The Real ‘Thugs of Hindostan’ Were From Kerala. Here’s Why

Amitabh Bachchan- and Aamir Khan-starrer Thugs of Hindostan claims to be a historical fiction, based on thugs who terrorised the British empire at the start of the 18th century. But actual thugs (the Thuggees of India) were highway robbers preying on ancient trade routes, very much on land. So what’s with all the ships?

Could there be other inspirations, barring Johnny Depp? Turns out, maybe – but they lived much further to the south and spoke another tongue.

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The Legendary Kunjali Marakkar

When the Europeans first came to India’s shores, they came for the spices. Kerala had a thriving spice trade, dating back to the time of the Romans, then the Arabs and the Chinese. But for the Europeans, it was not enough merely to trade, they had to control, subjugate and exploit.

Thus it was that after Portuguese sailor Vasco Da Gama set foot in Kappad in present-day Kozhikode district, the king of Portugal sent a series of fleets to do exactly that.

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The Portuguese managed to capture Cochin, but Calicut, led by the king Zamorin, stood in their way. His navy was led by the Kunjali Marakkars. Kunjali Marakkar was the title given to the naval chiefs of the Zamorin. The Portuguese battled with four generations of Marakkars, but suffered only reverses.

The Kunjalis used small boats known as pattemaris, which had around 40 rowers. In shallow waters, they would creep up to huge Portuguese ships and attack using slingshots, javelins, and bows and arrows.

This guerrilla warfare of the sea proved efficient and Portuguese losses were heavy. The Portuguese called Marakkar’s army Malabar pirates or corsairs.

Kunjali IV, popularly known just as Kunjali Marakkar, was, according to Portuguese traveller and writer de Cuomo, the most active and enterprising enemy the Portuguese had met in India. Another Portuguese writer Francois Pyrard called him “the great corsair”.

The Zamorin by this time had grown increasingly wary of Kunjali's power. He worried that Kunjali might one day supersede himself. The king cut a deal with the Portuguese for "a sum of 30,000 patagoes, some companies of Portuguese soldiers, and half the spoil", according to de Cuomo. To capture the ‘thug’, the Europeans needed not just another thug as the Thugs of Hindostan trailer suggests, they needed the king himself.

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The Zamorin of Kozhikode (1495–1500) on his throne as painted by Veloso Salgado in 1898.

The combined armies of the Portuguese and the Zamorin set upon Kunjali kotta (Kunjali's fort in present day Kottakkal).

The first attack proved disastrous for the new allies and as many as 300 Portuguese ended up dead. However, the Europeans were determined. They came back with a larger force and a siege began.

Assured of his defeat, Kunjali Marakkar told the Zamorin that he will surrender on the condition that he is not handed over to the Portuguese. The king agreed. Pyrard was witness to the surrender. He writes:

"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”.

The Zamorin did not keep his word. Kunjali was chained and taken to Goa where he was sentenced to death without trial.

Kunjali Marakkar’s sword.

“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.”

He was beheaded in a French-style guillotine, his body quartered and exhibited at the Panjim beach and his head was salted and sent to Kannur, to be stuck on a standard to be "a terror for the Moors."

“It was indeed an irony of history that the Kunjali Marakkars who had all along been the main props of Zamorin’s power and strength in his fight against Portuguese tyranny had to be crushed by an unholy and opportunistic alliance between the Zamorin and his traditional enemy,” write Sreedhara Menon in ‘A Survey of Kerala History’. Kunjali Marakkar remains an icon and a household name to this day.

"“There can be no doubt that the lives of these chiefs reflect glory and honour on all Malabar, for their achievements against the naval tyranny of Portuguese form indeed a great chapter in the history of Malabar.”" - KM Panikkar, A History of Kerala

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The capture of Kochi and victory of the Dutch V.O.C. over the Portuguese in 1656, on the coast of Malabar.

The Battle of Colachel

As the Portuguese power waned, there came the Dutch East India company. By the start of the 18th century, they had established control over much of the Kerala coast. Except for Travancore.

Marthanda Varma, the king of Travancore, had unified the country and started annexing small principalities to the north which were under Dutch influence. This was a major inconvenience for the Europeans as it disrupted their pepper and ginger trade.

Governor of Sri Lanka Baron Gustaaf William Van Imhoff, in a meeting with Marthanda Varma, threatened to invade Travancore if he did not withdraw his forces. Marthanda Varma’s reply was that he was planning to invade Europe instead someday. Thus the stage was set for the Dutch-Travancore war, another dramatic event which suggests that Indian filmmakers need not look to Pirates of the Caribbean for inspiration.

The Dutch won a series of battles with the help of their local allies. Flush with confidence, in 1741, a Dutch force, in two large ships and three sloops, landed at Colachel (present-day Kulachal) under the command of Eustachius D’Lannoy.

The Portuguese quickly captured the surrounding villages and started moving towards the enemy’s capital, Kalkulam. Before they could reach their destination, however, Marthanda Varma drove them back to the fort at Colachel.

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“Though the king had set up several batteries 40 yards from the fort, they could not breach through the defences,” writes MO Koshy in his book ‘Dutch Power in Kerala’. “The adverse wind, floods and the rough sea, also foiled Dutch efforts to get reinforcements.”

The Travancore fleet kept a strict vigil on the seas. Back at the fort, the Dutch force continued to repel the siege. A stalemate ensued, until on 10 August, something happened.

"“A burning hot bullet of the Travancore forces hit the gunpowder barrel by accident. There was an explosion. The flames gutted the food provisions. The fire raged for two days. On the second day, the resistance of the Dutch collapsed. They surrendered to the king of Travancore.”" - MO Koshy, ‘Dutch Power in India’

This is said to be the first such triumph by an Asian power over colonial Europe and according to historian Sreedhara Menon “a disaster of the first magnitude” for the Dutch, which ended their dream of the conquest of Kerala.

D’Lannoy, among 24 officers, was captured by Marthanda Varma following the surrender. He did not meet Kunjali Marakkar’s gruesome fate.

The surrender of D’Lannoy.

The king offered to release D’Lannoy if he helped modernise his army. And this he did. He trained the Travancore army in European methods and fortified the kingdom. As a military commander, he headed one of the armies which conquered Cochin. D’Lannoy also built the famous ‘Nedumkotta’, a line of fortifications across central Kerala, which stopped Tipu Sultan’s invasion many decades later.

By the time he died after giving three decades of service to Travancore, the subjects called him Valiya Kapitan (The Great Captain) out of reverence. Thus a man who had come at the head of a vastly superior invading army was laid to rest as the great protector of the realm.

If this doesn’t make for a great movie, what does?

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