China Kuttiali Marakkar

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Chinna or China?

The exact identities of the various Marakkars have continued to confuse me throughout my Malabar studies. We all know Kunhali IV and his story, especially the  final stages when the Portuguese managed to capture and behead him, to ‘apparently’ bring an end to the line of Malabar corsairs and admirals of the Zamorin. But there is one Marakkar who has slipped the cracks as they say, in history books and got lost or miscast. He was the most notorious of the lot, perhaps the most powerful, yet he is mentioned only briefly. Why so? Let’s uncover his story.

The Marakkars as we know originally moved in from the Tamilakam coastal regions. Malabar as such depended on imported rice, farmed either in the Konkan areas or on the Eastern hinterlands. The traders who delivered them to the ports in Quilon, Cochin and Calicut were none other than these Marakakars. The Kunnalakonathiri, the lord of the hills and seas, had been in a precarious situation, not finding the right forces to take on the Portuguese on the seas. The Egyptians and the Ottoman Turks were far away and not powerful enough to take on the well-entrenched Portuguese off the Malabar shores. It was in these circumstances that the Marakkar families moved north to Malabar from Cochin. As time went by, these Muslims of the Coromandal, occupied a prominent position in the matters of Malabar, especially in the defense of the Zamorin from a naval perspective. Their story is particularly interesting and their placement in the wars between the Zamorin and the Portuguese, quite significant.

While the Zamorins fighting forces were built up around a core of Nair foot soldiers supported by warriors from other castes such as the Thiyya and the Mappilas, serving as swordsmen, lance men and archers. When it came to the sea, there was hardly any cause for concern from an enemy, for the seas until the Portuguese came were a medium for peaceful trade, with the dhow - the camel of the seas, ferrying through the monsoon winds. When it became apparent that the Portuguese were intent on securing and monopolizing these oceans and sea lanes for themselves, the Zamorin who had decided not to throw his lot with them had no choice but to build a naval might to take on the Portuguese. It was a tall task, and the only recourse he had, was with the Marakkars who had experience in naval warfare protecting their ships carrying rice cargo; not only from the Coromandel port to the Malabar ports, but also their sources at Bengal, Burma, Malacca, and Cambodia, from SE Asian pirates. Piracy had been common on both the eastern and western seas and the Marakkars had already become experts at handling it (that they were later to get termed as corsairs and pirates is a travesty in history!).

The exodus of the pardesis occurred when the Zamorin and Afonso Albuquerque signed a peace treaty in 1513, after the accession of a friendly upstart who poisoned his predecessor. The first of these traders  on record is Cherina (Cheriya kutti) or Karim Marakkar, the Muhammad or Mame Marakkar and the Mamale or Muhammad Ali Marakkar. Nino, Ismail and Chilo Marakkar also find mention.

After the death of Albuquerque and the appointment of Lopo Soares in 1515, the Cochin group supported by the Cochin royals, strived to increase private trading with many a Casado financing ships for Red Sea voyages, supported by the Cochin Marakkars. This was also the period during which Marakkars controlled business in various port towns of the East coast, managing supply to the Portuguese ships which came to collect spices. A turning point was when Cheriya Kutti Ali who had together with governor Diogo Lopes loaded a ship destined for Mecca in 1522, but as it bore out, the governor himself confiscated the ship, infuriating Ali Marakkar. It is also recorded by historians that the implementation of Cartaz’s and the singling out of Marakkar ships was a practice the private Casados partook, so as to limit profiting within themselves. Mamale Marakkar had by now moved on to Cannanore to take control of the Maladive trade. We also note that there were Marakkar rice traders from Konkan in Cochin, for it was an alternative source and Ismail Marakkar was the head of rice-merchants from Konkan during the first decade of the 16th century. The traders supplied cinnamon from Ceylon, cloves, mace and other commodities from Malacca and other parts of South East Asian countries as well as pepper from the Malabar hinterland. Initially Nino Nino Marakkar of Cochin sent his ship to Malacca for the sake of the Portuguese activities in Cochin.

By 1524, Kunju Ali, Mohammad Ali and Faquih Ahmed Ali, all Marakkars moved to Ponnani after assurance from the Zamorin of better protection, support and in return the Ponnani Marakkaras went on to outfit numerous paros and clansmen in organized guerilla warfare against Portuguese shipping off the Malabar West coast. Thus they branched off from traders to corsair activity under the suzerainty of the Zamorin, who as we saw faced declining trade with the departure of the Pardesi Arabs around 1513.

The vacuum created by the bossy Arab Pardesi was quickly filled by the Marakkars who took over the overall leadership of the warring community including the Mappilas, after locating themselves in Ponnani. This left the Casado community in charge of trading operations in Cochin, duly supported by the Mappilas in internal distribution. The Mamale Marakar as we saw drifted into working with the Maladive contacts while the Ponnani Marakkars with their counterparts in the supply centers in the Coromandel, the Mannar gulf and Malacca controlled seaborne trade around the southern coastline.

