The Kappiri slaves of Cochin

The Cafres of the Portuguese & the Dutch

The last months of 1662 in Cochin were proving to be a test to the Portuguese who remained. The Portuguese Casado no longer carried the usual armaments like the sword, gun or spear like their well protected, but uncomfortable predecessors had, clad in mail. They were once upon a time, much better in strategic thinking and came up with a number of new techniques of war. Who else would think of cutting down trees on the opposite banks like Duarte Pacheco in the battle of Cochin? As the Franks perfected their act and got better at keeping the Zamorin’s forces in check, and getting rich off the relative monopoly of the seas and the trade of spices, the community in Goa declined in morality, often behind the shrouds of religion. But Cochin in comparison was benign until the Dutch peeped around the corner.

During the period between the 1663 and somewhere after 1500 when the Vasco Da Gama decided that Calicut had no plans of welcoming him, the Cochin Raja provided the Portuguese with a place to reside and the support to establish trade. The Portuguese flourished as we saw in many previous articles and soon started a regular colonial relationship not only in Goa, but also in Cochin. They intermingled with the local populace to create a group of Mestizo’s who spoke Portuguese and had Portuguese names. A new caste called Topasses (dark skinned, half caste – wearing a topi - gente de chapeo or Topci – gunner in Turkish) came into effect mainly to man the cannons and were Christians by way of religion. Around 1662, the Portuguese lived in a larger area within the fort and this was the Portuguese town where some 900 houses existed and around 2,000 Topasses were resident. Most of the other Topasses lived outside the fort, but close to 2,000 of them moved in after the Portuguese left while many left for Goa with their masters.

Much like the Anglo Indian community, these Toepasses classed themselves with the Portuguese. Visscher opines that the name came from the Portuguese Tu Pai (my boy) who later learnt the Portuguese language and became interpreters. Later, especially in Cochin they became bakers, carpenters, tailors, shoemakers and so on or during the war as letter carriers. He considers them exceedingly superstitious, and possess many heathen customs. A mourning toepass wears his black coat inside out and grows his beard!

By 1565, the Jews of Cranganore fled to Cochin and erected what we know today as the Jew town, and close to a century later, the lives of the Portuguese and their associates were soon to be in peril, not from the 3 million or so of local forces, but from another foe from afar, the Lanthan’s or the Dutch. The Dutch resolve was clear when Rijklof Van Goens sailed away from Batavia to confront the Portuguese in Malabar. By 1657 he had gotten the Franks out of Jaffna and were entrenched in their all-important base at Jaffnapattanam. By 1658, he had taken over the pearl fisheries and Tuticorin, the very place where Joao da Cruz and Francis Xavier had once carried out the evangelization of the Paravas. Goens was a mature warrior and decided to leave Goa alone, but set his sights on Cochin instead. It took all of five years and some five expeditions for him to execute his plans. These actions were also to eventually launch the career of a simple Jonkheer – Henderik van Rhede, the man behind the great Hortus Malbaricus, who in 1663, was just a warrior participating in the second siege of Cochin.

The first three Dutch forays in 1658, 1660 and 1661 aimed at the Portuguese in Cochin were not to bring much by way of success. Interestingly the people who ordered this were the members of the High government of Batavia - the Dutch VOC’s Gentlemen XVII. Anyway in the winter months of 1661, the Dutch took Quilon, and Cranganore was taken a month later. It was then that they worked out an interesting ploy, by getting support from Vira Kerala Varma, a claimant to the throne, and the incumbent Rama Varma was already on the Portuguese side.

Planning from the Roman Catholic bishop’s house on Vypin, Van Goens oversaw the construction of Fort Orange, a small fortification for the cannons aimed at Cochin. Mattancheri, just outside the Fort Cochin walls was in those days called Cochim de Cima or Native Cochin in Portuguese. This was where the raja of Cochin had his seat of government and here stood the Pazhanyannur temple. The Dutch palace as it is known today, was actually the Vira Kerala Varma’s palace which the Portuguese had built for him. Of course he had other palaces near Jew town and in Tripunithara.

