Column | When an English administrator sang paeans to Malabar

The main priority of John David Rees, one of the colonial administrators was to look at the economic gain for Britain and its capitalists, and his eyes were set on the commercial value of Nilambur teak. Photo: Manorama/File

 “An Indian Governor has much hard and tedious business to do,” John David Rees, a colonial administrator who was travelling in southern India with Lord Connemara, the Governor of Madras, wrote in an article for The Times, London, on December 23, 1887. “He is overwhelmed with letters, minutes and despatches, which he obliged to return in kind. He is a servant of all work, and must feel constantly inclined to complain of the mockery of lofty prerogatives, buried under the routine of an office clerk’s drudgery.”

Rees said the “compensation” for such a life was the governor’s holidays, where the chains grew “light” and “pleasant.” From 1896 to 1890, Rees travelled to different parts of south India with Lord Connemara, the politician who was credited with reforms in the Madras Presidency, but also achieved notoriety for his adultery.

Rees, who was a prolific writer, published a book in 1891 titled Narratives of Tours in India Made By His Excellency Lord Connemara GCIE, Governor of Madras 1886-1890. Rees seemed to particularly appreciate the Malabar district and wrote in detail about its nature and people.

Malabar journey
The governor’s delegation began its journey to Malabar in October, 1887, by travelling from Ooty through the Nilgiris. They entered Eranad through the Karkoor Pass. “It is hardly possible to conceive a ride more beautiful than this,” Rees wrote. “For 15 miles, the road passes through the densest of jungle. Enormous trees tower above an undergrowth of evergreen shrubs, tree ferns, creepers and palms of every sort and kind.”

The governor was received at Edakkara by a group of officials, led by William Logan, the Scottish civil servant who wrote the Malabar Manual.

Reed was fascinated with the nature and vegetation he saw on the journey. “Even in its babyhood, the Teak tree displays a leaf of enormous size, giving proof of future greatness,” Rees wrote. “From its size and bright light-green colour, it can be distinguished in the forest at a great distance".

Being an ardent supporter of the empire, Rees’s main priority was to look at the economic gain for Britain and its capitalists, and his eyes were set on the commercial value of Nilambur teak. “The standards through which we pass travel all over the western coast of India and right away to the Persian Gulf, and are in great demand for house-building…,” Rees wrote.

Throughout this trip, the governor received local leaders. Rees did not seem to be particularly impressed with the Tirumalpad of Nilambur, whose family, he said, acquired a great amount of property from the Samudri (Zamorin).

Arrival in Calicut
They travelled at night in a “snake boat” on the Beypore River to a canal that was connected to Calicut. “These snake-boats have high curved sterns like Cleopatra’s barge, with a blend of the Venetian gondola,” Rees wrote. “They are very narrow, so crank that you cannot take off your boots in them, and propelled by eight or ten, nearly naked boatmen, each flourishing a one-bladed paddle, very much like a garden spade, and yelling at the top of his voice.”

The governor’s group arrived at the Karaparamba pier at seven in the morning. One of his earliest visitors at the Collector’s House was the Samudri.

“His procession of elephants with shields on their heads, of fantastic red-coated soldiers, and of half-naked Nairs with red-lacquered shields and truculent-looking swords is, in its way, quite unique, as indeed is the Maharaja Bahadur himself,” Rees noted. “His jewelled tiara-like hat struck into the tassels of his palanquin. He has borrowed his elephants. He looked unhappy in his gold brocade, yet he was not without dignity. He appeared broken in health, and in all respects, the shade of a great name.”

Members of Calicut’s Christian community also visited the governor, as did a delegation that demanded that residents of four taluks be allowed to possess firearms, which were banned under the so-called Mapilla Act.

Rees had generous praise for Kozhikode as a city. “The city of Calicut, which contains 57,000 inhabitants, is scattered about amongst groves of coconut trees, interspersed with patches of green cultivation, traversed in all directions by green lanes, and consists of neat, detached tiled houses, inhabited, for the most part, by a well-to-do and good-looking population,” he wrote. “It is, in every way, a most striking contrast to the ordinary eastern town with its mud-built houses, close streets and crowded highways and by-ways, as are its people in manners, customs and appearance, to those of other parts of India.”

Hundred and thirty-six years later, the areas that consist of the erstwhile Malabar district and Kozhikode, newly-crowned UNESCO ‘City of Literature’, remain some of the most charming places in India.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is a multilingual writer, primarily based in Mumbai)

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