A number of publications cover available information on the Kunjali’s of Malabar and many other books allude to them, some with more detail than the other. However, the versions vary greatly, some picturing the Kunjali’s as brave soldiers who led the uprising against the Portuguese. Some others picture them as pirates and corsairs, going about unjustly attacking the Portuguese who had valid agreements to do what they did with respect to Malabar trade. Then again there are many myths and ballads about their times and some depict them, especially Kunjali IV as an arrogant or even cruel person, who wrongly believed in his own supremacy without any merit, and this led to his downfall.
However, I will try here to combine a bit of both and present here a summary of events and the eventual basis for the deterioration of the relationship between the Marakkars and Moplahs with the Zamorin and the Nairs of Malabar. This sadly culminated in the capture and execution of the Kunjali IV and many an author wrote that the relationship between the Moplahs and the rest of the populace of Malabar was at best strained till it deteriorated during the Mysore Sultans reign and finally erupted with the rebellions of the 19th and early 20th century. In order to keep the article reasonably compact, I have no choice to gloss over some of the events. It is a summary of a period that declined from the motto of ‘let us profit jointly from all this trade’ to ‘to each unto his own’ situation where there were no winners. The dog as the proverb goes, ran away with the bone.
Before you start going off into different directions, take a minute to figure out where the marakkars came from. I had previously written about the marakkars (somebody who calls himself Tippu Sulthan has copied all of it, word to word, into a Wikipedia article on Marakkars, without any attribution to my efforts) To summarize, the Marakkars are originally Moplas of Malabar, though probably differing in exact origin and sub sect. They were always conductors of trade and migrated also to Tuticorin, Ceylon, Indonesia, Philippines & Malaysia. Perhaps they originated from the Konkan region who drifted southwards, and went about conducting business, mainly rice and other grains as well as silk and some of those families moved back to Malabar, and we see this in the case of the Kunjali’s.
The Portuguese as you will recall had been trying hard to find a foothold in Zamorin’s Malabar. They did establish a base in Cochin, but knowing that their needs would be better served from some port near Calicut (it would also help them exert much military pressure on the Zamorin and the Muslim traders who still controlled the Red Sea trade) or around the Nila river mouth, went about trying to find a foothold there. No entreaty with the Zamorin would yield any result, and their relations were always on a downhill route due to their demands for monopoly and expulsion of the Muslim traders from Malabar.
With this short background, let us start with the first major Marakkars. They were the two trading families of repute, namely Cherian Marakkar and Mamally marakkar. Cherian was an agent of Malik Ayaz of Gujarat, whereas Mamally (a.k.a Mamally Mappila) excelled in trade originating from Cannanore.
Move out of Cochin
As the Portuguese tightened trade controls, some of these Muslim traders moved to take residence near Calicut. Historians opines that this is when Ahmed Marakkar, his uncle Mohammad and brother Ibrahim moved up towards Ponnani. Pius Malekandathil explains that all this started when a trade deal between Kutti Ali (Mohammed) and Diogo Lopes failed. It seems that Kutti Ali loaded the ship of Lopez and others as per an agreement in 1522 and after his part was completed, the very same Lopes confiscated the whole ship as contraband and appropriated the same. This was what enraged the Marakkar trader and turned him against the Portuguese. By 1524, they had moved to Malabar.
Pius M in his superb paper Criminality and Legitimization in Seawaters adds – The developments of 1513, when paradesi and al-Karimi merchants fled en masse from Calicut to the ports of Gujarat, Vijayanagara, Hormuz and the Red Sea, following the establishment of a Portuguese base in that city after having poisoned the reigning Zamorin and installed in Calicut a pro-Lusitanian ruler in his stead, favored the commercial activities of the Marakkars who eventually started appropriating the trade of the al-Karimis and began to transship spices from Kerala to the ports of the Red Sea. The Ottomans, who occupied Egypt in 1516/7 displacing Mamluks and their commercial allies, the al-Karimis, began to increasingly bank upon Marakkar traders for obtaining Indian spices.
