Tangasseri

A brief history

Tangasseri, a 99 acre wedge of a natural promontory on the Kollam coast, was an unknown coastal village till the 1500s when the Portuguese arrived, after finding the sea route to Malabar via the Cape of Good Hope. Tangasseri would have been known, to seafarers of the Old World, for the dangerous reef that extended out into the sea from its palm fringed coast. Kollam was known as Desinganad when the Portuguese arrived but they called it Signatti. Desinganad was then ruled by a Rani, a widow who inherited the kingdom for the lack of heirs. Balapillai Kurup, the third level of authority of a three-tiered rule, held the authority over Changasseri, the name by which Tangasseri was known then. In its time, Tangasseri went by different names in history Tamkacheri, Tungacherry, Thankassery, Tangacherry and finally, Tangasseri.

The Portuguese

In 1500, all attention was on the Portuguese who had established a trading post at Kochi and word was spreading that they offered the highest prices for spices and pepper, much more than what the Chinese and the Arabs were offering. An invitation to trade with Kollam, by the Rani, was declined by the Portuguese because they thought it may affect their relationship with the ruler of Kochi.

In 1502, during the second visit of Vasco da Gama to Kochi, the Portuguese accepted a renewed invitation from the Rani, after getting consent from the ruler of Kochi. Two of their largest ships, under the command of Diogo Fernandez and Francisco Mareco arrived in Kollam to collect pepper and spices. The Portuguese representative, Sao de Sa Pereira was on board one of these ships and on landing at Kollam he met the Rani with a letter from Vasco da Gama. They exchanged various gifts and Gama's ships loaded pepper and spices for about 10 days and returned to Kochi with the promise of returning again for trading purposes. The strategic piece of land now known as Tangasseri was then leased to the Portuguese who set up a trading post there.

In 1505, the ill will between the Portuguese and Arab traders peaked and the Portuguese led by a Captain Homan removed the rudders and sails of all the Arab ships at Kollam and kept them in the outpost at Tangasseri and sailed away to Kochi. The Arabs joined by the forces of the Rani of Kollam attacked the Portuguese outpost destroying it completely and killed all the 13 surviving Portuguese who had sought refuge in a nearby temple, on 31 October 1505.

Francisco de Almeida, the Portuguese commander at Kochi sent his son Dom Lorrenco to avenge the deaths of their people. Lorrenco sailed into Kollam with three ships and three fast caravels, burned the 24 ships in port forcing the Rani to sue for peace and sign a treaty that favoured Portuguese trade.


Fort Thomas

In 1517, the Portuguese Governor Soares sent his factor Captain Rodrigues to Kollam to collect some delayed payments of the treaty. Since there was a war being waged by the Rani with her neighbours, he was asked to wait till it was over. Rodrigues asked permission to build a house for the Portuguese to live in and the Rani reluctantly agreed. Rodrigues had a hidden agenda Governor Soares had asked him to build a fort (secretly) in Tangasseri. There was a thatched structure called 'factory' already there and Rodrigues began work on the fort under the pretext of repairing the 'factory'. As he collected building material and began building the fort, the younger sister of the Rani of Kollam gathered a force of 2,000 men and tried to obstruct the construction. Rodrigues had only 27 men and despite the besieging forces and the lashing monsoons, they managed to build a bastion and placed a few cannons on it in a night's work. By morning, the Rani's forces, disillusioned by the night's work, stopped their efforts to derail the work and withdrew.

By September 1519, the fort was completed, armed to the teeth and named Fort Thomas. It was initially a square structure with five bastions built with laterite and faced with granite. By the early 1520's, the fort was a huge structure standing tall over the Tangasseri coastline with a moat running around making it impregnable to enemies.

Shortly after the Fort's construction in 1520, the Rani of Kollam sent a 1500 strong army under Bala Pillai Kurup, her war chief, and a fierce battle broke out.

There were about 30 Portuguese inmates and a few from the local Christian community. Kurup managed to implement a blockage that literally starved the garrison and there are accounts of people having eaten rats with rice while under siege. In August 1520, Portuguese reinforcements arrived and stormed through Kurup's forces and freed the garrison.

