They like to class themselves with the Portuguese, whom they call our people.”

- Jacob Visscher, Dutch Priest , Cochin, 1663

They like to class themselves with the Portuguese, whom they call our people.”

- Jacob Visscher, Dutch Priest , Cochin, 1663

Topasses of Cochin

The Portuguese Governor in India, Afonso de Albuquerque’s policy of Politica dos Casamentos, had strived to create a loyal local population through intermarriage. The firangi (foreigners) men were encouraged to enter marital relationships with local women, and the children of such marriages were called Mesticos (Mestizo). Gradually, a new subsection grew when the Mesticos married local women.

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A Portuguese man with his Indian wife, 16th century. Image: World History Encyclopedia, 2024

Mixed Ancestry

The name ‘Topass’ reveals a handful of explanations. For one, the Portuguese called them ‘gente dos chapeos’ or the ‘hat people’ because of their habit of wearing them in public. The word ‘tupasi’ is a derivative of the Marathi word ‘duibhashi’, meaning a person who speaks two languages (as a translator). Finally, ‘topa-chi’, meaning musketeer, also counts as a possible origin of the word.   All versions unveil a distinct face of the community’s identity—a testament to the community’s vibrant past.   

Dutch accounts of 1663 describe the Topasses uniformly as “haughty, lazy, and conceited” and as “idle as well as proud, and will seldom work as long as they have any money”.

 

Razing of Cochin

The Dutch invasion of Cochin was a gruesome affair. The Portuguese fort of Cochin was destroyed and reduced to half its size. 400 Topasses fought alongside the Portuguese in Cochin against the Dutch in 1663. Fearing persecution, the Topass population inside the fort moved to neighbouring islands, where they continued to live.

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Conquest of Cochin, 1663. Image: Dutchportcities.NYU, 2024
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A 1635 map of Portuguese Cochin on the southwest coast of India. Image: World History Encyclopedia, 2024

At the time of the Dutch arrival, they formed half the population inside the fort. They were employed in various jobs, including shipbuilding, smithery, carpentry, agriculture, and fishing. Some were used as translators and soldiers. Gardens and fields were rented out to them. They also reserved the privilege of selling refreshments to the company’s ships.

“On the square in front of each church, the Dutch lit a big fire and burned the ornaments therein—statues, crucifixes, holy pictures, missals, and everything pertaining to the sacred worship. The next day, the keys to the city were delivered. Rickloff, the Dutch general, gathered the population under guard and let soldiers plunder the city for three days.” 

– Archbishop Joseph Sebastiani, 1663

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The Dutch entering Cochin, 1663. Image: Dutchportcities.NYU, 2024
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The King of Cochin riding on an Elephant, attended by Nairs, 16th century. Image: J.H. Van Linschoten, 1885

Home Town

According to the treaty between the Dutch and the Raja of Cochin, protecting all Roman Catholics was a Dutch responsibility,  and the Topass became the subjects of the VOC company. This meant that the Raja of Cochin had no jurisdiction over them if found guilty of any crimes. This arrangement soon became a nuisance, as soldiers and troublesome individuals ventured into Raja’s territory and committed various crimes, from drunk and disorderly behaviour to killing cows, only to escape back into the Dutch territory to avoid persecution.

Despite their Portuguese descent and Catholic faith, the Dutch soon called them back. The new rulers required a serving class, and they called the Topass community back to the fort. Here, they worked as translators and soldiers, becoming the backbone of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in Fort Cochin and continuing the Portuguese legacy into a new era under a new regime.

 

 

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An old Dutch street in British Cochin. Image: The Syrian Christians by L.K.A Iyer. 1926
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A street view from Cochin, 1913. Image: Wikimedia Commons, 2024

The Topass spoke a creolised form of Portuguese influenced by Malayalam and the other tongues of the cosmopolitan Cochin. Called ‘Cochin Portuguese’, the language survived well into the 21st century until its last speaker, William Rozario, died in 2010.

VOC and other Armies

The Topasses were preferred over the natives by the colonial armies for their European ancestry, which made it easy to forgo caste restrictions and use firearms.

In the mid-18th century CE, the Dutch used Topasses to man watch posts along the Arabian Sea to counter the increasing smuggling of pepper. Besides, they were often recruited and sent away to fight the company’s wars in the Dutch East Indies or present-day Indonesia. 

Some Topasses were part of the British garrison in Bombay, which blocked the Dutch admiral Ryckloff Van Goens from landing in Bombay. And when higher-caste Hindus refused, for religious reasons, to serve aboard ships, they served on British frigates against the Malabar pirates. 

