The revolt of the Rani of Attingal 1721 – One of the earliest anti-British Revolts

published on September 6, 2010

By Dr TP Shankarankutty Nair

As early as 1684 John Childe had decided to purchase as much pepper as possible, not only from Attingal but also from the neighbouring area. This was antagonistical to the Dutch, but the Rani was happy. There was a talk that the Rani was pro English than pro-Dutch in commercial links. The Bombay Government had instructed the English at Anjengo to procure at least 1000 to 1500 tonnes of pepper.

THE participation of Kerala in India’s struggle for freedom is not less important than that of any other state of the Indian Union. It has its uniqueness if we view it from a national prespective. But this unique role has not received the attention it deserves from an all India view point. Even all India historians, particularly of the North and of Delhi sidelined or ignored the early native resistance to British Power staged in the South Western tip of South India and in particular in South Kerala or old princely State of Travancore or Tiruvithamkore. Thirty six years before the battle of Plassey1 in which 29 English men were killed, there occurred the revolt at Attingal in which 133 Englishmen were murdered in cold blood. Except Dr Leena More, all historians made only a passing reference about this pre-mutiny (136 years before the mutiny) anti-British anti-foreign revolt of the natives against British colonialism and imperialism.2 There is concrete proof for the role of the Queen of Attingal in the revolt. Her knights offered stiff resistance against the English. Perhaps in the whole history of modern India the revolt of 1721 in one of the earliest of all upheavals, staged by the Queen.3

Subsequent to the disintegration of the Second Chera Kingdom (800-1124) there emerged about 44 petty principalities in the Malayalam speaking area of the South Western coast of India. Long before Anizham Tirunal Martanda Varma (1729-58) conquered and consolidated some of these principalities to form the Travancore State, there existed in the Southern tip a state called Venad (Vel+nad) or Koopaka Kingdom in Sanskrit language.4 According to Ulloor S Parameswara Iyer, depending on Kollurmatam records the first reference to the Rani of Venad was connected with the Deva Devisvaram temple of Udayamartanda Varma (1117-1195).5 The principality of Trappappur had its headquarters at Thiruvananthapuram while that of Venad at Kollam. A princess named Koopakarani (1576-77) renovated the Siva Temple at Avaneesraram. All these point to the fact that Venad, Attingal, Desingned etc, worked in close intimacy at least with regard to religious matters while they fought each other for other issues including land. According to Van Rheede, the Dutch Governor (1677) records like this, “Umayamma Rani (1677-1698) in not just the Senior Rani of Venad or Travancore, she is also the head of the Trippappur or Venad royal house6.”

In other words, areas between Thengapattanam in Kanyakumari district to North Parur in Ernakulam District proved to be the princely state of Travancore and her maternity was from the Attingal eldest princess whether adopted or not.7 This remains as a clear proof for the prevalence of matrilineal system of succession and inheritance.

Early English Relations
Rani Aswathi Tirunal Umayamma Rani (1677-1698) was not only the queen of Attingal Kingdom but also the head of a confederacy of semi independent states such as Travancore, Nedumangadu, Kottarakkara, Kollam, Karunagapalli and Kayamkulam. She was facing political and administrative problems from the subordinate states and was in need of resources. The English East India Company which was in possession of a factory at Vizhinjam wanted permission from the Queen to fortify it.8 But Pillamar9 and Madampimar who are actually managing the State affairs were opposed to the idea of fortification by the foreign company. The queen and some Pillais received large amounts from the English10. So the queen was obliged to grant the English East India Company (1694) permission to fortify a settlement at Anjengo. But the company was able to start construction of the fort only in 169611. The Dutch and the Pillamars continued to pressurise the queen to prevent fortification of the settlement by the English. Her ministers Kudaman Pillai and Vanjimuttom Pillai were also opposed to the fortification even though the two were rivals.12 When the queen asked the English to stop the work they did not oblige. All the pressure tactics failed because Vanjimuttom Pillai secretly helped the English for the simple reason that Kudaman Pillai supported the queen. The queen was afraid that once the fortification was complete the English would turn against her and pay no tribute or taxes. A large army of Nayars and Muslims was sent to attack the fort but it failed because advance information was given to the English by Vanjimuttom Pillai.13

As early as 1684 John Childe had decided to purchase as much pepper as possible, not only from Attingal but also from the neighbouring area. This was antagonistical to the Dutch, but the Rani was happy. There was a talk that the Rani was pro-English than pro-Dutch in commercial links. The Bombay Government had instructed the English at Anjengo to procure at least 1000 to 1500 tonnes of pepper. Records testify to the fact than the Rani secured presents worth 300 dollars when the English commander Thomas Mitchel collected considerable tones of pepper. The English Commanders always tried to appease the native rulers. The English Captain John Bradourne presented velvet and 250 coins to the princess on one occasion. He also gave 50 coins each to the Travancore king and the nobleman of Cochin (one coin means 21 panam). On the 27th July 1694 Anjengo became a full settlement of the English where they raised their flag (Union Jack)15 The Court of Directors in England did not accept the terms fixed by the queen and at the same time they retained their trade interests in Attingal, Anjuthengu and Vizhinjam16. Until Umayamma Rani’s death in July 1698, she had dictated terms to the English. The fortification work, however, reduced the trade traffic.

