The Cochin Jews in Israel

At the turn of the twentieth century, the Pardesi and the Malabari Jews around Cochin were a reasonably content lot. But as days went by and as the only country which never persecuted the Jews, became independent from the British, the entire Jewish community of the region started to leave on their Aliyah or calling. Today there is less than a handful left. Books have been written about them, anthropologist studies have been completed and films have been made. People who arrived in Israel wrote books of their past in Kerala and their present, while others wrote about them and a few still trickle back to see their old homes in India and satisfy their last longings before they move on to the next world. Why did this all happen? Whatever happened to the people who left? We track regularly the stories of Indians who moved to USA, Europe and the Middle East Arab countries, but there are so few references about these Malayalees in Israel. Are we upset with them, perhaps the Malayali ego is still hurt? I decided to do a little study, armed with Ruby’s, Edna’s and Jussay’s books as well as scholarly articles from Nathan Katz and Ellen Goldberg.

First the reader should realize that there were two types of Cochin Jews, historically divided: the Black Jews, or Malabaris, the descendants of the original settlers, and the White Jews, or Paradesis, the fairer descendants of immigrants from various Middle East and European countries. There are also a few Brown Jews, or Meshuhurarum (orumakars), descended from emancipated slaves. That they all had problems with each other during their lives in Cochin goes without saying, and discrimination was rife. But it was something they lived with and somewhat minor in the larger context. (I must clarify now that when I use the term Cochin Jews, I encompass the Jews of Ernakulum, Mattanchery, Parur, Chendamangalam and Mala).

Cochin was their little Jerusalem, but it was clear that they did think about the bigger Jerusalem even though they lived a life of harmony, ensconced among the other subjects of benevolent Cochin raja. The British entrenched themselves and made sweeping changes implementing, a standard education system where all children studied. The Pardesi Jews soon found that the chasm between them and the poorer Malabari Jews was reducing, a sort of equality was creeping up and the caste distinction was being slowly broken up, with the imparted education. Also, Pardesi Jews, who had lucrative agency contracts with the Dutch lost out as the British directly took over trade and its administration. Within a few decades, the fortunes had reversed with the Pardesi Jews remaining where they were and many of the hardworking Malabari Jews becoming wealthier.

Also gone was the time when Malabar and Cochin were very important for the European settlers like the Dutch and the Portuguese as the trade once concentrated on spices and wood changed to other commodities. As the new metropolises of Madras, Bombay and Calcutta as well as Rangoon came up, the economic centers shifted to these cities and some of the first movers to these places were the Jews of Cochin, for they not only understood the trading systems, but also the languages, much more than the traditional Chettys and Gujaratis.

Those who migrated north to metropolises found easy employment amongst well-heeled Jewish businesses in those cities. But what is interesting is the observation by a few families that they no longer enjoyed the special favors which they used to get in businesses from the Dutch, and they found that the natives had started to get involved in general business, competing with them, after the fall of the feudalistic society. Both the Malabari and the Paradesi Jews suffered and interestingly the Malabari Jews proved to be more religious and interested in a potential Aliya to Israel. The petty traders faced difficulties, and all the affluent families had moved on. The community lacked intellectuals and entrepreneurs except for the Koders who created the first department stores, ran the Cochin electric company as well as the local ferry, and of course they provided employment to many members of their community. As this was a temporary situation of stability, the Malabari Jews started studying the possibility of lesser servitude and better entrepreneurship if they moved to Israel, now oft mentioned by their university educated offspring.

Interestingly the Cochin Electric Company, of which the Cochin royal family was the major shareholder, was the power suppliers to the Mattancherry and Fort Cochin areas up to Palluruthy, and was maintained quite well, with hardly a failure in distribution. If indeed power supply to a house or office was disrupted, the consumer could call Samuel Koder, the director of the company, directly and he made sure that power was promptly restored. Koder’s management was very liberal and none of the employees ever wanted for money, with the organization hiring some 130 people.

The Indian government’s nationalization drive did not help either when they took over the ferry service as well as the Cochin electric company run by the Koder’s. Land ceiling acts coming from the latter day communist governments led to loss of coconut and other farms held by these families. It soon became an islanded community though still capable and funded, if so required, by the more affluent. But the pride in their life had gone away and that was the crux of the whole matter. While there was the problem of shortage of offspring and the difficulties faced by families in finding spouses for their children, you would also hear about the curse. There was talk of this mysterious curse on the community, the Thekumbhagam synagogue curse is oft mentioned, but I won’t go too much into that other than state that the destruction of that synagogue in 1964 is attributed to a lot of problems among the Cochin Jewish populace. Was it because of the quarrels between the black and white Jews? Was it gods curse because of the silly discrimination the community followed, for decades?

Starting from the early 40’s import restrictions were tightened in India and the situation continued in 1947 with the imports and exports control act since the trade deficit needed strict control. The luxury goods import business conducted by the Cochin Jews were severely affected. Then came the Second World War, the devastating Jewish holocaust and the ideology created by the new state of Israel in 1948. The migrations which occurred after those periods and into the 70’s took away more than 90% of the Cochin Jewish population. Today less than a handful remain. The need to rebuild the Promised Land was primary in many of the departing minds, but was that really it? In India, they could do what they wanted, without fear of any form of persecution, why go on Aliyah to a land fraught with all kinds of danger? Was it also because of other hardships?

