Saturday, 20 March 2010

Palakkad [or Palghat] Fort, the Early Sieges. Part 2.

Figure 1. Palakkad or Palghat Fort.

By 1766 Hyder Ali had over reached himself in the wars he was fighting below the ghats in Malabar.

The Travancore Raja had built up the formidable Travancore Lines, a long system of earthen defensive banks, stockades and ditches that ran for many miles until they reached the Dutch forts at Cranganore.

Unable to breach these lines before the weather broke and unable to frighten the Raja into submission Hyder was forced to reconsider his options.

As the South West Monsoon swept in, Hyder had to retire inland with his main forces. This allowed the Malabar Rajah's precious time to regroup, and as the British were later to learn, it is one thing to conqueror Kerala in the dry season, but quite another to hold it through the monsoon.

Meanwhile the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Mahrattas had sensed their opportunity to attack Hyder Ali in the Deccan while his army was bogged down in Malabar.

The East India Company sent forces from the Coromandel Coast to assist in these attacks on Mysore. A bitter war commenced on several fronts that ran on from then until 1769.

During this period Palghat fell to local forces assisted by the East India Company. It is not clear when this occurred or how, but it is likely that the fort at this time was either quite weak or possibly was incomplete at the time.

It is possible that it was little more than a stockade. There is no account that I am aware of currently of its requiring a formal siege to take.

In November 1768 Hyder Ali sent a force under Fazulla Khan down the Palghat Gap in one column while he attacked EIC forces under Colonel Wood who were occupying Coimbatore and Salem.

Colonel Wood survived the campaign, but it is clear from the lack of surviving accounts that the East India Company afterwards found Wood's defeat deeply embarrassing.

Quite possibly this was because in truth the forces commanded by Colonels Wood and Smith were ridiculously small in comparison with the task they were expected to perform.

These tiny forces were spread out in tiny garrisons over a very wide area, which had little real chance of resisting Hyder's much larger forces. Colonel Wood probably had less than 1,000 men under his command in garrisons often fifty or more miles apart. They were incapable of supporting each other, and most posts had less than 100 men in each.

When news of Hyder Ali's renewal of the war and the ineffectiveness of Colonel Smith & Wood's forces reached London in May 1769, East India Company shares fell in value by 60% within a few days. [1]

The best account of these events covering much of southern India I can find comes from Wilks.

Hyder, on his return from the west, had relieved Fuzzul Oolla Khan from the command of Bangalore, and sent him to Seringapatam. The commandants of all the principal garrisons and field corps, had, in conformity to a general instruction, been employed, since the commencement of the war, in procuring new levies, which were now sufficiently instructed to take the garrison and provincial duties; and the old troops, including the respectable detachment from Malabar, had been directed to repair to Seringapatam, where Fuzzul Oolla Khan continued to be actively employed, in giving them the requisite organization and equipments, as a field force. Early in November, this officer took the field with a well-composed corps of 7,000 cavalry and infantry, and ten guns, and a command over the irregular infantry, which was intermixed with the mass of the inhabitants below the ghauts : he knew that he should be aided by the active exertions of this numerous class, and by the best wishes of a population driven to despair, by the horrible exactions of Mohammed Ali's collectors of revenue, whose system of misrule left at an humble distance all the oppression that had ever been experienced from the iron government of Hyder: but proceeding with a skilful caution, he moved towards the passes of Caveripooram and Gujjelhutty, to obtain a perfect knowledge of the number and nature of the English posts before he should attack them. At the former of these, an honest and brave Serjeant, named Hoskan, who commanded the advanced post of two companies and one gun in a ruined mud fort, repelled the attempts of Fuzzul Oolla to take it by a coup de main; and without the most remote suspicion of his perilous situation, after modestly reporting the fact to his officer, adds, with the most interesting confidence and simplicity, " I expect them again to-morrow morning in two parties with guns: I will take the guns from them with the help of God." But his confidence was disappointed, for after the post had been made a heap of ruins, it was carried by a sanguinary assault; but I am unable to satisfy the reader's anxiety for the fate of the brave serjeant. The other posts fell in succession : that at Gujjelhutty, where a Lieutenant Andrews commanded, stood two regular assaults; but he was killed in the second, and the place surrendered on the 19th of November. The troops in the pass, under the command of Captain Orton, who, until the moment of attack, continued to maintain the absurd doctrines of Colonel Wood, successively abandoned their positions and their guns, and retreated with precipitation to Satimungul; and from thence to concentrate the remaining force at Erode. Among the strange military anomalies of Colonel Wood and his coadjutor the fiscal agent of Mohammed Ah' ; the former commandant of Coimbatore, who had betrayed it to the English, was continued in the command of the irregular troops of his former garrison—as killedar of the place, exercising a joint non-descript authority, with the European officer, who commanded the regular troops. While the greater part of these were out at exercise on the 29th of November, with the willing aid of the inhabitants, he seized the occasion to massacre all those within, to shut the gates, and, assisted by a body of cavalry, who had approached for the purpose, made prisoners the men at exercise, who, as usual, had only blunt cartridges. Fuzzul Oolla Khan who had concerted the plan, waited for its accomplishment before he should descend the Gujjelhutty pass, with his main body, and immediately sent a dispatch to Hyder, to report that he should have completed his descent by the 4th of December; the treachery at Coimbatore, and a similar exploit at Denaikancota gave just cause of alarm to all those officers -whose garrisons were not exclusively composed of English sepoys; all of them being aware, that they had no means of defence. In a few days the rumour of Hyder's approach from the north was abundantly confirmed. Captain Johnson who commanded at Darapoor, with 400 faithful sepoys; made good his retreat to Trichinopoly, in the face of Fuzzul Oolla's whole force; a gallant and skilful achievement, which deservedly fixed the reputation of that respectable officer. Lieutenant Bryant who commanded at Palghaut, with a small detachment of his own sepoys, and the remaining part of the garrison, composed of Nabob's troops, and irregulars hired in the country, having certain intelligence of a plan of massacre within, and the evidence of being invested without, concerted with his faithful sepoys the means of escaping from these complicated dangers : they withdrew unperceived in the night, and following a secret path known to one of the sepoys, through the woods and mountains, to the south-west, arrived in safety at Travancore; and thence returned by Cape Comorin to the southeastern dependencies of Madras."[2],

