Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXX No. 17, January 1-15, 2021
The frequent disputes between the Left Hand and Right-Hand castes and their reconciliation presented the East India Company with its biggest challenge in the early days of their administration of the native town that had developed outside Fort St. George. This article recounts an interesting occasion from amongst the many colourful episodes of disputes, one that involved a major resettlement plan in the town.
According to Edgar Thurston in his seminal work Castes and Tribes of South India, the Left Hand (idankai) and Right-Hand (valankai) castes were distinctions in society whose origins were not traceable, with no references being made to them in tradition or literature. The customs and privileges to which each laid claim however became the major source of contention on many occasions. These scuffles that arose as a consequence were not always trifling to be ignored and were a feature that according to the legendary historian H.D. Love dated to the time of the first President of Fort St George, Aaron Baker. As early as the 1650s, Sir William Langhorne, the Governor of Madras had made an attempt to resolve the conflicts by assigning separate portions of the town for the ceremonies of each caste and prohibiting them from carrying out incursions into the territories of the other. These orders however were not strictly enforced and soon there were streets which were occupied by members of both castes. Matters reached a head in 1707, when the disputes lasted for a full year.
It all began in June, when a large contingent of members of the Right-Hand caste descended upon a wedding procession held by members of the Left-Hand caste in their own street and attempted to disrupt the proceedings. They were repelled by the Peddanaick and his force. A change in the system of agency which had resulted in a more open system whereby merchants from both castes could participate had left the members of the Right-Hand caste, in a dominant position hitherto, seemingly disillusioned and had added to the simmering tensions between the two sections. The next day, the Governor of Madras, Thomas Pitt sentenced the ringleaders of the mob to prison. He then ordered that a delegation comprising members of the two castes (Narrain and Surappa representing the Right, Colloway and Vincatty representing the Left), the Paymaster and the Gunner of Fort St. George undertake a survey of the town and clearly demarcate the areas belonging to both the respective castes. The committee met several times and a short time thereafter reported two streets (the Bridge Gate and Chief Peon streets) which were predominantly occupied by the members of the Left-Hand castes should be reserved for their use and that stones be put up at the expense of the Right-Hand caste demarcating the limits.
This gave rise to a peculiar situation, as a few members of the Right-Hand caste were living in those streets now demarcated as belonging to the Left-Hand caste. The Council ordered that these people sell their homes and relocate to the streets meant for them and that these streets meant for the Left-Hand caste were to be particularly ‘appropriated for them to pass in at their weddings and festivals’. Wary of further transgressions by both castes by feigning ignorance of the limits, the Council also ordered that the Paymaster put up ‘four stones at the cost of the Left-Hand caste and insert thereon in English and Gentoo the purport of the order’. These orders were duly complied with.
Matters took an interesting turn when on the night of August 12, 1707, a mysterious group of persons placed papers written in the ‘Malabar language’ (Tamil) on the four stones. The translated version read that they (the stones) had been erected in ‘contempt and derision of the Right-Hand cast, who will forfeit the Right of their Cast, if they do not destroy the others like Doggs, and tumble them down’. It also invoked the name of the Company and the King of England by way of a caution. At the bottom of the stones, a few pieces of skulls mixed with rice and ‘other mixtures’ denoting a ‘sort of an inchantment’ had been laid. This infuriated the Council, which ordered that notices be pasted on each stone and the gates of the English and the Native Town in all languages seeking information on the identity of the people behind this act and announcing a reward of a hundred pagodas to the informant. The heads of the Right-Hand Caste were sent for, who staunchly denied any involvement of their people in the matter. Interestingly, the Council suspected one of their own in the issue, for it recorded that ‘from the Translate of the paper it is easily to be inferred that some Europeans have had a hand in it, there being expressions that these people are wholly strangers to’.
A few days later, further trouble erupted when a wedding procession of the Right-Hand caste wended its way through a street demarcated for the Left-Hand caste. The Governor immediately sent out a party of soldiers and arrested nineteen of them. On the 19th of August, a large delegation of the Right-Hand caste presented a petition to him, which set out their grievances in full. According to the petition, it was alleged that the streets demarcated for the Left-Hand caste in the present arrangement had originally belonged to the Right-Hand caste and that it was the French invasion of Santhome that had caused trouble, with a large number of immigrants from there building their houses freely within both the pettahs without the knowledge of the Government. It added that more than a hundred houses and ‘several wells, churches, gardens and choultries’ belonging to members of their caste existed within the streets in which the stones had been erected and prayed that justice be rendered to them in the matter. This petition was followed by an exodus out of the Native Town of the members of the Right-Hand caste to Santhome.
The presenting of the petition was preceded by a speech by William Fraser which afforded Thomas Pitt an opportunity to guess the identity of the person behind the seditious note on the stones. With the purport of his address almost similar in content and word to the petition that followed, Pitt’s suspicion that Fraser had a role to play in the proceedings was more or less confirmed. When confronted, Fraser neither denied nor agreed to the charge and instead challenged Pitt to prove the allegations. This was deemed sufficient evidence of his complicity in the matter and Fraser was duly suspended.
On August 25, 1707 Pitt called for a meeting of twelve principal heads of each cast who were ‘shut in a room to adjust matters now in dispute’. After detailed deliberations, they arrived at a solution which comprised several terms. Peddunaickpettah would entirely belong to the Right-Hand caste, while Muthialpettah would belong exclusively to the Left. A massive relocation exercise was agreed upon, as per which members of a caste living in streets belonging to the other caste would start relocating their residences on or before December 1, 1707 with a cut-off date of June 1, 1708 being agreed upon for the completion of the exercise. It was also agreed that no one in a pettah could sell his residence to any person outside of his own caste. Peace was thus brokered. That even after the declaration of truce, the deserters to Santhome declared that they would not return until Fraser was reinstated identified the culprit beyond doubt.
The Council recorded on January 15, 1708 that the heads of the castes had after ‘having been some days in Pagoda’ settled all differences between them and had put them in writing and signed. The agreement involved the interchange of upward of 500 houses between the two parties.
Charges were framed against Fraser in November for abetting the rebellion and for his involvement in the matter. The Company however seems to have forgiven his role in the matter, as he would go on to be appointed Acting Governor of Fort St. George in 1709!