Ooty, today, is an all weather destination; it’s beautiful botanical gardens besieged by millions of visitors who are wonderstruck by the sheer beauty of it. The wide expanse of lawns and trees blend seamlessly into the Giardion all’italinana or Italian garden.
Only a handful of the three million visitors who visit the gardens would know that the neatly laid out beds of colorful perennials, trimmed topiary under the Himalayan Cherry and White Silky Oak trees was designed and planted by Italian prisoners of war (PoWs) who were briefly interned in a PoW camp in Ooty during World War I.
The Italians were not the only PoWs in the Nilgiris, but they are the only ones to have the beautiful garden to remember them by; of the others, there is hardly any mention unless you know where to look for it. The Chinese were the first lot to get interned in the hills. There is the Chinese Hill tea estate, Chinese jails in Naduvattoam, and the Jail Thottam (garden) in Thiashola estate.
Today, these things are but small links to Chinese PoWs who were brought to the Nilgiris between 1856 and 1860 after the second Anglo-Chinese war, also called the Opium Wars, involving British trade in Opium in China and China’s sovereignty. Chinese prisoners were also brought from the Straits Settlements of Singapore, Malacca, Dinding and Penang. They were initially sent to the Nilgiris because of the overcrowding in the Madras jails. But later, when it was discovered that they were good workers, they were put to work on the newly opened tea and cinchona plantations, as well as new constructions which were coming up in the hills.
The popular myth in the Nilgiris is that the Chinese PoWs taught the pioneer planter how to plant and manufacture tea. This is highly debatable as these men, most probably sailors or pirates would have known anything about tea growing or manufacture, because, at that time tea cultivation was not just a closely guarded state secret but a complicated procedure too.
Sir Percival Griffiths, British civil servant and tea historian endorsed this view and dismissed claims that Chinese PoWs instructed planters how to plant or manufacture tea. However, some of the Chinese PoWs were housed in Thaishola estate when tea planting started in 1859; anecdotal evidence suggests that they have also planted tea. Records show that around the same time one Miss Cockburn (pronounced Coburn), daughter of the Collector of Salem, also used the Chinese to plant tea on her estate near Kotagiri.
During this time, there was a great need for skilled construction workers as the English were busy creating a home away from home. Sanitaria, homes, schools and government offices were being built in Ooty, Coonoor, Wellington and Kotagiri. In 1868, seven Chinese prisoners, who were housed in temporary sheds in Lovedale, escaped and tried to make their way towards a sea port. But they were captured and brought back by an armed police party who were helped by Badagas, the local tribesmen.
The next year, in July when the monsoon winds and rain were lashing the hill station, twelve of them tried to escape once again. Several police parties set out in search of the Chinese. One police party disappeared without a trace. However, a fortnight later, the prisoners were caught in a place near Calicut (present day Kozhikode); a search of their persons revealed that they were carrying government-issue guns.
The search for the missing police party stepped up but it was only by September that the bodies of the missing men were discovered deep inside the jungle at Walaghat, half way down the Sispara ghat. The four bodies, or what was left of it, were in a row, their severed head placed on their shoulders. It was presumed that the Chinese had pretended to surrender and then attacked and killed the police with their own weapons.
The Chinese presence was most prevalent in Naduvattam, a nondescript village between Ooty and Gudalur on the National Highway 65, where a large PoW camp was set up. These prisoners were used to work the cinchona plantations around this place at the behest of WG McIvor, the man who nurtured and designed the Ooty Botanical Garden. McIvor was also the superintendent of the cinchona factory in Naduvattam and it was at his request that 500 Chinese prisoners were sent to Naduvattam. Once they had finished their jail sentence, these Chinese settled down here.
The Naduvattam Chinese married local woman and earned a living by farming coffee, vegetables and dairy. In 1909, Edgar Thurston, English superintendent of the Madras Government Museum, along with his assistant K Rangachari, published seven volumes of the anthropologic encyclopedia “Castes and Tribes of Southern India”. The Tamil Chinese who lived between Naduvattam and Gudalur find a mention there.
