The Sea Warriors of the Malabar Coast
There were four of them, Kunjali Marakkar I to Kunjali Marakkar IV, earliest of the gallant challengers who battled doggedly for almost a century to stem the advent of European colonialism in India. It all began in 1498 when Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese explorer, found his way across oceans to the Malabar Coast and landed at Calicut. Renowned as the ‘City of Spices’ for being the traditional trading hub of Asian spices, Calicut or Kozhikode, was the principal port and trading post on the Malabar Coast. It was also the capital of a powerful kingdom that bore the same name ruled by its monarch, the Zamorin or Samoothiri. The kingdom at the peak of its power extended all the way from Quilon (Kollam) in the southern half of the present-day state of Kerala to Quilandi (Koyilandi alias Panthalayani Kollam) in its northern half. The main source of revenue for the kingdom was tax received from spice trade through Calicut and many other smaller ports. Arab and Chinese traders have been frequenting these ports right from the middle ages, so much so that the Arabs more or less had the monopoly of the spice trade in Calicut; which they had achieved through years of friendly trade, respecting the law of the land.
The Portuguese followed an altogether different trading culture; of arrogance, highhandedness and downright piracy, backed by military muscle. They did receive the traditional welcome at the Zamorin’s court, but only to be snubbed soon as they made themselves the laughingstock by presenting gifts to the sovereign that were so cheap as to have been spurned by the lowest minions of his court. The Portuguese, habituated in dealing with chieftains of primitive lands who could be lured to fall for their designs with cheap gifts, had no clue as to how to make an impression on a powerful monarch reigning over a civilized and prosperous country. Denied trading rights on his terms, Gama had to return to his homeland slighted; giving vent to his frustration by kidnapping a few local fishermen and carrying them away as he sailed off, as was the wont of the Portuguese wherever they failed to have their way. Those hapless souls would eventually be sold as slaves in Portugal.
Though Vasco da Gama failed in his trade mission to Calicut, he had made a landmark navigational achievement by his voyage to India round the Cape of Good Hope, opening a direct sea route from Europe to Asia. Cashing in on this achievement, King Manuel I of Portugal dispatched a 13-ship armada, carrying 1200 soldiers on board, under Pedro Alvarez Cabral in 1500, with the specific mission to strike a treaty with the Zamorin and set up a Portuguese factory at Calicut. On board the ships were also eight Catholic Priests with blessings of Pope Alexander IV, giving the mission a religious dimension. Cabral succeeded in his trade mission, but soon ran into trouble quarrelling with local merchants, which led to a riot. The Portuguese factory was set ablaze and seventy of their men were killed. Blaming the Zamorin for the riot, Cabral had his ships open fire on Calicut. Unfortified and with no artillery in its garrison to retaliate, the city suffered badly, losing 600 lives. The Portuguese also attacked the Arab merchant shipping in the port, burning and sinking a number of ships and capturing ten. They then sailed off southward to Cochin (Kochi) with the captured ships. The Raja of Cochin was no great ally of the Zamorin and Cabral managed to set up a factory in that city. However, with the Zamorin’s army hunting for him in hot pursuit, he beat a hasty retreat from India, fleeing cowardly, leaving a number of his men behind to fend for themselves.
In February 1502, Vasco da Gama set out on a second voyage to India at the head of a 15-ship armada with 800 men on board to avenge the treatment meted out to Cabral by the Zamorin and bring the monarch to heel. The heavily armed fleet was soon joined by a squadron of another five ships that left Portugal later. The armada, during its voyage across the Indian Ocean, let loose a mania of piracy and savagery, first plundering the gold trading ports of East African coast and then attacking and capturing Arab vessels in Indian waters. In an unprecedented act of barbarism, they captured a Mecca-bound pilgrim ship, Miri, and set fire to it on the high seas, massacring the entire lot of 300 passengers on board, which included many women and children. Capturing some 24 ships carrying rice from Mangalore to Calicut, they looted the cargo and then chopped off the nose, ears and lips of the entire crew of 800 before breaking their teeth, grinding those to dust and shoving it into their throats. Appearing before Calicut, Gama demanded redressal from Zamorin for ‘illtreating’ Cabral. He demanded that the entire lot of Arab traders be expelled from Calicut. The House of Zamorins, a traditional Hindu monarchy, had enjoyed the staunchest loyalty of the Arab traders, though they were Muslims, through generations and the present ruler was in no mind to give into such an outrageous demand by the Europeans. Vasco da Gama reacted with his inherent brutality, subjecting Calicut to incessant bombardment by his ships for three consecutive days, before sailing off to Cochin.
