Skip to main content Accessibility help

Out of the Shadow, into the Spotlights. The ‘Indigenous’ Aspects of Plantation Development; the Case of the Emergence of Syrian Christian Planters in Princely Travancore in the First Half of the Twentieth Century*

  • Paul E. Baak (a1)


In the fascinating debate between Jan Breman and Vincent Houben following the former's publication Koelies, Planters en Koloniale Politiek, both authors seem to agree on at least one point: the great value of John R.W. Smai's approach to the writing of Asian history. The historian's perspective should be from within Asia. Although Smail's ideas became widely accepted among scholars, I would like to stress that his thoughts were hardly ever put into actual practice, especially with regard to plantation development. But let me elaborate on that a little further.



Hide All


1 Breman, J., ‘Controversial Views on Writing Colonial History’, Itinerario XVI/2 (1992) 57.Houben, V., ‘Colonial History Revisited; A Response to Breman’, Itinerario XVII/1 (1993) 9697. Cf. Smail, J.R.W., ‘On the Possibility of an Autonomous History of Modern Southeast Asia’, Journal of Southeast Asian History, 2 (1961) 72102.

2 Cf. Baak, P.E., ‘The Conference on Capitalist Plantations in Colonial Asia, September 26–29 1990, Amsterdam; A Report’, South Asia Research 11/1 (May 1991), and in: Archipel 42. The Journal of Peasant Studies 19/3 and 4 (1992), Special Issue on Plantations, Proletarians and Peasants in Colonial Asia.

3 The Indian Trade Journal (1921) 10

4 Harler, , The Culture and Marketing of Tea (London 1956) 247.Griffiths, P., The History of the Indian Tea Industry (London, 1967) 170, 178179.

5 Harler, , Culture and marketing, 248249.Griffiths, , Indian Tea Industry, Ch. 15 and Ch. 36.

6 The calculations were based on the figures provided in: United Planters Association of Southern India (UPASI), The Planting Directory of Southern India (1925) 88114; UPASI, The Planting Directory of Southern India (1934) 126176; UPASI, The Planting Directory of Southern India (1948) 107142 and 144.

7 Cf. Mahadevan Nadar, S., ‘Commercialisation of Agricultural Products and the New Economic Order in Travancore’, Journal of Kerala Studies VII (1980) 220.

8 Clay, R., Rubber in Southern India (London, 1911) 18.Ghosh, H.H., The Realm of Rubber (Calcutta, 1928) 136.UPASI, Planting Directory (1948) 4.

9 UPASI, , Planting Directory (1960) 439. Cf. Clay, , Rubber, 23.Hatch, E.G., Travancore (London 1939) 107.Haridasan, V., ‘Early History of Rubber Planting in India’, Rubber Board Bulletin 12/3 (1975) 119.

10 The Malankara Rubber and Produce Co., Ltd., 1910–1961; A Short History (Kottayam 1961) 2.

11 See respectively Proudlock, R.L., Report on the Rubber Trees at Nilambur and at Calicut, South Malabar (1908) 47, and Clay, , Rubber, 23; minutes Mundakayam Rubber Planters’ Association 13 January 1912.

12 Figures obtained from various Tea Share Manuals, in: MSS Eur F 174 (India Office Library and Records — IOL&R).

13 The Plantation Enquiry Commission — Rubber (1956) 1–2. Unny, and Jacob, George, Rubber Small Holdings in India (Kottayam 1972) 12; Haridasan, V., ‘Rubber Plantation Industry in India; First World War to Independence’, Rubber Board Bulletin 15/3–4 (1978) 6366.

14 Ghosh, , Realm of Rubber, 149.UPASI, Planting Directory (1960) 440.

15 The calculations were based on the figures provided in: UPASI, Planting Directory (1925) 88114 and (1934) 126–176.

16 Shortly after Indian Independence, the official definition of an estate was above 100 acres. Later, the acreage was brought down to 50 acres. Because most tea and rubber holdings with an acreage of 10 or more require the use of wage labour, my concepts differ from the official ones.

