Sketches of Kerala: The Nairs As Warriors

Sketches of Kerala: The Nairs As Warriors
The case diary of the British officer who led the charge against Pazhassi

(A weekly column on the region’s past culled from historical documents.)
Image result for Parakameetil  of Wayanad

Pazhassi Raja
took on the British. The colonisers, in turn, planned meticulously to lead him to his end. In what is an intimate first-hand report, Sub Collector T.H. Baber, who led the operation against Pazhassi, details the final moments of the ruler. Strategies were many and money and muscle power used liberally to end the man who rebelled against the British for almost a decade. Pazhassi has been re-ignited into our imagination with movies and books as a ruler who chose to rebel instead of allying.

Pazhassi died in 1805 fighting in the hills of Wayanad. Baber’s account, over 200-years-old, is of course, the British version of the story. Pazhassi is the crowning glory in his career and he reminds his superiors of how “fortunate and important an event” this was.

But not to be missed is Baber’s grudging acknowledgment and respect of the vanquished.

Baber’s letter from Kannur to the Principal Collector of Malabar on December 31, 1805, reveals that the British excelled in mind games. They isolated Pazhassi and party by gleaning away supporters and snapping the lines of subsistence.

The capture of Tallakel Chandoo was a turning point. Baber visited the locality where Chandu was held captive and distributed goodies to those who lent a helping hand in the capture. He writes about distributing “to the Kolkars the reward you authorised.” He goes on, “I did not fail haranguing the inhabitants on the occasion and in particular enlarged on the magnitude of the crimes of Chandoo and I have no doubt the circumstances will have a lasting impression.”

Baber diligently took stock of the sentiments of the people towards Pazhassi. “Throughout the Northern and Western parts of the Districts, I found the sentiment in our favour, at the same time a considerable disinclination to afford the smallest information of the Pychi Rajah or his partisans.” He also understood the regard for Pazhassi in most regions. “In all classes I observed a decided interest for the Pychi Rajah, towards whom the inhabitants entertained a regard and respect bordering on veneration which not even his death can deface.”

He meticulously details the war-plan, the steepest task being information gathering. His most arduous task was to tame the Chettiars, he writes. The wealthy of the region were the Chettiars and the Goundas. He calls a meeting of all communities to warn them against helping Pazhassi. He nevertheless understood that they presented themselves “from no other impulse than a dread of the consequences of absenting themselves, neither did they thereby throw off their connections with the rebels.”

Baber also believed that the Chettiars arrived for the meeting after getting a sanction from Pazhassi. He particularly targets the Chettiars and warns them that he is out to find out their real loyalties. “I warned them against giving me the smallest shadow to suspect they were continuing in the Rebels interest.” Baber slowly made himself a frequent figure in the region, taking marches day and night. He notes the changes in the people’s demeanour. “They began evidently to alter their conduct and in some instances they came forward with information.”

The “rebels”, he writes, sensing the change, retreated from Parakameetil to the eastern extremities of Wayanad. Stepping up his offensive, Baber takes the search to the next level. He chokes the lifeline of their subsistence as Pazhassi is confined to the eastern frontier, close to Mysore. He writes to the Resident at Mysore who in turn imposes severe penalties on people who facilitated movement of goods and articles. Pazhassi’s gang begins to feel the pinch.

With the “rebels” confined to “Wayanad Hobly”, Baber decides to begin the quest. He recounts marching down Pulpally with his men and not seeing even a single inhabitant on the road. Most of them had fled to the mountains, sensing the climax was close. Here, Baber adopts a different tactic. Instead of causing harm to the habitation of the natives, he chooses to send them invitations to come back. With the move, he hoped to sever their ties with the “rebels” and also gather information about Pazhassi’s exact whereabouts.

His days at Pulpally were action-packed. But Baber was putting together a plan with the trickling information from the villagers who have returned. He says “exhortations and occasional presents” finally induced many to part with information. “I took the precaution of swearing all of them to secrecy,” he writes. Finally, he gathers that Pazhassi’s men were on the opposite side of Kaynara river.