A treaty concluded on 17 November 1520, ensured Portuguese monopoly over Kollam's pepper trade to the Portuguese, besides other privileges. The chieftain Balapillai Kurup and his sister were barred from approaching Fort Thomas on the pain of death. This was the last major battle between the Portuguese and the Kollam Royalty.

The Portuguese then continued their stint in Tangasseri and Kollam for nearly a century and half till the Dutch arrived in 1661.


The Dutch

The next mention of Tangasseri is almost a century and half later Portuguese dominance as a colonist was declining and on the morning of 7th December 1661, an entire fleet of Dutch ships were anchored off Fort Thomas, and the next day they advanced in battle array and as soon as they came ashore the local army was upon them. They managed to reach Fort Thomas and their superior fire power gave them the upper hand and soon the local army fled and the rulers of Kollam sued for peace. By the evening of 12 December 1661, the Dutch took command of Fort Thomas and Tangasseri. On 7th January 1662, Captain Nieuhoff was appointed Chief Director of the Dutch East India Company at Kollam. He arrived at Kollam and gave immediate orders to repair Fort Thomas.

Here is Nieuhoffs description of Kollam and Tangasseri at the time of the Dutch occupation:

The city is fortified with a stone wall of 18 to 20 feet high, and eight bastions; its suburbs, which are very large and stately, are by the Portuguese called Colang-China. For Koulang is separated into two bodies, one of which is called the upper or Malabar Koulang, the other the lower Koulang; in the first the king and queen kept their ordinary residences; the last was formerly in the possession of the Portuguese

The friars of St. Paul and the Franciscans had each a monastery, adorned with stately chapels and steeples. Besides which there were four other Portuguese churches here, dedicated to as many Romish Saints; they had no less than seven goodly churches, among which was the famous church built many years ago by the Christians of St. Thomas, which was left standing after we reduced the place into a narrow compass; in this church is the tomb of a certain great Portuguese captain, who was Governor of Koulang for 60 years. The houses of the inhabitants were stately and lofty, built of free stone.

The castle, the residence of the Portuguese Governor (Bishop's House) surmounted all the rest in magnificence; it lies very near the sea-side, at one end of the city, being covered on the top with coco leaves, as likewise tow of its turrets, the third being tiled with pantiles.

Just upon the sea-shore is another four-square tower where I set up the Company's flag on top of a mast. In the midst of it, is a very loftily edifice, which the Portuguese used for a chapel, which I ordered to be...fitted for the use of the Company's officers...

This city as have been told before was drawn into a less compass by the Dutch which they fortified on the land-side with two half and one whole bastion. Most of the churches and other public edifices were pulled down, except the castle, St. Thomas Church and some monasteries, which remained standing in the said precinct.

Tangasseri's roads and lanes are believed to have been built by the Dutch, considered to be among the world's best road builders. These roads date back to the 18th century and Tangasseri was known as Dutch Quilon till early 20th century.

The Dutch remained in possession of the fort for exactly a hundred and twenty four years till their power declined in Asia.


The British

On 17th October 1795, Tangasseri was surrendered to the British East India Company by the Dutch. Its surrender followed the defeat of the Dutch at Cochin. The two men behind the Dutch defeat were Major Petrie and Mr. Stevenson. The Dutch territories were finally ceded to the British Government by the Paris Convention of 1841.

For Tangasseri it was a rather tame takeover compared to its earlier turbulent times. Its importance as a military outpost had declined.


The Battle of Tangasseri

Though the exact reason for the battle is unknown, there is a first person account of this battle where British troops were up against an army of Travancorians led by French, Dutch and German officers. The British had to leave their camp and take up positions in the fort and then a storm lashed the area with strong winds and a heavy downpour of rain that made all the ammunition and gun powder ineffective. The British, the account says, persevered and won the battle with only bayonets and regained their camp. The Battle of Tangasseri is the last of the major battles that Tangasseri faced under its European rule.

The British Crown took over all their settlements after the first war of Indian Independence in 1857 and in Tangasseri this event was marked by a meeting at the open ground near Bona Vista. A Mr. Dresden apparently read out the Queen's proclamation which marked the beginning of a ninety year rule by the Crown and the last by any European power.

