The Wars That Were Won: Marthanda Varma’s Decisive Victory Over Dutch East India Company

The Wars That Were Won: Marthanda Varma’s Decisive Victory Over Dutch East India Company

by Praful Shankar - Apr 28, 2018 05:22 PM +05:30 IST
The Wars That Were Won: Marthanda Varma’s Decisive Victory Over Dutch East India CompanyAnizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma
  • The Travancore forces under the leadership of Marthanda Varma won a famous and decisive victory against one of the most fearsome military powers in the world at the time, Dutch East India Company, in 1741. This is the history of the battle.

Our history books and mainstream narratives are filled with vivid descriptions of battles in which Indic forces have suffered defeats. This is an attempt to look at the numerous instances in our history where Indic forces were victorious – a narrative which has sadly been suppressed from most Indians by leftist historians.

Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma, the legendary ruler who is considered the founder of the Travancore kingdom, was born to queen Karthika Thirunal and Raghava Varma of the Killimanur royal house in the year 1705.

His uncle was Raja Rama Varma, the chief of the Venad kingdom, whose rule was fraught with extreme hardships arising from a myriad power structures which existed in the early 1700s in Kerala. The Ettuveetil Pillamar (the Lords of Eight Noble Houses) and the Ettara Yogam (the Managing Committee of the Padmanabhaswamy Temple) along with the Dutch and British trading companies exerted a huge influence over Rama Varma and curtailed his powers considerably.

A young Marthanda Varma began to assist his uncle and, at the age of just fourteen, helped broker an alliance between Rama Varma and the Madurai Nayaks – neutralising the grip of the Pillamar and other rebel noblemen. He later also advised the king to sign a treaty with the British East India company in order to subdue the rising power of the Dutch in Kerala.

A portrait of Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma (<i>A History of Travancore from the Earliest Times</i> (1878) by P Shangunny Menon)
A portrait of Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma (A History of Travancore from the Earliest Times (1878) by P Shangunny Menon)

Seeing great promise in the young prince, Rama Varma appointed Marthanda Varma as his heir apparent. This announcement was immediately followed by numerous assassination bids on the prince’s life by the Pillamar and other political rivals. After spending several years in hiding, Marthanda Varma ascended to the throne in 1729 and spent the early years of his rule crushing the powers of the Ettuveetil Pillamar.

With his local rivals defeated, Marthanda Varma built a large army of 50,000 soldiers and went about creating what later became the Kingdom of Travancore. Within a few years, the young king had defeated and annexed Kollam, Kayamkulam, and Kottarakara states, causing great worry to his local rival kingdoms and the European powers who had established control over most of the Kerala region.

The Dutch East India Company

The Verenigde Oost Indische Compagnie (VOC) or the Dutch East India Company was founded in 1602 and by the early 1700s had grown to become one of the most powerful organisations in world history. Said to be the very first company to be listed on an official stock exchange, it expanded its global footprint across the 1600s and 1700s to establish its influence across South-East Asia while operating from its Asian hub at Jayakarta (modern Jakarta).

Much like its English rival, the British East India company, the Dutch East India Company followed a strategy of colonisation to boost its capability to trade on commanding terms. Within controlled colonies, they operated as a quasi-government – waging wars, enforcing their own laws, and negotiating treaties at will.

Trade routes of the Dutch East India Company (Jean-Paul Rodrigue, Professor, Hofstra University)
Trade routes of the Dutch East India Company (Jean-Paul Rodrigue, Professor, Hofstra University)

For most practical purposes, the Dutch East India Company functioned as one of the international arms of the Dutch government and was seen as a symbol of the Netherlands as a multinational, colonial empire.

As with most European colonial forces, the Dutch drew their strength from a formidable naval armada. Using their strength over the seas, the company managed to establish its influence across South-East Asia in Indonesia, Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Mauritius, South Africa, and India.

The Dutch presence in India started in 1605 from Pulicat, gradually expanding to Surat and Bengal. They defeated the Portuguese in Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka) and took over administration of the island. Soon, they also repelled the Portuguese from most of the Malabar coast and became the dominant foreign power in the region.

