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.

Some years ago, I wrote about the French Loge in Calicut and mentioned the workings of Volkart at Calicut, as well as the very interesting case they were dragged into. This article will therefore concentrate on the company set up in Cochin, and their coffee works in Tellicherry.

First, we go to Switzerland, back in time when it was neither the neutral financial behemoth it is today, nor a home to bankers and vaults. It was home to traders and artisans, and interestingly Swiss mercenaries were its earliest export. Soon, entrepreneurs were starting to taste success, Swiss cheese and milk products started to get popular. Clockmakers came out with new designs, the wristwatch had arrived, and Patek Philippe had made a name. Industrialists and traders set up shop the world over, and believe it or not, Malabar was a major trading partner for some of those firms!

Herman Gundert from the Basel Evangelical Mission had told them about life in Tellicherry and Cannanore and the mission had set up the first small industries in Malabar, making tiles and a few other things. The Basel Mission, exporting from Africa and South India went on to employ some 6,500 during the first two decades of the 20th century. BEM has been the subject of some books in India and has provided us with a vast trove of photographs of those days. By then, many individual traders were dabbling in dyes and fabrics and Leonhard Zeigler had already started making his fortune trading Indigo from India.

The next set of Swiss traders who headed towards Cochin and Malabar, the home of the spices, were two brothers from Winterthur, a town in the North of Switzerland, namely Salomon Volkart, a heavily bearded stocky man of stern character and his dapper younger brother Johan Georg Volkart. Seeing a demand for cotton in the Swiss textile Industry, they headed to India, and following that got involved in the export and commodity trade of many items such as oils, coir, dyestuffs, rubber, tea, coffee, and a variety of spices. They also became importers of paper, soap, matches, watches, textiles, and machinery into India.  

Johan George Volkart was the first to move to Calcutta and work for Wattenbach and Co, as its cotton purchasing agent. In 1844, Solomon, his elder brother left for India, to check the Indian scene out, and visit his younger brother. Solomon returned (never to visit India again) and started working for the Rieter brothers – the fabric printers, but in 1851, decided it was time to venture out into business as Volkart Brothers, with Johan and gradually, they networked with many other Swiss companies entrenched in Asia trade. Europe was clamoring for Indian cotton and spices and so Volkart Brothers or V.B. was established in Bombay with Johan resident in Bombay and Solomon holding the fort in Winterthur. He then went on to establish offices in Bombay, Colombo, Cochin, and Karachi. Many other branches followed, with the expansion of the rail network in India and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Johan Georg, unfortunately, passed away unexpectedly in 1861 at Bombay, just before his scheduled return to Switzerland, and Rudolph Ahler took over.

Volkart went on to do excellent business and in 1875, after Ahler’s retirement, decided to re-register the company in London. Georg (Solomon’s son) and Theodor Reinhart, his son-in-law, took over the reins. Another son-in-law August F Ammann joined the firm in 1880 and with the alignment of the Indian Rupee to the silver standard, Volkart’s fortunes rocketed. By the end of the first world war, Volkart had become leading cotton exporters from India and were particularly successful because they also handled insurance within their establishment.

The story of the firm’s work in Cochin and Malabar comes to us through the evocative and fascinating account left behind by Ammann (who became the firm’s first manager at Volkart’s office in Tellicherry) who had always dreamt of going to India. Cochin was the third office set up in 1859 (Colombo in 1857) after Bombay in 1851, and just after the first telegraph wires were laid to Cochin in 1858 (the Europe – India connections were laid in 1861, but did not work for another 4 years). I will deliberately stay away from the cotton business and the many discussions about it, namely the ethicality, the colonial aspects of the enterprise, etc. For those interested in studying the business life of the company, please refer to the many books and articles penned by the academic Christof Dejung. I thank him for our interaction and the input he kindly provided. Now let us see what AF Ammann had to say.

A F Ammann
When Ammann joined the company as a junior apprentice in 1868, aged 18, at the office in Winterthur, news from the exciting and distant India filtered in daily and the young man was rearing to go there but had to wait till his apprenticeship was completed in 1871. Before he could go to India, he was sent to London to polish his English skills and it was only in 1874, that he was allowed to proceed to India, the wonderland of his dreams. He was not sure where he would end up and there was much talk in the head office about problems with a Marakar, at Cochin, which a senior member Mr. J.G. Sigg had been deputed to look into. After landing in Bombay and spending a while there, Ammann traveled by boat in 1875, to stop over at Cochin, where previous managers Hueni, Kramer, Chevalier, Spitteler, and Kapp had all previously served. When Ammann arrived, the 35-year-old GA Jung, a Viking giant with blond hair and blue eyes, wearing the characteristic colonial Sola Topi, was in charge at Cochin