The British period was remarkable for the sweeping changes that came about in educational and religious institutions, both closely interlinked. By the late 1700's, there was only one main church in Tangasseri, the Pro-Cathedral. Built in 1789 (six years before British rule), it owed its allegiance to what was then known as the Propaganda Mission. In 1841 another church was built near the entrance to Tangasseri by Craganore's Archbishop Elect, Don Manual Sam Joachim Neves. Intended as a chapel for his burial, it became the Holy Cross Church. (His tomb and epitaph can still be seen in the recently renovated church).

The Catholics of Tangasseri belonged partly to the Propaganda Congregation and partly to the Padroado Mission. The Pro-Cathedral was under the Propaganda Congregation with direct links to Rome and the Holy Cross church was under the King of Portugal under whom the Padroado mission flourished.

A Condordant was passed between Rome and the King of Portugal that caused the Padroado mission to come under the Propaganda Congregation. The congregation under the Padroado mission protested and for some time both churches were closed and remained without any ceremonies. Finally the Padroado Mission had to submit to the Bishop of Kollam, the local head of the Propaganda Congregation.

Tangasseri's educational tradition was intricately linked with the churches and Logan's Malabar Manual mentions that the Propaganda Congregation started a vernacular and English school in 1840 at Tangasseri. Forty five years after the establishment of the first school, in 1885, the first convent schools for girls was formally opened by the Bishop of Kollam, Dr. Ferdinand Ossi -- the Mount Carmel Anglo Indian Girls School


Pirates of Tangasseri

The lore among the fisherfolk of Tangasseri speaks of a daring community of pirates who raided ships passing Tangasseri point and made their getaway via the Buckingham canal that was inaccessible to ships. They used Chinese flat bottom boats and apparently made a decent living off this. They are assumed to have lived in the low lying areas at the rear of the convent, the Portuguese cemetery and the lighthouse road.


Printing Press

One of the oldest printing presses in India was established at Tangasseri. It was attached to the San Salvador seminary at Tangasseri and established by a Jesuit priest, Fr. Jao de Faria. The first book in Kerala 'Doctrina Christa' was published from here on October 20, 1578. The Harvard University library possesses a surviving copy of this book. Printed in the neo-Tamil script of the time in Kerala, it sheds light on the printing activities of missionaries 400 years ago. Till today this place is known in Tangasseri as 'Achukuddom parampu'.


The Tangasseri Riot

A personal difference between the Netto brothers of Tangasseri and the magistrate was the cause of this riot. It was sparked off by Tibus Netto and his brothers who went to the Cutcherry during the magistrate's monthly visit and in the melee that followed the magistrate's carriage and bullocks were thrown into the sea.

The next day a town crier came to the Cutcherry asking people to gather and those who entered first were rounded up and sent to distant jails like Calicut and some even ended up in Madras jail. Most of them never returned and succumbed to the inhuman conditions in the jails.

There were many among those who were innocent. For many days, there was wailing and weeping for the men who were taken away. A lucky few managed to escape and stayed away from Tangasseri till everything quietened down

The other significant happening of this period was the construction of the Tangasseri Lighthouse, a towering structure, 350 tall with a visible range of 18 miles, this lighthouse was a boon to ships passing the dangerous Tangasseri reef that had already wrecked three ships. It was completed in 1902 and still serves as an important landmark.

Another incident that brought Tangasseri into public view was a series of articles published in the Malabar Herald, in early 1916, titled Tangasseri Revisited by 'An Old Tangasserian' that bemoaned the plight of Tangasseri. He claimed that the twentieth century marked a decline and exhorted the people to shake out of the torpor. He spoke of the 1800s as the golden period and blamed the decline on the lack of cooperation among the people and the lack of leadership. The series of articles sparked off a war of words in the Malabar Herald . Someone under the pseudonym "Rem Acu Tegiste" responded to the article and this resulted in an exchange of words that was much talked about in Tangasseri. However, there is no clue of the identity of these writers to this day.

Then the First World War broke out and many of Tangasseri's young men enlisted and saw action in various parts of the world and one of them was taken prisoner of war in Turkey. This period also marked the beginning of migration to various British colonies in South East Asia, in search of better prospects.

In the past, Tangasseri was prone to fires that raged across the fishermen settlements of Kollam beach. Those were times when most roofs were thatched and hence highly vulnerable to fires. On December 12th, 1928, one of the worst ever fires that ravaged the Kollam coast almost engulfed Tangasseri.

