Thursday, August 18, 2011

They Knew All About Us, But We Know Nothing About Them

Every time I return home on a vacation, I always have an opportunity to meet this interesting person called Dr. Oliver Noone. Ever since our last couple of meetings, there has been a nudging feeling in my heart to write about this outstanding person and his marvellous work on the history of Malabar. I have known Dr. Noone since I was a child. I was introduced to him by my father who was a dear friend of his father. Personally, there are many instances that connect us – some loose, some tight - but of late what draws both of us close is our common interest in maritime history and the deep-rooted urge to understand our past, know our present and attempt to foresee our future. Born in the beautifully landscaped district of Palghat – also known as the granary of Kerala – Dr. Noone is primarily a physician with special interest in Chest Diseases. His professional career had taken him to the United Kingdom almost three decades ago and there he got a chance to delve into the beginnings of the mighty British Empire and give colour to his personal passion of understanding the history of Malabar. His keen sense of detail and his physician’s eye has enabled him to touch bottom in his quest into the vast, dark and deep historic past of the British Empire and bring up to the surface a few precious souvenirs and hitherto unheard of materials that are sure to interest a military mind and the seafarer-war farer, not to speak of the spectacular opportunity that these materials would provide to the students of the history of Malabar.

Chatting with him is a pleasant and enjoyable feat as he took me smoothly into the essence of complex ‘geo-political decisions’ that the Europeans took centuries ago that sealed the fate of our nation. While it is most appropriate to listen to Dr. Noone’s interesting presentation on a wide variety of subjects and his discussions based on authentic references, my attempt here is to bring to the reader a gist of his work and to place pointers down memory lane and make the reader think of the need to understand the past in order to figure out the future.

We all know a little bit of the origins of the British Empire essentially tutored unto us by the numerous text books that we were expected to study during our days in school and for some of us through college. Some of us may have chosen to pick up understanding modern Indian history as a source of bread and butter and may have gone to become ‘subject-experts’ with scores of pages of research and hard work behind them.

Well, how many of us have really thought about the origins and reason for existence of the magnificent old English buildings that now-a-days almost everywhere houses government offices or allied services? How many of us would care to think about why the Germans built the Commonwealth Factory right in the centre of the Calicut city? Why did ‘Maamankam’ only happen on the banks of the Nila at Tirunaavaya and not on the fine sands of the beach at Calicut, the headquarters of the Zamorin? Why is it that three-fourths of the city of Bangalore is filled with buildings built with colonial British architecture which today mostly houses the Armed Forces? How did the British manage to build them there which once were under the strong clutches of the Tiger called Tipu Sultan? How and when did the British, which, once upon a time held only a meagre share of power when compared to the Mahrattas, the Nizam of Hyderabad, the Mysoreans, the Rajputs, and the Sikhs become the unquestioned rulers of India? How did a small, impoverished, resource-less island in the periphery of Europe, on the edge of Atlantic, come to rule over the world with the epitaph “An Empire where the Sun does not set” attached to it? How did that island nation with limited manpower build so powerfully engineered and superbly seaworthy ships and construct awe-inspiring buildings all over the globe wherever they left their footprints? How did such a small country control major military campaigns so successfully and simultaneously in different parts of the world? How did their communications network work that even beats the most modern telecommunications systems of today?

Interesting questions – all of them. Many evenings spent with Dr. Noone made the legendary tube light flicker inside my mind and made me think. The more I thought the more intriguing it got. The more questions I asked to myself and sought answers, the more exciting it got. The revelations were astonishing and incredible. The facts that have been recorded and treasured in the long lines of bookshelves in one of the most respected libraries in the world opened up a ‘Pandora’s Box’ that were full of surprises and actual facts. Why is a successful medical specialist very much interested in unravelling the unknown records of our past? It did not take much time for the doctor to confess that it was some of the stories that he had heard from his aunty, Mrs Alice Absalom, which prompted him to make this time-consuming attempt when chance provided him with the opportunity and the ways and means.