Shaken by the havoc caused by the bombardment, the Zamorin sued for peace, sending an eminent Brahmin Priest, Thalappanna Namboothirippad, as his emissary to meet Gama. In a savage act that flouted all civilizational norms, Gama had the Brahmin’s ears, nose and lips chopped off and sent him back with ears of a dog sewed to where his own were. This heinous act and the news of the pilgrims’ massacre on the high seas trickling in incensed the Nair troops of the Zamorin and the traders of Calicut who set out on warpath, even as the Sultan of Egypt, simmering from the murder of one of his emissaries, who was among the pilgrims, dispatched a fleet of 20 ships to support them in their fight against the Portuguese. The Arab fleet made a brave bid to take on the Portuguese at Cochin but stood no chance against the devastating firepower of the enemy. Meanwhile Vasco da Gama returned to Portugal, leaving his force behind in charge of a subordinate. The Zamorin’s forces struck hard and took the Portuguese benefactor, Raja of Cochin, their captive in the island of Vypin. They had however had to withdraw with the arrival of a powerful fleet fresh from Portugal under Alphonso de Albuquerque in 1503.
Albuquerque soon unleashed a reign of terror along the Malabar coast, plundering merchant shipping and murdering with abandon; with the connivance of the puppet kings of Cochin and Canannore. They ruthlessly established Portuguese supremacy in the region by building a fort in Vypin Island, Fort Emmanuel (present-day Fort Kochi), larger than the one his predecessors had already built in Canannore and putting up a factory at Quilon to the south, with the blessings of the Queen of Attingal. The Muslim traders of Cochin bore the brunt of the Portuguese ire as they were picked out and murdered. They fled en masse to Calicut, many of them arriving at Ponnani, the alternate capital of the Zamorin.
Albuquerque returned to Portugal in 1504 and Francisco de Almeida arrived the following year, appointed the ‘Viceroy of India’ by the King of Portugal, although all that the Portuguese had achieved in India until then was to establish some trading posts along the Malabar Coast. As Almeida continued with the atrocities of his predecessors, the King of Canannore, fell out with the Portuguese after they murdered a number of his subjects including a noble man, Ali Marakkar, and besieged their fort, Fort St. Angelo, in 1507, with the help of the Zamorin. In retaliation, the Portuguese attacked the port of Ponnani. While the Zamorin had a standing army of Nairs, the traditional warrior class of Kerala, which was capable of protecting his interests on land, having never faced a threat from the sea, it had not occurred to him to raise a navy. The Nairs were no seafarers. His Muslim subjects, though familiar with the sea for their maritime trading, was a peaceful lot, with no martial traditions. However, with Ponnani under attack, the Muslims, a large number of them victims of the Portuguese persecution at Cochin, including noble men, Muhammed and Ebrahim Marakkars among them, rose to the occasion as one to fight the wily foreigners to defend their port. The most noted leader of these resistance fighters was young Kutty Ahmed Ali Marakkar, the son of the noble man, Muhammed Marakkar. Impressed by his fighting prowess, the Zamorin honoured him with a special turban and appointed him his naval chief with the title, Kunjali Marakkar. It was a moment in history that marked the creation of a native Indian naval force after a lapse of almost five centuries, since the great maritime expeditions of the Cholas to Southeast Asia.
Kunjali Marakkar I as history would remember him, the first of the four Zamorin’s valiant admirals who would bear the title, was a born fighter and a natural with marine warfare. Realizing his inherent weakness of not being able to match the firepower of the Portuguese ships, he chose an innovative tactics of using speed and surprise to outwit the enemy. He used a fleet of small, fast boats that could approach the enemy ships stealthily and swiftly, shooting fire-tipped arrows at the ships’ masts to set those ablaze. The boats would swarm the ships in such large numbers that the ships’ guns would fail to pick them out as they raced to close quarters, where the guns, unable to depress that low, would prove ineffective against them. Meanwhile, with the ships’ crews busy putting out the fires on board, Kunjali’s men would board the ships swiftly and cut down as many of the crews as possible, before getting back to their boats and racing away as fast as they came. Kunjali perfected this hit-and-run tactic of his so well, that he struck terror into the hearts of the Portuguese, denying them the free run of the coast they had been enjoying earlier.
