Malabar Hill and the Pirates of Malabar

A cursory look at the name of one of the costliest bits of real estate in Bombay (nowadays called Mumbai) signifies its relationship to the South West coastal area of Malabar. There is a reason to that, and I thought I would cover that interesting bit of history for the benefit of all, mainly to erase the typical distorted description provided in many a book and website.

They state thus - Bombay became the target of the sea pirates that also included the ones from Kerala’s Malabar Coast. So, in order to ensure the protection from any type of pirates attack near the hill, a lookout tower was founded. It was meant for keeping an eye on the pirates and the sea as well. Later this hill came to be known as ‘Malabar Hill’, which is very popular today.

The Raj Bhavan site says - In times past, the azure skies would forecast plunder as the sails of marauders appeared, the dreaded pirates of Malabar. They would ascend the pinnacle to plan their pillage. This summit by the shores heralded a view of the emerging city. Prophesying their recurring piracy, the peak came to be known as Malabar Point.

Was that right? To figure it out let us go back to the 16th century when the Portuguese attempts at colonizing India were at its peak. It was a period signified by systematic attempts at subduing the traders and trade that had been conducted from Malabar. Starting with Vasco Da Gama’s arrival at Calicut in 1498, the Portuguese strengthened their presence in Cochin, Goa, Surat and Bombay on the west coasts. The only resistance they faced initially was the sea based forays from the Kunhali Marakkar and his able seamen of South Malabar. The Marakkars had until then been running the Malabar trade (mainly food grains) with the blessings of the King of Cochin and the Zamorin of Calicut, but once their livelihood was threatened, they rose up in arms. I must hasten to add here that piracy indeed existed on the Malabar Coast and has many a time been attributed to moors, but it was sporadic, and not organized. Details of such old acts of piracy can be found in the accounts of many a travel writer, including Ibn Batuta and others.

Then again it is said that Malabar hill was where they conducted a pilgrimage to the Banaganga tank and Walkeshwar temple. Now that is an oddity by itself, the Moplah pirates praying to a heathen idol? That would not be quite right, isn’t it? A detailed study was needed, though the answer was apparent, that the term Malabar pirates was far-flung and widespread and applied to a wide variety of armed seafarers not quite pleased with the foreign usurpers making merry in the west coast towns, people who conducted much trade over sea routes and plying ships laden to the brim with the riches of India. Indeed the opportunist cum pirate decided to attack these slow moving and lightly armed ships. Who were they? Were they from Malabar-Kerala in the fist place?

While the Zamorin took on the Portuguese armies on land, the Kunhalis and their men engaged in sea based skirmishes with the Portuguese ships. The method of using many organized small boats to attack a flotilla soon became very effective and went on for a period of 70 years 1530 – 1600 till the Dutch came by and the Kunhale family was gone. The ships used by Kunhali’s men, the war-paroe, was a small craft manned by just 30-40 men each, and could be rowed through lagoons and narrow waters. Several of these crafts were deployed at strategic points in the Malabar coast and they would emerge from small creeks and inconspicuous estuaries, attack the Portuguese ships at will, inflict heavy damage and casualties by setting fire to their sails and get back into the safety of shallow waters. And thus people who were traders soon became attackers. So were they pirates, corsairs or privateers?  If you look at history books, the moors of Malabar, the Kunhali led seamen have been called Corsairs and pirates. Check out the definition towards the end of this article, and based on that I would take the direction towards privateers in this case for they had the blessings of the Zamorin in fighting the Portuguese.

So as you can see, they were an armed force at the command of the Zamorin’s admiral and thus were more privateers or corsairs, but not pirates. Now that the first point has been established, they were the earliest form of an Indian ‘regional’ navy fighting against the invading Portuguese, in hindsight. Later there were others involved in the fray notably Tanoji Angre, his son Kanhoji Angre (early 18th century) or Conajee Angria and his ships, which were included collectively in the term Malabar pirates.

What were the Kunhali’s of Malabar doing in the Bombay area? Logically, where they not restricted to the Malabar Coast by language, and the large distance of some 700-800 miles? Consider that the Marakkars used small pattemars or Malabar paros (small boats 10 paces long, rowed with oars of cane and had a mast of cane) for their warfare and sailing them to such distances was not routinely possible. Bigger dhows were indeed used for piracy, but the Marakkar ship would be too far from the home base and would never venture more than 70 miles of their Ponnani towns, from earlier descriptions. So one can safely assume that the Malabar pirates, termed so by the British, were closer in origin to Bombay.

Now with the Marakkar & Malabar seamen mostly out of the equation, let us get back to Bombay to find out who these pirates actually were, starting from the 1600’s. By 1600, the last of the Kunhali Marakkars were gone from Malabar. With it organized navies of Calicut virtually became defunct though some Moplah’s continued on, as locally based pirates sporadically attacking slow merchant ships.