The history of the British Empire goes way back into the early days of the formation of the Americas which were set-up by them as penal colonies for settling the wrong-doers. Where did the wrong-doers originate? They were those brethren of the English blood that opposed slave trade and forced labour – which the British specialised in along with other European nations of that time – and those who resisted the move of the British to annex Scotland, Wales and Ireland to recruit manpower to man the Army and the Navy and die for Britain and to work in the numerous plantations of Scotland, Ireland and Wales while the aristocracy lavished in the comforts of their castles and palaces in the secure confines of Britain and Europe. The rest were made up of slaves from the Dark Continent and elsewhere who were transported and held captive for labour. The Steven Spielberg classic “Amistad” provides in vivid detail the intensity of the various aspects of slave trade that the British and the whole of Europe had mastered. Human trafficking was one of the most profitable businesses of those days and any modern firm of today that boasts of centuries-old traditions would definitely have some strings attached to their history that would link them to this profitable trade. While the British allowed a moderately free administration in the Americas they introduced their trademark systems of education, law and general administration in that country. This marginal freedom proved detrimental to their control of that country in the decisive American Civil War that put an end to slavery in that region and the British were left hapless and lost. The English pride was hurt severely and the English society at large considered that an Empire was lost.

While the expeditions of the British mercantile community to the East was mostly to plunder the wealth of the East, their excesses in the West in the Americas was to extend their Empire and land holdings. It is interesting to note that while they allowed a moderately free administrative setup in the Americas, they were experimenting on a colonial model in the West Indies simultaneously. Upto the point in time when Lord Warren Hastings was the Governor-General of India, the British interests in India were purely that of merchandising and plunder and was not entirely aimed at colonising India. It was the loss of America that forced them to look at India as a potential breeding ground – and a very successful one – for colonialism. It was based on this realisation that certain policy decisions were taken to direct all energies to make India a substitute for the lost Empire in the American Civil War. This fact is cleverly kept under wraps in most history books – the most popular of the ones that people with an interest in this subject read in the beginning are authored by English authors – the English names and fervent reviews that praise such books blind us completely and we fall for the traps.

The decision to colonise India and the decision to make a major shift in the policy towards India was in the hands of two extremely smart and crafty British lawyers named Dundas and Pitt – for the mariner: it’s the same Dundas after whom ‘Dundas Point’ at the entry into Port Blair harbour is named. While modern English professors of history would rubbish the colonisation of India as a “Casual Decision at Lunch”, records that are available speak of a different story. The issue was debated, discussed and formally approved by the Royalty of that time as regards the political policy to be adopted, the form of governance to be adopted, the administrative policy to be adopted, the laws to be enacted and the military policy to be adopted for regaining a lost empire in India. It was a well-meditated decision. The experience in the Americas and the success in the West-Indies had enabled the British to perfect the drills to be performed in each aspect with surgical precision. Detailed reports that had been despatched since the first ever visit on Indian shores of a British sailor had been carefully analysed, conclusions drawn and tactics refined to match the kind of political and military resistance that were expected. Generous sprinklings of intelligence agents in the various ranks of the military and mercantile agencies of the British Royalty provided the vital link between the policy makers operating from their base in England, the Royalty and their representatives in India. These agents were masked as writers – some well renowned names too figure in the list, military officers, civilians and businessmen. The appointment of Lord Cornwallis as a replacement of Hastings as the Governor General was a strategic and political decision. Cornwallis was commissioned with the task of re-structuring and re-building the lost pride of the English Royalty at the hands of the Americans.

The military might of the British Empire and the beginnings of some of the popular Regiments of that time is very well documented. But an ardent military mind would be surprised to hear that many a Regiment had been setup with forced labour and severe punishments meted out to fellow whites – the Scots, the Irish and the Welsh -who formed the different layers of the officer cadres, while the bottom of the pyramid was stuffed with ordinary people called sepoys. Some of these Regiments that were raised solely for re-establishing the lost empire have outlived their primary aims and amalgamated into modern India’s Armed Forces.