Thurston writes: “An ambassador was sent to this miniature Chinese Court with a suggestion that the men should, in return for monies, present themselves before me with a view to their measurements being recorded. The reply which came back was in its way racially characteristic as between Hindus and Chinese. In the case of the former, permission to make use of their bodies for the purposes of research depends essentially on a pecuniary transaction, on a scale varying from two to eight annas. The Chinese, on the other hand, though poor, sent a courteous message to the effect that they did not require payment in money, but would be perfectly happy if I would give them, as a memento, copies of their photographs.”
Thurston further describes a specific family: “The father was a typical Chinaman, whose only grievance was that, in the process of conversion to Christianity; he had been obliged to ‘cut him tail off’. The mother was a typical Tamil Pariah (outcast) of dusky hue. The color of the children was more closely allied to the yellowish tint of the father than to the dark tint of the mother; and the semi-mongol parentage was betrayed in the slant eyes, flat nose, and (in one case) conspicuously prominent cheek-bones.”
Another lot of PoWs who were interned in the Nilgiris were the Boers from South Africa, who were brought to Ketti after the second Anglo-Boer War (1889-1902) between the British and two Boer colonies- the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.
After the long drawn out guerrilla operations that followed the battles, the British won. They rounded up the civilian population in these states to prevent civilian support for the guerillas. Concentration camps were set up in South Africa while more troublesome elements were shipped off to Crown colonies overseas, such as India.
John Ahmad, a retired University Math lecturer based in the UK, wrote to me: “The Anglo-Boer War lasted from October 1899 to May 31, 1902, during which time the British captured some 32,500 prisoners. Due to concerns over keeping them in secure custody, 24,000 were sent abroad to camps in St Helena, Ceylon, Bermuda and India; over 9,000 of them being sent to India. The first batch arrived in Bombay on April 23, 1901, with the final batch arriving on May 28, 1902, just days before the peace was signed”.
In January 1901, St John Brodrick, Secretary of State, War Office wrote to the India Office asking whether it was possible to set up a PoW camp on the Nilgiri plateau as the camps in St. Helena and Ceylon were full to capacity. Lord Curzon, the Viceroy, was not keen on this proposal. He informed the India Office that the site earmarked for the PoW camp had poor water supply and high incidence of diseases such as typhoid. He suggested the War Office look at other sites in the Bombay and Madras Presidencies. Finally three camps were established in the Madras Presidency – in Bellary, Kaithy (Ketti) and Trichnopoly (Tiruchirappalli).
The camp in Ketti, a valley which lies between Ooty and Coonoor, was opened on May 15 1902 and closed on August 5 1902. Inmates were then sent to Wellington before they were sent home to South Africa. This camp was known as the parolees’ camp and housed 821 of them. Letters home, which no doubt were censored, described the place as ‘cold and damp’. The PoWs were housed in corrugated iron huts and were given the same rations as the British troops.
The authorities were not too strict and the prisoners were generally well behaved with occasional cases of drunkenness. Some of them even worked at the Cordite Factory in nearby Aruvankadu. Ironically, while they survived the rigors of war and mass transportation to concentration camps, a number of them died by contracting typhoid and were buried in some windswept cemeteries in the Nilgiris.
Time passed and life in the beautiful blue mountains was placid, untouched by the wars and skirmishes in the far flung corners of the British Empire, except when they brought back the prisoners. The most colorful bunch was the Afghans or Kabuliwalas who were often seen in the Coonoor market. Many old timers in Coonoor will remember the tall, fierce looking men in their loose pyjamas, long kurtas, embroidered waistcoats and turbans, sitting on the revetment near the bus stand. For me, it’s part of the family lore as my grandfather was next-door neighbours with some of them.
Until the mid 1960s there were a number of Afghans in Coonoor and the story goes that they arrived in the Nilgiris as part of the retinue of an Afghan prince, who was kept under house arrest in Coonoor, after one of the many Anglo Afghan wars during the early years of the 20th century.
Records of this are no doubt buried deep in some dusty archive somewhere. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a large palatial house off Barlows Road, which connects the bus stand with Bedford, Upper Coonoor’s shopping center, was where the Afghan bigwig was housed.
The Afghan ‘court’ flourished there for a couple of years and then the prince went away and with him the subsidy, which had allowed his retinue to live in some style. Once the money dried up, a majority of them packed their bags and left. Those who remained earned their livelihood as moneylenders and then slowly they too disappeared taking some of the drama and color with them.
Photographs by Mahesh Bhat. The header photo shows the interiors of the Jail Museum in the Nilgiris.