The Zamorin, realizing Kunjali’s lack of firepower to meet the Portuguese in an open sea battle, sought assistance from the Sultan of Egypt, who sent a fleet of warships to support him. In the year 1508, Kunjali, with the Egyptian fleet in support, met the Portuguese in a fierce engagement fought at Chaul off the coast of Gujarat, delivering them a decisive defeat. Their commander, Lourenco de Almeida, who was the son of Francisco de Almeida, was killed in the battle. Although the Portuguese were able to score a victory the following year against the combined forces of Kunjali and Turkish-Egyptian Navies in a battle fought off Diu, the ferocious naval challenge they were facing, put them on the backfoot, forcing them to abandon their aggressive posture for a while. Alphonso de Albuquerque, returning to India in 1509, replaced Almeida as the viceroy. Almeida ended up being killed along with 64 of his men on the African coast by locals, while attempting – of all the things for a ‘Viceroy of India’ to indulge in – to steal cattle from a village, during his voyage home. Although Albuquerque succeeded in conquering Goa the following year, his foray into Calicut ended in disaster. His force was ambushed and the Marshal of Portugal, Dom Fernando Coutinho, accompanying him was killed, while he himself, shot in the chest, barely escaped with his life. While he managed to establish his power in Goa by 1512, Malabar remained a hotspot for him with Kunjali’s raids on the Portuguese shipping continuing unabated all along the coast. Albuquerque became desperate to call a truce with the Zamorin. Judging that the reigning Zamorin would in no way be amenable to such a proposition, he went about it in the typical colonialists’ way, through chicanery. And India had never had a shortage of traitors and pliant monarchs. Albuquerque had his intelligence that the Zamorin’s successor-in-waiting could be persuaded to oblige him. He hired a traitor by the name of Eeralppad, who murdered the Zamorin by poisoning. In December 1513, Albuquerque entered into a treaty with the new incumbent. The Portuguese would finally be able to build a fort at Calicut. They were soon controlling the trade over the entire Malabar Coast and the friendly Arab traders gradually vanished from the scene.
Albuquerque died in 1515, having colonised Goa, but his mission incomplete, with only trading posts of the Portuguese dotting the Malabar Coast; their piracy effectively checked along the coast by the miniscule but undaunted navy of Kunjali. In 1522, the Zamorin, who had obliged the Portuguese with a treaty passed away. They could no more take a favourable treatment at Calicut for granted. John III, who had succeeded his father, Manuel I, as the King of Portugal the previous year, determined to take possession of Calicut, dispatched Vasco da Gama, 64 years old by then, on his third voyage to India with a massive armada in 1524. Arriving at Cochin by September, Gama contracted malaria and died there on the Christmas Eve. Nevertheless, the armada attacked Ponnani the following year. Kunjali’s tiny navy could not withstand the onslaught of such a massive force. The Portuguese sacked the town. Undeterred, Kunjali shifted his base to Calicut and carried on with his forays on the Portuguese shipping and establishments. In 1526 he forced the Portuguese to dismantle their fort at Calicut themselves, undoing the one advantage they had gained in the kingdom. Although the Portuguese withdrew to their safe haven at Cochin, Kunjali kept the pressure on them with relentless raids, determined to evict the ‘Parankis’ (Malayalam for ‘Firangis’, meaning foreigners), not just from Malabar but the whole of India itself. In 1526 alone he captured over fifty Portuguese warehouses. For almost a decade and a half that followed, Kunjali’s raiding boats became the scourge of the Portuguese from the Konkan Coast to Ceylon. While Kunjali was on a winning streak in the initial phase, the overwhelming enemy superiority wore down Kunjali’s forces as this war of attrition went on. The year 1538 turned out to be unlucky for Kunjali as he was wounded in action, along with a number of his lieutenants. He died the following year while under treatment for his wounds, under suspicious circumstances involving Portuguese treachery.
