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Success Story-Volume 20

The Battle of Kulachal (1741) - Eclipse of A European Power

Prof. T.P.Sankarankutty Nair

KULACHAL, presently in Kanyakumari (Cape Comorin) district of Tamil Nadu was part of the erstwhile princely state of Travancore, located at the South Western part of the Indian sub continent.  In 1741, a battle was fought at Kulachal between the Dutch East India Company and the ruler of Travancore, Anizham Tirunal Martanda Varma (1729 - 1758). In the 1741 battle of Kulachal, the Travancore Prince defeated the Dutch marking the eclipse of the Dutch power in India forcing them to pack off to Batavia (Djkarta).  The remarkable victory of Travancore has been ignored by many historians of South Asia while the Russo - Japanese war of 1905 was projected as the booster dose to Asian Nationalism.  One and half centuries prior to this Japanese triumph over Russia (exactly 164 years before) the tiny state of Travancore disastrously crushed the Dutch power in Western India which was practically a red signal for the Dutch to consolidate their position in the Batavian region, rather than wander along the Indian coast. The magnitude of the battle of Kulachal and its impact paved the way for the resurgence of Asia and Africa.  It exploded the age old myth that Europeans were invincible.

Spice Trade and the Europeans:

The opening of the Vasco-da-gama epoch in Indian History (1498) presented to the Portuguese not less than three dozen principalities besides four major kingdoms in Western India like those of Venad, Cochin, Kozhikode and Kolathunad.  The Portuguese through their blue water policy and the creation of mixed colonies stabilised their position until the amalgamation of Portugal with Spain in 1580. 

The English East India Company had only two major settlements in the Malayalam coast of south India viz. Talassery in Malabar side and Anjengo in Travancore side.  The Portuguese were out and the English were only coming to stabilise their position.  The Dutch with the support of native kings particularly with the whole hearted assistance of Cochin was enviably in a better position.  The Dutch policy in Kerala was governed by the singular consideration of procuring maximum pepper at minimum expense. 

The Dutch East India Company concentrated in trade and commerce with Asian countries and their policy was to buy cheap and sell dear.  The political conditions in the East were not so conducive that they resorted to negotiations, treaties and war.  The administrative headquarters of the Dutch East India Company was at Batavia nearer to Java.  The Governor General in Council decided all matters.  After the occupation of Tangassery (Kollam) Cochin and Cannur, in the Western coast, the Dutch interests were looked after by a commander to build fortresses, establish garrisons, conclude treaties, the supervision of which however was made by the Batavian Government.

The Dutch in the Malabar Coast

The Dutch in the first phases from 1604 to 1697, established spheres of interest which soon became their settlements.   The atrocious policies pursued by Portuguese in the Western coast made the Portuguese merchants persona non grata to the Malayalam speakers.  This was also the reason for the shifting of the Portuguese headquarters to Goa.  The Dutch traders were always respected and preferred by the local population. 

Unlike the Portuguese, the Dutch presented themselves as refined, civilized and disciplined.  This pro-Dutch atmosphere was exploited to the maximum particularly after the Dutch conquest of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1658.  The Zamorin of Kozhikode extended a helping hand to the Dutch to capture and establish their predominance in Cochin by 7th January 1663 and in Cannur by 15 February 1663 by liquidating Portuguese power and influence.  Dutch officials gradually became decision makers of the princely state of Cochin.  They collected the customs, royal rents, taxes and fine.  They interfered in judicial pronouncements and made for themselves a monopoly of trade in tobacco, salt, wheat etc. 

The soundness and effectiveness of the Dutch policies made them the most acceptable and the least objectionable power in the Kerala coast by the turn of the 17th century. Van Rheede, the Dutch Governor recorded sastisfaction in entering into treaties with native rulers like those of at Kollam, Karthikapally, Purakkad, Kozhikode and Kolathunad, through military pressures. Mutual respect and understanding made the Dutch to sign treaties, with, Venad, Kayamkulam, Tekkumkoor, and Cochin.  The Dutch hegemony along the Kerala coast thus became a reality so long as the Dutch militia was in the coast. 