As this was taking place, the Paliyath Achan tried to persuade the Portuguese to have the Mutta tavazhi raja take over to avoid Dutch slaughter and simultaneously the Zamorin’s forces moved in to Elankunnapuzha. Goda Varma tried encouraging Vira Kerala Varma to flee, but the latter desisted.

The forces of Van Goens landed some miles south of Cochin and advanced towards Mattanchery, while the king requested that they spare his women. Meanwhile the Nair’s defending the palace put up a stout fight against the well-armed Dutch, many of the Nairs being Chavers (mistaken for people influenced by Opium in Baldaeus’s accounts) and about 400 perished. And soon Van Rhede an ordinary soldier, made his place in history for killing Rama Raja and his brothers and saving the aging queen rani Gangadhara Lakshmi from a hiding room under the roof in a nearby temple. Three or four princes of the royal family were killed while Goda Varma escaped. The main fortress of the Portuguese was now under attack on three sides, the southern side by Goens’s forces, western side by Isbrand Goske and the eastern side by Root bans. Simultaneously cannonades followed from Fort Orange in Vypin.

But the siege in Oct 1662 failed, the rains came in unseasonably and the Dutch had to retreat while Kerala Varma and his brother fled to Mannar and later to Quilon to be covered by the Dutch safety net. However the claimant to the throne died and his brother who went by the same name was proclaimed king by the queen rani who had the final say in these matters. By December, the returning Rhede took over Bolghaty Island, exiled Goda varma who sided with the Portuguese and a decision was taken to lay siege to Cochin next. That fateful day of liberation from the Portuguese was to be 6th Jan 1663. Tavernier the jeweler whom we talked about in the Kohinoor story was one of the persons who provided a graphic description of that fateful day.

Let us however get back to that fateful week in Cochin. What followed next was interesting. The Dutch sent two captains with a white flag. These two fellows were blindfolded by the Portuguese so that they would not see the planned fortifications, but the clever Dutch brought along with them a small boy, who cleverly took in minute details. In the meantime, the Dutch and the Portuguese had signed a peace treaty in Europe on 14th Dec 1662.

The Portuguese governor Ignatio Sermento was offered a treaty based on free commerce and religious freedom in return for Portuguese surrender. The Frank captain refused as expected and the Dutch went back with the little boy providing valuable details of the fortifications. The Dutch erected cannons at various strategic points (near the churches of St Thomas and St John as well as Calvetti). The Portuguese expected an attack from Calvetti while at the same time the Raja of Porkkad sent his Nairs with food for the Portuguese and were trounced by the Dutch forces landing there. Finally it was time for the Dutch to storm the fort and they decided to do it with soldiers coming in by a frigate from Vypeen. The boat capsized on the way killing all but 10 soldiers who were also decimated by the Portuguese. The final attack took place on the 6th January with 600 Dutch soldiers and finally the team under du Pon entered the fort. Goda Varma and his family had fled, so without much ado, Sermento delivered the keys of the fort to Van Goens in surrender on the 7th January 1663. 360 Dutch died, 300 were hospitalized and 500 became unfits for further duty. 900 Portuguese were killed. According to the terms of surrender, all valuables and property and slaves were to be handed over to the Dutch. All Toepasses and Konkanis were to serve under the Dutch.

But the accounts of what transpired later are not clear. The Bishop states that the town was looted for three days and many cruel actions took place. The Portuguese complained later that the Dutch took Cochin after the treaty was signed in Europe, whereas van Goens stated that the treaty was ratified only in March. The Mutta tavazhi prince was crowned by Van Goens and after 1663, the VOC considered all trade in pepper on the Malabar Coast undertaken by any other party except itself ‘illegal’. The pepper monopoly had to work, either through force or through contract. Three new forts were constructed and the raja of Porkkad signed a treaty with the Dutch as though he was an old friend. Ten years later Van Rheede himself came back to Cochin as commander.For those who wish to read more in detail the siege, check this link

But as you can all imagine, this story is not about the Dutch capture of Fort Cochin, for it will now move on touch upon the Kappiri myth associated with the Toepasses of Cochin. That these people made plenty of wealth from trading is clear and were favored by the Portuguese masters. It is also clear that after the attack and siege of the fort, they were not allowed to go to Goa. From Visscher’s notes on Toepasses, we can see that they were exceedingly superstitious, and this largely contributed to the myths which followed. So what did the fleeing Portuguese Casados and the resident Toepasses do to all their wealth? In order to hide it from the Portuguese, it is rumored that they hid it underground, and also hatched a ghoulish plan to guard the treasure. Here is where the kappiri or the cafre African slave comes in as recounted by the old-timers of Cochin.

