Intrusion of Foreign Power


The loss of political unity did not lead to the loss of political independence in Kerala during the fag end of 14th century. The ghost of the Chera kingdom haunted the destiny of Kerala as a guardian deity for many centuries to come. Each minor chieftain claimed the gift of the last Cheraman Perumal as the sanction behind his throne. It was essentially a game of power politics. Within a generation of the decline of Chera power, the governors of Eranad shifted from their interior headquarters at Nediyiruppu to the coastal strip of Kozhikode. Gradually, the Eradis (rulers of Eranad), now known to the world better as the Zamorins of Kozhikode, grew in prosperity and power. The locational advantage enjoyed by their new headquarters with its proximity to Kozhikode was a decisive factor in attracting a growing number of Arab traders. The rulers also exhibited a measure of statesmanship in quarantining religious tolerance to all sects and creeds in the big international mart at Kozhikode. In due course, they roped in the chieftains of Parappanad and Vettattunad in the south as well as Kurumbranad and Puranad (Kottayam) in the north, within their sphere of influence.


The Zamorin also succeeded in their venture to capture Tirunavaya region from the Valluvanad rulers. This victory brought the Zamorin directly into contact with the rulers of Kochi. It opened up a long chapter of protracted Kozhikode-Kochi wars. The contest could not stop until one of the powers could eliminate the other. The support of Arab wealth and equipment favoured Kozhikode against Kochi during the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries, until this was counter - balanced by the Europeans - the Dutch and the Portuguese - on the other side. Not only the princes and princelings of Kerala, but the entire population had to take sides. In fact, the big Brahmin community split into two, with the Panniyur faction supporting the Zamorin and the Cokiram faction throwing its weight in favour of the Raja of Kochi. The central portion of Kerala, over which the rulers of Kochi held sway, was the seat of Namboodiri (Brahmin) orthodoxy. Though the Raja of Kochi was respected all over Kerala as the direct descendant of the Perumals and the noblest representative of the Kshatriya race, the inhibiting weight of tradition made him incapable of initiating new strategies and policies to suit the changing times. He remained the highest patron of Brahminical ritual and scholarship. In the process, wealth and power slipped out of his hands and made way for art and literature. In the southern part of Kerala, Venad was the rising star. Geographically and culturally, the kingdom of Venad remained partly in Keraladesa and partly in Pandyadesa. The Venad area was definitely at a disadvantage in the absence of the original settlements of Tulu-Kerala Brahmins, whose leadership and dominance had been responsible for the distinctive character of Kerala society and culture. However, in course of time, the immense wealth of the Venad kings could attract some of the Kerala Brahmins (Namboodiris) to settle down at Thiruvananthapuram. Nevertheless, excessive involvement in Tamil politics weakened the impact of Venad on the rest of Kerala.


The post Chera period witnessed a gradual decadence of the Namboodiris, until by about the 16th century, they put of their affairs in the hands of their Nair secretaries. A Namboodiri - Nair alliance came into being. Another feature of this period was the widening gulf between the Namboodiri - Nair upper class and the Thiyya - Pulaya lower class. In order to accommodate the class differences properly, the four-fold caste system came to be sub-divided with infinite gradations, based on real occupation, habitat and political influence. With increasing rigidity of caste, the worst sufferers were the Parayar, Pulayar, Cheramar etc. They were attached to plots of cultivable land and unceremoniously exchanged along with the plots without any right to family or children. This feudal society, however, was prosperous and complacent. With agricultural and commercial prosperity on the increase, festivals like Onam and Vishu, which began as mere sectarian religious observances, acquired the character of popular celebrations. They were fixed up at a time when the tenants had to pay their feudal dues to the owners of land. The enthusiasm of the tenants transformed Onam, a Vaishnava sacred day commemorating the Vamana incarnation, into a harvest festival.


At this point of time, feudal society was blissfully ignorant of the Afghan, Pathan and Mongol invasions which uprooted ancient Hindu society in most parts of India beyond the Sahya, the great sentinel of Kerala. This coastal area had, along the rest of Thamilakom, remained outside the big empires in the past. This time also, it escaped the catastrophe of Alauddin Khilji's campaign, which pushed southward straight to Rameshwaram. The kings and people were so immersed in their own petty feuds that the appearance of Portuguese naval power on the not-so-distant horizon of the Arabian Sea did not open their eyes to the advent, the perils and prospects of the modern age. Portuguese traveller, Vasco da Gama laid anchor off Kozhikode on May 21, 1498. This historic even marked the beginning of a new epoch in the history of Kerala. It also opened a new chapter in the relations between the different States in Kerala. The declared aim of the Portuguese was monopoly of the trade with the country to the exclusion of all others. The Portuguese captain demanded the expulsion of all Muslim traders. The Zamorin explained that for centuries Kozhikode had been a free port and that the Portuguese were welcome to trade as anyone else. This increased the Portuguese who let loose a reign of terror along the coast.


