History When the British invested time and money on water transport in the Malabar
(A weekly column on the region’s past culled from historical documents.)
Waterways were vital to the British. They built and proposed to build many more criss-crossing the region primarily to aid transportation of goods. Hectic canal activities, budget allocation, construction progress and their major architectural mistakes along the way dominate the files of the 1840s and 1850s. The Railway in the Malabar was still some time away and waterways held a heightened role in the imagination of the British.
The Public Works files of the time are peppered with budgets for canals. Canals from Kozhikode to Elathoor, Ponnany to Velyangode, Velyangode and Chowghat, even Ponnany and Cochin and many more were on the agenda. By 1855 some were already done while a lot more were coming up. In a two volume file on the West Coast Canal Project in the Malabar, is a letter, significantly long, from Major F.C. Cotton, Deputy Chief Engineer, Department of Public Works, to his superior, Lieutenant Colonel C.E. Faber, the Chief Engineer. The letter is sent after Cotton embarks on a journey through the canals. He at times waxes eloquent about impeccable work, on occasions describes where they have gone wrong and pushes the case of healthy waterways. More than that, as a page from history, it shows how the waterways were part of life in the mid 19th century.
Cotton’s trip is as per government instructions. He is accompanied by Captain Francis, a civil engineer. On reaching Ponnany, he writes, “At that place we embarked in a canoe and went by the backwaters to Kootye (5 miles) where we came upon the Southern end of the Tanoor Canal.”
The waterways, we gather from the letter, were a marvel, intermingled as the canals were with lakes and rivers. Cotton writes about Tanoor, “We entered the artificial channel by small, but efficient Locks and found the Canal from Kootye to Tanoor in excellent order converted from the winding drain it used to be, into a very straight line with a number of neat wooden bridges, and embankments on either side.”
The significance of these canals for the British becomes obvious when H.V. Conolly, then the Collector of Malabar, receives the engineers at Tanoor. “At Tanoor we were met by Mr. Conolly who accompanied us the following day in a canoe by the canal and rivers to Beypore, so that we had an opportunity of seeing the whole line of communication.”
The path of the journey appears to have been pretty dramatic. He writes, “About a mile above Ponnany the Canal embankments end, and the passage is made by a winding channel through a small lake, above which is the deep cutting through the high land called Pooraparamba.”
Through the journey past canals, natural and man-made, Cotton takes stock of all the structures introduced by the British like the large platform bridge at Keeranellore. “The Teroovengady river was lower than usual for the season and the current was slow, but we made the passage in a heavy canoe with a very lazy crew and reached Beypoor in the evening,” he recounts.
What really interests Cotton is the commercial value of these canals and the extent of its use. He writes, “South of Tanoor we found an active trade on the Canal and in our first day met about 30 laden boats, 18 of which were loaded with goods, imported at Calicut, and on their way to the Bazaar at Palghat.”
The aim of the British apparently was an uninterrupted waterway. Cotton writes: “The state of the Ponnany river does not admit of navigation up the stream beyond Wootapalum where these goods were to be landed, but with the communication as it now is, water carriage will take the place of 65 miles out of the 85 miles of land carriage between Ponnany and Calicut and all the difficult and expensive part of the land communication will have been avoided.”
Cotton also gets into the nitty-gritty of each project. The point Cotton thrusts in his mail is the invaluable contribution the waterways are to transport and communication. The British also never take their eyes off the wealth this region boasts. According to him, “such a line of communication in a country so rich and densely peopled as is this portion of the Malabar will be appreciated by the Government.”
He assures his superiors that the scale of work is worth it. “The work as it now stands is worth far more than has been spent upon it, while the traffic is clearly so considerable as to justify further expenditure,” he writes. He also lays down newer canal proposals and also talks in detail about certain miscalculations in construction like the bridge at Teroovengady which could be ravaged by floods. The rest of the mail is about the expenses incurred on different projects accompanied by explanations about the unforeseen ones. He also advocates that the improvement of Malabar calls for efficient waterways. He writes, “If the improvement of Malabar is to be made by Government we may reckon the gradual increase of this system of canals as a work requiring our constant attention.”
(Source: Regional Archives Kozhikode)