The Rani of Cochin, Van Reede and Hortus Malbaricus

Posted by Maddy Labels:

Let me start with a brief introduction to a soldier and botanist named Hendrik Adriaan van Reede tot Drakenstein (1636-1691). Van Reede as he is popularly referred to, wrote a 12 volume set of books under the title Hortus Malabaricus (Gardens of Malabar), still considered a magnum opus in Botanical circles. Van Reede also figured in the conducting of the conquests of the VOC Dutch and the administration of Dutch Malabar and the Cochin Kingdom.

What has Hortus Malabaricus got to do with these history discussions? It was incidentally the listings from this compendium that I referred to in order to answer a question put forward by a reader interested in Varthema’s comments about roses in Malabar. Varthema had stated that he saw a large number of red, white & yellow roses in Malabar. I was mystified. Yes, there are some roses in Malabar, but to see many in the markets would have been a strange occurrence indeed, unless the flowers came from somewhere else, e.g. The Deccan plateaus or Vijayanagara. In the course of investigations, I found that the Chola traders used to carry Malabar rose essence to trade in China as early as 1077. I learnt that the sweet Gulkhand was originally made using Malabar roses….all new to me. I even saw mentions of the possibility that Yellow roses of Europe reached there via Turkish traders from Malabar/Calicut. However I found nothing else to corroborate Varthema’s statement on Calicut roses which has been quoted far & wide by others interested in horticulture. I will get to the horticultural history of Malabar some other time, but let us go back to Van Reede now that he has entered the picture. I cannot think of any other person, Logan maybe, but not anybody else who spent so much of their life administering problems and overseeing happenings of Malabar.

While checking about Van Reede and reading Dutch history in Malabar, I gleaned about their involvement in the affairs at the Kingdom of Cochin, where the Dutch traders and VOC focused their actions. They had just managed to loosen the Portuguese grip on Malabar spice trade, in Quilon. The Cochin royal family seemed to have the accession situation still out of control. Alert readers would recall that in the Portuguese times, the viceroys had manipulated this aspect and the enmity of the Cochin Raja with the Zamorin, cleverly. In Cochin, when the ruler reached a ripe old age, he was superannuated, sent into retirement & study of godly scriptures and the next in line – the heir apparent took over.

The Portuguese were brought in by Rama Varma and reigning king Varma decided to stay on (a stand supported by the Portuguese) in power even after crossing the age. This resulted in animosity between the heir apparent (from Chazhur and Mutta Tavazhi) & the king and it continued to simmer as time went by.

Let’s get back to the Dutch. Rijkolf Van Goens had finished mopping up Portuguese resistance at Ceylon (Jaffna) and Tuticorin and had now reached Malabar (1658-1663). It took five expeditions (1658, 1660, 1661, 1662 and 1663) to subdue the Portuguese. His assistant, who later became the governor of Malabar, was Van reed, son of a prominent Dutch forester.

Heninger now takes up the story here – In that period of the 17th century, the principal rulers of greater Malabar were the Kings of Cochin, & Travancore, The Zamorin of Calicut and the Kolathiri rulers. The key position in the colonial concept was held by the Cochin Raja. Van Goens and Van reed formed a good relationship with the heir apparent, Ravi Varma of Cochin (and his brother of the same name – a hostage to the alliance). During a key battle, Goda Varma, a prince also defected to the Dutch side and informed them of the palace fortifications.

Van Goens offered Van reed the first vacant captaincy position if he could save the ageing Rani Ganghadhara Maha Lakshmi in the battle melee during early 1662 and the siege of the palace of Rama Varma. The Raja Rama varma and two of his brothers are killed in the battle. Van Reede rescued the Rani who was hiding in the temple attic and has her carried away on a Namboothiri’s shoulder. This was a key and well thought out requirement for the next step of enthroning & empowering the heir apparent, her nephew, a task left to the Rani. Until a decision was taken, the Rani is treated well by the Dutch due to specific entreaties by Ravi varma.

The notes left by the Dutch are revealing in purpose but undignified & callous in content.
Surgeon Wouter Schouten wrote – Only the old queen was taken prisoner by the ensign ‘Jonkheer’ Henderik Van Rhede, because she had favored the Portuguese as much as she had been hostile to us. But the general kept her alive and she was treated well, the more so because of the intercession of the king, our friend whose aunt she was. However she was taken into custody, because she was not trusted rather than for her beauty, for she was an ugly old woman, but adorned with gold chains and trinkets which stood out wonderfully against her black skin.

However in March 1662, Van Goens was driven out of Cochin and Van Reed, the captain retreated to Cranganore. The two brothers (both Vira Kerala Varma’s) fled to Munnar in Ceylon. Van Goens went to Batavia (Jakarta -Indonesia) for reinforcements and returned in the fall on 1662 to take back Cochin.

What about the Rani? She died at a ripe old age in 1678.

The brothers (princes) traveled to Quilon to meet Nieuhof (who himself wrote some interesting accounts of Malabar) to negotiate the return of the throne. Unfortunately the heir apparent died during the journey and the brother of the same name is proposed instead. The rani accepts his nomination. Note here that the heir apparent and his brother are actually not from Cochin, but the highlands.

