Fort Kochi and Mattancherry journal, Part 8: European descendants fight to retain their identity and rights

Kochi was the only city in India to be controlled by three colonisers — the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British — who ruled the port city of Kerala consecutively since 1560.

TK Devasia May 24, 2017 16:22:23 IST
Fort Kochi and Mattancherry journal, Part 8: European descendants fight to retain their identity and rights

Editor's Note: Fort Kochi and Mattancherry, 10 kilometres to the west of Ernakulam, were once bustling commercial hubs till the late 20th Century. Today, the various ethnic communities that had made this place home are struggling to stay relevant, trying to keep their businesses and traditions. In this multi-part series, Firstpost looks at these communities and their place in the history of Mattancherry. This is the concluding part of the series. 

Kochi was the only city in India to be controlled by three colonisers — the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British —  who ruled the port city of Kerala consecutively since 1560. The descendants of the colonisers, the most important legacy of the European powers, today are struggling hard to retain their identity, culture and traditions.

The Constitution of India has crushed their separate identity by clubbing them together as Anglo-Indians. Since the time of the country's Independence, the state had descendants of all three colonisers and there was a strong demand in the Constituent Assembly for separate consideration of a community that traced their origin to the Portuguese.

This was because the Portuguese descendants, who came from inter-marriages of Portuguese men with Kerala women, had a sizable presence in Kochi. This marriage even resulted in the formation of a mixed race named ‘Luso-Indians'. The word Luso derived from Lusitania, the former name of Portugal.

The Luso-Indians had objected to the community being named as Anglo-Indian, but Frank Anthony, member of the Constituent Assembly and other British descendants pushed for the new name, overriding the demand of the Portuguese descendants.

Fort Kochi and Mattancherry journal Part 8 European descendants fight to retain their identity and rights

Indo-Portuguese Museum at Fort Kochi. Photo courtesy: Kerala Tourism department.

Charles Dias, who represented the Anglo-Indians in the Lok Sabha as a nominated member from Kerala, believes that the Luso-Indians did not get the recognition as they had sizable presence only in Kerala. The former MP, who conducted a study on the social history of Luso-Indians, said that they deserved special consideration as they had occupied a prominent role in the Kerala society.

Compared to other parts of India, Kerala had only a small number of British descendants, who were found mostly at Thangaserry area of Kollam, Charles said in his study entitled ‘Social history of Luso-Indians in Kerala’. The study said that the community had developed from mixed marriages between British officers, squaddies, tea planters and railway workers and local Kerala women in the 19th Century.

The Dutch, who came to Kochi in 1663, contributed to the strength of Luso-Indians with their men entering into wedlock with the Portuguese descendants. Though the Dutch men had connection with local Thiya women they preferred marriage with only girls of mixed blood. The progenies of the mixed marriage between Kerala women and the entire Europeans were together called Eurasians.

Fort Kochi, which is one of the earliest Portuguese settlements in India, is known as the cradle of the Eurasian culture. The area has a history of more than 500 years of European connection, which started with the arrival of Portuguese navigator Pedro Alvares Cabral in 1500. After Vasco da Gama, who arrived at Calicut in 1498, Cabral was the second Portuguese to come to Kerala.

Cabral founded the first European settlement on Indian soil at Kochi. The first Portuguese trading station was established in 1502. In 1503, the Portuguese viceroy Afonso de Albuquerque built Fort Emmanuel, the first European fort in India.

Unopposed access to Indian spices boosted Portugal’s economy. With increased commercial operations, Albuquerque felt the need to strengthen Portuguese presence in India, and thus encouraged marriage between Portuguese men and Indian women.

The voyage from Lisbon to Kochi was a perilous six to 10 month-long affair that most Portuguese women found daunting. Though widows of marriageable age (called ‘orfas d’el rei' or orphans of the king) who lost their husbands in various wars that Portugal fought were sent to India annually, the numbers were too small to cater to the needs of the growing Portuguese male population in the country.

Fort Kochi and Mattancherry journal Part 8 European descendants fight to retain their identity and rights

Infant Jesus Anglo Indian Church, Ernakulam. Photo courtesy: Thomas Thottungal.

Native women who married Portuguese men learnt to speak Portuguese, embraced Christianity and imbibed many of the customs and traditions which were followed in the Portuguese settlements. Kochi remained a Portuguese bastion until it was conquered by the Dutch in 1663.

