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.

During the last quarter of the 18th century, sometime after Hyder Ali marched into Malabar, a figure appeared on not only the trading scene of North Malabar, but also in the turbulent political scene involving Hyder, Tipu, and the French, and a Malabar about to pass into the control of the East India Company. This was none other than Murdoch (Murdock) Brown (1750-1828), sometimes described as a flamboyant and rascally adventurer, considered an expert on Malabar affairs, the pioneer of Malabar plantation culture, and the man behind Malabar coffee. No other British or Scottish family remained ensconced in Malabar, for so long a time, and it was only sometime in the 20th century that the last descendants of his family disappeared from Malabar. Despite all this, his life and times were never properly accounted for or detailed thus far.

Nevertheless, his methods of trade, his description of matters concerning Malabar, and his advice on dealing with local chieftains and foreign usurpers, were repeatedly heeded to, and faithfully followed by the British EIC. The unsavory issue concerning his forcible kidnapping and enslavement of some very poor and backward people from Malabar and as far away as Travancore as well as the furor this generated when the righteous TH Baber took umbrage to it, is well known. Murdoch Brown lived for about six decades in Malabar, with no plans to return to Scotland, and was considered to be a very rich man of that period. In his estates (popularly known as ‘Brown estate’), he was the king, the Valia Saheb, or the big lord. This person lived, prospered, and died in Malabar, and while brief sketches here and there paint him a bad man, it should be borne in mind that he lived in troubled times, in a region where law and order were collapsing and lacking proper administration, and the opportunist that he was, remained focused on self-preservation and profiteering. Malabar in those days was like the American Wild West, nothing was right or wrong, laws were undocumented, and enforcement agencies were absent. Powerful individuals made the rules and broke them when the situation demanded it. Murdoch Brown was one of them.

The mid-1770s found the trade scene of Malabar very crowded with new entrants. The old order had collapsed, the Arab traders had mostly vanished, the Portuguese were a spent force, the Dutch were on the verge of collapse, and though Malabar continued to be a supply center for spices, Calicut was no longer the entrepot it once was. The Danes, the Swedes, the French, and the Austrians continued to vie for the limited amounts of produce, mainly pepper. Then there was the British EIC which had been around for quite a while but still waiting to establish their monopoly. Administering through larger establishments at Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay, the EIC ran a factory at Tellicherry, while the Danes and the French had smaller loges and factories in Calicut. The French were settled at Mahe in Kadathanad and Pondicherry in the Coromandel, and the Danes were also set in Tranquebar. Pepper continued to rule the roost as the black gold and the demand for the heady spice remained strong in Europe and America. The price delta was quite high, and it made sense to remain in Malabar and trade as much of the produce as possible, so all these nations held on to their connections, suppliers, and traders in Malabar. Money was a perennial problem, and suppliers from the hinterland or their agents worked with only those who could pay in hard currency such as gold or silver. With the sea lanes to Europe infested with privateers and effective British policing, it was all quite difficult, and many traders and companies floundered and failed.

It was one such failed company named Trieste Co (Austrian East India Company) which brought out the trading skills and personality of our man, Murdoch Brown. In the musty tomes of trade, Brown makes his first appearance, at an English counting house named Maynes at Lisbon, having gone there from Scotland in 1770, perhaps in the company of William Bolts (1738–1808) a Dutch-born British merchant, who also worked in that firm. Soon, both would end up in Malabar. Before we get to Brown, we must follow the fortunes of Bolts, yet another charismatic trader.

Bolt, after a stint in Portugal had traveled to Bengal and Varanasi in 1759, to dabble in the diamond, opium, and saltpeter business for the British EIC. Falling afoul of his employers for misusing the privilege of private trade and getting fired, after trying to persuade Edward Baber, a writer, to alter bonds, he beat a retreat to Europe in 1768 through Madras, with £90,000/- and published a book about the questionable dealings of the EIC in Bengal, in 1772. In 1774-75, Bolts offered his services to the Austrians, to establish trade in India. Sailing on the Joseph und Therese, the newly commissioned Lt Col Bolts, duly armed with a 10-year trading charter from the Austrian empress Maria Thresa, sailed for India but found the going tough with the Portuguese and the British trying their best to frustrate his efforts to set up trading units in Malabar and Coromandel. Finding it impossible to strike a rapport with them, Bolts decided to throw his lot with the French and the Mysore Sultan Hyder Ali, who by 1770, had subdued Malabar, Mysore, and announced himself the lord of the Southwest of India. Wary of Hyder, the powerful British EIC were waiting and watching, to see which way the winds would blow, looking for opportunities. Relations between the French and British which had somewhat stabilized in 1763, were soon to become turbulent again in 1778 as Anglo-French wars continued off and on until 1815. The French being on the side of the Mysore Sultan, and rebuffed by the EIC, Bolts chose Mysore and the French as trade allies.