The Portuguese hopes of dominance in Malabar with the death of Kunjali Marakkar I were soon dashed as his son, Kutty Pokkar Ali Marakar, effortlessly stepped into his father’s shoes and took over command of his forces as Kunjali Marakkar II. Meanwhile the Zamorin was finding himself in dire straits for lack of revenue to his exchequer from the absence of Arab trade. The Chinese traders who could have made up for the Arab ones were also increasingly becoming victims of Portuguese piracy. Finally, economic considerations forced the Zamorin to sign a treaty with the Portuguese in 1540. They were permitted to occupy a fort at the village of Chaliyam near Calicut, built by them ten years ago but was denied use of following hostilities. They however had no intentions of peaceful coexistence or fair trade and continued with their piracy and depravity, and began plotting conspiracies to make inroads into the politics of the hinterland. During the year 1550, they successfully instigated a war between the kingdoms of Cochin and Vadakkankore. The King of Cochin defeated and slayed the King of Vadakkankore with Portuguese assistance. The King of Vadakkankore was a friend of the Zamorine. The peace treaty no more held good. The Zamorine’s army invaded Cochin. In retaliation the Portuguese sacked Quilandy (Panthalayani Kollam), a township in the Zamorin’s territory.
Kunjali Marakkar II intensified his campaign against the Portuguese. In 1553, he joined forces with Viswanatha Nayak of Madurai to fight the Portuguese. During the same year he wrecked the enemy warehouses beside the Punnamada Lake. In 1558 he took on a far superior enemy fleet off Canannore and inflicted heavy damages before extricating himself with the loss of only three boats. In 1560, the Portuguese captured the Ceylon fort and perpetrated untold atrocities on the natives of the island. By then they had added religious persecution to other forms of depravity that was their wont, its most venomous version assuming the form of the Goan Inquisition. Ceylon and Cochin, where they had bases, were not spared either. In 1564, Kunjali Marakkar II meted out yet another defeat to a Portuguese fleet under Paulo de Lama off Bhatkal on the Konkan Coast. In 1568, one of his lieutenants, Kutty Pokkar Marakkar, raided an explosives-laden Portuguese ship carrying 1000 men near Chaliyam, resulting in the vessel blowing up killing all on board. At 68 years of age, Kunjali Marakkar II died a natural death at Calicut in 1569.
The next in line, Pattu Marakkar, assumed the title of Kunjali Marakkar III. During the year 1570, a 36-ship armada under Miranda de Azevedo arrived from Portugal to reinforce their fleet in the Indian waters. The Zamorin’s navy under Kunjali Marakkar III by now was better equipped to take on their foe than ever before, having come of age acquiring ships mounted with guns. The Zamorin, forming a military alliance with the Sultan of Bijapur, Adil Shah, and the Sultan of Ahmedabad, Nizam Shah, launched an offensive against the Portuguese to pre-empt an attack on Calicut by them; which he was certain to be imminent. In a simultaneous move, while Adil Shah attacked the Portuguese fort at Goa and Nizam Shah the one at Chaul, Kunjali and the Nair troops of the Zamorin attacked the Chalium fort; all three attacks proving successful. In 1571, Kunjali and the Nair troops levelled the Chalium Fort. The Portuguese, never tolerant of vanquished commanders, hanged the 80-year old captain of the fort, Dom Jorge de Castro at Goa.
By 1580s, the relations of the Portuguese with the native rulers were making strange twists. They fell out with the King of Cochin and befriended the Zamorin. In 1584 the Portuguese were granted permission to build a fort at Ponnani; a move resented by Kunjali Marakkar and native traders. To assuage their outrage, the Zamorin gave consent for Kunjali to build a fort of his own on the peninsular piece of land nearby at the estuary of the river Kuttyadipuzha. Kunjali went about in earnest and raised a fort, before the Portuguese could complete theirs. The fort was to assume the name Marakkar Kotta – ‘kotta’ meaning fort – and its locale Kottakkal. Soon a township by the name Puthupattinam also came up adjacent to it. The strategic location of Kottakkal by the estuary enabled Kunjali to launch highly effective raids against the passing ships of the Portuguese. He positioned his small frigate-like ships in the estuary, which launched swift raids on larger enemy ships that passed on the sea and pulled back into the estuary, where the latter could not reach them. A rock formation in the vicinity with its highpoint called Iringal Para gave him an excellent observation post to monitor the passage of ships. The Portuguese were so terrified by the frequent raids that they came to call Kunjali’s navy the ‘Malabar Pirates’. One unique feature of the Marakkar legacy, was that while the Marakkars were always staunchly loyal to the Zamorin, their hostility to the Portuguese never diminished, irrespective of the diplomatic highs and lows between the Zamorin and the Portuguese. The blow-hot-blow-cold diplomacy between Zamorin and the Portuguese was to prove gravely detrimental to the Kingdom of Calicut evolving a firm policy to check the Portuguese ascendancy that the Marakkars would have preferred.
