JJ Murphy – Princely Rubber Planter

Natural Rubber, extracted from trees has had a long history with humanity.  Rubber trees are native to South America and the ancient tribes, called it ‘Caoutchoue,’ meaning a Crying Tree. They named it so because when an incision is made on the bark of the tree, the latex oozes out like a teardrop.

The South American tribes used the natural rubber latex for their shoes. They immersed their foot in latex, lifted their foot and waited until the latex dried.  This process was repeated until they achieved a thick sole.

When the European explorers returned home with pieces of rubber, they found that when they erased pencil lines on paper with what they brought home, it came off easily. As it could rub-it-off, the word Rubber was coined.

Referring to a tie-breaking game as a Rubber is common in a variety of sports and games from bridge, cricket to baseball. A three-game set in bridge is commonly referred to as a rubber. A rubber is mostly resolved through a tiebreaker.

Dead Rubber means a match in a series where the winner has been decided based on the previous matches.  The dead rubber match therefore has no effect on the winner and loser of the series, other than the number of matches won and lost.

The term ‘Rubber Stamp’ originated in the Nineteenth Century when rubber stamps were used in the passage of bureaucratic papers of various kinds from one office to the other, often to show that an office had seen the document and approved it. It symbolised excessive bureaucracy and meant ‘To endorse or approve uncritically; to pass routinely or automatically.’

Rubber is an important tree for the world and its utilisation has increased many fold over the years.  It appears that the humanity is bound by rubber from birth to death.

Thailand is the largest producer of natural rubber in the world. India is one among the top ten rubber producing countries with Kerala accounting for over 75%.  The rubber Board of India is located at Kottayam, Kerala and the price of rubber in India is decided at the Kottayam market.

Rubber plant was brought to India by the British to augment production to meet ever increasing demand for rubber in Britain.   Hevea Brasiliensis – the rubber trees, native to Amazon rainforests, how did they find their way to Kerala, the God’s Own Country?

Rubber trees grow well in typical Amazonian conditions – temperature between 25°C to 35°C, high humidity of 75%, five to six hours of adequate sunlight, and about 200 to 300 cm of annual rainfall.  Kerala’s weather very well suits the requirements.

The British initiated rubber plantations in India, as early as 1873 at the Calcutta Botanical Gardens, but the attempt failed. In 1902, Murphy Saippu, (Saheb in Malayalam,) known as JJ among his friends, John Joseph Murphy, an Irish man, established the first commercial rubber plantation in Kerala.

Murphy had enrolled at Trinity College, Dublin, but without completing the course, he sailed to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to seek his fortune. He struck out on his own, though he belonged to a prominent Dublin family of shippers and bankers.  He was an adventurous colonialist, an avid racer, a social reformer and an educationalist. Murphy established the 1200-acre Murphy Estate, at Yendayar, about 60 km from Kottayam.

In those days, his estate was known for family quarters for the labourers with piped water and sanitation, hospitals with maternity wards, crèches at the workplace, schools for the children with midday meals, etc. He is believed to have even sent his workers’ children to Madras (Chennai) for higher education at his own expense. 1n 1952, he sold off his estate and lived there until his death in 1957.

One of Murphy’s passions was racing. He had a large stable and his horses brought him laurels from many courses in India, England and Ireland. The trophies were proudly displayed at his Yendayar bungalow.

He dominated the racing world for several years and won the C N Wadia Gold Cup at Bombay and the Governors cup at Madras. He raced his horse Old Orkney in England to win the Manchester November Handicap in 1927 and Goodwood Cup in 1929.

During World War II, when the entire country faced severe food shortage, the people of Yendayar were fortunate because Murphy ensured regular supplies of quality rice and other items at a great personal cost. Murphy’s philanthropy was legendary. No person who went to him with a genuine need had to return disappointed.

Murphy visited Ireland and UK for the last time in 1938 – 39. After he sold his estate in 1952, he lived at Yendayar until death on 09 May 1957. He was laid to rest at the cemetery of St Joseph’s Church, Yendayar.

KV Thomas Pottamkulam, in his article about Murphy titled ‘Princely Planter’ concludes that “I would like to think that if, instead of coming to India, he had emigrated to the United States, he might well have become the first Irish Catholic President decades before J F Kennedy.”

To extract the latex from a mature tree, a long curving, quarter inch deep groove is cut into the bark of the tree early in the morning. From this cut the latex oozes out into a container below where it gets collected. This latex is picked up four hours later from each tree and is processed to obtain natural rubber.

A rubber tree begins to yield latex when it is seven years old and is tapped for twenty years. After that, the tree is cut and sold as timber and a new set of trees are planted.

For the first five years after a new sapling is planted, they do inter-cropping by planting pineapple. It binds the soil and prevents soil erosion. It also brings in moolah for the farmer. The rubber growing areas of Kerala produces the best variety of pineapples in India.

After five years, the canopy of the tree grows large and prevents sunlight from reaching the ground. Now they plant a wild legume plant which binds the soil and acts as a mulch to retain soil moisture, regulate soil temperature and suppress weed growth.

Rubber Board of India established John Joseph Murphy Research Centre (JJMRC) in 2013 in his memory. It is the first of its kind integrated research and technology services hub, based in India’s first industrial park dedicated to rubber based industries. The centre is situated at Irapuram village in Ernakulam District. The park is a joint venture by the Rubber Board of India and the Government of Kerala.

When a Higher Secondary School was opened in Yendayar in 1982 with the support of local people, they did not forget the man who made Yendayar.  They named the school John Joseph Murphy Memorial Higher Secondary School.

Unfortunately, these are the only two memorials for a man who dedicated his life and changed the region’s economy and the people who lived there.

2 thoughts on “JJ Murphy – Princely Rubber Planter

  1. An excellent article as usual from Regi’s stable. Well researched and therefore, very informative. Had no clue about this background to Central Travencore’s prosperity during the latter half of 20th Century.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s