The final battle in 1663 was led by Van reede. The Goda Varama claimants (supporters of the Portuguese) were expelled later by Van Reede and his friend Isac De Saint Martin. Van Reede then occupied the Bolghati Island. All the Roman Catholics and Portuguese were expelled by the Dutch (I believe they scattered around or went to Goa or back to Europe). In February the Dutch took over Cannanore from the Portuguese. The Dutch then signed a treaty with the Zamorin of Calicut and finally, on 6th March 1663, Vira Kerala Varma was crowned as the Raja by Van Goens who returned for the event. Around the 20th of March, the Dutch led by Van Goens signed a treaty of eternal alliance with the Cochin Raja.

Van Goens left Cochin & India on 22nd March, leaving behind Van Reede as Councilor of Malabar, President of the Town Council of Cochin and Dutch envoy. For three years thereafter, Van Reede served also the position of ‘Regedore Meior’ in the kings council, was treated on par with Namboothiri’s and held in high esteem by the people for his saving the queen, fighting for the king, and sticking to the king’s side during the palace intrigues & politics. Some time around March 1665, he left Cochin and John Vax, his friend in the previous battles took over.

He was thence involved in the imprisonment & eviction of compatriot Nieuhof for his corrupt activities (some say due to personal rivalry between the two) in Tuticorin and Quilon. Eventually he moved through Quilon & Tuticorin to settle down briefly in Ceylon and write his reports to his boss Van Goens.

During this tenure between 1662 and 1665 he had started to get tired of the constant rivalry between the Rajas and people of Malabar, not really understanding the reasons for these ‘false people’s’ quarrels. Nieuhof is meanwhile sent to Batavia where he gets acquitted, but is fired from the VOC services.

Opium trade had picked up in the meantime in Quilon. Van Rheede did not have a great time there and had an unsatisfactory relationship with the merchants of Quilon. Jan Van Almonde an experienced trader was asked to serve under Van reed which he refused to do considering his larger experience. The building of the Quilon fort was not progressing smoothly and finally things came to a head with Van reed resigning from the VOC. John Vax also submitted his resignation.

Van Goens stationed as VOC commander in Ceylon was embarrassed, In addition to the worsening situation in Malabar, the Anglo Dutch war was in full effect in Europe and the English were sniffing around in Malabar. Eventually Van Rheede was appointed as Commander of Ceylon and transferred to Jaffna as #2 to Van Goens.

Based in Ceylon, he undertook further disciplinary actions against other high ranking officers of the VOC in Malabar, got involved in many skirmishes and later full fledged wars against the feuding Madhura Nayaks (curiously at one time even got his diamond ring (worth 200 guilders) pinched by the Madhura Nayak!!). After the wars with the Nayak was won, he held an exalted status in the VOC and Van Goens now happy with his sergeant major, started planning possible excursions against the Zamorin & Calicut, the only untouched part of Malabar.

By now it was April 1669 and Van Reed got waylaid not by more wars but by botany. This started with requests for medicinal plants & herbs from headquarters. All this period you may be astonished to note that the entire territory of Malabar was actually administered by the VOC not from Cochin, but from Ceylon! It was thus that Reed formed a team of botanical specialists (e.g. Paul Hermann) headed by him to track down the flora & fauna of Malabar. However as we have seen before Van Goens was a very vocal person and soon interfered in the relationship between Van reed and Paul Hermann (the latter specialized in Ceylon flora). Van Goens did not want Malabar to get any prominence and tried his best to block all the Van reede efforts. The first open fighting between the two started at this time.

By 1676 Van Goens managed to get Van Rheede transferred to Batavia. It was here that the book Hortus Malabaricus took concept and the first two volumes were completed for publishing in 1678 (without Van Goens knowing it). Van Rheede then returned to Holland. By 1684 Reede was pulled out of retirement and sent back – again to root out corruption in the VOC of Asia. In 1685 Van Goens relinquished his governorship of Ceylon to his son. He was then made governor general and eventually returned to Amsterdam in 1680.

Rheede settled down in Ceylon and then came out the next 10 volumes, without any Goens to block his efforts. For Goens, Colombo was supreme and Malabar distasteful. It was on his final trip from Ceylon that Reed died onboard the ship ‘Drechterland’ that was taking him to Surat, apparently poisoned.

Strangely Van Rheede never picked up Malayalam or Sanskrit after all these years in Malabar. His main interpreter was Vinayaka Pandit and a number of Tupasses (earlier introduced as Portuguese Indian or Lusad Indians) and other Brahmins. Interestingly the King of nearby Tekkumkur had ensured to send many Brahmins to the Dutch school started in Kottayam by Van reed. It is thus that the Brahmins learnt both languages.