Leaders of the Cochin community had started to take notice of the Zionist movements early in the 20th century, as evidenced by the enthusiastic letters of people such as NE Roby. He spread the word around to relatives in the metropolises too. Many of them felt the Zionist pull and took the decision to leave and join their brethren in Israel stressing that it had always been part of their daily prayers, so, it was but natural. Smaller problems such as lack of Jewish holidays and lack of possibilities in raising observant children were cited by some. Insecurity among the members of the community increased as their numbers continued to fall and as the more affluent Jews were the first to leave taking the figure down from 16,000 in the 19th century to 1,100 in the 20th and perhaps under 10 in the 21st.

In 1948, the first wave started as a number of members approached authorities in Bombay stating their intention of selling off everything they had and emigration to Israel, enmasse, utilizing their own funds. Dr. Immanuel Olswanger, an emissary from Israel, visited these places in 1950 and met with the Jewish communities of Cochin, Ernakulam, Mala, Parur and Chennamangalam offering them the opportunity to help realize the Zionist dream. The Malabari’s were apparently more enthusiastic than the Paradesi Jews, the latter being the richer and owners of landed property which they were reluctant to leave behind or sell at low prices. The new Indian government had restricted the amount of money that could be repatriated from such a sale. A Cochin Aliyah fund was started money was collected and it finally took over 7 years for the 3,000 or so people to move to Israel from Cochin. A small complication rose when the Israel government restricted the number citing an incidence of filariasis amongst the émigré’s. It took a good amount of persuasive arguments from their emissary and representative AB Salem with Israeli Prime Minister Ben Gurion to secure their passage.

Dr Reitler was asked to formulate the appropriate medical treatment and the government made steps to ensure that these Malabari’s were settled in cooler and dry areas so that the disease would not be ‘perpetuated’ and that they would not become a financial burden to the fledgling Israeli government.

A 1969 newspaper report reveals a quote from Nappy and Elais Koder- Nappy who had by then become a engineer said – We want to say thank you to India and then Goodbye – Elias added that he was not happy in India, that they were taking too much taxes and that they would not let him expatriate his proceeds to Israel, restricting the total outflow to $5000. The youngsters interviewed by the newspaper complained of too few suitors and pointed out that the community was already too much intermarried and somehow related to each other. While the Bene Israel and the Cochin Jews moved to Israel, the richer Baghdadi Jews mainly migrated to Britain and America.

Now we move to Israel to track the stories of those who migrated. Starting from the 40’s some 25-30,000 Jews migrated from India. A vast majority, close to 20,000 were the Bene Israelis from Maharashtra. Some 3,500 were said to have come from Cochin. When they first reached the Promised Land, they came across communities run on the terms of the Ashkenazi Jews from Europe and struggled to make their own niche amongst them. Ruby’s accounts about these early days are quite poignant and by most accounts most of the Cochin Jews took to farming and horticulture. In 1954, the first 27 Jewish families from Cochin arrived in Israel. Majority of the Cochin Jews were settled at Yuval. House, animals and farming equipment were provided to the families to begin life afresh. This was the first contingent of the 620 people who today call the Nevatim moshav, home. These new arrivals now had a roof over their heads, but finding work presented a more difficult challenge. The men all started as day laborers for the Jewish National Fund; one day there was work, the next day there might not be. At one point, they had to remove rocks and the snakes that lived beneath them. Those years, until 1960, were the most difficult ones.

So as we see, their reception was not rewarding.  The Indian Jews were among the darkest of all the new immigrants and experienced a kind of racism. Reuben Raymond, a Bene Israel community leader, explained (New Statesman 9-10-04) that the reality of life in Israel differed from what they imagined it to be. ‘In India, we never had to fight for our rights but in Israel we did, and this was something new for us,’ he says. ‘In the early '50s, people had a problem because of their color. They were subjected to differential treatment in everything. In employment, they got bad jobs and had less money’.

The Malabari Jews are known as the Cochinim and the Pardesi Jews the Cochinites and identified themselves with the Mirzachi or oriental Jews. The Cochinim were mostly settled in the cooperative farms or Moshavim. Five of them, where over 75% of the Cochinim can be found, are Nevatim in the Negev, Mesillat Zion, Taloz and Aviezer in the Jerusalem corridor and Kfar Yuval in the Northern border with Lebanon. Today the total community totals to some 4,000 people and many have moved to urban neighborhoods for different and better prospects. The Paradesi Jews on the other hand settled in small groups in Binyamina and Petah Tikva. Some Cochin Jews who emigrated from the village of Chendamangalam live at Givat Koach, near the Ben-Gurion airport.

The story of Eliahu Bezalel, 82, (quoting from the Hindu article) a widely recognized horticulturist, decorated by the Israeli government on various occasions, explains those early days where his life started after he got married to Batzion, from Mattancherry, who had arrived a year earlier. Initially Bezalel worked in road maintenance, forestry and as a shepherd, with both husband and wife taking turns to graze the 500 to 600 sheep while their child was sequestered in an inverted stool. The next stage, in 1962, was a turn to agriculture. Community members had to fight the bureaucracy to get the necessary allowances to enable them to grow vegetables, fruit and flowers.

