The Revolt of the Rani of Attingal

  • By Prof T. P. Sankaran Kutty Nair
  • July 27 2021
  • Historians have ignored the early native resistance to British Power esp. in Travancore, Kerala. The revolt of 1721 is one of the earliest of the anti-English, anti-Christian and anti-foreign upheavals of India.

The participation of Kerala in India’s struggle for freedom is no less important than any other state of the Indian Union. It has its uniqueness if we view it from a national perspective. But this unique role has not received the attention it deserves from an all-India view point. 


Even all historians side-lined or ignored the early native resistance to British Power staged in the South Western tip of South India and in particular in South Kerala or old princely State of Travancore.


Thirty-six years before the battle of Plassey in which 29 English men were killed, there occurred a revolt at Attingal in which 133 Englishmen were murdered in cold blood (14-4-1721). Except Dr. Leena More, all historians made only a passing reference to this pre-mutiny (136 years before the mutiny) revolt of the natives against British colonialism and imperialism. Although there is no concrete proof of the role of the Queen of Attingal in the revolt, her knights offered stiff resistance against the English.


Perhaps in the whole history of modern India, the revolt of 1721 is one of the earliest of all upheavals, staged by Kudaman Pillai, a madampi (knight) of the Queen.


Subsequent to the disintegration of the Second Chera Kingdom (800- 1124) there emerged about 44 petty principalities in the Malayalam speaking area of the South Western coast of India. Long before Anizham Tirunal Martanda Varma (1729– 58) conquered and consolidated some of these principalities to form the Travancore State, there existed in the Southern tip a state called Venad (Vel+nad) or Koopaka Kingdom in Sanskrit language. 


According to Ulloor S. Parameswara Iyer, depending on Kollurmatam records, the first reference to the Rani of Venad was connected with the Deva Devisvaram temple of Udayamartanda Varma (1117– 1195). The principality of Trappappur had its headquarters at Thiruvananthapuram while that of Venad at Kollam. A princess named Koopakarani (1576-77) renovated the Siva temple at Avaneesraram. All these point to the fact that Venad, Attingal etc, worked in close intimacy at least with regard to religious matters, while they fought each other for other issues including land.


According to Van Rheede, the Dutch Governor (1677) records like this, “Umayamma Rani (1677– 1684) is not just the Senior Rani of Venad or Travancore, she is also the head of the Trippappur or Venad royal house.


According to Ulloor S. Parameswara Iyer, depending on Kollurmatam records, the first reference to the Rani of Venad was connected with the Deva Devisvaram temple of Udayamartanda Varma (1117– 1195). The principality of Trappappur had its headquarters at Thiruvananthapuram while that of Venad at Kollam. A princess named


In other words, areas between Thengapattanam in Kanyakumari district to North Parur in Ernakulam District proved to be the princely state of Travancore and her maternity was from the Attingal eldest princess whether adopted or not. This remains as a clear proof of the prevalence of matrilineal system of succession and inheritance.


First published in Journal of Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan.


Early English Relations 

Rani Aswathi Tirunal Umayamma (1677-1684) was not only the queen of Attingal Kingdom but also the head of a confederacy of semi-independent states such as Travancore, Nedumangadu, Kottarakkara, Kollam, Karunagapalli and Kayamkulam.


She was facing political and administrative problems from the subordinate states and was in need of resources. The English East India Company which was in possession of a factory at Vizhinjam wanted permission from the Queen to fortify it. But Pillamar and Madampimar who were actually managing the State affairs were opposed to the idea of fortification by the foreign company. The queen and some Pillais received large amounts from the English. So, the queen was obliged to grant the English East India Company (1684) permission to fortify a settlement at Anjengo. But the company was able to start construction of the fort only in 1696.