The political set up characterized by innumerable principalities in the area was ideal for their machinations to set the weak against the strong and the subordinate chieftains against their sovereign rights over Kochi. The Zamorin retaliated with all the resources at his disposal. The Malabar fleet was decidedly inferior to the Portuguese fleet. The Zamorin set about to rectify this imbalance by reorganizing his fleet under the able leadership of Kunhali Marakkar. The new fleet under Marakkar soon snowballed into a threat to the Portuguese trade and shipping. They were forced to keep regular fleets to convoy their ships, but of little avail against the wily tactics of Marakkar. In a bid to humble the power of the Portuguese, the Zamorin launched an attack against Kochi. These attempts failed to drive the Portuguese out of gear and dislocated their shipping and trade. The Zamorin even attempted to forge a coalition of the States bordering the Arabian Sea who were adversely affected by Portuguese activities. These at best, met with partial success in its engagements with the Portuguese. The threat from the Malabar seamen under the Kunhali to Portuguese trade and shipping reached menacing proportions. The Zamorin, in the meanwhile, had fallen out with the Kunhalis. The Portuguese then joined Zamorin in a united thrust against the Kunhalis. After two sieges, the new allies were able to capture Kottakkal, the headquarters of the Kunhalis. But, neither the fall of Kottakkal nor the death of Kunhali Marakkar brought the Portuguese any respite from the attacks of the Kunhalis, who now began to harass Portuguese shipping and trade with a vengeance. The advent of the Dutch and the English placed the Portuguese at a further disadvantage. The Dutch had come to the East in a spirit of competition with the Portuguese. Their main strategy was to drive out of the latter. By 1663, they had finally overthrown the Portuguese power on the Malabar coast. The treaty which the Dutch concluded with the Rajas of Malabar clearly showed that their monopolistic tendencies were less ambitious than those of the Portuguese whom they supplanted. They tried to entrench themselves by interfering unabashedly in local politics.


The Kochi Raja's dependence on the Dutch went to such lengths that the latter acquired an effective voice not only in the administration but even in Kochi succession. This interference naturally brought stiff opposition from the Kochi princes and nobles. The second quarter of the 18th century witnessed a diminution and gradual erosion of Dutch supremacy. The scene was set for the ascendancy of the English on the Malabar coast. The English secured their foothold in Kerala in 1682, when they obtained permission from the Vadakkilamkur Prince of Kolattunad, to settle at Thalassery. In 1694 they settled at Anjengo (Anchuthengu) in Travancore (Thiruvithamcore). It was from these settlements that the English were able to extend their influence over Kerala. In the initial stages, the English were inclined to take a lesson from the experiences of the Portuguese and the Dutch and keep themselves aloof from local quarrels. But in time, this resolution watered down and the East India Company began to provide assistance to local powers to fight against their common enemies, but without, at the same time, entangling themselves directly in the conflicts. Thus the Company assisted both Marthanda Varma, King of Travancore and the Zamorin in their quarrels with the Dutch and other local powers. The Mysorean invasion of Malabar provided the Company further opportunity to strengthen its grip on the local rajas and chieftains. The Raja of Travancore was asked by the Company officers to met the entire expenditure of the Third Anglo-Mysore war on the plea that the war was undertaken in defence of Travancore. The new treaty of 1795 practically reduced Travancore from the position of a friend and ally of the English East India Company to that of a protected ally. The Raja was forced to entertain a subsidiary force far beyond his capacity to subsidise. The Company also claimed a monopoly in the pepper trade of the country. The natural outcome of all these developments was to drag Travancore into the vortex of a major financial crisis. The Raja was forced to raise loans from bankers and merchants. The Company's authorities insistently demanded the clearing of arrears of tribute. The Raja was in a quandary.


Velu Thampi, the newly appointed Dalava tried to put the State's finances in order by reducing expenditure and increasing revenues wherever possible. One measure of economy was the scrapping of the field allowances paid to troops in times of peace. This led to a revolt by the Travancore troops. The insurgency was put down by the exertions of the native troops alone. But the Company authorities were visibly disturbed. The Madras Government insisted on a modification of the treaty of 1795 so that British troops be used to aid the Raja in quelling internal commotion's as well. Thus a new treaty of perpetual friendship and alliance was signed in January 1805. The new treaty was not well received, especially by Velu Thampi Dalava. The Dalava began concerted moves for an open rebellion against the British in defense of the king and the country. He began to recruit soldiers and collect arms. This move had the whole-hearted support from all sections of the people. The insurrection that followed was formidable one. But it was short-lived. On January 16, 1807 Velu Thampi issued a historic proclamation at Kundara calling upon the people to rise en masse against the British. The response was wide-spread and in many places British troops were put in peril. But, as British contingents began to converge on Travancore from different directions, the rebels lost heart and the revolt began to peter out. The Raja, who was anxious about the safety of his throne, wrote to the Resident requesting for the cessation of hostilities. Peace was concluded in March 1809. Velu Thampi, who was hiding in the Mannadi Temple, committed suicide.


