Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Oldest State Bank of India branch, Ft. Kochi !!, Kerala

Banking institution is one of the oldest ones in India and the banking operations came on the Indian scene  in the last decades of the 18th century.  The Bank of Hindustan, established in 1770 went broke in 1829-32. So was  the General Bank of India, founded in 1786, but failed in 1791.
Kerala's first commercial bank. The State Bank of India (S.B.I).
 The State Bank of India (S.B.I) has the honor and distinction of being the largest bank, and the oldest still in existence. It began its operations under a different name -  the Bank of Calcutta in June, 1806. In 1809, it was renamed as the Bank of Bengal. It was one of the banks receiving funds from the  presidency government, the other two being  the Bank of Bombay and the Bank of Madras. The three banks became  merged in 1921 to form what was called the 'Imperial Bank of India', which upon India's independence, became the State Bank of India in 1955. For many years the presidency banks had acted as quasi-central banks, as did their successors, until the Reserve Bank of India was established in 1935, under the Reserve Bank of India Act, 1934.

If you take a look at the  branch of State Bank of India near Calvetty Canal (Fort Kochi Branch), it may pass off as yet another branch of India's largest banking group. Do not ever be misled by its mere appearance. It's silent history will give you a spin. You will be really surprised to know that this is  India's 4th oldest surviving bank branch, South India's 2nd oldest and Kerala's first commercial bank!! It was British East India company that  took over the Fort Kochi from the Dutch and as part of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty, the Madras Presidency started a branch of Bank of Madras in  Kochi  near the English factory to help the factory raise funds for its  daily operations in 1862. It happened to be first bank in South India. In 1921 soon after its merger, it was  renamed as Imperial bank and this branch was the first one in Malayalam speaking region.

The this place had a thriving business with merchants selling their wares on the crowded street. The small harbors were busy loading and unloading cargo from boats coming through the Calvetty River
 The streets were lined with East India Co's trading houses and they were the link to the European markets. This oldest branch of SBI is a testimony to the glorious past of this region when commerce flourished beyond  one's imagination. Unfortunately, this branch now mainly concentrates on personal banking as the business has come down with the passage of time.

In this bank, 100 years old ledgers are kept and they take us right back to the colonial days. The were legible, well maintained and written, no mistakes and no over-writing. Ink they used is indelible. Most of the ledger keepers were Iyers or Pillais or Anglo-Indians who were well versed in their work, according to one old customer.  One Ceolfred Leonard D'Costa was the first non-European bank official in the State. The English officers used to leave the office in the evening and the responsibility fell on the Indian workers to tally the account. The British had a tremendous trust on the employees.  Valued customers included  the Dewan of Cochin and Travancore. According one official  the Travancore royal family still has an account with that branch  since the colonial time. FACT(fertilizer company founded in 1943), and Aspinwall established in  1868, have been their most valued customers.

This bank still keeps the antiques that connect us with the past history of banking operations and  these include the crude elevator fitted on a pulley, used to dump down bundles of currency and heavy ledgers from the first floor to the cash department; strong room and hand safes made by Chub, London and the chest wall, more than a century old, with a width of over a meter and still being used.  The SBI Museum in Kolkata has most of the  antique pieces, like weights and measures, balances etc, used in this bank more than 100 years ago.

The period between 1906 and 1911 saw the emergence of Swadeshi banks  inspired by the Swadeshi movement. The Swadeshi movement gave inspirations to local businessmen and political figures to found banks  for the Indian community. The purpose was to cater to the needs of Indian business people. The British banks ignored the Indian business people and showed little interest in their development. A good example is V.O.C. Chidambaram Pillai (1872–1936) who established the Swadeshi  Steam Navigation Company to run passenger ships between Thuthukudi, Tamil Nadu and Colombo, competing with the British company. The  banks under the British control treated him shabbily, besides the  administration set several road blogs to stall his progress and at last he became a dejected  man. 

A number of  Swadeshi banks established then have survived to the present such as The South Indian Bank, Bank of India, Corporation Bank, Indian Bank, Bank of Baroda, Canara Bank and Central Bank of India.