By the early 1700s, the Dutch influence over Kerala was at its peak. They had defeated the Zamorin of Calicut and turned the Kochi kingdom into a vassal state. And by controlling two of the region’s four leading kingdoms (the others being Kolathiri and Travancore), they had a monopoly over the pepper and cinnamon trade emanating from Kerala.

At the time of the conflict with Marthanda Varma, the Dutch East India Company was the most formidable colonial power in the world – about whom the American historian Russell Shorto wrote in his book Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City:

“Like the oceans it mastered, the VOC had a scope that is hard to fathom. One could craft a defensible argument that no company in history has had such an impact on the world. Its surviving archives—in Cape Town, Colombo, Chennai, Jakarta, and The Hague—have been measured (by a consortium applying for a UNESCO grant to preserve them) in kilometers. In innumerable ways the VOC both expanded the world and brought its far-flung regions together. It introduced Europe to Asia and Africa, and vice versa (while its sister multinational, the West India Company, set New York City in motion and colonized Brazil and the Caribbean Islands). It pioneered globalization and invented what might be the first modern bureaucracy. It advanced cartography and shipbuilding. It fostered disease, slavery, and exploitation on a scale never before imaged.”

The Battle of Colachel

The animosity between Travancore and the Dutch began years before the battle took place. Unsurprisingly, it was rooted in the commercial interests of the Dutch company.

The Dutch had entered into an agreement with the Odanad kingdom, from whom they purchased all of their pepper for export to the Netherlands. The Dutch feared that Marthanda Varma’s expansionist policies and his pre-existing partnerships with the British would pose a danger to their spice trade interests and, hence, decided that Travancore had to be countered.

During the early years of his rule, Marthanda Varma had defeated the Attingal kingdom and absorbed it into Travancore. He had also attacked the Kollam kingdom, alarming its close ally, Odanad. An ensuing battle of Odanad and its allies with Travancore ended with a victory for Marthanda Varma and the death of the Odanad king on the battlefield.

In 1737, Marthanda Varma moved to attack and annex Kottarakara, the largest pepper-producing region in Kerala during those days – his constant successes on the battlefield frustrating the Dutch, who had been watching with alarm how the conquests of Travancore had destroyed their pepper bounties.

War seemed imminent in 1739 when the Dutch and Travancore kingdom disagreed over the line of succession to the Kottarakara throne following the death of the chief of the state.

A meeting was arranged between Marthanda Varma and the governor of Ceylon, Gustaaf Willem van Imhoff, in which Van Imhoff demanded that Marthanda Varma end hostilities, to which the king retorted that these matters were none of the Dutch’s concern. Van Imhoff then threatened to attack Travancore, to which Marthanda Varma replied that he was actually thinking of attacking the Dutch Republic himself.

Nevertheless, in 1741, the Dutch installed their favoured princess as the ruler of Kottarakara in an act of defiance against the wishes of Marthanda Varma.

A war soon followed between the Travancore armies and the combined Kottarakara-Dutch forces, in which Marthanda Varma won a resounding victory. After crushing his rival army, Marthanda Varma formally added Kottarakara to his kingdom. The king then proceeded to attack and seize control over all the Dutch forts in the region – dealing a crushing blow to the Dutch East India Company and their commercial interests.

The Dutch decided to fight back and called for reinforcements from their base in Ceylon.

A force comprising Dutch marines and artillery under the leadership of Captain Eustachius De Lannoy set sail from Ceylon with the aim to capture Padmanabhapuram, the capital of Travancore.

The Dutch assault was planned to cover the sea and land. In November 1740, their ships first approached the coastal town of Colachel (near present-day Kanyakumari) and began a furious bombardment which lasted for three days, causing the inhabitants of the town to flee.

They then landed at Colachel and set up a base at the town. Padmanabhapuram was just 13km away.

The Dutch forces proceeded from Colachel and marched deep into Travancore territory, capturing most of the villages that stood in their way, finally arriving at the Kalkulam Fort and laying siege to it. The Dutch forces found things to be less smooth from then on, as local fisherman joined the resistance against them and managed to hold them off until the Travancore forces could arrive.

After completing his prewar ritual of worshipping Lord Adi Kesava at the Thiruvattar Temple and consecrating his sword, Marthanda Varma rode south with his army towards Kalkulam. The Travancore army arrived just in time to repel the attack on the fort. The Dutch forces suffered heavy losses in the attack from the Travancore army and fled back to their base in Colachel.

