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.

But first, let us get to know TH Baber. While most people know of him as an EIC officer and the nemesis of Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja, there is much more to his involvement with Malabar, as I had recounted in earlier articles. More details of Baber’s stay in Malabar can be read from the blogs of his descendant Nick Balmer. To summarize, he had a significant role in the archiving and publicizing of many ancient Malabar documents, some of which can be found in the British Library and the Mackenzie collection. However, Baber’s role in disseminating firsthand information about the Jews of Kochi has not been told thus far.

Thomas Baber after joining the EIC, sailed from England to Bombay, arriving in the New Year 1797. It appears that within months of his arrival in Bombay, Thomas was sent to Tellicherry where the EIC factory was located. From 1798 to 1808 he served in the EIC revenue department. In 1804 he was sub-collector of Malabar under Thomas Warden. He then held a position as Zillah Judge (District judge) from 1808-1816 in Tellicherry after which he was transferred to Mangalore as the third judge of the Western provincial court during 1816-1824. After those years, he moved to Bombay on account of health problems and then back to Dharwar as Principal Collector & political agent from 1824-1827. Later he was appointed as the first Judge of the Western Provincial Court. In 1838, he retired and moved back to Tellicherry. In all, he spent over 30 years in the western Konkan, Maratha & Malabar regions for the Bombay Civil Service. We pick up this story from 1834-39, just as he was heading back to Tellicherry, no longer employed by the EIC.

Baber kept up correspondence with John Wilson who was collaborating with Christian missions and publishing the Oriental Christian Spectator, from Bombay. Considered a Malabar expert of that time, Baber was usually the first person to be contacted by British scribes, curious about the peculiarities of Malabar religions and culture. Wilson already knew about the Jews of Cochin from Buchanan’s research and survey notes dating back to 1807. Not only did Buchanan write a short account of their history, but he also collected a precious copper plate, and copies of some scrolls, though delaying for quite a while, the proper translation of the plates. Dr. Buchanan got a facsimile of this deed executed on copper, which, together with a copy of a rough Hebrew translation of it, was deposited in the library of the University of Cambridge.

The translation work was eventually entrusted to TH Baber in 1821, who by which time had moved to Mangalore. Baber contacted CM Whish, of the Madras Civil Service, who was in the Calicut region (check article) with whom he had already been collaborating, in getting Malabar temple inscriptions translated. Thus, the very first translation of what is nowadays called the ‘Cochin plates of Bhaskara Ravi-Varman belonging to the Cochin Jews’, came from the efforts of Baber and Whish. These plates had been inscribed using the archaic Vattezhuthu character. A considerable amount of literature on these plates, their probable dating and antiquity, by various scholars can be found online and in libraries, needless to mention that it was of considerable historical importance.

In his notes, CM Whish records - Some inscriptions, however, lately obtained, and which I have now before me (through the kindness of a friend,(TH Baber) whose unexampled diligence in researches of this nature has procured copies of numerous inscriptions from the pagodas in Malabar), confirm my original apprehension of the origin of the ancient mode of dates in Malabar in a most satisfactory manner; these inscriptions are from the pagoda called Nedumbrayur Kshetram, in South Malabar, and are eight in number. The hows and whys as well as the details of CM Whish’s work and involvement require considerable study, which I am presently on.

He adds - The Jews, therefore, were resident in India in the 231st year of the Christian era, at which period, it is further remarkable, that their colony, in one town only, consisted of seventy and two families, and that other towns and churches are mentioned in the grant. The Christians, they allow, were earlier residents in Malabar than themselves … The Jews themselves say that Mar Thomas, the apostle, arrived in India in the year of our Lord 52, and themselves, the Jews, in the year 69; and if we consider the extent which the colony had attained at the period of this grant of indulgences, their arrival at that early period is rather to be considered necessary than merely not improbable.

The CM Whish translation (including his correction as bulleted) runs thus.

