Kunjali Marakkar

Nayab Naseer

Kunjali Marakkar Stamp

The loss of Spain for the Muslims was more than mere change of real estate overlordship. Spain and Portugal was, for more than five centuries, a treasure-house of knowledge and technology, much superior to other parts of Europe. The conquest enabled the new masters acquire ready made this treasure, and eventually triggered a spirit of renaissance and mercantilism in the Western world that culminated in the quest for more and more fortunes from distant lands. Vasco da Gama used the advanced navigational knowledge bequeathed by the Moors to round the Cape of Good Hope, bypassing dar us Islam for a direct trade route to the rich treasure house of Indian spices.

Chaos would be an understatement to describe the political situation of India at this time. The pan-Indian kingdom of Allaudin Khilji had broken up into several small principalities. The sultan of Gujarat was the dominant power in the Western Coast. The Adil Shahi sultan of Bijapur controlled the Konkan coast and the small principalities of Cochin and Zamorin together with their vassals held sway deep-south.

Vasco da Gama reached Calicut in 903 AH (1498 CE). The Zamorin raja there, eager to attract trade welcomed him. It, however took only two years for the Zamorin to understand that the damage caused by the perfidy and insolence of the Portuguese would far outweigh any prosperity trade would bring, and as such promptly expelled them.

The Portuguese immediately set up shop at next door Cochin, whose raja was a rival of Zamorin. What followed was the standard pattern that colonialists would thereafter adopt – escalate rivalry between native rajas, pit one against the other, offer assistance to one raja at a time and finally, when the assistance reach a level of obligation that would take some doing to recompense, establish hegemony over both.

Having settled down at Fort Cochin, the Portuguese started off by harassing the Muslims of Cochin. If religious hatred that followed the conquest of Spain and Portuguese from the Moors were not enough, the Muslims were the prominent traders of Cochin and Calicut, the position the Portuguese eyed.

Mohammed Kunjali was both a Muslim and a prominent trader of Cochin. It was thus only a matter of time before the Portuguese came for him. On seeing the unpleasant face of the enemy, he remembered the proverb “There are a thousand lands but only one soul” and as such hastened to Calicut.

The Zamorin, in the meantime, anticipating trouble from the Portuguese built a fort in Ponnani. He was now head-hunting for a capable head of operations, which apart from being a distinguished boatman also needed to show sufficient zeal and motivation not to be lured by the Portuguese promise of gold, wine and women.

It now transpired that Mohammed Kunjali, the trader, was also a distinguished boatman. It was thus only a matter of time before he made common cause with the Zamorin and established himself as master of fort Ponnani. It was still sooner that he rose in esteem to become leader of Zamorin’s naval force, and organized the first naval defense of the Indian coast against imperial forces.

The flattered Zamorin gave Kunjali the title “Marakkar,” derived from the Malayalam word marakkalam meaning ‘boat,’ and kar, a termination, showing possession, and henceforth Mohammed Kunjali came to be known as the first Kunjali Marakkar.

Very soon, the Portuguese succeeded in taking Goa from the Adil Shah sultan of Bijapur, marking this occassion by a wholesale massacre of the Muslims there. The Zamorin made common cause with the Kothari Raja of Kannur, the Sultan of Gujarat and the Sultan of Egypt – all threatened by the growing hegemony of Portuguese in the Arabian Sea. Their combined navy crushed the Portuguese at Chaul in 913 AH (1508 CE). The Portuguese however settled scores the next year at Diu, resulting in the withdrawal of Egyptian navy from Indian waters.

Calicut was a maritime state and depended on the seas for its survival. In 918 AH (1513 CE), unable to withstand Portuguese dominance of the seas, the Zamorin sued for peace. The Portuguese secured trade monopolies and constructed forts at Calicut and Chailyam.

Kunjali Markkar suddenly found himself on his own. He was now the only resistance against the Portuguese in India. He nevertheless remained on good terms with the Zamorin, who persuaded the Portuguese from attacking Ponnani in 931 AH (1525 CE). However, in 956 AH (1550 CE) the Portuguese did attack, pillage and plunder Ponnani. A fort was built at nearby Chaliyam, on the site of a masjid demolished by them.

