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Malabar, 1811: The long road to freedom from slavery

By N P Chekkutty

Two hundred years ago the first battle against slavery in India was won when Magistrate Thomas Hervey Baber freed 123 slaves, including children, from private trader Murdoch Brown’s plantation in Malabar. This is a story of marauding imperialism, a cruel caste system, and a crusade for human rights which led to a ban on slavery in British India in 1843

The house of Thomas Hervey Baber in Thalassery

In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad describes a moment when the mist lifts unexpectedly, revealing a view of the mysterious surrounds: a momentary revelation of the interiors of a Dark Continent, converted into an area of darkness by the marauding forces of imperialism.

In Malabar, an area which came under European power much before Africa surrendered itself to the builders of empire, one such momentary flash of lightning that revealed the miserable plight of natives, after the arrival of these “civilising” forces, came exactly 200 years ago when a young and energetic East India Company officer conducted a search of the premises of a European planter to discover a large number of kidnapped people forced into slavery. The search, discovery and eventual release of slaves despite heavy odds was one among a series of developments that finally led to the formal ban on slavery in British India three decades later, in 1843.

Slavery was widely practised in Malabar even before the British East India Company took control there in 1792; it was mainly agrestic bondage, with slave castes attached to agricultural lands for generations being bought and sold along with the land. The Indian Law Commissioners, in their report on slavery in 1841, noted that castes like Cherumas (slave castes in Malabar) were treated as “absolute property; they are part of the livestock on an estate”. Traditional Hindu and Mohammedan laws had both accepted it, and the EIC’s own fledgling legal system refused to meddle with it, accepting the practice as normal and legitimate.


But in the case of Europeans, and especially British citizens, the laws existed in a grey zone: most of them owned slaves and used them in domestic employ, but trading in slaves and forcing people into slavery were treated as criminal offences. The order passed in 1793, by Jonathan Duncan, then commissioner of Bombay province, did not prohibit the sale of slaves within the province but disallowed “the practice of shipping kidnapped and other natives as slaves”.

Though slaves in Malabar were generally attached to agricultural lands, buying and selling of slaves and shipping them for sale outside the province were common. Arab ships operating from Muscat and other islands in the Persian Gulf, and many adventurous sailors of European origin operating in the twilight zone between law and anarchy, carried out this lucrative business. Various ports on the subcontinent became known as hubs of such illegal activities; on the Malabar coast, French-controlled Mahe was known to be a major slave base.

Post-1792, Malabar experienced a period of disturbance mainly as a result of challenges posed by rebels like Pazhassi Rajah, which continued for over a decade. The rebels were often in control of routes connecting spice-producing hill regions with coastal towns, making it difficult for the Company to procure hill produce like pepper, cinnamon and other spices for export to Europe. In spite of an EIC monopoly on the spices trade, a huge network of shady traders and dealers had sprung up, a black market for contraband wares developed, and many EIC officials made exorbitant amounts in such deals, working in cahoots with local traders who operated these networks.

It was then that an idea was mooted with the presidency’s rulers in Bombay (Malabar was under the Bombay presidency till 1800), by a private trader in Mahe called Murdoch Brown (1750-1828) who suggested developing a plantation to cultivate spices in an area close to the coastal town of Thalassery. In 1797, Duncan, by then Governor of Bombay, agreed to the proposal and it was decided that a 2,000-acre plantation be set up at Anjarakkandy, with Murdoch Brown appointed as overseer of the project. Later, the Company transferred ownership of the estate to Brown on a 99-year lease agreement, executed in 1802. This gave him the unique distinction of being the first English landholder in India, and its first planter.

Brown, who was born in Edinburgh, in Scotland, was an industrious and colourful character. He travelled to Lisbon as a young man, and from there reached Calicut in 1775 as consul for the Empress of Austria. He served various European powers, then in constant conflict in the Indian Ocean region, to eventually become one of the most influential people on India’s west coast. Duncan described him in 1792 as the most considerable of any British subject on that side of India.

