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Kerala History

Ancient Kerala History
|European Conquest | Historical Personalities Towards Freedom | Interesting Sidelights | Bibliography

European Conquest


For centuries the Europeans had chaffed under the Arab monopoly in trade with the East. Just when Europe was stirring out of its deepest of dark ages, there were many sponsors for journeys to the unknown Orient, not the least being the kings and queens of Europe. The Papal proclamation then had roughly divided the world into two spheres of influence between the Spanish and the Portuguese.

In stepped an adventurous Vasco de Gama, a capable naval Captain and a fortune hunter. He found the easiest way to India by bribing the Arab pilot when his ship anchored off Kenya at Port Malindi. Following the centuries old route taken by the Arab traders and riding on a monsoon wind, he sailed the Sao' Gabriel to land at Kappad near the town of Calicut or Kozhikode. The entire history of the East was to change from that day.

The Zamorin or Samuthiri received the Portuguese,(known locally as parungees) warmly. Trade concessions were granted to the Portuguese. But sensing the rivalries of the local kings, the Portuguese immediately set about engaging themselves in consolidating their positions. Through all this, what struck the otherwise peaceful people of this land was the extreme cruelty of the Portuguese. Cabral Alvarez believed in the supremacy of the Portuguese on the sea-lanes and killed anyone dared to break it.

Vasco de Gama's second foray into Kerala was tainted with such acts of barbarity that it was said that "…his deeds were blots in the annals of a Christian nation, and a disgrace to the name of humanity.." A succession of Governors, soldiers and priests set about expanding the territories and plundering the lands they conquered.

There was some organised resistance to the Portuguese expansionism, particularly at sea from the Samuthiris of Kozhikode. Notable among the Samuthiri's Admirals is Kunjali Marakkar, still a revered hero in Kerala. He achieved some sort of victory in checking the Portuguese expansionism, but against better weapons, technology and cunning, it was a losing battle.

An interesting sidelight is the Portuguesebehaviour towards the thriving community of Christians in Kerala. Tradition has it that these Christians were converted by St.Thomas the Apostle in the 1st Century AD . The Portuguese were a little annoyed that the local Christians were more Hindus in their outlook, culture and traditions and never heard of the Pope in Rome. The famous Synod of Diamper (present day Udayamperoor near 14 Kms from Kochi) in 1599, decreed that all Christians henceforth revert to the Pope in Rome as the Supreme Spiritual head and not the Pontiff at Antioch.

This is the course of time led to a revolt by a section of the Syrian Christians . Legend has it that they took an oath - by tying themselves to a Cross at Kochi on 15 January 1653. This is known as the "Koonan Cross Oath" and is still revered as a turning point among the Syrian Christians who constitute about 23 percent of the population of Kerala. But the Portuguese had some success in proselytising and did manage to convert some communities along the coast to Christianity. They are the Latin Catholics and have become an influential section in Kerala.

The Portuguese finally met their match in the Dutch, the other predatory European powers in the East. They proclaimed the Kochi Maharaja as the titular head and drove the Portuguese out. With aim of total control over the Eastern Spices trade, the Dutch East India Company was set up in 1602. Stefan Van Hegena set sail with 13 ships and reached Kannur ( Cannanore) in 1604.

The Dutch known locally as Lanthakar, was in the race for evicting the Portuguese from the lucrative Eastern spices trade. Strategic alliance with the Samuthiri helped them drive out the Portuguese once and for all by 1663. But from then on it was the same old story of the former allies falling out. This phase ended with the Dutch gaining undue advantages and gaining foothold over most of the coastal areas and towns, prominent being Kannur and Kochi. By 1717 there was some sort of a treaty established between them. But these could not save the Dutch from defeat in 1741 at the hands of a resurgent king of Thiruvithanmkur , Marthanda Varma in the battle of Kolachel. By 1795, the Dutch were so weakened, that the British did not have much trouble evicting them permanently from the Kerala landscape once and for all.

The Portuguese and the Dutch will be remembered for introducing many novel agricultural crops to Kerala, notable among them being pineapple, papaya, tapioca, rubber and scientific farming methods for coconuts. To this day, the Kerala farmers are critically dependent on these crops for survival in the agrarian economy of the state. The Bolgatty palace at Kochi, the Dutch Governor's mansion (later the British Resident's mansion) is a much recognised landmark of Kochi. The renovation of the palace at Mattancherry ( known as the Dutch palace) at Kochi also is a reminder of the brief Dutch colonial presence in Kerala.

The French also had brief moments of glory in Kerala. But a resurgent Britain put paid to their hopes of empire building and managed to confine them to a small enclave Mahe near Kannur.

Notable in this time was the king of Thiruvithamkur, Marthanda Varma in the 18th century. His success started with the subjugation of the local warlords. Then in a move at consolidating his kingdom, he subjugated all principalities the southern tip of Kerala upto Kodungalloor up in the North.

His notable achievements of converting these captured lands into state lands, centralising foreign trade and hence improving government incomes, improving conditions of farmers, and most importantly reducing the powers of the government servants who till then were exclusively from certain castes and families set the foundation of modern day Kerala. He also took the rather unusual step of employing competent people from all castes and for the first time recognised competence over birth right. For his army he employed a European De Lanoy. For administration he employed people like Raja Kesava Das, Mallan Govindan etc who were men of proven ability. His defeat of the Dutch at Kolachel in 1741 is the high point of the reign of one of the most colourful kings of Kerala.

It was after him that the British were trying to extend their influence in South India and they came across Tipu, the Sultan of Mysore. Thiruvithamkur was forced into a common alliance with the British against Tipu.

The Mysore war was over in 1799 and the British were de facto rulers of North Kerala, which until then were part of Tipu's kingdom. Both Thiruvithanmkur and Kochi were browbeaten with threats of war and huge war debt payments, that they were forced to accept British residents for the rest of their history.

The rise of the British was bitterly opposed by the local warlords or naduvazhis. In 1802 Pazhassi Raja, a local chieftain revolted and fought a determined campaign against the British. In a similar fashion, Velu Thampi Dalawa also rose up against what was seen as British attempts at total control of local power centres. Velu Thampi Dalawa had allied himself with the Dewan of Kochi Paliyath Achan in the armed campaign against the British .

However it was only a matter of time when the reinforcements of the British army arrived from Malabar and the Madras Presidency. After almost a year of sporadic battles, Velu Thampi Dalawa fled the kingdom. The power of the British Resident was now paramount and the Maharaja had to be content with a much reduced say in the affairs of State. The revolt by these two leaders are the stuff of legends to this day. But these were isolated and did not have the necessary military might to fight a sustained campaign against an emerging World Super Power. Once the British military effectively crushed these revolts, no more was heard from these naduvazhis or warlords again..

But it was a different story as far as the peasantry were concerned. There were serious outbreaks of unrest especially in North Kerala against the landlords and by extension the British. These are now called the moppilla lahala or Muslim Revolt. Needless to say, these were also ruthlessly suppressed and again form a part of the local folklore to this day.


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