Baber sets out with Lieutenant Colonel Mill and the troop in total secrecy. After a trek of almost 10 hours, Baber describes that Charen Subedar who was leading a party suddenly halted. Baber rushes to the spot and finds, “About 10 persons unsuspecting of danger, on the banks of the Mavila Toda or Nulla”. He orders an advance and 30 men dash into the unsuspecting Raja’s party. The contest was short. Most of Pazhassi’s men fell. Baber hears a gunshot and finds a new group of Pazhassi’s men who he says were Coongan’s party. They retreat after shots are fired at them.
The end

Baber writes, “From one of the rebels … I learnt that the Raja was amongst those whom we first observed on the banks of the Nulla.” Pazhassi, he writes, was among the first to fall. He recreates the episode. One of Baber’s servants, Canara Menon, cornered Pazhassi and at this moment “the Raja having put his musquet to his breast” is said to have spoken in a “most dignified and commanding manner to Menon ‘not to approach and defile his person’.”

A gold knife and waist chain were retrieved from the arena. “The former I have now in my possession, the latter I presented to Captain Clephen.”

“The Raja’s body was taken up and put into my palangueen while the lady who was dreadfully reduced from sickness was put into Captain Clephen’s.” According to Baber, Pazhassi’s body was given due respect. “The following day the Raja’s body was dispatched under a strong escort to Manantoddy and the Sheristadaar sent with orders to assemble all the Brahmins and to see that the customary honours were performed at the funeral.”

Finally comes Baber’s salute to Pazhassi. “He was one of the natural chieftains of the country and might be considered on that account rather as a fallen enemy.” “Thus terminated the career of a man who has been enabled to persevere in hostilities against the company for near nine years,” he writes. Pazhassi’s “annihilation became necessary for the stability and security of the Government.” Baber calls Pazhassi an “extraordinary and singular character” and “the records of India and England will convey to posterity a just idea of him.”

(Source: Regional Archives Kozhikode)

This then casts a slight cloud over Baber's own notes who accounts that Subedar Charan's team carried out the initial firing, but also states the subsequen

Wars involving the British East India Company

Thomas Baber Esq., 1739 to 1825.[Father of Thomas in India]  in August on the 24th Thomas received a letter from Tomas his son in India to say that he had married Mrs Helen Cameron in the previous January on the16th.  Soon afterwards Thomas was appointed Assistant in the Revenue Department at Callicut.

On the 22nd of February 1833, Thomas and Helen Baber sailed from Portsmouth on board the Herefordshire, a 1279 tonne East Indiaman, under Captain. E. Ford. The ship was bound for Bombay and Whampoa.  They arrived in Bombay on 11th June 1833, and almost immediately started writing to his many former Indian friends.

The EIC officials in India, were no longer allowed under the new India Act to control people coming out from Britain to India.  They had however decided to monitor very closely what Thomas Baber was doing in India. This included interrcepting his post, and steaming open his letters.

A heated official correspondence started in which Thomas Baber was instructed to cease corresponding directly with Rajah's, and he was forced to provide lists of the Rajah's he had been corresponding with, and details of what he had been writing.

The letter below is particularly interesting because it illustrates how he was advising the Travancore Royal family on their rights under British law in respect to fighting the claims being made by the Hutchinson family against them for debts incurred as far back as 1797.