Bezalel as his story continues, became part of Prime Minister Ben Gurion's farming vison and was allotted land in a village in Negev Desert, south of Israel where he started a rose farm. When he was conscripted in the army, his wife took over the responsibility of running the farm, looking after the children and paying the taxes. Later Bezalel studied techniques of growing flowering plants in greenhouses and set up Israel's first modern greenhouse, along with two other Indian Jewish partners, signaling the start of a virtual revolution in the field of horticulture. He mastered the technique called ‘fertigation', where every drop of water provided to a plant is supplemented with a proportional percentage of fertilizers. In 1964 he was awarded the Israeli PM's award for best exporter of flowers to Europe; in 1994, he was conferred with the prestigious Kaplan Prize for contribution to horticulture, and in 2006 India honored Bezalel with the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman.

If you travel to Moshav Nevatim, the dust-blown, palm-tree studded community on the northern edge of Israel’s Negev desert, you can now see a humble little synagogue with that enormous past. The Kerala Synagogue, as it is known by, was built in the style of the synagogues of India’s Cochini Jews. And they made sure of one thing, no more intercommunity marriages, they all married outside linking up with Ashkenazi, Moroccan, or other Jews. The Bene Israel Jews, the bigger community, once liberated by their Cochin brethren in India, did not fare that well in comparison.

Some who remember their old abode mention a desire to live their last days in Kerala, still remembering lines from the Indian national anthem and a few old Malayalam film songs. It is said that most Cochin Jew houses have a curry leaf tree and other tropical trees, like mango and papaya. Some are proud to state that they are different in tradition, in food, ways of worship, in a few rituals and in the ‘look' of course. In the early days, they would regularly eat what is termed “traditional nadan food,”- like kootans, appam and add ‘vepala' in the curries. Among the other distinctions of the community is their wearing ‘white' at funerals as against ‘black' worn by the other Jews from elsewhere. Their lyrics and the music in their prayers are more Indian. Some of the earlier arrivals continued to wear ‘mundus' and saris but now women sometimes wears the ‘Salwar kameez’. Sometimes they celebrate festivals like Onam and of course, remember to popularize the food - Matamey Cochin (“Cochin delicacies”) is a business operated by eight local women between the ages of 55 and 65 who host Cochin-style meals in their homes or in the local hospitality tent. For more about this read the fine article linked here 

And they meet once a year, in March, when they get together near the Dead Sea. They sing, narrate stories of their ‘motherland' Kochi, and share memories. Even though they are now a mixed race, Bezalel continues – “The trend is that no Cochin Jew marries another from the same group. None of us talk Malayalam at home so my children don't know the language at all. We are united by one language, Hebrew. It is mandatory for any emigrant in Israel to learn Hebrew for which the government even provides an allowance.” Sometimes they think back of the land they left, of the serene backwaters and the freedom they enjoyed. A place where planes don’t scream through overhead or rockets blow up, where they perhaps lacked the excitement, but where they were equals.
Ruby will always have the last word in this article – She said – Some people write that the Cochin Community of Jews is dying. They don’t realize that a root from that tree is shooting up in Israel and starting to blossom. As long as we keep up some of our traditions, I hope that this community will never die…

Ruby of Cochin – Ruby Daniel
Leaving Mother India – Ellen Goldberg, Nathan Katz
The Sephardi Diaspora in Cochin India - Ellen Goldberg, Nathan Katz
Daytona Beach morning journal – Jan 19, 1969
The Last Jews of Kochi by Joshua Newton - Jewish Journal
Women sing, men listen - Malayalam folksongs of the Cochini, the Jewish Community of Kerala, in India and in Israel - Martine Chemana
He made deserts bloom – Hindu article Jan 18th 2012
Kerala’s Cochini Jews Meld into Israel - Debra Kamin 
Encyclopedia of the Jewish Diaspora: Origins, Experiences, and Culture, Volume 1  By Mark Avrum Ehrlich
The Cochin community in Israel video 1, video 2


Because what you read matters…

Allen Lane, Pelican, Penguin and Krishna Menon

Was Allen Lane responsible for the animosity Krishna Menon had against Britain and for that matter against other Western countries?  What exactly was their relationship and for that matter the exact involvement of Menon with the paperback empire of Allen Lane? This had intrigued me for some time, so I got to work unearthing the details. It was an interesting journey, to say the least.

The story actually starts in Britain, during the second decade of the 20th century, with two high school going brothers Richard and Allen Williams, the latter being the older one by 3 years. The elder who had some aversion to sports, got involved in various kinds of mischief as the younger took to cricket. They were nephews of John Lane Senior who owned a reputed book firm named Bodley Head (named after Sir Thomas Bodley), which had been publishing among others, Oscar Wilde since 1887.

John Lane had a falling out with his partner Elkin Mathew and after the split, retained the name Bodley Head and moved to Piccadilly. In 1918, Allen was asked if he wanted to join his ageing 63 year old uncle in the book business. Allen was not sure if chasing and bedding girls were his passion or books. As the legend goes, he chose the latter and became Lane’s apprentice, office boy and dogsbody (a person who is given boring, menial tasks to do). There was one condition attached, that Allen had to change his surname to Lane from Williams which he did and soon after, and the 16 year old boy was at work at the Vigo St in London.

Richard moved to Australia to learn fruit drying and later joined the British armed forces there. By now, it was 1921 and Allen was not too enthusiastic with the way his life was going though he found opportunities to hobnob with high society, cultivating relationships with a large number of high level dignitaries and popular writers. Soon enough, he leapt up the ranks to become a member of the Bodley Head board and not much later, the company secretary.

