WHEN the unpretentious “matticolly” raised an alarm in the British administrative circles

(A weekly column on the region’s past culled from historical documents.)

“But what on earth is a matticolly?” – a random note on a 1933 file encapsulates the confusion that a mysterious instrument set off. A small fish is all it took to trigger a series of confidential letters alerting officials to keep a close eye on their territory. At the heart of this frenzy was Calicut. The story begins with French Government’s order in November 1932 issued from Pondicherry “forbidding the use in French waters on the Malabar coast of a fishing instrument called ‘matticolly’.”

H.G. Tranchell, the British Consul in Pondicherry, brings the order to the attention of the Chief Secretary in Madras. What a “matticolly” is beats him but he draws attention to the sentence construction in the order. “I do not know what a matticolly is but this information regarding the prohibition of its use in French Indian malabar waters may be of use to the Collector of Malabar.”

What put the British in a quandary is the usage “Malabar coast”. The known French territory in the Malabar was Mahe, but a French loge existed along the beach in Calicut. The British wondered if the French order intended a jurisdiction along the loge.

The order is subsequently forwarded to the District Magistrate of Malabar. In the memo, instructions are given to warn the fishermen. But the pressing issue appears to be the “matticolly.” The Magistrate is assigned the task of obtaining and forwarding to “the Government at an early date a description of the ‘matticolly.’” His attention is also drawn to the expression “Malabar coast” instead of “the more specific expression French waters off the Mahe coast.” Further, the Magistrate is also educated on the history of territorial dispute in the region. The French, the memo says, “claim sovereignty over the loge and the sea as its western boundary.”

The British find themselves in a tight spot here, unsure if they should broach the subject with the French. The Magistrate is told that since there is “nothing explicit” in the order to “show that it covers the waters off the loge, the Government considers it inexpedient to raise with the French the issue of the jurisdiction unless and until the French authorities attempt to take action in the waters opposite the loge at Calicut.”

The magistrate is nevertheless warned to “keep an eye on the doings of the French authorities.” Similar memo goes out to the Director of Fisheries too. The authorities realise trouble will arise if the “French attempt to prosecute anyone for using the ‘matticolly’ off the Calicut coast.”

The correspondence is peppered with references to the Treaty of Versailles and the Treaty of Paris, to throw some light on the matter.

Apart from territorial rights, the British appear intrigued by the “matticolly” about which they get no material. A letter and a reminder are shot off to Tranchell to gather data on this device. In his reply titled “What is a matticolly” to D.H. Elwin, the Under Secretary to Government, Tranchell writes, “I asked his Excellency the French Governor to explain with an illustration, if possible, what a matticolly was. I have not yet heard from him.” After Tranchell sends the Governor a reminder, an exhaustive description of the humble sardine-killer arrives supplemented by a vivid account of the procedure involved.

According to the Governor, “a matticolly consists of small mesh nets from 25 to 30 metres long, made of cotton or hemp threads…with nets of cord.” Catching sardines grow into a ceremony in the Governor’s words. “When shoals of sardines appear on the surface of the sea at a distance of four to five miles from the coast, 100 or 150 fishermen set out in small boats. The fishermen in the first two boats who carry the nets throw them out. As they draw apart the two boats stretch the nets. At the same time the fishermen in the other boats station themselves so as to surround the fish and prevent their escape. They block up all the exits and make an infernal din by banging their boats with the rudders or oars in order to frighten the sardines and crowd them into the nets…” Once the fish is in, the mesh tightens and their gills are caught.

If one wonders why the “matticolly” was banned, the Governor explains, “this mode of fishing causes grave prejudice to the traders in fish of all kinds.” He says, “owing to the infernal din that is made for more than one hour at the time such fishing is going on, not only the sardines, but all kinds of fish, big and small take fright and quit that region…with the result that a dearth of fish on the market ensues and the fishermen suffer severe hardships.”

A month later the Collector of Malabar also gives the Secretary to the Government, a similar explanation of the “matticolly”. He also sends a sketch of the “matticolly” and adds that there has been no interference by the French in the region so far.

The issue appears to come to an amicable solution when the French Governor writes to the British, “to settle once and for all the question of laying down the boundaries of the loge at Calicut.”

Source: Regional Archives, Kozhikode