" Swasti Sri! The king of kings hath ordained it! When Raja Sri Bhaskarah Iravah Varma was wielding the scepter of royalty in an hundred thousand places, in the thirty-sixth year above the second cycle , he vouchsafed, during the time that he sojourned in Mayil Kottah, to perform a deed, the subject of which is as follows:--From Yussoof Rabba and his people, in five degrees of persons, we exact the tribute of due awe and deference to our high dignity, and of the usual presents to our royal person; to these we allow the privilege of bearing five kinds of names, of using day-lamps, of wearing long apparel; of using palanquins and umbrellas, copper vessels, trumpets, and drums, of garlands for the person, and garlands to be suspended over their roads; and we have given in full seventy- and-two separate houses; and we have relinquished all taxes and rates for these; and also for all other houses and churches in other cities; and independent of this bond to him, we have made and given a copper instrument for these latter, separate and distinct. * These are to be enjoyed after these five modes of descent, viz. by Yussoof Rabba himself and his heirs in succession-thus, his male children, and his female children, his nephews, and the nephews of his daughters, in natural succession: a hereditary right to be enjoyed as long as the earth and the moon remain. Sri! I, Govarddhana Martandan, of Venadu, witness this deed; I, Kotai Giri Kandun, of Venadavalinada, witness this deed; I, Manavepala Manuviyan, of Eralanada, witness this deed; I, Irayan Chattan, of Valluvanada, witness this deed; I, Kotai Iravi, of Nedumbutaiyur nada, witness this deed; I, Murkan Chattan, inhabitant of Kelpadui nayakam, witness this deed. This is the handwriting of Poranaya Koyraya Kellapan, engraved by Vandra Sherry Kandapan”

·    CM Whish, in a subsequent letter, corrected the blue-colored part of the translation thus: " and in order that the privilege of being free from paying to the church the droits (or tithes), which are paid to it by all householders in other cities, may be assured to him and his natural progeny, we have made and given this copper instrument." Whence it would appear, as he remarks, that these privileges were not general indulgencies to the colony of the Jews, but a special indulgence granted to one man and his natural heirs forever, separating him, at the same time, from his dependence on his natural protectors, and making him, in fact, a real subject of the Hindu prince.

Let us compare this with MGS Narayanan’s translation, currently in vogue…

"Svasti Sri! "This is the gift [prasada] that His Majesty [Tiruvati], King of Kings [Ko Konmai Kontan Ko], Sri Parkaran Iravivanmar, who is to wield sceptre for several thousand years, was pleased to make during the thirty sixth year opposite to the second year of his reign, on the day when he was pleased to reside at Muyirikkottu. "We have granted to Issuppu Irappan, the [guild of] ancuvannam, tolls by the boat and by other carts, ancuvannam dues, the right to employ the day lamp, decorative cloth, palanquin, umbrella, kettledrum, trumpet, gateway, arch, arched roof, weapon and rest of the seventy-two privileges. We have remitted duty and weighing fee. "Moreover, according to this copper-plate grant given to him, he shall be exempted from payments made by other settlers in the town to the king [koyil], but he shall enjoy what they enjoy. "To Issuppu Irappan, proprietor of the ancuvannam, his male and female issues, nephews, and sons-in-law, ancuvannam shall belong by hereditary succession as long as the sun and moon endure—"Prosperity!" This is attested by Kovarttana Mattandan, the utaiyavar of Venatu."This is attested by Kotai Cirikantan, the utaiyavar of Venpalinatu."This is attested by Manavepala Manaviyan, the utaiyavar of Eralanatu."This is attested by Irayaran Cattan, the utaiyavar of Valluvanatu."This is attested by Kotai Iravi, the utaiyavar of Netumpuraiyurnatu."This is attested by Murkkan Cattan, the Commander of the Eastern Forces." This writing is executed by Vanralaceri Kantan-Kunrappolan, the Officer who Takes Down Oral Communication." — As translated by M. G. S. Narayanan

CM Whish is emphatic about his 231 CE dating of the deed - The method of date is one formerly used in Malabar, and in all the countries of India, viz. the cycle of sixty, which commenced A.D. 75. The thirty-sixth year above the second cycle is, then, 231 of our era computed thus: 75 +60 +60 + 36=231, MGS Narayanan however dates the plates to 1000 CE, basing his analysis on the 38th (2 + 36) "A-series" regnal year of king Bhaskara Ravi Manukuladitya who ruled between 962 and 1021 AD, but there is still no firm agreement among historians on this. Remarkable is the fact that a full 150 years before MGS, CM Whish used his limited ability and resources to come up with a reasonably accurate translation, a testament to his interest and linguistic skills!!

