Europeans in India Part 7 The Dutch Enter the Fray Section III Commercial Activities – The Malabar (Kerala) Coast

Canberra 11 February 2023

In the narrative of the Dutch involvement in the Indian sub-continent, the term, Malabar coast and Kerala coast could be used interchangeably, for unlike the Portuguese, the Dutch were active across the entire coast of Kerala, which consisted of the three major kingdoms—Malabar, Cochin and Travancore.

Kerala, the realm of the Cheras, differs considerably from the rest of the Indian sub-continent. Relative to the rest of India, geologically Kerala is more recent in origin, the rivers and the sea wearing down the mountains to create new land.

‘The great inland lakes and long placid reaches of backwaters, bordered by swaying coconut palms lend a peculiar beauty to the Kerala coast. It is not merely geologically more recent than the rest of India; it seems to belong to a younger generation, richer, less exhausted and far more abundant and varied in its beauty than any region south of the Himalayas.’

Owen C. Kail, The Dutch in India, p. 165

Till late in the 18th century, the Nair community that was essentially a military caste, although numerically not the largest, held sway in all matters of State. They were the feudal and military aristocrats of the West Coast, famous as haughty warriors from the time of Marco Polo. The martial traditions and fighting spirit of the Nair community survived in the ‘Kalaris’, an institution that could be described as a peculiar combination of what could be termed a private chapel and gymnasium, which were attached to the larger Nair households. It is believed that the Nairs came from the ‘North’. Certainly, they were not the original aboriginal inhabitants of the land and there is no doubt of a large admixture of ‘Aryan’ blood in them. The religious beliefs of the Nairs are a strange combination of Hindu and Dravidian cults in equal measure.

Dutch in Ceylon

Almost throughout the 17th century, the west coast of the sub-continent was dominated by the Portuguese. They possessed a string of forts along the coastal line—Diu, Daman, Bassein, Chaul and further south Goa, Cochin and Quilon. In 1636, the Dutch built a small fort at Vengurla, north of Goa, after arriving at an arrangement with the Adil Shah of Bijapur. However, they did not expand it or build others. The Dutch ventured into Malabar only after the Portuguese power had started to decline and they themselves had become well-established in Ceylon. This process took nearly 60 years to mature, by which time the Dutch had expanded their commercial interests in the Coromandel, Bengal and also spread out into Burma, while earlier having established in Gujarat and Sind.

As early as 1610, the Dutch had started to trade with Ceylon, with the Dutch Factor, the senior agent, promising Raja Sinha I of Kandy assistance to fight the Portuguese. However, the Dutch struggle for control of Ceylon and the trade emanating from there started in earnest only in 1638. At the same time, a political development in Europe cast its long shadow on events in the sub-continent. In 1640, the Duke of Braganza proclaimed himself the King John IV of Portugal, declaring independence from Spanish rule. He went on to sign a ten-year truce with Holland. This was a setback for the VOC in India since attacks against the Portuguese had so far been couched as attacks against Spain. Any ‘peace’ with Portugal would make the Portuguese dangerous competitors for trade in the East. Therefore, the VOC directors in Batavia were reluctant to implement the European truce in Asian waters. They continued actions against the Portuguese. The Portuguese had already been weakened in the sub-continent and in May 1656, the Dutch besieged them in Colombo, forcing them to surrender. In 1658, the Portuguese were driven out of Ceylon with the Dutch capturing their factories and other facilities in Manaar and Jaffna in Ceylon and Tuticorin in South India.

Dutch Turn to the Kerala Coast

With the Portuguese in retreat and being viewed as a has-been power in Asia, the Dutch turned their attention to the Kerala coast. The town and port of Quilon (earlier, and currently, Kollam) was their first objective. Before the arrival of the Europeans, Quilon was a competitor of Cranganore (earlier, and today, Kodungallur) for primacy in commercial activities and for political importance to be counted as the principal port in the southern Kerala coast. Quilon had given its name to the ‘Kollam Era’, a calendar calculated from 825 A. D., the year when Chera rule was established in south Kerala.

The Kollam Era

The Malayalam Calendar is a sidereal solar calendar used in Kerala. (Sidereal time is a timekeeping system used by astronomers to locate celestial objects. It is a timescale that is based on Earth’s rate of rotation, measured relative to the March equinox.) The origin of the Calendar is reliably dated as 825 A. D., the beginning of the Kollam Era.