17 Unny, and Jacob, George, Rubber Small Holdings, Ch. 8.

18 Interview: M. Mathew.

19 The calculations were based on the figures provided in: UPASI, Planting Directory (1925) 88114, (1934) 126–176, (1948) 107–142 and 144.

20 In 1948, the UPASI enumeration, with the exception of 8 cases, did not include the category small holdings: 447 acres in the case of tea and 39,246 acres (!) in the case of rubber. Especially with regard to rubber, the number of holdings covering less than 10 acres was therefore much higher in reality. Taking these holdings on an average of 5 acres, almost 8,000 rubber cultivators belonged to that category in 1948.

21 The Malankara Rubber and Produce Co., Ltd, 1910–1961, 2. Cf. Haridasan, ‘Early History’, 119. Menon, however, stated that Palampadam Thomas was the first Travancorean to open-up a rubber estate. See Menon, K.P.S., Many Worlds Revisited; An Autobiography (Bombay 1981) 66.

22 The calculations were based on the figures provided in: UPASI, Planting Directory (1925) 88114, (1934) 126–176, (1948) 107–142 and 144.

23 For example, some British planters did not join the British planting association in their district (see the figures with regard to 1925 and 1934) and some British entrepreneurs individually owned an estate (consult the data concerning 1948). Moreover, the emergence and gradual growth of the indigenous segment remained within a framework dominated by foreign interests. Trade in plantation products was virtually monopolised by the so-called coastal firms.

24 UPASI, Planting Directory (1925) 92.

25 The Syrian Christians claim to be the descendants of Namboodiri Brahmins who were converted by Thomas, ‘the doubting apostle’, after his arrival in India.

26 Especially in the 18th century, the Nayars dominated the military, economic and political life in southwest India.

27 The calculations were based on the figures provided in: UPASI, Planting Directory (1925) 88114, (1934) 126–176, (1948) 107–142 and 144. More detailed references to sources will be provided in my forthcoming dissertation.

28 The calculations were based on the figures provided in: UPASI, Planting Directory (1925) 88114, (1934) 126–176, (1948) 107–142 and 144. More detailed references to sources will be provided in my forthcoming dissertation.

29 Chiriyankandath, J.L., Sodai Change and the Development of ‘Modern’ Politics in Travancore: From the Late 19th Century to 1938 (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, London 1985) 114. European religious influences divided the Syrian Christian community into three major sections. First, catholic missionaries stimulated the foundation of the Syrian Catholic Church. Later, the influence of protestant missionaries caused the emergence of the independent, so-called Mar Thoma Church. In contrast to the Syrian Catholics and the Marthomites, the (orthodox) Jacobites remained loyal to the Syrian patriarchs in western Asia.

30 In the late 1910s or early 1920s, Brander was killed by a local cultivator. Illustrative for the attitude of many European planters, the former thought to encroach on the latter's land and to get away with it. Ultimately, Brander's properties were auctioned and bought by the father of K.T. Thomas, the secretary of the Central Travancore Agricultural Association (interview: K.T. Thomas and T.J. Joseph).

31 The Malankara Rubber and Produce Co., Ltd, 1910–1961, 2. Haridasan, , ‘Early History’, 119. Interestingly, P.J.John's son, named P. KurianJohn and also a rubber planter, was first appointed as the controller of the Rubber Regulation Committee in India (1934) and later as the rubber production commissioner of the Indian Rubber Production and Marketing Board (1942).

32 UPASI, Planting Directory (1925) 106, (1934) 160–161, (1948) 122.

33 UPASI, Planting Directory (1925) 92–3 and 104–7; interview: Abraham Kurien and Abraham Eapen.

34 See for example: Jeffrey, R., The Decline of Nayar Dominance: Soaety and Politics in Travancore, 1847–1908 (New Delhi 1976) 127 and 202; Michael Tharakan, P.K., Migration of Farmers from Travancore to Malabar, 1930 to 1960: An Analysis of its Economic Causes (unpublished M.Phil, thesis, Trivandrum 1976) 44.Chiriyankandath, , Social Change, 113; Mahade-van, Raman, ‘Industrial Entrepreneurship in Princely Travancore: 1930–1947’, in: Bhattacharya, S. ed., The South Indian Economy; Agrarian Change, Industrial Structure and Slate Policy, c. 1914–47 (Oxford 1991) 170172.

