Monday, 19 August 2013

The Copper plate and the big sahib

The world renowned Copper plate is the greatest honor received by the Jewry of Malabar. Granted to the Yemeni Jewish merchant Joseph Rabban, the privileges were granted to him and his successors who took abode in coast of Malabar. It was always my long desire to see these copper plates. I believe seeing this copperplate itself is a privilege, ultimately I got a chance to see those copper plates. Unfortunately I couldn’t procure a photograph of that, either explain much about the event; as per the humble request from the present custodian of the copper plate. Might be due to some security reasons, anyway I am bound to do so. It was a great experience to examine the copper plates, Elkan. N. Adler’s narration about it was similar to what I saw there. 

Jacky Cohen with the Copper plates.
  Photo courtesy 

“It consists of three strips of copper, one of which is blank, one etched on both sides, and the third on one side only. The characters are made legible by being rubbed with whitening. The copper plates have a round hole in the corner, through which a string was passed to tie them together under seal, but the seal is lost. They are now kept together by a thin and narrow copper band, which just fits."

This legendary scene of grant is always shrouded with mystery and contradictions. The contradiction would have turn out after the arrival of “Big Sahib from London.”

Rev. Claudius Buchanan

It was during 1806-07, Rev/Dr. Claudius Buchanan visited Jews of Malabar. He had collected (in 1806 AD) many manuscripts from them and deposited (in 1809 AD) in Cambridge University. But those manuscripts, even though some are of great antiquity could be counted along with the other Syrian manuscripts that he procured from Syrian Christians of Malabar, worthwhile as it is preserved and well documented in University of Cambridge.

Dr. Francis Day’s comment in his book “The Land of perumal”,    (Page 341)
“The white Jews possess three copper plates,* looking as if they had been taken from a ship’s side, ¼ by 1/8 of a yard in size. The outer one has no inscription.”
For foot note to the copper plate:
“*The Rev. C. Buchanan, states that the original plate was of brass, and engraved on both sides. He had facsimile made from it, on two copper plates, which he deposited in the University of Cambridge. The carving of the original, is said to have looked very old that on the present plates, certainly does not do so. If the plate at Cambridge is of brass, and engraved on both the sides, it may perhaps be concluded, that Dr. Buchanan returned the new plates to Jews, and kept the old one.”

This comment of Francis Day makes us to rethink about the authenticity of the copper plate in possession of Paradesi Jews.

The narration of Claudius Buchanan in his book “Christian researches in Asia: with notices of the translation of the scriptures into the oriental languages.”     (Page 220 and Page 222) made to think the same.
‘On my inquiry into the antiquity of the White Jews, they first delivered to me a narrative, in the Hebrew language, of their arrival in India, which has been handed down to them from their fathers and then exhibited their ancient brass Plate, containing their charter and freedom of residence, given by a King of Malabar. The following is the narrative of the events relating to their first arrival……”
 “I had employed, by their permission an engraver at Cochin to execute a facsimile of the original plate, on copper*”
With a mark of foot note added later mentioning “*the original is engraved on both sides of the plate, the facsimile forms two plates. These are now deposited in the Public Library at the University of Cambridge.”

The scope of suspicion is in the usage of words “Brass” and “Copper”. And he mentions that the original brass was forms one plate by etched on both sides and copper forms two.

Was it purposefully used here? To make a point that the original charter is made of brass and the facsimile of it made at Cochin is of copper, to create an ambiguity to the antiquity of the plate. He clearly mentions

ancient brass plate” and
to execute a facsimile of the original plate, on copper

So what with the brass plate as mentioned by him, is that a general ignorance or any constituted conspiracy?

Getting a lead from this, I enquired to Cambridge University. Ms. Catherine Ansorge, Head of Near Eastern Department, (manuscripts and printed Collections, Cambridge University Library) replied by a personal mail about the MsOo.1.14, Charter of Jews of Cochin, which was submitted by Dr. Claudius Buchanan.
“Oo.1.14 - the texts are all written on rectangles of copper. I do not know of any studies which have been carried out on these” thus confirmed the plate deposited by Claudius Buchanan is also copper.

We could have consider it as a general ignorance or confusion happened to a foreigner, as in ancient India the grants were generally etched in copper plates, known as Tamra sasanam, Tamra pathram, Sasanam, Cheppad etc where Tamra or  Tamram means copper. Because in Michael Sargon’s note ( probably would have happened in 1820 AD) on “account of their history by an old black Jew” (From Chinotta now known as Chennamangalam) mention the same plate as brass plate.
“that they had a brass plate and various books, which they had preserved and kept in this (Chinotta) synagogue, from whence the white Jews came with power and took away from them, when the Dutch were in possession of Cochin”

Here the usage of word “brass” by Sargon would be a general ignorance as we could not find that neither the Jew from chinotta nor Sargon would have any benefit like Buchanan. But Buchanan mentions about both copper and brass, in the very same book it could not counted as a general ignorance or confusion. We have to really look into that to understand more about his intentions…..