As is well known, it was the sea-borne empire that the Whites built first - on the West by the Spanish and on the East by the Portuguese. Coming to talk about the Naval battles, there was an important sea battle off the coast of Malabar way back in 1503 which helped in establishing European sea power on the shores of India This decisive battle was fought between an Indo-Arab fleet led by the Zamorin (Saamoothiri) of Calicut and the Portuguese fleet led by Vasco-da-Gama. The first visit of Vasco in 1498 was exploratory in nature and was more of a reccee mission. The visit of Cabral that followed gathered more vital intelligence on the operations of trade and naval activities and carried them back to Europe. The third visit of the Portuguese was deliberate and aimed at securing the seas for the King of Portugal. This decisive battle saw the Portuguese using the Column and Line-Abreast Formations and generously using broadside firepower against small ships of the Indian fleet and completely destroying them. Militarily, this battle was a technology demonstrator and the first sea-battle to be fought in a completely different format from the hitherto widely practised method of “Ram, Board and Kill”. The result was that a one-million strong nation got control of the seas of a two hundred million strong nation almost overnight. Later research has proved that the broadside cannons (called Camoe) had devastating effect on the stability of the target ships once hit. Vasco-da-Gama’s ships of 1503 had enough such cannons to provide uninterrupted volleys onto the targets.

One needs to remember that akin to the British, the Portuguese were also renowned ocean explorers and experts not only in sailing ships but also in the most attractive profession of slave trade. So, when they came in search of India, they knew all about us and they had a clear idea what they wanted from us. It is also important to note the gap in technology and seafaring expertise that these alien forces possessed in comparison to the Indian fleet of that time.

While the Battle of Plassey is widely acclaimed as the most decisive battle that brought British supremacy over India, an equally important, but cleverly down-played battle was that of Seringapatnam where the Deccan Tiger Tipu Sultan was defeated and killed. Tipu was feared by the British more than any other Ruler in India because he and his father Hyder Ali were the only geo-politically sensitive rulers that India possessed at that time. They both were aware of their capabilities and their stature in the world as a whole. They maintained respectable foreign policies and had maintained healthy trade relationships with nations despite the control of the seas by the Europeans initiated by the Portuguese in Indian waters in 1503. The British had to defeat Tipu by hook or crook. They resorted to all sorts of tactics including bribes, contracts and diplomatic assignments to neutralise the threats from equally powerful Mahrattas and the military of the Nizam of Hyderabad. A close look at the power centres of those days would tell us the disposition of their territories and how difficult it was for the British to move and maintain a formidable Infantry and Cavalry from the coasts of the West and the East and then surmount the difficult Western and Eastern Ghats to reach the foothills of Mysore and mount an attack on Tipu. Cautious as they were, they never attempted to cross over from the North-West or the North-East as these areas were held tightly by the Mahrattas and the Nizam of Hyderabad and Circars respectively. However, they succeeded in securing Guntur from the Nizam of Hyderabad.

The first success in defeating Tipu’s forces in South India came to the Western Army on the shores of the Kadalundi Puzha at Thrikkulam, near the present Tirurangadi. This battle where three Regiments of the British Army took part could be portrayed as the beginning of the end of India as an independent State. This was the end of the first phase of attacks formulated against Tipu and this defeat marked the decline and the subsequent complete end of the rule of Tipu Sultan and his dynasty.

It would indeed be interesting to listen more about the unknown battles of Malabar and to witness the scenarios been recreated with the help of excerpts from authentic documentation from the proponent of this segment of information. Each and every street in Malabar has a tale to tell and so does each and every monument that lay scattered in the vast confines of this beautiful area. The River Nila, a significant witness to many battles still flows silently in the heat of the summer, but raging maturely in the flow of the monsoons. Scores of ancient households that line the banks of this legendary river would have at least one hero to boast about. There would doubtless be unheard ballads of valour highlighting legendary stories of victory of those heroes over the Whites known probably only to the residents of those pockets and now probably long forgotten.

One temple in the erstwhile Kingdom of Travancore has left a legacy which is amazing the world. Statistically Kerala constitutes only 4% of India’s gross wealth. I leave it to you to imagine what was looted out of India from 1717 to 1947?

Over the passage of time, the relevance of our past is fast disappearing from the minds and discussions boards of our families. Our quest for the future should never make us turn a blind eye towards our past. We owe our future to the numerous heroes who gave away their present for the sake of our today. It is important to realise that our children of tomorrow should know our today and our yesterday so that they might live to be better citizens and shape-up a brighter morrow.


Maddy said...

Dr Noone is certainly an interesting history enthusiast who will keep you engrossed. I met him some years ago in UK and later in Calicut, great chap.

nice summary as well that you presented, are you in toich with the CHF crowd?

Ashish said...

I am in touch only via email. I would love to attend some of their lecture sessions when I am in India. Thanks so much for reading and for your comments.