An uneasy peace prevailed for about a decade while the Portuguese enjoyed the trading rights on land, but had to contend with an openly hostile navy of the Marakkar at sea. Then in 1594 there occurred a major encounter at Panthalayani Kollam when Kunjali Marakkar III meted out a humiliating defeat to the Portuguese. The populace of the locality gathered in great numbers to offer a rousing reception to the victorious Marakkar as he stepped off his ship. In a freak accident, Kunjali had a fatal fall from the gangplank that paralyzed him. He passed away within a few days, with the Zamorin at his deathbed trying to console him; his only regret that he had to meet his end on a bed and not in combat. He exhorted the Zamorin with his last words to keep the subjects of the Kingdom united as always so that the foreigners never found a foothold in their land.
Mohammed Ali Marakkar, the descendant of Pattu Marakkar, who assumed the title of Kunjali Marakkar IV embodied all the traditional martial traits of four generations of Marakkars to such a degree that he bested his ancestors with his military prowess. His task became additionally challenging because he found himself largely on his own, with the young, new incumbent who ascended the Zamorin’s throne in 1597, Samoothiri Raja Manavikraman, preferring diplomatic and political intrigues than open warfare to secure the state. With no support forthcoming from the Zamorin, Marakkar IV struck out on his own adopting a far more aggressive strategy than his predecessors. He forged alliances with whichever native ruler was opposed to the Portuguese. He supported Rani Thirumaladevi of Ullal and Sultan of Bijapur in their campaigns against the Portuguese. With a fleet of his own, with comparable firepower to the enemy, Kunjali Marakkar IV was soon proving to be the nemesis of Portuguese piracy. Gathering his own revenue through trading with former clients of Arab traders, he built up his resources and reinforced his fortifications. Friendly and compassionate towards commoners in attitude, his popularity and fame grew.
Deprived of their illicit earnings from piracy, the Portuguese became desperate to gain access to the fabulous wealth of Calicut inland. Their attempts to occupy the country as they did Goa had always been foiled by the Zamorin and his forces. With the Zamorin an ally now and his powerful army of Nairs traditionally loyal to him, Kunjali Marakkar remained the only stumbling block in the path of their fulfilling their ambition. They plotted a devious plan to alienate the Marakkar from the Zamorin as well as the Nair troops. The Zamorin, already feeling wary of the growing popularity of the Marakkar among his subjects, fell easy prey to a cunning misinformation the Portuguese spread through native conspirators that the Marakkar was scheming to create a Muslim state of his own within the Kingdom. To cause disaffection among the Nair troops towards the Marakkar, they used the ploy of character assassination. The Marakkars followed the matrilineal system of inheritance and, in the absence of a sister of his own, Kunjali Marakkar IV had adopted a young Nair girl as his sister. A scandal they planted that the girl was being exploited as a concubine was inflammatory enough to cause communal hatred among Nairs towards the Marakkar. The Zamorin, by now convinced that the Marakkar posed a threat to his authority, actively colluded with the Portuguese. To make sure that his Nair troops were not swayed from their loyalty to him due to their long association with the Marakkars as comrades-in-arms and to add a material motive to their communal ire towards Kunjali , he cleverly planted a rumour that there was a huge treasure in gold buried in his fort; which would be theirs as spoils of war once Kunjali was done away with.