But, unlike Duncan, others in EIC service had different and not very flattering opinions of Brown. When Brown was appointed by Duncan as Malabar interpreter to the commissioners, Walter Ewer, another senior officer, wrote directly to Henry Dundas, Company chairman in London, in 1796: “He is said to be and really appears to be, a Scotsman… (though) he has lived in Mahe as a Dane, and an Austrian, and finished his career of countries, by defending the place in arms, as a Frenchman, in which situation he was taken; let him chuse (sic) his country; being found in arms, he is certainly a prisoner of war; it’s said he was concerned in the war before last, with some merchants of Bombay, in supplying the enemy (Tipu Sultan) with provisions and stores…” (Papers of Walter Ewer-1796-1799, folio 148, British Library).

But neither criticism nor adversity affected the fortunes of Murdoch Brown: he is said to have lost 11 ships, of 1,000 tonnes or more in the war with France; and later in 1803, in an attack on his plantation by rebels, all his buildings, and nearly all the productive vines and coffee plants were destroyed. Brown was an innovative planter, experimenting with plants brought from various parts of the world and introducing commercial plantation of many items like pepper, coffee, cinnamon, cotton, etc, in those early days which involved many years of trial-and-error experiments. In a letter published in Asiatic Journal in 1844, his son F C Brown, who inherited the plantation, recalls that “coffee, originally termed Malabar coffee, was produced from seeds which my father obtained from Arabia, nearly half a century ago, years before Java coffee was extensively known in Europe as an article of import”.

Murdoch Brown used local labourers for his extensive and ambitious agricultural operations, his plantation having a large number of coolies, mainly Thiyyas and Mappilas, besides many slaves, mostly Cherumas, Pulayas and other slave castes. Brown claimed that he was doing everything to help their uplift, “educating them and Christianising them by native catechists and German missionaries,” giving them a weekly day off, and setting up a school for their children, etc. But in spite of all his philanthropic pretensions, he was rumoured to have kept many natives abducted from southern parts of Malabar and Travancore as slaves on his estate.

Having come to know about slave-running “by the merest accident,” as he later put it, North Malabar’s English magistrate, Thomas Hervey Baber (1777-1843) decided to investigate and ordered a search of Brown’s estates towards the end of 1811. He found 71 people, many of them children, kidnapped from places like Travancore, in Murdoch Brown’s possession. Altogether, 123 people were set free and allowed to return to their homes. But there was considerable resistance to such firm action, not only from Brown, who challenged it in court, but even from EIC’s own establishment, as Baber describes in his 1832 note to the commissioners for Indian affairs. It was “after a considerable opposition on the part of the provincial court of circuit (that) I succeeded in putting an end to this nefarious traffic,” he writes (Baber’s note is attached as an appendix to the House of Lords Report on Slavery, 1841).

Magistrate Baber’s action, exposing the underbelly of the civilising mission of imperialism in a remote part of the British Indian empire, turned out to be a huge embarrassment for the EIC establishment and a severe indictment of its own duplicity and double standards as it proved beyond doubt that the Company’s own officers were directly involved in slave-running. The Company’s governing council in India, or the Board of Control back home, could not ignore it altogether. First, though a lower ranking official then, Baber’s contributions had already been widely noted with appreciation within the Company administration. And secondly, the practice of slavery in the western hemisphere had become quite an embarrassment for the British rulers, forcing them to take steps to prevent such occurrences in its Indian possessions, especially at a time when people were turning to plantation business in India that required huge numbers of cheap labour.

By the time of the 1811 search on Anjarakkandy estate, T H Baber had been in EIC service for 14 years, having joined it early in 1797 as a 20-year-old writer in Bombay. Like most early recruits, he too had influential contacts within the Company administration, including his uncle Edward Baber who had been secretary to Governor General Warren Hastings in Calcutta. Thomas Baber was sent to Malabar, a newly acquired territory that had been experiencing high levels of rebel activity, and his immediate task was to chase the rebels and restore peace to the region. His moment of glory came when he was able to trace the most powerful rebel, Pazhassi Rajah (who had been, for almost a decade carrying out guerrilla warfare against Company rule, with deadly effect) in his forest hideout and shoot him dead -- a task in which even Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, had failed.