The Ottomans, who occupied Egypt in 1516/7 displacing Mamluks and their commercial allies, the Karimi, began to increasingly depend upon Marakkar traders for obtaining Indian spices, but it was not easy with the Portuguese ships prowling the Arabian seas.

Now with this background, we come to the naval commanders and there were four mentioned in various sources. There were four of them in the illustrations line, Kunhali Marakkar I (1507-31) Kunhali II (1531-71) Kunhali III (1571-95) and Kunhali IV (1598-99). The Marakkar fighter may have had connections with or were from the Qalandariya sect and wore talismans to evidence it, they all had shaved heads, were bare chested, wearing belts and talismans, topped with red scarfs.

Shayk Zainuddin, the Arab scholar of Ponnani, in his Tuhfat-ul Mujahidin states that the Marakkars had turned against the Portuguese by about 1524, perhaps as early as 1522. He states - In the same year some of the faquis in Kashi [Cochi] like Ahmed Marakkar, his brother Kunj Ali Marakkar, their uncle Muhammed Ali Marakkar and other dependents felt the desire to wage war against the Portuguese. They left Kashi [Cochin] for Kalikut.  

But the first three Kunjali’s are not highlighted as leaders (or Portuguese variations) in the original sources.  So, who were these first three? We know that one Kunjali or Kuttiali harassed the Portuguese for many years but was subdued by Lope Vaz Sampayo and forced to retire. Kunhali II, his son moved and established a base at Kotte. This was the Kunhali who was involved in supporting Mayadunne against his brother the king, in Ceylon. He lost the battle to Souza and attempted an escape to Calicut overland, in disguise. The next in line was Pattu Marakkar who became the Kunjali III around 1570, operating off Pudupattanam, one who was quite visible in records, until the Kunjali IV took over in 1595 and his story, his fallout with the Zamorin et.c have been the subject of so many lores and legends.

But then, Portuguese documents mention not only the Cunhale many times but also a China Cutiale Marakkar. Who could this China Cutiale or China Kuttali Marakkar be? Well, as it turns out this was the Kunhali I (they were never Moplahs), a person of half Chinese (or perhaps even a descendant of the Calicut Chinese who left in the 15th century) descent. Most people mistook the China for Chinna. Let’s look at the story in detail. You will see that he was the first Kunhale from the timeline and related incidents.

We note from the first of the accounts (Kerr V6C1) - At this time (1526) George Zelo and Pedro de Faria blockaded the port of Cananor, in which lay a fleet belonging to the Zamorin. Sampayo immediately sent orders to Antonio de Sylveria and Christopher de Souza, then at Goa, to join the other two officers at Cananor to prevent the escape of the enemy and went in person with seven ships and a considerable land force to endeavor to destroy them. Cutiale, the admiral of this fleet belonging to the Zamorin, used every effort to defend himself, both by disposing his ships in formidable order, and by intrenchments and batteries on shore, where he had a land force of 10,000 men. Having made proper dispositions, Sampayo landed with about 1300 soldiers, leaving orders with Pedro de Faria to set the paraos belonging to the enemy on fire. The trenches of the enemy were carried after an obstinate resistance, and with great slaughter of the Moors, and seventy paraos were destroyed. By this signal victory, above eighty brass cannon were gained; but Sampayo spared the town, as it belonged to the king of Narsinga, with whom the Portuguese were then in peace (interesting to note that Cannanore was then under the suzerainty of the Vijayanagara kings!).

He adds later - In the year 1528, Don Joan Deza was sent to cruise on the coast of Calicut, where in several rencounters he took fifty vessels laden with various commodities. He burnt the town of Mangalore; and falling in with the fleet of Calicut, consisting of seventy paraos well manned and armed under the command of the Chinese admiral Cutiale, Deza took most of them, killing 1500 Moors, and taking nearly as many prisoners, among whom was Cutiale.

Thus we see the mention of a Chinese admiral Cutiale. Danvers quoting Manuel de Faria e Sousa, Camoes, and Barros confirms the same - Lopo Vaz also sent out several fleets to scour the seas and clear them of Moorish ships. One of these, under the command of Dom Joao de Eca, captured fifty prizes, laden with all sorts of goods; he burnt the town of Mangalor, and meeting afterwards a fleet of seventy paraos, belonging to Calicut, under the command of the Chinese Cutiale, he fought them, captured most of the vessels, killing some 1,500 Moors, and taking nearly an equal number prisoners, amongst whom was the Commander Cutiale.

