Friday, June 27, 2008

Hugh Crawford, Commercial Agent in Travancore during the19th Century

Hugh and Mary Ann Crawford

Readers of my blog may have noted that, in February 2008, I wrote an article titled “Some Royal Correspondence.” It dealt with an original letter dated 4th January 1893 sent by Maharajah Moolam Thirunal Rama Varma of Travancore (AD 1885-1924) to Mr. John Rohde, of the erstwhile Travancore Civil Service while the latter had gone to England for his holidays. Therein I had discussed at length on the historical personalities named in the letter.

I received a few mails from friends and readers on this article about which I felt very happy because it had created quite a bit of enthusiasm about the 19th century Travancore and some of its colourful personalities. But, the email received from Mr. Robert Collingwood from England was very special and most heartening to me because he happened to be the great great grand nephew of Jack (John) Rohde, who was the Commercial Agent to the Maharajah.

“John Rohde, like most members of his family, was born in India, as the son of an East India Company official who had been through the Company's college at Haileybury, and finished up as Inspector-General of Jails. Usually nicknamed Jack, he was the Commercial Agent to the Maharaja Moolam Thirunal. He had taken over from his father-in-law, Hugh Crawford, who had seemingly left under a cloud, about which not much is known.

About AD 1900, Jack Rohde retired to England with his wife Isabella. They lived in a large house near Reigate, called Cranham Lodge. They had two children. The son, called John like his father and grandfather, was a career officer in the Royal Engineers. He was reported missing in France on 28 Oct 1914, a few weeks after the start of World War I. Nothing was known about his death, although his father put advertisements in the newspapers appealing for any information.

Jack and Isabella's daughter Eleanor Sinclair Rohde became a great expert on gardens and the history of gardening, notably the uses of plants and herbs. She wrote many books on the subject and used to give talks and broadcasts. She was one of the first regular speakers on the BBC, from AD 1925 onwards.

Mr. Hugh Crawford who handed over his responsibilities to his son in law, Jack Rohde, around AD 1890 was well over 70 and retired to Bedford in England, where he lived with his daughters and grandchildren and died on 14 June 1896.

He had served at least four Maharajahs of Travancore starting from Maharajah Uthram Thirunal Marthanda Varma II (AD 1846-1860) to Ayilyam Thirunal Bala Rama Varma II to Visakham Thirunal Rama Varma V and to Moolam Thirunal Rama Varma VI (AD 1885-1924).

Robert is the great great grandson of Hugh Crawford. I got from Robert quite some information about Hugh Crawford, who finds mention in various pages of the book “A History of Travancore “ by P.Shangoonny Menon, First edition: 1878.

Hugh Crawford was born in Port Glasgow, Scotland, on 24 Jun 1816. He was presumably a civil engineer by profession. On 25th October 1850 he married Mary Anne Campbell, another Scot, at Point de Galle, Sri Lanka. They had 4 daughters, maybe more, born between 1851 and 1858, all in India.

The second of the children was the great grandmother of Robert and she was born at Alleppey. The younger siblings also were born somewhere in Travancore but the place is not specified.

Joanna and May at Alleppey circa AD 1892 (Crawford's daughter and grand daughter)

Alleppey, in Travancore was known as the Venice of the east with its various canals and the beautiful landscape. It is found reported that a 1000 feet long pier was built at the Alleppey beach by “Captain” Hugh Crawford in AD1862, which is still to be seen. Some records do exist to show that he was a “Captain”, which was indeed news to Robert.

Lighthouse at Alleppey circa AD 1892

Lighthouse at Alleppey now

Robert informs me that his father used to tell him about the lighthouse that Crawford built, though he used to speak of it as being at Cochin, where his own mother was born, rather than at Alleppey. This was confusion indeed as various documents do indicate that Crawford used to be mainly stationed at Alleppey and that he built the lighthouse at Alleppey around AD 1860 assisted by Mr. Collins, the civil engineer to the Maharajahs of Travancore and Cochin.

Robert, very kindly sent me an old photo, about the year AD1892 of Crawford’s daughter Joanna and his granddaughter May (grandmother of Robert) posing in front of a lighthouse, that looks very much like the one still standing at Alleppey today.

Mr. Crawford was the Commercial agent for the state of Travancore, and had joined the service of the Maharajah Uthram Thirunal prior to AD 1849. The role, as I could gather, was to advise the Maharajah on all commercial activities and to take needed steps for the benefit of the country and its people. Procuring all cereals, pulses, spices and even gold seemed to have been under his authority. Indeed, Mr. Crawford was a most energetic man who has done some stellar service to Travancore and its people. As the footnotes will explain, in the 1850s, when there was shortage of food grains in Travancore, he took some preemptive action under orders of HH Maharajah Uthram Thirunal Marthanda Varma, thus preventing many casualties.