But matters were however, soon to go south in the publishing scene. His uncle John Lane died of pneumonia in 1925 and in 1926, and Richard Lane came back from Australia. Publishing and financial problems occurred one after the other and Allen was in no end of trouble. But Allen’s desire to become big in the book world remained paramount, Richard became an editor in the family firm as Allen became the CEO as the third brother John joined to look after overseas exports.

But how did Krishna Menon from Calicut land up in the midst of these hyperactive brothers? Menon, after attending schools in Calicut, continued at the Zamorin’s college and then the Presidency College - Madras majoring in History and economics. Madras Law College was next, during which he got involved with the Theosophical movement of Annie Besant. In 1924, she sponsored his trip to Britain, for six months of further studies and to secure a teaching diploma. That 6 month plan extended for all of 26 years after Menon completed a teaching assignment at Hertfordshire. Menon then applied to the LSE and as fate would dictate, met Harold Laski. Laski would go on to introduce him to many labor party leaders in Britain as well as eminent writers and intellectuals. Menon also started to work in right earnest for the India league. He continued with his LSE studies obtaining a bachelors (studying at night) and two master’s degrees (his PhD application was not accepted as he was considered a disruptive student) and attended the Middle temple bar. Influenced by the freedom movement, he published numerous articles and leaflets and spoke at length at many meetings distinguishing himself as a fiery orator. He also got involved in British domestic politics as a labor party member.

Sheila Grant Duff the eminent journalist found him an impressive and rather frightening figure. She remarked in her memoirs that the Menon of those days appeared as if he had stepped out of the tomb of Tutankhamen, saturnine, emaciated and limping heavily on a tall walking stick. Other accounts show that he also had this disconcerting habit of announcing his own imminent death.

From here on, we start to notice an inconsistency in the various accounts relating to Menon’s association with the Lane brothers. We will see that Lane first admitted to a working partnership with the bookish Menon, but later changed his stance deciding to corner all glory for himself and scoff at Menon’s involvement in his business. Anyway let us find out how the matters actually progressed.

Lane biographer Jeremy Lewis records – When Lane got to meet Menon, he was a penniless agitator
and pamphleteer living off tea, potatoes and two-penny buns in a garret off Gray’s inn at near St Pancras. Menon was dallying around with India league matters but also had to earn a living and that is how he secured an editor’s position at Bodely Head. Ronald Boswell, Bodley Head’s director hired the serious minded, socialist leaning and serious looking V.K. Krishna Menon to work on a nonfiction series. Menon was what they called a ‘lightning fast reader’, who could finish a detective book in under an hour (In comparison his then colleague Allen Lane hardly read any book, but then Lane was the one who had the family connections).

From 1932 to 1936, V. K. Krishna Menon worked as an editor at the Bodley Head, launching a series called the Twentieth Century Library, which in the words of The Times, still provides ‘an intellectual thrill’, included authors like Eric Gill, J. A. Hobson, Noel Carrington, Norman Bentwich, Raymond W. Postgate, Naomi Mitchison, H. L. Beales, J. H. Drieberg, Theodore Komisarjevsky, David Glass, M. A. Abrahams, Ralph Fox and Winifred Holtby. He also edited another list named Topical Books working for Walter Hutchinson at Selwyn Blount which listed authors like Michael Foot, George Lansbury and Ellen Wilkinson.

It was during the Bodley Head phase and with Duff’s support that Menon’s path crossed with somebody who was to become a great player in world affairs and Independent India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru (they had casual meetings twice before). Nehru had just completed his autobiography while in a British jail and was looking to get it published in Britain.

In November 1935 Nehru met Menon the then Secretary of the India League in London and found him to be able and earnest, but with the virtues and failings of an intellectual. Menon was highly thought of in left-wing labor circles of London and Menon, assisted by Duff, took care of much of Nehru’s arrangements during that visit. 

Nehru had originally planned to get his book published by Unwin based on CF Andrew’s recommendation, but was very unhappy with the protracted discussions, the amount of editing done and the meagre terms offered. Menon dissuaded him from working with Unwin and persuaded Lane at Bodley Head to publish it. Stanley Wolpert explains that Lane quickly agreed to publish Nehru after meeting him in 1935 over a lunch and after reading the draft over a week’s period. Nehru was quite wary about presentation of his book for publication and had a lengthy correspondence with Menon before it came out to a resounding success.

Late in 1935, Bodley Head went into liquidation, and the following year it was bought by a consortium of the publishers George Allen & Unwin Ltd, Jonathan Cape, and J. M. Dent. Nehru who had not been paid his royalty in full, was recommended by Menon and others to sue Lane and the new owners, but he did not and finally a part of the remaining royalties as per British bankruptcy law (a solatium) was eventually paid by Unwin. Unwin says that he was originally a little wary about publishing Nehru’s book as he was not sure if the British Government would approve it, but later noted the irony saying that his deal would have proved better, financially.  

In the literary world, the market was getting tough and book prices were falling, Seven shillings and sixpence for a hardbound was too much for most people. With a new business plan of mass publishing of 20,000 copies per book to break even, the Lane’s decided on publishing a set of reprints as paperbacks priced at 6 pennies per book and to build a stock of 200,000 books. After toying with names like Dolphin Books and Porpoise Books, the team settled on Penguin Books and a young Bodley Head artist called Edward Young was sent off to London Zoo to sketch the birds and came up with the engaging logo. Ten out-of-copyright novels, short stories, and poetry collections were released simultaneously and sold at the low cost of six pence each, which is the equivalent of around $1 to $2 in modern currency.

