Situating Histories

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Calicut and the two battles of 1503 and 1790, Dr Noone’s new book

Some years ago, I wrote about the famous sea battle of Calicut fought during the early months of 1503, preparations having been made for it by Vasco Da Gama of Portugal, as he sailed into Malabar during 1502.  A showdown was expected and as the Zamorin was preparing his flotilla, the Portuguese armada of 5 light caravels and 15 heavy ships, including the flag Ship San Jeronimo sailed in with Gama in command. After their arrival and restocking at Cochin and Cannanore, they started enforcing the blockade of all Malabar ports. The Zamorin had in the meanwhile prepared and re-equipped his fleet, two flotillas had already been fitted out. The first flotilla consisted of comparatively heavy ships, about a hundred in number, mostly Sambuks, under the command of Khoja Ambar, and the second flotilla was placed under the command of Khoja Kasim.

T. H. Baber and the Cochin Jews

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The White and the Black Jews of Cochin

Several books and papers feature the white and the Black Jewish community which lived in Cochin. Many of the descendants have since taken up their Aliyah and moved to Israel and there is hardly a family or two left in Cochin. Interestingly, though early accounts from the East India Company officials do mention the community and provide copies of some of their ancient documents, starting with Hamilton Buchanan, most accounts fail to mention the role played by the righteous T.H. Baber, who used to be a magistrate and collector at Tellicherry. His accounts provide an interesting and slightly differing aside from what we already know.

Brown of Mahe -The Rascally Adventurer

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Murdoch Brown – The Valia Saheb of Anjarakandy

History enthusiasts and the inhabitants of North Malabar though familiar with this name, may not know much about this Scotsman. Many myths and legends have been connected to his name, and he has been routinely derided as an avaricious colonialist. A detailed study (a first) reveals that he was a hardcore capitalist, the first British landlord of Malabar, a keen botanist, a sharp observer of local culture and laws, and a brash and opportunistic trader, serving only himself. Like spices and provisions, people were also commodities as far as he was concerned and he was a tough slave owner, also supplying Malabar slaves to Mauritius and other French states. He would bend rules, twist arms, and resort to violence, so long as the end benefits were his and only his. Close friends remained friends for life and enemies remained enemies. Always skirting the edges of legal provisions, he changed nationalities and sides as the situation demanded, mastering foreign and several South Indian languages, along the way. To summarize, he was one heck of a man.

Parsee families of Calicut

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Some of the prominent families

In the 19th century and until the 21st, there were several Parsi merchant families resident in Calicut. I had written about them briefly some years ago, but it needed some revisions and improvement.  Raghu Karnad covered them briefly in his lovely book, ‘Farthest Field’, but details the Mugaseth’s, to some extent. So, let’s go back and check on some of the families and their contributions to the colorful cultural fabric of Calicut. Marshall in one of his interviews mentions their influx in the early parts of the 19th century and a number close to 200-300 at its peak. However, one could assume that the Persian merchants mentioned in many travelers’ records well before that could have been the Zoroastrians among or with the Gujaratis. Let's take a look at some of them.

Calicut’s SM Street – and its everlasting allure

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Its influence on the city’s inhabitants, writers, and a new book by Nadeem Naushad

This little, but busy street in Calicut still has a tremendous influence on the inhabitants of Calicut. A street which came into being just over two centuries ago, has as people of Malabar will agree, an everlasting allure on those living in Calicut or visiting the city center. Let’s take a look, see how SK Pottekat picturized it, and also get to know what Nadeem had to say about it in his recent book on the street.

The Cholas, the Zamorin, and the Perumal’s

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The Chola interregnum 1036-54 – A discussion

One of the popular sources referred to when it comes to the history of the Zamorins of Calicut is the seminal work by KV Krishna Ayyar titled - Zamorins of Calicut (From the earliest times down to AD 1806).  The version available to peruse is the 1938 publication. This was preceded by a concise version - A history of the Zamorins of Calicut Part 1 - (From the earliest times down to A.D. 1498) published in 1929. A latter paper titled – A short sketch of the second dynasty of the Zamorins of Malabar (1742-1774) provided details of the second lineage in the family. In 1965, Ayyar published the limited edition - A history of Kerala and followed it up in 1966 with - A short history of Kerala as well as a short article Calicut under the Zamorins in the Calicut Souvenir 1966. One of the more recent articles is the 1976 – Importance of the Zamorins of Calicut. Over time where he revised some aspects of the original 1938 monograph and made even more revisions in the 60’s and proposed a very interesting hypothesis in the 1976 paper about the Chola presence in Calicut.

Volkart Brothers – The Swiss connection

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Cochin & Tellicherry, through the eyes of AF Ammann

Kayalinarike…goes the old Mehaboob song written by Meppalli Balan, brought to life a decade ago by the sonorous Shahbaz Aman. The song takes you through the Kochi of the 50s and tells you about the many companies that had set up shop at the bustling Cochin (Fort Kochi) port and the travails of a jobless man. Calicut had lost its sheen as the medieval port many a decade ago, and Cochin had taken over. A new harbor had been constructed and had become home to liners, cargo ships, and other marine craft. Mehaboob goes on to mention Pierce Leslie, Aspinwall, AV Thomas.…and of course Volkart. We had discussed Perce Leslie in the past, so now it is time to study the checkered story of Volkart in Cochin, Calicut, and Tellicherry. I was a bit unsure when I started the research, wondering if it could be interesting, but trust me, it is.