The Cochin of that time leaps out into view from Amman’s words and pictures. The harbor in those days was not so safe – the Cochin bar (the picture shows a scene as you would see at Kallayi - Calicut) was unreliable, and the office building was quite big, with the yard filled with many barrels or casks containing coconut oil for export. The lighthouse and flagstaff (read my article - Bolgatty or Bastion ) were all there, so also (this surprised me) the Chinese fishing nets which Amman photographed and mentioned in his account. People were transported on rickshaws (a human pulled-pushed, four-wheel cart) termed push-push (pousse-pousse in French) by the Europeans. Let us now get a feel of the town from his words, and this I believe would be particularly interesting for those who love Cochin and its lost history.

Visions of Cochin 1875 (Quoted from Amman’s reminiscences)

As the drive led us through the European and Eurasian town and gave me an opportunity of seeing practically all there is to be seen in Cochin-except Jewtown, of which more anon-I may as well give my impressions of Cochin town now and have done with it. Our road took us past the establishments of Aspinwall & Co. and Pierce, Leslie & Co., J. Darragh & Co., and G. Brunton to a large meidan or grass-grown open space on which stood the flagstaff-tower, wrongly called Old Dutch Tower. It was really the tower of the old Portuguese cathedral, the nave of which had been used by the Dutch as a storehouse and which the British had blown up after capturing Cochin towards the close of the l8th century. The old tower which was destroyed in 1876, i.e., soon after I had left Cochin; was certainly not a thing of beauty, but as a relic of days long gone by, it awakened my interest. Not far from it was the office of Captain Winckler, the master attendant, who was also a magistrate, for I remember being Mr. Jung's witness when he was sworn in as a British subject by him. The buildings of the old town presented a bewildering medley of architectural styles, some few with columns or pillars making a pretense at doubtful elegance, most being of an almost ludicrous clumsiness.

One old house, the last one of a row bordering the meidan on the south, particularly attracted my attention - It was an enormous two storied, massive building with a patch of garden enclosed in a wall, topped every now and then by huge white balls, as was also the massive but ugly gateway from which a colossal flight of steps led up to the verandah on the first floor. This monstrosity of a house, probably once the dwelling of some wealthy mijnheer, ought to be preserved by the government as a memento of a period of architectural aberration.

Opposite to it, on the shore of the backwater, I noticed something which attracted my attention in quite a different manner - the huge fishing nets supported by large bamboo poles and moving, seemingly automatically, up and down. Often have I watched this, to me, novel and apparently easy mode of fishing, the large nets frequently coming up from the water with, masses of shiny and struggling little creatures. From this first meidan we came to a second one, formerly the parade ground, when the British kept a garrison at Cochin. It was a fine grass-grown square surrounded by houses of all sorts and planted with tulip trees which, when in full bloom, presented a truly marvelous spectacle, as, with masses of flowers, they spread an almost blinding red light over their surroundings. Cochin had not much to boast of in the way of beauty, but these tulip trees and the ever-fresh and green-looking lawns struck me as truly beautiful and worthy to be remembered as the old town's pride and glory.

On that meidan stood also the protestant church, once St. Francis', which is said to be the oldest European church in all India and to have given shelter to the remains of Vasco da Gama. That is what every newcomer is told by the Cochinites, so I looked with feelings of awe at the old church, whenever I passed by it. But as a matter of fact, of all this talk only one thing is certain; namely that that great man died at Cochin on Christmas Eve 1524; all the rest, the church which gave temporary shelter to his remains before their conveyance to Portugal, the time which elapsed before they were thus conveyed-varying, according to the reports of the chroniclers, from a few days to thirteen years! -is pure fantasy. Not far from the church, on the eastern side of the square, was the branch office of the Bank of Madras, the manager of which, Mr. Noble, a fine-looking, intelligent, and amiable Scotchman, is the only Britisher of Cochin whom I remember, not only distinctly, but with almost affectionate feelings, because of his fine character. Mr, Jung and I saw a good deal of him, and in moon-lit nights-and what beautiful nights they were, almost like daylight - we often foregathered near the lighthouse for a friendly palaver, with that glorious constellation, the Southern Cross, looking down upon us. Our push-push drive was now nearing its end. It took us through what I remember as a narrow lane of houses painted in various colors in one of which, painted blue and yellow, the Cochin Club, founded, I believe, in 1876, took up its quarters; then emerging from it-the last house on our left, all columns and windows, we used to call the Crystal palace-we reached another grass-grown open space with a Roman Catholic church on one side and the lighthouse on the other, and then, gliding down gently to the sea-road, came to the bungalow which was to be my home for the next eighteen months or so.

