The Attingal Outbreak or Anjengo Revolt, the first revolt against the colonialism of the British East India Company, erupted in April 1721 in the Angengo (Anjuthengu) of Attingal in Thiruvananthapuram district of Kerala.
Kerala commemorated the 300th anniversary of the country’s first known organised insurrection against the English East India Company in 2021, yet there are few written documents and no fitting memorials.
The Attingal seigniory, with the sea on one side and the Sahyadri on the other and rich with rivers and connecting water bodies, was the motherland of all rulers of Travancore.
The Venad royal family, one of Kerala’s four mediaeval kingdoms, had a matrilineal system of inheritance, and the Rani of Attingal, Aswathi Tirunal Umayamma (1677-1698), was the head of the Venad royal house. She was known for her bravery, beauty and diplomacy. She was also the head of a confederacy of semi-independent states such as Travancore, Nedumangad, Kottarakkara, Kollam, Karunagappally and Kayamkulam.
It was during her regime that the British came to Attingal, seeking permission to build a fort in Anchuthengu or Anjengo, as the British called it. They came looking for the Nedumangad pepper, one of the most famous spices in Europe at that time.
The Portuguese, as the early ones to arrive at the Malabar coast, already had a monopoly in all four kingdoms in Kerala, i.e. Venad, Cochin, Kozhikode and Kolathunadu. The Dutch had monopolised the Kerala coast by the beginning of the 17th century since the inhabitants preferred the well-mannered Dutch over the Portuguese.
But the English East India Company made inroads by conciliating with the rulers. Umayamma welcomed the British to Attingal, believing that it would put an end to the Dutch monopoly and provide greater prosperity to her country. Even though it was opposed by the Dutch and the merchants who supported them, the British showered the queen with precious gifts and got permission to build a fort in 1694.
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Additionally, they obtained exclusive rights to buy pepper at a lower price than what the Dutch offered. This led to huge protests from farmers, mostly Nair’s and Ezhava’s, and also traders, mostly Muslims. The Pillai’s, a set of feudal lords with their own army, also revolted against the British.
Historian M G Sashibhushan said that though Rani remained the figurative head of the Attingal Kingdom, the real power was vested with the Pillai’s, who were her ministers.
When the insurrection became turmoil, Umayamma requested that the British to halt building the fort, but they refused. Although she sent troops to the site, they could not stand before the guns and cannonballs of the British. Anjengo became a genuine English colony on 27 July, 1694.
Umayamma died in 1698 with remorse and shame. During this time, the Company assigned a new officer to the fort, William Gyfford, to combat corruption, as several officials were engaging in private business.
The British made stronger advances into Attingal during the two monarchs that succeeded Umayamma. The Dutch were made powerless. The British also took advantage of the Pillais’ lack of cohesiveness. By the 1720s, the British had taken control of Attingal’s trade arrangements.
The indigenous were already fed up with the British’s dishonest business tactics. To make matters worse, Gyfford and his wife, Catherine, would mock their religious beliefs. He and his Portuguese assistant, Ignatio Malhiero, were also against Muslims. When they went to the fort, Catherine was said to pour filthy water on them.
Moreover, the English started buying properties around the famous Sarkaradevi temple, maddening the natives, who always suspected the English’s religious motives. Gyfford and his soldiers also insulted the temple’s Brahmin priest.
The indigenous had had enough of the British and sought Kudaman Pillai, one of the kingdom’s most prominent ministers, and asked him to lead a revolt against the British. While Pillai, who was well-versed in kalari, concurred, he understood the indigenous had little chance against the British’s sophisticated armament.
With his nephew’s support, he invited kalari experts from the north and south to train the natives, both Hindus and Muslims. It mentions in C V Giri’s work Attingal Kalapam, “The people of Attingal came together against the British, forgetting caste, class and religious barriers, It was a rare act at that point in time.”
When Gyfford and his officers caught a smell of the gathering animosity directed at them, they decided to pay the queen a visit. Vanchimuttam Pillai, a British-friendly minister, encouraged him not to see the queen, but he persevered. He was also invited to the palace to celebrate Vishu by the queen.
Portrayal of the Attingal Revolt on 35,000 sqft of a wall along Akkulam road of Trivandrum. Part of the Tourism Dept’s #Arteria project. The revolt, believed by many to be the first organised one against the British in Kerala, took place 300 yrs ago. pic.twitter.com/cJ22bO1jmX
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Gyfford set sail for Attingal in three huge boats with 132 Englishmen (some say 133) and an equal number of slaves. He noticed people gathered on the banks of the Vamanapuram River while sailing past it. He waved at them, presumably assuming they were there to meet him. He had no idea that they were kalari warriors.
Gold coins, velvet and perfume were handed to the queen by Gyfford. The traditional feast, as well as wine, was given to him and his squad. Kudaman Pillai and his kalari warriors entered the palace when darkness fell and reported that none of the Englishmen had survived. The truth remains, however, that the whole British crew was wiped out.
“The brutality with which the British were treated was proof of the agony and humiliation the natives must have suffered at the hands of the British,” stated Giri Aradhya. “The river had turned red for a while with all the dead bodies floating in it.”
It is said that the river got the name Kollumbuzha (the river that kills) after the incident. The Company’s records, on the other hand, only list 23 casualties. However, Sashibhushan pointed out that the Dutch records only gave a clear picture of the casualties.