That the Portuguese brought in large numbers of African slaves is clear and they mainly served them in the warfront, as fearless and tireless warriors, but their presence in Cochin is lesser documented save for their continued presence in our minds through the myth. Most of the Toepasses and the Casados must have surely had a few in their midst and it can be concluded that some of them were the reason for it. We know for certain that many Kafir soldiers lived in Cochin and we also see from records that while 100 of them joined Capt Almeida, another 200 stationed there were moved to Ceylon later. They were considered very loyal, an aspect that we will come to see being utilized by both the fleeing Portuguese as well as the Topasses who remained. Baldaeus himself recounts presence of Negro slaves in Cochin during the first attack by the Dutch in 1662. Bindu Malieckal establishes in her paper (India’s luso-Africans) that they were indeed called kapiris and according to Linschoten, they, both men and women slaves were brought to Goa from Mozambique and sold for 2-3 ducats. Goa was also a place where the African slave got transshipped to places like Macau and continued on till the 1800’s. A number of Abyssinian women and men worked for Portuguese masters and even today we come across their descendants in towns where the Portuguese settled, Cochin being one among them. The men occupied the rank and file of the Portuguese armies.

But their connections with the gods date back to an earlier time when a group of them were being brought to India from Africa. Quoting Dr VGeorge Mathew , we hear of a tale that is retold, many centuries ago a Portuguese ship laden with slaves was enroute Malabar when it got caught in a violent storm. Soon it became clear that the ship would capsize and the entire crew and living souls went up to the deck for mass prayers, but the waves only kept becoming bigger. Finally it was decided to sacrifice a human, and of course a healthy Cafre slave was chosen. He was taken to the edge, his head was cut and the body and head consigned to the seas. Lo and behold, the storm blew over and the sea was calm. The Portuguese captain settled in Cochin and would always remember the sacrificed slave every day before he ate. In fact he started the custom of making the first offering of food to the departed slave. That was how the ‘cafre food portion’ custom came about. And as you can imagine, the Kappiri slaves were subsequently associated with power and their spirits ever present where they died such violent deaths.

So as the Dutch attacked, a number of wealthy Portuguese Casados and Mesticos decided to do exactly that, as the story goes, they either walled up a living Kaffir with the wealth in a hole in the wall and mortared it or dug a hole in the ground , executed a slave and buried the wealth with the slave. The spirit of the slave was supposed to guard the treasure trove and lead the owner back to it when he came back. Well, so it seems, for we have not heard of any wealth dug up in those regions, in the recent past.

Obviously these spirits liked to lead an interesting life. Like the stories associated with ghost e.g. the Poole’s ghost story I wrote about earlier, these spirits dressed well, smoked cigars, lounged against walls in the neighborhood and drank a lot. So they had to be satiated with these things if their support was expected. As is said, there are a few of these spots known as ‘Kappiri Mathil’ (Negro Wall) in local parlance and some of them were located at Chakkamadam and Parwana. Here the cigar smoking ‘Kappiri’ apparently safeguards treasures hidden by their masters. The natives of Mattanchery, irrespective of their religion, still believe that the ‘Kappiri Muthappan’ will one day be their savior. And when the Kerala delicacy puttu is made in mattanchery, the first block is given to a Kappiri spirit to ensure that the rest following do not crumble!

Today, you can see a small temple near Manghatmukku, which is the benign grandpa kappiri’s abode, and even today people offer small offerings to appease the Negro god. In some of the spots such as Mangattumukku and Panayapally, the days for offerings are Tuesdays and Fridays when candles and arrack are offered, with the hope that someday the ghost will lead them to a treasure and obviate their day to day miseries.