It was a little stone-built and tile-roofed house with just three rooms surrounded by a verandah, the center one being the dining room, the side ones the bedrooms, each with a tiny bathroom, the porch doing duty as living room. The house stood in the midst of a sort of garden, though it would be more correct to call it a jungle, with some fine shady trees. It faced the road and the sea beyond and thus had the advantage of being fully exposed to the sea breeze. The road, which led nowhere, unless to the graveyard, was the one and only sea promenade or parade in the place, and although a fine road shaded by splendid casuarina trees, its eternal sameness soon palled on me, so that after a while l gave up my rides and sold my pony. The bungalow was one of three standing in a line facing the road, one of them being occupied by the Doyles, of whom more anon. Our servants were all Native Christians of sorts-which is all that need be said about them except the butler or khansamah who was an elderly Musselman and one of the best sorts too, but afflicted the "Cochin leg", that dire disease of which one meets, or at any rate met in my time, so many sad, yea terrible, sometimes even unmentionable examples: - elephantiasis.

The operations at Cochin

Besides the office building there was only one other pukka built edifice in my days: -the Coir press house, the rest being wooden, Cadjan-covered sheds. After the fire of 1889 the ground which, including the buildings, was until then held under a lease by V. B., was purchased by them, and a number of new buildings, including a fire- and burglar-proof vault, also a bungalow-which after the second fire was rebuilt on the water-side, i. e. facing the backwater, the old house being turned into a cask shed-were erected, giving the whole factory a different and altogether more orderly and imposing appearance.

The office was run in a typical European fashion, and a monthly arrival of a Lloyd steamer brought in cheese and beer. Looking out, one could see Mattanchery and the mosque. Two other Swiss staff and an English boy completed the European staff while several Eurasians worked on various duties.

The great fire of 1889

The building was rebuilt exactly as it was before (all the silver in the office safe melted to form one big lump) and escaped a second fire in 1894 which was a suspicious event, not natural. The story of that fire is narrated at this site 

Polikal-agatte Marakar

Almost all procurement was done through the P Marakkar, their broker, a smart gentleman from an affluent Moplah family. Per the system existent in the whole of Malabar, the firm offered Marakkar cash advances against supply contracts covering a large area between Mangalore and Alleppey. He was well accepted and was even known to the HQ staff in Switzerland. Interestingly, marakkar like other merchants, spoke Hindustani to the Europeans in the office, none spoke Malayalam. While this arrangement worked most of the time, there was a sudden spike in domestic demand for coffee, and Marakkar could not deliver coffee to Volkart, thus getting indebted to the tune of many lakhs. The security he had previously offered was a coconut farm of his, which did not have many yielding palms. So, it became a big royal mess and Volkart sued Marakkar. It was all amicable, and the suave Marakkar continued to come and go to the Volkart office. The case was shifted to Calicut, then to Madras, and finally to London, and Marakkar lost each time. Not much is known about what happened afterward, but I won’t be surprised if his activities with the firm continued, but under stricter terms. The case itself is well documented and one can peruse it through various stages in law books.

Social life in Cochin, caste issues, meeting the king

Amman quickly tired of Cochin, for social life seemed nonexistent to the ten or so Europeans living there. There was just one European woman, a sick, tired, and old lady and so these forced bachelors had a dull life. All they could do was sail out into the backwaters or listen to extended conversations between Jung & Marakkar. The company cabin boat (with rowers and their ailasa chants) was used to take them around - to Trichur, Alwaye, and Alleppey.

Vegetables were scarce, except for ladies’ fingers and a rare cabbage, meat was difficult to source, and getting beef was close to impossible, but fish and prawns were aplenty. Ghee was used for most cooking, and wild ducks were occasionally caught and cooked. Ice was a luxury but water remained cold when stored in chatties.