By 1936, Penguin was incorporated on its own. There were three types of Penguin’s: novels, in orange and white jackets; detective stories, in green and white; and popular biographies, in blue and white. Booksellers were initially alarmed, and the brothers struggled to get an order for 70,000 copies against the budget of 200,000.

After a slow and agonizing start, buyers soon got to like what they saw and the order books swelled. In no time, sales soared and a Penguin got sold every 10 seconds. The brothers stockpiled books in the crypt of the nearby Holy Trinity church to deal with the deliveries! Within a year they had sold 6 million books and new authors were added to the list. George Orwell wryly commented, "The Penguin Books are splendid value for sixpence, so splendid that if other publishers had any sense they would combine against them and suppress them." George Bernard Shaw said, "If a book is any good, the cheaper the better." The successful brothers purchased a yacht. Allen’s book empire foundations had been laid.

It was in 1936 that Lane got the idea of starting the non-fiction Pelican series. Menon suggested that not only do the Lane’s do reprints, but also publish original works of famous authors. Krishna Menon lined up an impressive number of contacts, not only in the political but also in the educational world with his contacts. He was the one who introduced some of his influential acquaintances and friends to the Lanes.

Among these were the broadcaster and secretary of the British Institute of Adult Education, W. E. Williams, and H. L. Beales, LSE faculty member. They agreed that the books envisioned by Krishna Menon would be useful, promising their support. This is how the Pelican series came into existence. Krishna Menon became its general editor. The first title released was GB Shaw’s Intelligent Woman’s guide to socialism, capitalism, Sovietism and fascism, with Menon’s support. According to Madhavan Kutty, Shaw’s book never left Menon’s side till his death.

As Lengyl records - The early titles of the Pelicans reflected Krishna Menon's eclectic tastes. They included a reprint of one of his favorite books by Elie Halevy, A History of the English People; Julian Huxley's Essays in Popular Science; Vision and Design, by the English painter and critic Roger Eliot Fry; Social Life in the Insect World, by Jean-Henri Fabre, the French entomologist; The Mysterious Universe, by Sir James Jeans; Literary Taste, by Arnold Bennett; and Civilization, by Clive Bell, the art and literary critic. Subsequent volumes included works by Harold Laski, Krishna Menon's idol; the unbelievably prolific H. G. Wells; Harold Nicolson, famed as a diplomat and author; Sir Norman Angell, Nobel Prize laureate; and Wickham Steed.

By this time the Axis powers were throwing their weight around in the world Hitler's Germany, Mussolini's Italy, and the war lords' Japan. Krishna Menon waged his own cold war against them as the editor of the Pelicans. He published reprints of Blackmail or War?, by the "French Cassandra," Genevieve Tabouis, and Edgar Ansel Mowrer's Germany Puts the Clock Back.

Towards the fall of 1938, we see turbulence in the relationship between Lane and Menon and both seem to be complaining about each other. Lane arguing that Menon had not updated him on the progress with second list of books and Menon stating that Lane had not updated him on contractual negotiations with the authors. Lengyl opines – The unbusinesslike Krishna Menon had no contract with the businesslike Lanes, and so their cooperation faded into a dense cloud of misunderstandings.

There was perhaps another matter troubling Lane, as the British government had by that time started tracking Menon and labeled him as a communist sympathizer. We get a hint of it from Ethel Mannin’s later outburst to Lane that two of Lane’s editors John Lehmann and Krishna Menon ‘were communist’ and therefore Lane was also one by association. Perhaps the businessman in Lane was alarmed, even though he was also considered to be often leaning to the left.

What happened next was a confrontation in a Soho restaurant. Lewis narrates the event that took place, thus – The truth of the matter was that Lane, mercurial and easily bored found the austere and unconvivial Menon a far from kindred spirit and was happy to freeze him out. Menon lectured him for an hour in a Soho restaurant and Lane who could neither hear nor understand what Menon was trying to say, finally lost patience and called him a bottleneck, at which Menon stormed out in a rage. Menon, ill, undernourished and overworked, felt bruised and isolated. As Morpurgo emphasizes, there was no overt act of dismissal, instead he was eliminated by being ignored, his note unanswered, his editorial suggestions disdained.

As Menon was still continuing to spar with the Lane’s through his lawyer complaining about delays in replies and Lane’s inaction, Lane himself went away on a pleasure tour to India while his attorney Dick formally terminated Menon’s relationship with Pelican, paying him just GBP 125. Ironically Menon’s lawyer walked away with that money and characteristically, Menon forgave him stating that the man after all, had a wife and child, so perhaps had a greater need for the money. Lane on the other hand hobnobbed with Nehru in Delhi, spent a lot of money meeting bigwigs and maharajas and professed (or appeared to) shock at the bad conditions in India. Williams, the person Menon had brought in, took the ‘Allen’s favorite ‘position from then on and soon enough he and Lane became thick friends.