Conceição – Our new book

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 The Sad Story of the Conceição – Published by the Chagos Conservation Trust (CCT)

Sometimes I wonder at the surprising turns that life takes. I was researching for material to add meat to the article that I was preparing on Deigo Garcia and chanced upon a site related to the Chagos Archipelago, where I found an old copy of ‘Chagos News’. In there, I did not find much on Diego Garcia as such, but I chanced on an article by Nigel Wenban-Smith, on the sinking of an India-bound Portuguese Nau called Conceição (Conception) in 1555. Intrigued, I read it up and when I saw that it was about a shipwreck among those islands, I became very interested, desiring to get to the bottom of the story. This was in my wheelhouse, so to say, and melded with the many Portuguese studies I had made, while at the same time being on the fringes of the Diego Garcia research. I obtained a copy of the survivor Rangel’s account of the shipwreck in Portuguese, but an online translation did not prove to be very helpful.

The Kalpathi furor

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Untouchability, caste rigors, and a turbulent period at Palghat, Knapp & Sir CP

Villages in Palghat followed caste-based rules as well as the prescribed segregation strictly during the pre-independence period, and the caste rigors felt across the whole region exasperated reformists within and outside the state, especially after Vivekananda termed the state akin to a lunatic asylum. It is a vast and complex subject and there are many books and papers which go into it in great detail, but we are going now to the Kalpathi Agraharams which were inhabited by Tamil Brahmins (Pattar), where during the period 1924-27, several disturbances upset routine life and peace in the area. The conflict between Ezhavas and the Paradesi Brahmins became a media furor and was hotly debated in the Madras legislative council. This then is a summary of events as they happened.

The heart of Montrose

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 Madurai’s peculiar connection to Scotland, Logarithms, Colin Mackenzie, and a hero’s heart

Madurai has a great cultural history, and for a long time was Tamil Nadu’s cultural capital, and the ‘Toonga Nagaram, the city that never slept’. It was one of those cities which endured so many rulers and changes, notably by the Kalabhras, the Pandyas, the Cholas, the Tughlaq Sultanate, the Vijayanagar Rayars, the Telugu Nayaks, the Nawab of Arcot and Chanda Saheb, the British East India Company and finally the British Raj. Most would recall it as a Nayak-era temple town on the banks of the Vaigai river, or as a pilgrimage town, home to the magnificent Madurai Meenakshi temple and the Tirumala Naikar temple.

Mackenzie Manuscripts – Malabar and Travancore collections – Part 1

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Colin Mackenzie’s assistants involved with Malabar & Travancore 

In the previous article about Montrose’s heart and its connection to Napierian logarithms, we read that Colin Mackenzie had succeeded in getting a commission with the EIC and had proceeded to Madurai. With Ms. Hester Johnston’s help, we understood that he had established contact with the learned Brahmins of Madurai. But did he find the link between Napier and Hindu Mathematics? Sadly, no! He seems to have lost interest in the subject or may have been pulled into more important work by the EIC such as soldiering and surveying the large tracts of land, which the EIC had acquired in India by that time. This apolitical man was thence, set to devoting his entire life into studying, surveying and collecting manuscripts as well as inscriptions from the various South Indian towns, followed by a short administrative life in Calcutta.

The Zamorin’s seat at Ponnani

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At the Thrikkavil Kovilakom

While most people associate the Zamorin mainly with Calicut, avid historians opine that Ponnani was a temporary military capital of the Zamorin during the medieval years, as Calicut remained his political and business capital. Ponnani was the location where he marshaled his cavalry resources (the 50-60,000 Nair pada or foot soldiers as and when required and the armory) and went on to fight his foes. In later years it became the naval capital of the Zamorin and the stronghold of the Marakkar captains. But a deeper study reveals that it was a more permanent headquarters and affirms that the Zamorin stayed mainly at Ponnani between the 16th to 18th centuries, visiting Calicut sporadically for ceremonious occasions. Let’s now try to find out the underlying reasons.

The Konkani’s of Cochin

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A look at the community’s history (with particular reference to the GSB)

All of us have had some interaction with a GSB (Goud Saraswat Brahmin) Konkani, be it in college or at the workplace, and for people in Cochin, the community which lives there and their slightly different customs and their singsong intonation of the Malayalam language. You will remember a Pai, a Bhat, a Rao, a Kamath, a Prabhu, a Shenoy, etc. all recall the Shenoy’s theatre, and you may have seen Mammooty - Dileep’s movie on the community and the Dosa song from Kamath & Kamath. But this little article will take you back a bit and retrace their arrival in Cochin and see the ups and downs this community, which was persecuted, faced along the way.