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A fleet of ships of British-led Topasses force in front of a fortified island of Geriah(Vijayadurg) 1756. Image: The British Museum, 2024
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A battle in Malabar between the Dutch and the Portuguese. Image: Dutchportcities.NYU , 2024

Topasses from Ceylon were deployed to counter the advances of Travancore. Later, the captains of the Topasses, Ezekiel Rabbi and Silvester Mendes, were sent to Mavelikara to reach an agreement with the rajah of Travancore on behalf of the Dutch.

Thus, with the coloniser’s blessings, Topasses became a formidable mercenary force in the military landscape of Malabar. 

Surnames like Otambattil Avara Kappithan (Captain Cochinyil Lodikar), Nanayil Chandy Alparis (Alvares), Mundiriyil Avara Kappithan, Kuttasseriyil Vad’ki Araju reveal their martial heritage. 

Dressing as identity

The European hat and trousers acted as a symbol of separation from the rest of the Indian population and of a closer link with the European rulers. However, that did not mean that the life of the Topass community in Cochin was easy. A Diacony or charity fund had to be paid for wearing shoes and stockings.

The Dutch divided the native Christians living along the coast into two groups: the Mundukar, who wore a white cloth and puggry, and the Topasses, who dressed in hats and trousers. A captain or a commander presided over the community. Topasses needed to obtain a letter of consent from the commander to marry.

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Munnottikar Topasses or from the community of the Three Hundred, 1900s. Image: The Syrian Christians by L K A Iyer. 1926
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A Cochin Anglo Indian of Portuguese descent, 2013. Image: Seema Krishnakumar, 2013

Like the community’s male members, the womenfolk followed European dressing with their coloured loincloths and knee-length loose coats. Later, they adopted the kebaya from the Malaccan women and sarongs from those from Macau in China, large groups of whom settled in Cochin. The tradition of wearing red and black chequered kebaya continued well into the early decades of the twenty-first century.

 

“In the 1970s, I had to travel to Thevara, the only place in Cochin that sold kebaya cloth, for my mother. By this time, it was only the older women who continued to wear it.” 

– Romey Correya, Moolamkuzhi, Ernakulam 2024.

 

The Dutch called the Topass marriage customs ‘peculiar’, as the bride probably had never seen the groom before the marriage. However, this was common to the region, and unlike what the Dutch expected, the married couple never walked side by side, but the husband walked ahead, and the wife followed. 

 

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A wedding group of the Munnottikar Topasses, 1900s. Image: The Syrian Christians by L K A Iyer. 1926
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A funeral group of the Munnottikar. Image: The Syrian Christians by L K A Iyer. 1926

During funerals, Topasses mourned by wearing black coats with no lining inside out and letting their beards grow. Upon death, the body was covered with a cloth on which a large cross was embroidered and then taken away to be buried on the island of Vypeen. 

Catholicism in Cochin

On a typical Good Friday, a Topasses family is participating in a procession held outside the church with a person dressed as Christ carrying the cross. Later the same day, the congregation flagellated themselves with scourges made of rope. These scourges had knotted ends with ‘bits of broken glass and lumps of wax’. To bear the pain, they get intoxicated by drinking arrack. Besides, St. John’s Eve was a grand celebration. A fireworks ceremony was held in honour of the saint. The following day, i.e., St. John the Baptist’s Day, was marked by children dressed up in garlands and green boughs. At the beginning of every monsoon, the parish priest visited every house and sprinkled holy water to ward off evil spirits.

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Our Lady of Hope Church Vypin, 1868. Image: Royal Collection Trust, 1868
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A Christian procession, 1947. Image: Life magazine, 1947

While endorsement of superstitions was nothing new in Christian communities in Kerala, Topasses differed from them by a lack of any observable Hindu influence, even to the extent that they did not use thali (marriage necklaces).

Today, priests from Cochin Diocese credit the Portuguese with introducing processions and celebrating feasts among the Catholics.

Hindus made up the majority of the Portuguese converts, the bulk of whom were poor, lower-caste people wishing to escape caste discrimination and lift their social status.

The few former higher-caste Hindu converts, the Anjoottikkar (the 500), who were converted fishermen, and the Ezhunoottikkar (the 700), who were the descendants of the soil slaves, continued to maintain the caste system with the Topasses or Munnoottikars (the 300). This community had sprung from old Portuguese settlers and low-caste women. Even today, certain catholic dioceses and parishes in central Kerala are segregated based on caste differences. 

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A group of Anjuttikar. Image: The Syrian Christians by L K A Iyer. 1926
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A street view of Cochin, 1960. Image: Wiki commons, 2024

In the Twentieth Century

Over time, the term ‘Topasses’ fell into obscurity, but the community continued to be referred to by different names, Munnottikar, Feringi (parangi), Chattakar, Luso-Indians, etc. The community remained relevant over the years, securing employment with their handiwork in boatyards and their grasp of European languages in offices.