The conspiracy was put into practice during March 1600. The Portuguese moved a heavily armed fleet of a dozen ships under Luiz da Gama facing Kottakkal, simultaneously deploying half a dozen well-equipped boats that could traverse the river below the Marakkar Fort. Meanwhile a 6000-strong army of the Zamorin surrounded Kunjali’s fort on all three of its land-facing sides. Outnumbered and outgunned though, Kunjali still drew the first blood, when one of his lieutenants pulled off a coup by capturing a Portuguese ship. Nevertheless, the Zamorin and the Portuguese amassed forces to strike at Kunjali’s fortress at first light on March 3. The plan was for the Portuguese navy to bombard the fort, while the Zamorin’s army assaulted it from all three land-facing sides of it. The signal fixed for the simultaneous operation to commence was a fire to be lit above the highpoint of Iringal Para. By a communication gap, the fire was lit five hours earlier than first light when the Zamorin’s Nair troops were still asleep. Portuguese, who attacked in the dark, proved easy prey for Kunjali’s guns and vessels lying in wait. Caught unawares, the Portuguese fleet took a terrible mauling. With most of their ships sunk or destroyed and two of their commanders killed, they pulled out to the sea to lick their wounds. Gallows awaited their commander, Luiz da Gama, if he returned to his base in Goa, much as it did in the case of Jorge de Castro after the debacle at Chaliyam 28 years ago. Exhorting the remnant of his force to carry on with the fight, Gama escaped with his life to Cochin. When the news reached Goa, the Viceroy was desperate. Gallows awaited him too if the news of the disaster reached Portugal. He dispatched his most experienced naval commander, who had a track record of having bested the Marakkar once, Andre Furtado, to take over the campaign against Kunjali Marakkar IV. Failure was no more an option for the Portuguese. They amassed an armada of unprecedented magnitude to tackle the Marakkar, while the Nair troops tightened their grip, blockading all land approaches to the fort. Wary of risking another battle, the Portuguese and the Zamorin opted to starve Kunjali and his garrison out.
With the rapid build-up of enemy forces, Kumjali was caught somewhat unawares, with a number of his vessels away trading. Learning of Kunjali’s predicament, his ally, Rani Thirumaladevi of Ullal, dispatched 3000 bags of rice to his besieged fort; but to no avail since the Portuguese intercepted and plundered her ships. Another ally of his, Viswanatha Nayak of Madurai, exhorted Kunjali to extricate himself from the fort and promised not only refuge but land and help to build a new fort at Rameswaram. Kunjali however would not abandon his garrison that included the families of his men. As days passed, shortage of provisions began to tell. Kunjali was left with no option but to surrender or watch his people die of hunger. Eventually, he offered to surrender, but on his terms; he shall not surrender to the hated ‘parankis’. He shall surrender to his sovereign, the Zamorin. The condition was accepted and on 16 March 1600 Kunjali Marakkar IV marched out of his beleaguered fort with his 400-strong garrison, along with the wives and children of his men. A powerfully built man in his fifties, defeated but defiant, he presented himself to the Zamorin and formally surrendered his sword. In a treacherous but swift move, the Portuguese commander, Andre Furtado, and his retinue fell up on an unarmed Kunjali to take him prisoner. The Nair troops in attendance, outraged by such treachery towards a former comrade-in-arms, rushed forward with their sabres drawn to Kunjali’s rescue. History would never know the truth; whether the Zamorin himself was caught unawares when Portuguese put a gun to his head, threatening to shoot him, which neutralised the Nairs, or the show was stage-managed with the connivance of the Zamorin. In the event, the Portuguese, who had positioned themselves in overwhelming strength to cater for any eventuality, sailed off to Goa with Kunjali and 40 of his diehard followers, who attempted to free him, as prisoners. Arriving in Goa in April, Furtado paraded the prisoners in chains to the merriment of his compatriots there. He is believed to have fed them well for a while, so that they could withstand the subsequent torture longer, providing longer entertainment for their tormentors. Eventually, after futile attempts to convert them to Christianity, they were all executed. Kunjali remained defiant till his last moment, not once giving the Portuguese the satisfaction of watching him beg for his life. Eventually, they decapitated him and dismembered his body, exhibiting the pieces at the Panaji Beach. His severed head, salted and carried to Canannore, was put on public display at the end of a bamboo pole.
The death of Kunjali Marakkar IV marked the end of a glorious chapter of a century-long valiant resistance to Portuguese colonialism by four generations of Marakkars. It was the grittiest opposition the Portuguese faced in India, which restricted their imperialistic designs to Goa and foiled their attempt to conquer Malabar. The Portuguese are long gone after playing their minor role in the colonial history of India; but the Marakkar legacy lives on to eternally inspire our men and women in arms, who value their honour more than their lives.