Scrutinising Sullivan 200 years after his arrival in the Nilgiris

The lack of criticism of his policies has always been a source of consternation among indigenous communities

April 14, 2022 08:04 pm | Updated 09:31 pm IST

John Sullivan

John Sullivan | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The Stone House, the first building constructed by John Sullivan in the Nilgiris.

The Stone House, the first building constructed by John Sullivan in the Nilgiris. | Photo Credit: M. SATHYAMOORTHY

It has been two centuries since a small expedition of colonial explorers, led by John Sullivan, made its journey up the Nilgiri Hills. As the Nilgiris prepares to celebrate the bicentenary of the colonial exploration, Sullivan’s legacy, and the transformation of the hills since he first set foot in Udhagamandalam is also under scrutiny.

With the government allocating funds to mark the bicentenary of the colonial exploration, amateur historians and heritage enthusiasts in the Nilgiris have spoken out in favour of the move to mark Sullivan’s contribution to sculpting the district into an international tourist destination that it is today.

Venugopal Dharmalingam, honorary director of the Nilgiri Documentation Center (NDC), said that after building his first camp in Dimhatti near Kotagiri when he first visited the Nilgiris in 1819, Sullivan made his way to Udhagamandalam, then called Ootacamund in 1821. “Finding it more charming and more suitable for a settlement, he purchased the site of an abandoned funerary hamlet of the Todas and built his first house, the Stone House, by 1823. Then other buildings appeared in quick succession, including the settlement’s first church, a small Roman Catholic chapel. Thus was born India’s ‘first Hill Station’,” added Mr. Venugopal.

The Stone House still stands on the Government Arts College premises. Mr. Venugopal said that apart from pushing for the Nilgiris to be developed as a sanatorium for sick European troops in India, Sullivan created the Ooty Lake. “In fact, the Ooty Lake was supposed to be the first among a series of lakes extending to the eastern coast to store water for irrigation and navigation,” he added. Sullivan is also credited with introducing tea, potato and cabbage in the district, the crops that have become the backbone of the local agriculture economy.

While Sullivan’s legacy is intertwined with that of the Nilgiris, the lack of criticism of Sullivan and his successors’ policies has always been a source of consternation among indigenous communities.

Sobha Madhan, an adivasi rights activist from Pandalur, said, “The arrival of Sullivan and the British brought with it the displacement of adivasi communities across the Nilgiris. The British opened up the Nilgiris for commercial exploitation, leading to the influx of labourers and other people, resulting in the further marginalisation of indigenous communities, most of whom continue to live in poverty. While Sullivan is celebrated by non-adivasis, his legacy becomes much more complicated when viewed through the eyes of indigenous communities,” contended Ms. Madhan.

Restoration ecologist Godwin Vasanth Bosco said that while it was true that the commercial exploitation of the Nilgiris was just a matter of time, regardless of Sullivan’s arrival, it was difficult to judge Sullivan’s “complex” legacy without taking into account the serious environmental impact of colonial exploration. “The arrival of Sullivan and the British began the ecological destruction of the Nilgiris. It changed the dynamics between the existing populations in the hills rapidly. While communities dependent on the forest were handicapped by their arrival, others benefitted. But indigenous people who always lived with the forest lost out, while many invasive and alien species eventually made their way to the hills because of British colonists,” said Mr. Bosco.

However, P.J. Vasanthan, a heritage enthusiast from Coonoor, said it was unfair to judge Sullivan and the British’s policies in retrospect. “We cannot pass judgment on a man who lived 200 years ago. Sullivan was a man of the times, who also introduced a lot of the vegetables that are grown in the hills today, while he was also instrumental in getting people to grow tea, which has underpinned the district’s economy for over a century,” he pointed out. The Ooty Lake, though not originally intended as a tourist attraction, attracts lakhs of tourists every year to the district.

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