Vasco da Gama's voyage to Kerala from Portugal in
1498 was largely motivated by Portuguese
determination to break the Kerala Muslims' control
over the trade between local spice producers and
the Middle East. He established India's first
Portuguese fortress at Cochin (Kochi) in 1503 and
from there, taking advantage of rivalry existing
between the royal families of Calicut and Cochin,
managed to destroy the monopoly. The dispute
between Calicut and Cochin, however, provided an
opportunity for the Dutch to come in and finally
expel the Portuguese from their forts. (Vasco
born at Sines, Province of Alemtejo, Portugal, about 1469;
died at Cochin, India, 24 December, 1524)
The Portuguese were surprised to discover, when
they arrived in Kerala, that Christianity was
already established. The history of Christianity
in Kerala dates back to the arrival of St. Thomas
the Apostle at Kodungallur in A.D. 52. A
Christian-Jewish community was founded by a
contingent of Syriac-Nasranis who arrived in 192
The Dutch would, in turn, be routed by the
Thiruvithamcoore ruler Marthanda Varma at the Battle of
Kulachal in 1741. The British moved into the area in the
form of the British East India Company and were firmly
established in Kerala by the beginning of the seventeenth
century. Tipu Sultan attempted to encroach on British-held
territory in 1792, but was defeated and the British
remained in control until independence.
Organised expressions of discontent with the
British rule were relatively infrequent in Kerala.
Uprisings of note include the Mappila Rebellion of 1921
and the Punnapra-Vayalar revolt of 1946. Mass protests
were mainly directed at established social evils such as
untouchability and unapproachability. The non-violent and
largely peaceful Vaikom Satyagraha of 1924 was
instrumental in securing entry to the public roads
adjacent to the Vaikom temple for people belonging to
backward castes. In 1936, Sree Chithira Thirunal
Balaramavarma Maharaja, ruler of Thiruvithamcoore issued
the Temple Entry Proclamation, declaring the temples of
his kingdom open to all worshippers, irrespective of
Modern Kerala was created in 1956 from Malabar,
which had been part of the Madras Presidency, and from
Travancore and Kochi. The latter two were princely states,
somewhat unique among their kind in that they had
concerned themselves with the education and provision of
basic services to the residents of their territories.
stepped an adventurous Vasco de Gama, a capable naval Captain
and a fortune hunter. He found the easiest way to India by
bribing the Arab pilot when his ship anchored off Kenya at
Port Malindi. Following the centuries old route taken by the
Arab traders and riding on a monsoon wind, he sailed the Sao'
Gabriel to land at Kappad near the town of Calicut or
Kozhikode. The entire history of the East was to change from
When da Gama arrived in
Calicut on October 30, 1502, the Zamorin was willing to sign a
treaty. Da Gama told him that he would have to banish all of
the Muslims. To demonstrate his power, da Gama hung 38
fishermen; cut off their heads, feet, and hands; and floated
the dismembered corpses onto the shore. Later da Gama
bombarded the city with guns and forced his way into the
trading system. This led the way for other Portuguese
conquests in the East Indies.
The Zamorin or
Samuthiri received the Portuguese,(known locally as
parungees) warmly. Trade concessions were granted to the
Portuguese. But sensing the rivalries of the local kings,
the Portuguese immediately set about engaging themselves
in consolidating their positions. Through all this, what
struck the otherwise peaceful people of this land was the
extreme cruelty of the Portuguese. Cabral Alvarez believed
in the supremacy of the Portuguese on the sea-lanes and
killed anyone dared to break it.
Vasco de Gama's second foray into Kerala was tainted with
such acts of barbarity that it was said that "…his deeds
were blots in the annals of a Christian nation, and a
disgrace to the name of humanity.." A succession of
Governors, soldiers and priests set about expanding the
territories and plundering the lands they conquered.
There was some organised resistance to the Portuguese
particularly at sea from the Samuthiris of Kozhikode.
Notable among the Samuthiri's Admirals is Kunjali
Marakkar, still a revered hero in Kerala. He achieved some
sort of victory in checking the Portuguese expansionism,
but against better weapons, technology and cunning, it was
a losing battle.
An interesting sidelight is the Portuguesebehaviour
towards the thriving community of Christians in Kerala.
Tradition has it that these Christians were converted by
St.Thomas the Apostle in the 1st Century AD . The
Portuguese were a little annoyed that the local Christians
were more Hindus in their outlook, culture and traditions
and never heard of the Pope in Rome. The famous Synod of
Diamper (present day Udayamperoor near 14 Kms from Kochi)
in 1599, decreed that all Christians henceforth revert to
the Pope in Rome as the Supreme Spiritual head and not the
Pontiff at Antioch.
