SBI Mangaluru Blacks-out its Founder

October 5, 2018

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” - George Santayana (1863-1952), Spain-born philosopher.

These days Michael Fernandez is a worried man. After three operations for a dreaded disease, at 85 years, he can hardly move around in his cottage near Rosario Cathedral. But, his worry is not about himself but about his hero, the founder of the local branch of the bank for which Michael worked for his whole career. And his concern looks genuine and capable of curative action. But, we must start with a bit of background.

Modern banking in South Kanara commenced with the opening of a branch of Bank of Madras on October 1, 1869. Before that the money scene was dominated by indigenous apologies for banking, mainly involving three systems – Holi, Coori and Hundi. Moneylenders charged high interest, going up to 50% per annum. In this scenario entered Bank of Madras with its branch in Mangalore. It was one of the three Presidency Banks then, the others being Bank of Calcutta established in 1806 (on its receiving its official charter it was renamed Bank of Bengal in 1809) and Bank of Bombay established in 1840. Bank of Madras was established in 1843 with a share capital of Rs 30 lac. The three banks merged in 1921 to become Imperial Bank and became State Bank of India in 1955.

SBI Mangaluru

The bank branch in Mangaluru was housed in a one-storey building, opposite the Collectorate Gate (now DC Complex) and the building was painted in the same red-brick colour like the old Collectorate buildings.

Till Corporation Bank (then called the Canara Banking Corporation Udupi Ltd) and Canara Bank Ltd. were established in 1906, the Bank of Madras was the only modern banking service available for the undivided South Kanara District. Its service was city-centric, covering Mangaluru and Udupi. The Agent (as the Branch Manager was then called) made a fortnightly visit to Udupi which was then linked by cart road used by bullock carts and horse drawn jatkas – the four unbridged rivers en route being negotiated by boats. Whether the agent carried money with him, where he stayed (there being no hotels then) and with whom he transacted business is a grey area.

The Bank of Madras was also an elitist bank. It catered to British officials (civil and military) and businessmen involved in exporting plantation produce like coffee, cashew and cardamom. It was very selective in dealing with native traders and it was considered a privilege to have business relationship with its branch in Mangaluru. Among the privileged few were Alex Albuquerque Pai, the founder of Albuquerque Tiles, and another tile manufacturer and trader, Simon Alvares. Another client of the bank was Nellikai Venkata Rao, a trader in plantation produce like cardamom, after whom a cross road leading from Hamilton Circle and passing by the east end of SBI Building and going to Bunder, is named.

The first agent of the Mangaluru branch of Bank of Madras was Edwin Blanchard Palmer, a young man of 26 years. He held this position up to 1898 – a remarkably long tenure of 29 years. On retirement he chose to remain in Mangalore with his residence at Kankanady. He lived for another fifteen years and died on December 23, 1913 at the age of 70 years (a ripe old age then). He was an Irish Catholic (and not a colonial British master) and a friend of the then bishop of Mangaluru, Paul Perini, SJ. Palmer was buried in the Rosario Cathedral at Pandeshwar, below the pulpit, with the Bank of Madras connection as Agent noted on the marble tombstone – which is still there for searching eyes to see.

Palmer’s interests and concerns went beyond banking. He had definite ideas about developing the infrastructure of Mangaluru and its hinterland. He made out a case for developing an all-weather harbour for Mangaluru to berth sea-going vessels. He articulated these ideas through articles in Mangalore Magazine brought out by St Aloysius College. He also wrote about his grand harbour plan to the then collector, H S Thomas.

As for his writing in the Mangalore Magazine, here are some topics on which he wrote:

The Harbour (Chrismas issue of 1897). In a well-researched and presented article, he noted “Difficulties to overcome”, alluding to “Captain Love’s Public Action” and “Jetty versus Groynes Proposal” (Groynes is a rigid hydraulic structure built from an ocean shore or from a bank that interrupts water flow and limits the movement of sediment. It is usually made out of wood, concrete or stone). He was so modest that unlike most he noted his authorship of articles at the end of them – not his full name; but merely as E.B. Palmer. He continued his article on the harbour in the Easter 1898 issue where he dealt with the reclamation of the foreshore, harbour & trade, trade features and ending with “A practical conclusion”.

In the Michaelmas 1898 issue, Palmer wrote a postscript on the Harbour and projected railway schemes, followed by article on the Municipality in the Christmas 1898 issue. He resumed an article on the same subject titled “Politics & Politicians”. In the Christmas 1899 issue he wrote on “Mangalore Trade- Coffee” with telling subtitles which could delight today’s sub-editors – The Graveyard of Capital, The System of “Futures”, The Unlocked Cash-chest, The Arabs Fold their Tents and Profit and Loss.

Many of his then futuristic plans have been implemented since Independence with the likes of US Mallya spearheading the development projects first articulated by Palmer.

Palmer was the Hon Secretary (equal to today’s designation of president and still continues in that fashion) of Mangalore Club for two terms as the photograph below shows.

Though the tombstone in Rosario Cathedral and his writings in Mangalore Magazine are still available for reference, SBI Mangaluru has turned its back on him. According to Michael Fernandez, an oil portrait of Palmer used to hang in the Branch Manager’s chamber for decades and even after the new building was tenanted. Inexplicably it is now missing from this spot. In the banking hall a list of Bank Managers is displayed on the wall. It starts with K Dorairajan who was branch manager from December 1964 to April 1965. Who headed the branch before that and can Palmer’s service of 29 years as Founder-Agent be glossed over and forgotten?

