How 275 years ago an Indian prince defeated the Dutch East India Company

It was the first victory of an Asian kingdom over a European power.

 |  6-minute read |   05-08-2016
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India in 1741 was in a state of great power transition.

Nadir Shah's defeat of the Mughal army in 1739 and subsequent pillage of Delhi rang the death knell for the two-century old empire founded by Babur.

The Maratha Empire under Baji Rao had begun their dizzying climb to pre-eminence. Trading outposts established by the French, Dutch and English East India Companies dotted the sub-continent's coast.

European mercantile warriors focused their attention on Kerala, the sliver of land between the Vindhyas and the Arabian Sea. The region was source of the lucrative spices that had led Christopher Columbus on his voyage of exploration in the late 15th century.

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The Dutch who had arrived on the coast of Kerala in the 17th century, were the most powerful. The Protestant Dutch had shaken off their Catholic Spanish overlords in 1568 and Dutch merchants proceeded to build a global empire centred around Amsterdam.

In 1602, the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC (the Dutch East India Company), effectively the world's first multi-national was floated. VOC mercenary armies conquered Indonesia and ruled it for nearly 200 years.

It suited the VOC that Kerala then a patchwork of warring kingdoms, each one too small to stand up to the gentle persuasive abilities of European navies and armies armed with gunboats, cannons and musket.

image1---copy---copy_080516110749.jpg Dutch captain Eustachius De Lannoy surrenders to Martanda Varma at Colachel.

The four major kingdoms were Calicut, Kolattiri, Kochi and Tiruvitamkur (Travancore).

By the early 18th century, Dutch economic and political power in Kerala was at its zenith. They had ejected the Portugese, defeated the Zamorin and turned the king of Kochi into a vassal ruler - his crown bore the VOC emblem.

They now controlled two of Kerala's four major kingdoms and had near-total control of Kerala's pepper and cinnamon trade.

The VOC perpetuated their hold through divide and rule, pitting one tiny kingdom against the other so that they could play peacemaker and continue their exclusive commercial rights. Only Travancore held out.

In the 1730s, the exploits of its young king attracted the attention of the Dutch VOC. Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma, had ascended the throne of the kingdom of Travancore in 1729 and overcome his scheming Nair aristocrats, the "Ettuvittil Pillamar" (Pillais of the eight houses), built a large army of 50,000 soldiers and embarked on imperial expansion.

In 1734, Varma captured the kingdom of Kayamkulam and headed towards another, Quilon, a port and a gateway to the spice trade, threatening the status quo.

The Dutch were alarmed and decided to remonstrate with Varma and this is how the Travancore-Dutch war began. as a verbal duel. The governor of Ceylon, Gustaff Willem Van Imhoff met Varma and threatened to invade Travancore.

Varma dismissed the threat and said he would retreat into the forests. When the envoy warned the Dutch would follow him there as well, Varma had his repartee ready. "I have been thinking of invading Europe some day."

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The first round of the war was a disaster for Travancore. The Malabar Command landed a detachment of soldiers under captain Johannes Hackert from Ceylon.

The Dutch forces and their allies attacked the Travancore forces at Quilon on November 12, 1739. The Travancore army had to retreat with the Dutch and their allies in hot pursuit, sacking the countryside as they advanced.

By December, the Dutch were at Attingal in present-day Trivandrum district. Varma was by then, fighting a desperate two-front war.

In March 1740, Chanda Sahib, Nawab of Carnatic had invaded his southern frontiers. The Travancore kingdom was shrinking. Varma, it seemed, would soon have to act on his vow of retreating into the forests. Fortunately for him, the Dutch campaign halted in June 1740.

The Dutch began the second phase of their punitive expedition against Travancore later that year. They turned their attention towards Varma's southern flank.

On November 26, 1740, three Dutch men-of-war hauled off the coast of Colachel, a seaside town in present-day Kanyakumari district and began a furious three-day naval bombardment. The residents of the town fled.

The Dutch enforced a naval blockade of the kingdom's coast. On February 4, 1741, a Dutch force launched an amphibious assault.

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Four hundred Dutch Marines from Ceylon led by captain Eustachius Benedictus De Lannoy on a fleet of seven large ships and smaller vessels headed towards the Malabar Coast.

They landed at Colachel and established a beachhead. The choice of the seaside town was not accidental. Padmanabhapuram, Marthanda Varma's capital, lay just 13km inland from Colachel.

The marines, who included 150 European troops, built a stockade as they prepared for the final assault on Varma's capital.

On May 27, 1741, Martanda Varma made his move. He undertook what he did before the start of every major military campaign. He worshipped Lord Adi Kesava at the temple of Thiruvattar and consecrated his sword.

He rode out with the Travancore army of over 10,000 men. The Dutch forces withdrew into the stockade they had created. The Travancore army encircled them and laid siege.

The siege continued for two months. It became impossible for the Dutch to resupply their garrison. The supreme command was engaged in a war of conquest in Java and could not spare troops to break the siege.

The ongoing monsoon and stormy seas made it impossible for them to send in reinforcements from Ceylon or Cochin.

Two Dutch sloops made an attempt to break the siege but had to retreat after the Travancore army fired at them.

On August 5, 1741, the siege ended. "A burning hot bullet from the Travancore forces hit the gunpowder barrel by accident," historian MO Koshy recounts in The Dutch power in Kerala. "The fire continued for two days. On the second day, the resistance of the Dutch forces collapsed and they surrendered."

The sagacious Varma offered employment to the captain of the Dutch forces. It was an immensely far-sighted move. De Lannoy trained the Travancore army into well-drilled European style infantry equipped with musketry and cannon.

tipu-sultan-759_080516110907.jpg Tipu Sultan.

The Dutch who were master builders, constructed fortifications for Travancore's new capital Thiruvananthapuram. The Flemish captain might have been considered a deserter by the Dutch, but he was the father of the modern Travancore army, its Valiya Kapithan or Great Commander who served the kingdom for 37 years.

Dutch assistance shored the kingdom against the invasions of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan. Commander De Lannoy died in 1777 while charting strategies against the Mysorean invasions. Fittingly for a soldier, was buried in Udaygiri fort, the Travancore army's arsenal.

The Battle of Colachel proved both disastrous and ruinous to the Dutch as military historian KK Nair notes in his racy 2013 narrative By Sweat and Sword.

Travancore had trounced Europe's paramount power. The VOC squandered immense sums getting nothing in return and lacked the means of carrying out another large-scale campaign.

Dutch pepper monopoly in Kerala ended and in 1753, the Dutch signed the treaty of Mavellikara with Martanda Varma, agreeing not to halt his expansion.

The Dutch trained Travancore state forces were absorbed into the Indian Army and form the 9th Battalion of the Madras Regiment. The battalion celebrates July 31 every year as Colachel Day, the date that is inscribed on a victory pillar erected at the site.

Writer

Sandeep Unnithan Sandeep Unnithan @sandeepunnithan

The writer is Executive Editor, India Today.

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