This is the course of time led to a revolt by a section of
the Syrian Christians . Legend has it that they took an
oath - by tying themselves to a Cross at Kochi on 15
January 1653. This is known as the "Koonan Cross Oath" and
is still revered as a turning point among the Syrian
Christians who constitute about 23 percent of the
population of Kerala. But the Portuguese had some success
in proselytising and did manage to convert some
communities along the coast to Christianity. They are the
Latin Catholics and have become an influential section in
finally met their match in the Dutch, the other predatory
European powers in the East. They proclaimed the Kochi
Maharaja as the titular head and drove the Portuguese out.
With aim of total control over the Eastern Spices trade,
the Dutch East India Company was set up in 1602. Stefan
Van Hegena set sail with 13 ships and reached Kannur (
Cannanore) in 1604.
The Dutch known locally as Lanthakar, was in the race for
evicting the Portuguese from the lucrative Eastern spices
trade. Strategic alliance with the Samuthiri helped them
drive out the Portuguese once and for all by 1663. But
from then on it was the same old story of the former
allies falling out. This phase ended with the Dutch
gaining undue advantages and gaining foothold over most of
the coastal areas and towns, prominent being Kannur and
Kochi. By 1717 there was some sort of a treaty established
between them. But these could not save the Dutch from
defeat in 1741 at the hands of a resurgent king of
Thiruvithanmkur , Marthanda Varma in the battle of
Kolachel. By 1795, the Dutch were so weakened, that the
British did not have much trouble evicting them
permanently from the Kerala landscape once and for all.
The Portuguese and the Dutch will be remembered for
many novel agricultural crops to Kerala, notable among
them being pineapple, papaya, tapioca, rubber and
scientific farming methods for coconuts. To this day, the
Kerala farmers are critically dependent on these crops for
survival in the agrarian economy of the state. The
Bolgatty palace at Kochi, the Dutch Governor's mansion
(later the British Resident's mansion) is a much
recognised landmark of Kochi. The renovation of the palace
at Mattancherry ( known as the Dutch palace) at Kochi also
is a reminder of the brief Dutch colonial presence in
The French also had
brief moments of glory in Kerala. But a resurgent Britain
put paid to their hopes of empire building and managed to
confine them to a small enclave Mahe near Kannur.
Notable in this time was the king of Thiruvithamkur,
Marthanda Varma in the 18th century. His success started
with the subjugation of the local warlords. Then in a move
at consolidating his kingdom, he subjugated all
principalities the southern tip of Kerala upto
Kodungalloor up in the North.
achievements of converting these captured lands into state
lands, centralising foreign trade and hence improving
government incomes, improving conditions of farmers, and
most importantly reducing the powers of the government
servants who till then were exclusively from certain
castes and families set the foundation of modern day
Kerala. He also took the rather unusual step of employing
competent people from all castes and for the first time
recognised competence over birth right. For his army he
employed a European De Lanoy. For administration he
employed people like Raja Kesava Das, Mallan Govindan etc
who were men of proven ability. His defeat of the Dutch at
Kolachel in 1741 is the high point of the reign of one of
colourful kings of Kerala.
It was after him that the British were trying to extend
their influence in South India and they came across Tipu,
the Sultan of Mysore. Thiruvithamkur was forced into a
common alliance with the British against Tipu.
The Mysore war was over in 1799 and the British were de
facto rulers of North Kerala, which until then were part
of Tipu's kingdom. Both Thiruvithanmkur and Kochi were
browbeaten with threats of war and huge war debt payments,
that they were forced to accept British residents for the
rest of their history.
The rise of
the British was bitterly opposed by the local warlords or
naduvazhis. In 1802 Pazhassi Raja, a local chieftain
revolted and fought a determined campaign against the
British. In a similar fashion, Velu Thampi Dalawa also
rose up against what was seen as British attempts at total
control of local power centres. Velu Thampi Dalawa had
allied himself with the Dewan of Kochi Paliyath Achan in
the armed campaign against the British .
However it was only a matter of time when the
reinforcements of the British army arrived from Malabar
and the Madras Presidency. After almost a year of sporadic
battles, Velu Thampi Dalawa fled the kingdom. The power of
the British Resident was now paramount and the Maharaja
had to be content with a much reduced say in the affairs
of State. The revolt by these two leaders are the stuff of
legends to this day. But these were isolated and did not
have the necessary military might to fight a sustained
campaign against an emerging World Super Power. Once the
British military effectively crushed these revolts, no
more was heard from these naduvazhis or warlords again..
But it was a
different story as far as the peasantry were concerned.
There were serious outbreaks of unrest especially in North
Kerala against the landlords and by extension the British.
These are now called the moppilla lahala or Muslim Revolt.
Needless to say, these were also ruthlessly suppressed and
again form a part of the local folklore to this day.
In February of 1503, da Gama returned home. During his
final voyage to India, da Gama got sick and died on
December 24, 1524. Vasco da Gama's remains were taken back
to Portugal, where he was buried in the chapel where he
had prayed before his first voyage