Madras Miscellany Society

Discussing the Tamil diaspora

Just back from a three-day seminar on the Tamil Diaspora organised by Manonmaniam Sundaranar University and was pleased to note the interest shown in wishing to study further these first emigrations after the arrival in Asia of those who were to go on to become the colonial powers. In those 500 years, the first migrants were the Tamils from India’s southern districts who went to Ceylon. Whereas this Tamil labour and business migration to the island nation from the c.1800 has been studied to some extent, virtually nothing has been done to learn more about South Indian Tamil migration to Ceylon during Portuguese and Dutch times. The numbers in British times were of course much more, being in the hundreds of thousands, but both the Portuguese and the Dutch did take, not only to Ceylon but to points further east, South Indian Tamils for clerical and house work, and they were not exactly a few. The Ondaatje family, well-known in literary circles, for instance, does have South Indian Tamil roots, probably from the Nagapattinam area from where a lot of the Colombo Chetties (quite different from the Nattukkottai Chettiars) came.

Another question that cropped up was where do you find in India the names of these emigrants. There were sailing lists in the Archives in Madras of Indians (including Tamils) going to South Africa and the Caribbean, I had been told by researchers from these areas who came to Madras some years ago, And I know there was a plantation labour office in Trichinopoly at one time (dealing with labour to Ceylon rather a while after the first emigrations and when the industry had become organised). But all these lists were mainly names spelt any which way and where they were hended; a few had even places of origin (if you could decipher the spellings). How would such lists, even if found, help research further? I know of one South African who was lucky and traced his roots, but a social study is more than tracing family roots. Unless there are memories, once or twice removed, of an old-timer or two who can remember reasons for migration and what it was like in the receiving countries.

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Another early labour leader

The beginning of the trade union movement in Madras and who its leaders were (Miscellany, November 23, 2015) is getting me more and more confused. I’ve just now come across yet another name of a leader and information that there were a couple of trade unions established before the Madras Labour Union was founded. The MLU has generally been accepted as the first trade union in India. But now I’m being made to ask questions.

The new name I’ve come across is that of P M Audikesavalu Naicker. I have not been able to find out anything about his background, but it is claimed that he joined the labour movement in 1916 and that year became the President of the Madras & South Mahratta Railway Young Men’s Trade Union that he founded. I also learn that he organised and headed the Massey & Company Employees’ Union and the Madras Kerosene Oil Workers’ Union. It is further stated that in 1917 he led a strike by the North Madras Workers’ Union. This is described as the first strike in Madras. A biographical paper on Naicker states that he played a part in the WIMCO factory workers’, the B & C Mills’ and the Massey & Co strikes.

Now, the Madras Labour Union, which came into existence in March 1918, has always been considered the first trade union in the country. What happens to that record if all the other dates mentioned above are correct?

Apart from the MLU, other major trade unions in Madras in the early days were the Madras Tramway’ Men’s Union started in 1919 and the M&S.M. Railway Employees Union also established in 1919. Naicker is stated to have been involved with them as well as with the PWD Employees’ Union (1927) and the Kerosene Oil Workers’ Union (1927).

It’s quite a record, but how is it he is not mentioned in the same breath as G Selvapathy Chettiar, Thiru Vi Kalyanasundaram Mudaliar, M Singaravelu Chettiar and G Chakkarai Chetty? Would someone please explain this to me?

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When the postman knocked…

Reader N Sreedharan reminds me that tomorrow is the 161 birth anniversary of G Subramania Aiyar and this year is the 100 anniversary of his death. As an admirer of Aiyar I have written enough about him so I won’t say much more except to acknowledge that one thing Dr. Sreedharan has to tell me is something I did not know. All references to Aiyar usually state that he was a teacher before he started The Hindu with five others from Triplicane. But I now learn he was something more. Apparently he was the headmaster of a school at a very young age and went on to start another which has become an institution. After undergoing teacher-training on completion of his Intermediate, he indeed became a teacher at the Church of Scotland Mission School. He moved on to Pachaiyappa’s School. While teaching at these institutions he completed his B.A. as a private candidate. Next we find him as the headmaster of the Anglo-Vernacular School in Triplicane and moving on to start the Aryan High School (now Hindu High School, Triplicane). His stint at the Aryan High School was marked by a display of his liberalism, or should we say reformist spirit: he admitted `Mohammedan’ and `Untouchable’ children to the School, to the chagrin of many a parent. Feeling that to educate the elders as much as he thought it was necessary to educate the young, he led his friends into starting The Hindu, says Dr. Sreedharan.

Drawing attention to restoration work going on at the Indian Overseas Bank headquarters building on Mount Road, Dharmalingam Venugopal who worked with the Bank for many years and now has the time to concentrate on his first love, the heritage of the Nilgiris, wonders whether this restoration will result in a change of the façade. When it was built, designed by Bennett Pithavadian and built by L & T's E.C.C, it was the second highrise on Mount Road and a much more aesthetically striking building than the LIC building. Work on the latter and approval of its preliminary design was initiated by M.Ct.M. Chidambaram Chettiar in 1953. His son, M.Ct. Muthiah, was responsible for the IOB building (inaugurated in 1964).

A recent communication from Dr. A Raman, my Australian correspondent, says that he should correct himself on something he had informed me about Dr Pulney Andy earlier (Miscellany, March 11, 2013). He had told me at the time that Dr Pulney Andy was the first Indian to get a medical degree, an M D from St. Andrew’s University. He now finds that the first was Dr. P. Shortt, an Anglo-Indian from Madras Medical College who got his MD from Aberdeen University, Scotland, six years before Pulney Andy. Dr Shortt made an immense contribution to scientific writing in India – and more of this anon.

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