A South African family looks for its Kerala roots lost 116 years ago

A South African family looks for its Kerala roots lost 116 years ago
Representative image by Anurag Pushkaran

A family from South Africa has been looking for years for its long-lost roots in Kerala. It has been trying hard to re-establish bonds their grandparents had snapped 116 years ago, but with little success so far.

It all began in 1904 at the Madras port.

A Malayali girl was weeping bitterly, standing, carrying a baby on her hips, as the Umkusi passenger ship got ready to depart to South Africa.

The ship was filled with workers headed for Africa to work in sugarcane plantations and sugar factories. B Rebecca, too, was going to one of the sugar factories, bidding goodbye to her birthplace that had rejected her.

The journey was also her way of taking revenge against the English man who had made her pregnant and abandoned her, and her family members who threw her out of the house for bringing them disrepute by giving birth out of wedlock.

An Ayurvedic doctor, too, was aboard the ship.

Ayyappan Nair had accepted a South African company’s offer to treat the Indian workers at its sugar factory. The young doctor from the Malabar district was also leaving by renouncing the ties to his family.

The Indian workers at the sugarcane plantations and sugar factories in South Africa did not take allopathy. They did not believe in it. The company that hired Ayyappan Nair felt his services would be a remedy to the problem as he was an Ayurvedic doctor.

A South African family looks for its Kerala roots lost 116 years ago
(from Left) Ayyappan Nair, his second wife Anandi and Samuel Joseph (Velu Nair)

Rebecca's tears caught his attention — she was also a Malayalee and almost the same age as him. The three spent their lives together ever after. Ayyapan Nair took care of the fatherless child and his mother since then.

They gave up the mountains for the plains, expansive grasslands and beautiful beaches of the Natal province in South Africa. Ayyapan Nair, Rebecca and her son became a family, thousands of kilometres away from the shores of Kerala.

Seven children were born to the couple; Samuel, Rebecca’s son, was their elder brother.

When Rebecca died, Ayyappan Nair married again. He had eight children from the second marriage.

A South African family looks for its Kerala roots lost 116 years ago
Nelson Nair (fourth from left), his wife Roshni Nair (third from left) with other family members.

Their descendants are now in search of the ties that got severed when Ayyappan Nair and Rebecca boarded the ship and left.

Ayyapan Nair’s grandson Nelson Nair (54), aka Perumal Nair, who works as manufacturing manager in a company in Johannesburg in South Africa, has visited India a couple of times in search of the lost families.

He is on a mission to fill in the details of his grandparents’ lives before they left Kerala as 20-year-olds to start new lives in a foreign country some 116 years ago and to locate any of their relatives in Kerala.

He hopes that after hearing about his grandfather’s story, someone will come forward and say they are related to Ayyappan Nair or that there was a woman named Rebecca in their family who was asked to leave the house.

However, Nelson’s search is made difficult by the very little information he has about the early lives of his grandparents.

He knows that the name of his grandfather’s father was Keellu Nair. The passenger records of Umkusi ship says that Ayyappan Nair belonged to Malabar district. He could have been from anywhere in Malabar. But, since he spoke Tamil, it is also possible that he hailed from Palakkad.

Interestingly, the ship had another passenger, Neelakantan Nair, whose father’s name is also mentioned as Keellu Nair. The ship’s records say that he was from Palakkad. But, according to Nelson, he has not heard anyone in his family say that his grandfather had a brother by that name.

So could it be that Ayyappan Nair and Neelakantan Nair were not related or could there have been an error in the ship’s records? Nelson doesn’t know.

He says it is possible that both were from Palakkad since his grandfather had said that his family could speak Tamil even though he had claimed to belong to the Malabar district.

Rebecca, according to the ship’s records, hailed from Puthiyarakkal in Kozhikode and her father’s name was Kannan.

She came from a Catholic family and worked in the household of an Englishman. When she became pregnant with the child of the Englishman’s son, her family threw her out.

When she got to know that the sugar factories in South Africa were hiring people, she decided to leave her native land with her son, who was not even a year old.

The ship’s records say the name of the child’s father was Joseph.

The life in Africa

Ayyappan Nair was a man of his words. Although he had seven children with Rebecca, he had told her that Samuel meant the most to him. He proved it with his deeds — he gave Samuel Joseph another name, Velu Nair, to show that Rebecca’s son was his, too.

Samuel Joseph was never made to feel lonely in the household.

Nelson also has documentary evidence of Samuel’s younger brother Kesavan Nair having taken part in World War II.

After Rebecca’s death in 1932, Ayyappan Nair married again. Anandi, his new wife, was born in South Africa to parents who had migrated from Kanchipuram. The couple had eight children, including Nelson’s father Devidasan Nair.

Ayyappan Nair died in 1959, leaving just the stories he had told his children and the ship records for Nelson to piece together his life in Kerala.

Many people he knows consider Nelson’s quest a waste of time.

Nelson himself doubts if the relatives of Ayyappan Nair and Rebecca would want to reveal themselves fearing that the family in South Africa may seek a share of their property. He is, however, quick to add that neither he nor his brothers need anyone’s property.

Nelson says he is also ready to reward anyone who helps him find Rebecca’s family.

He has visited India twice as he continues his search. He had visited Kerala two years ago and returned after a sight-seeing tour of Kochi and Alappuzha, he said.

If he can identify his long-lost relatives, then he would come to India once more to meet them, said Nelson.

Meanwhile, two grandsons of Ayyappan Nair have followed in his footsteps and are now working as allopathy doctors.

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