Europeans in India Part 7 The Dutch Enter the Fray Section IV Commercial Activities: Travancore (Venad)

Canberra, 18 February 2023

Venad was an early-medieval kingdom in the southern tip of Kerala with its capital at Quilon (Kollam). It was one of the four major principalities that made up the region of Kerala, the other three being Kolathunadu (Cannanore/Kannur), Nediyiruppu (Calicut/Kozhikode) and Perumpadappu (Cochin/Kochi). The rulers of Venad trace their ancestry to the Vel chieftains, related to the Ay dynasty that ruled the same region between the 1st and 4th century A.D. Venad, ruled by hereditary chiefs who were referred to as Venad Adikal is mentioned as an autonomous fiefdom in the kingdom in the Chera Perumals of Kodungallur (Cranganore) around 700 A.D. It outlasted the Chera Perumal kingdom and developed into an independent Chera kingdom. In the early 14th century, the ambitious Venad ruler, Ravi Varma Kulashekhara, carried out successful multiple military campaigns against both the Pandya and Chola kingdoms. The Venad rulers, called Kulashekharas in medieval times, claimed descent from the Chera Perumals.

From late-14th century, the kingdom of Venad had gradually shrunk to finally being a strip of territory between Cape Comorin (Kanyakumari) and Trivandrum, with its capital at Padmanabhapuram. Adjacent Attingal was ruled by a senior female member of the royal family in a semi-autonomous mode, although it continued to be a dependency. The territories north of Quilon that had formed the former Venad had broken up into small chieftaincies, none of which had any loyalty to Padmanabhapuram or the Venad king. By the 17th century, the erstwhile Venad was generally referred to as Travancore, and had become an oligarchy with most of the territories controlled by eight prominent Nair families (called Ettu Veettil Pillamar), almost dynastic in nature.

[The eight noble Nairs were known by the name of the villages where their ancestral homes (Tharavadu) were located and were all titled ‘Pillai’. The Eight Lords were – Kazhakoottathu Pillai, Ramanamadhom Pillai, Chempazhanthy Pillai, Kudamon Pillai, Venganur Pillai, Marthandamadhom Pillai, Pallichal Pillai and Kolathur Pillai.]    

In these circumstances, Marthanda Varma came to the throne in 1729. He had been a proponent of opposing the Nair oligarchy even as the heir apparent and after coming to power, he defeated the Nair chieftains with the help of mercenaries from the Pandyan kingdom and elsewhere. He was ruthless in his subsequent actions; all male members of the defeated Nair families were executed, and the women and small children sold as slaves to the Mukkuvars, lower caste fishermen. Their ancestral homes were brought down, and large ponds dug where they had once stood in haughty pride. No trace was left of the eight families and their followers for a revival of the rebellion to take place. These actions were against all precedents and the first time that they were instituted against the Nair nobility. Marthanda Varma faced no further opposition to his rule.

This action by the king had great long-term repercussions and detrimental impact on the socio-economic fabric of Travancore. Those developments are not being covered in this narrative as they had no direct influence on the Dutch activities, which is the main theme of this chapter.

After consolidating his position, Marthanda Varma started to reoccupy the old Venad provinces one by one. In 1731, he annexed Quilon. Then the Rani of Attingal was gently forced to give up her ‘independent’ position, although she was from the same family, and was firmly told to hand over power to the Maharaja. When Marthanda Varma invaded Kayamkulam, he faced the opposition of a confederacy of central Kerala fiefdoms under the leadership of the Raja of Cochin. Two attempts by Travancore to annex Kayamkulam failed and an uneasy peace prevailed for some time.

European Intervention

When the Quilon king died, Kayamkulam annexed the territory, although Travancore had already laid claim to it earlier. Marthanda Varma now decided to overrun Kayamkulam. At this juncture, instigated by Cochin, the Dutch decided to intervene and sent a firm message to the Travancore king not to invade any province north of Quilon. They went on to specify Kayamkulam and eight other provinces—Purrukad, Mangat, Parur, Vadakumkar, Tekkumkar, Maruthakulangara, Peritally and Attingal—as being under their protection and not to be invaded.

Marthanda Varma was surprised that a foreign power, primarily on his shores for the purposes of trade, would send such a message to the king of a sovereign country. He replied to the Dutch and asked them not to get involved in matters that were of no concern to them. The Dutch initially tried to negotiate, then threatened military action. Marthanda Varma remained inflexible and repeated that he would not brook any foreign interference in Kerala’s domestic political matters. At this stage, the Dutch started to build up the defences in Cochin and started to prepare for an invasion of Travancore. Raja Marthanda Varma did not wait for the Dutch invasion and pre-emptively attacked the Dutch and defeated them conclusively at Kolachal on 10th August 1741.

