Sunday, 5 March 2017

Cannanore Fort, a discussion over it's development . Part 1.

Figure 1. Cananoor during the Dutch Period. [1] Please click on the image for a larger image.

The following article is an attempt to respond to a call for help from Sujith Kumar, a member of the Kannur Tourism Police who works at St Angelo Fort in Kannur. Sujith has developed a very good knowledge of the forts history and is trying to collect more detailed background to the forts history.

 Figure 2. 2009 Google Earth Image of St Angelo Fort. Please click on image for larger version.

He regrets however his inability to access original sources of research material, and especially archives from the British period of the forts history. He asked if I had any knowledge of the existence of any maps or drawings from the period? 

Could I help?

A number of maps and drawings survive of the fort at Kannur from the Portuguese and Dutch periods.  [2] 

An particular good one was drawn by Bellin and appeared in several 18th century books including J Van Schley's work of 1760. This is shown in Figure 1. above.

By comparing the 2009 Google Earth image in Figure 2 with the 1760 Dutch plan in Figure 1, it is easy to determine the extent of the Dutch and earlier Portuguese Fort, which is situated towards the end of the promontory. Apart from the later land filling into the bay on the eastern side of the fort, the area is very little changed since 1760, so where was the British Fort situated?

We know that the East India Company [EIC] spent a very large sum on the fort in the years after its final capture by Captain Wiseman, part of General Abercromby's force on 16th December 1790?[3]

In 1796 Walter Ewer, an EIC official from Bengal visited the Malabar and wrote a series of reports to Henry Dundas back in London. [4] The Right Honourable Henry Dundas (1742-1811), was War Secretary in William Pitts Cabinet from 1794 to 1801 and was also responsible for the colonies.

Ewer wrote the following from Tellicherry.[5]

"Cannanore.  Very expensive works are carrying on at this place, tis said they will cost two lacs of Rup's & that when finished they will be useless, being commanded by high ground. I am told it is proposed to level this, the expense of which would be many lac.  One half of the money expended at Tellicherry wou'd make it a strong place, besides here are storehouses, & magazines, & some thousand militia can be raised in case of need.
I mention this on the authority of the first Military Character in the Country." 

The first European fort at Cannanore had originally been built by the Portuguese, and was indeed one of the very first forts that they built in India.  The Portuguese had intended to trade in India and were well informed about the potential locations where the trade took place in India before they had first arrived off the coast.

The first voyage had been intended for Calicut to trade with the subjects of the Zamorin. At this period Calicut was the prime trading location, but it was also very closely connected with the Arab trading system to the Gulf, and it was this same trade that the Portuguese were attempting to redirect via Lisbon. So from the first the Muslim merchants quickly realised that the Portuguese had the potential to destroy their livelihoods.

From the earliest days the Portuguese had had relationships with the Kolattri Rajah. At first this was limited to leaving goods and merchants at the settlement. However King Emmanuel of Portugal decided to send out Don Francisco de Almeyda as his first Viceroy of all the Indies. His appointment on the 25th March 1505 included instructions to built forts at Anjediva Island, Cannanore, Cochin and Quilon.

His fleet arrived at Anjediva on the 13th September 1505 and a fort was commenced straight away.  Leaving a garrison on the island De Almeyda sailed south to Cannanore arriving on the 23rd of October 1505.  He landed Lorenzo de Brito with one hundred and fifty men to construct the fort, and two ships to be used to guard the site and to patrol out to sea. These were not the only Portuguese at Cannanore, some two hundred had been left behind in December 1502 by Da Gama, and some of these had probably survived.

Figure 3. Showing the fort before 1572.[6]

The first fort was probably just a palisade and ditch across the promontory. This was probably soon replaced by stone. The site is built onto a rocky outcrop and the underlying rock of a very soft red ironstone like material that hardened after exposure to air.

Figure 4. Google Earth Image marked to show suggested locations
of the Portuguese walls.
Please click on image for larger version.

The first fort was soon under attack. The Zamorin had wide spread contacts across the Muslim World and the attacks of the Portuguese pirates and fleets in the Indian Ocean was beginning to threaten the long established trading routes from India through the Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea. Communities like Muscat, Aden, Alexandria and Damascus and even Istanbul and Venice were suffering shortages of goods.

Ambassadors had travelled to Egypt and Istanbul to request help to rid the Ocean of the Portuguese. Preparations were commenced in Egypt to prepare a fleet to sail to India to attack the Portuguese. Aware of how marginal their hold was in India the Portuguese decided to abandon the Fort at Anjediva, and to concentrate at Cannanore and Cochin.

