When fisherwomen took on a British officer to get back their gold jewels

(A weekly column on the region’s past culled from historical documents)

The poor fisherwomen took on a mighty Englishman and won. The story unfolds in colonial Malabar, in then Cannanore in 1805, and it put the administration in a spot. On one side was a fellow countryman and on the other fisherwomen whose gold jewels were unlawfully taken away from them. The women wanted their prized possessions back and they approached the highest authority they knew, the Sub Collector of Cannanore, to give them justice. With the Sub Collector taking up their cause, the women would get their gold, but the Englishman would get away without even a rap on his knuckles.

The case unfolds in a series of small letters on handmade paper. J.H. Baber, the Sub Collector of Cannanore, updates his superior, the Principal Collector of Malabar, on this curious case. Strangely, it is the man accused by the women of taking away their gold, John Cotgrave, commonly addressed as Captain Cotgrave, who wants Baber to inform the higher authority about the case.

The case unfolds over five days through the letters of Baber and Cotgrave. In his first letter, Baber is very diplomatic, steering away from making any allegations, though the proof is at hand — a translation of the petition filed by the women. He attaches the “petition from the mucqua women who have engaged to supply you with cadjams.” He gives Cotgrave a long rope and says “if the persons against whom they complain” are his employees they have to deliver the items to the owners. It is “unwarrantable”, he writes to take away the jewels of the women.

We get a bit-by-bit account of the incident from the women’s narrative, rather their petition. Choichy, Mangatee, Parashee and other fisherwomen narrate how they supplied the “engineer saib 62,900 cadjams”. If they were to be paid Rs. 417 for their supplies, they were given only Rs. 391. They were deprived of their gold when they went to ask for the balance Rs. 36. Their petition says the engineer ran after them when they asked for the money. “We ran away, he then sent his sepoys after us and ordered them to strip us of our jays — who accordingly took from us our gold ear rings, necklaces and rings from our fingers and afterwards dismissed us without paying us our dues….”

When Cotgrave is confronted by this petition, he chooses to be clipped. In his reply to Baber he toes an official line, “As I have referred this affair to higher authority — I shall merely state for your information that no violence of any kind was committed on the persons of the mucqua women.” To corroborate his version of “the transaction which is falsely set forth in the petition” he sends witnesses to Baber – the “bystanders who were witness of this affair.”

After hearing the witnesses and having got a clearer picture, the Sub-Collector adopts a tougher tone. He writes to Cotgrave. “Having gone through the examinations of the persons you forwarded to me, am concerned to find they correspond so nearly with the representations as set forth in the petition of complaint.” From the petition and the witnesses, Baber gathers that the jewels are in Cotgrave’s possession. He politely says, “As it appears the gold jays are in your possession I will thank you to send them to me in order that they may be returned to the owners.”

Not wanting to ruffle feathers, Baber even attempts to pacify Cotgrave. He writes, “It is equally my wish as duty to afford justice to all parties.” He assures Cotgrave that if there were any attempts in the “present instance to deceive or cheat” he will look into it.

Cotgrave, not yet fully chastened, tells Baber that he will return the gold in his possession if he would get “a receipt for them.” By then, Baber decides to call a spade a spade and puts an end to the matter. “As my object by bringing to your notice the complaint preferred by the mucqua women was to procure restoration of their personal property I have ordered them to you to receive the same.”

In his letter to the Collector, Baber informs the closure of the matter. Articles, he writes, “consisting of ear rings, bangles, necklaces together with some janams of rice” taken from “the women were returned yesterday evening to their owners.”

(Source: Regional Archives Kozhikode)