Soon they approached the Zamorin for trading rights and permissions, thus obtaining the title Kunjali, cementing the Marakkar family’s seven decade long relationship with the Zamorin’s until the reign of the 4th Kunjali. That was when a wedge was driven into this relationship by spite, jealousy and clever manipulation of the Zamorin by the Portuguese. So we see that during the period between the first decade of the 16th century (Sreedhara Menon states that Mohammed was titled Kunjali in 1507) and 1600 the Zamorin’s naval operations against the Portuguese were overseen by the Kunjalis. The Zamorin also gave permission to the Kunhali’s to defend themselves on the seas and fight any aggressors such as the Portuguese. Starting with the first Kunjali, there was no dearth of defensive and sometimes offensive tactics against larger Portuguese war ships and merchant ships, from their manned fleet of paros.
The Kunjali I was the first to use subversive tactics against the Portuguese, supervising a fleet of some hundred swift paros or pattermars, each manned by 30-40 rowers. These small boats which could operate in shallow or deep water could be swiftly deployed upon sight of a larger Portuguese ship and then the attack was on once near the target with small guns sling shots, javelins and bows & arrows, and sometimes fire. This hit and run tactic proved very successful and the Portuguese losses were heavy, not only to trade but also the Portuguese prestige as self-proclaimed lords of the western seas. Now the Zamorin not very happy with the Portuguese relations, decided to sever his ties with the Portuguese in 1525 and began to depend upon the newly arrived Marakkar merchants for reviving the trade of Calicut.
It was around this time that the Raja of Vettathunad/Tanur (Parappanad had already become a vassal of the Zamorin but also supported the Portuguese) due to friction with the reigning Zamorin decided to break away and ally with the Portuguese. History books go on to say the Parappanad raja eventually sold an area near Chaliyam – Beypore ( where the Beypore railway station is located) to the Portuguese for around 400 pounds. With great haste (26 days) and secrecy the Portuguese started construction of a fort there, much to the Zamorin’s consternation for it was a strategic location at the mouth of the Nila River. KM Mathew (History of Portuguese navigation) writes that it took a year to complete the fort. This resulted in a peace treaty between the Portuguese and the Zamorin. It was 1531. But that was not to last and arguments about the income from the fort and trade and duties owed to the Zamorin’s became a bone of contention.
With the scene in some semblance of tranquility at Calicut, the Marakkars led by Kunjali shifted their focus to Ceylon and the eastern shores, working with other Cochin Moplah commodity traders in the Gulf of Mannar and the Coromandel as well as the pearl traders in Tuticorn. So much so that many a Cochin Casado sided with the now wealthy Marakkars and even made arms and ammunition for them. But there was a purpose behind it which was to bypass the Portuguese controls as Pius explains – The marakkars used to transship cargo first to Maldives, from where it was further sent along with the wares coming from South East Asia through the straits of Karaidu and Haddumati to the ports of Red Sea, controlled by the Ottomans.
They soon got embroiled in the succession issues between the contesting lords Bhuvaneka Vijaya bahu and Mayadunne at Ceylon, with Kunjali supporting the latter’s cause, for close to 7 years. In the wars between the Marakkars and the Portuguese in the waters around Ceylon, the Portuguese lost close to 50 ships. Attacks at Nagapatnam later resulted in even higher problems for the strong Portuguese, aided by the Paravas. Mohammed Kunjali I and his ally Pattu Marakakr were killed/beheaded in 1534 at Kanyimedu by Antonio da Silva during a Portuguese attack
His successor, also inheriting the title of Kunjali Marakkar took over, and later known as Kunjali II. The Zamorin tried to dislodge the Portuguese from Chaliyam in 1537, but failed. In the meantime the Tanur king had been converted and was renamed Dom Joao. The Vettathu raja was also to convert soon, together with his wife (and revert back soon after). In wars around Cochin also, losses followed the Zamorin even though they were supported by the Marakkars who had come back from Ceylon. At the same time, expected support from Egypt did not materialize. Eventually a disappointed and defeated Zamorin sued for peace with the Portuguese and a peace treaty was signed with the Portuguese, at Ponnani. This was to last all but 10 years and many a war followed.