Bolts obtained from Hyder a grant to establish factories at Mangalore, Karwar, and Baliapatam (Valarpatanam near Tellicherry), where he hoisted the Imperial Austrian colors. In Nov 1778, his team arrived to build the factory and Bolt’s ship sailed on to Nicobar to make a settlement there (to form a base for SE Asian and Chinese trade) and later, to the Coromandel. But here we will take leave of W Bolts, who, doubtless, could be the subject of a fascinating biography, not our topic for today (he died a pauper in Paris in 1808).

Though it is not clear when Murdoch Brown arrived in Malabar, we can presume that he came before W Bolts did. French records state that Brown had worked in India since the 1770s. He had been the director of the imperial lodges at Mangalore and Calicut, having Thomas Dineur as his second in command. Bolts had likely introduced him to the empress Theresa, and by 1775 she accredited (by now acquiring Austrian nationality) Murdoch Brown as her consul (General Consul for Malabar).

In Dec 1778, we finally get to see Brown’s name on paper, accompanying Fyffe, and a European doctor to the Trieste Co. Mangalore factory. Large numbers of arms, muskets, and trading materials are left at their disposal, as well as apparatus for making hooch liquor. Lakshmikant Shenoy became their vakeel. Austrian records state that Murdoch Brown became the Chief and resident of this factory, with Albert Kesselkaul as his deputy (Factor). Interestingly Thomas Dineur a Belgian also moved to Mangalore as his writer. Dineur would remain Brown’s (perhaps sole) friend and business partner until the former passed away in 1821.

He did business, mostly negotiating bills in payment of arms and warlike stores supplied by the French to Tipu Sultan, and moved around between Mangalore, Tellicherry, Mahe, and Calicut, dealing in rice, pepper, and arms. A few years later, he seemed to have upset his employers and was transferred to the Trieste Co. factory at Baliapatanam (Valarpatanm near Tellicherry) and accompanied by one Michel Lackner. Here he seems to have established contact with other Englishmen in the Tellicherry factory and can be seen giving them tips about Tipu’s movements. However, he refused to supply arms, weapons, and money to the Kolathiri Raja at Chirakkal (this was around 1785) and was tortured and imprisoned for a period, by the Raja. Anyway, his fortunes were about to change, for the Trieste Co. had collapsed by 1785 and he had to look for another employer. We also get to know that he had a mistress or two at Mangalore and two sons from them, John, and George.

In those heady days, ammunition and weapons were needed by everybody and everyone was fighting somebody or the other. Pamela Nightingale says - Born a Scot, he (Brown) became successively a Dane, an Austrian, and a Frenchman, and wherever smuggling or illicit trade was carried on, he was sure to be involved. Even his detractors admitted his intelligence and unparalleled knowledge of Malabar, and if anyone had the influence or initiative necessary to overcome Tipu's prohibition, it was he. Venn writing about Mangalore adds color – Fyfe and Brown were ‘Austrians' of the deepest dye, qualified by the wearing of beaver hats blocked by the banks of the blue Danube, but, with their headgear off, about as Scotch as they could be!

By 1789 the Mangalore factories had been abandoned, and Brown moved South, to Mahe. French records mention that Brown and Dineur had been expelled from Mangalore by Tipu and thus moved to Mahe at the beginning of 1789. French Mahe became his abode and here he established a lucrative business together with Thomas Dineur, constructing 18 warehouses, and appointing 3 official agents. His firm Brown & Dineur had offices and agents in Malabar, Madras, Tellicherry, and Calicut. After aggressive forays into multiple markets, he was one of the bigger private merchants of Mahe.