35 Interview: Kurien, N.E. and Elias, N.K.. Joseph, K.V., Migration and Economic Development of Kerala (New Delhi, 1988) 132.Menon, , Many Worlds, 67.

36 Lewandowski, S., Migration and Ethnicity in Urban India; Kerala Migrants in the City of Madras, 1870–1970 (New Delhi 1980) 35.Chiriyankandath, , Sodai Change, 113; interview: K.T. Thomas and T.J. Joseph.

37 Quoted in: Haridasan, V., Management of Plantations; A Study of Rubber (Changanacherry 1992) 34.

38 Quoted in: ibidem, 34–35.

39 Quoted in: ibidem, 35.

40 Varghese, T.C., Agrarian Change and Economic Consequences; Land Tenures in Kerala 1850–1960 (Bombay 1970) 119.Chiriyankandath, , Social Change, 113.

41 Varghese, , Agrarian Change, 103.Tharakan, , Migration of Farmers, 44.Chiriyankandath, , Sodai Change, 110.Joseph, , Migration, 136.

42 Interviews: Abraham Kurien and Abraham Eapen; N.E. Kurien and N.K. Elias; K.T. Thomas and T.J. Joseph.

43 Travancore Banking Enquiry Committee, Report (1930) Ch. 3, Ch. 12 and Ch. 13. The Malankara Rubber and Produce Co., Ltd., 1910–1961, 3. Tharakan, , Migration of Farmers, 25; Oommen, M.A., ‘Rise and Growth of Banking in Kerala’, Social Scientist 5 (19761977).Nadar, Mahadevan, ‘Commercialisation’, 223; Chiriyankandath, , Social Change, 112114; Mahadevan, Raman, ‘Industrial Entrepeneurship’, 170172.

44 Cf. Baak, P.E., ‘Planters' Lobby in Late 19th Century; Implications for Travancore’, The Economic and Political Weekly, XXVII/33, 15 August 1992.

45 Travancore Land Revenue Manual (TLRM) II (1915) 256–260 and 336–337. Cf. Bundle No.7: 1174/21 (Kerala State Archives - KSA); Tharakan, , ‘Migration of Farmers’, 50.Pandian, M.S.S., The Political Economy of Agrarian Change; Nanchilnadu 1880–1939 (New Delhi 1990) 7980 and 82–84.

46 Quoted in: Haridasan, , Management of Plantations, 34.

47 Quoted in: ibidem, 34–35.

48 Minutes Mundakayam Planters' Association 24June 1916.

49 Fortnightly Reports on the Political Situation in the Madras States for the Year 1927, in: R/1/1/1644 (IOL&R).

50 Interestingly, either Watts himself or family members of his owned coffee estates in Peermade (R/2/884/147 - IOL&R).

51 Confidential letter of G. Brooke, Chairman of Brooke Bond and Company, to Watts, dewan, dated 15 July 1926, in: R/2/884/163 (IOL&R).

52 Proceedings of the Economic Development Board dated 13 November 1926, in: R/2/884/163 (IOL&R).

53 Proceedings of the Travancore Legislative Council dated 24 November 1926, in: R/2/884/163 (IOL&R).

54 Letter Silu Parvati Bayi, maharani, to Cotton, the agent to the governor general, Madras states, dated 19 February 1927, in: R/2/884/163 (IOL&R).