CM Whish stated - "The privileges, while they show the simplicity of the age in which they were indulged also argue the high estimation in which the colony was held as a peaceable and respectable society." The young scholar CM Whish sadly passed away in 1833. The Whish translation was eventually published in the Oriental Christian Spectator in 1839, after Baber’s formal submission of the same. TH Baber continued his study of the Jews during his tenure at the Royal Asiatic Society 1830-39. The original documents from which the above text was extracted were in the possession of the Royal Asiatic Society, having been presented to it by him.

In 1834 – Baber received a Jewish visitor from Cochin, showing his continuing interest in the matter – Mrs. Wilson writes - “18th January 1834 - Mr. Baber called on me yesterday and seemed much pleased to hear that you had seen and conversed with his son. He brought along with him a very interesting white Jew from Cochin, and of high family. Mr. B. said that he was one of the most learned and intelligent amongst his community and that he had in his possession a great many Hebrew manuscripts, which might throw light on their history and settlement in this country. He brought several of the manuscripts with him, and Mr. Baber was very sorry that you were not here to examine them and to converse with the Jew. The Jew had a very high certificate from Mr. Fenn, of his general character, intelligence, and superior critical knowledge of Hebrew”. For those who are not aware, Fenn was the converted Chattu Menon of Ottapalam.

In 1833 – Joseph Wolff a Jewish missionary visiting the area (interestingly Surgun and Moses Sarfaty

were the notable Jews there) wrote that he obtained a copy of the copper plates from Sarfaty but relied on Baber’s (Whish’s) translation. He added a short local Jewish translation stating -  I might have given the translation from the original which I have before me, made by Mr. C. M. Whish, which Mr. Barber at Bombay kindly gave me; but I think, as the Jews perhaps have understood it better, I had rather give it from the Hebrew and added - They (Black Jews) consider themselves as slaves to the White Jews, paying them a yearly tribute, and they are bound to pay them a small sum for the privilege of circumcising their children, and for being allowed in prayer time to wear the frontlets (Tefilin); they do not sit down in the presence of the White Jews, nor eat with them, as they acknowledge them as their masters; they are however richer, more industrious, and more moral than the White Jews. The White Jews are too proud to work and live chiefly upon the jewels and valuables they have inherited from their ancestors. They are very immoral and give not only their daughters, but frequently their wives for hire to the Europeans, Parsees, and Mohammedans; and fathers frequently desert their reputed children, knowing that they are not really their own. They are beautiful in countenance. They behave towards the Black Jews with the arrogance of masters.

The White Jews were horrified and approached TH Baber for help in getting these aspersions corrected -

Had Mr. Wolff, during the very few days that he was at Cochin, instead of his wild pranks, taken the pains to form proper connections, by which he might have gained proper information, before he attempted to publish his hasty conclusions, he would undoubtedly have found that his assertions, are quite otherwise than stated therein; as the fact is, that the Black Jews never were, nor considered themselves to be, slaves to the White Jews, nor have they ever in any one instance, paid any yearly tribute; nor are they, in any manner, bound to pay any small sum whatever, to any one whomsoever, for the privilege of circumcising their children, or being allowed in prayer to wear the frontlet (Tefillin) They do not sit down in general, or promiscuously with the White Jews, as a mark of distinction, which is observed in every nation or sect from the lower classes towards those of a higher sphere, or society; and being of separate congregations, they never acknowledged the White Jews as masters, to whom they were any ways in bondage; nor can Mr. Wolff produce more than one or two individuals among the Black Jews, who have any property , or are in their circumstances, richer than the White Jews . The tirade against Wolff continues with more arguments.

By 1839, Baber had collected a good amount of information on the Cochin Jews which he passed on to John Wilson. While a great amount of literature is available today on the Jewish settlement at Mattanchery, the account from TH Baber provides a window into their life in Cochin and the surrounding areas, circa the 1830s and has not always been studied or referred to by scholars. The documents also show that he had interconnections with other dignitaries and bureaucrats oft mentioned in Malabar studies, such as CM Whish and many Jewish families of Cochin.

