Archive for May, 2012

Are the Rich Worth a Damn or a Daam?

May 7, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)


On the cover of the New York Times Magazine this weekend was a question, printed in large type: ‘Are the Rich Worth a Damn?’

What does ‘damn’ mean here? The question is clearly not about which circle of hell the rich should be sent to (that would be a bridge too far for the NYT): it’s more a way of asking: ‘what are the rich worth?’ and it invokes familiar English usages like: ‘I don’t care a twopenny damn.’

This oath has an interesting history: it is said to have been invented by the Duke of Wellington, aka Arthur Wellesley. And what did the Duke mean when he used the phrase ‘twopenny damn’? Surely he could not have meant ‘twopenny curse’ (as the word’s dictionary meaning would imply)? That would contradict the sense of what the Duke was trying to say: for to curse is to care deeply, while he was obviously trying to say that he cared less than he would for something worth a trivial sum, like two pennies. Or, for that matter, a fig – ‘I don’t care a fig’ was also a common expression once (imagine this on the cover of the NYT magazine: ‘Are the Rich Worth a Fig?’).

What then was thing, worth less than a fig, that the Duke was referring to?

As a young man Arthur Wellesley spent many years in India and was well-versed in military Hindustani. At the siege of Srirangapatnam, in the thick of battle he dashed off a note: ‘when you get possession of the nullah you have the tope.’¶ Wellesley would certainly have  been familiar with an Indian coin called the daam. Introduced by Sher Shah Suri in the 16th century, its value was negligible – it was perhaps comparable to today’s paisa which is worth about 1/5000th of a US dollar. It probably looked something like this§:









1803 was the year Maj.-Gen. Arthur Wellesley defeated a Maratha alliance at Assaye: he would later describe this as his greatest accomplishment. 1803 was also the year in which an article in one of Calcutta’s English journals said: ‘This word [daam] was perhaps in use even among our forefathers and may innocently account for the expression ‘not worth a fig’, or a dam, especially if we recollect that ba-dam, an almond, is to-day current in some parts of India as small money.’

Another low-value coin was the damri. Burnett and Yule, in their dictionary, Hobson-Jobson (from which the above example is also taken) write: ‘Damri is a common enough expression for the infinitesimal in coin, and one has often heard a Briton in India say: “No, I won’t give a dumree!” with but a vague notion what a damri meant, as in Scotland we have heard, “I won’t give a plack,” though certainly the speaker could not have stated the value of that ancient coin. And this leads to the suggestion that a like expression, often heard from coarse talkers in England as well as in India, originated in the latter country, and that whatever profanity there may be in the animus, there is none in the etymology, when such an one blurts out “I don’t care a dam!” i.e. in other words, “I don’t care a brass farthing!”’

Or, as people might say in India (in many languages): ‘I don’t care two-pice!’ Could this have been at the back of the Iron Duke’s mind when he coined his famous expression?

Common sense suggests that the original reference was to a very small unit of currency rather than to hellfire. But of course in Hindi and Urdu ‘daam’ is also the word most commonly used to mean ‘price’. This suggests the intriguing possibility that the New York Times may unwittingly have posed a different question: ‘Are the Rich Worth Their Daam?’ To ask whether the rich are worth their price is not the same as asking what they are worth.

Britain’s wars in India left a trail of tiny booby-traps in the English language. Something similar could be happening in today’s Iraq.




¶ Weller, Jac: Wellington in India, Greenhill Books, London, 1993, p. 63.

§ Gupta, Parmeshwari Lal: Coins, National Book Trust, New Delhi 2006, pl. XXVI.


Chitra Sankaran’s New Publications

May 4, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)


From Singapore Chitra Sankaran writes: ‘I wanted to let you know that the edited volume on your novels entitled History, Narrative and Testimony in Amitav Ghosh’s Fiction is finally out by SUNY Press. Please scroll down to see it featured in SUNY Spring collection. The initial responses to the volume have all been most positive. I am keeping my fingers crossed.’



