Tellicherry is a city in Kannur District situated on the Malabar Coast of Kerala, in South India. Tellicherry is the name given by the British. Its original name was Thalassery. Even this is a distortion of the original references made to this area. After the reign of the Chera dynasty (9th to 12th century), Kerala was broken into small regions under chieftains. The Kolathunadu of which Thalassery was the northern most settlement was referred to as “Thalakkathe”, which literally meant “head” (Thalak) and “direction” (kathe) in the Malayalam.
Tellicherry was known for it’s spices. Even today Tellicherry pepper, ground from locally grown black peppercorns, is famous. There are evidences of trade with Romans, Greeks and Arabians in ancient times. The rulers of Kolathunad were known as Kolathiris and had political and commercial rivalry with the Zamorins in the South. The Zamorin had gained wealth and power with the help of trade with the Arabs. In 1498, they had a Portuguese visitor, Vasco Da Gamma. The Kolathiri extended their offer of trade with the Portuguese with the hope that the Portuguese would help them to acquire wealth and power the same way as Zamorins had with the help of the Arabs.
Even today, the rivalry between Kolathiris and Zamorins are relived in form of folk dance or songs called vadakkanpattu (ballads of North Kerala). Songs and stories about the legendary Kolathunad hero, Thacholi Othenan, who lived in the 16th century, are abounding. Thacholi Othenan is short for Thacholi Meppayil Kunjhu Othenan, i.e. Othenan was born in the family of Manikoth in Thacholi (near present day Vatakara). However, Othenan original name was Udayana. He was an extraordinarily skilled warrior and an exponent of Kalarippayattu (ancient martial art form of Kerala). Even the powerful Zamorin respected him. The Kolathiri’s relations with the Portuguese traders however, soured very quickly due to the Portuguese policy of religious persecution and forcible conversion. Loyalties shifted quickly and an alliance between the Kolathiri and the Zamorin was established and in 1558 against the Portuguese. The Kolathiris came openly into the field against the Portuguese.
The English came to Kerala for trade. They were late entrants for trade as compared to their European compatriots. The first Englishman who came to Kerala is believed to be Master Ralph Fitch. In 1625 A.D, Captain Keeling arrived at Calicut. He concluded a treaty with the Zamorin according to which the English were to assist them in expelling the Portuguese. In return the Zamorin gave the English freedom of trade in their dominions. As the Portuguese withdrew, the English East India Company entered into an agreement where they got access to most Portuguese ports in Kerala. According to James Lawrence book, “Raj: The making and unmaking of British India”, this was how the British entered local politics and ended up colonizing India. They lent their army at a price that local kings/chieftains could never have afforded. Hence, wittingly or unwittingly, this region of Kerala became at testing ground for our colonizers. Yet it would take another hundred odd years before they took direct control of administration.
Nirad Choudhuray in his book “Clive of India”, mentions Thalassery to be the first place that British established a settlement in India. The settlement came up in 1682, after obtainning permission from the Vadakkilamkur, The Prince of Kolattunad. The Keyi family was instrumental in helping the British to establish their settlement in Tellicherry. The Keyi Family procured spices from native farmers and supplied it to the British traders. To carry out trade of a variety of spices such as pepper and cardamom from Thalassery, they built a seaport in Tellicherry. The “Kadalpallam” (Pier) stands as an evidence of trade that took place from Tellicherry. Typical of the British-French rivalry, the French also around this period established a settlement (present day Mahé), south of Thalassery. The two settlements were separated by the river Mahé and suitably nicknamed the English Channel.
A question that comes to mind is whether the coincidence of Vasco Da Gamma landing in Calicut (further South of Mahe) led to these European’s settling in Thalaserry with it’s proximity to the sea or were there any other compelling reasons? A possible answer to this is obtained from various travellers’ diaries which have vividly described Thalaserry of those days. Conrad Malte-Brun in his book “Universal Geography: Or A Description of All Parts of the World“ describes the villages in the region where the houses were built of mud that was well smoothed and painted with roofs thatched with palm leaves to prevent the mud from being washed away by the rains. This was very similar to structures in European villages (nearest possible in India). Also, the Europeans found the climatic conditions amiable.
The natives of this area however, did not approve the British presence and in 1704 they organised a revolt against them. In due course of time (1708), the East India Company fortified their position and built a fort by the sea to protect and control their spice trade. The square fort, with its massive walls, secret tunnels to the sea was an imposing structure. The disintegration of the Kolathiri’s dominion had started and with the death of Prince Udaya Varman in 1746, the English fanned dissensions in the royal family. The British started taking control of more and more area by purchasing land through consorts of the royal family. Tellicherry fort also witnessed attacks by Haider Ali (Mysore) in 1781. Repelling these attacks and to protect their commercial interest both personnel and that of the East India Company, such wars convinced Clive and Hasting the need to take administrations directly into the companies hand.