The Hortus Malabaricus describing some 740 Malabar plants was finally completed by 1703. The intervening period covers much more Malabar history, to be recounted on another day. What was left was Van Reed’s legacy to Malabar - the voluminous (12 vols) Hortus Malabarica – A treatise about the plants & flowers of Malabar. The fine drawings were made by Missionary Mathews; the plants were collected and sorted, described for their medicinal properties by Vaidyars, namboothiris and Ezhavas. It is truly a joint effort. The team had a total of 25 members including Itty Achutan, Appu Bhatt, Ranga Bhatt & Vinayaka Bhatt. Itty Achutan was the main contributor in the effort.

The book was in some measure the product of political rivalry between Van Reede and General Ryklof van Goens, who was bent on establishing the Dutch colonial capital at Colombo rather than Cochin. Van Reede wanted to prove Malabar's superiority in terms of ready supply of valuable spices, cotton and timber. More importantly he was able to show that many valuable drugs purchased in European cities, including those used for the treatment of Dutch officers in the Indies, were actually made from medicinal plants originating in Malabar and exported through Arabian and other trade routes. This worked. The Dutch government sided with the Cochin governor, even as his publication created a stir in Europe's scientific and political circles, further stimulating rivalry for colonies in India.

Strangely the book’s first English translation done by KS Manilal, appeared only in 2003. Can you believe that? From 1687 when the first two volumes were completed, to the next ten by 1693 (apparently not 1703 as popularly mentioned & in the title page of Vol 12 – clarification from - The botany of the Commelins - D. O. Wijnands) and now the English version in 2003, three hundred years or more had passed. This was the first European documentation of Kerala’s Ayurveda.

On Reede’s personal life, it is stated that he led an expansive lifestyle, hailing from the aristocratic Mijdrecht family; he was called Lord of Myjdrecht, that he was married and that he had a daughter Francine van Reede who lived in Ceylon and a son who died in South Africa.

Van Reede spent a while in South Africa (The Draakenstein region is named after him) and he was involved in promoting better treatment for VOC slaves. While visiting Africa he had made notes with an intention of wiring a Hortus Africus, but it never materialized. Van reed did not rest in peace in Surat – many years later the common Dutch English Burial ground sent a bill for 6000/- to repair his elaborate decagon shaped tomb with dual cupolas. Even after his death he was considered a heretic Lutheran who viciously whipped and chased the Portuguese missionaries away from Malabar.

How interesting the story is, if you think about it carefully. The fortunes of Van reede were dictated by the safety of the Rani of Cochin. The warrior turns into a botanist, mainly to prove that Malabar plants were superior to Ceylonese and to ensure that Malabar was not ruled out of Ceylon or ceded to it while at the same time preferring the uncomplicated people of Ceylon over the difficult ones in Malabar. Ironically, for 300-335 years the fine book he wrote based on age old Ayurvedic secrets (credit had been given by him to all the people who helped him) has never been translated and only in 2003 was the English translation finally completed by a KS Manilal of Cochin.How ironic that Van reede who spent a lifetime in Malabar hated the region and was entombed in Surat after being poisoned by his own people.

And finally how ironic that the man who spent a lifetime to botany, KS Manilal after all his hard work had to bequeath the rights of his work to a university and not even have his name mentioned in the Malayalam translation of his English version.

And whatever happened to the VOC or the Dutch East India Company?

With a deafening and thunderous noise the large Amsterdam warehouse at the old shipyards of the United East-Indies Company, the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), collapsed on the 14th of April 1822. It simply imploded, except for one wing. For almost two centuries, the landmark building had stored the riches brought by thousands of ships, waiting to be sold by Dutch auction. The VOC store was no more. The large Dutch company had died a catastrophic and wealth consuming death about twenty years before. The first truly multinational corporation in the world went bankrupt leaving a debt of 219 million Dutch guilders. The Dutch government had tried to prop it up by taking it over and dismantling it, but suffered under its debts until well into the 19th century.

Such are the ironies of life…

Reede’s soul must be saying – I always told you, the Malabari’s (South) are tricky guys
And the Rani would say – Reede, you really should have stuck to the canals of Amsterdam and tended to the tulips, like your father did…

Note: The Tekumkur, Vadakumkur highland areas cover Kottayam, Changanacherry, Todupuzha, Vaikom, Muvattupuzha, Ettumanoor etc. The latter was aligned to Cochin and the former was independent.

Hendrik Adriaan van Reede tot Drakenstein (1636-1691) & Hortus Malabaricus- J. Heniger
Matters of exchange - Harold John Cook
Rumphius' Orchids - Georg Eberhard Rumpf, E. M. Beekman
Cochin state manual – C Achyutha Menon


  1. Raghu Menon

    That was an extremely interesting article and never knew that there was such a wide story behind it. thanks for sharing this.

  1. Maddy

    thanks Raghu...

  1. eldo's

    great to find this peice of information online i never though some one would have written so much on kerala currently doin architectura from the school of planning and architecture...i was doing a project on the tripunithara hill place do u have some informatin regrading the palace like more than those ten lines on it posted on th tourism web page ..itl be a great help
    thanks eldo alias

  1. Varughese Cherian

    Van Reede done great job,but think about our (Indian) old physicians knowledge.

  1. Varughese Cherian

    Van Reede done great job,but think about our (Indian) old physicians knowledge.