Thus ended the relationship between Lane and Menon. They did not part friends and Lane remained one among Menon’s bitter enemies. While Lane always remembered Menon with great animosity, Menon graduated to higher ground stating years later that he was always the first to read every Pelican released, even after leaving the firm. In the case of Lane, it was not so, Tony Godwin states that the mere mention of Menon’s name made Lane’s voice seethe with venom and that it gave him goose pimples just to see ‘that amount of animosity’ in another! Perhaps there was more to the enmity, we may find out some day….

When Lane visited India in 1938, he discovered that the Pelicans outsold Penguins in India, understanding that escapist literature was not fodder for the poor Indian student and he preferred to spend it on solid books which would help him secure a better life. Did Menon know this small fact? Perhaps not, but it would have gladdened him, for that was his always mission.

Lane’s biographer Stuart Kells on the other hand believes that Menon famously came to dislike anybody who reminded him of Allen, after this event: and that included English publishers, Englishmen, English speakers, Europeans and whites. Anyway as Lane’s fortunes surged, so did Menon’s. After the event, Menon wanted to start a publishing house and printing press at Calicut as well as a Malayalam newspaper according to Janaki Ram, but the idea never took off. He of course, went on to become the Indian High commissioner in London, a confidante of Nehru, a cabinet minister and all that…

Lane did well for a time, his decision to publish Lady Chatterley's Lover brought him acclaim and riches, as well as paving the way for a permissive society. On 1st July 2013 Penguin and Random House officially united to create Penguin Random House, the world's first truly global trade book publisher. The penguin series flourished and the Pelican series continued on till 1990 after which it was disbanded. It was revitalized, to take flight again in 2014.


Penguin and the Lane Brothers: The Untold Story of a Publishing Revolution - Stuart Kells
Allen lane – King Penguin – J E Morpurgo
An eventful chapter in Anglo US Publishing history – Victor Wheybright
Ayahs, Lascars and Princes: The Story of Indians in Britain 1700-1947 - Rozina Visram
The Business of Books: How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing - André Schiffrin
Penguin Special: The Life and Times of Allen Lane - Jeremy Lewis
Krishna Menon - Emil Lengyel
A History of Cultural Studies - John Hartley
Nehru – A tryst with destiny – Stanley Wolpert

  1. The spin of Lane dreaming up the Penguin idea - The story goes that in 1934 Lane was returning by train from a weekend visit to Agatha Christie in Devon. He found himself on the platform of Exeter station and was not able to find any book worth reading. While travelling back to London he had the idea of producing good quality literature which could be cheap enough for a larger public to be able to buy, and could, perhaps be sold from a vending machine. He thought sixpence (the cost of a packet of ten cigarettes at the time) would be the right price at which to pitch the books. He broached this subject to his brothers and they agreed. This is a corporate story which people who have studied and written about tend to disbelieve since lane was not much of a reader. As they say the lie uttered often becomes a truth, for Lane many years later, when scoffing at Menon mentions vaguely of seeing a girl at Exeter or San Pancras station asking for Pelican books instead of using the term Penguin and that was how Pelicans were born!
  2.  R K Laxman states in 2004 - ‎Particular mention here must be made of Morarji Desai and V.K. Krishna Menon for sparing no effort to help me gain some modest success and popularity in my career – That was a surprise I got during all this research.
  3.  Menon and Freudian slip – The 1938 Pelican book advertisement on Freud’s book Psychopathology of Everyday life asks – Why do you forget things you ought to remember? Make slips of the tongue, of the pen? Do things you didn’t mean?.. It was perhaps this advertisement that brought in the usage Freudian slip to everyday conversation. One could attribute it to Pelican, Allen Lane or…for that matter Krishna Menon…You decide
  4. Wheybright who later suffered in similar fashion under Lane, recounts an event when Menon came rushing into the crypt stating that he had secured GB Shaw’s approval in publishing Shaw’s book as a Penguin. Lane who had a brainwave of starting the Pelican series after hearing the aforesaid woman’s mis-remark, decided to publish Shaw’s book as a Pelican instead (after arguments with Menon who said it may not be quite sound legally).
  5. It is also believed that Lane fought with Menon after Menon tricked him into publishing EM Forster’s ‘Passage to India’. But that does not sound right for ‘A Passage to India’ was published on 4 June 1924 by the British imprint Edward Arnold, and then on 14 August in New York by Harcourt, Brace and Co. Even if indeed a Penguin classics reprint was made in the late 30’s or early 40’s, the content of the book was well known to the public already!


Who achieved greatness, Menon or Lane?

Krishna Menon, the idealist, fared badly in the fickle public’s eyes– as the Times obituary said – A remarkable but unlikeable man who worked untiringly all his life for his country, yet never received a nation’s gratitude.

Allen Lane – Like most great leaders, Allen was a myth maker. Many of his myths were about himself, some were almost true, some close to being downright lies, and not a few half-truths made entirely because he had come to believe them. (JE Morpurgo- The King and I - Blackwoods magazine 1979).

Allen lane – courtesy Guardian UK, most others Wikipedia and Google images…thanks to the photographers and with due acknowledgment


The East India Traders of Old Salem

And the first Indian in Salem…..

Most people have concentrated on the connections India had with Britain in the centuries and decades leading eventually to Indian Independence. However, for a brief period of time, there existed a robust amount of trade between the American state of Massachusetts and India. Bombay, Calcutta and Madras were the destinations of choice to some of the early merchant sailors of the cities of Salem and Boston. While they traded in traditional items such as textiles, spices and so on, these ships even went on to carry exotic items like ice from the Walden pond across the wide oceans, a topic I had written about earlier. The time period between 1780 and 1850 was a time when the sea routes to India were shared by the Americans. And that was also the time when the first Indians visited America.

