Column | The notorious legacy of a ship named after Thalassery

Thalassery Town
An aerial view of Thalassery Town. Photo: Josekutty Panackal/Manorama

Thalassery is a town that many people living in northern Kerala look up to. With a reputation for great cuisine, attractive people, progressive attitudes and general well-being, the town doesn’t disappoint a visitor. But the name used by the British for the town - Tellicherry - managed to attain a degree of notoriety for no fault of its own.

The city has a special connection with the British, who established a settlement there as early as the 17th century to export the highly sought-after commodities of pepper and cardamom. Those involved with East India Company (EIC) would have been familiar with the town, but few outsiders would have even heard of it. The now-defunct New York Herald, once a popular broadsheet, carried the news of a ship called Tellicherry coming to New York. The November 23, 1922, issue mentions the ship coming to the city via Suez and Naples. There’s no further information about the crew and cargo, but being meticulous record-keepers, the British left behind a trail of information about the Tellicherry.

East India Company

The ship that arrived in New York was actually named after another ship that was operated by the EIC and was in service between 1796 and 1806. The original Tellicherry was owned by a former officer of the British Navy called John St Barbe, who became a wealthy shipowner.

The ship is believed to have made four voyages for the EIC, which slowly captured parts of India, often helping one Indian ruler fight another. Tellicherry became such an important port for the British by the end of the 18th century that it was made the capital of British North Malabar.

The Tellicherry was definitely a ship of conquest for the British and helped them expand their influence decades before the 1857 War of Independence.

Transporting 'convicts' to Australia

Records in the public domain suggest that the ship also transported Irish political prisoners to Australia. Among the so-called convicts that the ship transported from Cork to New South Wales was Michael Dwyer, a captain in the “Irish Rebellion” of 1798, a failed uprising by Irish freedom fighters against British rule. For almost five years after the uprising was crushed by the British, Dwyer continued to stay active in the Irish freedom struggle.

"After severe measures against the rebels were introduced in November his extended family was facing transportation and, to alleviate their situation and save other comrades from execution, Dwyer surrendered on 14 December 1803, anticipating migration to the United States of America,” historian Ruan O’Donnell wrote for the 2005 supplement of the Australian Dictionary of Biography. “Dwyer surrendered on 14 December 1803, anticipating migration to the United States of America. Instead, he was gaoled at Kilmainham pending deportation to New South Wales as an unsentenced exile.”

Dwyer would be charged with sedition in Australia, but was slowly rehabilitated and integrated into the colonial society. The Tellicherry carried 166 prisoners from Ireland to Australia, including 36 women. Five men and one woman died on the harsh voyage.

Records in the public domain indicate the ship regularly called on Calcutta during its voyages. It did not manage to survive too long, before meeting with an accident. In July 1806, less than ten years after it first set sail on long international voyages, the Tellicherry was wrecked near the Philippines. The crew managed to survive and was escorted by an American merchant vessel to Macau, which was being rented by the Portuguese at the time.

John St Barbe died at the age of 74 in 1816 near London.

Contemporary Jazz-Rock Band

In what is very unlikely to be a coincidence, three young men from the UK started a jazz-rock band in 2021 and called themselves St. Barbe. The website had a generous degree of praise for the group, writing: “Injecting their brand of jazz with a healthy shot of alternative rock, St. Barbe deliver a slick, fresh take on the genre that brings it straight into the twenty-first century.”

The band’s website mentions a popular single released by them titled Tellicherry. What could be a better way of reconciliation for some of the ills of the colonial past than this band actually performing in front of a knowledgeable and sophisticated crowd in modern-day Thalassery?

(Ajay Kamalakaran is a multilingual writer, primarily based in Mumbai) 

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