Eustace Benedict De Lannoy
And the Udayagiri Kotta in Travancore
The other day, we were listening to an old song – Udayagiri kottayile Chitralekhe, from the film Aromalunni and watching the ever beautiful actress Sheela's sensuous dance to the lines. As I listened, my grey cells got into an overdrive, how did Aromalunni get to Udayagiri in South Travancore and thought, that can’t be possible, perhaps it was about the fort with the same name in Orissa and some famous courtesan? After a while, I gave up on that thought and drifted away to the real Udayagiri fort near the Padmanabhapuram palace and Nagercoil, at Puliyoorkurichi in the Kanyakumari district.
It has an interesting story behind it, very much intertwined with the life and times of one Capt De Lannoy, otherwise known as Valia Kappittan. Bernard my friend had given me some information on Lannoy years ago and I thought it a good idea to give you all a little introduction on that interesting person. The legendary Captain has been studied by many a research student already and academician Mark de Lannoy has brought him to life in his book and various papers, so this is just a re-presentation of all their original work, with many thanks. My intention is to continue afterwards in a second part with another event that took place around those times, the invasions of Nanjilnaad by Chanda Saheb. So without much ado, let us get to the tale of the Flemish Captain…
Born on 30th Dec 1715 at Arras, destiny took the man far away to the kingdom of Travancore where as fate would decree, this Flemish soldier in the Dutch VOC became a soldier of fortune of the Rajas of Travancore, in whose services he remained for a very long time, close to 36 years and spent his life at Udayagiri fort with his Eurasian wife Margaret. Many a European soldier had been in service with native Rajas, but only a few like De Lannoy and M Lally rose to the lead in their patron’s armies.
The 1730’s were testing times for Marthanda Varma. Various intrigues and skirmishes involving the Quilon, Kottarakkara, Kayamkulam and the Karunagapally chieftains were keeping him busy, but there was only so much he could do. With the treasury nearly empty, Marthanda Varma’s desire of increasing the size and power of his kingdom was in relative check. In addition to all that, the annual forays of the Madura kings had to be contended with and his defenses were well stretched even after the employment of many a marava mercenary in his ranks. The Dutch VOC on the other hand were not able to get enough pepper to export at a time when the prices were at an all-time high, with MV insisting on better prices. The English were snooping around, offering sweeter deals to MV, trying to lure him away from the Dutch who were the regular clients. MV was a clever negotiator and Governor Van Imhoff would record the following in his diary ‘when threatened, his highness uses every trick, every pretension to avoid making concessions. He bestows on us a rain of politeness and compliments which are all but a disguise of his own plans’.
Marthanda Varma had one need now, that was to perform his Hiranyagarbha (this was in 1739), and for that he needed 10,000 Kalanjus of gold, which he requested Van Imhoff to deliver in return for a good pepper contract. Van Imhoff scoffed at it (something he would rue later) and sent MV a mere 8 kalanjus, not having understood the importance of the ceremony. And so the ceremony could not be performed and MV was offended. Imhoff decided to support the neighboring principalities (Nedumangad & Desinganad -Quilon) and Cochin so as to keep a check on MV. Later that year MV occupied parts of Quilon claiming them to be the property of Sri Padmanabha which invited the ire of the VOC, who then sent 300 soldiers to their fort in Quilon. As armies were being lined up on the defense lines at Desinganadu, MV wrote to the French at Mahe and the English for help. The VOC reinforced their attacking forces with two companies from Ceylon, led by Joannes Hackert. The Paliayth Achan also provided support with his Nair’s to the Dutch VOC. During the fracas, the Quilon forces overran Nedumangad, which was their original objective. As a result, the VOC had no choice but to withdraw to Paravur. There was also another reason why MV‘s retaliation against the VOC in Dec 1739 was lackluster, his southern flanks were being attacked by Chanda Saheb of Madurai, and he had to rush to Kanyakumari to stave that off. In Jan 1940 the VOC coalition reconvened and attacks were restarted at Ayrur.
