakfast), a tub bath and observes a rain drenched morning and the flight of many small chattering finches. He details the habitat and movements all kinds of animals, snakes, butterflies in forthcoming paragraphs, comparing them to their counterparts in the blighty, if any.

Finally we get a description of the town, the Mananchira tank and the streets. Let’s see what it looked like then. The road is something like a Devonshire lane, with high red banks on either side, but the clumps of bamboos and palms spoil the comparison. Occasionally there are European bungalows standing back from the track in their-compounds, where little white children are often to be seen playing about, attended by ayahs and men-servants. Further on there was a native street, with little open shops on either side: one shop devoted to sugar-cane hung up in bunches, and seeds and pulses exposed for sale in open vessels; another to earthenware chatties, and another to tinware. Once the different trades used to keep separate, but now they seem to be losing their exclusiveness, and take up their quarters where they can fix them.

Every now and then a string of women passed me, carrying enormous loads of grass on their heads and going at a quick trot. They are not particularly prepossessing according to our standard of female comeliness, and the hard work they do and the life they lead spoil them very early. They wear only one garment a long strip of cloth called a saree, which they wind round and round their waists so as to form a short petticoat reaching to the knees, of which they bring the spare end up over their left shoulder, and let it hang down behind. The old women do not stand on ceremony in the matter of dress, and wear clothes only according to their means. Generally they are very poor.
Occasionally a native country gentleman was met going along in a private bullock cart at the usual snail's pace, but looking perfectly contented. The native writers or clerks have absorbed some English energy, and are brisker in their movements. I actually saw one in a buggy urging the driver to go faster in very good English, which he seemed to understand perfectly. The policemen also seem conscious of their official position, and proud of their semi-European dress and broad scarlet shoulder-strap with its brass plate and number.

There is a fine tank in the centre of the town, enclosing about four acres of water, with flights of stone steps all round, and four carved archways, which have been partially destroyed by some Goths, and the material carried away to build houses. These Indian tanks are the great institutions of the towns and villages. Here everybody comes down to wash, and also to get drinking water, horrible to say. But it has been so for the last few thousand years, so nobody minds; and one may any day see groups of chattering girls and gossiping housewives dipping their brass chatties close to where a fat old gentleman, with nothing on but a towel, is splashing the water over his skin, and rubbing it in as if it were some precious ointment not to be used carelessly. The frogs also inhabit these tanks, and their heads and bright eyes are to be seen all along the margins until someone comes and disturbs their reflections, when they at once retire to the deeper parts under the broad green leaves of the lotuses in the centre of the pond. Nobody seems to mind them, or fancy they give a peculiar taste to the water, and they and the cattle and village dogs use the tank contentedly with all the villagers.

Round the tank the official bungalows and Government offices form a wide amphitheater, with graceful palms scattered everywhere, and filling up the background of the picture with a waving sea of plumes.

He hastens to conclude - Calicut seems to have a very miscellaneous trade, and the courtyard of the custom-house was piled up with merchandise of every sort and variety, waiting to be cleared, and meanwhile protected from the merciless beaks and claws of the crows and kites, with which the roof swarmed, by strong netting spread from one side of the courtyard to the other. It is a great pity, I repeat, no proper harbor can be made here; if there were one, it would be of immense importance to the "country side," and double the wealthy population of Mysore and Travancore. Probably someday the railway which now ends at Beypore (you may recall my article about the terminus completed in 1860 and was connected to Calicut in 1888) will be brought on, and a breakwater erected to shelter the shipping when the south-west monsoon blows. At present the vessels lie in the open roads, and when a storm is seen to be coming on they have to up anchor and make for the open sea, for woe to the craft which puts off sailing too long, as she speedily comes under the palm trees fringing the beach

Lester Arnold moves on to Beypore after making a good study of the people he met, remarking especially that Moplah women were merry ladies with a twinkle in their eyes, and then to Palghat. From where he proceeds to Anamallai or Nelliyampati and goes about setting up an estate, a topic we will get to another day.

A review of his books in ‘The Nation Feb 1882’ summarizes Arnold’s stay at Wayanad - The estate to which he was sent was a new one, so that we have a very clear account of the various processes by which the well-nigh impenetrable jungle is converted into a coffee plantation. The life of the planter on a new estate is a very hard one. His house is a flimsy hut, with a roof of grass and walls of a single thickness of matting, through which both wind and rain have free access. He must toil from early morning till night in the broiling sun, the terrible rain, and the yet more frightful mist which lurks in the valleys. Add to all this his solitude, the wretched food which he is often compelled to cook for himself, and the inevitable fever, and it will be seen that the planter’s lot is exceptionally trying. His amusements are few, consisting mainly of occasional Sunday visits to a neighboring planter, and a holiday excursion now and then to the plains. Hunting is almost out of the question from want of time, though elephants, tigers, and bisons, to say nothing of smaller game, abound in the forests about him. After a year principally spent in cutting roads, felling and burning trees, and making holes for the coffee-bushes, Mr. Arnold was utterly vanquished by the fever, and compelled to return to England to recruit.

