Sunday, May 27, 2007

Irish father of Indian cardamom, rubber and pepper planting

The old man, past eighty, was ailing when the letter came from a friend to whom he had expressed a desire to buy a new sophisticated wireless set. The friend had written to say that only one such equipment was available.

From what was considered to be his death bed, the old bachelor replied, “Thank you for your letter. I suppose that at my age and in my condition I should be ordering a harp, not a wireless set.” He would have been reasonably certain about his place in heaven because he was a staunch Catholic and Pope Pius XI had, in 1927, conferred on him the Papal honor Pro Ecclesia Et Pontifice for the services he had rendered to the Catholic Church and for his philanthropy.

But the man had great resilience. On this occasion he came back from the jaws of death, so to speak, and immediately sent a telegram to his friend: “cancel harp send wireless.” That was the kind of indomitable spirit he had.

Who was he? An Irishman named J. J. Murphy (1872-1957).

He was born in Dublin into a family of Shippers and Bankers, a seventh month baby who was rather delicate and asthmatic. After private education with Marist Brothers, a Catholic Educational Brotherhood in Europe, and Trinity College, Dublin, J.J. (as he was popularly known) set out to the East. He joined a tea plantation company in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) but shifted to South India to join another. In spite of his independent nature, he survived on that job for a few years before being sacked.

That, in a way, set Murphy free, at the age of 29.

And there was the whole wide, wild world before him. How he faced it is a saga, which, unfortunately, has not found its rightful place in history. It would be a worthwhile thesis material for a serious researcher.

The first niche Murphy formed was at Pambadampara in the Cardamom Hills. It was virgin forest. There he did something that no body else before him had tried. Till then cardamom was obtained from wild growth in the forests, or from small peasants. The Irishman cultivated cardamom at Pambadampara on an organized plantation basis. It was the first such estate in India and perhaps the world. An interesting aspect was that since cardamom requires heavy shade, it was not necessary to cut down the trees.

Murphy’s interest turned to rubber. Since 1872 the India Office in London had been trying to introduce hevea rubber plants in India without any success. But Murphy, along with three associates, established the first rubber plantation in the country at a place called Alwaye. Then, in 1904, the man went for his own private rubber plantation at Yendayar, the place that was to be his home till death. When I last visited Yendayar Estate, a couple of decades back, a few of the rubber trees planted by Murphy were still standing.

Murphy’s success attracted major Sterling companies to the field. They closed down, at least temporarily, during the depression years. But with uncanny foresight Murphy held on and replanted the old rubber area with high yielding Malaysian clones. When the demand for the strategically important natural rubber spurted during the World War II, the Irishman was right up there on top.

At Yendayar Murphy planted tea as well, and scored another first by organizing pepper cultivation on plantation pattern. Till then, like cardamom, pepper too was procured from wild growth and small farmers.

Murphy was an enlightened employer. He once told the Planters Association of which he was the Chairman, "So long as we pay fair rates and look after our coolies well, we need not worry much..."

At one time I used to visit the Mundakayam Club, which Murphy established, rather frequently. I heard the following story there.

When the First World War began, Murphy went to Madras (now Chennai) to enlist. The officer concerned pointed out that the age limit for recruitment was 40. The Irishman was around 42 then. He was upset, but there was nothing any one could do about His Majesty’s regulations. Murphy told the officer, “Very well, but don’t blame me if you lose the bloody war”, and walked out.

J. J. Murphy died on May 9, 1957. He was buried at Yendayar.


Note: For details I have depended on an article “J. J. Murphy 1872 – 1957”, which the late K. L. Kershaw, an eminent planter himself, wrote for the Planters’ Chronicle. This collector's item was sent to me by my maternal uncle, Michael A. Kallivayalil, who, among other things, owns the Yendayar Estate.

Cross posted to Articles By Abraham Tharakan.

Also see:

Irish planter, punter, soldier, playboy

Kerala plantations: The bed tea ceremony that was

Oru Desathinte Amma.


Ramesh Gandhi said...

It's an interesting story - and your banner is beautiful. Lovely photos of kingfishers too -- we have some in our garden -- their call is very aggressive, and much bigger than their bodies. I like to watch them shooing off the crows, which outnumber as well as outsize them.

Unknown said...

Thank you Nancy.
The banner is from a photo of Olavipe.

Gowri Mohanakrishnan said...

A wonderful story about a remarkable man. We never new that cardamom and pepper were not 'cultivated'. Sir, one always learns something new from your posts!

Unknown said...

gardenia, thanks for the nice things you have said.

It would appear that all through history the Malabar Coast exported cardamom and pepper (perhaps cloves as well)from wild growth and plants/vines around habitats.