The Dutch, who came to Cochin at the invitation of a deposed prince of the Cochin Royal Family and the hereditary Prime Minister of Cochin, namely the Paliath Achan, with the active and open support of the local Syrian Christians, did not like the religious practices of the Portuguese. They destroyed the Portuguese churches and educational institutions.

The Dutch destroyed Fort Emmanual, and plundered and pillaged Portuguese settlements, forcing the Luso-Indians to flee further inland. The Dutch invasion not only put an end to Portuguese supremacy over the Arabian Sea, but also affected the very social, religious and cultural life of the Luso-Indians.

Donal Vivera, a Luso-Indian, said those who went to the hinterland had to struggle hard to rebuild their lives and maintain their distinct identity and culture. Donal, who is secretary of the All Kerala Anglo-Indian Association, told Firstpost that only 1 percent of the community living in Kochi and its neighbourhoods can be called wealthy.

“Close to 30 percent of the Anglo-Indians in Kochi can be categorised as being middle class, while the rest work as petty traders, carpenters, masons, mechanics, blacksmiths, tailors, cobblers and fishermen,” Donal said adding most of them did not have even a roof over their heads.

He said that the association was now trying to address this problem by developing housing colonies exclusively for Anglo-Indians. “We have already developed one in Ernakulam with 22 houses. The association is taking the initiative to build more. We have also approached the government for support,” Donal said.

This, he feels, will also help in bringing the scattered members of the community together and protect their identity and culture. While population of most of the ethnic communities in Kochi is dwindling, the Anglo-Indians have maintained their strength.

Donal said this was because of the strong belief of the community in endogamy. He said that most members of the community liked to find their partners from within the community. The association is trying to help the process by launching an exclusive marriage website for the Anglo-Indians.

A major grouse of the community pertains to reservations in education and employment. Earlier, the community enjoyed 2 percent reservation in engineering and medicine admissions under the Latin Catholic community quota. However, in 1970, the Justice Kumara Pillai Committee redefined the terms of the reservation as ‘to Latin Catholics other than Anglo-Indians’, thus excluding the community from the reservation.

“Now the 1.25 lakh Anglo-Indians in the state get just one seat in engineering and half a seat in medicine that we have to share with members of the Jewish community,” says Donal. He said that this has been forcing the new generation to go out in search of jobs.

What makes matters worse is that the community has no one who will take up their cause. Those nominated to the state Assembly to represent the Anglo-Indian community are political henchmen. The current incumbent John Fernandez, who was nominated by the CPM is a member of the party’s district secretariat. He served earlier as DYFI district secretary, state joint secretary, treasurer and central committee member.

“Their loyalty is not to community but to the party. You can’t expect someone like him to toe anything other than the party line. He has not paid any heed to numerous pleas we made for the betterment of the community,” Donal said.

Irrespective of several adversities, the community as a whole loves to live it up, and tends to make merry without a thought about tomorrow. Music and dance are important aspects of the Anglo-Indian way of life. Some are exceptionally good musicians.

“Till a generation ago, majority of the Anglo-Indians had only the bare minimum of education, but they excelled in such areas like carpentry, boat building and mechanical engineering, and their services were used extensively by the Cochin Port Trust, which was on the cusp of exponential growth,” said Kevin Rosario.

The late Leon Padua from Mulavukadu is a typical example. He was a genius when it came to industrial boilers, and rose to become senior master mechanic at the public sector fertilizer company FACT Ltd., a position equivalent to that of the chief engineer.

The Anglo-Indians of Kochi are also known for their excellent culinary skills. Dishes like pork vindaloo and fish moilee are all time favourites contributed by the Luso-Indian community to Kerala cuisine. Baking is yet another area in which they excel. Most Anglo-Indian women are experts at baking cakes. Rozario’s Bakery is a well-known bake house in Kochi.

Wine making is also an area where the community has shown commendable expertise.

Portuguese language has had significant influence on Malayalam. Hundreds of words in Malayalam vocabulary can be traced to Portuguese.

Part 1: Century-old settlements fight to retain historical legacy
Part 2: Big retail, local players push entrenched Gujarati trader community towards migration
Part 3: Persecuted for centuries, Konkanis found home in a small plot of land in Kochi
Part 4: Tamils of Dhobi Khana rue at younger generation seeking white collar jobs
Part 5: Kutchi Memons, driven out of their homeland, rebuilt businesses in Kerala
Part 6: Settled in 1990s, Kashmiris of Kerala hope to return to their home state
Part 7: Once-thriving Jewish settlement now bears a deserted look

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