Lieutenant Bryant's escape was probably the only course of action left open to him, as his supply routes to the east had been cut off, and the British had at that time only limited number of bases on the Malabar Coast at that time at Anjengo, and Tellicherry from which they could operate from. The countryside outside those two settlements that only extended a mile or so from the forts at each location was filled with potentially hostile enemy forces, and an armed population who were not necessarily going to be friendly.

Hyder had forces in Calicut and the surrounding districts, astride the only viable route up from the coast so that running supplies into Palghat from the west was probably not possible, even if they had been available to send.

Hyder Ali was now at the peak of his powers, and I believe that it was during the period following the recapture of the fort that it was reconstructed in stone. Perhaps Hyder had decided that he did not want to lose it a second time.

The fort as it was constructed at this time appears to have been designed to be defended by musketry and wall guns or very small cannon, below 6 pounders in size, as later surveys made in 1799 comment on the lack of embrasures for cannon and on the fact that the walls were too weak to bear even small cannons of this size unless they were upgraded and thickened.

The fort was also overlooked by several hills within 300 to 400 metres of the walls, and these hills reached heights level with or just above the tops of the walls that had been built, so it was unlikely that the forts designers expected to face European style siege warfare where 18 pounder guns capable of firing out to 500 or more metres could be expected.

It is easy to criticise the original designers for these failings, but in 1770 the English forces were still very few in number, and incapable of moving larger cannon very far inland, so it was probably a reasonable assumption to make at that time, that the fort would only have to face light infantry, most probably in the form of Nairs, and that it could therefore be defended by muskets and bows.

More puzzling is the fact that they left several deep gullies or wadis unfilled that came very close to the walls, which could have provided ready made approaches along which infantry could have approached the walls unseen.

These gullies have been subsequently filled in by the British in 1799.

We know that the walls were built of stone by 1781, and we know that the stonework was laid with the narrow or header side facing outwards. The longer side of the stones were tied into the core of the wall.

This can help us to identify the fabric of the original fort.

The robustness of the original stonework at Palghat was still remembered in 1820's by Edward Lake as being particular strong.

"If the ramparts of an Indian Fortress are of stone, the curtain should generally be battered in preference to the towers, as the shot are apt to be reflected from the latter, owing to their circular form, and the hardness of the material of which they are built. The propriety of this rule was exemplified in a remarkable way at the siege of Palghaut, in 1781, [3] where the besiegers in vain attempted to breach one of the round towers of the Fort, which was composed of very large blocks of granite, laid in the manner technically called "headers," in architecture, so as to present their ends, not their sides, to the shot. In 1790, when the Fort was again attacked, one of the curtains was breached in a few hours." [4]

Figure 2. Showing the Header Masonry Work most probably undertaken in Hyder's period.

Figure 2 shows two distinct colours of masonry block work. The stone in the retaining walls to the moat appears to be lighter in colour and to be possibly a sandstone, where as the stone work in the tower is much darker in colour. Is this from another quarry?

Or is the darker colour a response to weathering over the past 220 monsoons, where the lower work was protected by being covered in water?

If the upper gun emplacement embrasures are British what did the fort look like in 1782?

It is hard to say with certainty, and although many forts in India survive, I am unable to find many examples of forts built as late as the 1770 to 1780 period. Forts like that at Bidar do however have merlons that date from the musket period, and I believe that these enable us to get an idea of what the upper parts of the walls looked like when Colonel Humberstone arrived in April 1782.

Figure 3. Typical Merlons or Machicolations from Indian 17th Century Forts
fitted for muskets. [5]

[1] The History of England: from the Accession of King George from the Accession etc. by John Adolphus. page 353, volume I.
[2]Historical Sketches of the South of India, in an Attempt to Trace the History Of Mysoor. etc. Colonel Mark Wilks. Vol i. Pages 357 to 359.
[3] 1781 is a mistake because the next attack on the fort was that made by Colonel Humberstone took place in 1782, as will be described later.
[4]Journals of the sieges of the Madras Army, in the years 1817, 1818, and 1819 ...
By Edward Lake, published in 1825, page 321
[5] Taken from Indian Castles 1206-1526, by Konstantin Nossov and illustrated by Brian Delf, published by Osprey Publishing in 2006.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating blog; thank you very much for your efforts. Although the history is one-sided, it still provides an important window into Malabar's history, which is mostly unknown to the locals. I hasten to add that the "fault" for this history being one-sided is entirely the fault of the people of Malabar (and Indians in general) who never understood the importance of remembering the past to avoid making mistakes in the future.

English colonial rule of India was by no means benign - look no further than the book Late Victorian Holocausts: El NiƱo Famines and the Making of the Third World by Mike Davis. However, just as the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs gave space for the mammals, English rule in Malabar had consequential effects for other local communities who began to flourish as the Nairs declined. There is an excellent book by Robin Jeffrey, The Decline of Nair Dominance: Society and Politics in Travancore 1847-1908, that provides another etic view of the region. I would love to read a suitably qualified emic perspective, but have yet to find one.

Dilbesh said...


Hai Baji said...
This comment has been removed by the author.