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Calicut and the two battles of 1503 and 1790, Dr Noone’s new book

Some years ago, I wrote about the famous sea battle of Calicut fought during the early months of 1503, preparations having been made for it by Vasco Da Gama of Portugal, as he sailed into Malabar during 1502.  A showdown was expected and as the Zamorin was preparing his flotilla, the Portuguese armada of 5 light caravels and 15 heavy ships, including the flag Ship San Jeronimo sailed in with Gama in command. After their arrival and restocking at Cochin and Cannanore, they started enforcing the blockade of all Malabar ports. The Zamorin had in the meanwhile prepared and re-equipped his fleet, two flotillas had already been fitted out. The first flotilla consisted of comparatively heavy ships, about a hundred in number, mostly Sambuks, under the command of Khoja Ambar, and the second flotilla was placed under the command of Khoja Kasim.

I had written -The two captains Khoja Ambar (Cojambar in Portuguese records) and Khoja Kassim who captained the Zamorin’s defense were Arabs. We note from Gaspar Correa’s account that Ambar the Arab came from Mecca by way of the Maldives, hearing of the Portuguese troubles at Calicut. Quoting Correa - Cojambar, a Moorish eunuch, who had now arrived from Makkah, and had come from the Maldives Islands in a small boat and had left there two large ships which he had brought, laden with great wealth, and which he did not choose to risk, and so had come to learn if there were Portuguese in India. He, with great pride, had offered himself to the King (Zamorin)to take our fleet. It is not clear if Khoja Ambar was from the North of Gujarat or an Arab. From the fact that he had command of two large vessels, we can guess he was an Arab.

As soon as the two fleets met, the caravels discharged all their guns at the Moorish flagship which led the van, and with the first discharge, the mast of the flagship was brought down. Vicente Sodré’s caravels continued firing broadsides, and speedily three of the large Moorish ships were sunk. The remaining Calicut fleet scattered (many of which had already been sunk and more burnt). Sodré then went after the bigger vessels, which were quickly abandoned by their crew. He proceeded to burn them and then sailed with his fleet to Cannanore, where he met da Gama, who had already arrived there with his homeward-bound vessels.

One could simply explain the opposing battle strategies thus – The Zamorin’s fleet was planning to scare the opposition with their sheer numbers and were intent on coming close to the Portuguese fleet and boarding it in typical Moor fashion, to create mayhem. The Portuguese preferred to stay far from their attackers and rely on their superior gun power with far-reaching cannons. The Arab fleet had artillery, but they could not tackle the larger distances. So, tracking and utilizing the wind, the Portuguese, closer to the land fought the Arab flagships which were farther out in the sea (as they had strategized to cut off any Portuguese flight) with their cannon and later attacked and plundered the rest of the fleet at will, thus achieving victory with far fewer ships.

Quoting Peter Padfield's ‘Guns at Sea’ – Da Gama's larger ships were 'much more equipped with artillery'. The picture, then, is of a broadside of perhaps sixteen heavy bombards ranged on carriages, either wheeled field carriages or timber beds, from the waist at the break of the forecastle right aft along the upper deck of the larger ships, with smaller swivel guns ranged along the quarterdeck above and a few on the forecastle, in other words, a formidable broadside which was certainly of greater range than anything the Arabs had.

While perhaps not one of the decisive battles of the world, this fleet action off the Malabar coast in 1503 can be seen as both an accurate forecast of what was to come and an example of what had been learned of sea fighting by the Atlantic nations. The decisive points are that da Gama and Sodré made sure of the weather gage, that is fighting from to windward, that Sodré and presumably da Gama also arranged their ships in line ahead, that they chose their own range to fight which was initially outside the range of both the enemy guns and their own swivel pieces but inside the effective range of their battery guns, and that they refused to allow the enemy to close sufficiently to board. They were able to do this last, not by better sailing because they did not have the more weatherly craft, but simply by good gunnery outside the range of their enemy's guns. This was a victory for the stand-off fight and the horizontally aimed great gun, probably the first fleet battle of its kind. It was a famous portent.

So ended this decisive battle in which a host of brown men were out-maneuvered and out-fought at every point by a handful of whites. Politically and morally its effects were enormous. After this conclusive battle, the Portuguese maintained a position of naval supremacy, controlling the western seas.

Nevertheless, though the Red Sea and Turkish fleets stayed away from Calicut after this event, for a while, the Marakkar-led ‘paroe fleets’ continued their harassment of the larger, slower Portuguese ships and the Franks eventually left Calicut in peace. Thus, the Marakkars donned Corsair robes and continued their harassment of the Portuguese ships all the way North to Bombay and South, towards Lanka and Maldives, leading the Portuguese to spend even larger amounts to retain their positions, and protect their convoys, driving up the cost of spices they ferried to Europe.

Following this was a period of some 300 years when the fortunes of Calicut were affected not only by the Pardesi Arabs, as it was until then, but also by the Europeans such as the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch, the Scandinavians, the French, and finally the English traders. While many minor and major wars were fought and the trade of spices towards Europe continued, it was the arrival of invaders from Mysore, attacking over land with superior strategies, using a nimble cavalry and heavy infantry, which decimated the stable Malabar and threw the various principalities into complete disarray.  Even though Cochin managed to stay protected, Travancore was saved in the nick of time by the English, and it was eventually the English army that marched forward to liberate Calicut from the Mysore usurpers. This was then the 1790 war of Tharvananghurry. Astute readers of Malabar history would have some idea of these relatively minor battles, though not realizing their significance.