55 Proceedings of the Sri Mulam Popular Assembly dated 21 and 23 February 1927, in: R/2/884/163 (IOL&R).

56 Memorial presented to M.E. Watts, dewan, in: R/2/884/163 (IOL&R).

57 Fortnightly Reports on the Political Situation in the Madras States for the Year 1927, in: R/1/1/1644 (IOL&R).

58 Letter of Brooke Bond and Company to Watts, dewan, dated 9 June 1927, in: R/2/884/ 163 (IOL&R).

59 Dis. No. 807/29/Rev, from chief secretary to government to the land revenue and income tax commissioner dated 16 May 1929, in: TLRM II Suppl. 3 (1935) 75, and Cf. TLRM II Suppl. 5 (1950) 383.

60 R/1/1/2238 (IOL&R).

61 Minutes Mundakayam Planters' Association 24 June 1916; UPASI, Planting Directory (1925) 139.

62 UPASI, Planting Directory (1934) 135, 143, 159, 163 and 175. Weekly Secret Bulletin 1934 No.l: § 201 (KSA). Hatch, , Travancore, 104105.

63 Weekly Secret Bulletin 1934 No.l: §155, 167, 201 and 220 (KSA), and Cf. proceedings Travancore Sri Mulam Assembly (TSMA) 28 July 1934, proceedings Travancore Sri Chitra State Council (TSCSC) 15 August 1934.

64 Regulation II of 1109, dated 6 March 1934, in: Regulations and Proclamations of Travancore (RPT) VII, 614–617; later changed into Act XV of 1119, dated 5 March 1944, in: RPT XIV 122–138.

65 Proceedings TSCSC 9 August 1937.

66 TLRM II Suppl. 4 (1943) 524–525 and Cf. 538–539, 678.

67 Vamna, Bala Rama, Speeches and Messages (Trivandrum 1938) 103.

68 Proceedings TSCSC 9 December 1936.

69 Proceedings TSMA 19 and 20 November 1936. Proceedings TSCSC 9 December 1936; Regulation II of 1112, dated 25 December 1936, in: RPT IX, 25–35.

70 Regulation XXI of 1115, dated 16 February 1940, in: RPT XI, 814–831.

71 Plantation Enquiry Commission - Rubber (1956) 99.

72 Proceedings TSMA 19 November 1936; and Cf. proceedings TSMA 20 November 1936 and 24 June 1939.

73 Weekly Secret Bulletin 1937 No. 4: §105 (KSA); proceedings TSCSC 11 August 1939.

74 UPASI, Planting Directory (1960) 214387; interviews: V. Haridasan; P.K. Michael Tharakan; Tharian George.

75 Cf. Das Gupta, A., Malabar in Asian Trade; 1740–1800 (Cambridge 1976) 21.

76 As some might have noticed, the discussion regarding plantation development is closely related to the debate with regard to the nature and implications of colonialism, both in south and southeast Asia. Regarding the former region, I find the ideas of C.A. Bayly and other scholars of the so-called Cambridge School highly inspiring. Indeed, state formation, like plantation development, are continuous processes in the history of south Asia, and in that sense not particularly related to the colonial period. On the other hand, and in this I agree with Ranajit Guha and other members of the Subaltern Group, I realise that for south Asians the British Raj, as well as the dominance of the European planters, meant a fundamental break in their history (Cf. P. Chatterjee, , The Nation and its Fragments; Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (Princeton 1993) 2734).

* Firstly, I would like to thank Nannu Antony, Dr. J.L. Chiriyankandath, Dr. V. Haridasan, Dr. Raman Mahadevan and Motty Philipose for their information regarding the community background of local planters. Furthermore, Dr. D. Kooiman (Free University, Amsterdam) and Dr. D. Kolff (University of Leiden) contributed by reading an earlier draft of this paper critically. Lastly, I am indebted to the organizers of the 18th Annual Conference of the Social Science History Association (Baltimore, U.S.A., 4-7 November 1993) and those of the 1st Annual Social Science History International Intervising Network (Baltimore, U.S.A., 7 November 1993) for providing me with the oppportunity to present my findings to a wider audience.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO

Out of the Shadow, into the Spotlights. The ‘Indigenous’ Aspects of Plantation Development; the Case of the Emergence of Syrian Christian Planters in Princely Travancore in the First Half of the Twentieth Century*

  • Paul E. Baak (a1)


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.