Dutch on the Backfoot

The defeat in the Battle of Kolachal was a major debacle for the Dutch and a turning point in their efforts to control Kerala and its trade. Two factors emerged, which changed the relationship that the Dutch had so far developed with the local rulers of Kerala. First, was the realisation in the local military circles that European power was not invincible, and that concerted action could defeat them, like any other military force. Second, the Dutch woke up to the reality that if they wanted to stay on in the Kerala coast, they would have to do so as merchants, without any political pretensions. The battle marked the beginning of the decline of Dutch power in the sub-continent.

At Kolachal, the fleet commander De Lannoy and 24 other Dutch soldiers were taken prisoner. De Lannoy offered to serve the Travancore army and did so with loyalty for the next 36 years, transforming the army into a ‘modern’ force. (De Lannoy’s brief life history is provided as an attachment at the end of this chapter) 

After the victory at Kolachal, Marthanda Varma went on to annex Kayamkulam and Quilon and the eight provinces specified by the Dutch earlier, in a span of 12 years. He also voided all treaties that these provinces had signed with the Dutch. The Zamorin took advantage of the Dutch discomfiture and invaded Cochin, reclaiming all the territories that he had been forced to cede earlier. The Dutch approached the Travancore Maharaja to come to an agreement so that trade could be resumed in peace. However, two independent negotiations, conducted at Mavelikara and Parur could not be satisfactorily concluded and were postponed. In the meantime, Marthanda Varma granted favourable concessions to the English—the Dutch could see the end of their presence in Kerala.

Negotiations were resumed and on 15th August 1753, the Treaty of Mavelikara was signed between Travancore and the Dutch. The main clauses in the treaty were:

  • Only the English would be permitted to trade from factories located on Travancore land;
  • The Dutch would provide full military support to Travancore in case the latter was invaded by another country;
  • The Dutch would not interfere in any domestic matters of Travancore, especially when the Maharaja had decided to initiate action; and
  • The Dutch would annually provide arms and ammunition to Travancore that was worth a minimum of Rupees 12,000/-. In return, Travancore would make available one and one-half million pounds of pepper for the Dutch to purchase at a price that was mutually determined.

The terms of the treaty were different to any other treaty that the Dutch had so far negotiated in India; they were bargaining from an inferior position for the first time. Not only had the Dutch visibly lost their primacy, but their allies, especially Cochin, felt betrayed since the Dutch could not come to their assistance if Travancore invaded. Another important clause in the treaty, not mentioned above, was that Christian citizens of Travancore would no more be under Dutch jurisdiction, would not have any special privileges and would be treated the same as any other citizen of the kingdom. From a socio-political perspective, this was an important reversal of policy and dealt directly with the religious schisms that the European powers had been insidiously planting in the sub-continent.

The rising power of Travancore was demonstrated by the fact that the local princes started to approach Maharaja Marthanda Varma for arbitration in their internal disputes, emphasised all the more since the Dutch were forced to maintain discrete neutrality in domestic politics. Marthanda Varma expanded his territories to the River Periyar and an effort by a group of disenfranchised princes, under the leadership of the Cochin Raja to stand up to him, failed in front of the might of the Travancore forces. The group was forced to sue for peace and accept terms and conditions laid down by the Travancore Raja.

While the southern part of Kerala was being politically reshaped by Travancore, the Zamorin in the north was preparing to attack the smaller kingdom of Palghat. The Palghat Raja asked Mysore, its much larger northern neighbour, for assistance. The Mysore Raja sent his commander Haidar Ali with his forces to relieve Palghat. This action set in motion a sequence of events, which changed the geo-political and religious landscape of Kerala forever. The Mysore invasion of Malabar and thereafter the whole of Kerala will be covered separately in a later volume in this series of books. In the current narrative of the Dutch in the region, those issues do not have any direct impact on their progress, or otherwise.

Eclipse of the Dutch in India

At the zenith of its power, the Dutch had proclaimed that the VOC was a flourishing business. However, within a short span of 40 years from that observation, a company that had been considered an ‘empire builder’ had faded into obscurity on the Indian shores. As their trade started to be questioned and curtailed, the Dutch were forced to scale back their operations. By 1697, the VOC had reduced the number of garrisons and personnel in India and made Java their main base. The Dutch had established a chain of trading posts through Cape Town and Ceylon to protect their umbilical connection to Europe. They proceeded to attempt the creation of a great Asian network of trade and India became just one more link in this commercial chain.