The Era commemorates the founding of Kollam (Europeanised to Quilon) as the capital after the Chera king of Kodungallur (Europeanised to Cranganore) liberated Venadu at the southern extremity of Kerala from Chola rule. The Kollam Era was adopted after a three-year conference of scholars from both the West and the East, convened at the behest of the Venadu king Kulasekharan.

Kollam was then the capital of Venadu, and the Kollam Aandu (year) was adopted across the entire Chera kingdom. The majority of the Chera territories now form part of Kerala. In the Malayalam-speaking Kerala the Kollam Aandu is now called ‘Kollavarsham’ or the Malayalam Era. The earliest available record of Kollvarsham is in the Mampalli copper plates, dated to 973 A. D., in which the Venadu king Sri Vallavan Goda grants a donation to the Chengannur Temple.     

The Rani of Attingal had permitted the Portuguese to build a fort near Quilon, which permitted them to dominate the port. Although the Dutch had set their sights on Quilon, conquest was not an easy task. In December 1658, the Dutch managed to capture the Portuguese fort at Quilon. The fleet then set sail for Cannanore, when its commander, Admiral Van Goens, was instructed by Batavia not to undertake any further operations. On 14 April 1659, the Portuguese recaptured their fort at Quilon.

Quilon or Kollam

During the time period that this narrative is about, Quilon was a port city in Kerala and the population of the settlement, while being predominantly local people, also contained Arabs, Nestorian Christians, Jews and Chinese in numbers that could not be discounted. The Chinese influence could be seen in the design of the wooden palaces and the method of fishing with counter-weighted dip nets, which are even today called Chinese nets in the region.

Saint Thomas is alleged to have founded one of his churches in Quilon. A report by a Nestorian from Alexandria, dated 520 A. D., states that when he visited Quilon, he found many Christians in the town. Friar Jordanus, a Dominican priest visited Quilon and returned to Rome in 1329. Subsequently, on the Friar’s recommendation, Pope Paul XXII constituted Quilon as the first Roman Catholic episcopate in the sub-continent and appointed Jordanus as the first Bishop.    

In 1660, the Dutch renewed their efforts to capture Portuguese strongholds with the assistance of the Zamorin and his allies, the minor rulers to the south of Calicut. Van Goens sailed up the coast and laid siege to Cranganore, which offered stiff resistance. The fort capitulated only 13 days later when the Zamorin’s army arrived from the landward side to encircle the fort. However, the Dutch suffered heavy casualties in this siege, which had a salutary effect on their subsequent campaigns.

Subsequent Campaign

An attack on Cochin was the next step in the agenda. The Dutch laid siege to Cochin and even after three weeks and both sides suffering heavy casualties, the fort did not capitulate. Then Cochin received reinforcements from the Raja of Champakasseri and a few ships arrived from Goa. Van Goens realised that the operation may not work out as planned, lifted the siege, and retreated to Colombo on 2nd March 1662.

To understand the Dutch relationship with the royal family of Cochin, a broad knowledge of the complicated politics of the region is necessary. Very briefly and without going into details of the family names and other nitty-gritty, the situation can be summed up as given below. Earlier adoptions within the Cochin royal family, carried out to perpetuate the dynastic line that was a normal practice in Hindu royal families at that time, had over time given rise to bitter internecine struggles for succession at the death of an incumbent raja. In the 17th century, there were five branches in the royal family, each vying for power, influence and succession. In one such struggle in early 1660, the Portuguese supported one branch, who with this assistance, managed to drive out their primary opposition.

The Zamorin took up the cause of the banished princes and prepared to attack Cochin. The Dutch, so far having maintained a scrupulous distance from involvement in local political affairs, decided in this instance to support the Zamorin. The second attack on Cochin was more coordinated. After the monsoon rains had subsided, the second invasion started with the Dutch sending out two fleets with Konkani and Sinhalese soldiers on board. They bombarded Cochin for 42 days before landing to storm the palace. In the ensuing battle that coalesced around the Mattancherri palace, the reigning king was killed and the dowager queen, Rani Lakshmi, taken prisoner. The Portuguese commander of Cochin surrendered on 6th January 1663. Immediately one of the Dutch fleets sailed for Cannanore and easily captured the fort and the harbour. Portuguese power in Malabar had been eradicated and the ‘Portuguese Era’ had conclusively come to an end.    