Summary of Baber’s presentation, March 1839

Quoting the document provided by the Cochin Jews to TH Baber - After the destruction of the second temple, in the 3828th year of the creation, 3168th of tribulation, and 68th of the Christian era, about 10,000 Jews and Jewesses came to Malabar, and settled themselves at Cananganore, Paloor Mahdam, and Poolootto; and three-fourths of this population remained at Cananganore, then called Mahodranapatna, and subsequently Chingly, under the government of Cheruman Perumal. In the year 4139th of the creation, 3479th of tribulation, and 379th of Christ, Cheruman Perumal, Eravy Virma, granted to the Jews the honor and privileges they were to exercise, and which was engraved on copperplate, called Chempeada in Malayalim, and thereby appointed Joseph Rabbaan the head of the Jews, and called him Srianandam Mapla; and that same Raja divided his country into eight divisions, which he bestowed, as seen in the translation of the copperplate.

The following is the subsequent history of the Jews in Malabar. Until the arrival of the Portuguese, they lived on the seashore; but when the Portuguese had taken Cranganore, they left in the 5326th year of the creation, and 1565th of the Christian era, and settled at Cochin, where the Raja granted them places to build their synagogue and houses next to the Raja's palace, in order to protect and advance them best. The grant of the ground allotted, was given in the names of Samuel Casteel, David Baleha, Ephraim Salah, and Joseph Levy; and their buildings were completed in the 5328th year of the creation, or the 1567th of the Christian era; but still they continued to suffer oppression from the Portuguese, as they were not allowed quietly to enjoy their customs, and the privileges granted them, nor were they suffered to follow their trade and to go about unmolested.

The hardened Portuguese took whatever was found in their hands; robbed, beat, and drove them away, wherever they were seen, and neither redress, truth, nor justice, could be found. And thus the Jews underwent the greatest hardships and sorrows until the arrival of the Dutch at Cochin in 1662, when the Jews afforded them every assistance they wanted, and obtained a livelihood; but as at that time a disagreement occurred between the Dutch and the Cochin Raja, and they killed the Raja, the Dutch on that account left Cochin and went over to Ceylon. Since their departure, the Portuguese, driven by their spleen and connected with the native Malabarians, set fire to the Jews' synagogue and houses, robbed and killed them on account of their having given the Dutch some provisions; and as at that time the Jews had a book called Sepher Jahshar, containing a detailed account of all the Jews' proceedings ever since they came into Malabar to that period, which book was kept in the synagogue with the rest of their rituals, it was totally burned, so that they were driven away in despair, and on the point of sacrificing their lives, when fortunately the Dutch again returned to Cochin, and in a very few days, the town of Cochin was taken possession of by Commodore Peter de Peter and Admiral Van Goes, on the 8th of January 1663, and 839th of the Malabar era.

On hearing of the surrender of Cochin, the Jews, overjoyed at the happy event, returned from the different places they had taken refuge in, and rested again at their own places; repaired the losses sustained; and were under the guidance of their head and leader, Samtob Casteel, praising the Almighty for the deliverance they had received, and praying Him that under the auspices of the Dutch they may obtain further blessings. Ever since, the Jews obtained every favor and protection from the Dutch, and the native Raja; and in trading with them, as likewise serving them, the Jews obtained a livelihood and every comfort at Cochin in Malabar.

In the Christian year 1686, when Gilmer Vosberg governed Cochin, four merchants arrived from Amsterdam, namely Moses Fereira de Paiwa, Isaac Irgas, Isaac Mookat, and Abraham Bort, of the Sepharadim; and having visited the Jews of Cochin they were glad and consented to live with them. They wrote to Amsterdam whatever they had seen and heard of the Jews in Malabar, and desired to get all the books that were required; and when the congregation of Amsterdam (on whom may rest the blessing of God) received those glad tidings, they immediately sent the books of Moses and of the Prophets, prayer books, and of the laws and other books, then wanted, which proved a great rejoicing to the Cochin Jews' congregation; and from that time they entered into close intimacy with those of Amsterdam, and annually corresponded with them, and received from them all such books as they required from time to time, and sent copies to be printed in Amsterdam; in return for which the Cochin Jews remitted all that was desired from them. Thus, the Cochin Jews' customs are of the Sepharadim.

