Kerala turns 63 today! A good time to look back at our history. But our history is not just 63 years old. If you’ve been reading our history pieces, you’d know that we can trace our history back to before the mighty Romans!
So where do we start? The first mention of the word ‘Kerala’ is in a rock edict left by the Maurya Emperor Asoka. He spoke about ‘Keralaputra’ who ruled one of the independent kingdoms in South India. Starting here would make this article a little too long for one reading (and take weeks to write!).
A reasonable point to start, I feel, would be the arrival of Vasco da Gama at Panthalayini near Kollam in Kozhikode district. It was the first time one of the traditional European powers landed on our shores and set in motion a series of events that have led to the existence of Kerala as we know it today.
da Gama meets the Samudiri
The Portuguese fleet under Vasco da Gama was mainly composed of convicts as the voyage was akin to suicide; they were literally sailing through uncharted waters as no European ship had sailed beyond the Cape of Good Hope. And so when Gama reached the shores of Kozhikode, one of his convict-sailors swam up to the shore to make sure that natives were not hostile. Forget hostile, I guess the population must’ve greeted the foreigner with awestruck curiosity (something a foreigner would still experience today!). Vasco da Gama eventually made his way to the court of Manavikrama, the Samudiri (Zamorin of Calicut) and was treated well. But when they wanted to start an official discussion, they were told that they had to present the King with gifts before initiating the discussion. The Portuguese presented the Samudiri with cloth, sugar, basins, honey and oil. To the ruler of one of the most important ports of the time, these ‘gifts’ must’ve seemed trivial, and so the Portuguese were mocked for not having any gold to present the Samudiri. So Manavikrama refused to initiate diplomatic discussions with Gama. However, Manavikrama allowed them to trade in the local bazaar, like ordinary merchants.
When the Portuguese set up shop in Kozhikode, they soon realised that the good that they had to offer was of little value to us. To add fuel to the fire, the Arabs considered the Portuguese as competition and did everything they could to get in the way. Overall, Vasco da Gama’s expedition seemed like a failure in terms of establishing long term diplomatic relations. It was a success, however, if you look at it as a ‘proof of concept’ – the Portuguese now knew how to get to Kozhikode and what little goods they took back to Portugal were sold at 60 times the price they were bought at.
Meanwhile in the rest of ‘Kerala’
The history of Kerala is very akin to the history of India – there were times when Kerala was nearly in its current form (geographically), but for most of its history, it was a bunch of independent Kingdoms. In 1498, when the Portuguese reached the shores of what would later be Kerala, the Samudiri was the most powerful ruler in the region. The other Kings of the region had been subjugated and had pledged fealty to him. However, they remained ambitious and wanted autonomy. The most prominent among these was the Kingdom of Kochi – ruled by Unni Goda Varma. Kochi will play a major role in how things turn out to be in the future.
The Arab Monopoly
The Arabs had inherited the knowledge of the South-West monsoon winds from the ancient civilisations of the Fertile Crescent and so had been trading with us for centuries. Hence, they had what modern economists would call a monopoly. The Portuguese were, quite literally, a start-up that dared to try and carve a piece of this monopoly. The Arabs opposed this by spreading slander, outbidding the Portuguese in auctions, and colluding with local suppliers to prevent the sale of goods to the Portuguese. This angered the Portuguese, and under the leadership of Pedro Alvarez Cabral (who led the second expedition to Kerala), attacked an Arab vessel. In retaliation, the Arabs burned a Portuguese warehouse, killing 60-70 men. The Portuguese fled to the sea, looted every ship they could and bombarded Kozhikode for a day (killing around 600 people).
Divide & Conquer
This is when Cabral played a masterstroke. He sailed down south to Kochi. Unni Goda Varma, who hoped to gain independence from the Samudiri using the Portuguese, welcomed Cabral and granted him trade privileges – an act of rebellion in the eyes of Kozhikode. The Samudiri (Manavikrama had passed away and was replaced by a younger prince) sent an army south and the Portuguese fled, leaving Unni Goda Varma to face the consequences. The Portuguese kept doing this in the years to come. They also engaged in piracy in the Indian Ocean – raiding and looting Arab ships.
This went on for years, and the Samudiri, along with his allies, fought multiple wars with the Portuguese (in 1508, 1510, and 1571). But Kozhikode had to wait for the arrival of other European powers to finally get rid of the Portuguese menace.
The Dutch East India Company
The European powers, at the time, are all engaged in a power struggle to carve out a bigger piece of the global economy pie for themselves. So when the Dutch reach Kerala, they help the Zamorin expel the Portuguese from the shores of Kerala and even helped him in mounting a campaign against Kochi in 1663. But after the Portuguese left, they slid into their place. The Dutch proved to be more cunning than the Portuguese and realised that constant warfare in the region would be a good opportunity to make money; for everyone wanted the new European weapons. They exchanged the weapons for spices and ensured that there was no dominant authority in the region. By the end of the 17th Century, Kannur (Cannanore) was an independent kingdom, Kochi was under Dutch protection, and the Kingdom of Kozhikode was well beyond its heyday.
