Making Sense of Malabar: The Major, the Menon, and the Meaning of Plants

Making Sense of Malabar: The Major, the Menon, and the Meaning of Plants

Lisa Rosner, Ph.D
Distinguished Professor of History, Stockton University
IASH Fellow, 18 April - 15 June 2018

            In the spring of 2018, I had the wonderful experience of being an IASH Fellow for two months. I wish it had been longer! In addition to the excellent facilities, I benefited so much from the collaboration with other Fellows and scholars in and around Edinburgh. It is, I believe, not at all a coincidence that I ended up spending most of my time researching another collaboration, one that had been buried in the archives for some 200 years: the close working relationship between Major Alexander Walker (1764-1831), then attached to the Malabar Commission of the East India Company, and Callinguel Cunhy Coroo, a senior clerk, or menon, in the EIC revenue office in Calicut (modern Kozhikode) on the Malabar Coast (modern Kerala).

            My investigation began with four manuscript volumes on plants of Malabar. Two of these consist of illustrations and are held by the Centre for Research Collections at the University of Edinburgh. The other two consist of descriptions of each illustration, and are held, together with the rest of the Walker of Bowland archive, in Special Collections at the National Library of Scotland. Both sets are clearly attributed to Walker and contain his bookplate. They are numbered, and the descriptions in the NLS volumes match the illustrations with the corresponding number in the CRC volumes. Internal evidence suggests that the illustrations and descriptions were compiled while Walker was stationed in Malabar from 1799-1801, and that he wrote the introduction and back matter some years later, perhaps during his retirement in the 1820s. It's not clear why these volumes, so obviously connected to each other, ended up in separate collections.

           Walker makes it clear that the volumes were based on native informants, and that makes them very interesting to modern historians, who as Johan Mathews noted, have been examining the figure of the native intermediary or interpreter, in order to explore the question, "how colonial was colonial knowledge?" To frame that question more precisely for our purposes, we might ask, To what extent was the knowledge included in the volumes on plants shaped by Walker's colonial, European perspective? As Walker made clear, he made no claims to being a scholar. Indeed, he wrote, "As a science I knew little or nothing of Botany." But he knew how to develop cordial relations with local elites -- as he put it, "men of rank, of property, of education" -- because that was, in fact, an important part of his position with the Malabar Commission, charged with governing the region after the Mysore Wars. For that reason, when he "wished to obtain some knowledge of the natural productions of this beautiful Country," he requested "the assistance of some intelligent natives" in obtaining "drawings and descriptions of many plants. One native made the drawings, and the account of the plants was translated from the writing of another. Specimens of plants that I was not acquainted with were brought from a distance for my observation and instruction. The drawings were made in my presence."

            This was not undertaken as part of his formal responsibilities as administrator. Instead, he framed it as a pleasant way for him to interact with local allies. As Walker explained in the front matter to the volumes, "In the remote regions of India I was frequently in situations where the Natives were my only Society. I found their conversation amusing and interesting. I was instructed in their manners and habits. In the process of communication they threw off that reserve which they commonly shew in their intercourse with Europeans...It was no difficult matter to acquire their confidence. It was only necessary to convince them that I had their good at heart. They were good humoured and easy to please. It was this disposition under these circumstances doubtless, that made them do many things that were agreeable to me, and which they perceived I was desirous of."

            Walker here presents himself as a compiler of vernacular knowledge, in a style we can find elsewhere in his archive. But the image conjured from the back matter is quite different. The text states that the compiler took descriptions of "different trees, herbs, and vinegars" from native Malabar translations of Sanskrit texts. It also includes the comment, "The height and thickness of trees are...guessed; but a little experience in looking at objects with a view to their measurement enables a person to form a judgement tolerably accurate of this circumstance. The trees are measured from the ground to the highest leafy branch; the thickness is taken by a line through the center of the trunk at its greatest diameter."

            Can this really be Walker? It doesn't sound very much like a man "who knew little or nothing of Botany." Instead, it sounds like someone who thinks in precise categories, but not those of European botany -- "trees, herbs, and vinegars,", not "trees and herbs" as we might expect -- and also of someone with considerable expertise in judging the height and thickness of trees.

