Tracing the curious story of ‘The King of the Coast’, an American in Kerala
There is a fascinating song ‘kayalinarike’ which was originally sung by Mehaboob and recently re-sung by a favorite of mine, Shahabaz Aman about Cochin’s past, where they mention a number of foreign companies which used to do business in Cochin. Well, perhaps then and before that they were all entrenched in the port and backwaters of Alappuzha- Alleppey or the Venice of Kerala, a place that later declined to become a sleepy town and a forgotten port. But many will not know that there was a time when it was a major port of Travancore and termed ‘second to Bombay only’. It was a port created with a purpose and it served it eminently, which was to break the Dutch blockade of the coast and establish a Travancore monopoly of all its produce. To further promote trade all kinds of foreigners (people from other regions like Malabar, Surat, Bombay, Chettis, Konkanis and so on) were invited to work under a commercial department sponsored by the King of Travancore and run under the Dewan Keshavadas. Over a period of time, the commercial and the vadai canal were built to access the backwaters and lakes. And as we near the 1860’s we find that a lighthouse was built, a telegraph office was constructed and people from the West started to take notice and arrive at this fine harbor.
The song that we started with should actually have mentioned a pioneer among them all, none other than Darragh Smail & Company which employed over 1170 people during the turn of the 20th century, though it would not have been rhyming. And this is all about James Darragh, the American who not only influenced the region, but created a legion of left handed weavers…
Sometimes people wonder why I work on getting minute details about such obscure persons and write a few thousand words about them. I enjoy getting the story out of it and knowing those lost souls and you the reader, must realize that it is because of such adventurers that we are living comfortably today and mankind is reaping the benefits from their hard work and adventurous efforts.
And so we go to Alleppey (it was called exactly that even then) in the late 19th and early 20th century. To get a feel, you have to read a fine article about the locale, words which would be valid even today - An Indian Venice by CE Bechhoffer (circa 1918). Quoting him – Imagine a narrow spit of sand covered with coconut palms; on one side of it the waves of the Indian Ocean are beating in a continual foam. Few boats would dare to put out from this shore, lest they should be caught in the surf and swamped. But barely fifty yards away, on the other side of the palm-covered spit, lies a vast and placid lagoon. The wind that is tearing the sea into fury is averted from the surface of the lagoon by the impenetrable barrier of palms; but it sweeps over a few feet above the waters and fills the sails of numberless boats. The sea is desolate, except for one or two daring fishing craft and a tramp steamer quite half a mile from the shore. But the lagoon teems with life, covered with the tracks of sailing-boats and canoes. This propinquity of sea and lagoon is the characteristic of the coast of South-West India from a distance north of Cochin almost all the way to Trivandrum, the capital city of the State of Travancore.
It had been a torture in the lagoon to stifle in the appalling heat, and now at last we came to water-ways where the sun's rays rarely penetrated. The water in front of us was absolutely still, but our wash sent great rolling waves to break upon the banks.
Sometimes we stopped in midstream, for the canals were too shallow and sandy for us to venture close inshore — to disembark and take up passengers in canoes, a proceeding attended with tremendous excitement and trepidation. Especially when we got under way again and rocked their thin and fragile canoes with our wash did the timid passengers show alarm, and with some reason, for, though crocodiles are as rare in these canals as they are conspicuous on the shores of the broad lagoons, there is doubtless always the possibility of being snapped up in the event of the canoe's overturning. Towards evening, after one or two delays upon unsuspected sandbanks, we began to near the end of the first part of our journey. The banks of the canals were lined with canoes, and on shore huts became more and more frequent among the palms. As we passed, not without many blasts of the siren to clear our path, bands of children would run down from the huts and fling themselves on the painters of their canoes, lest our wash should carry these away; and the handsome, half-naked men and women looked up at us from their work among the coconut groves. At last we came into the straight channel which forms the main thoroughfare of the town of Alleppey, and ran in to the quay. There we disembarked, and I called a rickshaw, leaving my servant to follow me with the luggage to the Travellers' Bungalow.