Here is the Table of Contents:
Introduction: Beyond Borders and Boundaries
Chitra Sankaran

1. Diasporic Predicaments: An Interview with Amitav Ghosh
Chitra Sankaran

2. Unlikely Encounters: Fiction and Scientific Discourse in the Novels of Amitav Ghosh
Lou Ratté

3. The Glass Palace: Reconnecting Two Diasporas
Nandini Bhautoo-Dewnarain

4. Resignifying “Coolie”: Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace
Shanthini Pillai

5. The Girmitiyas’ Journey in Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies
Rajesh Rai and Andrea Marion Pinkney

6. Shadows and Mysteries: Illusions of Imagined Communities in Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines
Crystal Taylor

7. Amitav Ghosh’s “Imagined Communities”: The Hungry Tide as a Possible “Other” World
Federica Zullo

8. Sharing Landscapes and Mindscapes: Ethics and Aesthetics in Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome
Chitra Sankaran

9. Language and Ethics in The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh
Tuomas Huttunen

10. Ghosh, Language, and The Hungry Tide
Ismail S. Talib

11. Intertexuality in Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide
Shao-Pin Luo

12. “Dwelling in Travel”: In An Antique Land  and the Making of a Resisting Post-Colonial History
Tammy Vernerey

13. The Calcutta Chromosome: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium and Discovery—A Tour de Force Transcending Genres
Ruby S. Ramraj

14. Inner Circles and the Voice of the Shuttle: Native Forms and Narrative Structure in Amitav Ghosh’s The Circle of Reason
Robbie B. H. Goh



Chitra adds: ‘In between my academic endeavours I managed to write a murder mystery novel set in Singapore and Tamil Nadu, India. It has been published by New Dawn Publishers, a UK firm that has been recently set up by a group of Creative Writing graduates from London. The book is being street launched this month. It is entitled Void of Reason. If you are in the mood to read a mystery novel by an Asian, please do pick it up, or alternatively, I could send you a copy.’

Evidently Void of Reason is flying off the shelves: it is already out of stock on Amazon!




More on Goa’s Slaves: There were also many Bengalis

May 3, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)



My post on Goa’s Japanese slaves has elicited some interesting responses.

From Lucano Alvares, now in Merida, Mexico: ‘This is most fascinating, even more so because of its absolute plausibility and the fact that so few people have acknowledged it. ‘

From the Goan historian Fatima Gracias (author of Cozinha da Goa: History and Tradition of Goan Food): ‘Goa had slaves from various countries and places —-Japanese, Chinese, Arabs, African, Bengalis and so on . Right now I’m reading a manuscript of a forthcoming  book which has  a  chapter with fascinating and detailed information on slavery in Goa.. Slavery ended in Goa in the 19th century.’

From the Goan writer Vivek Menezes, now in Srinagar: ‘Thanks very much for sharing your incredibly interesting post about
Japanese slaves. Though aware of the early  Japan-Goa connection, I had no idea at all about these slaves. When I get back, will certainly
look for more. One other interesting connection that comes to mind is that Occidental medicine reached Japan first via Goa! The first western-style doctors in that country were sent from Goa Medical College! In addition, you probably know that Francis Xavier is patron saint of Japan, that ‘pao’ is a Luso loanword not just in Konkani and Marathi but also Japanese, and that tempura also has Luso (and Indian?) roots (is it not just a Japanese bhajjia?!).’

From Cecil Pinto, a link to a fascinating article by the eminent historian, Dr. Teotonio de Souza: Manumission of Slaves in Goa 1682-1760 as Found in Codex 860. Dr. de Souza shows that there were many Bengalis, and possibly Odiya, slaves in Goa in the 17th and 18th centuries: “The presence of Bengali slaves and eunuchs in Goa is mentioned in thecontemporary Jesuit records, and also in the manuscript we are presenting here. In her recent research on Bengal, Rila Mukherjee (2006) has studied the Portuguese joining hands with the Arakanese in large scale slaving as a way of making up for their losing political control in the region in the early 17 th century. This provoked the anger of ShahJahan in 1632 and resulted in the take over of Hughly.”

The article includes an interesting aside: ‘A barber resident in S. Lourenço (Agaçaim) accepted a Bengali boy as free and promised to teach him to be a barber within two years.’

Dr. de Souza’s article was presented at a conference entitled: ‘The African Diaspora in Asia: Explorations on a Less Known Fact. The conference was held in Panaji, Goa, in January 2006, and the papers have been published in a collection edited by Kiran Kamal Prasad and Jean-Pierre Angenot.

