GENEALOGY SERIES: Malabar Coast, Kerala, India roots

Many slaves brought to the Cape of Good Hope were KERALAfrom the southwestern Malabar Coast of India which after 1956 with the combining of the Malayam-speaking regions of India, became the State of Kerala with its capital city being Thiruvananthapuram. It also incorporates the old Kingdom of Cochin.

One of my 8th Great grandmother’s was Catharina van Malabar (circa 1650) who locates as being taken captive on the southwestern Malabar coast, in today’s Kerala state.

Before India became independent, under British rule the northern part of Kerala was part of the Madras province of British India. The culture of Kerala is a syncretic mix of Aryan, Dravidian, Arab and European culture which developed over millennia. From its inception Kerala has been a socialist stronghold (Communist Party) in India, and is one of the most successful economic regions with well-developed infrastructure, social cohesion and social services.

In 1498, the Portuguese began to dominate eastern shipping, and the spice-trade in particular. Francisco de Almeida the greatest Portuguese General of that time was appointed as Viceroy of Portuguese India in 1505, and his headquarters was established at Fort Kochi (Fort Emmanuel) in the Malabar region where he established fortresses all along the Malabar Coast. In 1510 this great Portuguese General was defeated in battle by the Khoi at Salt River in Table Bay. D’Almeida and 60 of his senior officers were killed in that battle by Khoi armed with cattle, spears and archery. Later in 1571, the Portuguese were defeated in the region and the United Dutch East India came into ascendancy and gained control of the spice trade over the 1600. It was during this period Dutch exported slaves from the Malabar Coast and the Coromandel coast across the global Dutch footprint including to the Cape of Good Hope. Most who were sold into slavery were war captives and refugees. Some too were natural-disaster refugees or captives of pirates. Some were taken in payment for debts, in a practice known as debt-bondage.

Within 160 years the Dutch like the Portuguese before them were weakened by constant battles with Marthanda Varma of the Travancore Royal Family, and were defeated at the Battle of Colachel in 1741. An agreement, known as ‘Treaty of Mavelikkara’, was signed by the Dutch and the Travancore in 1753, according to which the Dutch were compelled to break off from all political involvement in the region. The British East India Company then expanded into India when in 1766, Hyder Ali, the ruler of Mysore invaded northern Kerala. His son and successor, Tipu Sultan, launched campaigns against the expanding British East India Company, resulting in protracted wars which resulted in northern parts of today’s Kerala being ceded by Tipu to the Madras Presidency of British India in 1792.

By the 1770s already the export of slaves by the Dutch from India, the Bay of Bengal and Southeast Asia drastically tumbled and died out with the majority of slaves at the Cape from the 1760s to 1860s being imported from Africa. Up until 1834 the majority of new first generation slaves were African and after 1834 the ‘prize slaves’ known as Liberated Africans followed (as forced apprenticed labour) until 1870.

Grandma Catharina van Malabar had a daughter with a Dutch man Cornelius ‘ Kees de Boer’ Claasz. Their daughter Maria Cornelisse Claasen van der Kaap (1678) was one of my 7th great grandmothers who would marry into the lineage of one of my 9th Great Grandmothers the Khoi interpreter Krotoa of the people who called themselves //Ammaqua (Watermans) and other Khoi disparagingly referred to them as Goringhaicona – our kin who left us or were expelled.

Slaves like Maria and others in my family tree who have the name van der Kaap are what are called Creole slaves. Creole simply mean locally born or a new creation. To illustrate how slaves were named we can see that as a first generation slave from Malabar Catharina was given the surname ‘van Malabaar’. As a child born to a slave woman, Maria was also a slave, even though her father was European. As a second generation creole slave Maria had the surname van der Kaap, but she also had her father’s names as baptism names (Cornelius Claaz) Cornelius se kind/ Claasz syn kind. So her name was Maria Cornelisse Claasen van der Kaap. In the third generation only the surname Claasen would continue. This was one of a number of different naming traditions foisted onto slaves. The names of the month, biblical names and names from Roman and Greek classics were also among the traditions. Slaves had little control over their names or anything personal.

A so it came to pass that Catharina (we don’t know her original name) came to be totally divorced from her rich Kerala traditions and culture and she and her descendants would only know Africa as their home. Into her cultural stream would flow the streams of other Asians and Africans and local Khoi as well as Europeans. Her descendants would be a new syncretic African people who would first suffer almost two centuries of slavery and colonial dispossession, and then de-Africanisation and Apartheid… all crimes against humanity, but with great fortitude rose above adversity, resisted these evils and fought for freedom and dignity.

In this short series that I have been posting I have shown the diversity of slaves from Africa, India and Southeast Asia which came together with Indigenous Khoi Africans and with non-conformist Europeans to give birth to an African-creole people who I refer to as Camissa and the state refers to as Coloured (the colonial and Apartheid brand forced on a range of peoples after 1904.

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