From T. H. Baber Esq.
                 Sea Grove at Bombay
To John Bax Esq.
                Secretary to Government
                       Political Department
                              Dated 3rd September 1833.
Sir, Your letter of the 31st Ultimo – Calling upon me to explain under what circumstances I was induced to write to the two Umma Tamburettees and to the young Rajah of Travancore, except through the channel of the Resident of that Court, reached me only this day, and I now hasten to reply to it, that the Right Honorable the Governor in Council may not, for a moment entertain the idea that, either in the matter of, or mode of addressing my native correspondence, there can be anything that I am not fully prepared to justify – or that Government could possibly object to.
                    Although I have not preserved copies of the many letters I have written since my return to this country, to the several Rajahs and other Chieftains,with whom I have been on terms of intimacy and have considered me, under all circumstances, their best, because disinterested, friend, and cannot call to mind the precise purport of my communications – I can have no hesitation in saying that the three letters in question were merely complimentary announcing the return of myself and family to this country and enquiring into their health etc.
               With the first of these Ladies Mawilikara Umma Tamburette, and her relation attinga Umm Tamburette, my acquaintance commenced as far back as the year 1810 (When the former’s son, the late Kerula Wirma Rajah, who had been adopted and raised to the Ellen Rajah (Heir Apparent) to the prejudice of the attinga Umma Tamburetta, was placed order of the Governor General in Council, under my immediate charge / and continued up to the period of my quitting Malabar in 1818, in which latter year, I had the gratification of receiving and providing accommodation for the Elder of these Ladies during a visit she paid me at Tellicherry.
                At this time as well as at the present I was divested of any Official Character such as to render it a duty incumbent upon me beyond Courtesy to show her these civilities – and I have yet to learn that, in so doing I have infringed any order, or rule of Etiquette, and in regard to the complimentary Letters, the Subject of your reference, I could never suppose that any restrictions the Government have no doubt for the best of reasons imposed upon correspondence between Europeans and Native Princes, could possibly be construed as applying to such a correspondence as the one in question and especially to so old a Civil Servant, who never has directly or indirectly had any transactions of a pecuniary nature with a Native Prince – Who never has received and never would receive a favour from any one of them, and above all, who has, thro’ life, set his face against all sorts of understandings between Europeans and Native Princes that in any way compromised the honor and character of British Government.
            With respect to the letter to the Rajah of Travancore, to the best of my recollections, I did allude to, or at least intended so to do, to the proceedings carrying on in Parliament relative to the long standing alleged Claim on the part of the Heirs of the late Mr Hutchinson Resident in Travankore, conjunctively with the Office of Commercial Resident in Travankore state for the sum of Two Lacks of Rupees and upwards, with interest from March 1800, and to which having paid very considerable attention having been in communication with the Chairman of the Court of Directors and moreover having been called and Examined before the Committee of the House of Commons, I found myself bound, by every principle of Justice to the Parties, as well as to the Honorable Company to acquaint them with the view and part I had taken, and in which, and for which, I had no other object or motive than, to discountenance all hopes of the Claimants being able to fix the responsibility of this dormant demand upon the Rajah of Travancore, or the Honorable Company and especially to counteract the most erroneous impressions in regard to the measures adopted by the Honorable Company.
            I have not preserved copies of my communications but the accompanying original letters from the two chairmen Sir Robert Campbell and Mr Ravenshaw, will be satisfactory to the Right Honorable the Governor in Council, that those authorities attached sufficient consequence to my information and my opinions, to deem them worthy of the Consideration of their standing Council and I have reason to believe that they did tend considerably to fortify the arguments of Mr Sergeant Spankie in his defence of the Honorable Company during that inquiry.  If necessary, I can also produce a document from the claimants themselves to show that from them I never concealed my candid sentiments of the utter hopelessness of their ultimate success, notwithstanding the strong disposition of the House of Commons in their favour.
        My letter to the Rajah of Travancore upon the same subject, has, it appears, been transmitted by the Madras, to this Government.  I will not enquire how and by what means this has been effected because it would be calling into question the acts of a Public Officer for whom I have the highest respect, I will therefore confine myself to observing, that I could not, consistently with my knowledge of the orders of the Honorable the Court of Directors to the Government of Fort St George Image result for fort st george madras recordsin the Political Department dated 12th May 1824 “to abstain from all interference in the matters between parties, one way or the other” communicate thro’ the channel of the Resident, what it was, and is, of so much importance to the Travancore State to know, the events which have already, and are now taking place, in parliament with respect to the long standing and important demand upon it—and from whom could such a communication come with so much propriety as myself one who was totally independent of, or unconnected with both parties – but who at the same time had proved himself on various occasions, both in upholding the rights + of the present dynasty and in maintaining the Public tranquillity the staunchest and most disinterested of friends.
          If after this hurried explanation, the Right Honorable the Governor in Council of Madras should still think it open to objections my holding a correspondence with the Rajah of Travancore
Ayilyom Thirunal Gowri Lakshmi Bayi
Maharani of Travancore
Sree Padmanabhasevini Maharani Gowri Lakshmi Bayi.jpg
Reign 1810 - 1815
Coronation 1810
Predecessor Balarama Varma
Successor Gowri Parvati Bayi
Consort Raja Raja Varma Koil Thampuran of Changanassery
Issue Maharani Gowri Rukmini Bayi, Maharajah Swathi Thirunal, Maharajah Uthram Thirunal
all I can do is bow to that decision, and at the same time to express my readiness to obey the directions of Government as to the disposal of the documents I have brought out with me from England, and which, I believe, compose all that has been done in Parliament Expressly for the information and use of the Travancore State.
                                                     I have the honor to be etc.
Bombay Sea Grove                                /signed/T.H. Baber
    3rd September 1833                                      C.S.
      + Mr Baber’s letter to the Resident of Travancore dated 1st Dec 1810
The Right Honourable the Governor General’s letter dated 9 Feb 1811
Hamilton’s Hindostan Quarto Edition 2nd Vol page 316
Coll Munro’s Public thanks in his letter dated 29th No 1812
Mr Secretary Hill’s letter dated 15th June & Numerous other documents

