Meeting 5

AUGUST 08 - The Story of the Basel Evangelical Mission in Malabar.

Mr. Jaiprakash Raghaviah gave an illuminating presentation of the history of the BEM in Malabar. The mission, which was originally called the Basel German Evangelical Mission, started work in Malabar in 1834 and continued its good work till 1914 when the mission and the missionaries were treated as 'enemies' as a fall out of the first World War. 

Unlike the LMS in South Kerala and the CMS in central Travancore, the BEM in Malabar conducted a daring experiment in 'social engineering' by refusing to recognise the caste barriers and by enforcing a casteless society among the converts. ( In contrast, many converts to Chrsitianity from Hindu religion in Travancore retained their caste identity and the attendant prejudices regarding purity and pollution) The BEM laid great stress on the development of agriculture, industries, education and health of its members.

It was the Basel Mission which laid the foundation of modern industries in Malabar with its tile factories in Calicut, Kodakkal (Tirur), Mangalore and its textile factories in Vaniankulam, Quilandy etc. Their management strategy was also novel - the management of these factories mirrored closely the church hierarchy. In many cases, the position of a person in the Church and the factory overlapped. The Mission sought to introduce many Calvinist doctrines in Malabar.

Strangely, the British who were ruling Malabar from 1803, did not seem to bother much about the German experiment in industrialisation. As it is, the British did not have too many industrial interests in Malabar, content as they were with trading of spices, coir and of course, slaves on the sly. Nor did they have any evangelical agenda.

Basel Mission  did not pursue indigenisation of the Church hierarchy. Most of the priests were German/European and the local pastors invariably hit the glass ceiling. 

The contribution of BEM to education is well-known - the numerous schools they had established in Malabar and the pioneering effort of Dr.Herman Gundert in lexicography are some of the standing monuments. Their contribution in the sphere of public health - consisting of the establishment of a hospital in Calicut (the present RDD office to the north of the office of the Police Commissioner in Mananchira) and the specialist hospital for Leprosy patients in Chevayur - is less well-known.

The mission followed a typical architectural and spatial plan. This is best typified by the CSI Complex in Calicut (opposite the State Bank of India main branch). By the side of the Church is a primary school and behind it, a series of social welfare institutions such as orphanages, old age homes etc. A little removed from these, but still within the compound, is the 'bungalow' of the while priest which was opulent by Indian standards. Around this mission compound would be the houses of the converts.

In the case of Calicut, the land which housed the mission compound and the nearby industrial complex (the present Commonwealth Trust to the south and west of Mananchira Tank) were purchased from the Zamorin Raja of Calicut. (Some land was also stated to have been bought from Sri Kunhikoru Moopan).

The decline of the Mission and its interesting social experiment can be traced to the declaration of the World War in 1914. All the assets of the Mission were taken over as 'enemy property' and vested with the Custodian of Enemy Property. It was even rumoured that the German missionaries in Calicut  gave smoke signals to the German war ship Emden which was reported off  Calicut in 1914. (see for an interesting post on Emden -

The enemy property was handed over to Swiss missionaries as a neutral agency. For some time, it was managed by Parry and Company as managing agents. Subsequently, a trust known as the Commonwealth Trust was registered in London and all the assets handed over to it. The income from the Trust's activities was expected to finance the mission of the Church of South India.