Another general mention states - The inhabitants of Calicut are adventurous sailors. They are known by the name of Chini-bechegan (sons of the Chinese) and pirates do not dare to attack the vessels of Calicut” (Major, India in the 15th century). This possibly explains why Faria (I, 315 ; II, 14) speaks of Cutiale as the Chinese Captain or China Cutiale and (I, 365) says that the town of Diu was founded by the Sultan of Cambay in commemoration of a victory over a Chinese (i.e., Malabar) fleet.

From Hill’s studies - Marakkar accounts

Meanwhile, in 1524, Hierom de Sousa defeated one of the Zamorin’s fleets, consisting of 40 ships and commanded by “a valiant Moor” named Cutiale, whilst it was carrying provisions to Calicut, and soon after Don George Telo (Velo) captured four ships out of a fleet of 38 laden with spices, which were being convoyed by the same Moor commander and drove the rest ashore (Faria, I, 281-2).
In 1526 Lope Vaz blockaded a fleet under Cutiale at Cannanore and burned 70 faraos, whilst Manuel da Gama cleared the Coromandel coast of pirates (Faria, I, 297), In the same year the Zamorin sent a fresh force to Ceylon under Ali Ibrahim Marker, a noted leader whom Zainuddin (Lopes, 63) calls a brother of Kunhale, and whom de Barros (IV,vii, 22) calls ‘ a great pirate and bold knight, but this attempt failed like that of Oaleaoem.

In 1527 Pate Marker, commanding the Zamorin’s forces, reduced the King of Kotta to great straits (Faria, I, 314). In 1528 Lope Vaz again met the Chinese. In 1528 Lope Vaz again met the Chinese captain Cutiale with a fleet of 70 paros, defeated and took him prisoner (Faria, I, 315).

When in 1536 Mayadune again asked assistance from the Zamorin, he and his brother Paichi or Pate Markar were appointed to lead the forces sent, but as Mayadune was reconciled to his brother, the expedition returned to Calicut. Faria (I, 400) says that in this year Cutiale, Admiral of Calicut, took a galley from James Reymoso, but as has been already stated Cutiale had been taken prisoner by the Portuguese in 1528. Probably this was Kunhale.

China Kuttialai is missing for some time after this imprisonment. Perhaps he went to Malacca for in 1527- Pinto (p. 33) -says that the King of Achem had in his service one Cutiale Markar, a Mohammaden of Malabar, with 600 Gujaratis.

In 1537, because a ship had sailed to Jedda without their pass, the Portuguese attacked Puranur and killed a number of people, amongst whom was Kutti Ibrahim Markar, nephew of Ali Ibrahim Markar. The latter, with his brother-in-law Ahmad Markar (also called Paichi or Pate Markar) and his brother Kunju Ali Markar, took command of a fleet of 22 grabs sailing towards Ceylon, where the reconciliation between the King of Kotta and Mayadune had been broken.

In February 1538, the Marakkars were surprised at Bentalah or Beadala, near Rameswaram, by Martin Alphonsus de Mello (or Sousa) and completely defeated. The three chiefs escaped by swimming and Ali Ibrahim returning towards Malabar died on the way (Zainuddin, 141, 144; Faria, I, 412; Pieris. Ceylon and the Portuguese, p. 48), but Ahmad (or Pate) Markar and Kunju Ali Markar made their way to Ceylon and joined Mayadune, who was in 1539 besieged in his capital by Don Miguel Ferreira.

The latter threatened to destroy the town and carry Mayadune in chains to Goa unless he surrendered the two young chiefs. Mayadune was at his wit’s end and arranged to do by cunning what he could not effect openly without dishonor. He informed Paichi Marcar and Kunhale Marcar of the demand and advised them to escape by night into the forest, where they should remain until Ferreira had left the country. Accordingly, they made their way that night with seventy Moorish followers into the forest, where they were set upon by a large number of Pachas, the cruelest caste among the Chingalas, who are accustomed to cut off the noses and lips of the enemies whom they slay. By these they were shot down to a man and their heads cut off and sent to Ferreira. Peace was immediately made, the delighted King of Kotta distributed money among all the men in the fleet and presented to the Captain, pieces of jewelry and lend 30,000 cruzados for the expenses of the fleet (Faria, II, 9 ; de Couto, Dec. V, i).

The Zamorin was so cast down by this disaster that he sent China Cutiale as his ambassador to Goa and made peace with the Portuguese (Faria, II, 14 ; de Couto, V, v, vii), but the Marakkar family only nursed its hatred for that nation and bided it’s time for revenge (see Ribeiro, Ceilao, 13-20 ; PAS. Ceylon Journ., XX, 57-107 ; Courtenay I, 28-47).  Faria (H, U) also mentions that in 1539 China Cutiale was sent by the Zamorin as his ambassador to Goa.