On the comments page, Veeresh Malik has posted a link to an interesting article on a Japanese slave in South Africa. There is a peculiar serendipity to this because last week, at Duke University, I had a discussion about a similar subject with Rita Barnard, a South African literary critic. She remembered a farmstead near Cape Town that was named after someone called ‘Van Bengal’, and was said to have belonged to a freed slave.

From Dani Botsman: ‘I am so glad that you found the Nelson article of interest.  I enjoyed the comments on your blog immensely, of course.  That a large number of the”Japanese” slaves sold by the Portuguese were, in fact, probably Koreans captured by the armies of the Japanese Christian lords who led the invasion attempts of the 1590s adds yet another layer of fascination to it all too I think!  Certainly it is interesting to think about the kinds of relationships that might have formed between the different groups of men and women trapped together on those ships from Nagasaki to Goa (not unlike your utterly compelling depictions of the Ibis perhaps?)’

Dani has recently published an article called ‘Freedom without Slavery? “Coolies,” Prostitutes, and Outcastes in Meiji Japan’s “Emancipation Moment”.’

This is how it begins: ‘In his acclaimed work Freedom in the Making of Western Culture, sociologist Orlando Patterson argues that “the Western world” has come to embrace freedom as its “supreme value” as the result of a particular relationship to the history of slavery, which began in antiquity and evolved throughout the Middle Ages. In the “non- West,” on the other hand, Patterson tells us that freedom was “stillborn,” unable to develop and grow because, in the absence of this uniquely Western constellation of ideas about slavery, it was associated primarily with the unbridled power of a ruler (an Oriental despot), protection from whom required “not personal freedom or freedoms but submission to controlled, countervailing authority, the tight protective bondage of the kin-based group.” In all, Patterson devotes just twenty-four pages (out of a total of more than four hundred) to his explanation of the failure of freedom in the non-West, in effect presenting us with little more than the familiar Orientalist binary of a West in which individual freedoms are paramount and a non-West in which the individual remains subservient to the group.’

Dani proceeds to show up the weaknesses in Patterson’s argument through examples of 19th century Japanese court judgements on various instances of slave- and coolie-trading by Westerners. One of these concerns a vessel called the ‘Maria Luz’:  ‘A 370-ton barque that had set out from Macao, on the South China coast, at the end of May 1872 to make the long journey back across the Pacific to its home port of Callao, Peru. After a month at sea, the ship was caught in a severe storm, and in early July it limped into the port of Yokohama, where the captain, Ricardo Hereira, requested permission to weigh anchor while the crew made repairs.’

In a recent email Dani writes: ‘One thing I did not end up mentioning about the Maria Luz for reasons of space was that it too seems to have been sailed by a crew made up mainly of “lascars”—so, a Peruvian ship, with an Indian crew, carrying a “cargo” of Chinese laborers from Portuguese-controlled Macao, and it ends up becoming the focus of a trial about slavery in Yokohama, Japan, the final outcome of which was decided by the Russian Tsar!  Yet another reminder, I suppose, of the limits of “national” history!’

And in regard to Vivek’s suggestion about the Goan roots of Japanese tempura, Dani writes: ‘With regard to the Tempura question, it would actually make good sense for it to have come from Goa– the Japanese always say it was introduced by the Portuguese in the 16th century, but that does not mean it came from Portugal.’ [I think this deserves a thesis.]

Finally, Pamela de Mello, Associate Editor of the Herald, one of Goa’s leading dailies, wrote a couple of days ago asking if she could print the post in the paper’s edit page. My answer: Yes.


Heartbreaks of the Archive

May 1, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)



John-Paul Ghobrial, is a Cambridge historian who is working on the life of Elias of Babylon, a 17th century Christian traveler from Mesopotamia. He describes his project as ‘a microhistory about the first Ottoman traveller to South America, ca. 1670′ [see my blog post of March 22, 2012].

John-Paul has been following Elias’s footsteps around Spain for the last few weeks, and he recently sent an update:



Dear Amitav,

I’m just back from a month of archive-hopping in Spain.  The good news is that I managed to track down several of my needles in a haystack, in the form of more Eastern Christians in the Americas.  More importantly, I figured out that Elias spent the end of his life in a coastal town near Cadiz and. . . . I found a notary register FULL of documents about him.  As for the bad news, well. . . see attached.












You will understand what I mean when I tell you I used good old fashioned geniza techniques to figure out what letters I was looking at in an attempt to decipher partial words. 

















Heart-breaking in many ways but it all adds to the story, I guess.
















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