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.
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.