Here is an eyewitness account of this fire, as narrated by Frankpet Fernandez:

"To Eileen Burgess, it was yet another day at the Netto home that overlooked the Tangasseri beach near Bona Vista. She was baby-sitting on the morning of the 12th which she 34 remembers as a sunny warm day. Suddenly in the distance she heard cries on the seashore. And so she stepped upto the gate of the house out of curiosity. What she saw was something she would never forget. "

"On the Kollam beach, beyond Tangasseri, a devastating fire was on the fishing village by the seashore. The flames, leaping metres into the air, were being fanned by the sea breezes. To make matters worse, the flames had spread to the tops of coconut trees. Suddenly the flames began their surge towards Tangasseri."

"What happened next was a blur to young Eileen. Before she knew it she was told by Mrs. Mary Netto to take the baby as far away as possible. Mrs. Netto stayed on to salvage her property while young Eileen raced down the road with the baby in her hand."

"At exactly 12 o'clock, Edgar Gresseux remembers that the fire entered Tangasseri. The people with houses near the shore worked desperately to salvage the things in their homes. Predictably in such situations the best way to control the situation was to get rid of the thatched roofs. And that's exactly what happened."

"The able-bodied men of the place clambered up the roofs and began to rip off the 'kejan' roofs. At this point, the saintly Bishop Benziger of Kollam, is believed to have stormed into a chapel and prayed with outstretched arms in front of the Tabernacle. Miraculously for Tangasseri, the fire began to abate as it reached the village. But not before claiming the homes of some Tangasserians."

In the face of a disaster of this magnitude, the people of Tangasseri showed their resilience and community spirit. For ten days after the fire, many people were homeless and slept out in the open and men formed patrols to prevent theft that was rampant. Many of the affected families were moved to the Cutcherry which was the only tiled buildings in the vicinity. After the 10th day, the people of Tangasseri began slowly picking up pieces of their displaced lives again.


The Seeds of a Conflict

For at least a century, starting from 1809, there were at least five attempts to cede Tangasseri and her sister territory, Anjengo to the erstwhile Travancore State in 1809, 1865, 1884, 1893 and 1935. Many memorials were submitted to Governors and some even went all the way to London, to the House of Lords.

There was some arm twisting by the State of Travancore that irritated the people of Tangasseri. Travancore State introduced a toll gate at Kaval that prevented the entry of essentials like food grains into Tangasseri. Tangesserians responded by approaching Madras Presidency centres like Tirunelveli and Tanjore and brought wagon loads of food under police escort. The Tangasseri Co-operative Society was formed during this period.

Some of the notable men actively opposing Travancore State were, Joseph Rozario (the Convenor), Norbert Rozario (the President), Joseph Fernandez Sr. (Secretary), Joe Netto, Edward Dias, Leander Malheurs, Joseph Mascrene and Anto Fleury. Equally important are the men behind the scenes who could not come forward as they were senior citizens and pensioners (of Travancore State): John Owen Surrao, Retd. Conservator of Forests and W. D' Netto, District Judge.

By 1937, it was decided that the inhabitants of Tangasseri would continue to be part of the Madras Presidency. The mood was jubilant on that day in June 1937. There was beating of drums and processions taken out and for many days, the inhabitants of Tangasseri reveled in this hard earned victory.

Sir CP Ramaswamy demanded the surrender of Tangasseri to Travancore and when the issue came up in the British Parliament, it was vehemently opposed. Legend has it that the local people built the arch at Kaval in a fit of anger against the State of Travancore. The arch stands testimony to the courage and determination of the people of Tangasseri's to resist efforts to breach its territorial status.


The Second World War

Many of Tangasseri's young men were drafted into the army during WW2 and many of them were taken prisoners and have recounted the stories of inhuman brutalities of Japanese POW camps.

The notorious German battleship Emden was sighted off Tangasseri and hundreds of Tangesserians flocked to the beach to get a glimpse of this historic warship as it passed through the Arabian Sea.

By the end of WW2, India was on its way to becoming an independent sovereign democratic republic and changes that were sweeping across the subcontinent were also being felt in Tangasseri.