However, in 1550 the Portuguese attacked and plundered Ponnani, and with an aim to irritate the Zamorin even further the Portuguese decided to construct a fort on the left bank of the Vaikkal river mouth in Ponnani. The Zamorin’s alliance with Portuguese as we saw, was an alliance borne out of desperation. Hostilities were resumed. The Kunjali II with his famed supporters such as Patu marakker continued the hit and run naval strategy inflicting much damage on the Portuguese trade in spite of the Cartaz system in force. But he was to pass away in 1569 and the Patu marakkar then took over as Kunhali III who according to Grey and Bell hailed from Kurichi, close to Thikkodi.
The struggles against the Portuguese continued, now led by Pattu Marakkar and Kutti pokker. The war-paroe force would as usual come out and attack the Portuguese ships at will, inflicting heavy damage and causalities before returning to the safety of shallow waters. But Patu marakkar brought more order to the counterattacks. It was during his period that light signaling by lookouts from higher vantage points, to signal Portuguese ships, came into vogue. He foreseeing a long struggle, convinced the Zamorin’s that dependence on foreign powers was not and answer, but to build his own naval forces. Calicut also became the location where ships and cannons were made under the marakkar supervision.
This went on for many years until in 1571 when Kunjali III attained a famous victory as he crushed the Portuguese at Chaliyam and demolished the Portuguese fort there after encircling it and starving the inmates. With this the Portuguese efforts to maintain a base in Malabar failed again and they decided to move to Goa. A number of gifts were given to this Kunjali and one of them apparently was land near the Angalapuzha renamed Puthpattanam (the area was thence known as Kottakkal – across the famous Velliyam kallu). He was also allowed to build his own fort in that location in 1573, and that came to be known and the Kunjali fort (Marakkar Kota) from then on. The naval strength of the Zamorin was greatly increased following this and but naturally the Portuguese were under even higher pressure. They had no choice but to again approach the Zamorin for a peace treaty. Just around this time, the Kunjali III died and was succeeded by his nephew, the 40 year old Mohammed Marakkar or Kunjali IV (Some confusion abounds – some say this death happened only in 1595 after a protracted bout of disability following a fall)
Kunjali IV continued in the same vein and many a skirmish between his forces and the Portuguese have been reported, some won by the Portuguese, some by the Kunjali’s forces now called Malabar pirates or Malabar Corsairs. The Portuguese Calicut treaty then came into force in 1582-1587 and a new factory was allowed to be constructed in Ponnani (this was in 1585). It was here that the estrangement between the Zamorin and the Kunjali IV started. Kunjali was in the meantime, in the process of fortifying his location even further with more cannons and trees.
The fortress, as described by De Couto, was square, each side being of 500 paces, ending with the usual bastions at the corners. The walls were four paces thick. In the middle was the citadel, with its dungeon, where Portuguese captives were immured, and which, as De Couto sadly adds, "for our sins was seldom vacant." The fort walls had their parapets, port-holes, and loop-holes, with much good artillery; but the strongest bastion was that which guarded the bar of the river on the north-west of the town.
What followed is not substantiated and are mentions of many a cause for estrangement between him and a young Zamorin. The first of which was the case of the Iringal Nair girl who lost her caste after Kunjali’s soldiers seized her. Apparently Kunjali then converted her, adopted her as his sister and got her married off, but other accounts (eagerly promoted by the Portuguese and other local detractors) mention that she became his own partner of sorts (her progeny are the present Marakkar family name holders). The second was Kunjali’s cutting off the tail of an elephant belonging to the Zamorin in contempt. The third was his cutting off the hair (some say the Nair was castrated) of a Nair nobleman who went to enquire these issues, the fourth was his cutting off the hair and breasts of another Nair woman and finally the fifth his announcement as the defender of Islam and the Lord of the seas.
