Friday, 29 December 2006

A brief history of the Pazhassi Raja.

A Nair grave monument showing one of these fierce warriors, and dated about 1700 AD. [1]

Part 1

When the Pazhassi Raja finally decided to break with his English allies during the spring of 1797, it followed many years of conflict and encroachment into his and his family’s lands and entitlements by the East India Company.

Before about 1680, the Kolattiri family had controlled an area running inland from a point on the coast situated about twelve miles north of Cannanore [Kannur] and then in a line across heading in an easterly direction towards the base of the Ghats. Their inland territorial boundary had then run south along the base of the Ghats down to a point just north of the Kotta River, and from there along the northern bank back towards the coast.

Arab and Muslim traders had been visiting his ancestors coastal villages regularly for centuries, but these landings had tended to last for only a short duration whilst these overseas traders had bargained for pepper, cardoman and sandal wood.

The first European’s to arrive had been the Portuguese who were then followed by the Dutch. Although these traders had settled at Cannanore and had had posts at Calicut, they had not thought the Kottayam area important enough for carrying on these trades to have set up permanent trading posts or to have established permanent settlements in.

With the arrival of the French in the 1690’s this had all changed.

The Raja’s grandparents and great grandparents had been part of a divided family. Nominally headed by a matriarch, the real power was however wielded by the five senior men in the family. The Kolattiri had been the most senior, with the Tekkalankar (or southern regent) controlling the Mahe area, and the Vadakkalankur (the northern regent). These petty rajahs behaved like many modern day politicians constantly jockeying for power with their fellow rulers. They each had their own gangs of thugs and supporters, with whom they enforced their will on the local villagers.

To add strength to their cause during these power struggles, they had each individually begun to invoke the support of the powerful new arrivals along the coast. The Tekkalankar was one of first to do so, agreeing to a French request to be allowed to establish trading posts in his area.

The French built forts during the 1670 to 1685 period at Mahé, on Dharmapattanam Island, as well as a mud fort, sited on the beach located at a small fishing village that was later to become Tellicherry.

Due to lack of skilled staff, and because of its emphasis on building forts, they expended all of their trading capital, causing the French East India Company to be a poor trading partner. They had too high an overheads to be able to make a profit, and consequently the French company struggled to prosper and to extend its operations in India in the early years. Only the settlement at Mahé really succeeded to any great extent. This settlement was located in the Vadakkalankar’s territory, and he was the Tekkalankar biggest rival.

The English East India Company operated in a more commercial manner than the French in the early years, avoiding defended settlements with their expensive walls, whenever possible and garrisons that soon ate up any profits made.

The English had factories (warehouses linked to accommodation blocks) at Calicut, Cochin, and Anjengo, but faced with rapidly growing demand for pepper caused by the economic boom of the 1690’s to 1710 in northern Europe, they needed more and more supplies of pepper and spices, if they were to meet demand.

They could no longer afford to let the French gain unfettered control of the Kottayam pepper crop, and the valuable cardoman coming from the inland area of the Wyanad coming down the Periya Pass . Sandalwood from Mysore, was also reaching the coast from across the Wyanad.

The Tekkalankar had found the French poor allies, and needing a counter force to equal the Vadakkalankar’s French allies, he switched his allegiance to the English.

He reached agreement with the English and in about 1699 leased the site of the abandoned Tellicherry fort to the English. It was not however until about 1705 that the English started to built a fort on the site of the current fort.On the 20th of August 1708, the Tekkalankar formally made over the fort to the English.

Over the following years the demand for pepper and other goods grew exponentially.

This caused huge tensions inside the existing Kolattiri family, as they fought amongst themselves over who should control the trade and the associated revenues.

The family’s retainers and attendant dependant castes were expected to adapt their cultivation to provide more and more cash crop pepper. This agrarian society with its strict caste system, and entrenched custom’s and practise based on subsidence farming, could not readily adapt to large scale agricultural practise required to meet demand. The trade and prosperity brought about by the protection of the English fort and ships increasingly attracted in large numbers of Muslim traders from the north.

The English East India Company officials received very low pay, and were expected to take part in their own country trade, to supplement their pay.

They were not allowed to ship directly to Europe, but the EIC did not mind them trading between different Indian and Asia ports.

Lacking the necessary capital and language skills to trade directly with Indian's, these officials allied themselves to Muslim’s from the north from Surat and Bombay.