The Dutch and the Pillamars continued to pressurise the queen to prevent fortification of the settlements by the English. Her ministers Kudaman Pillai and Vanjimuttom Pillai were also opposed to the fortification even though the two were rivals. When the queen asked the English to stop the work, they did not heed. All the pressure tactics failed because Vanjimuttom Pillai secretly helped the English for the simple reason that Kudaman Pillai supported the queen. The queen was afraid that once the fortification was complete, the English would turn against her and pay no tribute or taxes. A large army of Nayars and Muslims was sent to attack the fort but it failed because advance information was given to the English by Vanjimuttom Pillai.

Koyikkal Palace, Attingal. 

As early as 1684 John Childe had decided to purchase as much pepper as possible, not only from Attingal but also from the neighbouring area. This was antagonistical to the Dutch, but the Rani was happy. There was a talk that the Rani was pro-English than pro-Dutch in commercial links. The Bombay Government had instructed the English at Anjengo to procure at least 1000 to 1500 tonnes of pepper. Records testify to the fact that the Rani secured presents worth 300 dollars when the English commander Thomas Mitchel collected considerable tonnes of pepper.


The English Commanders always tried to appease the native rulers. The English Captain John Brabourne presented velvet and 250 coins to the princess on one occasion. He also gave 50 coins each to the Travancore king and the nobleman of Cochin (one coin means 21 panam) On the July 27, 1694 Anjengo became a full settlement of the English where they raised their flag (Union Jack). The Court of Directors in England did not accept the terms fixed by the queen and at the same time they retained their trade interests in Attingal, Anjuthengu and Vizhinjam. Until Umayamma Rani’s death in July 1684, she had dictated terms to the English. The fortification works however reduced the trade traffic. 


Private trade was allowed by the English Court of Directors with a view to earn private profit. When Brabourne returned to England in 1707, Simon Cowse became the head of the fort at Anjengo (1707-1712). In 1719 John Kyffin because of his over enthusiasm in private trade obtained a dismissal from the Company service and he was followed by William Gyfford. Gyfford was no different an administrator and he utilised all means to earn private profit, even by using his beautiful wife.


Because of the 1679 Peace Agreement, pepper and spices from Anjengo could be sold only to the English and not to any other foreign country. Consequently, the Ranis and Rajas sold pepper only to the English. But Gyfford earned huge profit by sending additional pepper procured to Europe in the ship ‘Thomas’ owned by his wife’s brother Thomas Cook. 


Gyfford was humorous by temperament. Quite often, he used to make sarcastic comments about other people. Once he not only insulted a Brahmin but also forced him to shave the beard of an untouchable slave. By doing so, the Brahmin became an outcaste as per the caste connections (mamools) of those days and his loyal Brahmin friends took an oath to avenge this injustice and inhuman treatment of the so called ‘European Christian merchants’ of Anjengo.


On several occasions, both Hindus and Muslims were embarrassed by the English merchants and Gyfford encouraged them to do this. A Roman Catholic Ignatio Malhiero, the official interpreter of the English settlement persuaded young boys to pelt rotten eggs on Muslim traders in the presence of Gyfford and he enjoyed this public insult to the Muslims. There were similar instances on occasions and the Muslim leadership had taken a decision to strike hard at the English Christians at an early date. Thus, both the majority community of Hindus and the local Muslims knowingly or unknowingly came closer to fight against the Christian traders of the English settlement.


Ignatio Malhiero also purchased a coconut grove of a Hindu for one lakh panam. It also was against the local Hindu interest because the grove had one or two small temples. The sea coast area proved to be a large one which Gyfford purchased for a small sum. This was also an added insult to Kudaman Pillai family who had, with him some pepper but not enough money to purchase the said grove. When some Nair pepper merchants met Gyfford and his translator, on February 26, 1721 they were ill-treated and molested so much that it added fuel to the fire. Gyfford and his wife found happiness in showering impure water on Muslims who passed through the fort. This incident aggravated the already bitter relationship that existed between the people of Attingal and the English.


