WHEN a nonchalant usage by a Collector’s official invited the Zamorin’s wrath

Caste prejudices have long cast a shadow on our history. By the mid-19th century laws were in place to mitigate slavery in its different forms, but the prejudices in the mind were harder to erase. Archival files often deal with the subject of caste. Many involve granting or prohibiting permission to use what were public pathways.

But how impregnable a malice caste was is depicted in two letters written to the Zamorin by the Collector of Malabar. Caste remained a touchy topic and the natives refused to let go off it even when it came to administrative matters. The personal and the official intermingled in strange ways. The files of 1853-54 clips the outgoing letters and in two of them written by H.V. Conolly, the then Collector of Malabar, he tries to assuage the Zamorin who believes he has been slighted by a Collector’s official.

In the first letter written in November 1853, the Collector tries his best to wipe away what he understands to be a misunderstanding on the Zamorin’s part. In the letter addressed to “His Highness the Zamorin Rajah of Calicut,” Conolly describes the verifications he has carried out over the Zamorin’s claims. The issue apparently involved an official addressing the Zamorin as ‘Rajah’ instead of ‘Tampuran’. The caste colours at play cannot be overlooked.

Tight rope walk

In these letters we come across a determined Conolly. He does not want to miff the Zamorin, yet not appear to be willing to dance to his tunes. By way of explanation, Conolly writes, “I spoke to the second Sheristadar, he disclaims altogether any intention of insulting you by using the word Rajah in speaking to you on certain occasion.” Conolly prefers to stand up for his official and also does not forget to put in a word of praise for the said Sheristadar. He adds, “This disclaimer appears to me as reasonable – he is too wise a man to use improper language.”

Conolly goes onto dissect the term ‘Rajah’ and its possible interpretations. “It does not seem that the term Rajah (and especially when used in the plural) conveys anything like disrespect,” he writes. He augments his argument with practical examples. He writes, “We speak continually of the Rajah of Travancore or the Queen of England without certainly intending any disrespect to those distinguished personages.”

He agrees that when it comes to letters and formal writings one “should no doubt use more formal modes of expression – that is to say – we should give adjuncts to the title of King or Queen.” But in regular conversations he asserts the term ‘Rajah’ will do for the Zamorin.

It is from Conolly’s second letter to the Zamorin written on January 11, 1854, that one realises that the first letter has not put matters to rest. The Zamorin’s pride was bruised by the nonchalant address of Conolly’s official and he takes the matter further. Greater details to the trigger that led to the first letter become clear in the second. It is from this one that one realises that caste was at the root of the matter. Conolly, in fact, makes an explicit mention of this in his reply to the Zamorin.

Pacifying the Zamorin

Taking off from the Zamorin’s letter, Conolly writes, “…You expressed your opinion that Teers (presumably Thiyyas) of whatever rank or station should be made to use the word tamburan ie, Lord or Master whenever they have occasion to name you.”

Here, Conolly stays put and refuses to budge to the Zamorin’s demand. He instead tries to reason with the Zamorin and attempts to drive in the point that government orders are not made on whim. “I do not think the British Government would authorise an order that persons of one cast (sic) should employ a phrase expressive of inferiority in speaking of a person of another cast (sic) however exalted,” he writes.

Yet again, he banks on the norms in England to elaborate his assertion. He writes, “There is no law in England to compel the lowest person in the realm to use a particular term in speaking of the very highest person.” He argues that such epithets in conversation are merely a matter of “social breeding and must be left to the individual feeling.”

Conolly again pitches in for his official. We gather that the Sheristadar has not called the Zamorin ‘Rajah’ while in conversation with him. Instead, he was talking about the Zamorin to one of his people. Conolly writes, “The second Sheristadar disclaims any intention of disrespect in speaking of you while in conversation with one of your people as the Rajah (with the honorific plural).”

What happened in the matter further is unknown. Probably this firm reply from Conolly, a copy of which he marks to the Board in Madras, closed the matter.

(Source: Regional Archives Kozhikode)

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

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