The April 1721 revolt is regarded by many as the first organised against the British in Kerala, when a boat carrying Englishmen was ambushed by local people.

A large painting on a wall along a roadside of men fighting each other amid a sea of red
news History Sunday, September 26, 2021 - 17:09

If you are on a vehicle going down the Akkulam Bypass road in Thiruvananthapuram, you may want to slow down, stop and walk along the stretch to see the massive mural that’s just come up on one side of it. All red, black and grey, the painting depicts a 300-year-old revolt that happened 25 km away in the town of Attingal. It was a time when the British had set shop in the nearby Anchuthengu with a fort (you can still see the giant black structure, a pretty relic now). Unlike most other struggles between the natives and the colonisers, the Attingal Revolt resulted in the death of all the British men on board a boat, after an ambush by the local people.

Arteria, a project of the Kerala Tourism Department to beautify the walls along city roads, chose to paint the story of the little-documented revolt across a large area – 35,000 square feet. “It’s the largest painting undertaken so far in the project. This is the third edition of Arteria and we have come up with five this year. In all of Thiruvananthapuram, there are now paintings on two walls in Akkulam, the wall of St Joseph’s School, the underpass in Palayam and two walls outside the Museum,” says Dr Ajit, a doctor and artist who has curated the project.

The artists behind the Attingal Revolt painting are current or former students of the Fine Arts College in Thiruvananthapuram. On a Thursday evening, when they had finished about 80% of the painting, it began to drizzle. “We would have finished the work in 10 days if it weren’t for all the rain during this time,” says Arjun Panayal, one of the nine artists going up on cranes and ladders to paint the 300-year-old story.

They didn’t find it easy, getting material to study the revolt. “There is very little documentation of the revolt. We also referred to some British writing on the subject to get an idea about the kind of clothes they used at the time, and of course, the back story,” says Ratheesh Kumar, another artist.

The painting has British men charging from one side and local people coming towards them from the other. Somewhere in the middle, they meet, they clash. “They used local weapons on the British,” Ratheesh says.

 

 

Due to the large size of the painting, they used projectors to have their sketches outlined on the walls. They had to be extremely cautious since it’s a busy stretch and even as they painted, they witnessed a few accidents on the road. The nine artists are – Ratheesh, Arjun, Akhil Vinod, Ajay KP, Sajith, Remith C, Stefin and Thushara Balakrishnan.

What happened in April 1721

Of the documented part, a good lot comes from Prof A Sreedhara Menon’s A Survey of Kerala History. He writes that the British obtained from the Attingal queen “a sandy spot of land at Anjengo (as Anchuthengu was known then)” for a factory and in 1690 got permission to build a fort there.

“Before long, Anjengo developed into the most important English possession on the west coast, next only to Bombay,” the book says. The British occupation was resented by the local people, writes Menon, mainly because the former manipulated the price of pepper against the interest of the farmers.

He writes that the British East India Company had antagonised the local people “by their corrupt practices and overbearing conduct.” But, he writes, they kept the Attingal rani (queen) happy by giving her expensive gifts. In 1721, agents of feudal lords called Pillamar demanded that the gifts be passed to the queen through them. The British didn’t pay heed to it, writes Menon, and it didn’t go down well with the people. One April day in 1721, the British – an army of 140 men, according to the book – were attacked when they were on their way back from seeing the rani at her palace.

“The local inhabitants were provoked by this show of strength. They attacked the party and massacred all the Englishmen. The rebels then proceeded to Anjengo and laid siege to the fort which was defended. The siege lasted for six months and it ended with the arrival of reinforcements from Tellicherry,” Menon writes.

The attack

There are different accounts, both about the part played by the rani at the time – Aswathy Thirunal Umayamma Rani – and the number of British men who were killed. “It is documented as 60 according to a book called Attingal Viplavam released by the Kerala Bhasha Institute,” says the Institute’s director Prof V Karthikeyan Nair.


Book cover of Attingal Kalapam

“After the rani gave Anchuthengu to the British (on lease), some of them came to live there. They would go to the nearby Chirayinkeezhu chantha (market) and demand that everything be sold at the price they name. This began to create friction between the farmers who sold their produce at the chantha, the merchants and the British. Moreover, the British had not been paying the annual rent for Anchuthengu,” Prof Nair says.

However, he adds, the British governor at Anchuthengu was later replaced by William Gyfford, who was ready to pay the pending dues and have good relations with the rani. As part of creating goodwill, Gyfford and his men took gifts to the queen on April 14, the day of the Vishu festival in Kerala. On their way back from the palace across the Vamanapuram River (“those days you travelled by water”), they were attacked by the people coming towards them from the shore.

In the book Attingal Kalapam by CV Giri Aradhya, however, Gyfford is described as an unscrupulous man who not only cheated the poor farmers and middlemen of their rightful prices but also treated the local people very badly. In the company of a Portuguese friend, Gyfford and the British men had looted and humiliated many villagers, especially Muslims and people from the oppressed communities, writes Giri. Among those who opposed the deeds of the British was a man called Kudamon Pillai, who led the locals against them, Giri writes. People learnt Kalari day and night, preparing themselves for the fight. On the side of the British was Vanchimuttathu Pillai, bribed by Gyfford, according to Giri.

“It was the madambimar – feudal lords and businessmen who supported the rani – who headed the attack. It may be true that Gyfford turned out to be better than his predecessor. But the people were unable to trust the British, their experience of the past 25 years – the Anjengo fort was built in 1696 – had been otherwise. And you must remember this is about money. They couldn’t survive without selling their farm produce at a decent price,” Prof Nair says.

However, he says that the attack may not have happened with the knowledge of the rani.

Role of Umayamma Rani

Historian Manu S Pillai’s Ivory Throne suggests otherwise. The rani gave the enclave of Anjengo to the British, because, in her words, “the English I called hither have always been obedient to me”. The queen was one who shone among all the Attingal ranis, Manu writes.

He adds that the British were compelled to toe her line, “for they could not afford to have her cancel their lease on any grounds, imagined or real”. The book also mentions the version of British writer Alexander Hamilton who claimed that the rani took a fancy to an Englishman and gave him some presents when he left the court. Anjengo is believed to be one of these presents, according to some accounts.

The queen – who “often did as she pleased” – in 1695 promised all her pepper to the British only to “coolly renege and give it away to the Danes”. Later when the British strengthened the fort, she united a military alliance against them and threatened that she would never return to Attingal “until every stone of the Anjengo Fort had been tumbled down”.

The book also mentions an incident in 1721 (believed to be the same as the revolt), when the rani, displeased by a certain betrayal of the English, “presided over a slaughter of the Company factors after getting them conveniently cornered at her palace during a banquet”.

[Trigger warning] It further adds, “One gentleman, for instance, had his tongue ripped out and was sent floating down a river nailed to a log”.

After the Attingal Revolt though, the rani is said to have made up for the losses incurred by the British, according to Sreedhara Menon. “Rani entered into an agreement under which the Company was compensated for all the losses sustained during the attack on Anjengo and was also given the sole monopoly of trade in pepper as well as the right to erect factories in places of its choice.”

Despite the slightly varying versions, the Attingal Revolt is considered by many as the first organised revolt against the British in Kerala.

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