Transport, animals, and crocodiles

Ammann explains - In my days one had to travel by cabin boat to Trichur and thence by bullock bandy (Pothu or kala vandi) to Shoranur along a beautiful road shaded by magnificent banyan trees on which numerous monkeys disported themselves, in order to, reach the nearest railway station. All letters and parcels were carried from Shoranur down and from Beypor, then the Coast terminus of the Madras railway up the Coast by tappal runners, who went along at a slow, but steady trot day and night, holding in one of their hands a little wand with a bell, to attract the attention of wayfarers and carts and warn them to keep the road clear for H. M.'s mail, also to frighten off snakes and other dangerous animals. They did their duty right well, those runners, for the mails generally arrived punctually at their destination. To Calicut, I usually traveled by the rowing boat, along the seashore and at night time, when our lantern would attract numbers of young sharks who followed us all the way.

Crocodiles were seen all around and were frequently hunted. Sometimes, the sahibs went to the jungles to hunt and Ammann once came across a Nair who wanted to see his gun, but would not touch the sahib, so he had to toss the gun so that the Nair could catch it!! Bolgatty Island and the mansion on it existed, and Ammann met HH Rama Varma too. The White Jews he came across were mainly money lenders and bookbinders, while the black Jews dealt in cowhides.

He mentions Spitteler’s Island (after a VB manager in 1873) where date palms grew by chance and that it was quite a sight in the middle of the backwaters. Mystified, for I had never heard of it, I spent a while looking for details, but could not find any.

Volkart in Tellicherry

Later in 1875, when George Volkart arrived in Cochin for an inspection tour, the management decided to set up operations in Tellicherry, and Amman was posted to the new site while Shlunk & Co was to handle the VB operations in Calicut. Amman was quickly sent to Tellicherry to procure coffee beans and send them to Cochin. Amman took a liking for Tellicherry, there were a lot of Europeans, and social life looked good. Though his initial lodgings in a thatched hut were awful, he then rented a large office, hired staff, and with the help of Remmer, and later a Frenchman Ed Enouf (fluent in Malayalam), set up shop there. Again, they worked through a broker – Cunhi Ahmed and acquired coffee from nearby estates and Coorg.

Tiyyas of Malabar

Amman writes quite a bit about the many Tiyati’s and Tiyans he employed, their incessant chatter, chewing of betel leaves, as well as the many educated among them, including a sub judge, a vakil named Kannan. He adds - The Tiyans struck me as a gentle and intelligent people, no match, however, for the Moplahs in business. I had several Tiyans in the office, amongst them a particularly nice and clever young man by the name of Cannan. All my servants were Tiyans, from old habit I keep saying Tiyans although the plural of Tiyan or Tivan=islander, is Tiyar or Tivar; they are supposed to have come from Ceylon, and very good and faithful servants they were too. While he agrees that his Moplah friend sent him the best chicken biryanis - the conversations with this Moplah were not, nearly as interesting as those with my Tiyan friend Cannan, as he had not the latter's philosophic mind, being materialist in his views, like most of his creed.

Social life in Tellicherry,

He narrates many amusing stories, one of which deals with a dhobi who had lent his suit to another, on the side. His trips to Coorg and Mysore are detailed, and the leisure time in Tellicherry - there were many good and refined ladies, it was a large happy family and every evening they met at the club overlooking the meidan, with the sea in the background. Dances were not common, but when they danced, they waxed their shoes. Ammann rode a decani Arab horse for transport and loved the old-fashioned life there, with bullock bandies, and picturesque roads and though hot and damp, he considered it the ideal place to live. At last, he had found the place of his dreams, but later on in these accounts did remark that while Sindhi brokers in Karachi were trustworthy, those in Malabar and Cochin were not.

Moracoon (Morakunuu) – the Tellicherry office

The Volkart Brothers office was opened in 1875, with Mangalore and Calicut as satellite agencies. Five years later, the area witnessed the gold boom (see author’s article – Wynad gold rush). In 1866, a processing plant was opened. The Moracoon Coffee Curing Works, Tellicherry was initially set up in rented premises and this was purchased by Volkart in 1931. Some years later they became owners of the Karadibetta Estate in Mysore, which was taken over in 1936 to clear debts. Arabidacool at Mysore and Sidapur and Teneerhulla at Coorg were acquired in 1952-54-time frame.

The coffee board was set up in 1940 to buy the entire output and sell the produce at auctions. It was in 1958 that the Jaffer Ali site warehouse and offices were acquired and later the entire holding was sold to the Consolidated coffee operations of the Tatas during 1966–67. Consolidated Coffee Limited was renamed Tata Coffee Limited on 11 August 2000. Volcafe, the coffee trading arm of Volkart was divested in 2004 to ED&F.