Lorenzo Almeyda brought his fleet to Cannanore on the 16th March 1506, and was soon faced with a huge enemy fleet of about two hundred and ten ships, including ones crewed by Ottoman Turkish troops. The Portuguese had of course had experience of fighting Ottoman troops before, and this was going to be far tougher than fighting the local Indian troops. A tremendous battle at sea took place in the bay immediately south of the fort.  Eventually the Portuguese cannon prevailed against the allied fleet.  It retreated towards Dharmapattanam as it tried to retreat, but a strong wind got up driving back towards the north.

The Muslim fleet sent messages to the Portuguese asking to be allowed to sail north unmolested, put the Portuguese refused and attacked again causing over three thousand casualties in the Muslim fleet.

Unable to prevail by sea, the Zamorin and the local Muslim's put sufficient pressure on the new Kolattiri Raja that he deserted his former allies, the Portuguese.  Da Gama's former friendly Kolattiri having died, and the Portuguese had abused the Rajah's subjects by taking their ships and possessions.

Gonzalo Vaz had captured a ship near Cannanore with passes, which he claimed to be forged, plundered the ship and then had murdered the crew who were sewn up into a sail and cast into the water. The bodies had floated ashore and included those of the son in law of Mammali Marakkar one of the most important local merchants. After confronting Lorenzo de Brito to demand recompense, receiving an unsatisfactory reponse the merchant when to the Kolattiri Rajah with many supporters, and the Rajah agreed to go to war with the Portuguese.  From the 27th April 1507 the fort came under siege.

The Rajah's obtained 21 cannon from the Zamorin, and forty thousand Nairs were believed to have arrived to fight in the seige. This seems unlikely due to the size of subsequent armies, but it is clear that a substantial force was involved. The Zamorin sent twenty thousand more men to assist.

Many assaults were made, and it was at this point that it became apparent that the Portuguese had made a fundamental error when they had designed the fort.  The only well was situated a" bow shot" from the wall on the enemy side of the walls. Every time the Portuguese needed to draw water they had to fight for it.

This suggests that the first wall in Figure 4 above was along the line of the defences in 1507.

Eventually an engineer called Fernandez came up with the idea of driving a tunnel through the soft rock under the wall and into the shaft of the well. They were then enabled to draw water without exposing themselves.

Most of the surviving Portuguese had been wounded at least once and food was running out. Miraculously on the 15th August 1507 shoals of crabs and prawns were swept ashore by the tide, and the garrison was able to re-supply itself. 

The siege went on until 27th August 1507 a relieving fleet of eleven ships under De Cunha arrived with three hundred men from Europe and were able to drive off the besiegers.

During the siege the fort had been very exposed to fire from the higher ground to the north, and this was to be an issue for the rest of its existence as an active garrison.  The attackers had used bales of cotton to raise themselves up above the height of the walls so that they could fire into the interior of the fort.

As result of the experience of this siege, and in order to enclose the well and to increase the defences it was probably decided to build a second wall in Figure 4 was built outside the first wall.

The drawing in Figure 3 was published in 1572, and it shows only one wall. However the map was probably drawn many years before the print was published.

Figure 5 below comes from a Portuguese Atlas published in 1630. It is likely however that the drawing from which the engraving was done was drawn much earlier.  The text refers to events in 1567, so although the date below the fort says 1505 it refers to the founding of the fort, and not the date of the map.

As the map shows a second wall and refers to events in 1567 it suggests that the second wall pre-dates 1567.

Figure 5. Portuguese atlas, 1630.
Please click on image for larger version.

In figure 5 a town can be seen to have sprung up outside the fort itself. This town was probably under what is now the Dutch fortress. It appears to extend into the older Indian town, although there is still a substantial suburb outside the walls. This suggests that the town was segregated into several communities, Portuguese, Indo Portuguese and the Muslim subjects of the Ali Rajah.

It is interesting that the guns are shown facing out to sea. This is clearly where the greatest perceived threat was seen to lie. By the 1630's Dutch & English ships were beginning to pose a serious threat to the Portuguese settlements, and this threat is probably why these cannons have been mounted facing out to sea.

This poses an interesting question. Was the Portuguese printer re-using an older engraving and had he decided to re-engrave it to show the situation in the years leading up to 1630, when the Dutch and English shipping arriving in the Indian Ocean had become a very real threat to the Portuguese possessions?