So many such mentions of the Chinese origin Kuttiali can thus be found in Portuguese records. According to the Lusiad- Hector de Sylveyra, one of the most gallant officers ever sent from Portugal to India, greatly distinguished himself; John Deza destroyed the remains of the zamorin’s fleets, commanded by Cutiale, a Chinese admiral; and Sampayo himself spread slaughter and devastation over the seas and shores of India. Having said all this let us now analyze him from the study conducted by Jorge M dos Santos Alves, a document in French.

Sources mention Kuttiali, Kunhali etc but they have all neglected to add the China Kuttiali to the first Kunhali, perhaps assuming that China is Chinna in Tamil. The China is not Chinna since Kutti is already used as the Malayalam equivalent of Chinna (Did Gundert in his original Malayalam Kerala Pazhama state Chinna and not Cheena wrongly, perhaps leading others to use Chinna later?). So, the use of China does probably connect him to Chinese origins, and this is backed up by the text provided by Portuguese Chroniclers.  Let’s check if any of them link China to his physical/facial appearance with Mongoloid features?

We see from Jorge’s essay that China Kuttiali belonged to the Pate Marakkar family and was born in the last quarter of the 15th century. Well known, rich and influential, he was part trader, part seaman. In 1507 he was not only serving the Zamorin, but also aligned to the Kolathunad raja as a rice supplier to Cannanore. Cherina Marakkar and Mohamed Ali Marakkar were his illustrious relatives. 

He explains - If Mahmud Ali, with his fleet of twenty merchant ships, had the reputation for controlling the trade of premium quality Coromandel rice for Cochin, from which he probably drew great benefit, his brother Cherina, invested in the cinnamon and elephant trade in Ceylon, and through it, exerted a strong political influence over the Sinhalese kings of Kotte. To expand his business and expand his business (which was already (established in) the port of Aden, on the Red Sea) ", Cherina Marakkar was associated with the merchants of Gujarat (such as the all-powerful lord of Diu, Malik Ayaz) who from Cochin and Calicut were deploying their trades to South-East Asia, especially to Malacca. Around 1514, China kuttiali vanishes from Portuguese records, but reappears around 1524/1525, participant this time to the trade of Calicut pepper with the ports of Gujarat.

But it was in 1528 that China Kutti Ali is really taken a note of in close quarters. As an admiral of a fleet of commerce loaded with rice, which went down the West coast in the direction of Calicut, he was surprised by a Portuguese armada. Beaten in a naval fight, he was imprisoned and taken to Cannanore. "This was the place where the Portuguese chronicler Fernao Lopes de Castaneda, just arrived in India, saw Cina Kutti Ali Marakkar and was so fascinated by his figure and his attractive personality - which he says fully justified the impressive ransom paid for his release to the Moplah merchants of Cannanore. He Kuttiali agrees to abide by an oath of friendship with the Portuguese and is awarded a number of Cartazes. But this is short-lived for in 1530, his boats which were trading in Kerala pepper for the port of Gogha in Gujarat, are attacked by the Portuguese. Once again, in 1536, we see him fighting the Portuguese on the waters of the coast of Kerala.

He is last heard of in the 1539-1540 peace treaty finalization at Goa. Portuguese writers mention that the Zamorin, sent as his ambassador, China Cutiale, with a splendid retinue to Goa to sue for peace. The ambassador was accompanied, however, by Manoel de Brito, Captain of the fort of Chaliett, to act as intercessor. A treaty was concluded in January 1540, fully beneficial to the Portuguese, one which lasted 36 years.

Portuguese sources refer to him as Calicut o mouro China Cutiale, homem muyto esforçado – the hardworking Calicut moor China Cutiale. Barros terms him the chief captain of the King of Calicut. Whether he was of Chinese descent or not is difficult to prove and can only be inferred from all the above accounts, but it all becomes clearer when we look at the story of the other (latter) character Chinali who became a lieutenant of Kunhali IV.

“La voix de la prophétie: informations portugaises de la Ie moitié du XVIe s. sur les voyages de Zheng He” -  Bilder & Wahrnehmungen edited by Claudine Salmon, Roderich Ptak- Jorge M. dos Santos. 2005.
The Kunhali Marakkars of Kottakkal – Prof AP Ibrahim Kunju
Tuhfat al Mujahideen – Shayk Zainuddin
General history and collection of voyages and travels – Robert Kerr
The Portuguese in India: A.D. 1481-1571 - Frederick Charles Danvers
Notes of Piracy – Charles Hill (Indian antiquary # 52)
Chinali’s story 


  1. Arathy

    Absolutely savouring every single word that has been written in this blog.

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Arathy...
    plenty more here, keep reading..

  1. Unknown

    Sir, Your historical posts are very good

  1. Maddy

    Thanks unknown..
    glad you are enjoying it..

  1. Unknown

    Hi Maddy,
    Link to your blogs pls