Private trade was allowed by the English Court of Directors with a view to earn private profit. When Braboune returned to England in 1707, Simon Cowse became the head of the fort at Anjengo (1707-1712). In 1719 John Kyffin because of his over enthusiasm in private trade obtained a dismissal from the Company service and he was followed by Willam Gyfford.17 Gyfford was no different an administrator that he utilised all means to earn private profit even by using his beautiful wife.18

Because of the 1679 Peace Agreement, pepper and spices from Anjengo could be sold only to the English and not to any other foreign country.19 Consequently the Rani’s and Raja’s sold pepper only to the English. But Gyfford earned huge profit by sending additional pepper procured to Europe in the ship “Thomas” owned by his wife’s brother Thomas Cook.20

Gyfford was humorous in his temperament. Quite often, he used to make sarcastic comments about other people. Once he not only insulted a Brahmin but also forced him to shave the beard of an untouchable slave. By doing so the Brahmin became outcasts as per the caste connections (mamools) of those days and his loyal Brahmin friends took an oath to avenge this injustice and inhuman treatment of the so-called “European Christian merchants” of Anjengo21. Occasions were there wherein both Hindus and Muslims were embarrassed by the English merchants and Gyfford encouraged them to do this. A Roman Catholic lgnatio Malhiero, the official interpreter of the English settlement persuaded young boys to pelt rotten eggs on Muslim traders in the presence of Gyfford and he enjoyed this public insult to the Muslims.22 There were similar instances on occasions and the Muslim leadership had taken a decision to strike hard at the English Christians at an early date. Thus both the majority community of Hindus and the local Muslims knowingly or unknowingly came closer to fight against the Christian traders of the English settlement. Ignatio Malhiero also purchased a coconut grove of a Hindu for one lakh panam. It also was against the local Hindu interest because the grave had one or two small temples.23 The sea coast area proved to be a large one which Gyfford purchased for a small sum. This was also an added insult to Kudaman Pillai family who had, with him some pepper but not money enough to purchase the said grove24 When some Nair pepper merchants met Gyfford and his translator, on the 26th February 1721 they were illtreated and molested so much that they added fuel to fire. Gyfford and his wife found happiness in showering impure water on Muslims who passed through his fort.25 This incident aggravated the already bitter relationship the existed between the people of Attingal and the English.26

GYFFORD was instructed from above to ease the situation and resume normal trade. At this time Kudaman Pillai died and was succeeded by his young and alert nephew. Gyfford bribed Vanjimuttom Pillai to patch up differences. Vanjimuttom, a partisan of the king of Kollam arranged to crown the sister of the king as queen of Attingal.27 Gyfford was invited to pay up arrear tributes to the new queen and resume trade. Accordingly on April 14, 1721, Gyfford with 120 merchants and about 30 slaves proceeded to Attingal Palace about six kilometers from Anjengo fort, leaving only four men incharge of the fort apart from the women and children and the sick and old. The delegation carried with them the arrear tribute for seven years and presents to the queen and the Pillaimar, ie, about 17,000 panam per year besides velvet and Venetian clothes. Burton Fleming Malheiro and Gyfford led the march. They were received at the palace by an enthusiastic crowd carrying arms. It was normal that the Nayars always carried arms. Within the palace compound Kudaman Pillai was incharge of the ceremony. Discussions about the amount payable to each Pillai took place.28 Cowse, who was more experienced in the ways of the local people sensed trouble. He advised Gyfford to finish the job quickly and leave; but he was rebuffed. After finishing the transactions, Gyfford ordered a volley of fire indicating successful completion of the job. Immediately the Nayars disarmed the Englishmen and collected their arms.29 Gyfford also suspected some foul-play. He sent a note through a native informing his assistant, Sewell, of possible danger to the party and to be prepared for any eventuality. The Englishmen were advised to spend the night in the palace premises in small batches. During the night, the natives fell upon the Englishmen and cruelly butchered one and all. The body of the ring leaders of the English settlement like Malhiero, Fleming and Gyfford were cut into pieces. The tongue of Gyfford was cut into pieces and threw it into Vamanapuram river.30 Later the queen blamed Kudaman Pillai for the heinous act; but the Raja of Travancore blamed the queen for the massacre. The Dutch records also blame the queen for her connivance.31

Samuel Ince, the gunner took up defence of the fort against any possible attack. Women and children were sent away in a ship that was cruising nearby. The treasure and food stock were shifted into the fort. Reinforcement came by sea. Every thing was ready when the attack on the fort took place a few days later. The first attack was repulsed with heavy loss to the attackers.32 But attacks took place intermittently for six months. Although it was Kudaman Pillai, the rival of Vanjimuttom Pillai who masterminded the massacre, it is doubtful whether he had any hand in the attack on the fort. The queen went away to Kollam promising not to return to Attingal until order was restored. She never came back. Another sister of Rama Varma, king to Travancore took over as queen of Attingal.33

