An American Consulate in Kerala?

Posted by Maddy Labels: , ,

Abbot L Dow 1880, and the story of Alleppey

Difficult to believe, right? But that was indeed the case. An early US representation in India did exist for a while at Alleppey, and this started first with the appointment of a commercial agent stationed there and his office was later upgraded to a consulate. The consular officer was one Mr Abbot L. Dow.

Why Alleppey? For that you have to check out the details in my article on Darragh in Kerala and his pioneering efforts with establishing coir weaving establishments in Kerala. To recap, James Darragh, a Brooklyn man left New York in 1855, to seek his fortunes in India, like so many others.  He sailed to India, destined for Calcutta with an intent to start a coir industry but was unsuccessful in making mats with Bengali labor and English supervision (Remember now that coir matting was unknown in India but already well established in Britain and America). As it appears, he took a couple of his trained laborers together with the English supervisor to a place he had heard of, rich in coconuts and teeming with people willing to work their butts off, but had no idea of their commercial potential. The man had big business in mind, nothing short of setting up a world class factory and to become the biggest manufacturer of coir products in the world! That my friends, was the coir pioneer James Darragh.

He was a pioneer, in cocoa mats (The US name for coir), but he also went on to try his hand in a few other businesses before stabilizing his fortunes on coir and propelling Kerala to the forefront of the industry, worldwide. Darragh, Smail and Co., thus became the first American firm in these parts, soon employing some 1,081 hands and shipping coir matting to many parts of the world. Others like Aspinwall, Pierce Leslie and William Goodacre (to name a few) followed in quick succession.

We also note that after about 25 years in Alleppey, Darragh became a bigwig and was hobnobbing with the royalty of Travancore and even minting his own coins. He quickly diversified into coconut oil, tea, coffee, rubber and so on….and become a very rich man. In 1889 he decided to head back to New York and during a stopover at Cairo, he fell ill and died.

But while Alleppey, an English term derived from Allepilly or Alapuzha, a port developed by the sovereign Dharmaraja of Travancore within his domains to reduce their dependence and perhaps even rival Cochin and Calicut (which was already trending to decadency by then), was synonymous with coir, the purpose was originally to create an all-weather harbor to export all of Travancore’s products including spices, duly serviced from inland procurement centers through an inland network of canals and using cheap boat transportation. How did this plan come into being and how was it put into effect? Let’s go back in time to the rule of the Dharmaraja of Travancore to find out.

Dewan Keshava Pillai, the architect of the whole idea, is a character who deserves a separate article, in fact a book, for such is the power of his character. With a promise that I will definitely do a separate article on his times, let me pull away from the urge to write a few paras about him and instead stick to a simple introduction. Starting as a lowly visitor to the palace, the boy worked his way up as a scribe, and later became a brilliant military strategist trained by none other than Capt D’Lannoy. His commercial skills were unmatched in those times for a native and the man soon found himself heading the commerce department going on to become the Sarvadhikarai and eventually the (Dalawa) Dewan of state by 1788. He was also the biggest pillar of support for Dharmaraja, at a crucial time when Tipu Sultan sought to wage a war against Travancore. The purchase of the Cranganore forts from the Dutch and the battle of Nedumkotta followed, Keshava Pillay led from the front and ensured a timely repulse of the Mysore army (See my article Tipu’s waterloo for details). He did so much more, such as moving the capital from Padmanabhapuram to Trivandrum, building the MC road (the origin at Trivandrum is named Keshavadasapuram in his honor), the Chalai market and so on…

But Keshava Pillay’s everlasting achievement was the development of the port of Alleppey following the decline of the Dutch monopoly of the Pepper trade, after the Dutch defeat by Marthanda Varma at Kulachel. Now that the pepper business was directly conducted by the sovereign of Travancore (note that the Zamorin and family were in exile in Travancore during this period), the British were dependent on Travancore for pepper. Pillay decided to open two ports, one at Alleppey close to Cochin and a smaller one at Vizhinjam.

A port town was thus established in this sleepy village, warehouses were opened, traders were invited from Bombay (Kutchi Memons and Gujaratis), also Chettiars and Ravuthars from Tamilakam, to conduct trade. Transport of spices and raw materials were guaranteed by the royal army and new canals were built to link the waterways to the new seaport at Alleppey. Anjengo, Quilon and Vizhinjam were converted as feeder units to the main Alleppey port. Shaktan Thampuran of Cochin in the meanwhile was keener on establishing Trichur as his main base and thus the Cochin port largely run by the declining Dutch VOC, slowly took a back seat in maritime activities. The Dutch VOC’s pepper monopoly had ended. Alleppey was now the chief commercial town of Travancore. Spices, Coir and everything else sourced from Malabar and other coastal ports of Western India were headed to Alleppey for export, to the eager buyers in the west.

