Forgotten ” Patriots?”

For a civilization supposedly as ancient as ours, we have very little written history. Though we have ‘itihasas’, there seems to be no evidence of a critical study of the past. Whatever little we know of our ‘glorious’ past has been thanks to foreign travellers and later, the British. The idea of India as a nation was largely a nineteenth century development. There is nothing surprising about this, since the concept of a nation state evolved in Europe over a period of about three hundred years, after the end of the Thirty Years war and the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.

Closely linked to the idea of a nation state is that of freedom. Freedom from someone so obviously different as the British were, gave the idea ready purchase in the popular imagination. However, when the differences were less obvious, as in the case of Shivaji and Aurangzeb, the question is moot. From another point of view, since the concept of a nation did not exist at the time, many of those who fought their then overlords were doing so for personal reasons — gaining power themselves, or for their own religion or for ensuring the succession of their heirs. Very rarely did the large masses of the people come into it. The manner in which a particular historical period or character is perceived thus depends largely on the sympathy with which they are viewed from what is now a safe historical distance.

To many the struggle for freedom begins with 1857, when both Hindus and Muslims united apparently for the first time to throw off the British yoke, beautifully documented by William Dalrymple in ‘The Last Mughal’. However, at least in South India, which did not take part in the 1857 struggle, there are many who are viewed as freedom fighters for the reason that they took up arms against foreigners. The names of Kunjali Marakkar, Veerapandya Kattabomman, Velu Thampi Dalawa etc. come to mind.

Manivikrama, the then Zamorin of Calicut is famous as the first Indian ruler to welcome Vasco da Gama when he reached India in 1498. The Portuguese intention was always to capture the spice trade from the Venetians, who traded for the precious spices with the Arabs. The trade had made Venice extremely wealthy. Portugal, poverty stricken, newly independent of Spain and free after seven hundred years under the Muslim yoke, had at this time a population of only one million. However, in the fifteenth century, intent on upgrading their status, Prince Henry the Navigator and later rulers invested heavily in developing navigation and mapping techniques. With Vasco da Gama’s success, the Portuguese finally struck gold.

Trade in Calicut (now Kozhikode) was dominated by the Arabs, who stood to lose if the Portuguese cut in. When Vasco asked for trading concessions, the Zamorin readily granted these. However, after his second voyage to Calicut in 1502 , Vasco asked for sole control of the spice trade out of Calicut and the expulsion of all the Arabs. This the Zamorin was not ready to agree to. An all-out bombardment of Calicut followed by the brutal mutilation of captured sailors on many vessels finally resulted in the Zamorin rather belatedly waking up to the real nature of the beast. In fact Vasco da Gama sent the Zamorin a boatload of ears and other body parts of his Indian captives and mutilated the Zamorin’s ambassador, a Namboodiri, to tell the Zamorin he meant business.

In all the narratives from this period, right up to the advent of the British, one is always struck by the geo-political innocence of the Indian rulers. It seems they never ever asked why these foreigners had come to their land to trade. This applies equally to the Zamorin and to Jehangir later, who never questioned the English ambassador about what he was really looking for. Even Akbar had not.

Not surprising, since most of them hardly had any idea of geography and realpolitik, with our religious taboos on sea travel. Further, in Europe, there was a settled theory of kingship and succession. The theory of divine right sanctioned by the church, ensured that succession on the death of a monarch was fairly orderly. On the contrary the death of any Indian potentate was followed by intrigue, internecine conflict and bloodletting on a vast scale. Part of the reason was the Oriental monarch’s array of wives and concubines and the competing claims of their progeny both during his lifetime and after his demise. This pattern was not unique to the Muslim rulers of the subcontinent as many choose to believe. The Hindu wars of succession were as bloody, if less well-recorded. The Western model of strict monogamy for the ruler (while allowing multiple mistresses) created a political stability that enabled the development of the arts and sciences in a manner unequalled in our country.

After failing to persuade the Zamorin to oust the Arabs, the Portuguese then allied with the raja of Kochi, a neighbour and rival, to destabilise Calicut. Cochin was then a minor kingdom, hardly in a position to challenge Calicut. They then embarked on a policy of terror. Haj ships to and from Mecca were routinely set on fire along with the pilgrims. Historians relate an incident in which Vasco da Gama set fire to a vessel returning from Mecca in which Calicut’s richest merchant, a Yemeni Arab was travelling with his family. Despite the merchant’s offer of all his wealth if his family was spared, the vessel was set alight. All on board perished. The port of Diu in Gujerat and Daman north of Bombay were strategically located to intercept Arab vessels making the journey from Aden to the west coast of India and the south. The Portuguese had control of the seas and used it unmercifully to strangle the Arab trade. This kind of thinking escaped us. Most Indian rulers had hardly any navies to speak about. Kanhoji Angre, Shivaji’s admiral stands out as the one exception.

The Sultans of Egypt and the Ottoman Turks too made attempts to challenge the Portuguese. The Zamorin made alliances with the Sultans of Gujerat and Egypt. However, a victory at Chaul in 1508 was followed by defeat at Diu in 1509, when a Russian convert to Islam who was governor of Diu under the sultan of Gujerat, treacherously opened the gates to his sometime co-religionists. The Sultan of Egypt withdrew his forces from the Indian Ocean thereafter, as did the Sublime Porte.