Figure 6. Map of the fort and town of Cannanore shortly 
before about 1632
during the Portuguese period, from the
Livro das Plantas de todas as fortalezas, 
by António Bocarro. [Click on for larger image]

Figure 7. Google Earth Image marked up with suggested
extent of the Portuguese settlement before it's destruction by the Dutch.
[Click on image for larger version]

Working from Figure 6, and by using proportions, it is possible to mark up a modern satellite photo with an approximate line of where the two outer suburbs of the Portuguese settlement might have been situated.

Ancient property boundaries are often preserved long after the original reasons for their existence has gone.

I believe that the northern boundary of the Portuguese settlement where it met the territory controlled by the Ali Rajah or Bibi of Arrakal has been preserved down to the present day along the route taken by the Portuguese Walls. There was probably a ditch between the wall and the edge of the Arrakal settlement.

The original Portuguese fort was quite small, and would only have had a limited garrison. This would have required the fort to be built with as short a set of walls as possible.  During the siege it had become apparent that these walls guarded too small and area of ground, leaving the access to the well exposed.
A second set of walls was built, enclosing the well.

As the settlement grew the population increased and required more space for housing.

Most of the new population will have been Indian's or the offspring of Indo-Portuguese marriages or concubinage. These offspring may have been regarded as insufficiently trusted to be allowed to live in the fort itself, but had to be provided with protection, so that the outer township developed within a third set of walls.
By inspection of spot heights on Google Earth it appears that the average elevation of the fort was 8 metres above sea level. The land rises up to about 15 metres above sea level to the north.

Initially this had not mattered as the potential Indian adversaries had only limited access to cannon. They were unlikely to have weapons capable of doing serious damage to the fort walls.

However, as the 16th Century wore on cannon became both more numerous and  effective. The advent of Dutch and English shipping in the area opened up the possibility of attacks on the original fort from the north.

The outer wall in Figure 7 sits almost exactly at the top of the slope climbing up from the fort. By having an outer wall and suburb the Portuguese had strengthened the original fort.

For most likely scenario's against Indian forces the Medieval style walls would be sufficient against most attacks.

In the event of an insurrection amongst the Indo-Portuguese, or a successful attack on the town, the Portuguese themselves could fall back onto the fort, to await rescue by sea from one of the other settlements.

Figure  8. Portuguese Map of Cananor town.
from Plantas das Cidades de Fortalezas
da conquista da India Oriental by 
João Teixeira Albernaz circa 1630
[Click on image for larger version]

I have been unable to date the map of the town of Cannanore shown in Figure 8, which appears to show an earlier fort inside the town lived in by the Ali Rajah's subjects, that pre-dated the arrival of the Portuguese.

This fort might have belonged to this family, or it may have been a trading post inside the town.

It was quite common for map makers at this period to re-engrave using information from much earlier maps.

I believe that it is just possible that this map may show the situation in the period not long after the Portuguese arrived, and before they became sufficiently powerful to overawe the Muslim rulers into allowing them to extend their settlement from the fort and to build walls that run out towards the existing settlement.

Figure 9. Google Earth Image showing the same area
that is shown in Figure 8. above. The modern town
appears to have much the same street pattern as the
16th Century one.
[Click on image for larger version]

If you have access to Portuguese or Dutch material about the fort at Kannur, I would be very pleased to hear from you. It is quite possible that I have missed important points, or may have misidentified maps, ad dates of maps. If you can narrow down the dates or origins of these maps, I would be very pleased to hear from you.

It is unlikely that very much remains of the original Indo-Portuguese town that was demolished by the Dutch. This would be especially true close to the old fort, because it is known that the area was scarped and re-worked both by the Dutch and later British to clear fields of fire.

It is also very probable that the fabric of the old Portuguese walls was robbed out to provide materials for later building works. It would still be very interesting to field walk the area to the north and east of the site old town, as it is quite possible that demolition materials, debris and the remains of buildings may remain at or near the surface of the ground.

As it is quite likely to be several years before, I am able to go back to Kannur, I would be fascinated if you are able to find remains.

In my next blog I will go on to explore the Dutch period of occupation of the fort.

[1] Bellin's plan of Cananore, by Prevost, from Frances Pritchett's website. [
[2] See the following website for a particularly good collection
[3] Malabar Manual, by William Logan, volume 1, page 443.
[4] IOR H/438 Papers of Walter Ewer.
[5] IOR H/438 folio 147.
[6] Source:
(downloaded Feb. 2006)
"From Braun and Hogenberg, Civitates Orbis Terrarum I 54. Date: first Latin edition of volume I was published in 1572. After: an unidentified Portuguese manuscript."
[7] From Biblioteca Pública de Évora's photostream, see which contains many very interesting maps of forts in Asia during the Portuguese colonial period.


Anonymous said...

