The brave heart who fought against the Dutch and Portuguese

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Anupama Nair

I had written previously how along with the Portuguese, and the Dutch East India Company also had designs on India. However, their stay in India was short lived due to this brave king of Travancore called Mathanda Varma I and Abakka Chowta.

To narrate her story, I need to take you to the 15th century. People in those days thought there were only three continents – Asia, Europe and Africa. Before, 1553 there was trade done between Asia and Europe, and Silk Route existed via Constantinople. The Arabs took goods from the East and sold it to the Europeans. Dacca Muslin, Indian Spices and silk were used by the Royal families of Europe. However, the capture of Constantinople by Turks in 1453 destroyed the trade route. The result of this event was imperialism and most of America, Asia, New Zealand and Australia came under the rule of European countries. When the trade route was blocked, the European royal families, who were addicted to Dacca Muslin, spices and silk were forced to find an alternate trade route. Many sailors set on a long journey through the Atlantic to come to India then known as the “golden bird”.

In the past India was invaded many times by invaders from time immemorial through the Himalayan passes. Did you know the first invader who invaded India through the ocean was the Portuguese? Vasco Da Gama reached Calicut in 1499. During the early part of the sixteenth century, the Portuguese were successfully carrying out trade in coastal India. However, with time their imperialist motives became clear and slowly by slowly, they began their reign of terror. If you thought Mughals, Khiljis or the British were cruel, Portuguese will emerge the winners. Goa and Brazil were the main victims. Much of the trade carried on in the Western coast of India was taxed by the Portuguese who looked to advance upon Ullal, near Mangalore Port, (Karnataka). That is how they came to face the brave queen Abbakka Chowta their nemesis. 

She was the first Tulluva queen of Ullal and  belonged to the  Chowta dynasty who ruled over parts of coastal Karnataka with the capital city Puttige.  Ullal was their subsidiary capital and was the capital of the Chowta king Thirumala Raya III who was the vassal of the Vijayanagar kingdom. The Chowtas were Jain kings who had originally migrated to Tulu Nadu (a province consisting of present-day Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka, portions of Udupi and Kasargod district in Kerala) from Gujarat in the 12th century.

As the Chowtas followed the matrilineal system, the king’s heir was his niece, Abbakka. She was a brave princess who had been trained in archery, cavalry, military strategy, and all other skills a young princess needed. When she became the queen of Ullal, she was aware of the threat posed by the Portuguese and was determined to resist it with all power she had. Before his death, Thirumala Raya III  married Abbakka with Lakshmappa Bangaraja, the ruler of Mangalore. She was so independent that even after her marriage she stayed in Ullal along with her three children. The marriage broke down when Bangaraja negotiated with the enemy of her kingdom the Portuguese. They wanted to keep control over trade in the Indian Ocean by using sailing permits. “In true colonial style, what the Portuguese could not achieve through bullying, they did through strength”, was the view of the historians. 

A friction with the Portuguese was inevitable and Ullal was strategically important as a port as it had a thriving spice trade. By this time, the Portuguese were alarmed about Rani Abbakka’s bravery inspiring other rulers. When threats failed, they resorted to treachery. A series of edicts were passed to make any alliance with the defiant queen illegal. Her ex-husband, Bangaraja of Mangalore, was also warned against sending any aid to Ullal.

Her first battle with the Portuguese was in 1555, when Admiral Dom Álvaro da Silveira and his army arrived with imperialistic designs in Ullal. In 1568, the Portuguese Viceroy Antony D’ Noronha sent Joao Peixoto with a fleet of soldiers. He however, managed to capture Ullal and enter the palace. Abbakka, managed to escape and took shelter in a mosque. She, along with 500 soldiers, killed Peixoto and seventy troops in the night. Historians said “the invaders were forced to flee to their ships in disgrace”.

This brave queen’s  words “save the motherland. Fight them on land and the sea. Fight them on the streets and the beaches. Push them back to the waters”, reverberated through the airstreams as she and her soldiers fired against the Portuguese ships. Many of the ships in the Portuguese fleet were burnt that night, but unfortunately Rani Abbakka was wounded in the crossfire and was captured with the help of  her own chieftains. The brave queen passed away in captivity, but her legacy will never die. After her death, her  brave daughters continued  the fight against the Portuguese. As a result, Portuguese rule was confined only in Goa, and were finally forced to leave in 1961.

