And the Jungle Moplahs of Malabar
Many of you would remember this name from the stories of Pazhassi raja and the blockbuster Mamooty movie where Moosa’s role was taken up by Captain Raju (Sankaradi in an earlier version). He was certainly a colorful character and never really brought to light. As one of the first people who went up in arms against the British taking over Malabar, working with the Padinjare Kovilakom Ravi Varma, I thought he deserved a deeper study. So let us take a look at what he was upto in those turbulent years when the British were making hay in Malabar, consolidating their spoils of war with Tipu and subjugating the people of Malabar under their rule. One must also bear in mind that the situation in those days was certainly turbulent and law and order was particularly lacking in many places after the decimation of feudal order by the marauding Mysore Sultans. Many of the so called anti-British Moplah guerillas of that time, though united against the British carried on (or allowed) activities not condonable at any time, such as kidnapping children for slavery, which the British used to good effect in their propaganda.
Let us start by going to Elambulassery, a place not many of you would have heard of. As you head to Ottappalam in Palghat and go towards Karimpuzha, you will reach a typical Palakkad village with all related objects like a temple, a river, and has its own characteristics and intricacies. Not far from Mannarghat or the silent valley, it is adjacent to the Tipu Sultan road. Was this remote village of any strategic importance in the past considering its proximity to the Nila through which the forest produce from the nearby hills were dispatched to the port of Ponnani? Was it also a check point on the important road which Tipu Sultan laid for the transport of his troops? What connection did it have to the Zamorin and the Padinjare kovilakom? Let us go there to find out, and it is said that if you do you will even see some of the old fortified houses that were so important in the wars with the British, silent testimony to the efforts of that warrior we will get to know.
Unnimoosa starts to figure in the historic records after he was employed by Arshad Beg Khan (who could not really subdue him) as the local chieftain of Elumpulassery amsam in 1788 with an armed retinue of some 100 moplahs. As part of his employment he had to collect tax revenues from the various people of the region and remit it to Tipu’s coffers. After Tipu ceded Malabar to the EIC in 1792, like many others, Unnimoosa forwarded his claims over a vast tract of land to the EIC. The joint commissioners would not agree and this started his rebellion against the British.
Captain Bowls reporting from Angadipuram describes the nefarious activities of the Jungle Moplahs in 1792 – These freebooters from their haunts and general residence are called Jungle Mopillas, are led by Unni Moosa - an open avowed robber, and as having several places of residence in different parts of the country, with his principal stronghold in the Jungles, “ fortified, as most of the houses in this country are, with loop holes, surrounded with a dike,” adding, that “this man kept with him four head moopas (or heads of gangs) and 200 armed men, besides many other “ inferiors who infest the jungles, and pay him tribute, and, acknowledging him for their chief, join him when required ;” and to this description, Captain Bowls subjoins the information; that the major part of the Mopillas of Velatre (which is an inland southern district adjoining to the Sukhein or Ghaut mountains) are, in respect to their habits and practices, of the above description, from the situation being favorable, as affording at any time a secure retreat from the more open countries nearer to the coast; and that all the principals or headmen of this banditti, having already enriched themselves by this way of life, had, from about the middle of the year 1792, appeared, from fear of our Government, to disband, though they had at the same time secretly retained their followers, who until the arrival of the battalion at Angarypar, used frequently at night to assemble and commit depredations as usual, after which it was their custom immediately to divide the spoil and to disperse.
It afterwards appeared that the above mentioned Uni Moota Moopa was also concerned (as all these jungle Mopillas more or less are) in the nefarious traffic trade, with the first of kidnapping the children, male and female, of the Nayars, whom they afterwards conducted to the sea coast, to be sold to the Commanders or Supercargoes of European vessels for exportation, but more particularly to the French at Mahé, and to the Dutch at Cochin, without altogether excepting (though we believe in a less degree) those who frequented the English port of Tellicherry; and although the French Chief at Mahé might personally disapprove, and appear to discourage the practice, yet it was not, we apprehend, in his power entirely to restrain it; so that, including the avowed traffic carried on in these unfortunate natives of Malabar from the Dutch port of Cochin, the country was thus annually drained of its population, and a number of its most helpless and innocent inhabitants unjustly entrapped into, and consigned over to, all the horrors of a life of perpetual slavery in a foreign land; to check and restrain which, as far as possible, the members of the Commission from Bombay, did, on the 9th of October 1792, frame and publish certain regulations (as per copy in the Voucher No. 25) denouncing punishment by penalties, fines, and scourging, against child-stealers, or dealers in the purchase or sale of children for exportation; but we fear that the avidity of gain in individuals, and the unprincipled habits of the' jungle and other Mopillas, who have long been in the practice of deriving emolument from thus preying on their fellow creatures, have, on the experiment, proved too powerful for these inhibitions, which were, however, all the Commissioners had then in their power to promulgate against such inveterate mischief, in the carrying on of which, the lawless part of the Mopillas found themselves so much interested.