Cleverly, he played with pepper and rice pricing to maximize his profit and retain control of those markets, sometimes working with other major traders like the Kamat’s, Mahmayis and local cohorts like Chowakkaran Moussa, W Assen Ali, Haji Yusuf, Checutti, etc. With their small boats and small vessels, Brown and Dineur consigned rice and pepper from Ponnani and Mangalore to Goa or Malabar from other places, depending on where the scarcity was. In other words, he filled the gap created by the absence of Marakars, who used to do this kind of trade in previous years. Later he became the customs collector of Mahe, continuing with private trade, which was frowned upon.

For a while, he remained at Mahe, still titled as the Imperial Consul general, with his French wife Eliza King (married 1791 at Tranquebar – this alludes to the fact that he may have spent time with the Danes at the Coromandel coast, but it is doubtful that he became a Dane and worked for them directly), and over time and at Mahe and Malabar, begot his son Francis Samuel Carnac Brown, and daughters Maria Jane Brown, Caroline Brown, Eliza Agnew Brown, Agnes Brown, and Julia Brown.

Their firm - Brown and Dineur, active since 1789 continued until 1806-11, during which period Mahe was captured by the British and Murdoch Brown, now friendly with EIC top officials Duncan and Farmer, and many others from Bombay, was appointed as the police chief. Their main subcontractor was the Mahamay family who supplied them with slaves, rice and grains, tobacco, and cotton, while B&D supplied rice, pepper, cinnamon, coconuts, wine, chocolates, finished textiles, etc. B&D also participated in the salt trade and supplied Indian slaves to French dominions such as Mauritius, and inland to Brown’s estates in Randettara.

Not surprisingly, he got into legal issues with the Kadathanad raja over issues such as the sale of land parcels and the theft of elephants. He lost a court case with Chowakkaran Moussa and was appointed by Duncan as the interpreter to the Malabar Commissioners. He was also associated with W Farmer - joint commissioner, pepper trade, and later its supervisor, who went on to make to make a fortune. Murdoch also hobnobbed with the Travancore Dewan Keshava Das and conducted several deals from Alleppey, sourcing pepper and slaves from the region (His association with the Dane W. Brown must have been the reason for people assuming that he worked for the Danish company). As the lone Malayalam speaker among the Europeans, he was well respected and very much involved in EIC negotiations as well as EIC discussions with the Zamorin, Travancore & Cochin Raja, and notably, the Pazhassi Raja.

During his mediation between the Pazhassi Raja and the EIC, he seems to have played both sides, resulting in the eventual war between the Raja and the British and the former getting killed, stories we have covered in the past. Whether Brown played the raja to further his or the EIC pepper business, is a tricky question to answer, and we will cover this in more detail another day.

Brown’s association with the British after the fall of Mahe is quite well documented and much talked about. He joined the EIC, first as Deputy Superintendent of Police of Mahe, and as this appointment was challenged, he had to resign. But he was later appointed as Superintendent of Police and was then made an overseer of the Company's plantation in Randattara in 1797. Brown thus became a plantation overseer, dealing with the cultivation of special products such as cinnamon, indigo, coffee, pepper, nutmeg, spices, sugarcane, cotton, etc.

The EIC had a hold over a lot of land surrounding the actual 200-acre plantations, from the locals, now totaling some 2,000 acres, there was continuous unrest and attacks on the plantation. In 1789, Brown offered to leave EIC and take over the plantation. Realizing that low-cost labor was a problem, Brown decided to acquire slaves for his plantation and over time employed over 400 of them in his plantation, working them from dawn to dusk. While it was no different from the local practice, it was an instance of a British landlord acquiring and employing slaves in contravention of the new rules being promulgated by the ‘morally superior’ British. Brown’s employment of slaves when the British were trying to abolish slavery proved to be an embarrassment for the EIC top brass.

Brown had considerable issues running the plantation, and labor was not the only one. In 1803, in an attack on his plantation by the Pazhassi rebels, all his buildings and nearly all the pepper vines and coffee plants were destroyed. The ruined plantation, after its restoration in 1817, was handed over to Murdoch Brown on a 99-year lease.

It was around this juncture that the paths of Murdoch Brown and Thomas H Baber crossed and resulted in a war of words, action, and a flurry of correspondence and court notices. One must bear in mind that Edward Baber, TH Baber’s ancestor had a similar situation with W Bolts many decades in the past, Bolts being Brown’s friend and benefactor, and this must have been in both Brown’s and Baber’s minds at Tellicherry and Mahe. Baber, who arrived in Malabar in 1804, was a man with morals and took his position as collector and magistrate seriously, he upheld the rule of law and would not tolerate the crookedness and profiteering by Brown.