Great work, congratulations. I published an article in 2009 about colonial Cannanore and Colombo, which might be of interest to you. Can you get in touch?

Nick Balmer said...


You were kind enough to post a comment onto my blog asking me to get in contact with you.

For some reason I must have made a mistake with my blog settings because it hasn't sent me a notification of your post, which it generally does.

I would be very interested in reading your work.

I have quite a lot more material on Cannanore which I am working up into further posts.

There are several local Indian's who live and work in Kannur who are very interested in the subject, but they have virtually no access to information there, so I am trying to help them by posting more of what I have.

I hadn't realised quite how much I had accumulated until I tried to write it up.

Is bbk Birkberk College?


Nick Balmer

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you will find this site useful:
A site by the Dutch national archives with a great many maps.

chithrakaran:ചിത്രകാരന്‍ said...

Thank you very much.

Sanju said...

Thanks for the information.

I appreciate your hard work for collecting these informations.

Thank you very much Sir.

I am a local resident of this Kannur very much intrested in this topic

Kallivalli said...

I have been following your poasts for quite long years and you were the inspiration to learn my area in adifferent depth and look. thank you for that

Unknown said...

A very interesting read.
About 13km south of the fort (just north of the famous Drive-in Beach of Muzhappilangad), the old address of my Beach House holiday accommodation means 'house near the old fort'. On a hill near the Beach House there is evidence of a fort.
If you get back to Kannur, please call in.
Kind regards,
Lynne in UK
Malabar Cove Beach Houses - Kannur - North Kerala - India 670663

Nick Balmer said...

Hello Lynne,

I agree with your belief that there are probably forts close to your guest house.

When the Brits started getting involved in the local wars in the 1720's there were several forts on Dharmapatam, as well as others at Valapattnam. These are mentioned in the transcribed accounts published in the first part of the 20th Century in Madras.

These forts were very small and were probably built out of palm tree trunks, more like stockades or bunkers than forts.

I think there are two on hills on Dharmapatam Island at the eastern edge just above the creek on the inland hill.

I very much want to go back to field walk the area to see if my assumptions are correct. Only that will probably have to wait until after I retire in a few years time.

I would love to see photos of any forts you find.


Nick Balmer

Unknown said...

We have to appreciate the courage of the Portuguese in defeating native Rajas and their swarming soldiers. We have to take into account that the Portuguese were foreigners with the handicap of understanding the local language, customs and food habits. They were few in numbers. There were also Muslim conspirators who would not allow local Rajas to come to an understanding with the Portuguese. There were plots and treacherous betrayals after local Rajas agreed to policy settlements. And yet, the Portuguese outwitted local Rajas and Muslim conspirators. Portuguese power declined in Malabar not due to the skill of the Zamorin or Kolathiri but events in Europe made Portugal a weak power. Spain brought Portugal under its control. Spain was interested in Latin America and ignored the earlier achievements of the Portuguese in India. This enabled the Dutch and later the British to establish their authority in India.

Anonymous said...

Scouting the north of the fort seems quite interesting- would need permission from the Army to get allowed in there though. Extending towards the old town from the fort today is a mess of small buildings none of which seem very old. A small brook flows right before the town starts- and its amazing that this is the river on the left of the town as drawn in the old Portuguese fort. Perhaps it must have been big long back.

Nick Balmer said...

I spent an afternoon exploring in the Cantonment to the north of the fort, and while most of the buildings are probably 20th Century buildings, there are a number of earlier buildings, including I believe was probably either a hospital, or perhaps a large Army Officers mess building.

I hope to be able to return to Kannur in the not too distant future to explore the area in more detail.

In the British Library there is quite a lot of correspondence preserved which refers to a major campaign of fort & cantonment building from about 1815 until 1820. Much of the material is made up of Bill of Quantities and accounts for work done, and includes some plans of building details. There is probably more hidden away in the library, than I have currently had the chance to study in detail. This might enable the identification some of these older buildings to the north of the fort.

Anonymous said...

Immediately north of the fort is of course the large open space, a few hundred acres, referred to sometimes as an "Esplanade", and locally " Kotta Maidan" extending all the way till where the military restricted area ends. Was'nt restricted entry till the eighties and used to be part of the fabric of the place, giving rise to the hockey playing culture of the locale surrounding it.

There are nineteenth century buildings inside this which were "European Barracks" in an old map from 1860, and now form the National headquarters of the Defence Security Corps ( Cantonment of course has old buildings such as these, but what I think might not exist are any buildings in what used to be the extended part of the fort which stretched towards old Cannanore town from the present ramparts.

Unknown said...

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