[1] Anjengo IOR/H/438 Papers of Walter Ewer Folio 205 onwards. [2] OIOC F/4/1460 (57461) folio 12 to 17.

Private Lappe's Providential Escape following the outbreak of the Pyche Raja Rebellion

It is only very rarely that we can get a glimpse into the lives of an ordinary soldier in India, let alone come across their individual names.

Here is the story of one such man, Private Lappe, who was extraordinarily lucky to survive a ferocious ambush at the outbreak of the war between the Pazhassi Rajah and the East India Company at Tellicherry.

The date that the actual battle took place is unclear, possibly before the 4th of November 1796, but certainly by the 18th of January 1797.  The following account however only appeared in the Sussex Advertiser many years later on Monday the 1st of September 1800.[1]
Image result for 1279 tonne East Indiamanen.wikipedia.orgSir Charles Wood (1800–1885) was President of the Board of Control of the East India Company from 1852 to 1855;

Had Private Lappe by that time been invalided home?

Perhaps he told his story to the local Sussex  reporter.

We will probably never know.


A soldier, of the name of Lappe, who belonged to an European battalion, and who made his escape from the Jungle, after the action between a detachment of Europeans and Sepoys belonging to the Bombay Army, and the insurgents in the Cotiote country, has related the following" miraculous “ account of his gaining the British Military post, after the defeat of the detachment, given at Bombay, the 4th of November:—"I was shot, says Lappe) about noon, with a musket ball, in my right breast; and, to resist or escape being utterly impossible, as the only means left me to save my life, I threw myself down among the mortally wounded and the dead, without moving hand or foot. Here, in the evening, the Chief Surveying his conquest, ordered a Jamedar to begin instantly to dispatch those who were likely to survive. This fellow, having already killed Captain Bowman, and several other Europeans, left the remainder to die of themselves, or to fall a prey to the voraciousness of the wild creatures with which the Jungle abounds; for in places it is almost impenetrable. They then filed off to the right, towards the hills, carrying along with them five or six prisoners alive; I believe they were all Sepoys but one, with their hands tied behind their backs, of whom I never since have heard. When I apprehended these sanguinary rebels had entirely left the scene of action, it being very quiet, and rather dark, I found means, on my hands and feet, to creep out from among the carnage, for many men were killed that day by the Rajah's troops, owing to our force having been weakened by sending it in small detachments into the Jungle, where they had never before been, and the enemy firing at them in ambush, where it was impossible to trace them: I got at length at some distance from the place where I lay, and met another of our party, who was less wounded than myself, with whom, after some days wandering in torment and despair, not knowing which way to proceed for fear of being intercepted, we at last fortunately arrived at the military post, worn out with fatigue and the loss of blood, where, we understood, the account of the defeat had been received four days before.

The news slowly spread out from London to the regional towns of England and Scotland.  Many families with relations in India must have anxiously wondered what had been happening in the passing months, it took news to travel around the globe.