            Once we are alerted to this second voice, we can find other examples. In the description of the "Konna" tree -- Kanikonna, or Golden Shower Tree, the state flower of Kerala -- it certainly seems to be Walker who explains to us that it is "a tree of middling size...with yellow flowers and seed in pods. The flowers are used in celebrating the feast of Vishu. It is necessary that the flower should be the first object presented to the sight of a Malabar on the morning of the day dedicated to that God." But then the second voice chimes in to provide more detail: "The flower is put in a basin, where a little rice is deposited, with it a bit of gold, usually a gold fanam [coin] and a coconut, the whole covered over with a clean cloth.   On the morning of the feast of Vishu each person of a family as they rise lifts the cloth that conceals the flower with circumspection and takes a reverential view of the flower. The observance of this ceremony ensures comfort and prosperity for the remainder of the year. The neglect of it will surely be attended with disgrace and distress."

            This second, distinctive voice is matched by distinctive visual features of the illustrations. I had the pleasure of consulting with Henry Noltie, from the Royal Botanic Gardens, who pointed out that the illustrations from Walker's volumes were anything but typical of contemporary images of Indian plants, whether drawn by Europeans or native artists (see For one thing, they are drawn in pencil; for another, they do not highlight fruit, flowers, or seeds, which would allow them to be identified by Linnaean categories of genus and species. I am grateful to Yuthika Sharma, lecturer in art history at Edinburgh University, who suggested I look at Indian artist Bhawani Das ( and to Malcolm Nicolson, professor of history of medicine at Glasgow University, for pointing me towards Alexander von Humboldt's Botanical Exploration of the Americas (

            Though the plants in Walker's volumes are detailed enough so that many can be identified from databases of Indian and Keralan plants, they don't seem to be part of the same visual vocabulary as any of these more well-known botanical artists. Most anomalous are the images of agricultural products such as the jack tree and the coconut (tengo), which include plants at various stages of growth, but again with little attention paid to contemporary botanical science. If I may return to the metaphor of the two voices, these images seem to be holding a very different conversation from other, more European-centric collections of botanical illustrations.


         But whose is this other voice? Walker doesn't tell us in the plant volumes, but after making a thorough search through his archives, I believe I can make a strong case for Callinguel Cunhy Coroo. The clearest evidence comes from the similarities between Walker's plant materials and another four-volume set in the Walker of Bowland archives, on Malabar castes. Like the plant volumes, this consists of two volumes of illustrations and two volumes of descriptions, with corresponding numbers linking the two sets. Unlike the plant volumes, Walker tells us exactly where he got his information. "I am indebted," he wrote,

...for the account of the distinction and establishment of Castes in Malabar to Callinguel Cunhy Coroo who was a Tien and consequently of the fourth class. Cunhy Coroo was my Menon or Clerk; and was a man full of information and intelligence. He had a superior and a manly understanding. His notions were liberal and in general of great practical soundness. I had many reasons to think well of his probity and principles, as well as of his understanding. He was a friend for whom I entertained a sincere esteem, and who from his attachment and integrity deserved my confidence. Cunhy Coroo tho' of a low Caste was conversant with the Sanskrit writings and literature of his Country, and had an extensive knowledge of the resources, the Institutions, and peculiar usages of Malabar.

            This is a pretty speech, but we have sound historical reasons for being skeptical: what could "friendship" mean between a European administrator and his Native menon? The archives provide some answers: they contain a series of letters from Cunhy Coroo to Walker that make it clear the esteem went both ways. "My Honored Sir," Cunhy Coroo wrote to Walker,

            It is a long time since I had the happiness of receiving a line from you but this I hope is merely on account of your being occupied in the more serious affairs of the Company...

            I beg leave also to say that I on my part have been very neglectful since the receipt of your letter to me dates in May last...but this was entirely owing to my not having any thing particular to communicate, [and not from] want of respect or attachment to you...

            By the Blessing of God and Secondly by your favour, I still remain in the same situation in the Principal Collectors Office. This together with a small extent of merchandize I carry on now does provide me and my family sufficiently for the present. I beg leave also to inform you that I have lately built a Pattamar boat valued about 15000 Rupees, and with which I traffic to Bombay.

            As I have the greatest desire to see you...and then only would be happy I will thank you to let me know of your arrival at Bombay...or I shall be prepared to see you on the coast...