But a rare Dutch abstract record of the “Hebrew Chronicles” found in custody Jews of Cochin, translation by Leopold Emanuel Jacob Van Dort (AD 1757), a Jewish convert to Christian says in his note that “The ruler of land Sheram Perimal welcomed them, and favoured them with various privileges, which were engraven on two table of copper, which are to this day in Cochin, and are kept by Joseph Halogua, the present Nasi among the people, which I saw translated.”

Van Dort, had seen the copper plate in the possession of Paradesi Jews and it was during the reign of Dutch in cochin. We could read those lines of the Jew from chinotta and of Van Dort together, that Joseph Halogua the Nasi/Mudaliyar came with power and took the copper plate with them. Were in records it belonged to white Jews.

Elkan Nathan Adler

Concerning this copper-plate, Mr. Adler (1909 AD) writes that “the white Jews say that they have always held it; the black Jews contend that it was originally theirs. The title-deed is quaint in many ways.”

Here again Adler takes us to a different point but concerning the antiquity of the copper plate “The title-deed is quaint in many ways”

Ruby Daniel’s claim about the plate makes us to think more about it and finally nails the issue
“Non-Paradesi Jews will tell you that when officials visited the Paradesi synagogue it was custom to borrow the copper plates from the other Jewish community to show off, as if the copper plate actually belonged to the Paradesis. Thus it happened when one British officer visited the Paradesi synagogue, he was shown the copper plate as usual. But this fellow, unlike the others, took a great interest in them and would not hand them back. He said that such things of historical value should be under the direct protection of the government. He wanted the plates to be taken to London. When Paradesis protested, he said that he would make a copy of them and send the original back. But the big sahib (Englishman) did not keep his word. The true owners of the plates started pressing the Paradesis, and in turn they pressed the sahib, till at last he sent the copy to them and kept original, which he said is in a museum in London. When Paradesis gave the copy to the owners, the latter refused to accept the copy and insisted on the original, which the Paradesi people could not obtain. So Paradesis kept the copy while the true owners were left with nothing- neither the original nor the copy. In course of time the whole affair was forgotten, and the copper plates stayed in the Paradesi synagogue and no one challenged their authenticity or which community was the legitimate owner of the original copper plates.
Something to this effect was published in the book from Cochin to the land of Israel by the people of Nevatim Moshav, when they celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of their immigration to Israel. I heard a protest from a Paradesi family here in Israel. They said that the official who was mentioned did not take the copper plates away with him and that what they have got now in the Paradesi synagogue in Cochin is the original, and the copper plates originally belonged to the Paradesis. If there is anymore who really cares to know the truth, I suggest they go and check”
Analyzing all these together we could relate that British officer/Big Sahib (Englishman) mentioned by Ruby is the very same Claudius Buchanan. And it is clear that the museum mentioned is Cambridge University library (A catalogue titled "Hebrew manuscripts at Cambridge university library: a description and introduction" 1997, which had listed a Charter of Jews of Cochin as Oo.1.14, SCR 1005, HL1000, Malayalam.).

But why he has to mention about a “single piece of brass plate” were Van Dort’s testimony made 50 years before him clearly mentions it is two tables of copper. Were we have to believe Buchanan fabricated a delusion that the original plates was of brass and facsimile was of copper, were his brass plate story is a clear trickery. With that he created an obscurity in everybody’s mind and he have taken the original copper plate with him and left the duplicate copper plate with the Paradesis as narrated by Ruby Daniel. This might be the reason why Adler says “The title-deed is quaint in many ways”.

But we will not come to a conclusion unless and until the copper plates in possession of Paradesi synagogue and one in Cambridge university is subjected to studies. I would like to repeat what Ruby told “If there is anymore who really cares to know the truth, I suggest they go and check”

Castes and tribes of Southern India by Edgar Thurston, Volume 2, 1909.
The Jew being a defense of Judaism again, Volume 2.
Ruby of cochin, An indian jewish women remembers, 2001


  1. Interesting account of the British colonial 'relic hunting'. There are many other instances where the originals have been spirited away and duplicates left in their place. Nevertheless, one should also be grateful for the way these originals have been preserved, as compared to how callously we handle our own heritage. Thanks, Thoufeek, for this background story.

  2. Thank you for the Informative article, Thoufeek. First of all, thanks for the photo of Jacky whom I had a chance to meet a very long time ago. I too had a chance to see the original copper plates when it was being shown to visitors.
    Paradesi was a term used to denote all foreign traders to the Malabar Coast, including Jewish merchants who were from various parts of the Middle East. Read an excellent and intriguing description by Amitav Ghosh on Abraham Ben Yishu who came to Mangalore in 1428 from Tunisia via Aden in Yemen, who married a local Malayalee lady and went back with his family back to the Middle East and possibly to the land of Israel. Looking at the names of various family names of Paradesi Jews of Cochin, their origins as varied as Iraq and Spain.
    Best wishes to you and your work is truly appreciated .
    Dr Yehuda, La Habana, Cuba

  3. the other cheppedu given to kinan thomas and his subordinate jewish christain zeolets from urha/edesa in ad 345 by king cheraman perumal is missing and purposly hidden.REV.buchanan also took the old pesta syriac bible from st.thomas knanaya church,ranni and given to cambridge university,before that he translated that bible in to malayalam