When the Malabar Collector pitched in strongly for the Canolly Canal

Canolly Canal courses through Kozhikode, a grim shadow of its hey days. Administrators in the recent years have waxed eloquent about rejuvenating the canal that links Kallai and Elathur (Korapuzha) rivers. As plans and proposals wrestle it out, the historic waterway silently endures neglect. The purpose of the canal as a steady source for transportation of goods has long ceased to be memory. The canal named after the enterprising Collector H.V. Conolly who saw through the dream project is now eaten up by scum, hyacinth and urban waste.

Memories of another time

Sheaves of history are dedicated to the canal. The file from 1845 has a compelling letter from the Collector of Malabar in which he makes a strong case for the canal. Though the Collector’s name is not mentioned, it is presumed to be Conolly. The long letter is a case study of the times and the Collector speaks for many in it. At times, he is the dedicated British servant wanting the canal for all the right economic reasons. But one also finds an administrator committed to the local people and determined to make their lives easier. The canal will be a story of gain, he assures. As a final resort he even issues a barbed warning to the administrators.

In the letter written in July 1845 to Captain F.C. Cotton, civil engineer of the 7 division at Ootacamund, the Collector says, “The country will derive great advantage from its execution even if nothing more is done at a future time.” The canal, according to him, is the vital link to an uninterrupted waterway and flourishing trade. “Were this canal of six miles complete we should have an uninterrupted water communication of 134 miles embracing and connecting in its course the two large and important towns of Buddagherry and Calicut,” he writes.

The canal will put an end to the vagaries of the people of the district, he argues. The taluks to the north of Calicut do not grow sufficient grain. “Rice has to be exported from the southern talooks — at present this surplus rice is generally carried by sea during the season when it is open. But to say nothing of the inconvenience and expense incurred by the change from the river to the sea boat.” A new Act also prohibits the transfer of grains five miles seaward “without being subjected to the annoyance of a Custom House.”

The canal, says the Collector, will make these inconveniences passé. It would facilitate transfer of the “produce in a cheap, easy and direct way to the best market — at present few men can afford to export their own grain.” In its absence local cultivators were robbed of profit and buyers forced to spend more. The administrator reveals an in-depth understanding of the way of life in his district. “Their (local cultivators and traders) boats and boatmen admirably adapted for rivers and backwaters are useless in the sea and they must accordingly sell their grains to the coast merchants. He of course requires a profit and the grain reaches the consumer much dearer.”

He mentions that the sea is not open for a third of the year forcing traders to shift the transport of produce from river to land and back when they get to Elathur. “It is to save this I want a canal,” writes the Collector.

In case his letter tends to give the impression that he needs the canal just to rescue local farmers, the Collector is quick to bring in the greater gains to the picture. “The trade between Tiroovanghaddy on the one side and Cootiady on the other 93 miles is very considerable,” he says. The canal will facilitate transport of price goods, be it iron from Palakkad or arrow root from the interiors to the northward districts.

For trade

“Much of the other produce of the northern talooks, cocoanut, hopprahs, oil and in some cases pepper would be brought to Calicut,” he writes. “The coffee of Wynaad now promising to be very considerable article of trade would follow the same channel.” With the greater availability of goods, he says, “the daily supplies required for a large town like Calicut …would become more reasonable from a new source being opened.”

If economics could come in the way, the Collector vows to do his bit to curb expenses. Though the original estimate was Rs. 21,038, the Collector promises to slash it. “The canal is to be cut through a very populous neighbourhood where there is a superfluity of labour, we shall be able to get their rates reduced.” He assures to assume an active role in the building process. “The work which in no place would be more than three miles from my own house would be under my immediate eye.” With the labourers being paid daily bypassing middle men, the Collector believes the workers will settle for reasonable wages.

If this is not going to cause a dip in expenses, the Collector suggests “employment of a large number of convicts.” He appears to have done his home work. He writes, “The jail here would furnish from 50 to 100 men and the Sessions Judge of Coimbatore informs me he can spare 100 from his jail.”

The canal would require one “considerable bridge on the public road” while the smaller bridges, he says, the people could build themselves. “You are aware what a trifle these rough erections cost in Malabar where wood is so plentiful.” As far as land acquisition is concerned, he says, one-third of the land for the canal belongs to the Zamorin who is willing to give it for free. He hopes some of the big land owners will follow suit. All these will make the canal a less expensive project, he hopes. Not wanting to take any chances, the Collector spiritedly makes his final argument. “It may not be unreasonable at such a time to bring to notice the fact that a tax of Rs. 35,000 per annum is levied from these parties on account of a fund (the ferry) which in other countries is dedicated for the improvement of the communication of the district.”

The letter, however, seems to have made the desired impact. A later document from the Public Works Department mentions the Collector’s letter where he “detailed with great force and clearness” the advantages of the canal. The canal work soon gets underway.

(Source: Regional Archives Kozhikode)

(A weekly column on the region’s past culled from historical documents.)

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