Chronicling Fort Kochi’s History

Review of Fort Kochi – History and Untold Stories; Tanya Abraham; Ink on Paper; Rs 350; pp 108

– Shana Susan Ninan

Published in 2009, journalist and writer Tanya Abraham’s Fort Kochi – History and Untold Stories chronicles several years of history of this part of the city. Surely a handy guide for locals and tourists alike, it engages us with historical details as well as relevant personal anecdotes and incidents. She has researched well, with first-hand information from her grand uncle K.J. Hercshel, who was a well-known figure in Kerala politics, to put across the history of the town in a story-like manner.

The book is divided into eight major sections. At a time when the city is under the spell of the Muziris Biennale, ‘Kodungallur and Cochin’ takes us back to the time before Christ when Muziris, present day Kodungallur, was a sprawling seaport, which traded with Rome, Israel, Greece, China, Arabia and other areas of the world.

‘Writings and Record on Muziris’ and ‘Flood of 1341 AD and Rise of Cochin’ tells us how Muziris wound to a slow death while Kochi flourished in its new fame. Located at the mouth of the mighty Periyar River, the port was inundated in a flood in 13 AD, was rendered useless. Muziris’ loss was Kochi’s gain, so to say, because Kochi now developed as a major port. All trade moved this side, and the city was the hub of commerce – spices, silk and many other items were traded from here. Abraham quotes several historians and travellers who have visited Kochi and was mesmerised by it. By and by, the city also changed its topography according to the traders and travellers who visited it.

The arrival of the ‘Paradesi’ White Jews to Kodungallur after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem is what Abraham starts with in ‘Fort Cochin in Focus’. The rise of the Jews once they move to Kochi, prominence of Konkanies and Mapillas, and close resemblance of the life of the Mapillas’ to that of those in Arabia are all mentioned here.

‘Portuguese in Cochin: 1498 AD to 1662 AD’ portrays how the Zamorin of Calicut welcomed Vasco da Gama and his crew in 1498 AD, helped them establish trade relations and allowed Pedro Alvares Cabral’s stranded men to continue living in Calicut and to make a life there. Sugar, spices, cotton and jewels were traded from here. The Portuguese gain importance in their allegiance to the Zamorin as well as the raja of Cochin, alternatively, and this helps them to move to base to Cochin, whose influence can still be seen today. Intermarriages and forced conversions to Christianity find space in the book. It is interesting to note that in 1545 the largest library in Asia was located here in Cochin!

In ‘The Dutch: 1663 AD to 1785 AD’, we can see how the Dutch defeated the Portuguese in Cochin and gained control of the trade reigns. In the early 17th century, the Dutch has established commercial relations with Calicut, and in 1661, after capturing the Fort Vypeen, they move to Cochin. The raja of Cochin helps the Dutch secure positions here for a return favour of ousting the Portuguese. What follows is the destruction of Portuguese-built churches, convents and buildings by the Dutch.

In 2007, in Fort Cochin, Abraham had met Diarmuick McCormick, who lived in India as a young soldier in the Company. Beginning with his account of life in Fort Cochin then, in ‘British Cochin and Indian Independence:  1795 AD to 1947 AD’, Abraham introduces us to the British conquest of Cochin, and life thereafter. St Francis Church was supposed to be blown up by the British, but was left alone after a change of mind of the officer in charge. Imagine – this church was built in 1503 as a small chapel by Portuguese friars, then strengthened; it even withstood the Dutch rule, later being changed to a protestant church under the British! This and many other interesting events are explained in this section.

‘British Challenged’ is the last section and an account of the mutinies and outbursts the British had to deal with from locals. After explaining the revolts and freedom movements in Cochin, Abraham closes the book thus:

Although the bristles of change have brushed upon it, the town continues to flourish, and exists uniquely. A town, perhaps, like no other.

The last several pages of the book contains photos and paintings of Fort Cochin and nearby areas during the three rules, maps and documents of the area, and even a photo of a Chinese Fishing Net taken in the early 20th century: they still look the same as they did then. The contraptions and methods used haven’t been altered a bit!

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Rating: 8.6/10 (11 votes cast)
Chronicling Fort Kochi's History, 8.6 out of 10 based on 11 ratings

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, March 19th, 2013 at 10:03 pm and is filed under History, Memoir. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

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