The last line is well substantiated by Pius M- These titles were woven not out of void but out of substance of power, which Kunjali accumulated by way of maritime trade and corsair activities. With increasing statelyp owers being added to the person of Kunjali, ‘ambassadors from the Mecca and from the powerful Muslim royal houses of India including that of the Mughals’ were sent to his court and these wider diplomatic and political tie-ups were used by Kunjali for securing for himself the legitimacy and sanction needed for his political claims and for erasing the stigma of piracy being inscribed into his identity. He continues - The Zamorin suspected that the Kunjali’s incipient state-building ventures with a pan-Islamic connections would in course of time dwarf the actual ruler, as it happened in Cannanore, where a full-fledged state was eventually created by the trader-cum-ruler Ali Raja at the expense of the Kolathiris.
Decouto continues – On the death of the elder Kunhali he was succeeded by his nephew, Mahomet Kunhali Marakkar, who proved himself the most active and enterprising enemy the Portuguese had yet met with in India. "All these great defences", says De Couto, "served not only to make him secure, but also to make him so proud as to forget that he was but a vassal, and to hold himself out for a king. He created offices agreeable to that dignity, with pageantry of arms, and rode upon a white elephant, which is part of the insignia of the chief sovereigns of Asia. He also bore himself toward the Portuguese as his uncle had, only with far greater success, for besides taking many of our fustas and other small craft, he also seized a ship on her way from China, and afterwards a galeot. He also assisted with captains and soldiers the Queen of Olala (Ullal), when she rebelled against us, and also the Melique at Chanl. And not only against us, but against the Malabars he acted in like manner, in such wise that, by reason of the great wealth which he thus accumulated, he deemed himself invincible."
Luiz da Gama (Vasco’s grandson) did not leave Goa till the 13th November 1597, and then with a fleet diminished to the extent of the above-mentioned squadrons. He proceeded to Calicut, and there held a conference with the Samorin. The raja had to decide between supporting the Portuguese arms against his own vassels and race, a course which would probably lead to his own subjection to Portugal, or to witness the further growth of Kunhali's power, which along the whole coast was already overshadowing his own. He accordingly tried to better the terms previously made; in consideration of his assistance he demanded of Luiz da Gama a sum of 30,000 patagoes, some companies of Portuguese soldiers, and half the spoil.
As this was going on, the Zamorin signed a treaty with the Portuguese in 1597 and allowed them to build churches in Calicut and Ponnani, infuriating the Kunjali even further.
But there was yet another reason not mentioned by earlier historians and this was perhaps the real reason, so far mentioned only in a foot note by Pius, in his book on Portuguese Cochin. Citing Dutch sources he records that the merchants of Cochin who had been allied to Kunjali IV now asked the Cochin king Keshava Rama Varma to support the Kunjali IV against the Zamorin. Correspondence followed between the Cochin king and the Kunjali and perhaps the Portuguese used this information also to make the new Zamporin nervous. The events at Puthupattanam coupled with a potential for the Cochin king on one side and the Kunjali on the other side sandwiching him in a war, unsettled the Zamorin and made it clear that he had to uproot one of the problems once and for all.
As it appears, this Zamorin was befriended by a Portuguese padre Antonio (or was it Francis costa) in the meantime and Antonio was apparently behind many of the rumor mongering. After discussions with the Portuguese a plan was made by the Zamorin to capture the Kunhali fort and an attack was formulated in 1598, which failed miserably resulting in a lot of losses for the Portuguese. Kunhali tried to escape for the Nayak of Madurai had promised him asylum and a fort near Rameswaram, but he could not manage an escape. The next was carried out in 1599 under the leadership of Furtado and per the agreement, half of the loot was to be handed over to the Zamorin.