Rise of Travancore:

From being a small princely state Venad rose to become Travancore when Martanda Varma established his power in 1729 by annihilating all those who, in the name of patrilineal succession, raised the banner of revolt.  Martanda Varma established the title to the throne when the previous King of the state blessed his nephew in death bed.  By dint of his military calibre, Martanda Varma rose to be the maker of modern Travancore State, which in later years became “a model state” under Sri Chittira Thirunal Balarama Varma (1931 - 1947). Martanda Varma by a policy of conquest, annexation and consolidation enlarged the frontiers of his kingdom from Kanyakumari in the south to the Cochin state upto Karappuram (modern Cherthala). 

The Dutch, who were then well settled in Cochin became impatient because they knew that they would become the next target of annexation.  This was the condition under which the Dutch forces began to move towards the Southern boundaries of Travancore that a shock treatment be given to the Travancore ruler.  As a statesman administrator, Marthanda Varma sensed danger of a Dutch invasion from the southern side of his kingdom.  In other words he was not unaware of the moves made by the Dutch towards Kanyakumari and Thengapattanam and finally to Kulachal.

In 1739 Martanda Varma and Van Imhoff (Dutch Governor) stood face to face.  It was a question of the political and commercial hegemony in the Kerala Coast, Who was supreme?  When Travancore was not ready for a trade agreement, the Dutch openly supported the enemy of Travancore that is Desinganadu or Kollam.  The immediate provocation was the capture of four wild elephants in a mountain pass near Nedumangad in August 1739. The Designanadu Raja claimed that the elephants belonged to them. This was countered by Martanda Varma because of the whole hearted support it received from the Dutch besides the help of small principalities like Cochin, Purakkad and Tekkumkoor.  In fact these four forces formed a military alliance at Cochin on the 21st September 1739 to crush the onward march of Martanda Varma. 

In the meanwhile, Martanda Varma sent a force of 3000 men to counter the joint advancement of the Dutch and Kollam.  Stein van Gollenesse could send only a reinforcfement of 300 soldiers.  The Dutch in Colombo issued orders to protect Kollam particularly their Tangasserry settlement the failure of which would result in the risk of losing all Dutch grip in the pepper trade in the south. The arrival of two companies of European soldiers and two companies of Indian soldiers under the command of Captain Joannes Hackert and two companies of Cochin Raja jointly met Travancore forces.  Travancore rebuilt by night what the Dutch destroyed by day.  The Dutch wanted to raid and destroy the main source of income of Travancore, the pepper gardens and cloth industry by a direct coastal attack. The plan was hatched by Dutch commander Van Imhoff as early as 1739. 

The Battle:

The Dutch received no reinforcement from Ceylon as expected.  The deterioration of weather compelled the Dutch to delay further hinterland attack.  The Dutch, however bombarded Kulachal on 26th November 1740 and continuously for three days.  The Dutch ships also blocked harbours between Kollam and Kanyakumari. The inhabitants fled swiftly. Martanda Varma sent a 2,000 strong force to Kulachal to prevent further destruction of the cotton industry.  Although the English was affected considerably, they could do little.  Although Stein Van Gollenesse came with a large fleet from Cochin, he could do little. Captain Hackert was the commander in chief, Anries Leslorant became Superintendent of fortifications and Johan Christian Rigtel was made commander of Dutch army.  Stein Gollenesse continued as the Supreme Dutch authority of the coast.  In the beginning, the Travancore army in Kulachal commanded  by Rama Varma, the second prince of the palace consisted of 600 soldiers, of whom 300 were Maravas.  Even the Dutch could not defeat them as they were passing through a very crucial time in Asian History.  The commander of Kulachal and Kollam sought Dutch military assistance from Cochin, Cochin sought the same from Tutucorin.  (Tuthukkudi). Tutucorin in turn, sought it from Colombo.  Colombo sought it from Batavia and Batavia could not make out sufficient reinforcements as they could not expect it from the Home Government. 

The relations between superior-inferior officers of the Dutch were not smooth.  Gollenesse found fault with Hackert, who inturn found Leslorant guilty in not completing the construction of the Dutch fort at Kulachal.  Commander Rijtel of Kulachal  wrote to the Dutch council at Cochin thus, “Never before in Indian History an Indian Prince (Martanda Varma) had the temerity and  firmness to besiege a European fort.  It was amazing how fast the enemy (Travancore) had built these batteries on the beach”.    This is true because Martanda Varma’s Travacore forces had practically encircled the Dutch forces at Kulachal by June 1741 with a force of about 15000.  The Dutch army consisting  of 420  soliders started from Kanyakumari on 27 July, 1741.  But the huge strength of the Travancore force compelled them to retain their low profile.  Rijtel wrote repeatedly to all Dutch superiors for more reinforcements.  But nothing came at all either from Colombo or from Batavia.