Between 1534 and 1661, Bombay was under Portuguese occupation. By the middle of the 17th century the growing power of the Dutch Empire forced the British to acquire a station in western India. On 11 May 1661, the marriage treaty of Charles II of England and Catherine of Braganza, daughter of King John IV of Portugal, placed Bombay in possession of the British Empire, as part of dowry of Catherine to Charles. In 1661, Bombay was finally ceded to the British.

By the time Shivaji came on the scene against the British occupation, Bombay was already in the hands of the British. His navies came into picture by 1670 and were part of the collective called the Malabar pirates. Kanhoji Angre came a little later, towards 1700-1723 and his attacks or forays against British and Portuguese ships were directed all the way South to Cochin as well as Northwards to Bombay. Collectively there two and their navies were the major constituent’s of the so called ‘Malabar pirates’. Both these families are well covered in history texts, so I will let them lie in peace there for the time being, and get back to the high seas, back to when Kunhali the 4th was killed and Dom Pedro a.k.a Ali Marakkar took over until 1620. Thana was infested with pirates according to Marco Polo as early as 1290. In the 15th century it is mentioned in Nikitin’s travels that the pirates were mainly Hindu signifying the Marathas from Junnar. One such pirate chief was Shankar Rao of Vishalgarh. The main lot was a ragtag group of Guajarati corsairs, Moghul Seedees and Dutch sea thieves, until the 1600 period
But between 1600 and 1670, there were a number of attacks around Bombay, so who were these so called pirates? Upon perusing Salvatore’s Indian pirates, one is led to believe that the pirates termed Malabari pirates comprising various sorts (Guajarati – Cambay, Malabar and European) seized rich booty near Diu & Goa as well as Cochin in the 1600-1610 periods. This is perhaps Ali Marakkar’s doing. By this time English pirates had also entered the scene and Chaul in Konkan was their HQ. Pyrard Della Valle was the first to collectively call them Malabar pirates for according to him Malabar encompassed the coast line between Bombay to Cape Comorin. Later accounts by Mandelso also document that the Paroes of Malabar mainly attacked ships around the Cochin area and Cannanore. This signifies that Panthalayani kollam or Calicut port was by now dead. The rest of the period comprised only some rag tag piracy.

Polo, in the 13th century, said however that the pirates were a brotherhood ‘From this kingdom of Malabar, from the kingdom of Thana, and from another near it called Guzerat, there go forth every year more than a hundred corsair vessels on cruise. These pirates take with them their wives and children, and stay out the whole summer. Their method is to join in fleets of twenty or thirty of these pirate vessels together, and they then form what they call a sea cordon - that is, they drop off till there is an interval of five or six miles between ship and ship, so that they cover something like 100 miles of sea, and no merchant ships can escape them. For when any one corsair sights a vessel a signal is made by fire or smoke, and then the whole of them make for this, and seize the merchants and plunder them. But now the merchants are aware of this, and go so well manned and armed, and with such great ships, that they don't fear the corsairs. Still mishaps do befall them at times." "The people of Guzerat," says the same traveller, "are the most desperate pirates in existence, and one of their atrocious practices is this: when they have taken a merchant vessel they force the merchants to swallow a stuff called tamarind, mixed in sea-water, which produces a violent purging. This is done in case the merchants, on seeing their danger, should have swallowed their most valuable stones and pearls, and in this way they secure the whole." The sacred island of Beyt, in the Gulf of Cutch, off the north-west corner of the peninsula of Kattywar, was better known as "the Pirates' Isle," and the inhabitants of the Land's End of the peninsula were noted for their audacity as sea-rovers.

But by 1670 we see the Sajanian pirates of Kathiawar Gujarat followed by the Marathas. The leaders Shivaji and his progeny were organized in their fight against the Portuguese. But to lord them all later came the Maratha commodore of Shivaji’s fleet named Kanhoji Angre. He had a control over the seashore some 240 miles long between Bombay & Vengurla. By 1710-1729 he controlled the shores effectively ad humiliated the British at every given chance. He was succeeded by his son Sambhaji who continued in the same vein until 1734 and then it was Toolaji Angre. The British finally retaliated with might and by 1756; had finally destroyed most of the Angre holdings. It was thus Angre and his seamen who were the so called ‘Malabar pirates’ of the 18th century, while the British ruled Bombay.