The VOC led coalition next planned to take Attingal and attacked Edava where the British EIC were stationed, plundering them too. A fierce fight took place at Karamana, and the Travancore Marava army was routed. The EIC were worried that their Anjengo factory at Attingal might now get affected. So they provided guns and ammunition to MV, so also the money to pay as ransom (Rs 6 lakhs and 6 elephants) to Chanda Saheb. Chanda Saheb wanted four times that and as MV could not pay, Chanda plundered the wealthy Suchindram temple in retaliation. The remaining Ettuveetil pillamar were also at work in exile, trying to get back to power in Travancore. MV it seems, had no choice at this juncture but to finish them off and their families once and for all.
|De Lannoy's tomb|
MV wanted more support to keep Chanda Saheb at bay and this he achieved by befriending the French and by ceding Colachel to them. Moreau the French envoy would assist by negotiating with Banda Saheb, Chanda’s brother. The VOC then decided to attack and destroy the Travancore pepper gardens, to decapitate MV and his revenues. While the plan had its merits, the two years spent in the difficult terrains and fighting incessantly had affected the Dutch troops. They had not been fed properly, many had been sick and they had not been paid. Hackert was not a great leader and it appears had been promoted only because of seniority. The VOC master plan was to attack Colachel near Kanya Kumari with all their might and this they did with good effect. The Travancore army fled at the onslaught and the naval bombardment. The weavers of French fortified Tengapatanam also fled. The Dutch laid waste the routes they traversed, and rounded up any young people they could find, as slaves. They now planned to build a solid fort at Coalchel and hold their ground there, but it was slow going.
It is 1741. Somehow MV had managed to pay off Chanda Saheb and he next counterattacked Quilon, since the VOC was now busy further down south in Colachel. Following that MV organized a large Marava force, dressed them up in European fatigues and sent them off on a suicide mission to Coalchel. The VOC were stuck in the seaport for want of supplies and drinking water. Van Gollennese who was leading affairs at Colachel decided to go to Quilon leaving a nervous Hackert in command. At the same time, a number of Quilon chieftains changed side to Travancore and the Quilon king refused to attack Travancore saying that he had no desire to invade his neighbor. Meanwhile a mud fort being built at Coalchel started to collapse under the weight of the armaments. Firewood, food and water suppliers were perilously low. To top their misfortunes a heavy storm lashed the coast in April and anchors were lost.
Hackert was now ordered by Van Gollennese to rush to Quilon with a large number of troops and supplies to launch a counterattack at MV from there. Hackert left Colachel in the care of Lt Rijtel and some 250 European soldiers and a few hundred Indian lascars, but instead of going to Quilon (he had enough of all this) he fled to Tuticorin. MV in the meantime continued to receive supplies and arms from the crafty British.
Many deserted the VOC by then and joined up as mercenaries in the Travancore army. A large Travancore force now attacked Colachel. Rijtel and his men had no chance. Hackert was ordered to march down to Colachel from Tuticorin and relieve the siege from their encampment at Kanyakumari. But there were large issues as smallpox had laid waste a large number of troops in that camp and many started to die.
The Dutch are by now a demoralized lot, they had not been paid for two years, the army and naval personnel had no respect for their immoral captains and in general had no stomach to fight. The person who first deserted the VOC and joined Marthanda Varma was actually a German named Carl August Duijvenschot who deserted in Feb 1741. Carl August then gave Travancore chieftains instructions on retaking Colachel. Many others defected in stages and at the height of the conflict Commander Van Gollenesse felt that close to three or four hundred VOC men had entered the service of Travancore
The skirmishes at Colachel continued and Rijtel was killed in an encounter. This was the endgame for the Dutch soldiers who virtually lost their head and stopped all the fighting. They then clambered the walls of their fort, pitch drunk and started singing or so it seems. Some 31 of them surrendered and were allowed safe passage to Kanyakumari by MV. In the meantime another 22 VOC soldiers had deserted and joined up with the Travancore forces led by Ramayyan Dalawa. They managed to blow up the gunpowder storage at Colachel which resulted in a huge explosion and killed many of the remaining Dutchmen in the fort. Shortly thereafter, on Aug 12th the fort was surrendered.
Meanwhile Chanda Saheb had been defeated and the Marathas were now in charge at Madurai. Appa Nayak offered to join the VOC side, but Hackert at Kanyakumari, faced with intolerable conditions, lack of finances, beset with sickness and food shortages had no stomach to continue and withdrew to Quilon. In an investigation which followed, the VOC laid all blame on Hackert who was despatched to Batavia for life imprisonment. By October, the Cochin king also withdrew from the VOC coalition. Fighting continued into the next year, and MV was victorious on all fronts, and came close to taking Cochin, but finally decided to sue for peace based on English advice. Now let us get back to the man we started out with, De lannoy.
De Lannoy was never the captain who headed the VOC fleet at Colachel, nor did he surrender at that battle as is oft mentioned. In fact he had joined the VOC at Colombo in 1738, where Vam Imhoff it seems, took a liking for him. He did visit Cochin in 1739 and was later deputed to Cochin under Hackert when problems started.