Dutch Interlude in Kerala

According to the terms of the surrender at Cochin, the Portuguese handed over all their territories, arms, ammunition and existing trade permits to the Dutch. In return, the Portuguese were not taken prisoners but permitted to return to Europe/Goa unmolested. The Catholic priests were permitted to take their images and ornaments, other than the ones made of gold, and leave Cochin. Although a peace treaty had been signed in Europe on 14th December 1662, which mentioned that all conquered territories were to be returned, a technicality regarding the date of Portuguese defeat and the signing of the treaty permitted the Dutch to hold on to the captured lands in Kerala.

Van Goens, now appointed the governor of Ceylon, established himself in Fort Cochin and started to administer the captured lands. The 150-kilometre strip of land stretching between Quilon and Cochin, which was the richest pepper-producing land in Kerala, was now under the control of the Dutch. The position of the Dutch in Kerala was very different to that faced by the Portuguese. The arrival of the Portuguese was met by openly hostile rulers and opposition from the powerful Arab trading community, who had for centuries enjoyed a monopoly in the spice trade from Malabar. To a certain degree, the animosity was brought on by the Portuguese themselves, through their insensitive actions and even more so because of the extreme barbaric revenge that they exacted at every opportunity as well as the uncalled for cruelty that they openly displayed against the local people.

On the other hand, the Dutch inherited an established commercial system that was accepted by the prevailing political leadership, while also inheriting all the Portuguese rights, privileges and customs. Further, the Arab traders who were recalcitrant in dealing with the Portuguese had gradually been replaced by Hindu traders, mostly the Brahmin residents of the South Konkan coast. This made for much easier trade and with the Dutch attitude of political non-interference as far as possible, commerce fell into an stable, non-competitive and peaceful mode.

Contrary to their general policy, the VOC was immersed in Cochin domestic politics. After ejecting the Portuguese and their proxy royal family, the VOC installed Vira Kerala Varma as the Raja of Cochin, enthroning him with a golden crown with the VOC emblem on it. VOC also declared themselves the protector of the Raja of Cochin. The days of colonisation had become entrenched in Kerala soil.

The questions that spring to mind at this stage are: did the royal family of Cochin, or the other rulers, not realise the loss of independence that was being perpetuated on them? Were they so powerless against Europeans with a few ships and a band of soldiers recruited locally? Had the centuries of prosperity reduced the Malabar/Kerala rulers to such incompetence? What were the famed Nair aristocracy doing to thwart the foreigners? Was the disunity between petty chieftains such that none of them had a vision for the future or could visualise an overarching pattern being spread by the Europeans? Were the ruling elite so lacking in acumen and intelligence not to have noticed the direction in which the events of the past century were flowing? These are questions to be asked, and clearly answered, to understand the debacle that was hanging over the Indian sub-continent, one that would usher in an era of great turmoil, anguish and the rapid decline of ‘Indian’ prosperity, independence and stature. The Indian sub-continent was already at the dusk of its eminence and there was not even a sickle moon to light the way for the next few centuries. The descend into such a devastating situation is difficult to understand and even more difficult to explain.

In return for a crown with the VOC symbol on it, which signified the end of his independence, the Raja of Cochin further enslaved himself and his kingdom by granting the Dutch monopoly in the trade of pepper and cinnamon. In comparison to the Portuguese, the Dutch may have seemed to the local rulers to be relatively benign in nature. However, such an assessment is only splitting hairs. The Dutch were equally harsh and pursued their own agenda of self-aggrandisement. They kindly ‘permitted’ the Raja to retain all his traditional power but insisted that all Christians in the kingdom would come under Dutch jurisdiction. Thus, the Dutch unobtrusively planted the concept of religious division within the local population—there were now two classes of citizens in Cochin, one owing allegiance to the Raja and the other to the Dutch, based on religion. This manipulation of local people on religious grounds was perhaps more insidious than the overt conversions that the Portuguese had resorted to in Goa and other places. The Dutch action created insurmountable difficulties for the local rajas to effectively rule their kingdoms. Rather than a rapier thrust to the heart of the Indian establishment, this was the beginning of a painful death through a thousand cuts.