In order to combat Portuguese control of the seas, the Zamorin now appointed Mohammed Kunjali Marakkar, a prosperous merchant from Ponnani, to build and operate a naval fleet. Three others from the same family (Kunjali II, III and IV) successively held the position of admiral. They made Ponnani, north of Calicut , their headquarters. Kunjali Marakkar and his successors valiantly fought the Portuguese in a series of marine guerrilla attacks, since they could never have faced the Portuguese in set piece battles, with their small war canoes. This war of attrition lasted for several years, through the tenures of all four Kunjalis. The paroes lurking in the backwaters and lagoons of central Kerala, would sally out to attack the Portuguese ships, slipping under their bows to inflict quick damage before retreating for cover. This warfare carried on till 1600, when Kunjali IV was captured and put to death by slow dismemberment in Goa. The Marakkars were the first Indians to actively combat the Europeans.

Veerapandya Kattabomman was a hereditary palegar (Polygar) of an area close to Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu in the late seventeenth century. The palegars were the southern equivalents of the zamindars and were in theory feudatories of the Vijaynagar empire. Later as its power waned after its defeat at Talikota in 1565, the Naicker rulers of Madurai broke away and claimed overlordship of these areas. Kattabomman’s family had Telugu roots, as still do many in Tamil Nadu. After the Carnatic wars, the Nawab of Arcot sold the power to collect taxes to the British. Veerapandya refused to pay his dues, since he did not recognise the Nawab as ruler and thus the British right to collect taxes on his behalf. A meeting with the British Collector Jackson sometime in 1798/99 turned violent and his deputy Clarke, was killed. Kattabomman fought his way out and from then on was in open rebellion. He turned down another offer for talks with Jackson’s successor and started looking around for allies. He found them in the Maruthu Pandiyar brothers who then ruled Sivaganga. The British reacted to his refusal by besieging his fort at Panchalakurichi. Kattabomman managed to break out killing the deputy commander. After seeking refuge in a number of places in and around Pudukottai, he was finally betrayed, captured and hanged in Kayattar, near Tirunelveli. His younger brother Oomadurai continued the fight in the Second Polygar war until he too met the same fate. Interestingly, all the places mentioned above must be familiar to graduates of the Defence Services Staff College at Coonoor near Ooty, as settings for various exercises.

The foundations of modern Travancore state in Kerala had been laid by Raja Marthanda Varma who took power in 1729. He became the first Indian ruler to defeat a European power when the Travancore army defeated the Dutch at the Battle of Colachel in 1741. The Travancore army’s consisted mainly of soldiers of the Nair caste with a smattering of North Indian cavalry.

The Nairs were mainly infantry and have been mentioned in travellers tales from the 14th century onwards as being always armed and ready to take offence. They were reputed in fact, to cut down those who offended them. They are also prominent in sociological studies the world over due to their peculiar marriage customs..

After his defeat of the Dutch, and recognising the need to modernise his forces, Marthanda Varma hired a Dutch soldier, Eustache de Lannoy to reorganise and requip his forces on the European pattern. Marthanda Varma was able to modernise the state administration and improve the state’s finances. Venad, the name by which Travancore was then known, had been a very small state. By his conquests Marthanda Varma was able to increase its size so that it extended from what is now Kanyakumari district at the southern tip of India to just south of Cochin, that is about half of Kerala today and parts of Tamil Nadu included. He was able to keep at bay all the colonial powers including the British. However after his death, the state fell under the control of the British and affairs were actually run by the British resident in Padmanabhapuram in Kanyakumari district and later Thiruvanathapuram (Trivandrum).

It was in 1802 that Velayudhan Thampi known also as Velu Thampi became the Dewan of Travancore. The then Raja, Balarama Varma presided over a weak administration managed by two influential and corrupt advisers, Mathoo Tharakan and Jayantan Namboodiri. Balarama Varma was one of Travancore’s weakest rulers and totally under the control of these two advisers. Velu Thampi managed to oust these two by the use of strong measures, which included having their ears clipped. Though well-intentioned, he was not a particularly good administrator himself. However through the use of draconian punishments, which included particularly brutal treatment of those suspected of conspiring against the state (crucifixion and tearing apart by elephant being among the more benign), he managed to regain control of the situation and improve the state’s finances and administration. These measures resulted in several complaints against Thampi to the British resident. What brought matters to the boil was Thampi’s refusal to grant a German missionary some land to build a church on in Kanyakumari district. Thampi recognised this as an attempt to convert the so-called lower castes and upset the status-quo. The missionary asked the resident to intervene. The resident contacted the Maharaja. Balarama Varma who was by now not particularly enamoured of Velu Thampi, was persuaded to dismiss him. Thereupon Velu Thampi unfurled the banner of revolt against the British and their Indian allies. The residency was attacked and the resident and one of the Maharaja’s favourites were murdered. After some initial success, Velu Thampi was defeated at the Battle of Nagercoil and again at Quilon (Kollam) in 1809. His army dissolved and in order to avoid capture, he beheaded himself with his brother’s help. His brother later committed suicide himself.

After Velu Thampi’s defeat the British brought in measures to ensure that the Nairs were disarmed and their land holdings broken up, robbing them of much of their erstwhile power and influence. They were henceforward not allowed to bear arms and the kalaris which taught martial arts were closed. Incidentally Kalaripayattu was the martial art taught therein.

So, are they Indian patriots?


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Ramesh Sukumaran

Ex Indian Air Force fighter pilot and retired civil aviation captain, interested in history science and literature avtion