Life in Tangasseri

Life in Tangasseri as written by Frankpet Fernandez:

Jasper Labrooy's memories of Tangasseri: "In the old days, Tangasseri consisted of gravel roads marked by kerosene lamp posts. Most properties spread across its distinct lattice-like layout from one end to the other. They were extensive properties with a single house in the centre of coconut, jackfruit and mango trees, to name a few. There were few walls in those days. And fences, boundary stones demarcated properties. The roads were clean as the people of the place stepped out every morning to sweep the streets. The clothes were distinctively British - in many cases brought down from England. The men wore top hats, suits, shirts and trousers while the women wore long skirts, tiered shirts with ruffles. Sewing was done by hand.

The identity of a Tangasserian was a well defined one and it came with respect and all that goes with recognition. In most houses of the time, a quaint mix of Malayalam and Portuguese was spoken.

Also unique to the place was its neo-Portuguese cuisine such Dhopa, Kuseed, Dhol Dhol, White Halwa and an array of other sweets". Tangasseri's cuisine is something of a legend. Tangasseri's dining tables always bore vestiges of the different cultures that influenced it. Kerala's rice and coconut-based dishes, the neo-Portuguese 'kuseed'-a clear fish stew spiced with ginger, the English brown stews and caramel custards have been eternal favourites in Tangasseri homes.

Christmas was a very special time in Tangasseri. Jasper remembers it as a time for families and friend to come together. Of course, those memories for him come with that tinge of nostalgia: "Life in those days was a very simple thing...X-mas drew the whole community together from early December to late January

Christmas was a very special time in Tangasseri. Jasper remembers it as a time for families and friend to come together. Of course, those memories for him come with that tinge of nostalgia: "Life in those days was a very simple thing...X-mas drew the whole community together from early December to late January

Christmas and New Year fare were, of course, the Events of the year. Months in advance, homes in Tangasseri would prepare for this truly special time of the year. Ruby red sweet wines would be bottled months ahead. (In the not too distant past, they were fermented in huge earthen-ware pots that were often the size of a man) The ducks and turkey had to be fattened. As the time drew close, rose cookies and cul-culs would be made in large quantities. And delicious puddings would be steamed to just the right consistency...

This was a time of great rejoicing and home-coming. Those who had moved to other parts made it a point to be at Tangasseri at this time of the year. And, of course every one knew that the grand Christmas and New Year Balls - the biggest social events of the year were just around the corner. There would innumerable Masses and Church services to attend. Most weddings were planned at this time of the year. In fact, no Christmas in Tangasseri would be complete without its share of weddings, yet another reason to celebrate in this season of Joy.


A Tangasseri Wedding

Weddings in Tangasseri usually took place in the morning. Unlike the ones of present day, a Tangasseri wedding usually consisted of a 'high-mass' at that started by 6 a.m. and ended in about an hour's time. The men would be dressed in suits while the women would wear long flowing dresses, often made for the occasion. Following this the guests would gather for the reception at any given venue. Here the wedding cake would be blessed by the Priest. After this, cake and wine would be distributed, following which a toast would be proposed. Rather predictably, weddings were also the occasion for 'matrimony' the pink cashew based sweets-to be served!

The mornings would usually see a two-man band, consisting of a violinist and a drummer, troop in. (The drum-a single one- would be set up on a tripod stand) At this point, the celebrations would start. A series of group dances such as 'Lancers' and 'Quadrille' would follow with all the guests falling in line. This would continue till about 1 p.m. when an elaborate lunch would be served.

For starters, bread and soup would be served. This would be followed by generous helpings of salads, steaks and cutlets. Special cooks would prepare dishes like Roast Turkey and Duck. The traditional rice and curry too would be available. The meal would end with the chef bringing in a pudding-doused in brandy. He would then approach the groom who would set the dish aflame. The groom would then give the chef a handsome tip. This fiery ritual would mark the end of celebrations. Well, the first half at least!

After a well deserved rest, the guests would return in the evening to find an entire band waiting to liven up the proceedings. The band would invariably consist of a piano, guitar, drum and two violins. Another spirited celebration would follow. Later in the night, a 'standing' supper would be served. (This invariably means a series of snacks followed by drinks that could presumably be eaten standing.) In the early hours of morning, the weary but spirited revelers would close up with 'God save the King' and 'He's a jolly good fellow'!