In this way the Muslim’s benefited from English protection, as the Muslim merchants goods became “English”, thereby escaping many internal tolls.

The savings in tolls achieved were split with the English partner. In this way many EIC officials amassed a fortune far above their nominal salaries.

By about 1760, these Mopillas had become firmly established in Tellicherry as middlemen. They were establishing plantations and villages of their own.

They had discovered that there was an excellent way to force out the less well organised the Hindu farmers from their pepper gardens. These farmers would run short of cash for basic items like food in the run up to the pepper harvest.

The Mopilla merchants would lend these farmers cash based on the predicted forward price of the coming harvest’s pepper. If the money were not repaid, they would convert the outstanding amount into a mortgage on the Hindu’s land.

When that was in turn defaulted on, they would attempt to seize the lands.

In this way the Mopilla’s acquired more and more land beyond the boundary of the English settlement, and up towards the foothills of the Ghats.

The ousted destitute Hindu farmers would then appeal to their overlord or Rajah for support.

The Hindu’s lived in thinly scattered plantations, whilst the incoming Muslim’s built villages and especially Mosques.

These incoming Muslims were often aggressive and militant in their own right, and soon began to demand extra territorial rights.

This led to a series of wars, the overt ones between the Raja’s Nairs against the EIC, and a far more vicious low intensity conflict between the Moppilas and the Hindu Tiyars and Nairs in the villages in the fringes of the Jungles and plantations a few miles inland of the European settlements.

The Dutch, French, Ali Raja of Cannanore and Canarese all intervened in these conflicts, sometimes aiding one side and then another, and often trying to stop the wars because it meant that the pepper supplies often dried up.

In 1761 the Mysore Government also became involved in the dispute that had broken out between their co-regionists, and the Kolattiri Regent over a mosque built with a golden spire.

This golden roof was in contravention of a custom whereby only the Raja’s were allowed such roofs on pagodas. By 1766 the Kolattiri family’s possessions had been overrun.

Hyder Ali reduced them to vassals.

The European’s became involved in these wars, as first the Dutch, then the French and finally the English became intervened. In 1782 Tipu Sultan succeeded Hyder Ali.

Tipu was a very effective leader and a great reformer, and he intended to challenge the growing dominance of the English. He recognised that India had to reform many of its practises and industrial and agricultural methods if it were to develop to a point where it could beat off the European's.

As the French Revolutionary War’s commenced, the English were able to extinguish the other European powers factories one by one.

The Indian commodity producers now only had one customer, and this enabled the EIC to force the price paid to producers lower and lower in the confident knowledge that the farmer’s had no where else to sell their crops to.

Tipu understood the seriousness of the situation and aimed to break the EIC stranglehold on the Indian overseas trading routes.

Like Hyder Ali, he also understood that he needed to establish a viable route to the sea, and to do so he needed technical assistance, and alternative markets.

He first tried to force a route down to the Coromandel Coast, but in this he was unsuccessful, so he turned his attention towards the Malabar Coast and it's ports.

These routes had however to be captured from both the local Rajah's whose lands sat across the tracks down the Ghats to the coast, as well as from the European's who controlled the ports themselves.

A series of campaigns followed with attacks on Mangalore proving successful after a fierce siege.

Tipu needed support if he was to remain successful so he sent emissaries to the French at Isle De France, and to the Ottoman and Egyptian courts.

By doing this Tipu demonstrated to the British East Company that he represented a very real threat, and probably the only remaining credible threat to the EIC remaining in India.

This multinational company was expected by its shareholders to return a profit, but the constant wars were eating up any margin made on the trade.

The prices paid on pepper etc. had to be forced down if they were maintain a sufficient margin to be able to pay for these wars. Prices had to be maintained in Europe as well, and most pepper in Europe by now was travelling through London.

Competition had to be stifled if dividends were to be maintained.

The Director’s in London knew they had to destroy Tipu’s country before it became powerful enough to challenge their growing monopoly position.

It was the misfortune of the Pazhassi Raja that he and his subjects lived on the only alternative trade route from Tipu's Seringapatam to a coast.

When Tipu invaded the Wayanad and then the Malabar Coast, the English initially lacked the power to fight Tipu directly, and therefore sort to fight him asymmetrically by using local allies and by relying on the traditional defence of the peoples of the Malabar coast against the Mysorean’s and the other largely Muslim dominated inland people’s.