A new treaty was imposed upon Travancore with the same clauses as were found in the treaty of 1805. The natural consequences of fighting with the British and losing the fight, overtook the three princely states. British control over these states increased in inverse proportion to the decrease in the power of the Rajas. By 1812 British control was effectively established all over the three regions of Kerala - Malabar, Kochi and Travancore. The expansion of British powers in Kerala was by no means a smooth affair. There were occasions of violent resistance against them well up to the second decade of the 19th century by which time consolidation of British power had more or less been achieved. There were organised revolts of the natives at Anchuthengu in 1695 and 1721 and at Thalassery in 1704. But it must be stressed that these uprisings were not merely sporadic and local but singularly lacking in that spirit of nationalism which was animating the nations of Europe at that time. The ruling dynasties and the politically powerful elements in Kerala did not even dimly perceive that the English Company was the entering wedge of European imperialism. As distinct from these sporadic, localized revolts, that showed the characteristics of a popular insurrection was the Kuruchiya revolt of 1812. The Kurichiyas and Kurumbas were a fairly numerous tribal folk inhabiting the mountains of Waynad in Malabar. Led by their chieftain Talakkal Chandu, they constituted the main prop of Pazhassi Raja's militia and earned for him many victories in his guerrilla warfare against the British. After the suppression of the Pazhassi rebellion, the British brought Wayanad under their strict surveillance and subjected the Kurichiyas to untold abuses and misery. The rebellion broke out on March 25, 1812. It speaks much for the unity of the tribals that they kept all preparations a closely guarded secret until the rebellion began. Though confined to a limited area in north Malabar, it was truly a mass uprising triggered off by economic grievances and official high-handedness.


The Kurichiyas took possessions of all important passes leading to Wayanad and cut supplies and reinforcements to the ambushed British troops in the valley. The magnitude of the insurrection is revealed by the fact that the sub collector of the division had to frantically requisition troops from Canara and Mysore as the local British regiment was insufficient to deal with the uprising. For a few days at least, British administration ceased to function in the Wayanad area. The failure of the revolt was a foregone conclusion, for tribal heroism was ill-matched with the sophisticated military machinery of the English Company. Early in April, the British troops moved into the jungles, combed out the guerrilla hands and suppressed them. By the beginning of May 1812, the revolt was effectively crushed quiet returned to Wayanad. The Kuruchiya uprising represented the last of the early organized revolts against British power in Kerala. A period of political acquiescence, extending for almost a century, ensured. The only exception was the series of violent disturbances known as the 'Moopa Riots' in Malabar from about 1835 to the close of the century. Though the riots occurred in different parts of Malabar, they were mostly confined to the Eranad and Valluvanad taluks. Agrarian unrest among the Moplas, their general economic backwardness and the low level of education have been mentioned as the fundamental factors behind these outbreaks. Barring these sporadic outbreaks, political tranquillity prevailed over the whole of Kerala for roughly a century since the suppression of the Velu Thampi and Kuruchiya revolts. A sense of helplessness against British authority, an awareness that British rule had come to stay, became the dominant note in popular mind. With Malabar directly administered by the British as part of the Madras Presidency and guided by the paramount power, Kerala enjoyed perhaps the longest span of relative peace in her history. It was, moreover, the period when she felt the full impact of the West which helped lay, as it were, the foundations of a "New Kerala". Under the aegis of the British Government and the enlightened rulers of Travancore and Kochi, substantial developments took place in the administrative, social, economic and cultural fields of Kerala. Reforms and changes were introduced in the administration. The judiciary and the legal systems were completely reorganised. Humanitarian and welfare measures - abolition of slavery and removal of the ban on the wearing of upper-cloth by the low-caste people, to mention only a few, were undertaken. Public works like roads, irrigation and communication received special attention. Above all, the 19th century saw the introduction and spread of western education, in which a very significant role was played by the various Christian missionaries. Through the medium of English education, Kerala was exposed to the full blast of western civilization. Her intellectual isolation was broken. Reforms necessarily entailed changes in the conditions and outlook of the people and these changes in turn necessarily opened the floodgates of further reforms.


Source: IT Department, Government of Kerala