From early 18th century, the Dutch company in Java and the English company in India had ceased to be purely commercial corporations; they had gradually transformed into territorial colonial powers. However, in Indian waters, Dutch naval power that had so far protected the interests of the VOC, had by this time started to decline. The Dutch navy under Admiral de Ruyter that attempted to defy the combined French and English fleet was a shadow of its former self, just a century back. The War of Spanish Succession (1702–13) broke the Dutch Republic as a great naval power in Europe and its downfall was reflected in the Indian Ocean. Further, direct interference by VOC in the domestic local politics in both Java and India sapped and undermined Dutch naval strength. The Dutch attempted to impose oppressive commercial monopoly in the areas where they claimed control through treaties and agreements. However, this initiative led to largescale smuggling and piracy, which they did not have the maritime strength to stop or curtail. The situation contributed greatly to the dissolution of Dutch maritime power.

From an analysis of purely naval power, the decline in Dutch capabilities were starker to notice. In the first half of the 17th century, the Dutch ships were the most economically manned and stood out as being better among other competitors. A century later the situation was reversed. In the last quarter of the 17th century, the Russian Tsar Peter the Great, had studied the Dutch ship-building industry to emulate for his own navy, since they were considered as being the foremost in the world. A mere 30 years later the Dutch were importing English shipwrights to teach improved techniques in shipbuilding. There were many reasons for this rapid decline in Dutch maritime power. Primarily, Dutchmen had become reluctant to seek a livelihood at sea and/or in the faraway Dutch colonies in the Indian Ocean. However, the situation did not mean that Dutch trade had also declined to insignificance at the same rapid rate. The volume and value of the spice trade continued to be impressive till mid-18th century when the decline started to manifest.

Accounting Debacle. From its inception, the VOC accounting system was defective, and no attempts were made to rectify it. Two sets of books were maintained by the Company, one in Batavia and the other in Holland—the two were never reconciled or balanced. Batavia calculated profits on the basis of actual price paid for goods procured in the East and what they ‘would’ fetch at the prevailing market price in Europe, not the actual value finally received. Holland on the other hand worked on the invoice price and the actual sale price. The two profits that were calculated could never be the same. There was another anomaly that played into the system. The VOC expenditure and profits were never calculated as a purely trading company. The expenses involved in acting as a sovereign colonising power were always combined with the Company’s trading accounts. Within this somewhat complex accounting situation the true picture of the finances of the VOC could never be ascertained. Only in 1779 was this great discrepancy brought out in a serious manner—it was too late to make amends.

The attempts to colonise and establish a monopoly in the spice trade came at considerable expense, which was written off in the accounting structure under a generic head of ‘Charges’. Between 1760–80 the ‘Charges’ exceeded total revenue (not merely profit) in Bengal, Malabar, Cape of Good Hope, Ceylon and Batavia. A comparative table of revenue and expenditure, as accounted by the VOC for the years 1760–80, is tabulated below.

RegionTrade ProfitTerritorial RevenueTotal IncomeCharges
Cape of Good Hope3241,4091,7334,125
All figures are in thousands of Florins

Efforts to contain smuggling and piracy further added to the expenses while directly affecting the profit margin. The VOC was functioning as a State within a State and even though corruption was rampant among its officials, the government had not way to step in and make them accountable. The company bureaucracy was concentrated in Batavia and had become rigid, inflexible and inefficient. The Batavia secretariat did not have any knowledge of the conditions on the ground in the far-flung trading posts that the VOC manned but insisted on controlling all activities, down to the tactical level. Further, when corruption and dishonesty were discovered within the company’s servants, Batavia could only complain, not take any remedial disciplinary action against the culprits. The Dutch government in Holland exercised no control over the activities of the VOC.

Even though the Dutch reigned supreme in the spice trade on both sides of the Indian Peninsula for many years, there is no mention of a Dutch Era in any of the narratives of medieval Indian history. This is unlike references to the Era of Portuguese Primacy or of the Age of English Supremacy and then the notorious British Raj of later times. Perhaps this anomaly came about because the Dutch were not builders—they did not build great castles or mansions, or towering cathedrals with soaring steeples; nor did they establish libraries or colleges. While the Portuguese, and later the British, built to last, the Dutch were more prone to pulling down what already existed, without replacing them with anything else. The Dutch lacked a sense of permanence in everything that they endeavoured to achieve.