Finally Tellicherry, Kolathunad and large areas of North Kerala was for administrative purpose given the status of a district, the district of Malabar. Malabar was made a part of the Madras Presidency in 1800. Major Macleod took charge as the first principal collector of Malabar on October 1,1801. The British administration was to evolve a judicial system for Malabar. In fact they had already promulgated a code for the administration of civil and criminal justice in 1793. Malabar district was divided into the District Judgeships of North and South Malabar, with headquarters at Tellicherry and Calicut respectively. Communication saw improvement in the district under the British administration. The coming of the plantation industry in Wynad and Coorg gave a spurt to road building activities in this region. A road from Cannanore to Coorg was constructed in 1848-1851. The construction of the Tellicherry Lighthouse in 1835 as an aid to navigation furthers the importance the Bristish attached to Tellicherry. Lord Murdoch Brown arrived in ‘Ancharakkandy’ (Tellicherry) around 1850 with the East India Company. Gradually, he acquired a lot of landed property in the region. He then started to document the acquired property by systematically measuring the property’s length and breadth. Soon he started maintaining records of demarcating boundaries of properties belonging to the locals. Thus, he created history and gave a new model of administration. This was the modest beginning of the Registration Department. The Madras Presidency recognized the importance of this process of Registration and officially made this Department a part of its administration from 1-1-1865 in Malabar, at Thalassery District Office.
The British also promoted modern education and their missionaries established schools and colleges in Tellicherry. These institutes stand even today. Foremost among them are B.E.M.P High school and Brennen College. B.E.M.P High school (Barsel Evangelic Mission Parsy) is the first English Medium school set up in Thalassery.This was the first school set up at Thalassery founded in the 1851. Brennen College, one of the oldest educational institutions in the region. The college evolved from a school established by English philanthropist Edward Brennen, who had made Thalassery his home. Another important educational institute of Tellicherry is St Joseph’s School which was established as apart of the Holy Rosary Church. The Church itself was established in the early years of 16th century. Herman Gundert, a German missionary who lived in Thalassery, wrote the first Malayalam dictionary (Malayalam-English) in 1872. Even in early 1900’s Tellicherry’s educational institutes retained a reputation and V. K. Krishna Menon was sent to completed his school education from Thalassery Municipal School, even though his father was a very rich man and the family lived in Calicut, nearly 100km south of Tellicherry.
Another contribution of missionaries is even felt today. The high rate of literacy in Kerala and especially in Malabar region has been due to the early efforts of the Missionaries. The missionary Christian Mullar brought a hand press, which printed ‘Malayalam Almanac’, to Illikunnu from Mangalore on 23, October 1945. Muller established the press known as “Tellicherry Mission Press” at Illikkunnu because it was the headquarters of Basal Mission in Thalassery and an Englishman who was a judge of Thalassery had donated a bungalow there for Basal Mission. It was in this bungalow that the hand press was established. It was known in Malayalam as ‘Thalassery Chhapitham’. The books brought out from here also had the inscription as ‘Thalassery Chhapitham’. This press was working till 1864. The Basal Mission brought out the first newspaper in Malayalam, which started publishing from Thalassery in June 1847. It was named “Rajyasamacharam“. Basal Mission activities in North Kerala flourished under Dr. Herman Gundert. Along with the British, came their way of life. As stated in “Blackwoods Edinburgh Magazine” of 1892, `The Englishmen carries his cricket bat with him as naturally as his gun case or his India rubber bath.
Colonel Arthur Wellesley (Waterloo fame) is believed to have brought the game to this Malabar region town in the late 1790s. For a long time Tellicherry was the only Ranji Tropy playing centre of Kerala. It was here that the British also introduced cakes and the Mambally Bakery established in 1880 still stands, a testimony of history. Along with cultural influences, the British traders also took female companions from the local population. This resulted in a small population whose features were distinctly different from the natives of the region. However, such influences were not just after the advent of the British in 1640’s. Migratory population and traders/visitors from abroad mingled with the local population. The Arab influence on the local population is distinct. Also, around 1360 AD families of Saraswats Brahmins, from North settled in Tellicherry. Even today, descendants of these Saraswats Brahmins live as a small community near Mukunda Talkies in Tellicherry. Most of them were engaged in trade of selling flowers for marriages and temple offerings. Today there is much scientific interest in studying how far and how much genetic mixing might have taken place.
Diasporas of Tellicherry are now all over the world, achieving a name for themselves and contributing to their new home. A notable mention is Singapore’s third president, C. V. Devan Nair, who hailed from Thalassery.
Today’s Tellicherry is just another crowded city bursting at its seams and lost in the crowd of urbanization fast losing its identity. Yet, with its many firsts, it truly has been the Gateway for Modern India.