By the late 17th century, Holland was a naval and economic superpower. The Dutch East India Company was the largest multinational ever, and it dominated the world spice trade. Much of these spices came from the Indian state of Kerala where the Dutch had a stranglehold on purchases. This monopoly was not because of superior business strategy; it simply came from military power. They arm-twisted the Kerala kings and warlords into signing contracts that were hugely one-sided. But one king — Marthanda Varma of Travancore — refused to sign up. Moreover, he started conquering other Kerala warlords and flatly refused to honour the Spice contracts that they had already signed.
This “minor” Indian kingdom boldly defied the world’s biggest multinational company, and that was bad for business! In 1739, the Dutch Governor Gustaaf van Imhoff met King Marthanda Varma and “advised” him to accept Dutch prices OR prepare for war. Varma laughed at the threat, and said he would love to invade Holland himself! Imhoff did not find it funny at all.
In 1740, Imhoff dispatched a naval contingent under Eustachius De Lannoy to attack Travancore. The Dutch navy and artillery were vastly superior. In the initial battles, Lannoy was victorious; but when he captured the port of Colachel, Varma sent his full force to besiege Colachel. Varma knew that in a frontal attack, the Dutch artillery would blast them out of existence. So, he quietly blockaded Colachel and cut off supplies. He knew that, if he held fast till the monsoons arrived, the sea would become too stormy for the Dutch Navy to provide logistic support.
The monsoon rains came and Lannoy struggled to keep his gunpowder dry. Unfortunately for him, a wildly lucky shot from a Travancore cannon landed smack on his armoury, ignited the gunpowder. Everything exploded. Without fire power and food, Lannoy surrendered. Now, Varma made an offer that Lannoy could not refuse: a good position in the Travancore army.
Above: Colachel Victory Pillar in remembrance of victory against the Dutch Navy in 1741. Kanya Kumari District, Tamil Nadu. Image Credit: SAJEEVJINO [CC BY-SA 4.0]
And, Lannoy promptly defected! He rapidly rose to become Travancore’s trusted General, or “Valiya Kapittan” (literally meaning “Great Captain”). De Lannoy modernised the Travancore Army, upgraded artillery, and reinforced forts. The Udayagiri Fort (60 Kms from Thiruvananthapuram) that he built is still called “Dillanai Kotta” (local speak for: “De Lannoy’s Fort”).
Above: Modern interpretation of De Lannoy’s Surrender at the Battle of Colachel. Image credit: Infocaster [CC BY-SA 3.0]
The Dutch continued to fight Varma for a few more years, but with indifferent results: King Varma knew their methods! Finally, they made peace with Varma. They were losing access to Kerala’s spice, and the cost of maintaining a military presence was bleeding them. Ultimately, they left India forever. Colachel was a minor battle, but had major geo-political impact. De Lannoy served Travancore loyally for 37 years and never returned to Holland. His tomb, with inscriptions in Latin and Tamil, is inside his beloved Udayagiri Fort!
Above: De Lannoy’s Tomb in the Udayagiri Fort. Image Credit: Infocaster [CC BY-SA 3.0]
Now for a surprise… Lannoy was not really ethnic Dutch, but belonged to an immigrant noble family from the Franco-Belgian border town of Lannoy! America’s longest serving President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, also descended from immigrants of the same De Lannoy family. Delano… De Lannoy… get the connection? That makes our De Lannoy and Roosevelt country cousins of sorts. Settled in different countries — but country cousins, nevertheless!
To hear more fascinating tales involving the King of Travancore, join us on the Kingdom of Gods Trail in Trivandrum.