My rickshawman was a fine tall fellow, and he started off at a quick pace. But in a minute or two he slowed down and began unaccountably to hobble along at little better than walking speed. At last I discovered the cause. The rickshaw man suffered from the curse of the district—"Cochin leg," a disease which is, however, much more frequent in Alleppey than in Cochin itself. It is elephantiasis, which gradually swells and thickens a limb until it reaches the ghastly dimensions that have suggested its name. The inhabitants of Alleppey seem to be affected mainly in the leg though I have seen men with the marks of the disease upon other limbs. Its extraordinary prevalence in the towns and villages of the back-waters is presumed to be due to the brackish water; there is said to be no cure for it. Practically all the rickshaw men at Alleppey are affected by this complaint, with the result that locomotion there is excessively unpleasant for both runner and passenger. But there is, after all, no need to move about at Alleppey. The Travellers' Bungalow lies on the seashore, beside the lighthouse and the jetty. The city itself stretches for the most part along either side of the main water-way, with occasional bridges over side canals. It is a clearing-house for the products of the interior, but there are no signs of life in the "town” itself.
To trace the story of the protagonist, we have to go back in time, to 1855 when a Brooklyn man left New York to seek his fortune in Kerala. At that time, he was actually an apprentice in his father’s coir factory. He sailed to India destined for Calcutta but was unsuccessful in making mats with Bengali labor and English expert supervision, for some strange reason (Remember now that coir matting was unknown in India but was already established in Britain and America). As it appears he took a couple of his trained laborers together with the English supervisor to a place he had heard of, rich in coconuts and teeming with people willing to work their butts off, but had no idea of their commercial potential. The man had big business in mind, nothing short of setting up a world class factory and to become the biggest manufacturer of coir products in the world! That my friends, is pioneering and James Darragh, that was his name, realized his dreams in a very short period.
He was a pioneer, in all respects when it came to cocoa mats (The US name for coir), but he also tried his hand in a few other businesses like cotton, oil and so on before making his fortunes on coir and propelling Kerala to the forefront of the industry, worldwide. Darragh, Small and Co., thus became the first American firm in these parts, soon employing some 1,081 hands and shipping coir matting to all parts of the world. His biography (It is a pity but so many books provide wrong accounts of his life) as printed in the American businessmen reads thus. Let us look at that and dig around a little bit more to see what drove the 28 year old young man many miles eastwards…
JAMES DARRAGH, merchant, born in Lurgan, Ireland, in 1827, died in Cairo, Egypt, in December, 1889. He emigrated to America while a boy and found employment in New York city in the manufacture of coir mats and matting. Learning that labor was low in price in India and that mats could be woven there at the smallest expense, he sailed for Aleppy on the west coast of Malabar, where, although beginning with small means, he gradually developed a factory, employing a thousand natives in this industry. He spoke the native language with fluency, made friends among the high caste residents, was kind to the poor, and acquired such influence as to earn the title of "King of the Coast." The house in this city took the name of Darragh & Smail, in consequence of the admission of Henry Smail, a son-in-law, to partnership. Mr. Darragh was the first person to manufacture cotton spool thread in Travancore. His mill at Quilon cost $350,000 to build and gave employment to 1,500 natives and a few expert Europeans. The Maharajah and his cabinet opened the mill with formal ceremonies. Mr. Darragh's family consisted of his wife and two daughters, the latter being Mary, wife of Henry Smail, and Ellen, wife of John McStay of Belfast, Ireland.
We see here that after about 25 years, Darragh has become a bigwig and was hobnobbing with the royalty of Travancore and even minting his own coins. He quickly diversified into coconut oil, tea, coffee, rubber and so on….and become a very rich man. In 1889 he decided to head back to New York and enroute at Cairo, he fell ill and died.
From the headstone of James Darragh’s grave, we get the following additional information.
