The early 1700s were an incredibly interesting time for the areas that now form the modern Kerala state. With the Portuguese evicted from Ceylon and Kerala, and the British still decades away from becoming a substantial presence on the Indian subcontinent, the Dutch had a major stranglehold on the Malabar, then home to large communities of Arabs, Jews and different European communities. Among the locals, the religious diversity, which is a matter of great pride for the state, mirrored what it is today. However, as well as this aspect of history is known, there are relatively few accounts of life in the cosmopolitan Kerala of the 18th century.
A treasure-trove of anecdotes, facts and observations have been preserved in the form of letters by Jacobus Canter Visscher, a Dutch priest who lived in Cochin for a six years. Born in 1692 to a doctor and teacher, Visscher became a clergyman at the age of 23. He was first sent to Batavia (present day Jakarta) by the Dutch East India Company. He also lived briefly in Sumatra before moving to Cochin in 1717. A keen observer of the life, customs and people of Kerala, Visscher wrote 25 letters, which were compiled into a book titled Letters from Malabar.
“I have been induced to write these memoirs by the desire to relate the veracious circumstances of which I have either myself been an eyewitness, or which I have heard from trustworthy persons; for all I shall say respecting the manners and customs of the Malabars I have drawn from the fountainhead, namely from the natives themselves, and particularly from such among them, as are most thoroughly acquainted with them- their Brahmins and lawyers,” Visscher wrote in the preface. He added that the work required a lot of patience since the people were “slow” and needed constant prompting to respond.
The young Dutchman was well apprised of local legends such as that of the formation of Kerala by the act of Parashurama throwing his bloodstained axe into the sea from Gokarna. He also mentions the story of the last Cheruman Perumal embracing Islam.
Vivid descriptions of cities
Visscher was highly observant and seemed to have a particular interest in cities. “Before it fell into the hands of the (Dutch) East India Company, Cochin must have been a considerable town, as is proved by the remains of buildings, which are everywhere to be seen; but since that time it has become much less prosperous, in consequence of the restrictions imposed by the Company upon its commerce, which under the Portuguese had been entirely free with exception of the titles due to the Rajah,” he wrote.
He seemed to embody the Dutch sense of enterprise and had an eye for beauty. “The town is situated at the mouth of a noble river, abounding in fish, with pleasant wooded banks and studded with many islets which are planted with coconut palms,” Visscher wrote. “If wealthy persons ever settled here, as they do in Batavia, they might lay out very pretty villa residences and gardens upon these shores.” He also described the quaint Portuguese style houses in the city.
When Visscher visited Quilon, the city’s once great fortress was a shell of previous itself. “It was formerly a town, but is now only a petty fort, and as the sea washes, and has even undermined a portion of the walls, it has now been resolved to reduce it on that side, so that some of the inhabitants will be forced to break up their houses and take up their abode outside their walls.”
Caste and race relations
Visscher was well briefed on the social and political dynamics of the Malabar at that time. Kerala’s complicated caste structure with the power dynamics among Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Nairs is explained well. The Dutch priest writes in details of the ‘Thodassis’, Christians who had mixed European and Indian blood, and about the interactions between the White and Black Jews. Also mentioned is the mutual suspicion between the Portuguese and the Muslims.
From the book, one does get the idea that the Malayalis appeared to get along together, strung by the social order set forth by the more powerful castes, but flare ups between the Indians and the British seemed to occur even before these areas were dominated by the British Empire.
He mentions a particular incident from Calicut from 1720. An English officer named Adams was the villain of the story. Visscher narrates: “It happened to be a day when the great national assembly of the Malabars was collected in the open air to deliberate on the affairs of the State. The Englishman, in order to show his contempt for them, instead of making a circuit, he drove right through the multitude, in spite of their entreaties that he should desist from such unbecoming conduct, which threw the assembly into utmost confusion.”
Adams apparently repeated his actions the next day. This time, he wanted to show off his bravado to some ladies who were in his carriage. The incensed crowd beat up Adams and his companions and destroyed his carriage, prompting the English officer to appeal to the Zamorin to punish the locals!
The letters in the book mention calendars, almanacs, flora and fauna (including the Hindu reverence for snakes), agriculture and even currencies. Visscher had even come across Japanese coins in Kerala.
What seemed to the most surprising for this writer was his detailed description of Elephantiasis, the enlargement and hardening of limbs or body parts due to tissue swelling. This rare disease seemed to be common in the Malabar in the 1720s.
Publication in English
Although Visscher’s letters were compiled into a book, they were largely forgotten after the British established control over southern India.
In the early 1860s, Heber Drury, a British army officer, who was best known for his contributions to botany in his free time, came across the book in Cochin. He took the book to England and had it translated.
In his preface of the translation, Drury mentioned that there were large collections of Portuguese and Dutch books in Cochin, but most of them are lost. Fortunately, he was able to save the account penned by Visscher. Drury said the Dutch were “laborious writers and compilers” both at home and abroad. Given the fact that they were in Kerala and Sri Lanka as early as the beginning of the 17th century, there is still a slight chance that an antiquarian book dealer or an old house may have some collection of life in these places written in that period.
(The writer is the author of 'Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island’ and 'A Week in the Life of Svitlana’)