The Mapilla Rampage in Malabar Under British Rule: Dispelling Historical Myths
History Vignettes

The Mapilla Rampage in Malabar Under British Rule: Dispelling Historical Myths

The firsthand accounts of the Mapilla atrocities in Malabar under British rule exposes another chapter of whitewashed history

Sandeep Balakrishna

Sandeep Balakrishna

In this Series

When the British East India Company wrested Malabar from Tipu Sultan who signed the Treaties of Srirangapattana dated 22 February and 18 March, 1792 respectively, they found this tiny region splintered into charred and smouldering driblets of principalities and pseudo kingdoms in the wake of Tipu’s death march of fanaticism. Once prosperous cities and towns were now deserted and abandoned. Zamindars and landowners and traders had fled, and vast tracts of once-smiling, lush green fields were discoloured with the congealed blood of thousands of Hindus who had been butchered by the pious barbarian from Mysore.

In this bleak landscape of all-encompassing wreckage and ruin, only one people thrived: the Mapillas who had now reorganised themselves as scavenging bandits pillaging even in the aftermath of war.

Reorganising Malabar

The first task of the British is to reorganise the administrative geography of Malabar, bring order and stability to the region, and stamp their supreme authority in unambiguous terms. And so they divide the geography into Northern and Southern divisions of Malabar separated by the Turasseri River.

Then they divide Northern Malabar into the following chief districts and principalities:

  1. Chirakkal, seat of the Kolathiri dynasty

  2. Kottayam to which Waynad is attached

  3. Kadattanad

  4. A Petty township in Kannur, which is ruled by a Mapilla family, who are now British vassals

  5. Iruvalinad, Kurangot, and Randattara

Southern Malabar comprises these major districts and principalities:

  1. Kurumbranad, ruled by a Raja who is now subordinate to the British

  2. Payyanad, Vadakkampuram, and the northern and eastern regions of Kozhikode.

  3. Ernad, Cheranad, Malappuram, Karimpula, Nedunganad and Ponnani, or in general, the region known as Valluvanad.

  4. Payyormala, Pulavayi, Beypore, Parappanad, and Chavakkad.

  5. Significant parts of the original Palakkad kingdom.

All of these areas are ruled by the existing lineages of Rajas and Samuris. The following areas are directly controlled by the British.

  1. Thalassery and the all-strategic island of Dharmadam.

  2. The Chetwai (or Chettuva) Island.

  3. The Anchuthengu (Anjengo) fort.

Thus, the erstwhile formidable states of Travancore, Kozhikode, Cochin and Valluvanad now have a permanent British Resident in their respective courts who combines in himself the roles of a spy, diplomat, and police who dictates terms to the ruler.

Simultaneously, the British also initiate a series of one-sided commercial agreements with their vassals which enable them to eventually monopolise all trade in this spice-rich region. The namesake Rajas and Samuris are now reduced to a status slightly higher than that of revenue collectors on behalf of the East India Company. However, one happy outcome of the total British takeover of Malabar is the fact that they outlaw and thereby cut off another lucrative revenue stream that the Mapillas had enjoyed for nearly four hundred years: slave trade in children.

Jungle Mapillas

The British annexation of Malabar has come as an additional blow to the Mapillas who are now incessantly seething with rage and reeling under the humiliation of being reduced to powerlessness and penury. They have now become servants and farm labour and are engaged in menial jobs under Hindu chieftains and zamindars and rich businessmen. They are scattered throughout Malabar and their concentration is particularly strong in the Vellatiri district. Out here, one strain of Mapillas acquire a separate identity: jungle Mapillas, a source of dread to the Hindus and a permanent nuisance to the British. They lurk in the darkness of the jungles on the outskirts and would mount savage, surprise assaults with lightning speed, and in general, had converted the entire area into a lawless tract. Even the Raja, a Nair, was powerless to prevent or punish them. They were not a unified and homogenous group but small tribes united under a bloodthirsty chief and impelled by religious fanaticism. Their typical targets included Hindu villagers—both landowners and farmers.

The most notorious chiefs of these jungle Mapillas are Haidros, and the dreaded Elampulasseri Unni Mutta (or Mussa) Muppan who has a standing force of hundred semi-barbaric Mapillas armed and ready. He lives in a fortified house at a place called Tereangnanor deep in the jungles. Over time, his terror has grown to such proportions that the East India Company’s military gives him a friendly warning to cease and desist. He haughtily dares them justifying his plundering and murdering activities in this fashion: “give me and my followers a pension equal to what we get through robbery. My followers have no means of earning a living apart from pillaging this region.”