From other letters we know that Cunhy Coroo oversaw translations of traditional Malabar manuscripts for Walker, packed and shipped plants for him, sent him gifts on his own account, and kept Walker informed on East India Company affairs in the district. We also can learn that Cunhy Coroo was well-regarded by other EIC administrators, who frequently consulted with him, as Walker had, on Malabar customs, laws, and traditions. It is very probable that he was the "intelligent native officer of the revenue" mentioned by Francis Buchanan in his published survey of Malabar, who took Buchanan into the field to explain local agricultural practices (Buchanan 2:477).

            The archives indicate that the relationship between the two men was rooted in mutual self-interest as well as esteem. Walker's position in Malabar was by no means secure. He was at that point only an acting, not a commissioned major, and his appointment rested on the continuation of the Malabar Commission. But the East India Company was riven by factions, and the Malabar Commission's supporters were not in the ascendant. It was very much to his advantage to have allies among the Native employees of the company, whose expertise was essential for smooth collection of both revenue and local intelligence. Cunhy Coroo, for his part, had every reason to appreciate Walker's support. Under the less sympathetic administrator who succeeded Walker, several Brahmins were appointed to the revenue office, and they "take every opportunity of showing themselves as fac totum," Cunhy Coroo wrote. If he, or any of the other employees who had served under Walker "chanced to have the least occasion," to speak to the administrator, "it is envied by them." They might have been frozen out of the revenue office permanently, had not another shift in the political climate replaced the unsympathetic administrator with one who had a better appreciation of Native expertise.  The archives suggest that Cunhy Coroo's correspondence, and Walker's support, were significant factors at the local level in that political shift.

            If we can agree that Walker and Cunhy Coroo collaborated in many ways, can we also connect Cunhy Coroo directly with the plant volumes? I believe we can, though through a circuitous route that involves a discussion of land tenures. It began with a formal request from Walker, while still part of the Malabar Commission:

To Cunhy Coroo:

No proper account has yet been obtained of the nature of the landed tenures in Malabar. The accompanying papers contain four several accounts differing from each other. I wish to reconcile them so that the names may agree together and the errors of each particularly pointed out -- I want besides an exact account and history of all the kinds of landed tenure in Malabar. This is requisite to be finished as soon as possible...

            The issue, Walker went on to explain, is that in trying to estimate revenue, they get different answers if they ask the hereditary landholder, or of the person who had the right to cultivate the land. He continued, "In your opinion, which method [for estimating revenue] deserves the preference and state your reasons for giving any particular method the preference or suggest a new or better one if such occurs to you."

            Cunhy Coroo's response was enormously detailed and touched on many aspects of legal and agricultural practice. On reading it carefully, we learn that when it is time for the cultivator to pay the landholder what he owes, the calculation was based in part on the stages of growth of the chief agricultural products, like the jack tree and the coconut. In fact, in the sections on the coconut and jack trees there are detailed charts on how much landholder and cultivator are owed, based on the size and growth of the plants.

            That, then, is the explanation of the anomalous drawings of jack trees and coconuts, above, depicting stages of growth.

They are not intended as scientific botanical drawings, but instead provide clear visual illustrations of a key point of land tenure and its implication for revenue collection. Walker, going through his plant volumes during retirement, must have thought himself that he should clarify that point, because he added a note, "vide report of Landed Tenures". Once that becomes our lens, we can go back through the volumes and find many, many more examples of precise information on plant cultivation and land use. My own quest for Cunhy Coroo's voice is only just begun.

            Walker's -- and Cunhy Coroo's -- volumes on plants, then, hold many meanings beyond the botanical. I see them as part of a genuine and far-ranging collaboration between two East India Company servants, European and Native, Scot and Malabar. For all that may have divided them, they were united in their efforts to make sense of -- to illustrate in text and image -- the culture, environment, and of course the revenue of the country they both cherished. I am delighted to have had the opportunity to listen to both their voices in my journey through their archives.

            I would like to thank IASH, the Centre for Research Collections at Edinburgh University, Special Collections at the National Library of Scotland, and Stockton University for their support of this research. The illustrations are my own photographs; they are used by permission of the Centre for Research Collections, Edinburgh University.


Select Sources

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Menon, Minakshi. "Transferable Surveys: Natural History from the Hebrides to South India." Journal of Scottish Historical Studies 38.1 (2018): 143-159.

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