When the British scoured the mountains and valleys of Malabar for gold

(A weekly column on the region’s past culled from historical documents.)

Gold mines in our neighbourhood may be news for most of us. The idea itself acquires quirky proportions in this age of frenzied gold prices. About 180 years ago, gold was the talking point for the British administration. And the area of focus was Malabar. They scoured our mountains and valleys from Wayanad to Nilambur mining for metal. With whatever they found, they also attempted to monopolise the market, stifling local traders.

In 1831-32, gold mining in the Malabar was embarked upon as serious business and a separate body of employees was earmarked for it with varying levels of authority. A letter from the Revenue Department lays down the norms. “Henry Louis Hugnenin is employed to search for gold in the mountains of Malabar Coast under the immediate control of Lieutenant Woodly Nicholson of the fourth regiment…under the general authority of Major Crewe commanding on the Neelgherries….The Collector of Malabar and Coimbatore be directed to afford Lieutenant Nicholson and Mr. Hugnenin all the aid in the power.”

The agreement between Hugnenin and the British government details the nitty-gritty of booty sharing. Hugnenin is a prime figure at the ground level. According to the agreement signed in February 1831 between “Henry Louis Hugnenin native of Switzerland and Stephen Rumbald Lushington, Governor of Madras and its dependencies” the former is “engaged to search for gold mines in the mountain on the Malabar Coast” on a series of conditions. The mining is done under government expense and Hugnenin “shall receive one half of the gold I may assist in finding and raising during the next 12 months and the same proportion of all gold I may collect from the mountain streams by washing. It shall however be optional with the government to take my share of the produce at the market price of gold.”

Gold mining involved pooling in resources — of capital, machinery and man power. For the foreigners the physical hardships were umpteen. They spent days in untamed jungles, often paving roads and braving the monsoons. Some of them fell seriously ill, but they did not give up the gold hunt. Letters describe mining in Davalacottah and in the mountains variously called Chullymally and Vellimally. This mountain, they write, is the “source of several streams flowing into a branch of Beypore river near Corcatode in which stream a great quantity of gold dust of this district is collected.”

Almost a year after the agreement with Hugnenin was signed, letters arrive for the Collector from the Financial Department about “specimens of gold found in different mines in your district.” Finding quantities of gold here, the British started thinking of acquisition and profits. A letter from Chief Secretary says, “The Collector is ordered to find out in whom the ownership of the mines is invested and what claims require to be satisfied before the government can obtain undisputed possession of the mines or their produce….” If the mines do not belong to what they call the “ruling power” already, the Collector is advised to “obtain at prices not exceeding those specified by Lieutenant Nicholson.” More importantly, it is the gold that has to reach the rulers. The letter to the Collector says, “Forward to the Presidency as much of the gold as can be procured from each of the mine.”

The specimen is basically gathered from three mines — “Corpaul, Nellumboor and Davala.” Details of the find are described by Nicholson in his letter to Crewe. “From Coopul mines three ingots weighing 39 new gold fanams and seven barley corn…from the Hellapumpoya and Poonapoya rivers in Nellumboor valley three ingots weighing 30 new fanams and five barrel corns. From the Kakatode and Churumpoya river under the Mookorty Hills one ingot weighing 13 new gold fanams.”

Once they see the colour of money, the British intends to capture the market. Around Nilambur natives were engaged in mining is small scale. The British intended to be the sole operators. These thoughts are reflected in a letter from Nicholson and Crewe. Aware of the market value, Nicholson writes, “In large bazaars where there is a great demand for gold, its commercial value far exceeds the real value of the metal.” He even works out the profit margin and says the government has a lot to gain here. “The infallible advantage that must accrue to government from monopolising the sale of gold, wherever the metal is found by purchasing it from miners themselves before it can possibly get into other hands,” he writes.

He even suggests keeping vigil around areas where mining is happening to “prevent the gold being smuggled away or purchased by the native merchants.” By choking the local network, the British aimed at monopoly.

A note from the Financial Department in August 1832 says, “the gold found” should be “immediately made over to the Principal Collector of Malabar…and finally remit it to the Treasury.”

Source: Regional Archives Kozhikode

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