Santosh Abraham writing about criminal categorization states - Throughout the colonial rule, the attitude of the British towards Mappilas was a mixture of positive and negative remarks and policies. The Mappilas in return also showed their dissatisfaction and resistances to the alien rule. Extracts from the colonial records clearly identifies Unni Musa as ‘chief of public robbers’ and the category of Jungle Mappilas as ‘public robbers’. John Wye’s report identified the Mappilas as ‘very turbulent, prone to robbery and the revenue always more difficult to uncover where the Mappilas prevail’. It was this kind of characterization that alienated the Moplah population in certain districts and created a base for further animosity.
The EIC having exhausted the usual measures decided to apply force to quell the unrest and deputed Gen Dow in May 1792. The military attack was quick and within a day the English overran Moosa’s fortifications and defense though he and his followers fled into the jungles (Note that at that point of time, this was all part of the Velattiri Raja’s kingdom or Valluvanad and is termed in EIC records as Velatre).
In 1793, the Province of Malabar was formed. Major Dow suggested that the troublesome Jungle Moplah districts be given back to the chief’s if only to reduce the headache to the British. A general amnesty was announced but the ‘troublemakers’ would not come to Calicut due to the fear that they may be attacked by Nayars lying in wait to retaliate against previous outrages committed by them. Even though the English worked to bring about a reconciliation, yet another rebellion popped up when Hydrose of Vettathunad decided to go against them.
Let’s study the description of Hydrose - But we soon had occasion to regret that even this general pardon had not the desired effect of inducing those jungle Mopillas to abandon their evil courses for, during the month of February, we continued to receive repeated intimations of their robberies in the Velatre and Vettutnaad districts, the principal in the latter district being a man called Hydroos, whose people are represented to have “ committed several inhuman murders, and daring robberies, besides “ alarming that part of the country in general, sending threatening letters “to extort money and provisions from the peaceable inhabitants, on pain “ of having their houses burnt and themselves put to death”, both which species of outrage are said to have actually happened at this period; and in consequence of these advices, Major Dow was deputed to proceed into Vettutnaad and to endeavor to bring in Hydroos, whom he did accordingly induce to appear before him and to promise to follow the Major to Calicut, though from some ill-conceived terror he afterwards made his escape on the road, and still continues more or less his marauding course of life.
The British mediator Maj Dow tried to calm them down by offering employment with the company, employ them as Moopans with 100 and 50 armed Moplahs respectively (at Valluvanad, Eranad, Ramanaad, Ponnanai, Chavakkad and Vettathunaad) but this would not satisfy them either. The alarmed British tried to appease Unnimoosa by formally appointing him as Elumbulasseri amsam head and offered a generous allowance and a pension. But Unnimoosa continued to rebel about the tax revenues (that it was his) and eventually the British withdrew their appointment and declared him an outlaw.
It was during this period that the Shamnath affair reached a culmination. Swaminatha Pattar from Palghat was by that time the chief minister of the reigning Zamorin, having risen up the ranks from the lowly position as cook (just like Ramayyan Dalava). Between the years 1790-92, he collected taxes from Malabar and remitted them to Keshava Pillai in Travancore, while at the same time working for Tipu Sultan. Later as he saw the EIC moving into power, he sided with them.
The British were deep in conversation what to do with the Jungle moplahs, and noted that they had also been a big problem for Tipu and Arshad Beg Khan, who both had to finally buy them off by giving them direct employment in the Mysore forces.
Captain Burchall led the fight against Unni Moosa and surrounded his abode. Incidentally among the soldiers of Unni Moosa, there were also two Mysorean advisers, Massod Khan and Mohammed Yacoub. Unnimoosa escaped as the night fell and the moon went behind the clouds, but the Mysoreans were captured, and the British found correspondence between the Moosa and Tipu Sultan (but all dating to the 1791 timeframe). They also saw that Tipu would only offer asylum if Moosa escaped and went to Mysore, since Tipu had already concluded a deal with the EIC. The British took over Moosa’s house and convert it to a British advance post.
We note the entries in the supervisor’s diary - From the Malabar Supravisor's Diary, dated 11th May 1794. Unni Mutta or more properly Unui Mussa Muppan was also offered a pension of 1,000 rupees per annum, but he refused it and renewed his pretensions to a share of the revenue when the Supra, visor revoked the above agreement and offered a reward of 3,000 rupees for his capture. Captain MacDonald seized his house on Pandalur hill, one of the robber haunts, and demolished it as well as six other fortified houses—Diary of Malabar Supravisor, dated 16th, 23rd and 30th June 1794. Unni Mutta however continued in open rebellion till 1797 when on the visit of the Governor and Commander-in- Chief of Bombay to Malabar, he was pardoned and restored to his estate of Elampulasheri on condition of "his finding good and sufficient security for his future peaceable demeanor."
