Revisiting Ooty founder‘s tragedy

John Sullivan Memory

One hundred and seventy eight years ago, on September 3, 1838, 16 year old Harriet Anne, eldest daughter of John Sullivan, founder of Ooty, died here. Only ten days earlier her mother and Sullivan’s wife Henrietta Cecilia had passed away at a young age of 35. Two months prior to that she had given birth to her 9th child. Both were buried in St. Stephen’s church.

“The successive tragedy must have broken Sullivan’s resolve to spend his last days in Ooty and made him leave the town he founded and loved two years later in 1841 never to return” says Dharmalingam Venugopal of Nilgiri Documentation Centre.
Madras marriage

Sullivan had no family ties when he left England in 1805 at the age of 15 to join the Madras Civil Service because he was born before marriage and therefore considered illegitimate.

In 1820 he married 17 year old Henrietta, daughter of William Harrington, after whom a prominent road is named, at the St. George’s Cathedral, Chennai.

Henrietta was the first European lady to visit the Nilgiris when she came up with Sullivan in 1820 and camped at the Dimbatty at Kotagiri.

When Governor Sir Thomas Munro visited Ooty in 1826 she had already given birth to two children and was awaiting the third. Sir Munro described the two children as ‘both pretty, particularly the boy, and have as fine complexions as any children in England’.

Son returns 

Sullivan’s sixth child Henry Edward Sullivan was born after he had resigned as Principal Collector Coimbatore in 1830. However, his son Henry later joined the Madras Civil Service and occupied several important positions including Collector of Coimbatore.

Sullivan had expressed his desire to Rev. Metz of Basel Mission that he would like to spend his last days on the slopes of Melur in Nilgiris but having lost his wife and eldest daughter Sullivan left Ooty in October 1838 to join as Member of Governor’s Council at Madras.

Tea- Sullivan’s last gift

Sullivan’s lasting legacy to Nilgiris before leaving was assuring a future for tea in the district. The first tea experiment in the Keti farm had been given up as a failure. Sullivan, however, salvaged a few good plants describing them as being in a ‘most prosperous condition’ and recommended to the Madras government that ‘if extensively propagated the manufacture of tea might be carried on with great success, perhaps even greater than in Assam’.

In Madras he had them dried in the ‘open’ (air-dried) first, in a frying pan later, and sent them to the Agri-Horticultural Society office in Madras. The ‘tea’ made from those leaves in Madras was judged ‘excellent’ by the enthusiasts, who tasted.
Sullivan left India in 1841 with his children.

“But for the death of his wife and daughter Sullivan would have settled down in the Nilgiris and contributed to a great deal more for its progress and its people” , according to Mr.Venugopal.

Photo: NDC Director at the grave at St. Stephen’s Church in 1985 when he set out on the Sullivan Trail.

John Sullivan memory2

Are we History Blind or Ungrateful or Insensitive ?

Yesterday I put out a story in Face book about the anniversary of the tragic death of wife and daughter of John Sullivan, the founder of modern Nilgiris, within days in 1838 at Ooty. Today I went to their grave at St. Stephen’s Church, Ooty. Nobody seemed to be aware of the dates and the graves were in a most neglected state.

The unknown wife who died on August 24 at the age of 35 after giving birth to nine children, ten days before her first daughter Harriet aged 16 died, was no ordinary lady. She was the daughter of William Harrington after whom the present Harrington Road in Chennai, a most prestigious and high cost, road is named. I had the privilege to work there for ten year between 1974 and 1984 when it was the most exclusive locality in Madras.

Her father- in- law, the Rt.Hon. John Sullivan was the one who introduced English education in India. Lord Macaulay only made it into a policy.

Her husband, John Sullivan established the first Hill Station of the British Raj at Ooty and was the first to champion the rights of Indians long, long before the Indian freedom movement was born.

Her son Henry Edward Sullivan who took charge of the worst Madras Famine of 1870, which killed 40 million people, was the originator of what we call today as Forests Department, Fisheries Department and Co-operative Department not only in Tamil Nadu but also all over India.

Today we carry a Buffer Stock of over 200 million tons of food grains to take care of food security. That was the original idea of Henry Sullivan.

For a family which has contributed so much to an alien country, can’t we spend a few rupees, pounds or dollars to clean up their graves and maintain them as symbols of Nilgiri Heritage?

Please think about it !!!!!!

Dharmalingam Venugopal

The Honorary Director of the Nilgiri Documentation Centre is Dharmalingam Venugopal, a native of Nilgiris, an Economist and an Environmental Activist and founder of Save Nilgiris Campaign and Managing Trustee of Nilgiris Documentation Centre.

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