Erected by Mary Darragh to the memory of her husband James Darragh who died at Cairo, Egypt, December 20th 1889 aged 62 years. Also their two children who died in India in their infancy. Of your charity pray for the above-named Mary Darragh who died at Hannahstown 17th March 1900 and whose remains are interred here. Of your charity pray for the soul of John McStay son-in-law of the above and dearly beloved husband of Ellen McStay who died at Locust Lodge, Belfast, March 8th 1912, aged 51 years RIP. Of your charity pray for the soul of Ellen McStay beloved wife of John McStay and daughter of James and Mary Darragh who died at Bromley, Kent, August 10th 1943 aged 75 years.
So now we know that Darragh’s wife was Mary, that he perhaps lost two of his children in India and had two more who survived. We see that he had two daughters, Mary and Ellen. Mary went on to marry Henry Smail later. We can perhaps conclude that Mary Smail was married to Henry after Smail was inducted into the family business.
We note from other accounts that the first small but modern factory of Travancore was thus started in Alleppey in 1859 by James Darragh to manufacture coir and coir products and for this he brought in some master weavers (two are mentioned, Banerjee & Chatterjee by some imaginative writer – but this does not sound right for both are Brahmin surnames and they would not be weavers in a caste conscious Bengal) from Bengal. Now let us take a look at the travails of Henry Smail and soon we will bring together their accounts and life stories.
1895 - Henry Smail, head of the firm of Darragh & Smail, arrived in New York on the 16th ult. from India, via London, and will hereafter make his headquarters at the firm's New York establishment, 177 Water Street. Mr. Smail has spent a number of years in India, overlooking the factories and exporting business of his firm. He was also formerly in charge of the New York business, but five years ago, on the death of James Darragh, then the senior partner, he returned to India and has made his headquarters in Alipee up to February last. On the death of Thomas. F. Bryce, the New York partner, in November last, Mr. Smail decided to leave India and make his home and headquarters in New York.
So we see that Darragh disappeared from the Kerala accounts of Darragh Smail & Co in 1860, whereas Smail remained in Alleppey (Alipee) for another 25 years. In the meantime, the advertising was ramped up (For some strange reason the Kerala Coir mats were termed Calcutta Coir mats!). The advt says - Buyers of either Calcutta or domestic coir mats and mattings can hardly be said to have inspected this market until they have seen the samples and obtained the quotations of Darragh & Smail, the old established India house, of 177 Water Street, New York. It used to be - Darragh & Smail are the most extensive manufacturers of cocoa mats and matting in India and also have one of the largest factories of the same goods in this country, located in Brooklyn. They are extensive exporters from India of coir fiber and yarns and other India products.
Browsing through New York records we now note that one Margaret Holt in 1890 transfers property to Mary, wife of henry Smail in 1890. Who could be this new character named Holt? Hang on, we will soon try to find out.
We also get to know more of Darragh from the accounts of an old China trader in New York named Charley Gustchow who was a dock supervisor involved in the review of legal cases related to coconut oil spillage and product damage complaints related to shipments from China and India. Prior to that Charley had sailed extensively to Japan, China and India many a time and was considered a storehouse of information. He also acquired and sold curios from India, to people in New York. As it appears, he traveled down to Alleppy once and chanced a meeting with James Darragh. Charley’s obituary in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of Dec 12th 1908 reveals the following about Darragh. That Darragh was a man of original Ideas and force of character is evidenced by this brief sketch of his character as set forth by "Charley" Gutschow, who appears to have known him well In India.