Captain de Lannoy was fighting alongside the Dutchman at the Colachel fort, and joined the group which had deserted earlier from Kanyakumari in August. In addition to the miserable situation at Colachel, and sheer hunger, Lannoy did not perhaps like the perennially drunk (shortage of water made them drink drams of arrack, instead) and boisterous soldiers he had to live with and secondly, as a Roman Catholic, he was distrusted by the Dutch (many of his German & French comrades faced the same situation). As the gun magazine at Colachel blew up, Lannoy was the one who approached the fort on behalf of Ramayyan Dalawa and asked the remaining Dutch to surrender. Carl August convinced Marthanda Varma to let them and some 40-50 European prisoners join the Travancore Nair brigade.
Now comes one of those strange twists of fate. Lannoy was just a soldier in the Travancore army. The ailing German captain (he was also becoming deranged) was to be succeeded by a Sgt Hartman (who escaped from Travancore). But one fine day as the legend goes, Marthanda Varma sees the smart and affable Lannoy, takes a good look at his face (most you may not know this, the king was also a face reader, a physiognomist). He foresaw that ( I think this is just a fable) Lannoy had a great future and chose him over Hartman to succeed Carl August as the Venadu kappitan, and as history tells us, Lannoy would prove him right many times over.
By 1744, Lannoy had trained and created an able army for the raja and had built many forts for him. He was also entrusted with making a cannon foundry and a gunpowder making factory. His training of the Nair forces enabled MV to send back the Madura mercenaries and save a lot of money. By 1747 Travancore had wrested control over large areas upto the Cochin borders. The Zamorin attacked Cochin and was about to annex it in 1757 when the Cochin raja in desperation signed a treaty with Marthanda Varma. But well, as luck or the lack of it would have it, by 1758 both the warring Zamorin and Marthanda Varma died. Rama Varma took over in Travancore and charged Lannoy to build fortifications to prevent any further incursions into Travancore. It was soon 1763, The Mysore sultans were eyeing Travancore and the story of Tipu’s waterloo had already been recounted by me earlier.
So much so for Lannoy and his work with the army, but what about Udayagiri? The 40 or so European instructors trained the Travancore army (the Kunju Kudi soldiers wearing red cloth purchased from the English) in flintlocks and in laying sieges. The main training locations as well as arms factories were at Udayagiri and Mavelikkara. Lannoy decided to stay at Udayagiri and manage the southern brigade as well as the state prison. In fact the Udayagiri fort became a defacto home for the Europeans serving the Raja and it appears that the pious De Lannoy built a Chapel at the fort.
The Udayagiri fort situated some 35 miles south of Trivandrum, was not originally built by De Lannoy as some are led to believe, but he rebuilt the old mud structures and fortified them with brick and granite. The original construction of the Udayagiri Fort was early as 1601 under the command of His Highness Veera Ravi Varma who ruled over Travancore 1592-1609. Sharat Sundar Rajeev states- The early purpose of the fort, it seems, was to defend expansive paddy fields and scattered settlements against marauding enemy forces. The strategic location of the fort is further enhanced by the fact that the earliest known palace of the Venad royals, which predates Padmanabhapuram, was located in Veerakeralaeswaram (also known as Muttalakurichi), not far from Udayagiri.
So, as you see, it had strategic importance as it overlooked the Padmanabhapuram area nearby, where the Travancore kings of yesteryears lived and then there was the Colachel port. The formidable fort had strong granite walls, fifteen feet thick and eighteen feet high and were lined within and outside with huge granite slabs. The parapets in the fort are 4 feet high and 3 feet thick. It was also used as a prison for dangerous criminals.
So many legends abound at Udayagiri, and the stories of Champakavalli the widow mingle with the diaries of British officers Leger and Munroe. It was also home to many a Yakshi who terrorized soldiers and habitants of the fort. And there was a large brass gun about which Major Welsh wrote – “But, the greatest curiosities were a gun and a mortar, both of exquisite workmanship mounted on the parade in Udayagiri and cast in the place by some European artist. They were made of brass; the gun sixteen feet long and bored as a twenty-two pounder, was so extremely massive that twelve hundred men assisted by fifteen elephants could not move it, even a few yards. The mortar was equally heavy and I think had an eighteen inch bore."