Alleppey’s mud banks practically speaking, afforded a safe anchorage in the open roadstead (See explanation of ‘mud bank’ in notes).  Its natural port was unaffected during the ravages of the Malabar monsoons and remained open even when Cochin was closed, while at the same time, inland waterways afforded a route to get the goods across to and from Cochin and other producing locales.

As it became a busy and popular port by 1762 as the Dewan stationed himself to oversee the port’s development phase. The Travancore Raja built a palace there raising the esteem of the locale, also a Huzur Kutchery, and a temple. Mathu Tharakan oversaw all the timber business, Vicharippukarsanmar delivered hill produce and spices and the state commissioned (to avoid dependence on the EIC and the VOC) three ships to transport goods to major North Indian ports like Bombay and Calcutta.

By 1798, Dharmaraja passed away and the loss of his patron also decided Kashava Pillay’s fate. The new king was unduly influenced by his Samprati Jayantan Sankaran Nambudiri, who convinced the king that Pillay was colluding with the British. By the next year Pillay was found dead (murdered by poison). A few years later, the Church Missionary Society set up its local headquarters in Alleppey and three years later the first Anglican Church was built in 1819.

The 19th century was an all-important period for the fortunes of Alleppey. It continued to be a safe port and Markham surveying it stated so in 1867 - The mud-bank of Alipee, the Port of Travancore, is a curious phenomenon. The safety of the roadstead arises from its possessing a remarkably soft muddy bottom, and the fluidity of the water being diminished by the intermixture of mud the anchorage is very smooth in four fathoms, even while the swell of the monsoon is at its height in the offing.

Goods came down the canals and to the warehouses in Alleppey. Seafaring barges then carried them to oceangoing ships anchored at the mudbank. It was still not a thriving or bustling port until the mid-19th century but Travancore had by now come under British suzerainty. A British commercial agent was placed at Alleppey. It was in the first half of the 19th century that the Vadai canal was built, parallel to the commercial canal, indicating that commerce was heating up and congestion had to be relieved on the main commerce canal.

A report Voyage from Bombay to Madras and Calcutta 1829 narrates -

The trade of Cochin has so declined that there are at present neither political or commercial agents there on the part of the East India Company, this port being subject to the collector of Travancore, who resides at Alipee. The articles which were formerly exported and imported, now go from Calicut, except a small annual export of cocoa-nuts, coin, elephants' teeth, sandal wood, tamarinds, teak wood, and wax, which are carried in coasting vessels; the cassia, cardamums, ginger, pepper, &c., being now mostly collected at Calicut for the northern part of the country, and at Alipee for the southern.

There is some confusion in the books and charts regarding the situation of Alipee. Mr. Milburn places it in lat. 9° 42' N. near a river; calls it a town of considerable size, very populous, having many good houses, and wearing the flag of the Rajah of Travancore, to whom it belongs. Mr. Horshurgh says that Porea, which he places in lat. 9° 30' N. and long. 7C° 34' E. is sometimes called Alipee; but he adds, that the village properly called Alipee, is three leagues more to the northward, where the Company's ships load pepper, and confirms this, by saying that the Earl Camden, in five fathoms and three quarters, the village bearing E.N.E. 1/2 E., when at anchor, made it in lat. 9° 42' N. by observation. The Lord Cathcart and the Bombay, the two vessels loading pepper here, were lying in four fathoms, about two miles from the town, with a large and handsome brick building like a factory, having an arched entrance in the centre of its front, and a flag-staff, bearing the British flag, rising from its summit, bearing about E.N.E. This is a place belonging to the English, and subject to the collector of Travancore. We inquired its name from the natives, who came off to us in boats, and was told by several that it was called by them Alipelly, but by the English, Alipee. The latitude of this place, by a good meridian observation, was 9° 34' N., which is nearer to the situation of Porea; but of this name, or of any other Alipee than the present, these natives said they knew nothing.

By 1858, the EIC had relinquished their powers to the British crown and the colonial administration took its place. All royal monopolies were abolished, free trade was established and only a commission/duty needed to be paid to the Travancore royalty.

This was the stage when foreign investment and organizations came in droves to Alleppey and Cochin. Darragh was one of the first arriving in 1859. The British modernized the port, building a lighthouse by 1860 and a post and telegraph office by 1863, the first in Travancore, just 10 years after the one in Madras. Imagine the relief for traders who needed good and quick communications, so also safety for the ships and their produce. A pier was constructed in 1870, steam driven cranes were established and a small coolie operated tramway was established to move goods from the warehouses to the pier. The number of ships plying the port reached about 400 annually while at the same token, the total tonnage went up from 58,000 to 350,000 by the end of the 19th century. In fact Alleppey was modernized just 10 years after Bombay and Madras and was characterized as a fine harbor.

