COLUMN: A PEEP INTO THE PAST
Aspinwall House, in Fort Kochi, is more than one hundred years old. Thanks to it being the prime location of the Kochi Muziris Biennale, the building has sprung back into the limelight
Photos: Aspinwall House; John H Aspinwall
By Shevlin Sebastian
The year was 1925. The time: 8.30 a.m. on a Monday morning. A stream of employees entered the Aspinwall House front gate at Fort Kochi. They were the local people, of Portuguese and Goan origin, with names like Pereira and Alphonse. There were Nairs, too. They settled down behind desks in the main office building. Soon, they opened large red ledgers.
Meanwhile, at one side, near the backwaters, a boat arrived. It was filled with products from England: cycles, pumps and engines. It had been brought by a ship which was berthed in an outer channel. After it was unloaded, workers began to fill the empty vessel with material from the large godown at one side. These included coconut oil, coffee, timber, spices, tea, rubber, coir, mat and mattings. All these were being exported to England and other countries.
“The Aspinwall company had a coir factory at Allapuzha,” says city historian VN Venugopal. “Pepper was brought from the high ranges. They had their own rubber plantations at Pullangode in Malabar.”
The company, which has been running for more than 150 years, was set up by a Britisher called John H Aspinwall in 1867.
At Aspinwall House, the general managers lived with their families in two bungalows facing the sea. After work finished at 4.30 p.m. the managers would go home and have tea and snacks. Thereafter, they went to the Cochin Club, which was less than a kilometre away. “The men would play squash, tennis or billiards,” says Venugopal. “Those who were not sports-inclined had a few drinks and played cards. Later, they would go home for dinner.”
On Sundays, the men would play cricket at the Parade Ground. Sometimes, teams would arrive from plantations in Munnar and Wayanad and there would be competitive matches.
“It was a comfortable life,” says Venugopal. “A nice bungalow, good food and a comfortable salary. There were a dozen servants to look after you.”
Meanwhile, Aspinwall took several years adding buildings to the House. “He wanted the buildings to last,” says Venugopal. “Lime and mortar were used. Cement had not been discovered then. It was modern looking. There were high ceilings, large windows and wooden furniture. They had a lot of labour in those days to maintain the house.”
On the left of the House, Aspinwall had leased a bit of land to a German shipbuilder by the name of George Brunton. “This later became the Brunton Boatyard period hotel, owned by the CGH Earth Group,” says Venugopal.
On the right, at the present location of the Coast Guard District headquarters, there was the Volkart Brothers and other traders like Harrison and Crossfield and Pierce Leslie. “There was not much competition,” says Venugopal. “Life moved at a leisurely pace.”
Despite that, Aspinwall never relaxed. He was a man with a vision. Aspinwall recommended that Kochi should have a deepwater port. Initially, there was no response. After his death, in 1887, the Cochin Chamber of Commerce took up the request. But nothing happened for decades, although there were several discussions.
“However, in 1920, when Lord Willingdon was the governor of Madras, the Cochin Chamber gave another representation,” says Venugopal. “This time, Lord Willingdon spoke to the Admiralty in London, and an engineer Robert Bristow came on April 13, 1920, to do a survey.
Says historian Sreedhara Menon: “It took some time for the British authorities to realise the commercial and strategic potential of Kochi as a port and take the necessary steps for its development as if to compensate for the earlier neglect.”
But it took 21 years before the port could start functioning because it took a lot of effort to make an approach channel from the deep sea to the inner harbour. The port began operations on May 26, 1928. And Aspinwall's wish finally came true.
But something he never imagined is also taking place now. The House has been leased to the Kochi Biennale Foundation which is holding an international art festival for the past few years.
And the building has made an impact. “When I saw Aspinwall House for the first time, my initial reaction was, ‘My God, this is an incredible space’,” says Biennale Founder Bose Krishnamachari. “Visitors have told me that the House exudes a charm and is a character in its own right. What is great for me is that you can explore it like a historical architectural place. There is always an exchange between the buildings and the sea as well as the land. Lastly, Aspinwall House looks and feels new, even though it is more than 100 years old.”
(The New Indian Express, Kochi)