Many instances can be seen of the administration going against the individual, first a challenge to the Police superintendent position, then a challenge to the private trading being carried out by Brown even though he was a customs superintendent, favoritism shown by Brown to certain traders when he was a customs official, fudging of bills, the rejection of T Dineur’s application to the post vacated by Brown (after he moved to Anjarakandy) and so on. Brown managed to navigate many of these with his higher connections but had no choice but to face Baber head-on, concerning the slave and kidnapping issues. This case has been written about in detail by many researchers, see Balmer’s blogs and NP Chekkutty’s article, for details.

Until 1811, Brown had been actively acquiring slaves to work his plantations. His agent, Assen Ally, acknowledged that during the time he was at Alleppey, in Travancore, in 1811, no less than 400 children had been transported to Malabar. Baber raided the estate and found 71 persons, many of them children, stolen from the southern parts like Travancore, in Murdoch Brown’s possession. Even though there was considerable resistance to such a firm action, not only from Brown who challenged it in court, but even from EIC’s establishment, some 123 persons were restored to liberty and allowed to return to their homes.

Brown’s defense was simple, for he had applied for permission to employ slaves from the EIC Governor at Bombay and obtained it. However, the charge of kidnapping proved to be difficult to brush away. Brown tried to blame his agent, Assen Ally, for providing him with kidnapped children without his knowledge, but that was not the whole story. As Chekutti concludes in his lovely article - Despite the hard evidence Baber had marshaled …… the case was dismissed on some technical grounds in Mohammedan Law, then practiced in criminal courts in Malabar. These tussles, however, were not confined to official files and internecine sniping within the administration; but as Baber himself notes, his unconventional views and bold actions had earned him many enemies who were conspiring to finish him off. FC Brown, Murdoch’s son, incensed at the attack on his father tried challenging Baber to a duel, but Baber refused to fall for it and had Brown Jr arrested and jailed and fined. But by 1816, Baber was transferred to Mangalore and would return to Tellicherry only as a private individual, later on in 1838.

While the original estate house was razed to the ground, it is said that Brown had a splendid mansion on the left bank of the Dharmapatam River, open to the sea. It is not clear if this latter building was originally designed by him to look like the Buckingham Palace, as is often said. This property after the expiry of the estate lease became the Jenm property of the Brown descendants and changed hands a few times after independence. It was eventually purchased by the Markus Sukkafthi Sunniya group. The land was later reclassified as garden land and sold in parcels to others, an issue that became part of a more recent legal investigation. It is also probable that for some time, he lived in Calicut (1810-1814), perhaps during the years a new mansion was being built, since some records mention him as ‘M Brown Esq of Calicut’.

In 1812, we see Brown writing authoritatively about the bishop of Verapoli as to who has jurisdiction over Verapoli, Italy or Portugal. In his 1821 will, Murdoch mentions his two illegitimate sons John and George (through Anglo-Indian mistresses, perhaps from Mangalore), that they should be cared for in specific ways and allowed to live at Anjarakandy. After his demise in 1828, and the departure of his legitimate son FC Brown to England in 1837, his two illegitimate sons John & George managed the estates, though in disastrous fashion. Gundert who visited the area, met John and George. Though he was greeted by some one hundred slaves, Dr. Gundert refused to conduct prayers in the Brown household, for he found drinking, gambling, and many vices going on. After FC Brown’s return to England in 1837, the 'devil of fornication', as the missionaries called it, dominated life in Anjerkandy.

Brown was an innovative planter, experimenting with a variety of plants brought from various parts of the world and introducing plantation cultivation of pepper, coffee, cinnamon, cotton, etc., through many years of trial-and-error experiments. His son F C Brown, recalls that “coffee, originally termed Malabar coffee, was produced from seeds which my father obtained from Arabia, nearly half a century ago, years before Java coffee was extensively known in Europe as an article of import.” He also writes extensively on Brown’s experiments with American and Brazilian cotton, articles available online.