On Saturday 5th July 1797, readers in Norfolk came across the following report in their newspaper.

We learn from the Coast of Coromandel, that on the 18th of January [1797] the Rajah of the Cotiote had commenced hostilities against us, and that Captain Bowman and Lieutenant Bond, who had been sent to take possession of One of his strong holds, had, the perfidy of their guide, been led into defile, where they were both killed with most the Sepoys of their party. Captain Lawrence, who went to relief, was like wise led into a defile, from whence he fought his way to a pagoda, where passed the night and following day, till permitted to proceed with his party to Tillicherry. Captain Troy, on his return from a muster of the native troops, had been killed, and Captain Shean desperately wounded. Twenty-four Sepoys were killed, and 50 wounded and missing. General Stuart immediately appointed Major Anderson to march against the Rajah with 250 of the Bombay regiment, a detachment of light artillery, 1,000 Sepoys, and Mopals.

Cotiote War - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The Cotiote War refers to a series of continuous struggles fought between the Cotiote prince, Pazhassi Raja Kerala Varma, and the English East India Company ...
Remembering a warrior regent - The Hindu

Home of a warrior: Pazhassi Kovilakam building

Pazhassi Raja - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja (also known as Cotiote Rajah or Pychy Rajah) (3 January 1753 – 30 November 1805) was one of the earliest freedom fighters in ...
Over the following weeks, more details came out from Leadenhall Street. Readers of the Oxford Journal on Saturday the 29th of July 1797, were given more details about the outbreak started by the Pychy Rajah.
Image result for Rajah of the CotiotePazhassi Raja the legend

From the Madras Gazette, January 28. By letters from the Malabar coast of the 15th instant, we have been advertised of the revolt of the Cotiote Rajah on that coast, who is said to have commenced his refractory conduct on the 28th instant, by firing on a detachment of Sepoys under the command of Capt. Lawrence, in the neighbourhood of Cootiungarry. On the same day, Capt. Bowman and Lieut. Bond were sent with a detachment to take possession of a strong hold, near the last mentioned place, and were decoyed by an Hircarrah, employed on the occasion, into a narrow defile, where, a strong party of Nairs, in ambuscade, availing them selves of the disadvantageous situation of the detachment, and their mode of attack, beset the party with a ferocity peculiarly their own, when Captain Bowman and Lieutenant Bond were almost immediately overpowered and killed. Several Sepoys, it is also added, were killed and wounded on the spot. Captain Lawrence, on hearing the report of the musquetry, proceeded with all possible expedition, at the head of a body of grenadiers, towards the succour and support of Captain Bowman's detachment; but having experienced a similar breach of faith in his guide, was also attacked in the same defile, but after a warm and fortunate resistance effected his retreat, and took post in a Pagoda the whole night, and part of the next day, hemmed in by upwards of a thousand of the Rajah's troops. On the 9th, however, he was permitted to retire with his men to Tellicherry. In addition to the above melancholy relation, Captain Troy, who had been employed in mustering the native troops, and Captain Shean on his return from a visit, fell in with a party of these sanguinary savages, who having surrounded them, coolly and unprovokedly put the first to death, and wounded the latter in a shocking and barbarous manner. General Stuart, to whom the intelligence was sent to Cannanore, recommended to Major Anderson immediately to take the field to punish so daring an outrage. The force to be assembled for this purpose, will consist of 250 men of the Bombay regiment under the command of Captain Grammant. A detachment of artillery, with light guns, about one thousand Sepoys, together with a Corps of Mopals, consisting of about 200, raised expressly for the purpose of hunting and counteracting the Nairs in the woods and fortresses. The unhappy fate of so many officers, in being cut off from their friends' and relations, in this cruel and insidious manner, cannot be too much lamented; and provides a melancholy example of the inherent ferocity which has ever been the characteristic of the cast of Nairs.