Subsequently the British tried again to get him to come for a trial, but Unnimoosa who was in hiding near Cherplassery avoided the summons with many excuses. Anyway peace was restored and Choota Moopa was appointed in charge, together with Unnimoosa’s uncle and brother.
Around this period, Shamnath was involved in a negotiation with the king of Neringranaad which failed. The meeting did not go well and Shamnath who was returning to Calicut was waylaid by the Ravi Varma’s of the Padinjare Kovilakom and was stabbed in the back and left for dead. He was subsequently treated by Chief Surgeon Wye, the Englishman who incidentally became the next collector of South Malabar.
He was joined by his brother in law and powerful Athan Gurukkal of Manjeri who was furious with the British murder of Unni Moosa’s brother Adam Khan. We had discussed his involvement in the Manjeri temple affair some years ago. Chemban Pokker was another colorful character who joined up with these two. Chembum Poker was originally employed by the East India Company as revenue officer in Shernaad, but after accusations of bribery he was imprisoned at Palghat from where he escaped. Walker records that after he had established himself, several moopans from Shernad and Ernad joined him with six to 40 men each. Chemban Pokker built a fortified house with small field guns, mounted on his house and on top of a shrine. He had a retinue of 45 men with muskets and four with swords. The merchants on the banks of the Calicut and Mahe rivers supplied Chemban Pokker with arms and ammunition.
The Padinjare kovilakom Rajas were soon fighting the EIC and in this they found Unni Moosa a valuable ally. And as fate would make one of its many twists, Itti kombi Achan of Palghat (a member of the family that bought about the whole sorry state of Malabar and Palghat) joined these guerilla forces as he was also unhappy with the treatment meted out by the company. A few words explaining that situation adds valuable perspective. After the British came into power, Itti Panki Achan was retained as titular raja and was required to remit Rs 80,000 as taxes to the EIC per annum. Soon after his death, Itti Kombi Achan, his nephew became the heir to the position, but he was not that keen to be a servant of the British. Numerous agreements were signed ne after the other but the Achan continued his defiance against the EIC. Finally the EIC brought on a charge of killing two Brahmins, against him in 1798. As he refused to comply, the EIC put a booty on his head and he soon fled his Kalpathi house. This coincided with the Ravi Varma and Unni moosa episode and they were also part of the reward scheme upon their capture by anybody.
Unni moosa decided to continue his fight and was joined by Hydrose, Chempan Pokker, Attan (Hassan) Gurukkal, Puttola sheik. Pokker and Gurukkal were actually EIC police constables, but they were soon declared outlaws by the EIC after the overtures with Unnimoosa. Hydrose was soon captured at Ponnani and sentenced to death, but got his death at the gallows commuted to life imprisonment and was transported to Botany Bay in Australia. That left just Moosa, Pokker and Gurukkal against the EIC. Menon explains - While Athan Gurikkal's speeches may have spoken of the sufferings of the mappila community, he never appealed to the mappilas as Muslims to rise in defense of their religion. There was no natural affinity with the invading Mysorean ruler on grounds of a shared religion: both Unni Moota and Athan Gurikkal opposed the creation of a new capital at Feroke, further inland, which shifted the focus away from Calicut. However I am not too sure about that since a joint communique had indeed been issued by Pokker and Moosa. It read – Since the last year, the company’s government had begun to persecute several of the sects of Islam, which since the oppression was increasing, would not be protected but destroyed.
In 1798, Unni Moosa wrote thus to Mellingchamp – For what reason, you, your nairs, head chetties, other chetties, and custom people have put an end to my makama (tax revenues)? (Unless you restore it) I will take good care of you and your chetties. Do not think I have any fear of you or your battalions. I want you to make sure that nothing happens during Makaram to you or your chetties. Have you not heard of the murders and robberies committed even at the katcheri and Perintalmanna? Even in your dreams, do not think of putting a stop to what I do. Have you not heard of my bravery?
Up in the North, Pazhassi Raja was tightening his rebellion against the British, we talked about it in some detail earlier and we have the articles penned by Nick Balmer in deeper explanation. The Pazhassi rebellion was but naturally supported by Moosa, Gurukkal and Pokker. But adding to the Moplah’s nervousness was the fact that armed bodies of nairs were formed by the EIC to take on the Moplahs, in these regions. The noose tightened and their days were numbered.