So we saw the various types of Guajarati and Maratha privateers or pirates, whatever one may term them were harassing the British on the seas. But why did they venture onto the land? What is the connection with Malabar hill? It is said that they came to that side of the rocks, sheltered from the winds, waiting for commercial shipping to pass by after ascending the pinnacle to scan, watch the skyline and plan their pillage. This peak came to be known as Malabar Point and the hillock, Malabar hill. William hunter was another one to generalize the Malabar pirates into one group holding the sea coast from Bombay to Cape Comorin. He mentions about their plunders on shore while Pyrard mentions they would never attack anybody on shore.

As legends go, both Shivaji and Angre used to visit Banaganga for a holy dip and Walkeshwar for the festivals and prayers. But there were also Europeans amongst the Malabar pirates. As it is written “If the pirates were but Arabs or Malabars, matters had not been so bad; but European pirates were abroad, indulging in unheard-of excesses, seizing Mughal pilgrim ships (the Gunsway or Ganjasawai), and leading to the incarceration of our leaders and servants at Surat.”

The original name of the Malabar hill, point area was Shrigundi. The story is described thus: Shri-Gundi is called Malabar Point after the pirates of Dharmapatan (That is near Tellichery – Curious!), Kotta, and Porka on the Malabar Coast, who, at the beginning of British rule in Bombay, used to lie in wait for the northern fleet in the still water in the sea of the north end of Back Bay. The name Shri-Gundi apparently means the Lucky Stone. At the very extremity of Malabar Point is a cleft rock, a fancied yoni, to which numerous pilgrims resort for the purpose of regeneration by the efficacy of a passage through this sacred emblem. The yoni or hole is of considerable elevation among rocks of no easy access in the stormy season incessantly surf-buffeted. Women as well as men pass through the opening. You descend some steps on rugged rocks. Then thrusting your hands in front you ascend head first up the hole.

The Banaganga tank story has Lord Rama, after a long and thirsty trek in search of Sita, stopped at Sri Gundi and supposedly fired an arrow into ground to get water (somehow connected to Ganaga as well) , and so it ended up a sacred tank, after which he built a sand idol (Walk eashwar) to worship. The original temple built around this idol was destroyed by the Portuguese, but the temple was rebuilt again in 1715 by Rama Kamath.

Shivaji Maharaj when close to death is said to have landed at Malabar Point and passed through the rock, probably to free him from the haunting presence of the murdered Afzulkhan. Kanhoji Angria (1690-1730) is said to have visited Bombay by stealth to go through the hole at the Malabar Point. By 1670, the English built a government house in Malabar point, but the place was so poorly fortified that (it is said) the Malabar pirates often plundered the native villages and carried off the inhabitants as slaves. The English soon loaded the terraces with cannon and built ramparts over the bowers. There they housed two great guns to get the pirate ships.

As James Douglas rambles about the pilgrimage of the pirates

In the pre-Portuguese days the pilgrims, i.e., "the Malabars," would land at Mazagon, or at a small haven near our Castle which the English on their arrival called Sandy Bay, or, in the fair season, at what is our present Wood Wharf in Back Bay, convenient enough and right opposite the steep ascent.
Here buggalow and pattamar would discharge their cargo of "live lumber" or faithful devotees, as you are disposed to view them. Now they proceed to breast the “ Siri," halting, no doubt, at the Halfway House, where the Jogi would give them a drink from his holy well. Here they would have time to draw their breath, chew betelnut, or say their prayers. Thence, refreshed, to the summit, and now along a footpath studded with palmyra palms, sentinels by sea and land on the ridge, and very much on the track of the present carriage road, they make their way to those old pipal trees at our "Reversing Station," old enough in all conscience to have sheltered Gerald Aungier and the conscript fathers of the city from the heat of the noonday sun, and how much older we know not.
And now they descend the brow of the hill, pass the site of the present Walkeshwar temple, past the twisted trees in the Government House compound,—of the existence of which we have indubitable evidence as far back at least as 1750.

And here we may remark that the Malabar Hill of these days was much more wooded than at present. When land is left to itself, everything grows to wood. It is so in Europe, and it is so here, as we can see with our eyes in that magnificent belt of natural jungle which clothes the slopes down to the water's edge of Back Bay (and which reminds one of the Trossachs on an exceedingly small scale), where, among crags and huge boulders, the leafy mango and the feathery palm assert themselves out of a wild luxuriance of thick-set creepers glowing with flowers of many colours. The hare, the jungle fowl, and the monkey were doubtless no strangers to these bosky retreats. At length the temple, ornate with many a frieze and statue, bursts upon the view amid a mass of greenery. Black it is, for the Bombay trap becomes by exposure to innumerable monsoons like the Hindu pagodas among the orange groves of Poona. And now, the journey ended, the white-robed pilgrims, and some forsooth sky-clad in the garb of nature, bow their faces to the earth, amid jessamine flowers, in the old temple of Walkeshwar, on its storm-beaten promontory, with no sound on the ear save the cry of the sea-eagle, or the thud of the waves as they dash eternally on the beach.