It was on one of his expeditions along the West Coast of the Indian peninsula that he reached Allepy, a port of Travancore. This latter is a long, narrow dependency that runs along the coast from above the apex of the great peninsula. It is ruled by a rajah under the supervision of a British resident. It was there that "Charley" met a Brooklyn man who had become enormously wealthy as the owner of cocoanut fiber manufactories, cotton, coffee and tea plantations, and whose story reads like a romance. This man was James Darragh, who lived in Williamsburg many years ago and conducted a small factory for the manufacture of cocoanut fiber, otherwise coir fiber, into mats, door mats, matting and other similar articles. He discovered that the raw material coming here in the shape of fiber cord was manufactured In Travancore at a nominal cost by cheap native labor. Gathering together what little property he could, he turned it into cash and sailed for India, leaving his wife and two daughters here. He settled In Travancore and established a business that throve rapidly in his hands. He acquired wealth quickly and became a confidant and adviser of the rajah. He obtained such influence with the native ruler that he was permitted to coin his own money, and the influence lasted up to the time he died at Cairo several years ago. Mr. Darragh waxed wealthy and started tea, cotton and coffee plantations that throve rapidly under his careful supervision. He usually sent one full cargo of Indian products to New York yearly in a sailing vessel and established here the East Indian Importing house of Darragh & Small that still exists at 177 Water Street. Manhattan. Mr. Smail was a partner and married one of Mr. Darragh's daughters. Some years ago Mr. Darragh decided to leave India and see Brooklyn once more. On his way he was taken ill and died at Cairo. His first wife and their daughters became involved in a lawsuit that was finally adjusted amicably to their satisfaction, and they returned to Ireland to spend the remainder of their days.
Herein lies an interesting observation, that he had two wives. This was not quite what we could make out from some sketchy details of the lawsuit itself or the tombstone. What was reality? The New York Times of July 12, 1893 provides the answer.
Frederick A. Ward yesterday' asked Judge Cullen, in the Supreme Court, Brooklyn to appoint a commission to take the testimony of Mrs. Henry Small, at Aleppy India, in the suit of Margaret Holt against the executors of the late James Darragh of that place. James Darragh was a poor Brooklyn boy, who went to India, accumulated money, established a matting factory, and became wealthy. He married and had one daughter, whom he brought to Brooklyn and left with his sister, Mrs. Holt, to be educated. He promised Mrs. Holt that he would remember her in his will, and he made a will leaving her $7,000. This will he afterwards revoked, and made another in which Mrs. Holt was not mentioned, but her daughter was willed $15,000. Afterward, Mr Darragh’s daughter returned to India and married Henry Smail, Mr Darragh’s surviving partner at Aleppy. Her testimony is considered Important enough to send for. Mrs. Holt wants $25,000 for taking care of and educating Mrs Smail during her childhood. Decision was reserved……..
Now we make some interesting observations, that Smail was originally a partner (?) in the New York office, perhaps a partner who had previously been in India a few times between 1855 and 1890. We note that he went to India after the death of Darragh to manage the affairs there. We can guess that Mary was born just around the time Darragh reached India i.e. 1856. We observe that Mary went to India after Darragh’s death and perhaps got married at Quilon around 1890. We see that they both returned to New York after five more years i.e. after settling the above case, while the second daughter and husband moved to Ireland with their mother. The fact that Mary Smail is not mentioned on the tombstone perhaps signifies a rift between her and her mother, Mary Darragh, who died in 1900. Did Smail and Mary conspire to take over the reins of Darragh and Small in far flung Travancore? But then again Darragh did make a will and disposed of his property & establishment legally previously. I was intrigued and continued to check till I got the answer from the Brooklyn daily newspaper dated May 14th 1911. The various inputs to the newspaper came from US congressman Redfield.
It comes to light that the New York office was created after Darragh made his fortune in Aleppey and was favored and supported by the rajah of Travancore. His stories came to American ears through Charlie Gutschow who was sent to oversee the proper stowage of Darragh’s cargo into the merchant ships. According to Charles, Darragh left his wife and two daughters behind when he went to India. In India he married a high caste lady but continued to provide amply for his wife and daughters in Brooklyn.
The interesting part comes to light now. Henry Smail, his manager and later his partner, married Darragh’s Indian born daughter. So was Mary Smail a third daughter from his Hindu wife? Did he have two more girls in India who died? Who was Mary’s Hindu mother? What happened to the first daughter in Brooklyn? Perhaps a deeper study of the Smail family line will give more clues.
But now let us go to Alleppy and see how the fortunes of Darragh were made and how the company prospered. He was the first foreigner to start a modern factory in Alleppey Travancore and went on to provide employment to many thousands, that itself being a huge thing in a poverty stricken region at that time. This investment as you can imagine marked the beginning of a gradual process of industrialization in Kerala which in due course boosted the fortunes of the sleepy backwaters of Travancore.
