THE COORG WAR

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Fall of the last South Indian Kingdom to the British

The English East India Company, having done away with Tipu Sultan by the end of 18th Century and subdued the Marathas in the following two decades, had emerged the dominant political power in Peninsular India by the 1820s. While seeking complete dominance of the subcontinent, they were already venturing out overseas to establish their power over the rest of Asia, when in 1834 the hardy fighters of the hilly country of Coorg in Southern India, chose to challenge their power, resulting in a fiery bit of action that came to be called the “Coorg War”. This would see the fall of the last independent kingdom of the South to the British, albeit after a heroic struggle.

Chikka Virarajendra Wodeyar was crowned the Raja of Coorg in 1820, following the death of his father Linga Rajendra II. The new king does not seem to have lived up to the legacy of able governance left by his father. While this could very well have been an impression created by the British to meet their ends, the new Raja, to a great degree, failed to command the loyalty of all the headmen. Worse, he was not all that inclined to maintain the cordiality with the British as his father was.

A pen picture of the Raja drawn by William Jefferson, an officer of the East India Company who spent some time in Coorg during his reign and later published a book, Coorg and its Rajas, vastly differs in how the later European historians would have us perceive him, by deliberately demonizing the man. Jefferson writes, “We are particularly gratified at finding that this prince was easy of access to his ryots, listening patiently to their grievances and manifesting towards them the utmost consideration and kindness; this ensured him in return their loyalty and affection as a proof of which whenever we travelled with the Raja into interior of the country, hundreds of natives, men, women and children with curiosity crowded my companion and me – an Englishman being a rara avis in those parts – and received the Raja with every demonstration of respect and attachment. It gives me the greatest satisfaction to mention this, being aware that the most sinister reports for interested purposes were industriously propagated to the Raja’s prejudice.”

In 1825, following some executions carried out by the Raja, the British resident at Mysore called for a report from him. The Raja refused the demand on the ground that he was an independent sovereign, and that the British had no business to interfere in the affairs of his state. The British, probably not too keen on precipitating an outright confrontation, ignored the snub. But matters came to a head in 1832, when Chenna Basavappa, a nobleman turned dissident (whom the Raja was about to imprison), escaped and took refuge with the British resident at Bangalore. The British refused to cede the Raja’s demand to hand over the fugitive, and the incensed Raja amassed his troops for a showdown with them, issuing a proclamation calling the people of the neighbouring countries to join him in the fight against the foreign power.

Although the British authorities at Madras sensed a confrontation unavoidable, and resolved to tackle the Raja by early 1833, it was only a year later, that they actually got down to business. The inaccessibility of the area due to bad roads and difficult terrain posed immense problems in troop deployment and logistics for an advance into the country – a factor the Raja was heavily banking on, and which gave him a somewhat false sense of security.

In April 1834, 6000 Madras troops with the British 55th Regiment, organized in four columns, moved in on an offensive. The Northern Column, comprising the 9th MI, the 31st Trichinopoly Light Infantry and the British 55th, set off from Hoskote on 1st April. Brushing aside some enemy opposition at Kodlipet, they came up against a strong stockade at the Buck Pass on the 2nd. In a fierce encounter that lasted four and a half hours, the Coorgs under a gallant commander, Madanta Appachu, fought back and repulsed an attack by the sepoys, and then went on to foil a flanking move by the British 55th. The Madras column had to beat a retreat and camp several miles behind. They had suffered heavy casualties, numbering 50 men killed and over a hundred wounded. The day surely belonged to the Coorgs.

Meanwhile the Western Auxiliary Column, having earlier advanced from Kumbla on the coast to Sulya, and taken the stockade there on 29th March, ran into trouble too. A reconnaissance party they sent out towards Mallur on 1st April was mauled and driven back, and the commander of the force, Colonel Jackson, withdrew to Kasargod, arriving there on the 6th. This column too had suffered considerably – 2 officers and 30 men were killed and another 36 wounded.

The advance of the Western Column, comprising the 20th and the 32nd MI, which began marching up the Heggala Ghats from Cannanore on 31st March, went unchecked until 2nd April, when its advance guard was repulsed at Stony River. However, the force fought its way up the following day – losing an officer and 12 men and 36 wounded – and took Virarajendrapet. Here it was joined by a part of the Eastern Column, which had advanced from Periyapatna that day, unopposed. A detachment was now sent to take possession of the palace at Nalknad, which the Raja had moved into, at the commencement of hostilities. The rest of the column advanced on the capital town of Mercara, and encamped seven miles south of it. The fight was more or less over with that.

The Eastern Column, constituted of the 4th, 35th and the 48th MI, along with the headquarters of the whole force, had by then marched from Bettadpur and made rapid progress, facing hardly any opposition. The Raja is believed to have had a change of mind at the eleventh hour, and sent out orders not to put up any fight; but those either didn’t reach the troops deployed on the rest of the approaches in time, or they chose to ignore them; and fight they did.

The Raja saw the writing on the wall, and sent out a flag of truce to the Madras Army camp on 4th April. The fort at Mercara was occupied on the 6th, and the Raja gave himself up on the 10th. What followed was a typical British ruse for the annexation of a sovereign state. This is how the Mysore State Gazetteer on Coorg District puts it succinctly:

“Before the Raja was deposed and pensioned off, he pleaded that he may be allowed to remain on the throne under the close supervision of the British Resident. But the British who had known the strategical importance of Coorg in controlling the neighbouring districts of Mysore, Malabar and South Kanara and who liked the pleasant and temperate climate of Coorg, were determined to bring Coorg directly under their rule. Therefore, to justify the rather unjust and hasty deposition of the Raja, Colonel Fraser, who was the officer in command of the British forces and the political officer of the Company, made a pretense of consulting the wishes of the people as to the future administration of the State. He called for an assembly of the headmen and principal officers of the State in front of the European guest house at Mercara. When the headmen and officers found that they would be treated as if they were the masters of the country, they were greatly pleased with the sudden change from abject servitude to a kind of consequential independence and readily agreed to be ruled by the Company. The upshot was that Colonel Fraser issued a proclamation, which declared that Coorg was annexed because it was the express wish of the people of Coorg to be ruled by the British Government.”

Intolerance of any kind of opposition seems to have been the undoing of Chikka Virarajendra (and his predecessors), which made him unpopular with many of his own people and brought about his downfall. The pensioned Raja was first sent off to Benares and in 1852, permitted to go to England with two of his wives and his favourite daughter, Gauramma. He was the first ever Indian prince to sail to England. He died in London on 24th September 1859.

The Coorg War marked the last occasion when the British needed military muscle in any substantive manner in the South. Whatever rebellions were there thence, would amount to nothing more than localized insurgencies that were ruthlessly put down.

Capt. D P Ramachandran
Capt D P Ramachandran is a war veteran and military history enthusiast, who writes about battles of the Indian Army and India’s martial heritage. He can be reached at captdpr@gmail.com
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