I covered this in a 2012 article – To summarize the battle of Calicut, on the 1790 outbreak of war (3rd Mysore war) with Tipu Sultan of Mysore, Hartley received command of a detachment sent to the coast of Cochin to aid the EIC’s ally, the Rajah of Travancore. In May Hartley received orders to take the Palghat fort. By the time he got near, it had already surrendered. He, however, continued his march and occupied himself partly in collecting supplies for the main army, and partly in watching any movement of Tippoo's troops to the south-west.

The Battle of Calicut (a.k.a Battle of Tervanagary or Thiroorangadi) took place between 7 and 12 December, during the Third Anglo-Mysore War. A force of three regiments from the British East India Company, comprising some 1,500 men, led by Lieutenant Colonel James Hartley, defeated a 9,000-man Mysorean army, killing or wounding about 1,000, and taking many prisoners, including their commander, Hussein Ali Khan Sahib of Mysore. On 10 Dec. he inflicted a crushing defeat on vastly superior forces under Hussein Ali, Tippu's general, at Calicut. The remnants of the beaten army were pursued to Feroke, where it surrendered, and that fortress was later occupied by the British. Martab Khan fled on elephants via the Tamarassery pass taking much of the amassed treasure to Mysore.

Tirurangadi is the place mentioned in British accounts as Tervannengurry or Taravangerry. Tricalore (Tirukkallur - Thrikkulam) is where the battle took place.

At that time, I mentioned about the research being conducted on this topic by Dr Oliver Noone, a medical professional, as well as a history buff well-known to the people of Calicut. I wrote - I will not get deep into this topic and a paper has been readied by our esteemed Dr Noone, a founding member of the Calicut heritage forum. He has spent years of research on this very topic, so I will eagerly wait to read his paper. Dr Noone went a step further, he spent another 10 years studying the events and has now released a detailed accounting of the two wars as a nicely compiled book covering the intervening period, the strategy, the tactics followed by the combatants, and the geopolitics around these events.

I first met Oliver Noone at a mutual friend’s home in England sometime in 2005, purely by chance. It had been a pleasure interacting with him ever since, on matters concerning Malabar's history. His book titled “The Forgotten Battles of Calicut 1503 and 1790”, Strategy, Tactics and Geopolitics published this year is a good research guide on the subject, meticulously researched and complete with end notes and references, making further study a breeze, especially for history enthusiasts and researchers.

Dr Noone’s conclusion in this book is quite succinct - Thus, the two battles of Calicut of 1503 and 1790, separated by a span of almost 300 years, are representatives of two different phases of colonialism. It is a fact that the international status of the English changed because of their military heroics, economic growth, and global expansion. Undeniably these victories were achieved through superior gun-powder weaponry both in their Ships of Line and on land. What is not properly acknowledged or highlighted is the pre-eminent role played by statesmanship, diplomacy, and the all-inclusive utilisation of the latest technological and scientific innovations available at that period to equip themselves with ways and means which made territorial expansion and domination possible by the Western over the non-Western societies.

It is fascinating to go behind the deceptive frontage of captivating and enticing descriptions of battles to explore the real social, intellectual, technological, economic, political, legal, and scientific foundations which actually form the bedrock of colonial exploitation. Marshman in his book, The History of India, gives a glimpse of the magnitude of the marching column of Lord Cornwallis: In the vanguard marched a hundred elephants laden with treasure, followed by a hundred carts carrying liquor, and 60,000 bullocks carrying provisions belonging to the Banjaras. Following in three parallel columns came the battering train and heavy carriages, the infantry and the field pieces, the baggage and camp followers.

The appearance of these vast supplies caused Tipu to exclaim, 'It is not what I see of the resources of the English that I dread, but what I do not see'. Very few rulers of India realised this and the rest is history.

While I may not fully agree that the first battle resulted in a colonial Malabar, the second one of course did, with the entire area moving under the control of the British EIC. Nevertheless, Malabar was indeed exposed to the colonial mindset of the people who came in masquerading as traders, the last of which, namely the British, converted a rich country into a colony.

Dr. Noone's book is a must-read for those perusing the history of Malabar to understand British tactics used for the acquisition of Indian provinces, especially the energy spent by them in creating alliances with Travancore, the Mahrattas, and the Nizam, so also the counter strategies used by the Mysore Sultans Hyder & Tipu.

Oliver Noone graduated in Medicine from Calicut Medical College, Kerala, India, and moved to the United Kingdom for higher studies where he served in the National Health Service for more than thirty years. During these years Dr Noone developed an interest in the colonial history of India and spent a good deal of time at the British Library in London and other museums and libraries in the UK. This book was a result of this research.

A founding member of Calicut Heritage Forum, Dr Noone spends his spare time in travel and historical research. Dr Oliver Noone manages to balance his hours between treating patients and studying history with consummate ease. When not staring down the throat of a patient, or speaking at History forums, Dr Noone can be seen poring through dusty or moldy tomes detailing colonial history!

EOPOLITICS [Hardcover] 

Published - 1 January 2023, Oliver Noone
Publisher ‏- ‎Gyan Publishing House (1 January 2023)Language ‏ - English
Hardcover ‏ -‎ 285 pages
ISBN-10 ‏- ‎ 8121289866