Column | How a British colonel depicted Cochin in an 1890 travelogue

An undated picture of the old marine drive in Kochi. The big building in the foreground is the 'Sea Lord Hotel'. Photo courtesy: RETINA JOY / Manorama archive

Colonel Heber Drury is best remembered for his passion for botany, something he pursued in his spare time when he served in the Madras Staff Corps and when he was the Assistant Resident in Travancore and Cochin. In addition to his articles and books on botany such as The Useful Plants of India, he wrote a book, based on his travels in what now comprises central and southern Kerala. Published in 1890, Reminiscences of Life and Sport in Southern India provides an interesting set of observations about Cochin and its residents.

This particular travelogue documented a journey from the Nilgiris to Coimbatore and Palakkad and then Thrissur to Cochin and beyond to Travancore.

“Cochin is a singular place, take it all in all, full of quiet streets and quaint houses,” Drury wrote.

The Englishman seemed to have mixed feelings about the city, highlighting what he liked but also being unsparingly critical on some aspects, writing, “I believe the town can boast of more accumulated filth and poverty than any other town of its size and character in this part of the world.” European heritage

The city had fallen under the control of competing European powers and much of the heritage of the erstwhile colonisers was clearly visible in the late 19th century. “It has a complexion peculiarly its own, neither wholly Portuguese, Dutch or English, but a mixture of all three nationalities,” Drury wrote.

In 2023, Kochi is popular with young Malayalis, especially those who have had some international exposure, and so it is one of the most expensive cities in Kerala, but when Drury visited, it was a completely different story. “For cheapness of living, Cochin is, or used to be unrivalled, and consequently is resorted to by numerous pensioners, chiefly English, for natives detest the place,” he wrote.

Drury noticed the presence of families of European ancestry in the city, and this was almost a century after the British annexation of Malabar. “The descendants of old Dutch and Portuguese families are numerous here, and the latter especially retain the names of the best aristocratic families of Portugal,” he wrote. “None of them are of pure descent, with the exception of a few among the Dutch, who can still boast of a pedigree untainted by any admixture of native blood. The rest are all half-castes with the sounding names of De Silva, Rodriguez, Pinto, Gomez and so on.”

Drury observed that those with Portuguese-sounding names were once called “Topasses,” which was derived from “Tu Pai (though boy)” in Portuguese. He added that the Portuguese taught their slaves their language and used them as interpreters with local Malayalis. “The term Topass has now fallen into disuse, but curious enough, the Europeans in India invariably call out ‘Boy (Pai)’ whenever they require their servant, East Indian, or native,” he wrote.

The Englishman seemed to be fascinated with these people with part - Portuguese ancestry, observing their own unique customs. He wrote, “They consider it particularly unlucky, if on the birth of a child, someone does not constantly keep singing to the new-born infant. When man and wife go out together, they never walk side by side as we do, but the husband walks first and the wife follows.” He added that members of the community combined native and Portuguese traditions when a family member died - that is to grow a beard in mourning, but wear black coats inside out.

Local life

The wealthier residents of the city had potable water delivered to their homes for a charge. The government would get the water to the city by boat from a distance of 22 kilometres away. Officials would, of course, get this water for free. “The poorer inhabitants are forced to drink the brackish water, which is known to engender that horrible disease ‘Elephantiasis,’”Drury wrote. This is actually a disease that frightened many a Malayali right until the 1970s. So dreaded was the prospect of getting an infection, which occurs when filarial parasites are transmitted through mosquito bites, that many people from other parts of Kerala put off visiting Kochi.  

The curious traveller also went inside houses in the city to see how people lived. “One first entering the old-fashioned houses, you mount a flight of steps to the dwelling rooms, the so-called ground floors have been formerly used for stores or slaves, or both, but converted by modern occupants into stables, a very inconvenient arrangement, but unavoidable, for the savoury odour of such a neighbourhood is not pleasant in a drawing room,” Drury wrote.

It is clear from his further writings that Drury was a man who loved nature, the countryside and the great outdoors and the concept of chaotic or crowded urban dwellings did not appeal much to the man. However, he seemed to think that Kochi did have its own ‘good old days.’ Reflecting on the past, he wrote, “Probably in its palmiest days it was a thriving busy place, but in extent, and consequently in wealth and prosperity, it could only progress to a certain limit, owing to be surrounded by so much water on one side, and the native territory closing it in on the other.”

Drury’s writings, though unflattering at times, serve as a good account of what life was like in Kochi at the end of the 19th century.

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

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