Following are the excerpts from the book:

Page 475 of the History of Travancore from the earliest Times

Crops had failed in Travancore in AD 1853 (ME 1029).

----The land revenue, the source of the prosperity of the people and of commerce suffered severely. Paddy and provisions were sold at famine prices and even at those high rates, the necessaries of life, were not procurable in the country. It was in this year for the first time that Bengal paddy and rice were imported into Travancore, through the Sircar's Commercial Agent Mr. Crawford who displayed his usual energy in procuring large quantities of grain to save the lives of the famine-stricken.

Page 467

In the course of four months, a large quantity of pepper was received from the ryots and despatched to the Commercial Depot at Alleppey, where that energetic and painstaking Sircar Agent, Mr.H.Crawford effected a speedy and profitable sale of the stock, and with the proceeds of the sale, the ryots were paid and with the surplus, the costly ceremony Thulapurushadanam was performed in the year 1025(ME) (1849 AD).

Page 63

--- Several months before the ceremony, the Travancore Government through its energetic Commercial Agent, Mr. Hugh Crawford, purchased from Messers Apcar and Co., Calcutta, 7808.5 tolahs( about 200 lbs avoir. Or 244 pounds troy) of pure gold, at the rate of 15 Rupees, 3 Annas per Tolah or 118586 Rupees for the whole. Including the cost of freight insurance and duty amounting to 3011 Rupees, the total outlay was 121597 Rupees for the whole quantity. --------

It is another interesting aspect to read about Thulapurushadanam, a religious ceremony conducted by the Maharajahs of Travancore after their coronation.

Page 359 informs us the following:

In AD 1855, the Commander-in-Chief of the Madras presidency, General Anson paid a visit to Travancore. When he along with his party reached Alleppey, Mr. Crawford, the Commercial Agent gave them a hearty reception and they were entertained with a grant dinner.

Mr. Crawford was the contemporary of General William Cullen, the British Resident of Travancore for the period from AD 1840 to 1860.

The Madras literary society, journal of literature and science of the Madras Literary Society and the Auxiliary Royal Asiatic Society published in AD 1859, –Original from Oxford University – which can be downloaded from the website has some interesting references to Mr. Hugh Crawford.

Page 170 of the above journal has reference to a managing committee meeting of the Society on 9th June 2008, chaired by The Hon Walter Elliot, Esq., in which there is mention about a “Series of Meteorological Observations taken at Alleppey by Captain Crawford from 23rd April to 6th May of 1858” .

In a letter dated 26th June 1860, Francis N Maltby, Resident of Travancore and Cochin, writes to T .Pycroft, Chief Secretary to the Madras Government at Fort St George that Mr. Crawford, the Commercial Agent was behind the idea of a lighthouse, the construction of which was sanctioned by the Maharajah. Mention is also made about the energy of Mr. Crawford who as superintendent was assigned to carry out the work of the lighthouse at Alleppey Port, guided by the professional skill of Mr. Collins. (Pages 128 to 153)

The above conclusively proves that versatile as he was, Crawford was responsible for building the lighthouse at Alleppey and was appropriately called Captain. Mr. Collins mentioned above was the civil engineer to the Maharajahs of Travancore and Cochin appointed in AD 1859.

Mr. Crawford was also very studious about many aspects of life around him. He observed and studied the unique “mud wall phenomenon” in the sea off the Alleppey coast during the monsoons. His letter dated 20th June 1860 to Mr. Francis N Maltby, the Resident at Trivandrum detailing the above is of much interest. (Pages 133 to 136).

I must conclude this blog, lest this posting is bound to take the shape of a voluminous essay.

Mr. Hugh Crawford was indeed a great friend, nay, son of Travancore. He spent more than four decades of his fruitful years in the service of this country playing a stellar role. The different roles he played varied from that of a commercial agent, a philanthropist, a dutiful civil servant, a scientist, an engineer and a wonderful human being. He was one of those great Englishmen who loved this country and who worked sincerely for the progress of the state and its people.

I thank Robert for all the personal information given and also for those wonderful photographs.

25th June 2008.

