John Daniel Munro and the history of Munroe Island, Kollam, Kerala

Munroe Island is 13.54 square kilometre strip of land surrounded by the backwaters of Ashtamudi Lake and the Kallada River. It is named after John Munro, the British Resident and the Deewan of Travancore. I dig into the history to know more about John Munro and it takes me to the Travancore at the end of the eighteenth century.

Munroe Island

Munroe Island

It is 1798. At a tender age of sixteen Raja Balaram Varma is ruling over Travancore. He is reigning over a diverse population of extremely old sects of Muslims and the Syrian Christians inhabiting the region since first millennium; low-caste fishermen, who got converted to Roman Catholicism; and a highly stratified Hindu Society. Among Hindus the Brahmins are at the elitist position having major land holdings; at the middle strata of the society are the Nairs, the military caste, some of its members own land and some work as managers to the land owning Brahmins; at the lowest level are the enslaved agriculture workers, the Pariah, the Pulaya, the Ezhara and the Nadars.

Around the same period of time, British are also increasing their influence in South India. They are sensing an opportunity to establish their own rule by making local kings dependent on them. They are coercing local kings into treaties with a promise to protect them from foreign invaders most feared among them is Tipu Sultan. The British cajole the kings into a treaty with a promise that after signing it they no longer need to maintain big armies, a huge financial burden for the cash-strapped states.

The kingdom of Travancore is suffering an acute mismanagement in revenue collection; corruption is rampant and the royal coffers are empty. So the kingdom of Travancore along with Cochin decides to enter into a treaty with British. The treaty demands a fixed pay-out in return for the protection.

Maharaja is under great influence of a corrupt nobleman, Jayanthan Sankaran Nampoothiri. Nampoothiri has murdered Raja Kesavadas, the previous Deewan, and has nominated himself as new Deewan. Maharaja is not happy with him, but he is not able to assert himself and his kingdom is characterized by intrigue and corruption. Ruthless and arrogant Deewan has even started to behave as the virtual ruler.

Deewan Nampoothiri is not bothered about the bad financial condition of the state and instead of bringing expenditure under control he is busy enjoying the luxuries with increased tax on the subjects. Velu Thampi, a Jagirdar, revolts against him and after a bloody civil war manages to get Nampoothiri exiled. Velu is now the new Deewan. However, he is also not able to improve the state of revenue collections and to meet the demand of money in lieu of British support. He realizes that as the kingdom is completely dependent on British army, the pay-out has been increased manifolds. Maharaja is now a mere puppets with no sovereign control over his own kingdom. Velu is a fighter and decides to fight against the British and to get rid of them. The bad luck looms over the kingdom. Velu Thampi’s revolution is curtailed and in 1809 he kills himself, dying as a martyr.

Velu Thampi (courtesy Amar Chitra Katha)

Velu Thampi (courtesy Amar Chitra Katha)

The king Balaram Varma convinces the British that he had no role in the revolt and Velu acted on his own. The British allows him to continue though now with much lesser army under his direct command and further increase in the pay-outs. Maharaja Balaram Varma dies in 1810 and is succeeded by Gowri Lakshmi Bai, daughter of his adopted sister. She is facing several conspirators, most notable among them is Kerala Varma, a distant cousin of Maharaja Balaram Varma. She also realizes that her Deewan Ummini Thampi is acting independent, and is unanswerable to her. The royal treasure is reducing at an alarming rate. All this alerted Rani, and one day, within one year of her occupying the throne, she sacks U.Thampi and appoints the British Resident Col John Munro, her new Deewan. A master-stroke from a political novice.

John Munro has a forceful and shrewd personality. He is also an accomplished linguist, being able to speak and write fluently in French, German, Italian, Arabic, Persian and several of the Indian dialects. The twin appointments make him the most powerful person in Travancore. However, instead of indulging in royal luxuries, he carries a number of reforms that change the history of Travancore.

Quaint water-alleys of Munroe island

Quaint water-alleys of Munroe island

Munro realizes soon that many of the district and village officials responsible for collecting tax revenues are corrupt. So to rein them in and to bring the much-needed administrative reforms, he limits their power only to the tax collection. In case of misconduct or corruption these officials can now be subjected to judicial trials. For judicial system he selects officers among the natives, the most respectable Brahmins, the Nairs and the Syrian Christians, maintaining a balance among these powerful sects of the society. Travancore thus becomes the first kingdom where the judicial system of 20th century is introduced.