1898 - It looks like our friend Smail fell ill, for the C&UR reports - We are pleased to learn that Mr. Henry Small, of Darragh & Smail, has recovered from his severe illness, and is again at his office. And soon he is up and complaining… In fact they had a hearing at the US senate as well, ensuring that matting companies paid no duty on the coir. Then came shipping issues - Referring to his firm's importations from India, Mr. Henry Small, of Darragh & Smail, says that it is now very difficult to charter sailing vessels to bring a cargo from India to New York. Very few sailing vessels are being built, while steamships are constantly increasing in number and are closely competing with the old fleet of sailors. For many years his firm has brought its products of coir fiber, yarns and Calcutta matting from India to this country in sailing vessels, but Mr. Small says that he will soon have to resort to the use of steamers. The latter now ply directly between India and New York, whereas heretofore almost all steamers went first to England, necessitating transshipping the goods to America. Why does he mention it? To signal higher prices due to the changed shipping and increased expenses!
Finally the Smail name comes up again in the case hearings of the Dunbritton 1896. He is now in partnership with Thomas F Bryce and files a suit to recover damages from Andrew weir & Co, owners of the ships Dunbritton after his coir dholls, mats etc (tea, fiber, mats, turmeric, coconut oil etc) had been damaged in transit from Aleppey to New York in 1892 (Getschow whom we talked about earlier was involved in the survey of damages). It was decided by the court that the damages due to improper stowage be made good.
Later, Darragh Smail and Co., Ltd., Alleppy, and the Commercial Union, Ltd, Quilon, were sanctioned and registered under an emergency regulation by the Rajah of Travancore for the construction of two pattamars and two schooners respectively. One of the pattamars, was named 'Lakshmi Pasha' and had a tonnage of 170 tons. Perhaps they were the first of Travancore registered ships.
With that we lose sight of Smail from written history, I could find no obituary of the bloke, who turned out to be the typical Manhattan businessman, living well, marrying high and retiring awash in money.… S. C. Wilber continued to be the selling representative for the cocoa goods at the warehouse and also on the road. They named a hall after Smail in the school at Aleppey and there his name remains etched for posterity.
But Darragh and Smail Co continued its existence in Aleppey. By 1881-90 they made over 13 lakhs of coir exports. In the first few years, the wages they paid were in kind, articles and gifts on special occasions. By 1860, cash wages became the norm and Darragh’s wage payouts were considered quite high (rice and 4 annas per day).
In 1908, the Quilon mills owned by Darragh changed ownership after it was acquired by South Indian Mills, but was liquidated by 1913 after accumulated losses and debts. Of his Quilon spinning mills, we get an insight from Henry Bruce who has this to say - There are about a dozen Europeans, whose chief excuse for a sweltering existence is business. People dress mercifully little in Malabar; yet at Quilon there are often dinners where dressing is required. The Darragh Cotton Mills, with all their clangor of machinery, are worth a visit. Here are 650 men; and more interesting, 150 women—or rather young girls, up to marriage.
The ownerships would have left the Smail family in the first decade of the 20th century ( the Mcstays continued on till 1935) and I am not sure who the owners were, though the founders name continued to be used until after independence, in 1957 that the ownership changed hands, a year after Kerala was formed. Vakkan & Sons purchased the Baling Department of M/S Darragh Small & Co. Ltd., Alleppey on 2-1-1957. Pursuant to the sale the Management of Vakkan & Sons took over the premises of Darragh Smail & Co. Ltd., on the same date. That signaled the transfer of Darragh’s legacy to Indian owners.