Under the British reign, the community enjoyed reservations in government jobs. “Had it not been for the Eurasians (people of mixed European and Asian parentage), the British Empire in India would have collapsed,” writes the Union of Anglo-Indian Associations.

After independence, many worked their way into earning expertise in engineering and administrative work, like the father of Ralph Faria, who served in the British army during the Second World War and was later posted at the MES (Military Engineer Services). Likewise, Cochin Harbour was full of carpenters and mechanics from the community.

The caste division crept into the present church system, with the dioceses of Cochin, Alappuzha, and Verapoly based on the caste divisions between the Anjoottikar (the fishermen) and the Ezhunoottikar (the land labourers).

This ‘ethnically engineered’ community, which acted as ‘shock absorbers’ between the Europeans and the natives, who ushered in modernism through their language, music, and tradition, was almost buried in the annals of history until 1970.

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Lascars at the Royal Albert Dock in London, 1936. Lascars is a Portuguese word used for Indian soliders. Image: Imperial War Museum, 1936
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The crew preparing meal in the forward mess deck of a Royal Indian Navy ship in 1944. Image: IWM, 1944

The 1970 Incident

Indian crew on newly bought ships and submarines from the USSR noticed an ‘unfair’ issue after landing in India. During this sailing with a crew of mixed nationalities from the USSR and India, all crew members undertook toilet cleaning duties on rotation.

However, on arrival in India, having specialised personnel (Topass) to clean toilets on other ships struck the ‘Topass-less’ new vessels as ‘unfair’. This caused ‘ugly’ protests that were quietened with corrective action, providing some Topasses as crew on each ship after arrival at home-port.

This practice continued, and a 2019 newspaper advertisement has a hiring called ‘Sanitary Hygienists’, earlier called Topass, revealing this shameful practice still exists in the Indian Navy’.

Today, designated toilet cleaners converge caste and uniformed hierarchies in this practice. These uniformed sailors clean toilets under peacetime conditions and man the ammunition supply chain and emergency-aid stations in battle conditions. Though the word ”Topas’’ traces its origins to the Portuguese era, the present usage has a negative connotation to refer to the seamen of the lowest rank’’.

This post in the Indian Navy, what Admiral Sampath Pillai (retd) calls a”relic of our India) the caste system, and the horrible arrangement we call” untouchability”, is what caused the the”morch’’ of 1970.

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Indian Navy Recruitment ad, 2019. Image : Advert Gallery, 2019

References

Aiya, V. Nagam. The Travancore State Manual. India: Travancore Government Press, 1906.

Anantha, Krishna. 1909. The Cochin Tribes and Castes.

Anantha, Krishna. 1926. Anthropology of the Syrian Christians.

Cadell, Patrick. 1956. “THE RAISING of the INDIAN ARMY.”

Constable, Philip. 2001. “The Marginalization of a Dalit Martial Race in Late Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Western India,450.” The Journal of Asian Studies 60 (2): 439–78.

Cooper, Randolf G. S. 2005. “Culture, Combat, and Colonialism in Eighteenth-and Nineteenth-Century India.” The International History Review 27 (3): 534–49.

Cris. 2022. “A Fascinating Centuries-Old Indo-Portuguese Language Continues to Exist in Kerala.” The News Minute. October 10, 2022. 

Day, Francis. 1863. The Land of the Permauls.

Dias, Charles. 2013. The Portuguese in Malabar. Manohar Publishers.

Domenico Ferroli. 1951. The Jesuits in Malabar.Giuseppe Maria Sebastiani. 1672. Seconda Speditione All’Indie Orientali Di Monsignor Sebastiani Fr. Giuseppe Di S. Maria Dell’Ordine De’Carmelitaniscalzi, Prima Vescovo Di Hierapoli, Hoggi Di Bisignano E Barne Di Santa Sofia, Ordinata Da Alessandro VII Di Gloriosa Memoria, 96.

Faria, Ralph. Interview by author. February 14, 2024.

Jacobus Canter Visscher, and Heber Drury. 1862. Letters from Malabar ; by J.C.V. Now First Translated … To Which Is Added an Account of Travancore, and Fra Bartolomeo’s Travels in That Country. By H. Drury. Madras.

Pillai, Sampath Adm (retd) . “The 1970 ‘Topass’ Incident Still Stains the Indian Navy – India News Stream.” India News Stream. July 12, 2021. 

“Protection of  Anglo Indian Identity,” March 12, 2017. The Union of Anglo-Indian Association.

Singh, Anjana. Fort Cochin in Kerala, 1750-1830.

Sohan, K.J. Interview by author. January 22, 2024.

Thomas, Bony. Interview by author. February 3, 2024.

Zacharia, Lynn Johnson,Paul. 2016. “The Surprisingly Early History of Christianity in India.” Smithsonian Magazine. February 19, 2016.

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