The Kunjali IV was finally cornered by the Zamorin and his troops attacking from land and the Portuguese led by Furtado from the seaside.
Decouto explains - In his extremity of want Kunhali sent envoys to the Samorin, heartily beseechiug him to have mercy upon him, and inquiring whether, if he should deliver himself up, the Samorin would promise to spare the lives of him and his followers : this the Samorin conceded, and the agreement was ratified by the olas of the parties. This negotiation the Samorin communicated to the chief captain (Furtado), begging him to confirm it, in which case he (the Samorin) would promise to give over to him Kunhali and some of his captains. Furtado made answer that His Highness should act as he proposed, and that he was quite satisfied." Some days now elapsed during which the Samorin seems to have been seeking means of avoiding the emeute of his own troops which he expected would accompany the surrender of the brave man to whom he had made a worthless promise of life. At length, Furtado having threatened an assault, the Samorin and Kunhali arranged for the surrender to take place on the 16th of March.
The events are explained in great detail in many a book and as it appears the Kunjali who surrendered to the Zamorin was seized, clapped in irons and taken away by the Portuguese.
"First came 400 Moors, many of them wounded, with their children and wives, in such an impoverished condition that they seemed as dead. These the Samorin bade go where they pleased. Last of all came Kunhali with a black kerchief on his head, and a sword in his hand with the point lowered. He was at that time a man of fifty, of middle height, muscular and broad-shouldered. He walked between three of his chief Moors. One of these was Chinale, a Chinese, who had been a servant at Malacca, and said to have been the captive of a Portuguese, taken as a boy from a fusta, and afterwards brought to Kunhali, who conceived such an affection for him that he trusted him with everything”.
Furtado's last act was to utterly destroy the fort, not leaving one stone upon another, and to burn the town, bazaars, and mosques to ashes. mob tearing down all the decorations and erections that had been set up.
Kunhali was taken to Goa, sentenced without trial and not in line with his surrender conditions. A last ditch attempt to convert him was also attempted, but it failed and he was executed in a French style guillotine, his limbs quartered and his salted head paraded around Cannanore.
The captives remained some time in Goa prison. The delay in the proceedings against them was caused by a sudden illness of the viceroy. His first act on his convalescence was to send word to the judges to sentence Kunhali off-hand, but though a fair trial was never contemplated, the judges preferred to mask the perfidy of the State with the semblance of a legal process. A formal indictment was prepared, upon which Kunhali was sentenced to be beheaded, his body to be quartered and exhibited on the beach at Bardes and Pangim, and his head to be salted and conveyed to Cannanor, there to be stuck on a standard for a terror to the Moors. Before his end, he "was many times invited and entreated to seek entrance within the fold of Our Lord Jesus Christ, by many of the Religious of all the Orders, who laboured heartily to gain that soul, and add it to the flock of the Lord. Kunhali, however, refused to yield." At the execution, which was carried out on a scaffold raised in the large square in front of the viceregal palace, and in view of an immense crowd of citizens, Kunhali bore himself with a dignity and courage which won the respect of his pitiless foes.
After some days Chinale was brought forth to share the fate of his leader. As the pious historian puts it, "a better lot awaited him," inasmuch as, before his execution, he yielded to the persuasion of the Fathers and became a Christian, and was baptised by the name of Bartholomew. After this ceremony, at which he "shewed pleasure and good will, he was conveyed to the scaffold, accompanied by the Holy Misericordia, and by the orphan children who were praying to God for him; and his body was buried in consecrated ground." Kunhali's nephew, and all the rest of the forty prisoners given over by the Samorin, some others of whom became Christians, were likewise put to death, "and not one that was taken escaped."
