How Marthanda Varma Defeated Dutch in Battle and Crushed their Indian Expansion
Who was Raja Marthanda Varma? Except few from Kerala and Tami Nadu, the rest of India hardly knows about this brave son of Bharat Mata from Travancore. He was one of the first Asian kings to badly defeat a robust Dutch army in a naval battle at Colachel. As per the book Battle of Colachel by Frederic P. Miller, Agnes F. Vandome, and John McBrewster, it was the earliest example of defeat of an European power in Asia. It was 1741. Marthanda Varma captured all the Dutch forts and crushed their expansion in India. Had Marthanda not checked or destroyed their expansion, there would have been an extended Dutch rule in India like the British! Marthanda Varma is also known as the ‘maker of modern Travancore’. Sadly, his name is in oblivion in our national History textbooks.
It was from 1500 AD that Travancore emerged as an independent kingdom first under the Travancore Royal Family from Padmanabhapuram, and later Thiruvananthapuram. The kingdom’s territory covered most of modern-day central and southern Kerala including Kanyakumari of Tamil Nadu. Travancore was earlier known as Venad. It was under the reign of Raja Marthanda Varma, who ruled from 1729 to 1758 that Travancore further expanded its domain.
Did the British establish supremacy in India at one go? No! They first came to trade and later established their power in Bengal. What started in 1600 as British East India Company with few aristocratic traders to India via Bengal became a major military and political power by 1803 backed by a private army of about 260,000 soldiers. This count which comprised both British soldiers and Indian sepoys they employed was twice the army count of the British homeland!
Likewise the Dutch East India Company (also called VOC), founded in 1602, came to India for trading, especially of spices. Do you know this Dutch trade group became the world’s first formally listed public company in the early 1600s? The Dutch East India Company first established their trade base in the Coromandel Coast followed by Surat, Bengal, and the Malabar. Their presence in India lasted from 1605 to 1825. What started as a trading entity gradually turned as a military and political power like the British East India Company in no time. Had Raja Marthanda Varma not captured all their forts and gave them a devastating defeat in 1741, the History of India would have been different with Dutch supremacy extending across other parts of the country!
Marthanda Varma was born as Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma to Raghava Varma and Karthika Thirunal Uma Devi in 1705 in Attingal, Thiruvananthapuram. His regnal name was Sree Padmanabhadasa Vanchipaala Maharajah Sree Anizham Thirunal Veerabaala Marthanda Varma Kulasekhara Perumal. His father Raghava Varma belonged to the Kilimanur royal house. Marthanda’s mother Karthika Thirunal Uma Devi was the queen of Attingal, a principality located in the north of Thiruvananthapuram. She and her sister were adopted into the Travancore Royal Family; her sister died soon after.
Marthanda Varma’s predecessor was his uncle Rama Varma, who ruled from 1724 to 1729. He was the heir apparent after Rama Varma as per the system of matrilineal inheritance prevalent then in Venad (Travancore). This traditional system that gave women liberty and the right to property was called Marumakkathayam. It was through females that descent and the inheritance of property was traced. Besides the Travancore Royal Family, other royal families that followed the Marumakkathayam system were Nairs, Mappilas, Ambalavasis, Thiyyas of Malabar, and few tribal groups. So, women empowerment is inherent in the Indic culture systems since ancient times.
Marthanda Varma was far sighted since his childhood. He was born with the art of statecraft ingrained in him. During his childhood, Venad was a small kingdom and the ruler was in name only. The real powers rested in the hands of the nobles. The Matampimar (barons) and Ettuveetil Pillamar (Lords of the Eight Houses) exerted the highest influence. So were the managing committee of Padmanabhaswamy Temple of Thiruvananthapuram and the Yogakkar (the Council of Eight and a Half). During this time, both the Dutch and the English were on an empire building spree, sprucing up their political and military powers.
The teenage Marthanda devised a plan to curb the power of the nobles, rebellious chiefs and the aristocracy. He advised his uncle and king Rama Varma to enter into a collaborative deal with the powerful Madurai Nayaks. Rama Varma, who was a weak ruler and whose life was in danger from the nobles, agreed. His predecessor and brother Kerala Varma was assassinated by the Ettuveetil Pillamar. As per the pact, a Pandyan force was stationed in Venad to check any rebellion by the nobles and to protect the king. Marthanda Varma was only 14 years old then. After the death of Rama Varma in 1729, Marthanda Varma succeeded to the throne. He was then 24 years old.
Soon after assuming the throne, Marthanda crushed the power of the Ettuveetil Pillamar. He inducted soldiers into the existing army. He had a standing army of about 50,000 soldiers. He fortified the northern boundaries of his kingdom. He laid the foundation of the Travancore kingdom, expanding the Venad territory by subjugating and assimilating a number of neighboring kingdoms through war campaigns. Few of these neighboring kingdoms were rich in pepper cultivation. One was Odanad, which was the heartland of the pepper trade. The Dutch East India Company exercised their monopoly in pepper trade in few of these regions. With Marthanda Varma exercising his sovereignty of these regions besides signing of a treaty with British on the pepper trade, the Dutch monopoly and commercial interests were at stake. Hence, they started interfering into the supremacy of the Travancore ruler and supported the local rulers who lost their sovereignty to Marthanda.