PS: This post shall not be complete without the following information. Robert had advised me about the visit of his sister and her friend from UK to Kerala during April 2008. Since I was on holidays in Kerala, I was privileged to meet Mrs. Anna Dymond, Robert’s sister and Crawford’s great great grand daughter and her friend Mrs. Margaret Newberry.
Margarette Newberry and Anna Dymond sharing a joke with Sindhu
Accompanied by my wife Sindhu, I called on them at the hotel in Kumarakom where they stayed. Both of them are retired teachers, wonderfully well-read, extremely well behaved and most graceful ladies. I told Anna that it was indeed our pleasant privilege that we could meet the great great grand daughter of Crawford, a most remarkable Scot who loved Travancore and did some yeoman service to its people during his long stay in this part of the globe.


Maddy said...

very interesting indeed. by the way have you read 'the travancore state manual'by Nagam Aiya? or the velu pillai version?

Murali RamaVarma said...

Thank you, Maddy. Yes, I have gone through both the State Manuals mentioned by you. Sadly, sitting in Dubai I have not been able to make any reference to Hugh Crawford from these.

sudheer said...

I like to know as to who was the first light house keeper of alleppey light house if any of the records shed light in this aspects.Also any information regarding the personlities assosciated with crawford at alleppey?

sudheer said...

Quite interesting, any information as to who was kept as the first local light house keeper of alleppey ligh house or names of any local personlities assosciated with crawford at that time

Murali RamaVarma said...

Thanks, Sudheer for the comments. Frankly, I have not dwelt into the details of the first native lighthouse keeper at Alleppey. Now that you have asked it, let me try to collect some details.

It is also worth looking into the details of the local personalities associated with Crawford. Let me see if I could come out with some details. Kind regards,

Sudheer Abdulkareem said...

Actually my great grandfather syed mohammed was a lightkeeper at alleppey lighthouse who has drawn some pension from british.He passed away in the mid fifties.Anyway he is not the first light keeper.

Murali RamaVarma said...

Thanks , Sudheer for your information. Do you have details of the period during which your great grandpa, Mr.Syed Mohammed was the Light-keeper at Alleppey light house.Was he from Alleppey? Incidentally, my mother-in-law's, step-father, Raja Raja Varma , who was the uncle of late Chithira Tirunal Maharajah was the Port Officer at Alleppey in the rank of a DIG,during the late 1950s.


Sudheer Abdulkareem said...

We dont have any family records.My great grand father passed away as an old man in the fifties.He was said to receive some pension from the british for the service he has rendered in the pre independance time.I also like to know as to whether these records are with Travancore or with Madras.

Murali RamaVarma said...

Dear Sudheer, The records should be available with the Travancore Port records. Only the Madras Presidency records shall be at Madras. Both Travancore and Cochin were independent princely states but Malabar was under Madras presidency.

Sudheer Abdulkareem said...

Then what can be the reason for the british to issue pension rather than travancore.Now also Alleppey light house is under madras division of lighthouses and lightships.

Murali RamaVarma said...

Dear Sudheer,
You seem to have a point.I need to refer. After independence the Office of the Directorate General of Lighthouses and Lightships (DGLL) at Chennai, under the ministry of Shipping, administers the lighthouses of southern Kerala, from Vizhinjam through Alleppey. Regards,


prasad said...

One of the letters at Tamilnadu archives shows that Hugh Crowford was the Port officer of Alleppey. Alleppey lighthouse is now under the Directorate of Lighthouses and Lightships, Cochin.
I was Head lightkeeper of Alleppey lighthouse during the period from 1997 Jan to 2006 August.

Murali RamaVarma said...

Thank you, Prasad for your comments and the related information. I wish, I could call on you when you were at Alleppey. I hope to do that at Azhikode as I communicated separately through my mail. I wish you all the best in your endeavors to trace the history of our Lighthouses.

Kind regards,

I C R Prasad said...

There was one Mr. Syed ahmed as Lightkeeper at alleppey Lighthouse in 1925, no Syed Muhammed.Alleppey Lighthouse was under the control of Travancore state till its take over by Government of India in 1951. Alleppey Lighthouse was never controlled by British, but Officers from British India Government were taken on deputation and posted as Head Lightkeepers. This practice was stopped somewhere in 1930.
ICR Prasad

Murali RamaVarma said...

Thanks, Prasad for these information.

karthik ram said...

i like to know more about alleppey lighthouse and canals in alappuzha.if u have any old photgraphs regarding this aspect, please do inform me.i would also like to know trade connection of alleppey with travancore and cochin.

my email address is

karthik ram said...

i want to know more about alleppey light house annd it's canals.if you have some old photographs depicying these topics please do inform me. i would also like to know more about the trade connection of alleppey with travancore and cochin.

my email address is

karthik ram said...

i like to know more about alleppey lighthouse and canals in alappuzha.if u have any old photgraphs regarding this aspect, please do inform me.i would also like to know trade connection of alleppey with travancore and cochin.

my email address is

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