Their history is in their name

2010-09-13 00:00

IMMIGRANT communities all over the world are familiar with the way in which names change in the process of immigration. Sometimes officials change spellings or shorten names, sometimes immigrants themselves choose to. For example, Gottliebowitz becomes Gottlieb or Liebowitz. However, among the myriad stories that make up the history of Indian immigrants to Natal, there is a family whose name was not shortened, but lengthened.

Sometime in the late 1800s, a father and son came to Natal from Thanjavur, a village in Tamil Nadu, South India. The son’s name was Marimuthuy Ramasammy Rayamander and he was about 12 years old. He and his father ended up in the Eastern Cape, where Marimuthuy’s father was the chief cook for the Marist Brothers Christian School in Uitenhage. An undated photograph shows him at work in the kitchen (see photo).

However, his descendants do not know his Tamil name, as there are no records and no one remembers what it was. When he collected food supplies from the market in Market Street, Uitenhage, he signed for them as “Cook”. As a result, he became known as “Mr Cook”. This is also how the name “Cook” was added to his descendants’ names, and they are now the Ramasammy Rayamander Cooks, or Ramasammy Cooks for short.

Mr Cook’s family knows nothing about his wife or family in India, but his son, Marimuthuy, married a first wife, who was probably from India, in about 1885 and a second wife in around 1900, Thuylumay Apaai Nader­, who was from Mauritius.

Marimuthuy had nine children: four daughters with his first wife and one daughter, plus four sons with his second wife. His descendants now include 87 great-great-grandchildren (see photo).

The family were wealthy property owners before World War 1, with income from a general dealer store and rental from shops and houses. When army camps were set up at Springs outside Uitenhage, soldiers bought goods from the store on credit. One morning the family woke up to find that the camps were packed up and the soldiers had left without settling their accounts.

This caused great economic hardship for the family and forced Marimuthuy’s son, Sypromonian Ramasammy Rayamander Cook, to join the post office in 1922. His career­ eventually spanned 42 years.

In 1943, Sypromonian was able to set one of his daughters up with a greengrocer’s store, which he named S. R. Cook in honour of his grandfather “Mr Cook”, the original immigrant from India.

Marimuthuy and his family were practising Hindus, and were members of the Mandal­ in Uitenhage, of which Sypromonian was secretary for some years.

Family members have compiled a family tree and discovered that the original Mr Cook has direct descendants in families with many other surnames, for example: Pillay, Naidoo, Padayachee, Chetty, Marriday, Lillah, Gangat, Pather, Philander, Leander, Skowron, Liberty, Erasmus, Treurnicht, David and Van Aard.

Although Aganaiagee, wife of Mr Cook’s great-grandson, Parsooramin Malaparemall, visited the family’s home village of Thanjavur in 2005, she was unable to make contact with any family there.

• The Witness is running a series of articles to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the arrival of Indian indentured labourers in South Africa.

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