There were many open wars between the Dutch and the Travancore forces, during 1740-41.  In one such catastrophe, Dutch Commander Rijtel was wounded in his head (2nd August 1741) and later he  breathed his last fighting for his country.  Other Dutch soldiers were imprisoned, among them were Eustache de Lannoy and Donadi, both of Flemish origin.  The former was put in charge of the military establishment of the state by Marthanda Varma as he was very active and disciplined and played a leading part in the military history of the state during the eclipse of Dutch power (1741 - 1795).  The native forces overrun more than 60 kms in and around Kulachal at the cost of many Europeans and the natives.  This made the Dutch to report to Cochin that they can’t withstand the onslaught of the natives. 

The war council of the Dutch at Kulachal discussed the issue on the 8th August 1741 and decided to return to Kanyakumari or to go over to Tangassery in Kollam immediately ie. from the 9th August 1741.  This decision was taken in view of the military set back of the Dutch at Kulachal where the native forces proved to be large, well armed and better placed.  On the fateful day of 9th August 1741 the Dutch secured the final shock-destruction of their fort at Kulachal with all men and materials.

Many mariners recorded that the Dutch flag was hoisted thrice and each time, it was removed or blown up by Travancoreans.  Not only that, there was a big explosion inside the Kulachal fort and more than 600 pounds of gun powder, all artillery and grenades were blown up.  The Travancore force consisting of Nayars, Ezhavas, Maravas and Paravans numbering  more than 300 each, destroyed all that remained inside the Kulachal fort.  The fort was attacked directly by the Marava cavalry commanded by Ramayyan Dalava, the Principal Advisor to the Majaraja, Martanda Varma and the Prime Minister of Travancore.  The entire fort tress caught fire and the well inside, was full of dead bodies.  The fortress practically became unfit for occupation according to Jan Hartman who was inside the nearby church. A canon ball hit the gun powder magazine and everything was set to fire in no time.  The entire Kulachal area was in shambles.  Dutch looked like mere observers as they could do little.  They realised the full gravity of the strategy and strategems of Martanda Varma. 

They surrendered unconditionally and sued for peace as the native forces encircled them all.  They sought permission for their peaceful withdrawal, which Martanda Varma graciously allowed.  The war council which met at  Cochin concluded that Hackert was the main cause of Dutch disaster at Kulachal.  Without orders he had evacuated his troops to Tuthukkudi and  later he failed to protect Kulachal.  Although a former president of the Dutch council of war, Hackert was sentenced by his former subordinates and sent to Batavia where he died in captivity in 1743.

The Dutch East India Company had more over confident officers in the  Western side than in the eastern side of India.  They never expected such a long and stiff resistance from Travancore.  They undermined the military capabilities of the Travancore force as they failed to accepted the realities.  Their friendship with Cochin, Nedumangad etc proved disastrous for them.  On the other hand, if the Dutch depended on Martanda Varma, the Dutch influence in the Western coast might have continued down to 1947.  The Dutch authorities proved themselves to be poor judges and they erred in their judgements for which they paid a heavy price - loss of pepper trade along the entire Kerala coast. 

The myth of the invincibility of the occidental people over the orientalists had been exploded as a result of the war at Kulachal.  It heralded an era of sub nationalism as a consequence of which more  and more anti foreign, anti imperialistic and anti colonial struggles had been staged in many states.  Even when colonies began to be established, anti foreign movements also had taken shape in Asia and Africa.  

No wonder, princely states like Kurubranad, Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja (1795-1805) rose in revolt against the British with the support of tribals like Kurichyas, Kurumbrars, Chetties etc.  The Diwan of Travancore, Velu Tampi Dalava (1765-1809) backed by Cochin organised anti-British resistance.  Both Pazhassi Raja (30-11-1805) and Velu Tampi (29-3-1809) became martyrs from Kerala - half a century before the 1857 revolt - for the cause of freedom.


 (The Author is Director General, Centre for Heritage Studies Kerala.)