Kayamkulam, one of the neighboring kingdoms, feared of an annexation by Marthanda. The Kayamkulam chief built up a strong defence in alliance with the chiefs of Kochi, Purakkad and Vadakkumkur to resist the possible attack. The Dutch offered to extend their support in this alliance. The joined forces recaptured Marta, a kingdom that Marthanda seized. This led to war between Marthanda’s army and the allied forces. The Travancore army not only seized Nedumangad and Kottarakkara but also killed the Kayamkulam chief in subsequent campaigns. The chief’s brother continued with the resistance.
It was then that Gustaaf Willem van Imhoff, the Dutch Governor of Ceylon wrote to Marthanda Varma demanding that he should end the aggression against Kayamkulam. This irked the Travancore chief, who wrote back to the Dutch governor, ordering him not to interfere in matters that did not concern him.
This followed with a meeting between Marthanda Varma and Gustaaf Willem van Imhoff. The main base of the pepper trade for the Dutch was Odanad, which was ruled by a princess. Their trade was hampered after it was annexed by Marthanda. Imhoff demanded that Odanad be restored to its former ruling princess. He also threatened the Travancore king that if he refused his demand, he would invade his kingdom. The Hindu king refused to comply with the Dutch demand. He confidently countered Imhoff’s threat of a Dutch attack of his kingdom, replying that his army was robust enough to defeat the enemy forces. Marthanda even went to the extent of saying that he had been planning for an invasion of Europe.
The Dutch East India Company set to action. It was 1741. They installed a princess of the Elayadathu Swarupam as the ruler of Kottarakara much against the wishes of Marthanda Varma. Kottarakkara was already annexed to the Travancore kingdom during the military operation against the joint forces of the Kayamkulam chief in 1734.
Kottarakkara army in alliance with the Dutch forces was all ready for a resistance. A war ensued between the Travancore army and the allied forces. Marthanda Varma easily defeated the combined army and assimilated Kottarakara back into Travancore. The Dutch forces were forced to retreat to Cochin.
The Travancore army captured all of the Dutch forts in that region. The Dutch had a firm base in Ceylon. With the loss faced by the Dutch army in the war, a fresh contingent of Dutch army, especially marines, arrived to support their Indian wing. It was led by Captain Eustachius De Lannoy. They landed with artillery in Colachel port on the west coast of Kanyakumari in Malabar. In no time they fortified the port and started giving shape to their war strategies. They captured the nearby villages – Thengapattanam and Eraniel and continued with their expedition until they marched till Padmanabhapuram, the erstwhile capital of the Travancore kingdom under Marthanda’s predecessor Rama Varma. Marthanda had shifted the capital to Thiruvananthapuram. The Dutch laid siege to the Kalkulam (Padmanabhapuram) fort. This was the south of the Travancore kingdom.
During this time Marthanda Varma was camping in Trivandrum, the north of his empire. He marched towards south to defend his territory from the Dutch. Meanwhile, the Dutch were all ready to advance further and capture Kalkulam fort near Nagercoil in the Kanyakumari region. The Raja reached just in time, thus foiling their attempt and preventing their capture of the fort. The Dutch army was forced to retreat to their defensive position in Colachel.
Marthanda’s army was reinforced by the troops brought by Ramayyan Dalwa, who was appointed Dewan of Travancore by the king. A robust Travancore army backed by infantry, cavalry and artillery in addition to native fishermen were all geared up to attack the Dutch at Colachel. They were further reinforced by a number of native boats manned by robust native fishermen and Travancore soldiers for the naval battle.
The battle of Colachel between Marthanda’s Travancore army and the Dutch took place on 10th August 1741. A fierce battle took place between the two parties. It went on for four days. Ultimately it was a decisive victory for the Travancore army. Many Dutch soldiers including 24 military officers were taken as prisoners. Leaving behind 389 muskets and some artillery, surviving Dutch soldiers fled the battlefield and the port and sailed towards Cochin.
Despite winning the battle of Colachel, Marthanda Varma did not stop. He wished to crush the power of the Dutch completely in India. He knew they flourished in India and exercised their power owing to their prosperous trade in pepper and other spices in South India, especially in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. He thus set out to conquer the major spice producing regions to put an end to Dutch supremacy and their trade.
During a period of nine years, in between 1743 and 1752, Marthanda Varma won in his expeditions and was able to annex major spice-producing areas in Kochi and adjoining kingdoms to the Travancore Empire. Besides, he declared a state monopoly on pepper. Thus, the Dutch supremacy and their trade was affected. Further strife between Marthanda Varma and the Dutch ended after a treaty was signed between the two parties on 15 August 1753 at Mavelikkara. As per the treaty and subsequent peace treaties, the remaining Dutch forts were incorporated into the Travancore dominion.
In the words of historian A. Sreedhara Menon from his book A Survey of Kerala History, ‘A disaster of the first magnitude for the Dutch, the battle of Colachel shattered for all time their dream of the conquest of Kerala.’
This marked the end of the Dutch supremacy and prevented their expansion in India. Do you know it was for the first time in Indian history that a European naval force was defeated by an Indian king? Salute to Marthanda Varma, the brave son of Bharat Mata from Travancore.
Featured image courtesy: sothebys.com and TopYaps.
1. History of Travancore, Shungunny Menon
2. A Survey of Kerala History, A. Sreedhara Menon
3. Coastal Histories: Society and Ecology in Pre-modern India, Yogesh Sharma
4. Ritual, State, and History in South Asia: Essays in Honour of J.C. Heesterman; edited by J. C. Heesterman, Albert W. Van den Hoek, Dirk H. A. Kolff, M. S. Oort.