But the Dutch had problems of their own. The British had found their way to the Kerala coast and were betting on some winning horses too. There were many skirmishes and battles, with Keralites allied on both sides. But the final blow to the Dutch (per se) did not come from the British, it came from Marthanda Varma the King of Travancore.
Kulachal, August 1741
A new player enters the stage now – Raja Marthanda Varma of Travancore. Marthanda Varma had inherited the kingdom of Venad (Thrippappur) and expanded it into Travancore over his reign. By August 1741, his kingdom was so powerful that he defeats the Dutch East India Company at Kulachal. It is said that the Dutch were forced to surrender as their grain supplies got blown up by a cannonball fired by the Travancore army (they had no access to supplies after this as Marthanda Varma had imposed a blockade). It is probably one of the earliest examples of an Asian power defeating a technologically superior European adversary. The defeat sent shockwaves in the Dutch establishment and diminished their position of power in the region. They eventually signed a peace treaty with Travancore – the Treaty of Mavelikkara – where they promised not to intervene politically in the region.
Another direct outcome of the defeat was the capture and defection of Eustachius De Lannoy. Captain de Lannoy and his second in command Donaldi were among the officers who surrendered after the Dutch defeat. They were imprisoned for a while and then took up positions in the Travancore army. De Lannoy went on to play a vital role in the modernising of the Travancore army and went on to become the ‘Valiya Kapitan’ of the army. He was also instrumental in the defence of Travancore against Hyder Ali’s invasion.
Hyder Ali Comes Knocking
In 1766, Hyder Ali invaded Malabar (Anglo-Mysore War). He went on to capture lands till Thrissur and even made Kochi a vassal state; with the Raja paying him an annual tribute. However, he was not able to conquer Travancore as Travancore had troops that were trained by the Dutch officers they captured and modern weapons, and the British East India company came to their aid. The led to Travancore eventually becoming a ‘protected ally’ of the British East India Company.
We must fast forward to the last decade of the 18th century now. In the years that we skip, the British are engaged in a power struggle with the French in the region, which leads to the second and third Anglo-Mysore Wars.
And in 1792, Tipu Sultan (Hyder Ali’s son) is defeated in the Third Anglo-Mysore War and is forced to sign over the Malabar region to the British in the Treaty of Seringapatam. This region went on to become the Malabar District of the Madras Presidency.
The British East India Company also went on to forge tributary alliances with Kochi in 1791 and Travancore in 1795. Not so soon after, in 1814, the Dutch signed the Anglo-Dutch Treaty where they signed over the islands of Kochi to the British in exchange for the island of Banca in Indonesia. Thus, the whole of modern Kerala came either under the direct control or suzerainty of the British.
The three regions remained distinct throughout the British era. Kochi and Tranavcore modernised under their respective Kings; Kochi went on to become one of the safest harbours in South Asia, and Travancore went on to become the second most prosperous princely state in British India, with considerable achievements in education, political administration, public works and social reforms. Malabar, meanwhile, remained under British administration and underwent changes that the rest of British administered territories went through.
There are many events that happen during this time and will be of interest to any curious soul. But it would be nearly impossible to do these events justice by covering them in just one article. If you’re interested, I would recommend The Malabar Rebellion (by M. Gangadharan) and The Ivory Throne (by Manu S. Pillai) to get a glimpse into what transpired during this time.
The year is 1947, India has gained independence from British rule. But India isn’t quite the India we know yet. The British raj was not one big country ruled by the British. It was an ‘Empire’ – with territories that were controlled directly by the British, and parts that were ‘Princely states’ (552 of them!). The Princely states were territories that were under British suzerainty, so when the British decided to leave, they could become independent kingdoms again. So in 1947, there’s a debate about what these Princely States should do. Should they join the Indian Union? Should they join Pakistan? Should they become independent states? Or should they form a confederacy of Princely States?
Malabar district, by default, becomes a part of the Indian Union as it was not a Princely State. The King of Kochi renounced his claim and Kochi was one of the first Princely states to join India in 1947.
Travancore resisted, but after a failed assassination attempt on his Prime Minister (Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer), the King decided to merge with India in 1949. On the 1st of July 1949, Travancore became a part of the Indian Union and merged with Kochi to become Travancore-Cochin.
But India was still a patchwork of provinces from the British era so in December 1953, the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru appointed the States Reorganisation Commission to reorganise the States of India. On 30th of September 1955, the commission submitted its report. The bill was debated and later passed by the Parliament. And on the 1st of November 1956, Kerala was born!
We’ve hopscotch jumped through history – from 1498 to 1956. There is a lot of history that I’ve skipped, as I’ve tried to give a brief about the major events that have led to the existence of modern Kerala. Do share your thoughts, views, and other information that you feel I should’ve included in the comments section.