Friday, 19 June 2015

Joseph and the Chinese in Naduvattam

My blog on the Naduvattam Chinese caused a few pleasant ripples and was followed by more stories exploring the very same subject.  Recently, one reader, Mr. Mano Archibald did some ground level investigations in Naduvattam and ‘discovered’ the old jail buildings which initially housed the Chinese prisoners.

Photo courtesy: Mano Archibald. 

Naduvattam is a nondescript small town on the Gundalpet- Coimbatore National Highway 67 cutting through the hill towns of Gudalur, Ooty and Coonoor.

The old buildings, most likely the jail and the cinchona factory, are now with the Tamil Nadu Tea Plantation Corporation (Tantea). Over the years, the buildings have been ‘modernized’ and ‘renovated’ with no attention to its historical worth. This is unfortunate but not surprising as it is the general trend; this national disregard for things historical and environmental seems to have grown to epidemic proportions.  Many readers have written in asking for more information of the Chinese in Nilgiris. So here goes. The information available online about these Chinese prisoners is vague.  But it is quite apparent that some of them were prisoners taken after the second Opium War (1856-1860) and transported to British colonies as was the common practice. Another lot were Malay Chinese from the Straits Settlements, convicted for either piracy or some other crime in Singapore or Malaya. According to a rather well researched blog, “Maddy’s Ramblings”, the Chinese prisoners were sent to the Nilgiris because of the overcrowding in Madras (prison).
There were two camps, one in Naduvattam and the other in the Thiashola reserve forest. According to legend, the earlier attempts to plant tea failed, so the Chinese prisoners were forced to teach the pioneer British planters the right method to grow tea and later how to cure and dry it.  Thiashola Tea Estate was opened in 1859 and was partly planted by the Chinese. Tea was also planted in Kotagiri by one Miss MBL Cockburn.
This brings me to Chinese Hill Estate, the name that so intrigued me and what set me on this search for the elusive Chinese.  I don’t know if the Chinese were used to plant this estate too. This estate, which has a spectacular view of the Mysore plateau, was owned by the Wapshare family and later changed hands.  Legend has it that a lady armed with a shot gun used to patrol the estate on a horse at night. If anyone made the mistake of wandering into the estate, she would shoot in their direction and yell out, “This is a warning shot, the next one is for you.”  But that is another story altogether.  The Hindu reports that in 1864 W.G McIvor, the man who designed and planted the Government Botanical Garden and who was also the superintendent of the cinchona factory in Naduvattam, asked the government to provide 500 Chinese workers for the cinchona plantations in Naduvattam as the local people were too lethargic.In the years that followed, some of the Chinese prisoners tried to escape from this malaria ridden forests; some of them, when they completed their prison term, settled down and married local low caste women.  Many years ago, there used to be a gardener called Joseph who tended the gardens in Nenagh. He had very distinct features, flat nose and slant eyes. I wonder now, if he was from Naduvattam.
Edgar Thurston, the superintendent of the Madras Government Museum and the author of the “Castes and Tribes of Southern India” (7 volumes) writes about the Naduvattam Chinese. He had done extensive research in anthropology and ethnography. During one of his anthropological expeditions on the western side of the Nilgiri range and right in the middle of the cinchona plantation, Thurston heard about this colony of Tamil Chinese, who lived between Naduvattam and Gudalur.These people were growing vegetables, a little bit of coffee and rearing cows for their living. Thurston writes, “An ambassador was sent to this miniature Chinese Court with a suggestion that the men should, in return for monies, present themselves before me with a view to their measurements being recorded. The reply which came back was in its way racially characteristic as between Hindus and Chinese. In the case of the former, permission to make use of their bodies for the purposes of research depends essentially on a pecuniary transaction, on a scale varying from two to eight annas. The Chinese, on the other hand, though poor, sent a courteous message to the effect that they did not require payment in money, but would be perfectly happy if I would give them, as a memento, copies of their photographs.” He goes on to describe a specific family: "The father was a typical Chinaman, whose only grievance was that, in the process of conversion to Christianity; he had been obliged to 'cut him tail off.' The mother was a typical Tamil Pariah of dusky hue. The colour of the children was more closely allied to the yellowish tint of the father than to the dark tint of the mother; and the semi mongol parentage was betrayed in the slant eyes, flat nose, and (in one case) conspicuously prominent cheek-bones."Joseph?