Volkart in Calicut

At Calicut, Ammann established an agency, chiefly for ginger. He says - The agency's shed was on French ground, i.e., on an enclave surrounded by British territory and absolutely useless to France, called the French une loge, but about which my friend, the chief at Mahd, felt very sore because French sovereignty over it was treated by the British as a quantite, negligeable. He always wanted a bicolore to be hoisted over the place but I made him see that the tiny piece of ground was not worth making a fuss about. For more details of what transpired there, read this article, which I had written some years ago…

Voltas and air conditioning

Volkart was the main agent for Carrier US AC systems in India. Eventually, this was sold off to Tatas to create Voltas who then made air conditioners for the Indian market. An excellent paper by Priya Jain takes you through the entire history. Voltas was Incorporated on 6th September 1954 in Mumbai, promoted by Volkart Brothers and Tata Sons Pvt. Ltd., to take over the Engineering & Import Division of M/s. Volkart Brothers in India. The engineering unit also dealt with many international companies such as Brown Boveri, International Harvester, etc.

With this most of Volkart’s activities in India ceased, a partnership with Patel Cotton remained until 1968, and in 1983, VB India was formally liquidated and its books closed.

Company Culture

Volkart VB maintained that - the ‘goodwill and loyalty [of Indian merchants] to the firm can only be earned and sustained by friendly and polite treatment and will be spoiled by acting in a contrary manner. An example of such high regard for members of the Indian mercantile elite can be found in the reminiscences of Ammann. Volkart’s European employees in the 20th century had to complete an intensive ‘study of the indigenous languages’ to allow them to ‘express themselves fluently in overseas countries without the aid of an interpreter. When employees passed the tests that certified their basic level of proficiency in Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Singhalese, or Canarese, they received a bonus and were urged to take additional courses. A photograph of the Cochin staff in 1890 shows the Burra sahebs in suits, and several Tamil brahmins, Jews, Seths/Konkanies, and bearded Moplahs among others.

Back to Winterthur - Chalet Moracoune, writing of the booklet

Amman went on to travel through the North of India to live in Karachi and tend to the office there. We do not know much of his later life, but he returned to Winterthur in 1880 on board the ship Travancore, five years after he set out to Bombay, and he penned his memories aged 71, after retirement, the very document which I perused, to write out this precis.

He came from a wealthy family, for his father owned the Seeburg castle. August Ammann, our man, designed the Seeburg Park between 1894 and 1895. Georg Gottfried Volkart-Ammann (1850-1928), who was Theodor Reinhart's brother-in-law, acquired the castle from his brother-in-law (his wife Molly was Amman’s sister) August Ferdinand Ammann in 1907. 

Amman ends his accounts thus - Have I been too prolix? It may well be so, for I am an old man-to-day being my 71st birthday, I may well consider myself so, and old people are apt to be more verbose than younger generations like. But then the reader has only to skip such passages as do not interest him, as we all do occasionally when reading old-fashioned books or even certain modern ones…

Amman retired to Chalet Moracoune, Château d'Oex. These Chalets were and are seen in many Indian Bollywood films, and well, you only need to think a little further to imagine how the construction and naming of Chalet Moracoune get connected to Tellicherry, for it is named after the place Morakunnu in Tellicherry where the Volkart office existed and where he lived. Amman passed away in 1924. I don’t think Chalet Moracoune exists anymore, it could very well have been renamed and may have been one of those chalets where Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol cavorted in of those movies you enjoyed.

Small world, right, who knew these Swiss connections? You may have realized by now that it goes far beyond the Swiss watch on your friend’s wrist, way beyond the Lindt or Toblerone chocolates that a visitor ‘going foreign’ brings back, or for that matter, the cuckoo clock in an affluent Malayali NRI’s home…

Reminiscences of an old V.B. Partner – A F Ammann
Volkart – the history of a world trading company
Indienness - Material for a thousand stories – AM Verlag
Swiss Made -James Brieding
Commodity Trading, Globalization and the Colonial World - Spinning the Web of the Global Market -
Christof Dejung, Translated by Paul Cohen
L’Inde retrouvée: loss and sovereignty in French Calicut, 1867-68 - Akhila Yechury
Clean, Cool Air: Health and Air-Conditioning in India (1920s–1960s) - Priya Jain
Selling Comfort: Volkart Brothers and Origins of Air Conditioning in India (1923–1954) - Priya Jain
Cosmopolitan Capitalists and Colonial Rule. The business structure and corporate culture of the Swiss merchant house Volkart Bros., 1850-1960s - Christof Dejung
Bridges to the East: European Merchants and Business Practices in India and China – Christof Dejung

Pictures courtesy – Ammann’s reminiscences, Volkart foundation, acknowledged with thanks