Thus the searches in the plantation brought two interesting personalities, representing two distinct streams in the history of colonialism, face to face. One was described as a person among the last of the “rascally adventurous”, who always “looked after his pocket, whether as a Scot, Dane, Austrian, Frenchman or North Briton”, the flags of nationality Murdoch Brown had waved in his long career as a fortune-seeker. The other was a true representative of the new bourgeois who had visions of civilising the pagan lands, whose services were remembered by a native at the end of his 40 years of service, as “sterling and meritorious”, whose talents “entitled him to the highest estimation amongst the natives” and the “impartial manner of conducting his duties earned the unremitted (sic) satisfaction of the ryots and interest to the government,” (an obituary note in Asiatic Journal, 1844).


In spite of all this, Baber found himself pitted against an unresponsive, even hostile administration and he had complaints about the judicial system which put up “considerable opposition” to the release of kidnapped slave children.  

The hue and cry following the discovery of kidnapped people forced into slavery on an English citizen’s estate continued for decades. References to the incident were made in Parliament, and several articles appeared in various journals and publications. It was widely noted that the plantation itself was started by the Company and that its official establishment was pressed into service to procure slaves and even to transport kidnapped people; attention also focused on the miserable plight of the peasantry and slaves ever since the Company took over the reins of power in Malabar. Baber contended that the practice of separating slaves from their lands and selling them for revenue -- even splitting up families -- was an “innovation” brought in by the British administration; he argued that the practice of kidnapping children for slavery had its origin directly in the “impolitic action” of permitting Brown to procure slaves. Assen Ally, Brown’s agent who had arranged for most of these children, acknowledged at trial that during the time he was in Alleppey, in Travancore, in 1810, no less than 400 children had been transported to Malabar.

During the trial, Murdoch Brown took the defence that it was a widespread practice in Malabar and that there was no family among the Mohammedans and Christians in Malabar towns where there was no slave brought in from other places. Later on he blamed his agent, Assen Ally, for providing him with kidnapped children without his knowledge, though a few children who were born high caste had given evidence that they had been forced to eat with low-caste boys by ‘Valia Achan’ (Brown) with a view to polluting them so that they could be (legally) kept as slaves. With reference to the evidence produced before the court, Baber noted that these slaves had been “kidnapped in Travancore, and sold to British subjects, and even the free-born children of various castes of Hindoos, subjects of the Cochin and Travancore rajahs, reduced to slavery in the Honourable Company’s dominions, who had been procured by the most fraudulent and violent means, and deprived of their caste by cutting off their lock of hair (the distinguishing mark of their caste), by making them eat prohibited food, and by otherwise disguising and polluting them”. The advocate general in Madras, Ansthruther, who had examined the case more than once, refers to “Mr Baber’s perseverance in restoring the kidnapped children, in spite of very extraordinary opposition” and to the “extraordinary support Mr Brown appears to have received in these dealings in stolen children,” (quoted in a report on slavery in India, Asiatic Journal, December, 1828).  

However, no one was surprised at the outcome of the case: in spite of the hard evidence Baber had marshalled, none of the accused (only Brown’s agents, who were persons in his employ, were brought to trial) were found guilty and the case was dismissed on some technical grounds under Mohammedan law, then practised in criminal courts in Malabar. Baber never concealed his bitterness about the provincial court of circuit -- to which he himself was elevated later as a judge -- taking a view that helped continue and legitimise a practice he thought reprehensible and nefarious; he openly spoke about the considerable opposition he faced from the court in putting an end to this practice in Malabar.

For Baber, this incident of discovery and release of slaves in an Englishman’s estate was not just a legal matter; he considered it an issue of principle and policy pursued by the British administration in India. He had to take on a reactionary establishment, in the process earning himself powerful enemies that put his life and career at stake. In his 1832 note, he says: “Unfortunately, the measure was not supported by those in whom the legislature had reposed the controlling authority, over the acts of the executive administration, but on the contrary, I had to contend even against their systematic opposition in those individual acts of violence and cruelty; the conspiracy that was formed against my life, through the machinations of the principal slave-owner… but all this had no effect in deterring me from persevering in that righteous cause I had engaged in, and it was not until I found myself deserted by the government itself, by an avowal of their apprehension of repeating the expression of their approbation of my conduct, lest it should aggravate this distempered feeling, as the struggle between the ardent zeal of an individual and the selfish views of a party, was called.”   