The question is who did the vanishing act? The old building is said to have been haunted and officials who stayed on the first floor seemed to have heard a person walking at night. Did a ‘patriotic’ ghost hijack Palmer’s portrait? Is it a case of misplacing, missing or kidnapping? Will somebody answer? What will it take to start the list of branch managers (Agents) with Edwin Blanchard Palmer? Or, will sheer laziness or cussedness come in the way of justified restoration? Will somebody in charge own up and do justice to Palmer - and soothe Michael?

By John B Monteiro
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Comment on this article

  • Prof.P.Tauro, Mangalore

    Sat, Oct 13 2018

    Forget remembering the past. SBI has no time to remember the present.

  • Truth, Mangaluru

    Wed, Oct 10 2018

    Stop glorifying and giving divinity to the people of past.
    Everyone does their job and get their remuneration in return. The next one follows the same. We have enough of Mahathma Gandhis, Nehrus and Vajapayees.

  • Rob Stan, Udupi / US

    Mon, Oct 08 2018

    Elaborating further on my previous comment, the nationalized banks from the coastal region, even if they give loan at a higher interest rate without the condition of building the house for overseas investors or those who would like to settle down in India after many years, have the requirements of getting the documents attested from Indian Embassy/Consulate which is a outdated procedure which might work for middle-eastern countries. In Western countries, loan is approved on credit history, credit score, outstanding loan, pay slip, recommendation letter from employer/promotion, employee ID, bank statement etc.,

  • Netizen, Mangalore

    Mon, Oct 08 2018

    Very interesting indeed.

  • Rob Stan, Udupi/ US

    Mon, Oct 08 2018

    Nice article highlighting the achievements of the agent/branch manager who was in the position for 29 long years. I would say Mr. Palmer's photo should be placed in MCC rather than SBI, as his contribution to Mangaluru is more & Bank of Madras is now SBI.
    In a similar note, I would say that we should try to save our banks from coastal region for real reason they are being merged for rather than hunger strike, protest for renaming the road & thinking about who is the founder.
    I heard that nationalized banks from the coastal region, unlike the new age banks do not give loan to plotted developments without the condition of building the 🏠 in certain number of years. They earn a good amount of compound interest if they give loan, like for example for a tenure of 15 years they earn the interest as much as the original loan itself.
    In Bengaluru, lot of plotted developments are happening & now is the right time to invest for especially overseas investors due to demonetization & RERA guidelines. Since the interest rate for both deposit & loan have come down it's right time to invest in properties especially the plotted developments.

  • Prescilla Fernandes, Mangalore

    Sun, Oct 07 2018

    Thank you Mr.Monteiro for your article which is full of factual information which I was not aware of till now. I am reading your articles with keen interest and feel happy.

    If State Bank of India Mangalore Main branch can tolerate or actively encourage the relocation of Zero Mile Stone on its door steps as noted by Mr. John Monteiro in the response column, it means the Bank branch has commitment to heritage. Palmer is part of our Mangalore pre-Independence heritage. We should not forget the great people who were instrumental in creating history in Mangalore. I hope that the present local management of the Bank takes an enlightened view of the situation and restore Palmer to his due position and bring a pleasant closure to this issue.

  • Florence Joseph, Cochin / Mangalore / Bahrain

    Sun, Oct 07 2018

    Indeed an incredible article. Also astonishing to note the transformation of the Bank of Madras to todays SBI over the years. Hats off to Mr Palmer and to Mr Michael for revealing the saga to the current generation.

  • Merlyn Brito, Orlando

    Sat, Oct 06 2018

    Incredible article delving into the history of Mangalore - hopefully the powers that be will look into the issue and restore credit where it is due.

  • john Monteiro, Bondel Mangaluru

    Sat, Oct 06 2018

    In the photo of State Bank building in this article, you can see the hood of an auto on the right forefront. It is also the Zero Mile Point for Dakshina Kannada (undivided). The distance for various points in the district is calculated with reference to this spot. It originally used to be in the Collectorate complex (DC’s office now). I am not sure when and why it was shifted to the present location. Next time you are in the area check it out – and take a photo.
    The Zero Mile Stone for India is in Nagpur since 1907 – that being considered then as the centre of colonial India.

  • Mohan Monteiro, Mumbai

    Sat, Oct 06 2018

    History and people’s contributions - both good and bad - should never be forgotten. Every brick of the past has contributed to the foundations of the conveniences we take for granted today.

  • Rita, Germany

    Sat, Oct 06 2018

    Nice article to know the past history of SBI.Thank you very much for the article.Hope to know someone will remember him and may narrate.

  • Mangalurian, Mangaluru

    Fri, Oct 05 2018

    Yet another excellet article by you, Mr Monteiro. Thank you.

    By the sound of it Mr Palmer contributed many ideas that eventually went into the development of Mangaluru.

    But real history is hardly appreciated in an emotion-filled society. People love to create stories on their own imagined heroes instead.

    Hopefully our society will develop enough courage eventually through education to appreciate our history the way it actually is.

    Unfortunately though much water would have flowed down the Phalguni river.

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