He re-organizes and re-energizes the police department. He is also taking initiative to fight the deadly smallpox disease and in order to eradicate it from Travancore he starts India’s first vaccination department. However, he realizes soon that the vaccination department and the team supporting the program has aroused suspicion among locals. He requests Maharani Gowri Laxmi Bai to get vaccinated. Maharani whole-heartedly agrees to the cause. She is so convinced that she gets all her family members vaccinated as well. This complete faith in vaccination alleviates fear and misconceptions of many.

A solitary boat @Munror Island

A solitary boat @Munroe Island

John Munro respects the queen and has a soft corner for her. It is a common belief that he is discharging his duties with honesty. Time and again he also argues against the British on behalf of the Travancore state he represents.

Travancore has an oppressive caste system and an equally oppressive tax regiments for the downtrodden. Each strata in the society is oppressed by its upper strata and in turn oppresses its lower strata with equal vehemence. The social rule and the tax levied on lower castes are weird. Here is a list of a few of them.

The women of lower caste are required to pay “Mulakkaram – The breast tax” to cover their bosoms in public and the tax amount is calculated according to the size of the breast. The lower castes people are also subject to Oozhiyam where they can be involved in any business that involves strenuous work without paying any wage for the same. The people of lower castes are taxed for marriages, childbirth, and even for any death occurring in their family. The country boats, ploughs, carts, umbrellas, head-scarves, palm leaf, jaggery, the dry leaves used as fuel, huts the lower caste people live in and even their moustaches are taxed. There are taxes on oil mills, bows, iron and forges, exchanges, palanquins, hunting and on even on keeping civet cat. There is also an important tax called ‘purushantaram’, a tax of twenty-five percent normally levied on all hereditary property.

Munro convinces Maharani and she forbade slavery except in agriculture that is completely dependent on it.

Munroe island

Munroe island

Munro is also a shrewd Scot, well aware of the English interests. He believes that engaging local Christian population in state jobs will help him in garnering their support for the British interests in the region. Till this time, the foreign Christian invaders be it the Portuguese, or the Dutch, treated the Syrian Christians with suspicion and persecuted them similar to the other natives. Munro supports them. As a Christian Philanthropist he also wishes to revive the Syrian Church. He rescues Christians from compulsory services on Sunday and also from the temple taxes. He shows special interest in getting the Syrian scriptures translated to Malayalam. And as soon as the translation is ready he gets its copies printed and places them in all churches of the region.

During this time, a senior priest Pulikkottil Joseph Kathavar of the Malankara Church, expresses his desire to establish a seminary for training priests and a place to settle the newly converts. This piece of land provided by Col Munro is later named as Munro-Thuruth (Munro Island) in his remembrance.

A path into Munroe island

A path into Munroe island

Not everyone is happy with Munro though. In the name of revenue reforms he has seized sizeable Hindu temple properties with no compensation and is blamed for jumbling and mixing of the land records in such a manner that even when he retires, it becomes impossible to catalogue temple land from the Government land. Some people believe that in this manner he single-handedly annihilated the temples of the region by reducing their revenues drastically.

In 1814, John Munro resigns from his Deewanship and returns to his birth place Teaninich Ross-Shire in Scotland. He lived there until his death in 1858. Today he is remembered as one of the Greatest British administrators of Travancore and Cochin, in one hundred fifty years of British domination.

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5 Comments

  1. I learnt about Thomas Munro and then he start appearing at many places. I realized it was my ignorance than his contribution to the history. The following is the excerpt I read in “VijayaNagara” by Burton Stein. I am writing it here as it has interesting observation of Thomas Munro about Marathas and Tipu Sulatn.

    “Thomas Munro, a shaper of the colonial regime in the peninsula grasped this point firmly while he was a young soldier in the East India Company army. He seemed to see that Haider Ali Khan and his son, Tipu Sultan, had the ability and the determination to achieve the elusive quest for an effectively centralized political system. This would have been along the lines of Krishandevaraya, by subordinating chiefly authority. In 1790, he wrote to his father in Scotland comparing the Maratha and Mysore regimes and criticizing his superiors who thought Marathas the greater threat to English supremacy in the peninsula. Tipu Sultan’s regime , Munro wrote:

    “is the most simple and despotic monarchy in the world, in which every department, civil and military, possesses the regularity and system communicated to it by the genius of Hyder, and in which all pretensions derived from high birth being discouraged, all independent chief … subjected or extirpated, justice severely and impartially administered … a numerous and well disciplined army kept up, and almost every employment of trust and consequence conferred on men raised from obscurity gives the govt a vigour hitherto unexampled in India. [Marathas, by contrast were] … a confederation of independent chiefs possessing extensive dominions and numerous armies, now acting in concert, now jealous of each other, and acting for their own advantage, and at all times liable to be detached from the public cause … can never be a dangerous enemy to the English.

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