The industrialization of Travancore started by American James Darragh was extraordinary and as he promised, it was soon to become the center of all coir industry in the world. Everything was done in-situ and not in Europe as other companies had modeled their businesses. This was to continue for a full century, until 1970, and it was only in the last decades, when labor unrest ensued, that the business declined. But there were other reasons too as we will soon see.

Alleppey circa.1900
Aspinwall, Pierce Leslie and William Goodacre followed to establish their coir factories in Alleppey. The next were the Swiss Volkart brothers. All in all the coir business was very profitable and labor was dirt cheap (Darragh’s factory paid their laborers just 4 annas per day). Many tens of thousands of people were employed both in the factory aspects of the coir industry as well as the cottage based parts of de-husking coconuts and raw yarn bundling stages. Alleppey grew and grew for a century. The port became even more congested, the place reeked from decaying coconut fiber dumped in the canals for soaking and illnesses increased. Mosquito borne Filariasis was common place. Easy commuting over canal boats attracted even more and more job seekers and with the coir industry also amenable to women workers, the numbers swelled. All in all things were looking good but somewhat unstructured and unregulated.

As we said before almost all of Darragh’s coir was going to America. That was the business volume which made the American government decide to appoint a commercial agent in 1880 to take care of related issues, especially to liaise with the British, who controlled the seas, the ships and the ocean routes between India and America. The person appointed for to the position was one Abbot Low Dow.

Abbot Low Dow, born in 1845 was like Darragh, a native of Brooklyn - New York and came from an old and respected shipping family. He was the son of George Worthington Dow, a respected East India trader and Anna De Bevoise Prince. He was first married to Cornelia Suydam Herriman and his three daughters found mention in New York’s society news, most of the time. Dow also happened to be the first cousin of Seth Low, the president of Columbia University and the first mayor of the consolidated city of New York. He was a wealthy man indeed and became the trustee of the estate of his children in 1876, upon the death of his wife, who left $400,000 in trust for them.

In 1880 he moved to Alleppey as consular agent, perhaps after persuasion by his Brooklyn compatriot James Darragh. The importance of the locale and the bilateral business which was very much in favor of Travancore in terms of balance of payments, resulted in an upgrade of his office to a consulate quickly. The Congressional Series of United States Public Documents, Volume 2028, states that Abbot Dow was promoted as American counsel in 1881, so recommended by President RB Hayes and industrialist Samuel Sloan.

But the consulate was short-lived. We do not know how long it functioned because Abbot L. Dow, himself stated that it was difficult for him as the British Government 'permits no direct intercourse of Indians with other countries'. It existed perhaps (I could not find any further details of the consulate myself) for some 10 years and Dow’s comment above roughly dates to the 1890’s reflecting that all did not bode well between the Americans and British, with respect to trade at Alleppey. Nevertheless he continued on at Travancore for a while before moving back to America. We note that by 1899 he had become the director of the Craig colony for epileptics at Sonyea NY. In 1905, Abbot Low Dow married Helene Carola Nancy Sanford, a wealthy socialite (The city of Sanford in Florida gets its name from the Sanford family). Dow settled down in New Hampshire, in his Wakefield home and passed away in May 1914. His daughters Margaret married Ernest Greene in 1896, Caroline married Mr Hiss in 1906 and Cornelia to Charles Bancroft in 1905. One could guess that Abbot Dow’s high connections, and standing in New York society and his family background as East India traders must have got him the position in British India. So that was a bit about the consulate and the Consul.

Abbot Dow and Nancy Sanford
By 1890 the American consular agent one Mr John Grieve located in Cochin reported as below to Mr Comfort, Vice Consul at Bombay on the state of the Alleppey port, dated July 23 1890:
"Our season having now ended, I have pleasure in sending you the following short account of the trade done during the year ending June 30, as promised when I saw you in Bombay. Six American vessels, two British steamers, and four other vessels loaded cargo here for New York of the approximate value of 25 lakhs. Of the six American ships, three of them loaded part cargoes in Alleppey (about 30 miles from here) of the value of 82,000 rupees, while another American vessel loaded entirely in Alleppey, cargo to the value of about 106,000 rupees. The above is exclusive of cargo that may have been sent to London for transshipment there to New York, of which there is no trace in the customs returns."