Midford who succeed Gyfford as Chief of Anjengo was more dishonest than his two predecessors. He too was dismissed from service.34 His successor Alexander Orme was a friend of Travancore. This antagonized Vanjimuttom who instigated the Madampis of Travancore against their king. The efforts of Travancore to suppress the Pillais and Madampis of Travancore had met with success in 1729, when Martanda Varma became king of Travancore. He was able to capture the eight Madampis who organised attacks on the English fort in 1721 and handed them over to the English.35 By 1729 Martanda Varma eliminated all the Pillais and Madampis of Travancore, Attingal too was annexed and consolidated to the Travancore state. The unchallengeable supremacy of Attingal declined subsequently.36

The revolt of 1721 is one of the earliest of the anti-English, anti-Christian and anti-foreign upheavals of India staged thirty six years before the Battle of Plassey and 136 years before the 1857 struggle for freedom. It is unreasonable and illogical that this fight has been sidelined in all India stream by historians.

End Notes
1 A Sreedhara Menon, Kerala and Freedom Struggle, DC Books. Kottayam, 1997, pp 16-18; 2.Leena More, English East India Company and the Local Rulers in Kerala,IRISH, Tellicherry, 2003, pp 91-115; 3. TP Sankarankutty Nair, Early Resistance to the English, mimeo graphed paper presented to the Naitonal Seminar, Trivandrum, 2007; 4.Dr AP Ibrahim Kunju, Rise of Travancore- A Study of Martanda_Varma,_Kerala Historical Society, 1974, Passim, Trivandrum, 5.Ulloor S Parameswara Iyer, Studies in the History of the Princess of Attingal, Trivandrum, mimieo 1964, pp 17-30, 6. Ibid, Also see T.I. Punnen, The Rise and fall of the Dutch in Malabar, University of Kerala, Trivandrum 1968, Passim; 7. Ibid; 8.TK Velu Pillai, The Travancore State Manual, Vol.IV, P 657, Also see Dutch Records No 13, P 54, Quoted in TP Sankarankutty Nair, A tragic Decade in Kerala History, Kerala Historical Society, Trivandrum, 1977, pp 1-17; 9.The Pillamar referred to here are Ettuveter i.e. eight houses situated in close proximity but in different villages viz (1) Kulathoor near Sreekariyam (2) Kazhakuttom (3) Chempazhanthy (4) Kudaman (5) Pallichal (6) Venganoor (7) Ramanamatam (8) Marthandamatam. 10. Alexander Hamilton, A New Account of the East Indies, London, 1930, Passim’ 11. Leena More op.cit 42-65; 12. K Sivasankaran Nair, Venandinte Parinamam (Mal.) Trivandrum 1997, Passim.; 13.Leena More op.cit; 14. Anjengo Factory Records 1704-1709 Letter of Simon Cowse to the Court of Directors, June 1704, PP 4-17. ; 15.Anjuthengu literally means five coconut trees. This might have been an identification of the Attingal Coast where there were five coconut trees at one point of time, located or identified by the English; 16. There is a peace treaty signed in 1679 at London in which England, Scotland, Ireland, Netherlands, and France had agreed to accept the colonial monopoly of any of these countries once they raise their flag to establish a fort in a particular area. The fort constructed with 70,000 stone was completed in 1699. Its cost was about 70,00 Pounds. About 60 cannons could be used from the fort at a time. It was located in between Vamanapuram river in the East and the Arabian sea in the West. About 400 persons could stay there at a time.; 17.Tamil Nadu Archives Letters to John. Brabourme from Madras, 1696 May, PP 138-166; 18. Ibid ; 19. Supra. End note No. 16; 20. John Keay, The Honourable Company: A History of EEIC, New York, 1991, PP 245-258, Also see Leena More.; 21. William Kyffin (Anjengo) to the President and Council, Bombay dt 11 January, 1718, PP 10-13, Also see John Biddulph, The Pirates of Malabar and an English woman in India, London, 1907, pp 270-278. Also see, Talboys Wheeler, A History of British Settlements in India, Calcutta, 1879.; 22. Ibid; 23. Ibid; 24. J.H. Parry, Trade and Dominion – The European Overseas Empires in the 18th Century, London 1871, PP 60-67.; 25. Ibid; 26. Ibid; 27. Anjengo Factory Records, Anjengo to Bombay castle 6th February 1722, pp 67-76; 28.Ibid; 29. Ibid; 30. Ibid; 31. Leena More op.cit; 32.A.P. Ibrahim Kunju op.cit; 33.Anjengo Papers, Bombay Archives, 1721-28, 3 volumes, Letters from Anjengo to Bombay.; 34. Ibid; 35.Ibid

(The writer is Former Head, Dept. of History, U
iversity of Kerala and can be contacted at P.R.A.G. 58, GPO Lane, Trivandrum – 695 001)

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