Keyi’s and the ownership of Malabar Hill

Wikipedia makes an interesting mention of the Keyi’s of Malabar and connects it to Malabar hill. It is said that the Keyis had to sell Malabar Hill to the EIC to safeguard their business holdings. Quoting the entry - The well known and prominent Keyi family of North Malabar in Kerala was founded by Chovvakkaran Moosa in the early 18th Century. He was a strong force in trade and commerce during that time, having powerful links with rulers, kings and countries. He started off his business with the Portuguese, the French, and the British. He owned a large part of Bombay including the area currently known as Malabar Hill and many parts in Chowpatti Beach area. Even today the family has some old shops and buildings in that area. When the British East India Company started creating problems for their business, they had to call a truce with them in order to survive. The Keyis tried everything from funding Tipu Sultan and Pazhassi Raja in their war with the British at the time. When everything failed, they donated the entire area now known as Malabar Hill to the East India Company to maintain the Keyis' trading rights in the North Malabar area . Hence the name, Malabar Hill for this Western India prime property.

I certainly could not find any corroborating evidence for the above claim even after extensive research and after reading KKN Kurup’s complete work on the Keyi family. While they may have held land space around Malabar hill in the 18th century, the name Malabar hill goes back to 1673 when Fryer wrote first mentioned the place. Aluppi’s nephew Moosa kakka who built a bigger fortune and may have perhaps possessed land in Bombay, came to fame only by the early 18th century. So by conjuncture, Keyi’s do not appear to be the reason for the naming of Malabar Hill after Malabar.

In conclusion one could call this a somewhat indiscriminate use of the term Malabar as we know it today, though another who likes arguments would retort saying that Malabar itself is nebulous, it was first coined in antiquity by some Arab sailor for the coastal area of Western India between Surat and Cape Comorin. But then again we saw how the name of the hill eventually came about, even if by mistake and remained so, for it was finally a locale where the pirates stopped for a lookout or for good luck and to pray obeisance.

Indian Pirates RJ Salvatore
The pirates of Malabar   John Biddulph
Bombay and western India: a series of stray papers, Volume 2  James Douglas
The Great Pioneer in India, Ceylon, Bhutan & Tibet
Stirring stories of peace and war, by sea and land James Macaulay
A handbook for travelers in India, Burma and Ceylon   John Murray
Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency, Volume 26, Part 3
Guide to Bombay: historical, statistical, and descriptive James Mackenzie Maclean
The Missionary herald, Volume 89 American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions
Keyis of Malabar – KKN Kurup

Corsaire is the term used by the French for what in English is a privateer. A Privateer was an armed ship under papers to a government or a company to perform specific tasks. The men who sailed on a privateer were also called privateers. Most importantly, the famous "Articles of Piracy" often did not apply to a ship of privateers. Often privateers were simple merchant marines who were engaged in acts of war for profit. Other time they were hired mercenaries. Privateers, unlike pirates were quite open about what they did and were typically considered heroes by their host nations. In the loosest terms, any of the above can be a pirate. If a privateer is fighting for another country, you would probably consider him a pirate. Anyone who robs at sea is and was a pirate. When privateers exceeded the bounds of their commission, they became pirates. By definition, a pirate is any person committing criminal acts against public authority, on the high seas outside the normal jurisdiction and laws of any state (country). By law, they can be arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced by any state that captures them. Also, by definition, the criminal act is of a private nature, that is personal gain, and not for political reasons.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for clearing up a long standing question. great research :-)

My twisted logic said...

Dear Maddy,

Good post..I was very interested in it ,when you mentioned about the "keyee" family ,because my grand mother is from that family and she used to tell stories about them when i was kid.

With regards,

Maddy said...

thanks manjith..
the draft was lying in the to post folder for a long time till you asked me the question..all i did was add the para on the keyis

Maddy said...

thanks dc..

well i just finished reading about the keyis, and there is another post coming up on the first keyi aluppi..

Unknown said...

Welldone Mr.Maddy. I hail from the keyi family. Mr.K.K.N.Kurup in his book acknowledged me as I have given him valuable support. there is a story that Moossa Kakka the founder of keyi family has purchased the property in an auction related to a revenue recovery..Alippy Keyi from tellicherry

Maddy said...

Thanks Aluppy
I will be working on Mossakakka's story too soon
Have you checked my malabar history blog - historic alleys
You can see the link on top right of this page, hundreds of articles

Arjun Rajendran said...

Thanks for this! I came across Angria in an 18th century diary account of Pondicherry. If you are a historian, I'd like to correspond with you further about pirates, and the Carnatic wars.

Maddy said...

Thanks Arjun
let me know if you have questions
my email is