The attention that Alleppey was getting from Trivandrum was perhaps lackluster and investment had reduced. Perhaps the British also neglected maintenance in the port and it was in a state of decline with diseases and crowding on the up. A reason for the decline of the port was sadly the development of a road network between Travancore and Cochin. The KH 1 or MC road (again conceived by Keshava Pillay) and the advent of trucking transport resulted in goods taking the safer land route to Cochin where bigger ships could dock in safety nearer the port, whereas in Alleppey they had to be transported further into the sea on barges. The factories in Cochin decided to truck or boat the village produce directly to their Cochin factories. The world wars resulted in Cochin getting promoted as a naval port with crown funds for further development and then again there was a mega port at Bombay which got a bulk of the funding.

But there was another reason at the turn of the 20th Century (Krishna Poduval - Calcutta review) - It was again nature which moved the mudbanks out from Alleppey to Puracad. Recently, however, the mud-bank which hitherto held out all the advantages of an excellent harbour and made this port so very attractive to shipping and thus helped in building it up into an emporium, one of the oldest in this part of the world, appears to have, partially, at all events, shifted to about twelve miles south near a village called Puracand, Thus nature has snatched off one of the best advantages with which she had endowed Alleppey, with the inevitable result that the town is now face to face with a south-ward diversion of its trade, and its time-honored commercial eminence stands doomed, at least for the time being. I take care to add the qualifying phrase, seeing that quite possibly the operation of natural forces similar to those which have now carried off the mudbank may, at some future time, move it back to its original site and leave Alleppey in statu quo ante. Speculation apart, the occurrence in question is certainly a serious economic disaster to this unfortunate town and indirectly to Travancore.

Nevertheless, that did not seem to be a major issue at the time, only the barges had to move a little further. The primary reason for the decline in Alleppey after all was increasing labor costs and militancy amongst the labor ranks. The coir industry had required little capital investment as all initial work was done in the countryside, near homes and the yarn was moved by boats plying canals, to Alleppey. Freight costs were also thus minimal. Handlooms and power looms in the sheds producing the end product were also not too expensive. Port duties were quite low. The highest cost thus was the labor cost at Alleppey’s factories or work sheds. This was quite low until the 1950’s but at the same time, the mat so produced was not a glamorous item, even at its final destination, America (so it’s selling price could not go up very much). Starting from the 1920’s trade unions started to emerge in order to counter bad working conditions. This was coupled with the emergence of class consciousness in Travancore and the slow disintegration of the century old caste system. A number of labor movements and strikes ensued while at the same time, the demand for coir products reduced. Wages had to be increased and the bigger organizations decided to move away to less militant locations in Tamil Nadu, Sri Lanka and other places. The factories in Alleppey split into unorganized smaller units and lost their economics of scale. Exports declined from a 25,000 ton level in 1962 to 7,000 tons in 1973. A port which once commanded 40% of Kerala’s exports in the mid 50’s was now exporting less than 10% of its total. That my friends was the story of the spectacular surge and decline of a modern port Alleppey,  the Venice of Travancore, a story unlike the stories of many of the medieval coastal ports of Malabar which died more natural deaths.

Today Alleppey forms part of the tourist belt, as the gateway to the backwaters and many a person passes or visits the locale while boating through the waters on houseboats. These tourists will never hear about the coir industries which had once set the shores buzzing nor of the ships that were anchored out yonder waiting to carry coir mats to America. They will also not know about the turbulent 1920-1950 period when the very same shores witnessed the first of Kerala’s labor unrests. But they will take in the serene waters, the still lagoons, the picture-book lakeside views, palm fringed canals, the bustling day to day routines of the canal-side dwellers, simple homes and many other small marvels.  No boatman or tour guide will tell them about Dewan Keshava Pillay or James Darragh, the American Sayip, for they had served their respective purposes and moved on, now only reduced to flashing memories and ashes in the ground. Nor will they know that an American consulate once existed, in Alleppey.

But from the ashes of one, rises another, in this case, Cochin. The reemergence of Cochin as a premier inner harbor port is owed to one person, Sir Robert Bristow. His of course has to be another story, for another day….

Alleppey – From a port without a city to a city without a port (Gateways of Asia, ed Frank Broeze) – Hans Schenk
The Oriental Herald, Volume 23
Travancore state manual – T K Velu Pillai
Trade Union movement, a social history – N Raveendran
The mud banks off the Malabar Coast - Krishna Poduval, Calcutta Review, Volumes 116-117

Mudbank – They are temporary formations, occurring annually and naturally on the west coast of India, normally near Alleppey, Cochin and Calicut. Almost all the old ports of Malabar, Cochin and Travancore were actually due to mudbanks. Mud banks are typically described as “calm, turbid waters having high loads of suspended sediments occurring in the coastal regions during monsoon season.” They appear “in a semi-circular shape with average distances of 4-5 km along shore and 5-6 km offshore, and are characterized by a heavy suspension of dark, greyish green fine clay.” Although mud banks are known to occur along the southwest coast of India for at least three centuries, the cause of their appearance, disappearance and their shifting is still an enigma for the local and the scientific community.