The British East India Company started trading with Indian merchants at the start of the 17th century and were in joint control of the sea coasts of India, though sharing some power with the Portuguese and the Dutch. Soon the members became incredibly wealthy, and were able to form a complete monopoly by the 18th century. Even though the French were rivals to some degree, Indian goods were in high demand in the post Industrial revolution Europe and the standards of living improved drastically in Britain. Britain and the EIC went on to become more imperialist and monopolist in their approach resulting in the enforcement of tea act in America which led to rebellions, the Boston tea party and eventually the 1776 American declaration of Independence. But things continued as before in subservient India where the British government taking over from the EIC made merry and continued with the enriching of the imperial coffers and themselves.

America which had just become independent, were also eyeing this lucrative business resulting from Indian contacts. The state of Massachusetts was foremost in matters of maritime adventures and was home to wealthy merchants. In fact Salem which was in 1726 just 100 years old in age as a European settlement deriving its name from the Hebrew word Shalom or peace, went on to top the exploits at sea. Until 1763, the maritime industry of Salem, did well on account of its good fishing exploits and during the revolution the sailors became privateers hell-bent on capturing British ships. Salem soon became numero uno in this business with about 50 armed ships and after the revolution these took to the open oceans looking for trade. One of the big ship owning merchants was Richard Derby. 

EH Derby
Towards the end of the revolution, he handed over the management of the family business to his second son, Elias Hasket Derby, who was destined to become the foremost American merchant of his time. By 1776, three of the peace-loving Derby’s ships were destroyed by the British and so he decided to arm his fleet (25 owned and 25 partnership owned ships, 158 ships in total at Salem). He also possessed larger 300 ton ships and two of them were the well-armed Grand Turk and Astraea. Ships like the Grand Turk and Astrea, though only of some 300 tons burden, were too large for coastwise and West Indies trade.

Salem had a population of roughly 5,000 during this period and as we saw its mariners early established quite a daring reputation.  It is said that they followed the advice of the old salt:   “Always go straight forward, and if you meet the devil, cut him in two and go between the pieces.” 

This aggressive American merchant Elias Hasket Derby promoted discovery of new avenues, sailing routes and markets. At Derby Wharf, he built up one of the leading mercantile establishments in the United States, and through the development of his extensive trade to Europe, the East Indies, and China did a great deal to promote the growth and prosperity of the country. We see that by 1790, Salem had become the sixth largest city in the country, and a world-famous seaport and that Derby’s ship Grand Turk had sailed to the Chinese exporting port of Canton.

On the second voyage of the Grand Turk to the Isle of France (Mauritius), which began in December 1787, Mr. Derby sent along his eldest son, Elias Hasket Derby, Jr., a young man 21 years of age, to serve as his agent. This move proved to be a wise one, for, during the 3 years he spent in the East, the young man formed profitable relationships with the leading merchants at Madras, Bombay, and Calcutta, and had a hand in breaking the monopoly of the British East India Company.

EH Derby Jr
As American vessels did business at Mauritius, the Dutch and Portuguese collaborated with these new traders and the British had no choice but to admit American vessels to the ports of India on the basis of the most-favored foreigners. This decree went into effect about the time Elias Hasket, Jr., arrived at the Isle of France. Derby vessels were allowed access to Madras, Bombay, or Calcutta for cotton and other India goods. On the arrival of a ship from the East at Derby Wharf a small part of her cargo would be sold in Salem and much would find their way to Boston, New York, or Philadelphia, and even back to Europe if the price there was better. Starting in In 1788 Hasket continued to trade in India throughout the late 1780s, eventually returning home in 1790. The Derby ships were to frequent Indian shores with marked regularity after the initial establishment of the relationship. “Boston was the Spain, Salem the Portugal, in the race for Oriental opulence,” writes historian Samuel Eliot Morison  and Salem’s hugely profitable trade with the Orient transformed this hardscrabble New England seaport into a global powerhouse and, by the early 1800s, the wealthiest city per capita in the United States. Derby’s business thrived and he is considered to be America’s first millionaire.

But interestingly, while Derby Jr from Salem was trading with Madras, a chap from Madras was destined to American shores and appears in the annals of history as one of the, if not the first Indian to formally visit and live in America for a while. The year is 1790.

It all started with Derby’s acquisition of the 140 ton copper bottomed brig Sultana and a visit to Bombay on the ship together with sister ship Peggy during the fall of 1788. That was the very first time an American ship touched Indian shores (An earlier ship Unites States visited French Pondicherry in 1784). They visited various ports on the west coast of Malabar in addition to Bombay. The cotton that was shipped back to Salem in 1789 on the sister ship Peggy found few buyers, and the rough cotton proved unpopular. They wanted coffee in America! So the cotton was sent to Liverpool.

An EastIndaman
Derby went on the Sultana to Madras, caught dysentery and to add to the discomfiture found that there were no buyers for his American wine in Madras. He spent awhile in an ‘out of town’ plantation recuperating. Meanwhile on the west coast, the Maratha piracy was picking up and the seas were a little dangerous for the Americans. But remember that these America ships were privateer ships too once and knew how to handle such threats!

