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Thursday, May 17, 2018

A Different Sort of Mission - The Story of Basel Mission in Malabar

When Vasco da Gama landed in Calicut in 1498, he had made clear his agenda - 'Pepper and Christ', in that order. He had been commissioned by the his King to look for a secure and economical source for pepper, to break the monopoly of the Venetian middlemen and the Moorish traders. Then there was the Papal directive to look for the Christian kingdom in the East, ruled by the fabled Prester John. 
Gama was true to his word. Despite the initial set backs, the Portuguese voyages made enormous profits from the trading of spices. The peaceful trading days of Arab merchants had ended for ever; in its place the Portuguese had sought to impose a monopoly backed up by  gun power. A dispassionate observer like Voltaire stated that, after the year 1500 there was no pepper to be obtained in India that was "not dyed red with blood". As M N Pearson had recorded, around 1515, Portugal made about one million cruzados from the trade in spices, equal to all of its ecclesiastical revenues and double the value of its trade in gold and metals.
The Jesuits who came with the Portuguese had their own agenda of proselytisation which they pursued, with force, where warranted. Interestingly, the Society of Jesus also traded in spices and it seems nearly 16 per cent of the Jesuits' annual income in the seventeenth century was derived from eastern spices!
The British who stepped in as the rulers of Malabar after the defeat of Tipu Sultan also continued their colonial strategy of revenue farming which they had perfected in Bengal a few decades earlier.
It was into this exploitative milieu that a new Mission with very different ideas made its entry. A heterogenous group of believers in the remote German-Swiss town of Basle were inspired by the Moravian Mission experiment of autonomous community living at Labrador, Canada and by the tenets of the Pietist Movement, and had established a society called Evangelical Missionary Society in 1816. The group included clergymen, businessmen and bankers. Their basic objective was to train evangelists.
When the first three missionaries landed in Calicut on 14th October, 1834, they had no grandiose plans for establishing an industrial community. But in time, they not only introduced modern manufacturing into Calicut but also attempted - not very successfully- to introduce social transformation of the caste ridden Malabar society. How this Mission grew in time from its modest beginnings to an industrial complex, owning at its peak several factories in almost a dozen locations is the subject of a fascinating book authored by Jaiprakash Raghaviah. The book, 'Faith and Industrial Transformation', was released the other day in Calicut by Prof. M G S Narayanan, eminent historian and the President of Calicut Heritage Forum.
The book is a scholarly work which sequentially deals with the origins of the Basel Mission, its arrival in Malabar and South Kanara, its successful experiments in converting indigenous crafts into organised industrial ventures and its attempts at social engineering. The study also makes an assessment of the Mission in other fields like health care, linguistics and education.
Although the product of years of painstaking research - into original sources of the Mission records hitherto not accessed - the book reads like a breezy novel. It is indispensable reading for anyone who is interested in the history of Calicut during the 19th and 20th Centuries.


  1. nice, Congratulations to JP. Hope to read this one day!

  2. Congratulations's a result of your tiresome hard work and Am sure it will throw more light on the grey area of he history of Basel Mission in South India.

  3. As a descendant of one of the Basil Missionaries, I read this with great interest ! There are still to my knowledge several families with Germanic names still living in Calicut. I am looking for old Photos 1960s or earlier of Calicut Travellers Bungalow, the area near Beach Hotel, with Pierce Leslie & Co etc Thank you !

    1. Anonymous : How does one contact you? If you want to remain anonymous, please mail us at We may be able to help you!


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