History of Nairs Part 2 – Czar Alexander the First’s Legacy

In the last installment of the History of Nairs in Singapore, we saw how a major disagreement with the British East India company over control of the Kannan Devan tea estates in Kerala led to an exodus of Nairs from Kerala southwards.  They left in huge timber ships (called ‘Patthemari’), often taking with them any and all valuables they could lay their hands on.  Records indicate that between 1780 and 1820, some 40 Patthemaris left Cochin harbour for Singapore. Of these, some perished in the seas. However, a great many did eventually make it to Singapore. Soon as a sizeable number of Nairs disembarked in Singapore, they banded together and laid the foundation of what would eventually become that great cosmopolitan community, that amazing melting pot of South East Asian cultures….. Little India.
The British, meanwhile, were growing restless.  With a hard won stronghold over Asia established via the diplomatic colonization of India, they naturally expected increased profits from business with the Orient, especially China. However, the Dutch ruled the seas, and their control of popular ports in and around South East Asia meant that the East India company ships were at the mercy of their European foes.
Raffles’ Travels
In 1818, a newly appointed Lt. Governor of the British colony at Bencoolen , Stamford Raffles, decided he knew the best way to end this state of affairs. He managed to persuade his boss, Lord Hastings, to fund an expedition to establish a new British port in the Archipelago. His carefully laid out plan hinged on getting a big ship and sailing around the Archipelago in the hopes of finding an as yet uninhabited island with a natural port. By sheer luck, he happened upon Singapore. But unknown to him, Nairs had already established Little India in Singapore with a well-structured government, a complicated caste system, matrilineal societies with the mandatory poor relatives, trade unions and last but not the least, Mathrubhumi newspaper.
Alexander the First’s Legacy – Hartals are not good
All this should have ensured that Nairs continued to assert dominance over Singapore when Raffles reached the island. However as luck would have it, the day Raffles landed in Singapore happened to coincide with a general Hartal called by the Nair trade union workers protesting against the allegedly biased coverage by Mathrubhumi of Russia’s Czar Alexander I’s petition for a Jewish state in Palestine. Finding the streets deserted, he proceeded to declare Singapore as a trading post for British East India company.  Thus it was that the next day when the tea stalls opened, the Nairs found their old nemesis, the British East India company, trying to tune in to the All India Radio.
As expected, this underhanded tactic was not met with approval by the Nairs, who promptly shut down all tea stalls and observed three days of civil unrest. 
Nairs expressing their disapproval
On the fourth day, Sir Raffles concluded a peace treaty with the Nairs, promising to eat kanji for the rest of his days if they would only leave “this bloody island” alone.


So started the second phase of the intertwined history of Nairs with the British and Singapore.  And this, my friends, is the reason why all Nairs hate the Czars. And why Sir Stamford Raffles drank kanji for the rest of his life.

History of Nairs Part 1 – Kuttappan Nair’s Legacy

Here is the first of a 2 piece series recounting the history of Nairs and how it is intimately linked with Singapore. This week, we trace our origins and investigate the circumstances that led to an exodus of Nairs to the Malaya islands in the early 18th century.

As I stated in my last week’s post, the history of Nairs is rather difficult to recount with any degree of certainty. Most of our origins are shrouded in mystery. Depending on your source, Nairs are either descended from a branch of the Newars of Nepal who migrated to Kerala in search of better tea stalls (failing to find any in Kerala, we decided to start these on our own) or from a class of warriors belonging to the Naga caste who migrated to South India to escape Parashuram’s wrath and find better TV reception.

A typical Nair tea stall 

Regardless of the different theories about our origin, the fact remains that the first reference to Nairs recorded in modern history is inextricably linked to tea and arms. Greek Ambassador Megasthenes, in his accounts of ancient India, refers to the ‘Nairs of Malabar’ in general and about one Kuttappan Nair in particular. The story goes something like this. Megasthenes, who was an infamous miser, once stopped to drink tea and have a bite of vada at a roadside stall in Madurai, sometime during 290 BC. Upon turning to leave without paying the bill, he was stopped by the proprietor, Kuttappan Nair.  The obstinate Nair refused to let Megasthenes leave without paying his bill. Upon being informed that Megasthenes was in fact the famed Greek Ambassador, he countered that it made him a flight risk. When further negotiations broke down, Kuttappan Nair forcibly removed a gold ring from Megasthenes’ finger, declaring his intention of keeping it as payment in lieu of cash. He also easily fought off 3 of Megasthenes’ armed bodyguards. “Beware the Nairs”, warned Megasthenes in his seminal work Indica, “for they are dangerous.”

Kuttappan Nair, emboldened by his martial success, lost no time in starting a “Kalaripayattu” center next to his tea stall. In time, its attendance grew and he was able to rent out bodyguards to the Chola kings, who ruled large tracts of South India.  A combination of fearsome martial prowess and an uncanny sense of exactly when the milk was going to boil over earned the Nairs lasting respect and favor from the Kings.  Thus began a glorious period in Nairs’ history, one underlined by valor and vada.

But these happy circumstances were not to last. By late 1700s, the British East India Company completed its stranglehold on South India. The British, who had vested interests in tea, soon entered into a dispute with the Nairs over control of the Kannan Devan tea estates. They used their superior military and administrative powers to systematically strip the Nairs of their weapons and rank. Unable to stand this persecution, many Nairs took to the seas, bravely facing strong winds and choppy seas in a journey to the East. This journey led them to the Malaya peninsula; specifically, the small island of Singapura, where they proceeded to disembark and start afresh. But more on that later.

Interesting Note:  The biggest ship carrying Nairs on their flight from the British left Cochin harbor on December 16, 1753. Due to some confusion with the Cochin Port Authority, the Nairs were not allowed to load their cargo of tea on board. Frustrated with what they perceived as colonial persecution, the Nairs protested by throwing the entire tea overboard.  This revolutionary act of rebellion was promptly dubbed the “Nair Tea Party”.  2 decades later, Americans protesting against the British at Boston did something similar.