Must be the old cinchona factory

A old trap door. All nicely painted!

A new fitting on a old pump..

All photos courtesy Mano Archibald

Sunday, 3 May 2015

A Tinge of the Khyber

They did look rather colourful with their turbans, hennaed beards and Pathani suits. 
In the sixties, the Pathans were quite a common sight in Coonoor market. You would find many of them, sitting on the revetment behind the taxis, near the bus stand. On shandy days when the tea workers, plush with their weekly wages, descended in hordes for their day in town, there would more of them. Often they would be carrying lathis, smacking them menacingly against their legs. Most of the Pathans were money lenders and were waiting to catch the debtors who owed them money, before they spent it all.

I was terrified of them, especially as I would be left alone in an unlocked car while my mother went marketing. Sometimes, my cousin Mohan would be there, but he was no help at all as he would be at the wheel pretending to be a race driver.  When I saw these tall men with piercing green or brown eyes walk past, I would put up the windows, lock the doors and cower in the space between the seats.  Once in a while, I would surface and look out, if the Pathan was standing anywhere close by and hide again.  The poor man would be blissfully unaware of all this drama, of course.  

This was long before I read Tagore’s Kabuliwala and cried for little girls who didn't have a father who came home every evening. Again, this was much before I read about the Great Game in books like Kipling’s Kim and Mundy’s King of the Khyber Rifles.  The Kite Flyer by Khaled Hosseini gave a much better perceptive of what Kabul was like in the twentieth century. The picture of the Afghan remained rather hazy but the feeling was that these were fierce looking but kindly, honourable souls.  Even when the images of the wanton destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan and other atrocities filled our TV screens, deep inside I liked to think that the average man on the street is a good soul.

Coming back to the Afghans in Coonoor, it is said, that all them did not come to sell dried fruits and spices like they did in the other cities of India. The story goes that an Afghan prince was once interned in Coonoor after one of the Anglo Afghan wars. This is, of course, purely anecdotal but I am sure there are records of this in buried deep in archives somewhere.

It was quite a common practice for the British to exile truant princes to parts of British India, considered safe. Their arrival in Coonoor was part of a grand scheme of things, planned and orchestrated by armchair strategists in Whitehall, who wanted to create a buffer state between the threat of the advancing Russian Empire and British India. 

The prince, it is said, came with his family and retinue of kinsmen, servants and other hangers on. He was housed in one of the bungalows, off Barlows Road. 
My story starts sometime in the mid 1930s when my grandfather was living in Runnymede, a house which is also off Barlows Road.  

A view of Runnymede bungalow from the Coonoor Ghat Road. 

One summer morning, my father’s two elder brothers, who were home from boarding school in Kerala, were out in the garden playing with an air gun. For some time, they shot at the target that their father had set up for them on the lawn but that soon bored them. Then one of them raised the air gun and fired at a passing bird and to his great amazement, he hit the bird.

The bird continued flying though grievously hurt. The boys were excited and followed the bird’s trajectory and arrived breathless at the gates of a big house, where the bird dropped dead. A tall handsome man wearing a strange cap was standing on the lawn and looking down at the dead bird at his feet. As if sensing he was being watched, the man glanced up and saw the two small bobbing heads at the gate.  He walked up to the gate and asked them in very courteously.

The boys entered looking suitably contrite with their heads down. The man asked them if they had shot the bird. When they nodded, he then asked them if they were hungry and how they planned to cook the bird.  The boys were aghast and said that they would never eat this bird. The man then told them, “Don’t kill animals or birds for pleasure, the only time you hunt is if you are hungry or in danger.” The boys picked up the bird and walked back home, rather chastised.  

In course of time, the family became friendly with the Afghans.  My grandmother even supplied them with milk from her dairy.  

 Apparently, the prince did not live there for long as he went away to Europe with his immediate family. The Afghans exiled in India were paid a subsidy by the British. So the guess is that the British stopped the subsidy once the real prince left. The house off Barlows Road continued to be inhabited by some Afghan nobles for quite a while.  When the money ran out they started selling gems, mainly emeralds to some of the local moneylenders.  Soon they ran out of things to sell and they left. The ones who opted to stay back started lending money. Then, I guess, they left too.