Mohammed Kunjali passed away and his successor, also donning the mantle of Kunjali Marakkar came to be known as Kunjali II.

The Zamorin’s alliance with Portuguese was an alliance of desperation, and he was on the lookout to get rid of them at the earliest opportunity. The defeat of Vijayanagar, a staunch ally of the Portuguese in 972 AH (1565 CE) by the five Deccan sultanates gave Zamorin the impetus.

Hostilities were resumed. The war-paroe was a small craft devised by the Kunjalis, which, manned by just thirty to forty men each could be rowed through lagoons and narrow waters. Several such crafts were deployed at small creeks and inconspicuous estuaries. They would suddenly come out and attack the Portuguese ships at will, inflicting heavy damage and causalities before returning to the safety of shallow waters. This went on for many years until in 1571 CE Kunjali Marakkar attained a famous victory when he crushed the Portuguese at Chaliyam and demolished the Portuguese fort there.

In 1573 CE, Kunjali Marakkar passed away and his son donned the mantle of Kunjali III.

Though the Portuguese were driven out of Calicut and Chaliyam, they still controlled the Indian seas. The loss of Vijayanagar did nothing to change the power balance as the Zamorin had hoped, and he still needed free navigation to the ports of Gujarat, Persia and Arabia if he were to survive long. So he went to the Portuguese again, and this time he gave them permission to build a factory at Ponnani.

Kunjali Marakkar was not amused. He shifted his base to Kottakal and started hostilities with both the Zamorin and the Portuguese.

The expedition came sooner than expected, but Kunjali was waiting. The Zamroin’s elephants fell into the booby traps on the forests enroute to Kotakkal. The Portuguese war ships never got chance to wage battle. No sooner had they arrived from Goa than they were mercilessly shot down by Kunjali’s efficient canoes and slingshots.

For the next two years, Kunjali Marakkar ran a virtually independent kingdom, continuing his policy of harassing the Portuguese on the seas and their friends on land.

In 1008 AH (1600 CE), the stage was set for the end-game. The Zamorin attacked from land with an army of six thousand and the Portuguese bombarded from the sea. Left with no choice, the Kunjali surrendered to Zamorin on a solemn promise of pardon.

The next thing Kunjali knew was being dragged by chains, his body bleeding porously from the beatings. Screams and wails of women and children could be heard in the background, but Kunjali and his band of trusted followers were oblivious – it was not as if they could do something about it. Some were already dead and the others were half dead. In Goa, the Portuguese first nurtured Kunjali to full strength. Then the screams could be heard all over Goa as he was dismembered piece by piece, starting from leg upward. Later the body pieces of Kunjali and his followers were mixed and hung around in different places, – a lesson for those who dare defy the imperial order.

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4 Responses to Kunjali Marakkar

  1. Manas Shaikh says:

    Thanks for bringing this important part of India’s history to notice.

  2. M Mukarram says:

    Am late to write on this guest presentation. We have lot of things, material or otherwise which need uncompromising study. I always feel hurt when I read in media that such a thing is on sale somewhere in Europe especially UK. We need to educate the world that the loot which the carried back is sold for money and such a behaviour is not ‘civilised’. The need of the hour is to study history with one standard. Any act by Asian or European is to be defined as humane or otherwise. We need to change, Encarta, Websters, Oxford and all English dictionaries first.

  3. M Naqqaad says:

    Though the demise of indigeneous Indian empire is attributed to the decline of Indian navies, I believe India was independent till we have good Navy. An impartial study of this subject is needed the most. Added with this, we need to discard the Indian Naval History with the only perspective of British establishig it. We had very good naval history with Tipu, Maratha and Mughals using it most. What we lack is inclusiveness and good taste of history. Nothing surprising, Indian navy have ships and bases named after the archaic mythological past instead of the recent past except the Maratha names here and there. I concede, same is true of Muhammad Kunjali Marakkar!

  4. I am a member in the vast Marakkar family. I would like to know details about the Marakkars in Chaliyam where our ancestors lived.

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