A quaint little beach town in the Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu, Colachel is a popular vacation spot these days. But few who go there realise that it was once a battlefield, where a historic face-off took place. A battle in which an Indian king defeated one of the fiercest armies of the time and amassed unimaginable wealth!
On the 10th of August , 1741 the forces of the Dutch East India Company faced the Travancore army of Marthanda Varma in Colachel. It was a bloody affair. The Dutch were ambitious. They were eyeing control of Kerala and with it trade . But they hadn’t bargained for what followed.
It was the quest for ‘Black Gold’– pepper, that brought European powers to the Kerala coast in the 15th century. In those pre-refrigeration days, pepper’s qualities as a food preservative made it highly-desired. As a result, the Portuguese and then the Dutch, attempted to monopolise Kerala’s pepper trade by bullying the numerous tiny principalities that ruled the region, to get trade concessions. However, one man from Travancore would change all that.
Born in 1705 into a family that ruled the minor chiefdom of Thiruvithaamkoor (later to be anglicized to Travancore), Marthanda Varma took charge of the kingdom at the young age of 24.
After breaking the hold of the Nair aristoracy, he set out to build a powerful kingdom, conquering and annexing all the petty principalities that dotted the region. Kingdoms such as Venad and Attignal and the strategically important port of Kollam were all taken one after the other.
– Marthanda Varma set out to build a powerful kingdom, conquering and annexing all the petty principalities in the region
Marthanda Varma, then set his sights on the kingdom of Odanad, with its capital at Kayamkulam (now in Alapuzza district of Kerala), known for its pepper production. However, the Dutch East India company had a monopoly over Odanad’s pepper trade and this expansionary policy of Marthanda Varma, through a signed treaty with the British regarding the rights to trade in the Malabar area, set their alarm bells ringing.
The Dutch Governor of Ceylon, Gustaaf Willem van Imhoff confronted Marthanda Varma asking him to end his aggression against Kayamkulam, warning him that if he didn’t pay heed, the Dutch would put their military might behind the local king. However, Marthanda Varma was adamant about his plans to carve a large kingdom, making the Travancore-Dutch War a certainty.
– The Dutch East India company had monopoly over Odanad’s pepper trade
The hostilities began in early 1741, when a Dutch force from Sri Lanka, under Captain Eustance De Lenoy, landed in Colachel. The choice of the seaside town was not accidental as Padmanabhapuram, Marthanda Varma's capital, lay just 13km inland. The Dutch, supported by the armies of Kollam and Kayamkulam, planned to occupy the entire region between Colachel and Kanyakumari.
On 27th May 1741, the battle began. Legend has it that Marthanda Varma started his day with a visit to the Adi Kesava in the temple at Thiruvattar (that still stands) and consecrated his sword there. He then marched on to face the Dutch force at Colachel.
– Marthanda Varma, led a siege and was able to trap the Dutch inside the Colachel fort.
Marthanda Varma, used his military prowess to trap the Dutch inside the Colachel fort. Despite their desperate attempts, they could not break the siege. There were several attempts made by the Dutch fleet to attack from the sea, but the Travancore forces successfuly resisted them.
Finally on 5th August, 1741, the Travancore army launched a massive attack, inflicting a crushing defeat on the Dutch forces in what is still remembered as the ‘Battle of Colachel’.
– Marthanda Varma went on to establish his own monopoly over the pepper trade and create a powerful and rich kingdom.
The Dutch leader, Captain De Lenoy was captured in the battle and interestingly Marthanda Varma spared his life on the condition that he train his soldiers as per the western Dutch techniques. As a result, the king not only won a decisive battle he also ensured that the Travancore army became a sharp fighting force. After the battle, the Travancore State erected the Victory Pillar near Colachel beach to commemorate the victory.
After this, Marthanda Varma would firmly establish his monopoly over the pepper trade and annex a number of pepper-producing regions such as Odanand, Ambalapuzha, Changanassery and Meenachil, delivering a serious blow to the Dutch trade. Soon, Travancore became fabulously wealthy thanks to the pepper trade.
In 1750, Marthanda Varma surrendered his power and wealth at the feet of Lord Padmanabhaswamy, the deity after whom his capital had been named. In a tradition that was continued by the rulers of Travancore for generations, he took on the title ‘Sri Padmanabhadasa’ or ‘Servant of the Lord.’
Few people realize that the Padmanabhaswamy Temple treasure discovered in 2011, that would make headlines around the world, had origins in the pepper trade and Marthanda Varma’s victory over the Dutch.
Interestingly, the treasure even contains a vast number of Dutch gold coins!