The king’s forces were joined by those under the command of his legendary Dewan, Ramayyan Dalwa, who had been busy at the northern frontier but had rode south to aid Marthanda Varma. The Travancore army also consisted of the king’s fearsome personal guards, known as the Nair Pattalam (Nair Brigade).

Marthanda Varma and his army pursued the retreating Dutch forces back to Colachel, laying siege at the Dutch post. Travancore soldiers loaded up on local boats and took to the seas to outflank and relentlessly attack the Dutch ships.

On 10 August 1741, both armies engaged. The Travancore forces cut through the Dutch formation and destroyed their defences, capturing a large number of prisoners, including the Dutch commander De Lannoy and his first in command, Donadi.

Depiction of De Lannoy’s Surrender At Padmanabhapuram Palace (Infocaster at the English language Wikipedia)&nbsp;
Depiction of De Lannoy’s Surrender At Padmanabhapuram Palace (Infocaster at the English language Wikipedia) 

Four days later, the Travancore forces entered the Dutch positions and took full control of the area while the remaining Dutch contingent fled towards Kochi.

At the end of the battle, the Travancore forces had won a famous and decisive victory against one of the most fearsome military powers in the world.


After their rout in the Battle of Colachel, the Dutch East India company was never able to re-establish their power in Kerala again.

They did try to reassert themselves by aligning with the Kollam state and other rival kingdoms, but were defeated each time by the forces of Marthanda Varma and Ramayyan Dalwa.

As Marthanda Varma notched up victory after victory and assimilated major spice-rich regions like Kollam, Kayamkulam, and Purakkad into his kingdom, the Dutch found themselves suffering heavy losses, both financially and militarily. Finally, they settled for peace and signed the Treaty of Mavelikkara in 1753. In the treaty, the Dutch agreed to never resist Travancore’s expansionist agenda and also signaled their readiness to sell Marthanda Varma their arms and ammunition.

In all his military conquests post-Colachel, Marthanda Varma was also assisted by Captain De Lannoy, who, after being captured in Colachel, joined the Travancore army and rose to become one its most popular leaders, called fondly as Valliya Kapitan by the Travancore soldiers.

De Lannoy worked tirelessly to modernise the Tranvacore army – training the soldiers in modern battle tactics, formations, and drills while also introducing the forces to the latest in artillery and weaponry. The king found him to be so dedicated and indispensable that he was given the Udayagiri Fort near Padmanabhapuram to reside in.

Marthanda Varma, of course, is remembered as one of the greatest rulers that Kerala and South India ever had. He single-handedly expanded a small fiefdom in Venad into the most powerful kingdom in Kerala and spun off a dynasty which gave Kerala some of its greatest rulers, like his immediate successor Dharma Raja Rama Varma, Swathi Thirunal Rama Varma, and Uthram Thirunal Marthanda Varma.

He also launched a series of administrative reforms in his kingdom, focusing a lot of his energies into enhancing trade, water supply, and village administration. His efforts to bring irrigation to even remote agricultural lands had a lasting effect on the cultivation of paddy rice in the Nagercoil-Kanyakumari region.

Marthanda Varma was also a lifelong devotee of the Padmanabhaswamy Temple. His devotion to the deity was such that in 1750 he donated his kingdom to Lord Padmanabha and henceforth ruled as the Lord’s vice-regent, taking on the name of Sree Padmanabhadasa (Servant of Sree Padmanabha).

Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple (Shishirdasika/Wikimedia Commons)
Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple (Shishirdasika/Wikimedia Commons)

He also renovated the temple into the grand structure it is today, building the Ottakkal Mandapam and the Sheevelippura. He also reconstructed the main idol (which had been destroyed in a fire earlier) and gave patronage to various forms of temple arts like Kathakali, Koothu, and Kodiyatam – art forms which define Kerala’s culture today.

Also Read:

The Wars That Were Won: Rajendra Chola’s Naval Conquest Of South-East Asia

The Wars That Were Won: Chandragupta Maurya’s Victory Over Seleucus I Nicator

The Wars That Were Won: Krishnadevaraya’s Victory Over The Bijapur Sultanate

Praful Shankar is a political enthusiast and tweets at @shankarpraful.

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