The Dutch presence in the Indian sub-continent can be divided into two phases for clarity. The first phase of Dutch activities spans the 17th century— distinguished for the spirit of adventure, expansion of trade and notable achievements—all indicative of a thriving enterprise. The corresponding volume of trade was enormous, with an estimated more than 1,000 ships returning to Holland from the East during this period, carrying cargo valued well over 260 million florins. The second phase began towards the end of the 17th and early 18th centuries when the tide began to turn against the Dutch and ended with their complete eclipse. Their policy of trying to enforce commercial monopoly was a failure; the VOC was like a thieves den with corruption open and endemic; and there was a reduction in the volume of trade in spices with a corresponding drop in profits. The defeat at the Battle of Kolachal in 1741 was the first blow of a pounding that the Dutch were about to take. A few years later, they were soundly defeated by the English in Bengal.

During the two centuries that the Dutch lived and worked in the Indian sub-continent, they did not attempt any religious conversions of the local population, a tolerant attitude that has been lauded by many. A deeper analysis demonstrates that there was no element of ‘nobleness’ in this attitude. The Dutch tolerance of Hinduism was an extension of complete indifference; they were not interested in understanding the culture and religion of the local people, considering them below their dignity and status to do so. They made no attempt to better the lot of the local population or to bring the ‘benefits’ from the West to India. It does not matter that these benefits may have been of questionable advantage, the fact remains that the Dutch were not interested in the local people, their customs and traditions and did not care about their religious practices. The Dutch, it would seem from the current vantage point of the historian, never understood the need to indulge in local politics, beliefs, superstitions, et al., in order to commercially exploit the region. Full exploitation could only be achieved through colonisation and the Dutch did not comprehend this vital need.

The only contribution that the Dutch made to the narrative of the long history of the Indian sub-continent, other than the cemeteries they left behind in various coastal towns, are the voluminous records and correspondence that they left behind, which form a genre as a great source of information regarding the 17th and early 18th century India.

Attachment to Chapter


(30 December 1715 – 1 June 1777)

Eustachius de Lannoy was a Walloon and a Dutch naval officer. (Walloons are a Gallo-Roman ethnic group, native to Wallonia and the adjacent regions of France) He arrived in Colombo in 1737 and was sent to Kolachal in 1741, tasked with establishing a trading post and fortifying it. In the Battle of Kolachal that ensued in the same year, the Travancore military defeated the Dutch forces and De Lannoy, along with another officer Donadi and 24 Dutchmen, were taken prisoners.

Both the officers expressed their willingness to serve the Travancore Maharaja, Marthanda Varma. The Raja entrusted de Lannoy with raising and training a regiment, to be well-versed in European battle tactics and modus operandi. On satisfactory completion of the training, de Lannoy earned the king’s trust, who promoted him to the rank of captain. He went on to reorganise the Travancore army, training them in the use of gunpowder, firearms and cannon in a most disciplined manner. He also ensured that the static defences of the country were improved and maintained well. At this stage the Travancore army was better than any other force, including those of the European powers, that could be fielded in South India.

De Lannoy went on to assist Marthanda Varma to annex the smaller kingdoms to the north of Travancore, all the way to the border with Cochin—Quilon, Kayamkulam, Kottarakara, Pandalam, Ambalapuzha, Edapally, Thekkumkoor and Vadakumkoor, all came under the control of Travancore, as a result of this extended campaign. Lannoy went on to construct the ‘Nedumkotta’, known to the English as the Travancore Line, a line of forts across the breadth of the country at the border with Cochin, which at a later date would hold back both Haidar Ali and his son Tipu, when they invaded Malabar and kept moving south. He was also instrumental in fortifying the Padmanabhapuram Palace, the Udayagiri fort where he usually resided, and Vattakottai, an old Pandyan fort.

After Marthanda Varma’s death, de Lannoy served as the military chief to his successor, Dharma Raja Karthika Thirunal Rama Varma. De Lannoy died in 1777. His tomb still exists inside the Udayagiri fort at the small chapel that the staunch Roman Catholic had built for himself and his family. De Lannoy’s unfaltering loyalty to Travancore was recognised by both the kings that he served, as well as by the common people of the kingdom, who always called him by the nom de guerre, ‘Valiya Kappithan’—The Great Captain.      


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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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