This defence was the forests of the Wyanad, and the Western Ghats. The monsoon and the rain shadow effect produced dense forests, ill suited to the cavalry dominated Muslim led armies. The Pazhassi Raja and his Hindu allies were ideally placed to fight a guerilla war of stockades, ambushes and forest warfare.

For previous generations, this had worked, for even if the armies of Hyder Ali had reached the coast, they could not remain there indefinitely due to their long supply chain, and the insurgent attacks on their posts and supply convoys in the rear.

Where Tipu differed from previous Muslim rulers was in his determination and ability to innovate. Learning lessons from the failure of his and Hyder Ali's previous campaign’s and learning from European advisers and deserters, he set out to build supply and gun roads across the forests, supported by a series of fortified posts like that at Sultan Battery. (The Sultan’s gun position).

By 1790 the situation for both the English and the local Malabar rulers had become critical. Tipu’s troops were raiding right up to the bounds of the settlements. Reinforcements were shipped down the coast and General Medows was appointed commander in chief.

Tipu’s rocketeers and cannon out gunned the Pazhassi Raja and the other Hindu’s.

Soon Tipu’s army, aided by intelligence from the indigenous and immigrant Moppila community was hanging Christian’s in Calicut, and slaughtering thousand’s of Hindu’s and brutally defiling many others. Hindu women were being gang raped and turned over as concubines to the Muslim troops.

On the April 25th 1790 the English moved columns out of Tellicherry with cannon insupport of 3,000 Kottayam and Chirakkal Nairs. This force almost certainly included the Pazhassi Raja. Their target was the recovery of the stockade at Katirur and the Kottayam Raja’s Palace.

This palace was liberated with the assistance of a hurriedly brought up 18 pounder cannon used to smash down the stockade, where the lighter guns had tried and failed.

Throughout the following months leading up to the monsoon, the local armies increasingly supported by the East India Company took back town after town.

Tipu’s fort at Palghat was besieged by Colonel Stuart commencing on the 21st of September.

With only two days provisions and an empty military chest, Stuart and his army was in a desperate condition. However the Nairs and others in the Malabar community realising that Stuart represented their best hope of ridding themselves of Tipu’s by now hated army brought in so much food that Stuart was able to capture the fort, and to leave its new garrison supplied for six months.

Tipu’s army was over stretched, and the East India Company was mobilising its Madras based forces, to the east of Seringapatam. He had to withdraw.

In February 1791 Lord Cornwallis led his army out from Vellore to Seringapatam.

Tipu was on the point of being defeated, when the EIC armies supply chain failed.

Cornwallis had to retreat, destroying his guns as he went.

When however Cornwallis and the Madras Army made a further attempt on Seringapatam in February 1792. Tipu submitted, rather than face defeat; he agreed to sign a treaty.

At this point the Pazhassi Raja along with the other Malabar local rulers had assumed that the English would return to their coastal bases, and that the situation would return to it’s previous state. The Raja hoped as the dominant new leader would become the Kolattiri and reap the rewards of power.

What he had not understood was that the East India Company was a multinational company, albeit one with a powerful government shareholder. It had to yield a dividend, and it had just expended a huge sum on driving out Tipu.

The Raja was just one of many petty rulers whose territory they had liberated.

The treaty with Tipu had handed over many of these rights to the East India Company. The EIC did not see why they should abandon these rights and lands that they believed they were entitled to by right of conquest.

Like a modern day oil company, whose oilfields have been the scene of war, and had to get oil back flowing again, the EIC had to get the pepper crop going again in this devastated land as fast as possible if it was going to recoup its wartime expenditure.

Due to the structure of the Raja’s community’s society, and the rigid caste system, it was impossible for the Raja to restore and re-develop the pepper plantations sufficiently fast, to meet demand. Only part of this Hindu population would consent to farming, whilst most would refuse for fear of losing their caste.

The EIC had obtained the rights to large areas of land in the treaty with Tipu including the Rangatarra district. This area had been the home territory of the Vadakkalankur (the northern regent). The Kurumbrand Raja was the Kolattiri, or most senior Raja. The Pazhassi Raja was his nephew, and under the complex traditions of the family, the person who was most likely to inherit the Kurumbrand lands.