Aleppey stone bridge – courtesy D'Cruz, Zachariah, British online gallery
Dow couple – courtesy Sanford family


  1. jayan

    Good article sir indeed ,.striking !! you wrote about Diwan raja kesavadasn pillai, brave war strategist and fund raiser for Travancore royal treasury, his mastery in deployment of Travancore forces against tippu got admiration from Brits , they gave him raja name
    Again he is also financial sttrtegist, he visit all wealthy Nair and Christian homes in allpey chethala, just before the great dharma raja visit and assured them opportunity to meet
    king and confer tile names like Menon,kurup, panikker ,kartha kaimal , tharakan etc when they donate soverins to govt tresury , the late prof thruvoor vismbaran ,in his article says , Nair's in cherthala taluk has got the highest sir names

    As you said , he is commercial man coupled with military strategist, but natives of Trivandrum never showed any gratitude to this great man and did not recognise his unmatched contribution instead put his life in danger ,

    The defeat he gave to tippu is one of the remarkable achievement of this battle veteran thus saved people of Kochi and tranvacore from repression and conversion

    Great sir , u native of Malabar done justice to this war hero and expect one article fully dedicated to him

  1. Bernard

    Manmadhan sir,
    Great Article, as usual. Diwan Kesava Pillai was a much appreciated personality in and around Alappuzha district. Might have heard about 'Mararikkulam vazhuthina' and all.
    Chaakara OR Mudbanks were studied in detail by a lot of scholars in Erstwhile Chemical Oceanographic laboratory of Travancore University and later Cochin University. It is mainly because of the geo-climatic or sedimentary features of the continental shelf of Kerala.
    Really enjoyed your narration and the American connection, as ever. Keep on doing the great work. Thank you.

  1. Maddy

    thanks Jayan, Bernard

    Glad you enjoyed it. I will definitely write about Keshava Pillay. He was indeed a great character. need a little more info and I can start. I did not know the connection with the brinjal - what is it?
    yeah - i read a few papers on mudbanks, nobody has a real conclusion, or so i understood!

    jayan, i spent a number of years at Kazhakuttam - so travancore is not at all new to me! feet in both worlds!

  1. jayan

    Sir , let me add few points ,.when we recount venad history , few names of great importance, of course Marthanda varma ( cruel ruler bit) , then dharma raja ( karthika thirinual ramavarma)
    And towering personalities ,and persons of acumen and calibre Diwan raja kesavadasn and padathalavan ayyappan Marthanda pillai and celebrated Dutch guy captain dilnoy

    The last 3 people's we never forget as thier contribution made Kochi and Travancore bit intact after tippu attack

    The Kochi king gave ayyappan Marthanda pillai puthenvelikara gram for his contribution against fight with tippu

    U can imagine , a king gives one gram to a padathalavan, how much great was his performance as a military leader

    Maddy sir, expects a topic on great raja kesavadasn and ayyappan Marthanda pillai plus dilony great Dutch fighter

  1. Bernard

    Maaraarikkulam vazhuthina was/(is) very special. Travancore and Chempakasseri royal families favored it. The villagers used to send out their best crop of those Brinjals to Trivandrum. What I meant to say was, that Alleppey, as such was very much connecetd in all aspects to their Ruling family.

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Jayan, Thanks Bernard
    Jayan I am working on those subjects, you will see one of them soon.

    Hi Bernard - just read a paper on the subject and also about the controversy with the BT brinjal...interesting subject. Maybe it was a key ingredient in the ramayyan aviyal...

  1. Maddy

    check this out

  1. Unknown

    Very much captivating, my family was in the port cargo handling business and I remember the " chelanka" as it was called smoothly riding into the port with 1000 bags of rice, wheat, during monsoon the chelankas were pulled ashore and maintenance was done ,standing inside was an experience that was awesome, the smell of fish oil which preserves the coir yarn was an engineering marvel and there were experts who were exclusively called to do the work
    About the mud banks one of my friends the Late Aravindashan, former chairman had once mentioned that the British had laid a particular mix of chemicals in the sea to keep it calm, don't know the truth, but he had read about it in the history of Alleppey from the Archives, I had seen the pictures of Henry Darahh and John Smail in the company,thank you sir its such articles that bring back memories