Having sided with the Dutch against the Portuguese, the Zamorin now demanded that Cochin now accept the primacy of Calicut in all matters of trade and politics, a return to the status quo before the Portuguese had declared Cochin independent. The Dutch tactfully ignored this demand and the Zamorin fell out with his erstwhile allies. The fall out between the Zamorin and the Dutch later degenerated into a long-drawn and financially ruinous conflict for both the parties. Even though the Dutch now controlled the richest pepper-producing region in the world, the directors in Batavia did not consider the Dutch enterprise in Kerala to be sufficiently important to appoint a governor; the Dutch in Kerala remained throughout their time under the control of the governor in Ceylon.

English Competition

From the very beginning of Dutch involvement in Kerala, the English had loomed in the background as competitors. The French, although established in Pondicherry, came into the competition only at a much later date. By 1616, the English had started to trade with Calicut. When the Dutch occupied Cochin, the English already had factories at Tellichery and Purrakad in the north and at Vizhinjam a few kilometres south of Trivandrum. They had also received permission from the Rani of Attingal to open a factory at Anjengo, which would go on to become the largest and most prosperous European settlement on the Kerala coast.

The Dutch had established several rules in Cochin to ensure that the spice trade remained their monopoly. However, the English company paid the market rate for pepper, which was much higher than the rate established by the Dutch under the monopolistic arrangements that they had put in place. The local producers preferred to deal with the English, for obvious reasons. Further, the Dutch also had to contend with the freebooters, who traded on their own and did not adhere to any external restrictions or control. Even the minor rulers in the region preferred to deal with the English or the freebooters regardless of their treaty obligations with the Dutch. To counter the trade outside their monopoly, which was debilitating for their trade, the Dutch started to divest the minor rulers of the region around Cochin of their control of territory, in return for allowances and pensions. Many local chieftains succumbed to this inducement.

Again, the beginning of another obnoxious system that was perpetuated among the Indian kingdoms of the time can be observed. The Europeans took over the day-to-day running of the administration and then gradually started to make policy decisions, all in the guise of ‘helping’ the king/chief who was paid an allowance, or pension and permitted to live a life of opulence devoid of any of the responsibilities associated with ruling a kingdom. This was a long-term move to convert the Indian ruling elite into a group of indolent princes, making them inherently lazy and unfit for purpose, devoid of energy, will and the wherewithal to be effective rulers, however small their territorial holdings. The rulers were so cowed down by the military power displayed by the Europeans that they did not have the gumption to stand up to the travesty that was being perpetuated on them in their own country. These ‘small’ people, the progeny of great and illustrious warriors and kings, much preferred the easy life and their own money being doled out to them as the largess of a foreign trading entity than accepting the rigours and responsibilities of ruling a kingdom. This crop of princes was incapable of dealing with the difficulties that was inherent in opposing the foreigners and their imposition of impossibly restrictive rules in their own country.

This fatal flaw in the character of the princes and rulers was not restricted to one region but was visible across the entire sub-continent from the mid-17th century onwards. Perhaps, for far too many generations these princes had not faced any opposition to their rule and never had to deal with tough times in their kingdoms—long-term prosperity had brought in an innate sense of well-being in the rulers, which they were reluctant to give up for the sake of establishing true independence from foreign interference, when a more easy and apathetic way out was being offered. For these princes, hardship and the life of a soldier on campaign was a faraway occurrence that their forefathers had endured. It was not for them. The tough elements in their character, the fibre to stand-up to fight, had been subdued for so long that they had withered, it was impossible to garner them for use under the circumstances being created by the Europeans. To an astute observer of the pension-scheme that the Dutch rolled out in Kerala, the writing on the wall could not have been clearer—the kingdoms of the sub-continent were ripe for the picking.     

While defanging the local rulers, the Dutch had also prevailed on the Nairs of Kerala, the military elite of the region, to align with them and swear to protect the Raja and his interests, along with those of the VOC, at all costs. However, all these efforts did not yield the hoped for results. Pepper kept getting diverted to the better paying English merchants. Cochin had effectively been transformed into a vassal state of the VOC with the king a mere puppet with the senior Dutch merchant acting as the regent and directly controlling the treasury.