Cochin was considered the metropolis of Malabar in India. Those called the white Jews are a people coming from the ruins of the Holy land, and they have one synagogue and no more. Those called the black Jews, are of the natives of Malabar, that were in Cranganore, and its vicinity, and who of their own spontaneous will joined from the beginning with the white Jews; and of slaves emancipated by the white Jews. These, in connection with each other, formed that people; but the white Jews were never connected with them by intermarriages; nor have they any of the Cohen or Levy family among them; nor have they any of the Levitical ceremonies in their synagogues or any relationship in other countries, so that they are a separate nation of themselves in Malabar. Still they have the Mosaical Laws (Torah) and their customs and usages are like those of the white Jews, with a few exceptions and differences in their prayers and songs, and greatly differing with the manners and proceedings of the common people of the country of Malabar. They inhabit the following seven places, viz. at Cochin, Anjecaimal, Paroor, Moottum, Chanotto, Mala and Tirtoor; and their head or leader at that time was Samtob Casteel.

The Jews (white and black,) after their having abandoned their two synagogues, and habitations at Moottum and Tirtoor, during the invasion of Tippoo Sultan, are now fixed at the following places, and their number is as hereunder.Of black Jews, that had three synagogues to the southward   of the white Jews, of which one synagogue being abandoned, they now form two congregations, and have two synagogues and 53 houses, inhabited by males, there are, including children. At Ajencammul (commonly called Etnaculum - Ernakulam) of the black   Jews belonging to two congregations, having two synagogues and 52 houses, there are males, including children. At Chanotta, (commonly called Chandamangallum) the Black Jews have one synagogue and 43 houses, inhabited by males, including children. At Malla, the Black Jews have one synagogue and 16 houses of males, including children. At Paroor in Travancore, the Black Jews have one synagogue and 5 houses of males, including children.

In 1839, Wilson wrote to Rev Candlish, at Edinburgh. I sent you by the last steamer a number of the Oriental Christian Spectator, containing some notices of the Jews of Cochin. I have now the pleasure, according to my promise, of enclosing a correct translation of the celebrated copperplate grant, by the late C. M. White (Whish), Esq., a young gentleman of extraordinary capacity for acquiring the oriental languages, but who was removed by divine providence at the very commencement of his able and zealous research…."Their numbers at a very early period were very considerable, but owing to intestine feuds, and even wars between the white and black Jews, because the former would not allow the latter, who were converted slaves, the same privileges as themselves; and extensive emigrations since the downfall of the Dutch at Cochin, who invariably treated them well, they have been reduced to the number they themselves state."

The complete document submitted by Baber can be referred to - Notices of the Jews of Cochin. Oriental Christian Spectator 10, 1839. The above is a summary, condensed for brevity.

Additional observations 

-        Muyirikkottu is understood to be Cranganore – Kodungallur and was formerly known as Mahodewera - Meboderoo pattanam - also Chingily - in latter time, Moydirikottah or Muchirikottah.

-        Some of the Cochin Jews are said to have arrived from Majorca – Baber adds - In the Noticias of 1686, page 9, it is said that in the year of the creation 4130, of the Christian era 369, 70 or 80,000 Israelites that came from the Island of Majorca arrived on the coast of Malabar, to which country they had been sent after the devastation of the second Temple.

-       Walter J Fischel in his paper on the Jewish antiquities on the Malabar coast misses the work of Baber and Whish and mentions only Gundert & Ellis, circa 1844. Subsequent researchers including Nathan Katz/Ellen Goldberg fail to mention these two gentlemen and their contributions, though they refer to the “notices’ submitted by Baber, under Sources cited.


Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Volume 6, 1831
Notices of the Jews of Cochin. Oriental Christian Spectator 10, no. 9 (1839)
A Memoir of Mrs. Margaret Wilson, of the Scottish Mission, Bombay – John Wilson
The British Friend of India Magazine, and Indian Review, Volume 3
The History of the Jews: From the Taking of Jerusalem by Titus to the present time – WC Brownlee
Researches and Missionary Labours among the Jews, Mahommedans and Other Sects - Joseph Wolff
The Life of John Wilson, D.D. F.R.S.- George Smith
The Lands of the Bible: Volume 2 By John Wilson