The end to Moosa’s life is recorded thus - In 1800, however, he joined the Falassi (Pychy) Raja's Rebellion and in 1802 he was shot along with many other rebels in an attack on his fortified house at Kalipar hill by Captain Watson's Kolkars. The Bombay Courier 22nd may 1802 explains - We have great pleasure in announcing that accounts have been received of the destruction of Uny Mootah and six of his gang, a well-known robber who has for many years pervaded the Province of Malabar in defiance of all authority, and to the terror of its peaceable inhabitants. It has fallen to the lot of Captain Watson of this establishment, who has the command of the armed Police in Malabar, finally to extirpate this notorious freebooter; and the address and gallantry with which he accomplished the object, stand highly conspicuous.
Captain Watson, receiving information on or about the 29th ultimo, of banditti having arrived from Mongery at Uny Mootha's fortified post in the hills, near to Mannar Ghaut, proceeded with a party of his armed peons at five in the morning to the place of rendezvous; the fortified post was surrounded by an impenetrable jungle, and accessible only by a narrow foot-path, which admitted of not more than one man to proceed at a time; the party fought every inch of their progress to the end of this foot-path, under every disadvantage and difficulty, arising principally from the uncommon steepness of its ascent; after having gained this point, they had to carry three very strongly fortified defenses; these obstacles they however finally overcame, but not without the loss of three killed and twelve badly wounded. The rebels on finding themselves so closely pushed, took refuge in the Syramby (or upper roomed fortified house) which this jungle surrounded, and which they defended for some time with uncommon bravery and constancy; the doors and windows of this lodgment resisting every effort which was made to force them, Captain Watson conceived the project of undermining the house, and obtaining the necessary implements for the purpose, immediately commenced the work; the rebels within annoying the working parties all the while with large stones which had been suspended by ropes from a projection of the roof—these were cut down to interrupt the progress below, and their rapid fall did much execution among them; in spite, however, of every annoyance they accomplished their undertaking by noon, when a part of the wall of the upper and lower rooms fell, and brought the Banditti down with it, who, in the act of falling, actually levelled their muskets and fired at Captain Watson, fortunately without effect. Several were found to have taken refuge in this Syramby; unhurt from the fall, they immediately made for the foot path; but Captain Watson having most judiciously guarded every avenue at the bottom of the hill, by which an escape might have been made, they were intercepted in their retreat and the number completely annihilated; on proceeding to the demolished building two women were discovered; they eagerly enquired as to the fate of the party, and being informed, one of them exclaimed "then Uny Moota is killed." Captain Watson on hearing this acceptable exclamation collected the bodies, and Uny Moota's being pointed out by the female in question, it was exposed and recognized by numbers who assembled for the purpose of viewing this late animated corpse, which only a few hours before the fears of the inhabitants of Malabar considered unconquerable; some of whom even mocked the party on their march to this fortified post as in the pursuit of an object which would lead to their certain destruction. Another noted robber named Goorcal, one of the Banditti, and distantly related to Uny Moota, escaped the fate of his comrades; but the vigilance of Captain Watson, it is to be expected, will render his career but short. Besides the casualties above enumerated, one Native Officer was killed and four wounded.
The Ravi Varma’s fled to Travancore and the Itti Kombi Achan surrendered to Capt Roamnie of Palghat. The Achan was transferred to the Tellicherry jail where he was found dead of apparent suicide (swallowing a diamond!) or murder. Chempan Pokker remained faithful to the Pazhassi Raja, fighting mostly around Tamarasseri. In the skirmishes with the English troops he was also shot dead. The Pazhassi raja as we know, died later, in 1805. The Zamorins of Calicut, reduced to collecting small pensions from the British continued on, the 600 years of glory forgotten in their new struggle for survival. The British went on to rule India and enrich themselves…
If you remove some of the bombast in some of those colonial writings and look at it dispassionately, you can see that it was all related to property and taxes. There was a certain period when the lowly placed Moplah suddenly found himself in a situation of power following the Mysore invasions, after the flight of many landlords to Travancore. When the British came, that short sojourn was rudely interrupted and they found themselves facing again the old days of servitude or potential gains and equality if they won a fight against the new British lords. They chose the latter, if only for their own benefit, but not for any kind of larger regional issue or need to dislodge an invader. Moosa, Pokker and Gurukkal belonged to those fighting for their old days of glory and the riches they had garnered all of a sudden, from forceful collection of taxes, for their own upkeep. But in the historic annals, they were people who fought the British who were of course doing just the same, enriching themselves at the Malabar natives expense, and therefore these fighters also qualify as a ‘different class’ of freedom fighters…
Kerala District gazetteers – Palghat – Dr CK Kareem
The Moplah rebellion and its genesis – Conrad Wood
Houses by the Sea – Dilip Menon
Colonialism and the making of criminal categories in British India - Santhosh Abraham
Reports of a Joint Commission – Malabar 1792-1793
A Collection of Treaties, Engagements -Malabar manual II
Selections from Calcutta gazettes of the years 1784-1823Swaminatha Pattar