But why did I mention the left handed weaver aspect? That is most interesting. One source says - A curious fact dating back to the inception of mat making in Alleppey district is that every mat maker in Travancore is left-handed, which may be attributed to the fact that Mr. Collins, Mr. Darragh's first factory manager, was left-handed, and so this became the norm ever after. He was left-handed and his machines too were for left-handers. Is it true? Perhaps it may be just that, yet another legend!! We get another angle from his grandson DL Vickers who mentions that his parents (John and Ellen McStay??) were living in India in 1935. He states – Tradition has it that Darragh was so closely imitated by his operatives that they worked left handed, even as Darragh did himself, he being , as they say in the States ‘south pawed’.
The house or bungalow they lived was I believe, called the Dow’s bungalow and until the 1950’s there were a motley collection of Europeans and their retinues of ayahs and servants and bungalows in the region. I do not know Dow’s bungalow survives any longer.
As Aleppey became better known and prospered, the stagnating lagoons were filled with coconut husks needed for the industry and this increased the infestation of mosquitoes and one also had to endure the horribly smelly air that hung around. The result was that many a person was afflicted with the Cochin leg of Alleppy, elephantiasis or filariasis.
You may be surprised to hear this though - fittingly a cure (Drug - Hetrazan) was discovered by an Indian (his name was Yellapragada Subba Row – I will write about him soon) around the 1940’s living in Brooklyn New York and working for Lederle!!!
Darragh & Smail continued on in New York and the company got involved with the innovative teaboy gas/electric tea maker in 1959 made of alloy and Bakelite, with settable (infinitely variable!) strength, essentially a combined kettle and teapot.
As days went by, trade unionism and worker agitation became pronounced, cost increased and management became complicated, so many of the owners left, and Aleppey reverted back to a sleepy port with the result that a modern port like Cochin took over. And so we hear the song kayalinarike connected to Kochi…which should actually have been Aleppey kayalinakrike………….
And with this I bring to end the story of the American who brought prosperity and fame to Alleppey, but who is now resting in the depths of obscurity. Hopefully this will cast a ray of light into those murky depths…..
Regrettably I could not lay my hands on the article - G.H. Davey, Reminiscences of James Darragh & Henry Smail - Carpet and Upholstery Trade Review, 15 February 1890, even though I requested a copy from the Coir board who possess the same. Perhaps there is more information there.
The Carpet and upholstery trade review and the rug trade review 1896
Brooklyn Daily Eagle of Dec 12th 1908,
Brooklyn daily eagle May 14 1911
On a Human Note – Dom Leonard Vickers (A touch of God – Eight monastic journeys)
Letters from Malabar and on the Way - By Henry Bruce
Gateways of Asia – Aleppey – Hans Schenk
America's Successful Men of Affairs: The city of New York - edited by Henry Hall
The Wide World: The Magazine for Everybody, Volume 42 – An Indian Venice by CE Bechhofer
The history of trade union movement in Kerala – K Ramachandran Nair
Other sources – Google images…
Darragh and Smail Co in Aleppey were to figure again, this time with respect to trade unionism. We see that by 1907 the company’s new administrators became tougher businessmen and profit became paramount. After the First World War, demand dipped and wages dropped. Work was organized by job contractors or moopans who were known to treat the weavers very badly, especially the women. They also extorted the workers by demanding a commission or moopakasu. The working hours are seen to stretch from 6AM to 6PM, late coming was not allowed and the women laborers not treated very well. In addition to factory work, they had to do menial work for the owners too. After a strike and walkout, an agreement to start work at 7AM was reached at. This was the first of its kind in Kerala. Darragh Smail and Co also got named in militant women’s uprisings and we can see a large number of trade union cases related to the company. It appears that a physical clash between labor and management occurred once and that a European manager was beaten up by a group of women workers inside the factory. The K Meenakshi case was a prominent one relating to pregnancy - Darragh Smail Company, the employer felt that as women became pregnant at home, the management could not be called up to make any extra payments. Meenakshi organized the women who argued for the linkage between the two, i.e. the fact that women worked to give themselves and their children a dignified life. All this turbulence continued on till 1946 when Sir CP intervened and the bloody Punnapra Vaylar revolt occurred. But that is another story, for another day.
I apologize for the length of this article, my heart just did not allow me to cull it…