One of the principal disputes Baber had with the Company administration was over the way slaves were treated as commercial property; auctioning them off to recover the revenue arrears of their masters, often dividing families in the process, separating parents from children and husbands from wives. As a judicial officer in the Company’s provinces, he took cognisance of such complaints and demanded an explanation from the revenue authorities, which evoked considerable friction and enmity as the latter thought no action was improper in the pursuit of revenue collection as the demands of taxation were exorbitant and hence called for every ruthless act on their part to realise it. In fact, James Vaughan, Collector of Malabar, makes this view explicit in his comments when the issue of prevention of sale of slaves for revenue arrears came up for discussion in 1819. He argues for the continuance of this practice, saying: “The partial measure of declaring them not liable to be sold for arrears of revenue, will be a drop in the ocean; though, why government should give up the right every proprietor enjoys is a question worthy of consideration,” (reported in Asiatic Journal, September-December 1834).

These tussles, however, were not confined to official files and internecine sniping within the administration, but as Baber himself notes, his unconventional views and bold actions earned him enemies who were conspiring to finish him off. One of these incidents, widely discussed in official documents, refers to an attempt to provoke him into a duel, a practice that was prevalent in colonial outposts in the early-19th century. Baber had complained to the authorities that Lt F C Brown, then a young man with the 80th Foot Regiment of Her Majesty’s Army, came to his residence at Thalassery in October 1812 and demanded an explanation on rumours that were allegedly spread by Baber against his father, Murdoch Brown. Baber denied he was involved in any false campaigns against Brown, but Brown Junior was not satisfied. He and his friends, all EIC servants, challenged him to a duel.

Baber refused to oblige, asserting he was not answerable to them on matters concerning his official responsibilities. Brown Jr, who accused him of being a professed enemy and persecutor of his father, proceeded to put up posters in town accusing Baber of being “a liar and a coward”.

That led to another round of troubles, and after an investigation, the government resolved to remove from Thalassery people involved in the affair, namely Lt Brown and his friends Douglas, Gahagan and Harrison. The government also allowed Baber to proceed with criminal action against them, which resulted in jail term of a few months for all the accused.

An interesting aside to this story is that F C Brown (1792-1868) later became one of the sharpest critics of colonial administration in India, and, during his 1848 deposition before the House of Lords Select Committee on cotton production in India, he accuses the colonial rule of causing the complete destruction of Indian agriculture, anticipating and powerfully articulating key arguments later developed by Indian nationalists like Dadabhai Naoroji and Ramesh Chander Dutt. His long experience and intimate links with the natives as a planter and an agriculturist made him acutely aware of the tremendous negative impact of colonial policies in India. In fact, after his return to England in 1838, he emerged as a pioneer in reform movements focused on India, associated with launching the first of such organisations, the British India Society, in London, in July 1839.

For Baber, despite his huge efforts and some minor victories against his personal detractors, it was proving to be an uphill struggle: as most first-generation EIC officials were leaving the scene and new administrators taking their place, colonial policies were changing and attitudes becoming harder. He found himself abandoned by the government in his pursuit of a humane policy towards the native slaves, when the government in an official minute (dated January 22, 1823) made it clear that it thought “the simple intimation that government approves of the conduct of Mr Baber might even increase these evils”. A frank and forthright declaration of its abdication of the rule of law!

Thomas Baber signed off his historic note referring to himself as Late First Judge, Western Division, Madras Territories, an office he held for a long time, bringing him into close contact with the lives of common people. A few years later, Baber tendered his resignation, and, having been relieved of his duties on March 1, 1839, returned to live among the natives in Thalassery where he had started off his career four decades earlier. After the death of his wife Helen Somerville Fearon, in 1840, the lonely crusader was practically alone as his only surviving son Henry Fearon Baber had shifted to far-away Kurseong in Darjeeling. He died in Kannur, in 1843. Now, two centuries later, his words remain a powerful testimony to the injustices done to a section of Indian people oppressed by a cruel caste system, and a harsh critique of the insensitive colonial policy towards these people, who, unfortunately, have to struggle even today for their true emancipation in a liberal and democratic Republic of India.

(I am thankful to Dr John E C Roberts, New York, and Nicholas Balmer, London, for their comments on an earlier draft, and support in the research work for this article)   

(N P Chekkutty is a journalist based in Kerala)

Infochange News & Features, January 2011