It can be rightly said Rani Abbakka was the main thorn in the Portuguese’ side throughout her reign despite their superior military power. Thanks to the ultra-left influenced curriculum she remains buried in the sands of time. However, she still lives on in the folk culture of the Dakshin Kannada region and in the recent years, her story gained popularity across the country. There is an annual celebration in her memory, called “Veera Rani Abbakka Utsava” held in Karnataka










Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma  was also known as the "Maker of Modern Travancore". He was ruler of the Indian kingdom of Travancore previously called Venadu. He was the founder of the Travancore dynasty

Marthanda Varma is famous for defeating Dutch East India Company  at the Battle of Colachel in 1741. He then adopted a European mode of discipline for his army and expanded his kingdom northward(to what became the modern state of Travancore. He built a sizeable army of about 50,000 men, as part of designing an "elaborate and well-organized" war machine, with the role of the Nair nobility and fortified the northern boundary of his kingdom His alliance in 1757 with the ruler of Cochin, against the northern Kingdom of Calicut, enabled the kingdom of Kochi to survive.

Travancore under Marthanda Varma made a deliberate attempt to consolidate its power by the use of Indian Ocean trade. It was the policy of Marthanda Varma to offer assistance to Syrian Christian traders to limit the European involvement in the Indian ocean. The main good sold was  black pepper, but other goods also came to be defined as ‘royal monopoly items’ that required a license for trade between the 1740s and the 1780s. Eventually, the kingdom of Travancore challenged Dutch blockade of the Kerala coast.[4]

Trivandrum became a prominent city in Kerala under Marthanda Varma. He undertook many irrigational works, built roads and canals for communication and gave active encouragement to foreign trade.  In January, 1750, Marthanda Varma decided to ‘donate’ his kingdom to Lord Padmanabha or Vishnu and thereafter ruled as the deity's Sri Padmanabha Dasa. Even today the king of Travancore calls himself Sri Padmanabha Dasa. Marthanda Varma's policies were continued in large measure by his successor, Rama Varma or Dharma Raja. Travancore then launched a series of raids on the Dutch forts in the area and captured them all. In retaliation, a Dutch artillery force landed at Colachel from Ceylon and conquered up to Kottar. The Dutch forces then advanced against Kalkulam, Travancore's capital. Marthanda Varma, who was then in the north of his state promptly marched his forces to the south and arrived at Kalkulam just in time to avoid a defeat

In the following battle at Colachel the Travancore forces won a great victory over the Dutch. More than twenty Dutch soldiers were taken as prisoners of war from Colachel. Among them was Eustachius de Lannoy, whose bravery came under the attention of the king. Eustachius de Lannoy, commonly known in Travancore as the 'Valiya Kappittan'  was entrusted with the organization and drilling of a special regiment, which he did to the "entire satisfaction of the king". De Lannoy was raised to the rank of general in Travancore army and proved to be of considerable service to Marthanda Varma in subsequent battles.

Following the expulsion of the Dutch, Marthanda Varma now turned his attention once again towards Kayamkulam. In 1742, Travancore forces attacked Kayamkulam and fought the Kayamkulam army led by Achuta Warrier and chiefs from Valiya Kakkanadu Madhom. Although Travancore was defeated in this battle, Marthanada Varma reinforced his army with cavalry brought in from Tirunelveli before mounting an attack on Kayamkulam, which led to the final defeat of the chiefdom. A treaty known as the Treaty of Mannar (1742) was signed, under which Kayamkulam became a tributary of the Kingdom of Travancore. However, in 1746, the Kayamkulam chief once again showed signs of rebellion and when his ‘conspiracies’ with the northern chiefdoms such as KottayamChanganassery, Cochin and Ambalapuzha came to the attention of Marthanda Varma. Kayamkulam was annexed by a final battle in which the chief fled to Cochin and a branch of the family settled near Charamood known as "Moothantedom". The kingdom of Travancore now extended from Kanyakumari to Kayamkulam in the north. Following this, Ambalapuzha, Kottayam and Changanassery were also annexed to Travancore by 1753. The principality of Meenachil was also annexed.

The ascension of Travancore seemed to have been quicker around 1749. Marthanda Varma had declared a state monopoly on pepper in Travancore in 1743, thereby delivered a serious blow to the commerce of the Dutch.  The Treaty of Mavelikkara completely destroyed the Dutch. Thereafter, "considerable spice producing lands came under direct royal control, while those merchants participating in illegal trade in spices stood in danger of being executed".

If only we had shown such resistance to the British, we would not have been ruled for 190 years!



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