Gyfford was instructed from above to ease the situation and resume normal trade. At this time Kudaman Pillai died and was succeeded by his young and alert nephew. Gyfford bribed Vanjimuttom Pillai to patch up differences. Vanjimuttom, a partisan of the king of Kollam arranged to crown the sister of the king as queen of Attingal. Gyfford was invited to pay up arrear tributes to the new queen and resume trade.


Accordingly on April 14, 1721, Gyfford with 120 merchants and about 30 slaves proceeded to Attingal Palace about 6 kilometers from Anjengo fort, leaving only 4 men in charge of the fort apart from the women and children and the sick and old. The delegation carried with them the arrear tribute for seven years and presents to the queen and the Pillaimar, i.e. about 17000 panam per year besides velvet and Venetian clothes. Burton Fleming, Malheiro and Gyfford led the march. They were received at the palace by an enthusiastic crowd carrying arms. It was normal that the Nayars always carried arms.


Within the palace compound, Kudaman Pillai was in charge of the ceremony. Discussions about the amount payable to each Pillai took place. Cowse, who was more experienced in the ways of the local people sensed trouble. He advised Gyfford to finish the job quickly and leave; but he was rebuffed. After finishing the transactions, Gyfford ordered a volley of fire indicating successful completion of the job. Immediately the Nayars disarmed the Englishmen and collected their arms.


Gyfford also suspected some foul-play. He sent a note through a native informing his assistant, Sewell of possible danger to the party and to be prepared for any eventuality. The Englishmen were advised to spend the night in the palace premises in small batches. During the night, the natives fell upon the Englishmen and cruelly butchered one and all. The body of the ring leaders of the English settlement like Malhiero, Fleming and Gyfford were cut into pieces. The tongue of Gyfford was cut into pieces and thrown into Vamanapuram River. Later the queen blamed Kudaman Pillai for the heinous act; but the Raja of Travancore blamed the queen for the massacre. The Dutch records also blame the queen for her connivance.


Samuel Ince, the gunner took up defence of the fort against any possible attack. Women and children were sent away in a ship that was cruising nearby. The treasure and food stock were shifted into the fort. Reinforcement came by sea. Everything was ready when the attack on the fort took place a few days later. The first attack was repulsed with heavy loss to the attackers. But attacks took place intermittently for six months.


It was Kudaman Pillai, the rival of Vanjimuttom Pillai who masterminded the massacre, in the attack on the fort. The queen went away to Kollam promising not to return to Attingal until order was restored. She never came back. Another sister of Rama Varma, king of Travancore took over as queen of Attingal.


Midford who succeeded Gyfford as Chief of Anjengo was more dishonest than his two predecessors. He too was dismissed from service. His successor Alexander Orme was a friend of Travancore. This antagonised Vanjimuttom who instigated the Madampis of Travancore against their king. The efforts of Travancore to suppress the Pillais and Madampis of Travancore had met with success in 1729, when Martanda Varma became king of Travancore. He was able to capture the eight Madampis who organised attacks on the English fort in 1721 and handed them over to the English. By 1729 Martanda Varma eliminated all the Pillais and Madampis of Travancore. Attingal too was annexed and consolidated to the Travancore state. The unchallengeable supremacy of Attingal declined subsequently.


The revolt of 1721 is one of the earliest of the anti-English, anti-Christian and anti-foreign upheavals of India, staged thirty-six years before the Battle of Plassey and 136 years before the 1857 struggle for freedom. It is unreasonable and illogical that this fight has been side-lined in all India stream by historians.


Author is Ex-Director General, Centre for Heritage Studies, Govt. of Kerala.


This article was first published in the Bhavan’s Journal, 30 June 2021 issue. This article is courtesy and copyright Bhavan’s Journal, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai-400007. eSamskriti has obtained permission from Bhavan’s Journal to share. Do subscribe to the Bhavan’s Journal – it is very good.


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