In the early 1900’s there lived a very interesting lady, in the confines of Jew town, named Ruby. Her story provides so many insights into the daily lives and happenings of Mattanchery. Let us now peek into the pages of her reminiscences to see what see has to say about the ones she calls ‘mischievous spirits’. She lends them a physical structure too and one which surprised me (I though these warrior slaves were tall and hefty), she says they were considered to be short, black and with curly black hair, with small white teeth and quite harmless unless they were harmed. Interestingly in those times, slaves had to be blacker than the blackest, women had to have breasts which were not pendulous and anyone with a lighter color or straight hair would be shunned! But they, the ‘indigenas’ of Mozambique, were also considered to have a sort of a devil in them and had scars on their faces. But Ruby points out that they also enjoyed playing tricks on people, living invisibly in home corners and sometimes inside of a cupboard. In some cases they were whole families, not just one and were particular about cleanliness. In case their area gets polluted and you pass by, they even threw excrement at you. There were all kinds of beliefs - if the master of the house (in those days) has forgotten to take the mug of water to the toilet, and calls out for water, it is sometimes the kappiri of the house who brings him the water, scaring the X&^% out of the master. She also mentions many other pranks played by the spirits, and narrates stories of the kappiri leaving small rewards for good deeds, especially with respect to keeping areas around their abode clean, but only as long as they kept it a secret. She had personal experiences too, like the time a cloth was lost in the neighbors well and the sprit brought it back when she started cribbing about it.

Another astounding story is when a resident Jew decided to dig his backyard for buried treasure. They dug and dug, and saw a large pot, but just could not get to it. First, some obstacles were observed by the workers, then an elephant was bought to pull the pot out but curiously the handle broke and simultaneously the pot was pulled underground by some force and moved under the terrain, to another location. It is said that the broken handle was pure gold and the crown for the Sefer Torah of the Tekkumbagam synagogue was actually made from this piece of gold! She makes a poignant statement that just like the Jews who came to Cochin and never ‘really’ wanted to leave, the spirits also will never leave Mattanchery.

Some others mention that people who got lost were shown the way by these spirits inhabiting trees bearing sour mangoes, and that people also faced misfortune if one of those trees got hacked down. We also hear stories of Hindus moving into such houses and feeding the ghosts vegetarian food instead of meat. And so, many of the locals are firm believers in the ghostly powers of the Kappiri,  the cigar smoking benevolent negro, sometimes propped on the wall, drinking arrack or toddy and humming some soft African tunes. A graphic description of the Dutch looting,  the helplessness of the defeated Portuguese and the human sacrifice of a willing servant Ambrose in order to secure his masters (Asvares) Portuguese treasure, (Ambrose was a kappiri) can all be read in Raphy’s Malayalam novel O Rapro Nobis.

As a newspaper titled the story, this is the story of the kappiri, now consigned to newspaper reports, tourists, and the minds of the people of Cochin and a temple or two….

The Kappiri - Once a slave, now a deity.

Fort Cochin in Kerala 1750-1830 - Anjana Singh
The Rajas of Cochin 1663-1720 - Hugo K s’ Jacob
Ruby of Cochin – Ruby Daniels
O Rapro Nobis- P Raphy
The Dutch power in Kerala – MO Koshy
The Dutch in Malabar – PC Alexander
The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440-1870 - Hugh Thomas
Letters from Malabar by Jacob Canter Visscher
A True and Exact Description of the Most Celebrated East-India Coasts of Malabar and Coromandel - Philippus Baldaeus

For those interested in an interesting deeper analysis of the myth, please read Dr Edward A Edezhath’s paper Kappiri Myth: a living remnant of Luso–Dutch encounter in Cochin

Note- The large Siddi Muslim population in India living in the upper west coast states of Gujarat & Karnataka also have ancestral connections to the African slaves brought in by the Portuguese. Some of those who settled down in Kerala however adopted Christianity and have merged fully with the local population and were termed Siddhi Malayalam community. Perhaps they were the original kappris.

1 comment:

Maddy said...

Thanks Renjith,
I will try and get to that book one of these days..