[1] The Old Soldier's Story - Edward Bird (1772–1819), ca 1808.
[2] These reports and many more from British regional newspapers going back to 1700 are now available at

Calicut Prison Break outs & Riots, 1802 to 1808

During the putting down of the Pazhassi Rajah's uprising and the associated outbreaks of resistance by the Moplahs to the presence of the East India Company in the Malabar, large numbers of Indian's were thrown into gaols in Calicut, Tellicherry and Canannore.

These gaols were run both directly by the East India Company and also by private gaolers would contracted with the EIC to run prisons.

The gaols were almost certainly highly over crowded and insanitary. The prisoners inside the gaols were actively in planning their escape and attempting to make prison break outs.

The following two accounts from Calicut in 1802 and 1808 describe events during these breakouts. It is not entirely clear exactly when these events took place.

Communications were often slow in those days. The first breakout probably took place in the months immediately before March 1803. The second event probably took place a year to 18 months before the news of the event appeared in the British papers.

The first breakout was yet another worry for the future Duke of Wellington as he was planning the concentration of his forces in the South of India for the campaign he was to fight later that year with the Mahrattas, and which would be capped with his victory at Assaye on the 23rd of September 1803.

Lieut. Stuart.

'Camp at Tuddus, 17th March, 1803

'I have received a letter from Colonel Montresor, from Calicut,of the 6th, from which I learn that the rebellion has spread much in Malabar, and that the rebels were in force not far from that place. The criminals confined in the gaol at Calicut had also got loose; sixty had made their escape, many were killed and some wounded in attempting it. The guard over the gaol had been surprised. Those people were chiefly rebels confirmed by Colonel Stevenson. 'I mislaid Colonel Montresor's letter yesterday evening, otherwise I should send it to you, but I have above stated the outlines of the information which it gives. I now enclose a letter which I have written to Colonel Montresor upon this subject, and if you should approve the directions it contains, I beg you will allow it to be forwarded to him. In fact, no more can be done in this season than I have there stated. It will be useless to leave more posts, or to have more men in Wynaad than the post at Manuntwaddy and those on the tops of the ghauts. If there were two battalions in that district they would be obliged to remain shut up in their posts, where they would be useless; at the same time, the greater the number of troops to be left in Wynaad, the greater will be the difficulty of providing for them. 'I received yesterday your letter of the 15th instant. I have sent Govind Rao with a message to Bappojee Scindiah of the same kind with that which I formerly sent, of which you approved. 'I shall march to-morrow to Misserycotta, where I shall halt next day to allow Major Malcolm to join me, and to give time to Govind Rao to arrange every thing with Bappojee Scindiah'

Believe me,

Lieut. General Arthur Wellesley. [1]

The second report is taken from the Morning Chronicle, one of Britain's leading papers at the time published in London, and reports a desperate act of resistance on the part of a band of Moplah's or Mappilas who knew that they otherwise had no hope of surviving beyond the following morning, when they were going to be executed by the EIC authorities.

They went down fighting, successfully killing and wounding several of the EIC forces.

"The following very extraordinary circumstance lately took place at Calicut: -Seven desperate Mallays who had been the terror of the adjacent country, having carried away the cattle, set fire to the cottages, and murdered several of the natives who opposed their depredations, were apprehended and lodged in the public gaol, when, during the period of their confinement, they behaved in the most refractory and resolute manner. On being brought to trial, several charges were brought home to them,. and they-all received sentence of death; but the evening previous to their execution, they rose on their guards, whom they murdered ; and possessing themselves of their muskets, 'bade defiance to the keeper of the prison and his assistants. The Officer commanding in the district, with a small detachment of seapoys, attempted to scale the walls of the prison; the doors and windows being blockaded. within; but he was repulsed with the lost of several men ; the assailants however being reinforced from an adjacent station, and the desperadoes finding themselves overpowered, set fire to that part of the prison in which they were confined, and refusing all assistance, perished in the flames. Fortunately the rest of the prisoners were rescued, and a part of the building was saved from destruction. [2]

[1]The dispatches of ... the duke of Wellington, compiled by Lieut. colonel John Gurwood, 1837... page 422.
[2] Morning Chronicle. Monday 08 August 1808. From the British Newspaper Archive Site.
Prison photo courtesy of Epoch Times.