Column | When an Irish-American found his fortune in Alappuzha

Women engaged in processing coconut fibre to manufacture coir. Image used for representational purpose. Photo: Josekutty Panackal / Manorama

Alappuzha’s biggest claim to fame besides its breathtakingly beautiful backwaters is its coir production, which for centuries was non-mechanised. Products made out of coir (derived from the Malayalam ‘kayar’ for rope) managed to find their way from Kerala to many parts of the world thanks to Arab traders. Alappuzha coir mats were, however, largely unknown in the western world until the second half of the 19th century, when they became a mainstay in many middle-class homes. The credit for this goes to James Darragh - an Irish-born American from Brooklyn, New York - who managed to find his way to the princely state of Travancore in the 1850s.

Darragh, who settled down in what was then called Aleppey, initially travelled around Travancore looking for opportunities. It was his connections with Catholic missionaries that led Darragh to begin a factory for coir mats in Alleppey in 1859, Canadian-born professor Robin Jeffrey wrote in a 1984 article for the Economic and Political Weekly.

“Darragh also bought coir yarn, most of which was shipped to factories in Europe and America where it was woven,” Jeffrey wrote. “Until Darragh opened his factory and yarn-exporting business, the principle use of coir here had been for ropes and nets, prized by mariners and made largely as a cottage industry.” Darragh’s success led to the entry of many competitors and transformed the economic landscape of Alappuzha.

Back in New York, as Darragh’s family grew wealthier, rumours began to emerge of his success in India. He, however, was not a public figure in the United States in the 1860s. It wasn’t until another resident of Brooklyn, by the name of Charles Getschow, went to Travancore in the 1880s on business that Darragh and his exploits became well known.

“In his peregrinations he (Getschow) met Darragh at various points on the coast of the great peninsula, and first brought back a connected story of the Brooklyn man’s adventures and struggles in Travancore,” the Brooklyn Daily Eagle said on May 14, 1911. “He described Darragh’s early struggles, his grit and final conquest of the situation with much earnestness, and said that no finer man ever lived in India.”

There is very little information about Darragh in the public domain. Another article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle said he cultivated a close friendship with William Redfield, who would later serve as the US Secretary of Commerce in Woodrow Wilson’s administration. Indian newspaper archives contain passing references to Darragh being a passenger on ships to ports such as Venice and Southampton.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle report from May, 1911, said Darragh had a wife and children in New York but decided to marry a “high caste Hindoo” woman in Alappuzha. “Henry Smail, once his manager, later his partner, married of the Indian Ms Darraghs and hence it is that the house of the Darragh and Smail still exists among the East Indian houses of old New York,” the paper said.

It should be noted that the story of his marriage to an Indian woman has been disputed by Darragh’s descendants.

After living in India for more than three decades, Darragh decided to go back to New York, but he died in transit in Cairo in 1889. He was buried in the Egyptian capital. After Darragh’s death, his wife and children in New York moved to Belfast in what is now Northern Ireland.

Court records from April,1918, suggest that there was a dispute for his assets between family members in Ireland and some parties in New York. The office of Darragh and Smail continued to operate in Manhattan for decades after the Irish-American entrepreneur’s death.

Darragh and his success in Travancore remained a topic of conversation among the well to do of New York for years. The discussions were often hosted by Getschow who had become somewhat of an authority on India. “He possessed a fine collection of ivory carvings, Indian weapons and curios, and was an entertaining talker on India, its manners and customs, with which he became more conversant than most travellers, owing to his long residence in the country, and used occasionally to publish articles on the subject,” the Brooklyn Daily Eagle wrote of Getschow.

If Darragh had somehow managed to make it back to live in the United States, he would have easily been regarded as the most knowledgeable and well-informed person about India in the country. He was the key player in revolutionising the Alappuzha coir industry, and America would have celebrated one more winner in the game of business.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is a multilingual writer, primarily based in Mumbai)

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