Kunjali IV’s place was taken by his nephew as we recounted earlier, that was the story of the erstwhile Dom
With that ended the organized and well reported Kunjali Marakkar counter attacks, but if you assume like many other historians, that the anti-Portuguese attacks started and ended with the Kunjali’s, you are wrong. The so called Zamorin sponsored corsair activities continued without any interruption with other smaller leaders and this resulted in reported Portuguese trade losses of a million xerafins or more every year. Even armada assisted or convoy based fleet travel did not help and the attacks on Portuguese ships continued till 1650. This shows that the enmity between the Kunjali and the Zamorin was personal and not communal as previously felt.
Grey and Bell conclude - Kotta river long continued to be the principal nest of the corsairs, who, friendly to the Dutch and English, continued to work havoc upon the waning commerce of Goa. The Malabar pirates were not finally extirpated until far on in the British period, when they had become pests indeed; but in their long struggle with the Portuguese it is impossible not to regard them as, to some extent, fighting the battle of free trade against monopoly, the battle of the whole coast against the Portuguese marts, and from this point of view to deny a certain measure of consideration, and even of sympathy. This sympathy may more freely be extended to Kunhali himself, notwithstanding his cruelties, which are probably much exaggerated by the Portuguese, as to one who, after a prolonged siege, the first stage of which closed with his conspicuous victory, was, at length, treacherously murdered in defiance of a well-understood capitulation.
Pyrard laval visiting the location seven years later, has something interesting to add and again this concerns the Nair woman. P Laval stayed with this Marakkar family for over 12 days and states that the Marakkar Kotta still existed, but in ruins. Their cordial relationship was due to the fact that the Marakkar wanted to visit the Maladives and since Pyrard had information about the Maladives, wanted to get educated about the place. He says “This Kunjali has left a son, also called a marakkar. I have often seen him, and have eaten and drunk in his house. He resides mostly at coste (Kotta) and Chombaye with one or two of his wives and although since the death of his father, the king has not appointed no one in his stead, and has not recognized the son as his successor, yet he is treated with great respect than anyone else and the title is preserved to him for his father’s sake only”.
The Kunjali IV is mentioned as a contemporary of the famous Tatcholi othenan and a ballad apparently (I have not heard it – it is mentioned so in the natotipattu section of the encyclopedia of Puranas) explains how Othenan made Kunjali (a philanderer) wear female clothes to teach him a good lesson in life.
Sanjay Subramaniyam and G Bouchon analyze the relations between the Zamorins and the popular Kunjalis during these hundred years and mention that the Zamorin alignment with the Portuguese was perhaps to counter balance the situation.
So did the dog really run away with the bone? I am not so sure. It was of course an account of the times and how fortunes oscillated between the various stake holders. Some rose to fame and profited, some perished, but trade went on under different managers. We see the same even today, and instead of kings and corsairs, it is a story of the corporations and the wars they launch, against each other with an intent to profit.
And of course, there is the story of Dom Pedro Rodriguez, which I wrote many years earlier and needs some augmentation. It is actually a continuationof the Kunhali story.
The history of Kunhali – Grey & Ball (Pyrad Laval voyages)
Pyrad Laval – Voyages
India’s naval traditions – Ed KKN Kurup
The Kunjalis, Admirals of Calicut – OK Nambiar
Charithratile Marakkar Sannidhyam – SV Mohammed
Essays in Goan History – Teotonio R de Souza
Portuguese Cochin and the Maritime trade of India – Pius Malekandathil
Kerala Charitra shilpikal – A Sreedhara Menon
Kerala Muslim history – PK Syed Muhammed
Kozhikode – Charithrathil ninnu chila edu – MGS Narayanan
Zamorins of Calicut – KV Krishna Iyer
Criminality and Legitimization in Seawaters: A Study on the Pirates of Malabar during the Age of European Commercial Expansion (1500-1800) - Pius Malekandathil
Note- When the Kunhali II was slain at Ceylon a ‘Christian Nair’ Francisco de Sequiera was involved, whose story I will recount another day.
Photos – Google images, with due acknowledgments to any owners/uploaders