U.S.-based anthropologist John C. Roberts traces colonial legacy in Nilgiris

It was his search for traces of a long forgotten and fascinating family member that took U.S.-based anthropologist and genealogist John C. Roberts to Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu two years ago.

Sub-Collector of Tellichery in then British Malabar in 1805, Thomas Hervey Baber is known in Kerala history as the officer who tracked down King Veerapazhassi in dense Wayanad jungles and contained his rebellion using guerrilla warfare. But very little was recorded about Baber’s trek from Thalassery to the Nilgiris in 1824 to meet with John Sullivan, the then British Collector of Coimbatore, who later founded Ooty.

Fascinating account

“I found graves of Baber and Sullivan in Ooty and got access to numerous unpublished burial records of churches in the Queen of Hills. The fascinating account of different British, French and Ango-Indian men and women who lived and died in the Nilgiris during the last two centuries prompted me to write a book of history, tracing the colonial legacy of the hills. With Kozhikode-based journalist N.P. Chekkutty joining me in the project, the research work took its final form after two years,” said Mr. Roberts in an exclusive interaction with The Hindu in Kochi.

The first of its kind book titled, Nilgiri Hills: Christian Memorials 1822-2006, will be released in the second week of February in Udhagamandalam and it would be the first authentic book on the colonial legacy of the hills.

Burials spread over towns

“The Nilgiris which became a major station for the English and other Europeans from the 1820s has burials of thousands spread over various towns across the district like Ootty, Kotagiri, Coonoor, Wellington and Gudalur. The book is a culmination of our two-year comprehensive survey of cemeteries and isolated graves in the district and it would benefit immensely the Anglo-Indian research in India,” said Mr. Roberts.

The South India Research Association (SIRA), a volunteer group of researchers and scholars registered in New York, is publishing the book, which will have about 620 pages, with detailed maps of the cemeteries and of coffee and tea estate locations.

It will also include full-colour reproductions of historical images of the area.

Tracking important tea estates of yore

“Other than chronicling major towns in Nilgiris, the book dwells deep on lesser known destinations of British Raj like Nellakottai, Devala, Nadghani, Pandalur, Aravangadu, Nelliyalam, Ketti, Love Dale and Naduvattom. Important tea estates of the yore like Mayfield, Hope, New Hope and Helen have also been tracked,” said Mr Roberts. It was in fact the second book by Mr. Roberts and Mr. Chekkutty. Last year, they brought out a similar work titled Malabar Christian Memorials 1723-1990 by tracking the graves of North Kerala.

“My grandfather was born and raised in Kolkata. After university in England, he came to the U.S. as a reporter for the Herald Tribune. He settled in Montana where the mountains reminded him of Darjeeling. It was the lore told to me as a child that inevitably took me to India. I came in contact with Mr. Chekkutty after Malayalam film Pazhassiraja had an actor doing the role of Mr. Baber, an in-law. He contacted me for comments and there began the partnership,” said Mr. Roberts.

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