This was when the ships Henry, Lighthouse and Atlantic joined the team scouting or trade in India. They visited various ports in Malabar and the Coromandel, Ceylon included and were the first to fly American colors at Calcutta in 1789. Eventually Sultana was sold off in 1789 in Madras and Henry was to proceed back to Salem. Henry was loaded with Cotton of which a large amount was disposed of in Mauritius. The space was loaded with Bourbon Coffee. The Lighthorse went on to become the first American ship to touch Canton.

Henry was captained by Benjamin Crowninshield (Derby’s cousin). Captn John Gibaut, a well-educated man, who was related to him through his mother, accompanied him. Benjamin happened to be Derby’s school buddy and both he and Crowninshield were to make big names in the India trade. Derby and friends were finally returning to Salem, flush with profits from India, three years after Derby Jr had set out to the east. John Gibaut, we see was a Harvard graduate and mariner from Salem, the son of Edward Gibaut and Sarah Crowninshield.

But there was one exotic item in that had come on the ship Henry which the Americans were to observe and record for the first time. Henry incidentally sailed from Calcutta to the West Indies. Gibaut and the Indian man thence proceeded to Salem on another Derby vessel.

The Indian man as he was known since then, was a person presumably from the Indian Coromandel coast, a Tamilian perhaps. Regrettably his name was never recorded by anybody and even though he spent a few months at Salem, it is quite an anomaly that we cannot find his real name anywhere or his antecedents. Was he Gibaut’s servant, a lascar, a dubash (translator), a bania or chetty trader or was he Gibaut’s friend? It is very difficult to make a conclusion. Some accounts mention him as Gibaut’s servant and that he joined the voyages in March 1790.
Ft St George Madras 1754

It was perhaps not the first time a person of Indian origin visited the American shores. Many British merchantmen ships had lascars from Bombay, Cochin or Malabar on their ships. So surely others preceded the Indian man of 1790. It is clear that there were others brought into America by British as slaves. In fact they date back to 1719 and are quite a few in number though details are sketchy. But this happens to be the first on record. Now let us see what more we can find out about ‘the Indian man’ of Salem.

What he did for the next few months is not clear but it is believed that the Indian man spent the winter in Salem and left with Gibaut on the ship Astrea, back to India in May 1791.

Rev Bentley
William Bentley records in his diary - Had the pleasure of seeing for the first time a native of the Indies from Madras. He is of very dark complexion, long black hair, soft countenance, tall, & well proportioned. He is said to be darker than Indians in general of his own cast, being much darker than any native Indians of America. I had no opportunity to judge of his abilities, but his countenance was not expressive. He came to Salem with Capt. J. Gibaut, and has been in Europe.

In 1799, Salem’s globe-traveling sea captains and traders established the city’s East India Marine Society, whose bylaws charged members to bring home “natural and artificial curiosities.” We see a number of them at the Peabody, Salem and other museums of Massachusetts. As is explained - The city seal of Salem, Massachusetts, features neither a black-clad Puritan elder nor an American eagle but, instead, a robe-and-slippered Sumatran dignitary standing next to a row of palm trees. Below him, the city motto: Divitis Indiae usque ad ultimum sinum (“To the farthest port of the rich East”). It was to the “rich East,” indeed, that Salem owed its brief but dazzling period of commercial glory.

The Astrea with Gibaut as master faced a lot of misfortune and in 1793 the Sultan of Pegu detained it for his own use and held Gibaut a hostage. But as it appears Gibaut spent time collecting curiosities in Burma for Rev Bentley’s museum. The Astrea was misused by the Sultan and had to be condemned in Calcutta. He sailed back on the Henry but was waylaid by the British this time at the Cape of Good Hope. Three years later Gibaut was back in Salem after these hair raising adventures.

Gibaut was an expert mathematician and the first American Navigator, who introduced the practice of Lunar observations, into the USA. He was briefly involved earlier in the survey of Salem but eventually went back to sea and his work was completed by the eminent  Dr Bowdich. He fell ill and returned to Salem in 1801 when his friend Crowninshield recommended Thomas Jefferson to make him a collector of Boston port, which did not work out but he went on to become collector of Gloucester. He retained the position until his death in 1805

The Derby family continued on course with the India trade. But things were not rosy for too long. As the American shipping prosperity increased, resentment at Britain increased and the British started what they called impression. By 1811, the British Royal Navy had impressed (which was the Royal Navy’s practice of removing seamen from American merchant vessels) at least 6,000 mariners who claimed to be citizens of the United States. In addition to impressments, Americans were dismayed by British agitation of the native population on the western frontier. Congress declared war on June 18, 1812.

As the Salem vessels and their sailors were being kidnapped by the British at high seas, and the trade embargo was brought about by President Jefferson, the Salem merchants had a choice of either braving it out or sitting still (as they said – swallow the anchor) at home. But as the days of glory vanished, what they chose to do is a story for another day.

Essex Institute Historical collections (Vol 98)-  Elias Hasket Derby – Richard H McKey
The Diary of William Bentley - William Bentley
The United States and India 1776-1996 – MV Kamath
Salem's Part in the Naval War with France - James Duncan Phillips
"That Every Mariner May Possess the History of the World": A Cabinet for the East India
Marine Society of Salem - James M. Lindgren
Merchant Venturers of old Salem – Robert Peabody
The maritime history of Massachusetts – Samuel Eliot Morison

Pics – Wikipedia, (Rev Bentley)