The Raja of Cochin adopted an heir apparent from a family that was unacceptable to the Nair nobles, who directly opposed the move. Civil war broke out in the open. Unsure of being able to contain the rebellion, the Dutch asked the Zamorin for assistance. This request placed the Zamorin on the horns of a dilemma—Calicut had traditionally positioned itself as the champion of the resistance against European domination of the West Coast, therefore support to the Dutch against local nobles would harm its reputation. On the other hand, the Dutch promised the Zamorin control of the town of Chettawaye, which he had always coveted and claimed as his feudal right. They also promised to bear all the expenditure involved in a Calicut campaign into Cochin. The lure of territory and money was enough for the Zamorin to abandon his principles. Against the wishes of his own nobles, the Zamorin marched against the Cochin Raja and his Nair nobles, irrespective of other affiliations.

The combined Dutch–Calicut campaign was a success; the power of the Nair nobles was broken for the first time in Kerala history. The question that needs to be asked is, at what cost? Yes, the Zamorin received Chettawaye and reimbursement of his expenses; but he had sacrificed the leadership position that his forefathers had assiduously cultivated for nearly two centuries, through which the Europeans had been kept at bay, to some extent. This one action, almost an act of betrayal, opened the floodgates for the Europeans, who now understood that offered the right prize and price, local rulers would willingly give up even much vaunted principles, enshrined for centuries in their dynasties. From a moral and ethical point of view, the ruling elite of Calicut had hit the very bottom of the barrel.

Short-lived Dutch Supremacy

By the end of the 17th century, Dutch profits from the spice trade from Kerala were dwindling. In 1697, the Batavia directors enforced a program of economic stringency on VOC operations in Kerala. Part of this process was to reduce the size of their garrisons and abandon some of them in the West Coast. Large numbers of the military forces stationed in Kerala were transferred to Ceylon and Java, while the garrison at Fort Cochin was reduced by half. Even so, the Dutch reluctantly supported Cochin against an attack by Calicut. The Zamorin was unhappy by the Dutch action, after all they had been allies in invading Cochin earlier and turned to the English in Tellichery for assistance. However, the Dutch assembled a large army and invaded Calicut territory. Unable to withstand the onslaught even with some English assistance, the Zamorin sued for peace. The Treaty of Chettawaye that was signed subsequently favoured the Dutch in all aspects, leaving them masters of Central and North Kerala for the time being. However, the campaign had proved to be expensive for the VOC.

Even though opposition had been temporarily contained, the cost of the campaign made the Dutch decide to reduce their involvement in Kerala to mere trade. There was realisation that the ostentations of great power status had very little impact on the Kerala princes. The Dutch now started to concentrate on the trade in pepper. They insisted on inserting a clause in all the agreements with successive rajas of Cochin, Ravi Varma (1693–98) and then Rama Varma, that pepper would only be sold to the VOC. The signing of such clauses proved to be the easy part, their imposition and enforcement required political power that came only with direct involvement in ruling the State. The Dutch were reluctant to be directly involved at the higher official levels and left it to the local commanders to negotiate with the Raja.

This arrangement was unsatisfactory. Political power must be backed with demonstrated military power, if it is to be effectively employed in the pursuit of higher-level objectives. In Cochin, this was not the case with the Dutch—the local commanders did not have the authority to employ force, even if they had them. Further, the reduction in Dutch military presence in the region made it even more difficult to back political demands with force or arms. The Dutch were unable to make the Raja and his nobles initiate action against their own people who were defaulting on the monopoly clause enshrined in repeated agreements. Pepper kept getting sold to the highest bidder, normally the English.

After successfully enthroning Vira Kerala Varma some years earlier, the VOC had claimed the right to ‘approve’ the succession of princes to the throne. However, this claim also remained unfulfilled since there was no willingness to resort to direct intervention and the use of military power. Regardless of treaty obligations, since the pepper monopoly and the succession approval could not be enforced, the Dutch ascendancy in Kerala was short-lived. At the same time, Venad, the region north of Cape Comorin was on the rise.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2023]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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