The Pazhassi Raja may well have been trying to supersede the Kurumbrand Raja, who appears to have been disposed to pass the land on to his own children, in contravention of the customary practise.

The Kurumbrand Raja on more than one occasion seems to have gone out of his way to create conflict between the Pazhassi Raja and the EIC. The East India Company determined to get production up and going again, decided that their Muslim partners, with their more egalitarian society, and greater available working population, and access to capital, should be the means of increasing production.

Soon traders like the Mousa family began to take on more and more of the farms. This caused the Rajah and his increasingly marginalised community to greatlyresent both the EIC and the Mopillas. Soon reprisals commenced.

The Rajah used increasingly brutal ways to try to collect taxes from the Moppillas, and many of the later took to the forests on the foothills of the Ghats operating as bandits.

Kerala Varma Raja was by April 1793, Raja of the Padinyaru Kovilakam (or western palace).This was located at Palassi.

During this month he pulled down a Mopilla mosque recently built in Kottayam bazaar, and in September 1793, he went on to refuse the Mopillas of Kodolli permission to build a mosque.

When they went ahead anyway, he sent men to arrest the leaders. A fight broke out in which several of the Raja’s men were killed. The Raja in turn ordered all of the Mopillas in Kodolli killed.

A Commission had been appointed by the East India Company to try to administer the newly occupied lands. At first it tolerated the Raja, probably because of the fear of alienating him and his community.

They were aware that Tipu was preparing for another round of fighting, and did not wish to alienate the Hindu’s. The Pazhassi Raja was also connected by marriage to the Wyanad families who controlled the best of the pepper production.

The Pazhassi Raja realised that his only viable means of resisting the English was by passive measures. He was worried that the English were trying to arrest him, and so he refused to go to Tellicherry for talks.

In November 1793 he threatened to cut down all of his pepper vines if the EIC officials persisted in trying to count them.

Because the Kurumbrand Raja was more tractable, than the Pazhassi Raja, the EIC entered into agreements with the Kurumbrand Raja and ignored the claims of the Pazhassi Raja.

This proved to be a mistake because the Pazhassi Raja was in fact the younger and more able of the two. He was the emerging leader. By 1795 the Raja was being increasingly supported by people like Narangoli, a Iruvalinad Nambiar of the priestly caste, whose men had killed three Mopillas is response to a killing by a Mopilla of one of his retainers.

In June 1795 the Raja caused two Mopillas who had robbed the house of a Chetty to be impaled alive in the village of Venkad. Later that month he also shot a Mopilla through the body as he left a meeting where he had given the Raja a gift.

The EIC Commissioners finally felt that they had to act, and in August 1795, they issued orders for the Pazhassi Raja to be tried for murder.

Guarded by 500 Wyanad warriors, the Raja was too difficult to arrest, and despite troops sent to Kottayam and Manattana, he could not be seized.

Meanwhile the revenues that the East India Company had expected to raise were not coming in. The Kurumbrand Raja who had undertaken to collect them in return for a percentage, was unable to do so.

Tipu’s original assessment, which was being used, had proved to be far too high. The collections themselves were further alienating important sections of the community like the warrior Nairs, who had not previously been expected to pay tax.

The Pazhassi Raja acted as a focus to this opposition.

On April the 11th 1796 a plan was formed to arrest the Raja.

On the 19th of April this was put into effect when 300 men from the 3rd Battalion of Native Infantry under Lieutenant James Gordon marched out from Tellicherry to arrest him. By chance, or possibly because he had been forewarned, the Raja had left for Manattana four days earlier.

The Raja no longer felt safe on the coastal plain so he moved into the fastness of the Wyanad.

[1] East Hill Museum, Calicut.

To be continued…. Nick Balmer 29th December 2006. Revised October 2009.


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Liju Kuriakose said...

Thank you for the historical accounts of the life of Pazhassi Raja.

Anonymous said...

Revisionist history by an apologist for the British pillaging of India.

Anonymous said...

awaiting the Part 2. Please post

Kannan2121 said...

Hello Mr. Nick

This is ARAVIND V from Kerala ( calicut) . I am doing a research about Pazhassi raja and trying to develop a international historical souvenir about pazhassi raja and his wars. Please help me in all the way you can. i will be the most happiest man if i get some info related pazhassi from your brave research work . I do this project for Pazhassiraja Charitable Trust,Calicut. Awaiting your reply and i'll tel you more

Please do mail :

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