Murdoch Brown also found time to present papers other than on the Malabar trade, e.g., “Meteorological Journal of the Weather on the Malabar Coast" from 1819. This provided a record of the variation of the temperature, and rainfall at Anjarakandy, between 1810 to 1817, accompanied by some observations of coastal climate. Interestingly, Kerala’s Land Registration Department considers him as the father of this department as the first sub-registry office of the government was started at Anjarakkandy in 1865.

Another area he dabbled in, was currency. Since many types of coins remained in circulation after the British takeover, a plan was discussed to make a common currency. One of Brown’s suggestions was to retain the Zamorin's coinage but as these coins were too small, he proposed the minting of gold mohur (sixteen rupees) and half, quarter, one-eighth, and one-sixteenth mohurs and silver coins like half and quarter rupees and fanams (at the rate of five for a rupee). He was of the view that the Company could have its copper coins brought from Europe. This was not accepted due to large local stocks, and the Zamorins Virarayan fanams continued.

A mention of his patronage for Edward Brennen, master attendant of Tellicherry, whom Brown had befriended following a shipwreck, in which ship Brennen was a cabin boy, is relevant. Brennen later became a philanthropist and started the school and a church, which over time became the famous Brennen College (now relocated).

All said and done, Brown was hated, decried, and vilified by many, perhaps rightfully so, looking at the moral fabric and a legal standard existing today, but in those days, he did what he wanted and got away with it. Surprisingly, he did not run away to Britain with his ill-gotten money (FC Brown his son, however, left Indian shores), and he seems to have reinvested all of it in the Anjarakandy plantation.

Murdoch Brown passed away at Tellicherry in 1828.


William Bolts: A Dutch Adventurer Under John Company - Norman Leslie Hallward

Danish Calicut – Historic alleys

Nicholas Balmer’s Blog Malabar Days - One, Two, Three

Trieste e gli interessi Austriaci in Asia nei secoli XVIII e XIX / Trieste e gli interessi Austriaci in Asia nei secoli XVIII e XIX

Indian antiquary Vols 46, 47 - Austria’s commercial venture in India in the eighteenth century. Sir RC Temple

Portuguese Studies Review, Vol. 16, No. 2 - edited by PSR (Standard Issue)

Studies in Maritime history – Goa Mahe trade links – TR De’ Souza

An Account of the Slave Population in the Western Peninsula of India - Thomas Hervey Baber

Loner’s Battle Against Slavery: Thomas Hervey Baber and Slavery in Malabar – NP-Chekkutty

Mangalore - TW Venn

A Handbook of Kerala Vol 2- Ed T Madhava Menon

Dr Hermann Gundert and the Malayalam language – Albrecht Frenz

Os austríacos em Lourenço Marques - Alexandre Lobato


Discussions - Christina Joseph, Nick Balmer, and review of M Brown’s will

Note: This is just a summary, and the complete story of this interesting man is still incomplete. I will try to rectify this and add information after more studies, as time and resources permit, to produce a detailed, annotated article.


© Ullattil Manmadhan


  1. Jaideep

    This is indeed a fascinating blog on the life and times of Murdoch Brown. There are so many plots and sub plots to manoeuvre through , which makes it even more riveting.
    Rascally though he may have been , at the end of it all , he comes across as a man who played the system to perfection . A master at bending the rules and moulding them to his advantage. That , I guess was how he survived it all.

  1. Maddy

    Thanks, Jaideep,
    Indeed, he was a very interesting character and far-ranging interests.. I could with great difficulty cover only so much, strange that nobody has compiled anything on him thus far...

  1. Prajes

    Read the fascinating story of Murdoch Brown. But I cant understand why his name is linked with the land registrstion in Kerala. He died much before 1865 , the date of first registration of land in India.

  1. Jaideep

    Hi Maddy ,

    There is some confusion here in history of the Sub Registry office .

    "On 1st February1865, the first Government Sub Registry office commenced operation from his bungalow. Lord Murdoch Brown assumed charge as Deputy Registrar and started registering documents."

    Murdoch Brown passed away in 1828 in Tellycherry . How does he assume charge as DR in 1865. ???

  1. Maddy

    hi Jaideep,
    yes indeed. I guess the site has erred. It may have been his son Francis Carnac Brown, who was around - off and on until 1868 when he passed away. I have a feeling he went back to England and died there, not sure. It is probably the previous family connections and work mentioned the link him to the registry department, not perhaps officiating it