The Battle of Colachel: In remembrance of things past
A dramatic and virtually unknown past, in an area of bucolic calm surrounded by spectacular hills: that is Colachel, a name that should be better known to us. For this is where, in 1741, an extraordinary event took place -- the Battle of Colachel. For the first, and perhaps the only time in Indian history, an Indian kingdom defeated a European naval force.
The ruler of Travancore, Marthanda Varma, routed an invading Dutch fleet; the Dutch commander, Delannoy, joined the Travancore army and served for decades; the Dutch never recovered from this debacle and were never again a colonial threat to India.
It was a remarkable achievement for a small princely state; yet not one of my Indian friends has ever heard of the Battle of Colachel. This, in my opinion, is another example of our sadly skewed education -- we have adopted wholesale a Macaulayite curriculum that was designed to drum into Indians the notion that we were inherently inferior, mere powerless pawns in a European-dominated world.
We study events where Indians were crushed, massacred, trounced, humiliated: Plassey, Panipat, Tarain, Chittor, the failed First War of Independence, Jallianwallah Bagh. We study about every invader, from Alexander the Macedonian onwards, who came over the Himalayan passes and laid waste to the land. We study the disastrous history of the Indo-Gangetic Plain.
We never hear of the far more lustrous history of the Peninsula -- not of Rajendra Chola's maritime Southeast Asian empire, nor the wealth and power of fabled Vijayanagar, nor the chivalrous chaver suicide squads in the Zamorin's kingdom at Kozhikode, nor even about perhaps the greatest of Indian philosophers, the Buddhist Nagarjuna.
Colachel is on the route from Thiruvananthapuram to Kanyakumari, which has some dramatic shifts of scenery. You drive down the ill-named National Highway 47, in reality an overcrowded two-lane road with no centre divider, no more than a city street with a continuous population along its entire length.
A typical interior Kerala landscape surrounds you -- tropical abundance, coconut palms, rice fields, plenty of greenery, banyan, jackfruit, tamarind and mango trees, and houses within a stone's throw of the road. Then you cross into Tamil Nadu's Kanyakumari district, and you pass my personal landmark, a century-old aqueduct.
Suddenly, without warning, the landscape opens up -- you come upon an immense flood-plain, with paddy fields, lotus-filled pools, a small river, and occasional clumps of banana trees stretching all the way to the horizon. Except, that is, where the hills are -- the very last redoubts of the Western Ghats, as the land yields grudgingly to the oceans at the Cape: A series of jagged and menacing peaks towering over you.
One especially well-shaped, conical mount resembles, in its symmetry, the Grand Tetons of Wyoming; but otherwise, the forbidding, brooding peaks of granite remind you of rogue elephants. Nestled incongruously amongst these hills is Mahendragiri, where the Indian Space Research Organisation's rocket testing facility is located.
It behooves us to understand that even at the height of the European colonisation spree, there were Indians capable of resisting and winning. Most of us know that in 1905, the Japanese under Admiral Tojo trounced the Russians in the Yellow Sea. This is considered the first example of an Asian power defeating a European power in a naval engagement. Yet here we have little Travancore defeating the Dutch two-and-a-half centuries ago; the same Dutch who went on to conquer and dominate the entire Indonesian archipelago.
As the saying goes, those who forget their history are condemned to repeat it. History is one of the most precious possessions of a people; the other being their common culture. Somehow, a common Indian culture has emerged over several millennia; nevertheless, we have been distressingly lax about remembering our past.
Almost all the pepper that the Dutch imported into their country came from the Great kingdom of Kayamkulam. When the then Maharajah of Travancore, Marthanda Varma, realised that the Rajah of Kayamkulam was involved in certain conspiracies against him, he became bent on destroying Kayamkulam and annexing the kingdom. This endangered Dutch interests and Marthanda Varma, who feared the British would give the rights of pepper trade to them, ending the Dutch monopoly. With this in view the Dutch Governor wrote of Marthanda Varma asking him to end aggressions against Kayamkulam to which the Maharajah wrote back asking him not to interfere in matters that did not concern him. The Governor then met the Maharajah in person and threatened war on the basis that they were a "superior" power. The interview was closed by a scornful remark from the Maharajah that if the "superior" power should attack them "there were forests in Travancore into which he and his people could retire in safety" and that he had himself been planning to invade Europe with his fishermen. This last interview ended, thus, in tension and the Governor decided to attack Travancore.
The battle began when a force of Dutch marines under the leadership of a Flemish commander, Captain Eustachius De Lannoy (also spelt D'lennoy) were sent to Travancore to secure a trading post from the Raja. They landed with artillery in Kulachal, then a small but important coastal town, and captured the territory up to Padmanabhapuram, the then-capital of Travancore. The arrival of the Raja's army from the north forced the Dutch to take up defensive positions in Kulachal, where they were attacked and defeated by the Travancore Nair forces. The key element of the Raja's army was his personal army, known as the Travancore Nair Brigade or locally known as the Nair Pattalam. This unit was later integrated into the Indian Army as the 9th Battalion Madras Regiment and the 16th Battalion Madras Regiment in 1954.
Some twenty eight Dutch soldiers were taken prisoner. After the defeat, the commander joined the Raja's army in return for his life being spared, and served in it for over two decades.
A pillar of victory which gives details about the war still stands near the coast of Colachel. There are some folk tales among the local Mukkuvar people about this war. The tale says among other things that the local Mukkuvar (Malayalam for fishermen) fishermen were asked to stand along the beach in multiple rows with their oars kept along the shoulders so that it would appear like soldiers standing with their guns. This might have been a trick meant to create a psychological fear for the Dutch navy. The local christian fishermen, cooperated very much with the Raja's Nairs during this war.
A direct outcome of the event at Kulachal was the takeover of the black pepper trade by the state of Travancore. This development was to have serious repercussions on the Dutch and the trading world of Kerala at large. In 1753 the Dutch signed the Treaty of Mavelikkara with the Raja agreeing not to obstruct the Raja's expansion, and in turn, to sell to him arms and ammunition. This marked the beginning of the end of Dutch influence in India. The VOC continued to sell Indonesian spices and sugar in Kerala until 1795, at which time the English conquest of the Kingdom of Kochi ended their rule in India.
Capitan De Lannoy, who joined his service, was promoted to the Senior Admiral (Valiya Kappithan), and modernised the Travancore army by introducing firearms and artillery. He was granted the Udayagiri fort (now also known as D'Lennoy's fort) to reside.