It was not that these European defectors wanted to stay and die in Travancore, it was simply not worthwhile going back to their previous employers who were in a bad shape. Also they could get persecuted (death penalty) and this was the clause of the treaty that MV used to retain them. A French traveler Anquetil du Perron who visited the Malabar Coast in 1758 A. D., in his book Zendavesta refers to the Dutch gossip that D' Lannoy was virtually a prisoner in the hands of the Maharaja of Travancore, but this is of course a Dutch point of view.
What we also note from his records is that De Lannoy wanted to marry one Margaret Rodriguez, daughter of a Syrian Christian (Perron mentions he was a Portuguese Topas, so he can’t be Syrian Catholic, I suppose), who was an interpreter at the British factory at Anjengo. His proposal was rejected on the strange grounds that he was a Frenchman and a deserter, 'training half-naked natives'. The disappointed general reported this to MV. A furious Marthanda Varma threatened the Anjengo Factory of dire consequences if Margaret was not given in marriage to his general. His wrath made Margaret's parents’ consent to the marriage and like they tell in stories, they lived happily ever after.
De Lannoy is credited with a lot of activities such as strengthening the Aramboly lines, the Travancore lines, the setting up of armament factories, training of the guards, and reorganizing the Nair brigade in Travancore. He is also mentioned as the catalyst behind the famous conversion of Neelakandan Pillay to Deva Sahayam Pillai. He held a succession of important commands and was involved in every major conquest between 1741 and 1777 A.D. But as time went by and after a treaty as signed with the Dutch, we read that Marthanda Varma began to disregard De Lannoy, who until then played a key role in his military designs.
Marthanda Varma passed away in 1758, a while after his able minister Ramayyan Dalawa had left this world. Lannoy then served the next Raja Rama Varma for another 19 years. Apprehending an invasion from Hyder Ali, De Lannoy strengthened the Northern fortifications and was ready to face the Muslim invader. But that was not to be, for De Lannoy passed away after a short illness in his own fort at Udayagiri in 1777. Dewan Keshava Das then took the lead, himself.
De Lannoy's son, Johannes De Lannoy, a youth of 19 who was a Battalion Commander, died of a fatal wound in a battle at Kalakkad while fighting for Travancore. Johannes was called "Cheriya Kappittan" or Small Captain
and was married to a Calicut lady. Margaret De Lannoy, wife of
the Valia Kappithan, died in 1782 A.D. after surviving her husband for 5 years.
She was probably the first European woman who received in India the honorific
title "Mother of the Poor” for her services to the downtrodden. Her daughter (from her first marriage) was wedded to an Eurasian named Wattai from Calicut.
Many credit De Lannoy with the building of Nedumkotta the Northern Travancore lines. Is that entirely true? We will take this subject up in a forthcoming article.
Now the inquisitive may ask – what about Chitralekha of the Udayagiri fort? Well that could be related to the story of Anirudhan, grandson of Lord Krishna and the son of Prathyumnan (the reborn Manmadhan). Banasura’s daughter Usha was besotted with him (she dreamt him up) and so with the help of Chitralekha (of the Udayagiri fort??) her friend (Usha’s father’s minister’s daughter) and an expert painter, locates Anirudhan. She then abducts Anirudhan with Narada’s help has him taken to Usha. Banasura next jails Anirudhan, but Lord Krishna fights Banasura, has Anirudhan released and all is well after he marries Anirudhan off to Usha.
Interestingly the fort where Usha was said to be locked up was Ukhakot (Ushakot?) a little distance away from Banasur fort (Some 3 miles west of Lohaghat town in Pithoragarh district in Uttarakhand). There is no Udayagiri fort there, so how Udayagiri came to be linked with Anirudhan and Usha, is not clear (Also Arolmalunni belongs to Malabar, not Travancore). So my guess is that only the late lyricist Vayalar Rama Varma knew the guttans behind this, or that probably one of you, readers, know it…
Kulashekara Perumals of Travancore – Mark De Lannoy
A Dutchman in the service of the Raja of Travancore - Mark De Lannoy
European soldiers in the service of Travancore in the eighteenth century - Mark De Lannoy
Udayagiri Fort and the Valia Kappittan – KP Padmanabhan Tampy
The old Travancore Army – Ulloor S Parameswara Iyer
The Dutch in Kerala – M O Koshy
Travancore Dutch relations- Dr S Krishna Iyer
Malabar and the Dutch – KM Panikkar
Travancore and Eustachines Benedictus De-Lannoy - a study - N. Subha Nanthini
The Udayagiri fort – A video