But that was not all. There was still the 'Home-coming' or '8th Wedding' to be attended. This was held at the groom's house. And called for another round of spirited celebration. Here again, drinks would be served followed by 'standing supper' and sweets. All in all, a Tangasseri wedding was something to be looked forward to. In retrospect, it was the highest celebration of a culture that was living out its halcyon years in the 1930s.


Tangasseri's Institutions

A school for girls was established as early as the 19th century but a school for boys came much later. The Infant Jesus Anglo Indian Boys School came about from the pioneering efforts of the Anglo Indian community of Tangasseri. It was housed in a vacant seminary building belonging to the Bishop of Kollam. The first headmistress was Mrs. Mary Netto and on the first day, there were only two students, Dentlin Fernandez and Frankpet Fernandez. In the course of time, the management of the school was taken over by the Bishop of Kollam and priests were then appointed to manage the school. Notable principals and mentors during the early years were Fr. Mathew Fabian, SS Gomez, Fr.Gracian, as also Master Ossey Gomez and Joe Camoens.

The beginning of the boys school made many men of Tangasseri eligible for jobs in the railways and other government offices. Both the boys and girls schools contributed greatly to the education and betterment of students from all over Kerala

In the context of the education, both the Boys School and Girls School have contributed immensely to the education and betterment of students from all over Kerala. Apart from the Tangasseri Co-operative Society, two other Tangasseri institutions merit reference. They are the Reliance Bank of Tangasseri and the St. Joseph's Market-both owned by the Fernandez family. Tangasseri in its time benefited immensely from these two institutions that contributed immensely to the growth and development of the place.


East West Club

In the late 50s, a picturesque cottage at the western seaboard of Tangasseri became the East West Club. The club owes its inception to the efforts of E Edwards with support from AJ DeClase, Dan Gonzago, Archibald Fernandez and a few others. It was a hip place for youth participation and became the venue for several memorable events in Tangasseri. After Mr. Edward's death, the building passed on to his heirs and they refused an offer by Keith Peterson to buy the club and another memorable chapter of Tangasseri came to an end.


Gandhi Seva Sangam

The Gandhi Seva Sangam was a service organsation founded in 1948 after the death of Mahatma Gandhi, by Frankpet Fernandez. The Minister for Education, K Madhava Menon was feted at Tangasseri by the Sangam and the minister was so delighted by the variety entertainment provided by the children of the boys and girls schools that he offered the Salt Depot in Bona Vista as an office, library and reading room for the Sangam.

Due to the earlier standoff with Travancore State, Tangasseri did not get electricity long after Kollam was electrified so a core group of members of the Sangam decided to lobby for electricity. They met M Bhaktavachalam, the Minister for Public Works and explained the situation at Tangasseri and the circumstances that forced them to meet him. He was incensed and threatened the Government Head of Travancore-Cochin with dire consequences unless electricity was provided and so Tangasseri finally got its long awaited power supply.


Out of Tangasseri the Migration

Post-Independence Tangasseri witnessed a stream of migrations that mirrored the migratory patterns elsewhere in Kerala. The Anglo Indians rooted more for western countries and Australia while other communities followed the general Kerala pattern. The early migrations were to the UK and Australia and the later ones were to the US and Canada.

There are very few Anglo Indian families in Tangasseri today. There has been an influx of people from other parts of Kollam over the last few decades, benefiting from the education, the remnants of the past culture of Anglo Indians and the scenic beauty of Tangasseri's palm fringed coastline. The Tangasseri community is now pluralistic, like any residential area in Kerala. The Infant Jesus Anglo-Indian Boys School and the Mount Carmel Anglo Indian Girls School are the pivotal institutions that identify Tangasseri in these post modern times. A spanking new cathedral has replaced the quaint lime plastered Pro Cathedral that was a tall symbol of colonial architecture in Tangasseri. The Bishop's House, the former residence of the Portuguese Governor, stands alone as one of the last remnants of European rule.

Tangasseri's palm fringed seaboard, right angled roads with stations of the Cross and a few stately houses with tiled roofs still exude an unmistakable colonial charm and bear witness to the wonderful history of a place once ruled by three European nations.