That done and dusted, let us move back to the Calicut shore, straddling the Arabian Sea. Now if I told you that there were places called Conolly’s hill, Gillham rock, Coote Reef, Anchorage reef, Reliance Shoal, Camel’s Hump, Dolphins Head etc, in those days,  most people will think that I am under the influence of something. In fact some of these terms are still used by mariners, charting their journey through the western seas, or the Arabian Sea towards Cochin or Trivandrum.

Connolly’s hill
Mr. Connolly’s house, is nearly three miles north of the town of Calicut, being placed on an isolated hill. Steam vessels usually anchor in 4 fathoms, mud, with the highest tree on Connolly Hill bearing 43°.  Henry Valentine Connolly, who lived in the then Collector’s Bungalow in what was later called West Hill, Calicut, is also remembered there with a garden called ‘Connolly’s Garden.’ The bungalow now houses the Pazhassi Raja Museum and on the campus is the V.K. Krishna Menon Museum

Gillham Rock
Named after Captain Gilham, Port Officer and lodge member - Gillham Rock, on which the sea breaks occasionally, has a least depth of 1.8mts, and is the southernmost danger in the vicinity of Calicut; lies 2 miles southward from the old lighthouse, with its outer edge 1,400 yards from the shore.

Coote Reef
This place near Kallayi river mouth was named the Coote reef after the late East India Company sloop-of-war Coote which was lost there. This was the original Calicut harbor and extended westwards and southwards of the grain godowns and lighthouse. This is also the location where Hamilton saw the sunken ruins of Calicut and an Old Portuguese fort ruins. Coote Reef with a 0.9 mt depth, lies with its outer edge 1.1 miles south-southwestward from Calicut Old Lighthouse and 1,500 yards from the shore. To the south and east of the reef the bottom is soft mud, and small coasting craft anchor in about 2 fathoms at low water, partially protected from northwest winds by the reef.

The Coote story - This fine sloop-of-war sailed from Bombay under the command of Lieutenant J. S. Grieve, who had only joined her on the 15th of the Nov 1846, and, on the morning of the 1st of December, grounded on a reef near Calicut, to which port she was bound. Every exertion was made by the officers and men to get her off, but without avail, and, on the 3rd of December, she was abandoned, after all her guns and a great portion of her stores and ammunition had been safely landed. The crew were accommodated on shore until the arrival of the 'Medusa,' which took them to Bombay. The hull of the 'Coote' was sold for 10,000 rupees, but her purchaser sustained a total loss, owing to her having grounded, while being towed ashore, on a mud bank, from which it was impossible to remove her. Her unfortunate commander, Lieutenant J. S. Grieve, brother to the late Commander Albany Grieve,both smart officers and eminent surveyors, did not long survive the loss of his ship, but died at Calicut on the following 7th of April.

Anchorage Reef
Anchorage Reef, with a 3.7 mts depth, lies with its northwest edge 1.5 miles westward from Calicut Old Lighthouse, and about 800 yards (4 cables) inside the anchorage buoy. About 160 yards inshore of this reef, and 1,100 yards westward from the old lighthouse, is a rocky patch of 1J fathoms, northward of the small craft anchorage abreast the town.

Reliance Shoal
Reliance Shoal, rocky ground with 5.6mts depth, 0.5 mile wide, and 2.5 miles in length, lies parallel to the shore, its southern extremity being situated 3.5 miles west-northwestward from Calicut Old Lighthouse. The bottom around consists of soft mud.

The Camels hump (Vavulmala near Tanur)
The Camel's Hump, about 7,677 feet above high water, lies 26 miles northeastward from Calicut Lighthouse; it may be seen in clear weather as soon as a vessel is on the bank of soundings; but in the hazy weather of March and April it is frequently indistinct from the anchorage off Calicut. The southern extremity of the Kunda Range is rather abrupt, the mountains thence receding far eastward.
At 12 miles northwestward of Camel's Hump and 20 miles eastward from Kadalur Point lies the mountain named Tanote Mullay, between 4,000 and 5,000 feet in height. Dolphins Head, lying southeastward 17 miles from Calicut, shows well to a vessel coming from the north.

Dolphins head – Urotmala
Lying south-east wards 17 miles off Calicut this is a wooded hill, 900 ft above sea level can be seen by a vessel coming from the North.

On the Indian Hills – Edwin Lester Arnold
West Coast of India Pilot - H.O. Pub, Issue 159 US Government 1920
Manual of the Administration of the Madras Presidency: Chapters 1-9

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