A common and familiar theme that occurs in the popular (read: secular), mainstream narratives about the history of Mapillas is to justify their murdering and plundering sprees by blaming the Hindu zamindars who had apparently pushed them into poverty. However, this narrative conveniently omits the fact that there were greater numbers of Hindus who like the Mapillas also worked as labourers and did other menial jobs. They were poor alike and there is no evidence to show that they resorted to plunder and murder.

The British decide to call Unni Mutta’s bluff. Major Dow gives him an ultimatum, which he rebuffs again. And then, Captain Burchall marches with a solid force and surrounds his fortified mansion. After a short fight, Unni Mutta escapes but his men are caught and imprisoned and his ill-gotten lands are confiscated.

A Little-Known Legacy of Pazhassi Raja

Which brings us to the inspiring tale of Pazhassi Raja, the indomitable fighter who gave equal opportunity offence to both the British and the Mapilla menace. The 2009 Malayalam biopic on him entitled Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja plays the secularist trumpet and dances to the Communist drumbeat by portraying him merely as a great warrior who fought only against the British.

Primary records tell a different story.

By 1793, Pazhassi Raja has not only eclipsed his weakling uncle Kurumbranad Raja by the dint of his Kshatra, he has transformed the Padinyara Kovilakam (or western palace) of Kottayam as a seat that radiated power, pride, and self-respect. The headquarters of the Padinyara Kovilakam is Pazhassi, now a village in Mattannur. Unlike his uncle, Pazhassi Raja is fully aware of the menace that the Mapillas pose and deals with them with an iron fist. He also deals with the British on equal terms, a fact they are wary of.

Pazhassi Raja
Pazhassi Raja

In April 1793, Pazhassi Raja demolishes a mosque that had been erected in the bazaar of Kottayam. This is seen by the British as an act of defiance but they do nothing. And then in September, the Mapillas supplicate the Raja and beg his permission to build (or renovate) a mosque in Kodoli. He in turn asked them to give him a substantial gift. They agreed but reneged on it and proceeded to build the mosque without his permission. Pazhassi Raja then sent a small force to seize the Mapilla chief, Talib Kutti Ali who killed one of the Raja’s men. He was in turn killed. The enraged Raja then dispatched a small army which massacred about ten Mapillas at Kodoli.

This then is a notable theme in Pazhassi Raja’s brief but uncompromising life and legacy. As long as he was alive, the Mapillas in his dominions didn’t dare commit the kind of atrocities they unleashed elsewhere in Malabar. Perhaps Pazahassi Raja’s two serious, strategic errors was to take on multiple enemies at the same time and his fateful alliance with Tipu Sultan in 1795. However, his enduring legacy is the fact that he prevented large murders and conversions of Hindus at the hands of the Mapillas.

Unni Mutta Muppan Resurfaces

Meanwhile the fugitive Mapilla bandit chief Unni Mutta Muppan has resurfaced at Elampulasseri with renewed strength. He has now built a new stronghold atop the forested Pandalur hills near Malappuram. Unwilling to engage in another war, the British Major Murray signs a treaty on May 8, 1794 with him. According to the terms, the Elampulasseri district would be restored to Unni Mutta on the condition that he would agree to stop his criminal activities and banditry, and an annual cash allowance of ₹ 1000 is given to him. Unni Mutta immediately reneges on the agreement mistaking it to be a weakness on the part of the British. He then escalates his demands: give me a share of your revenue…or else! On their part, the British revoke the agreement and put a bounty of ₹ 3000 on his head: dead or alive. Captain MacDonald storms his Pandalur stronghold, bombs it out of existence, destroys several other hideouts and houses and chases him deep into the jungles.

Next, it is the turn of the other Mapilla bandit, Haidros. He is easily captured and sentenced to death. However, the death sentence is commuted in lieu of his deportation to the dreaded Botany Bay in the badlands of Australia.

This becomes the recurrent theme in the history of the Mapillas of Malabar over the next century: a sickening and savage, real-life refrain of robbery, murder and conversions of Hindus. The death of Tipu Sultan in 1799 is a presage of sorts. From 1800 onwards, the Mapillas have wholly transformed into full-blown assassins, plunderers and hardened, barbaric criminals who recognise no law and beyond scruple. Ernad and Vellathiri become hotspots of untrammelled Mapilla atrocities. The helpless lament of the Samuri of Kottayam, who “opened his heart” to the British Commissioners provides perhaps the most graphic picture:

As for me, when my officers ask for revenue (from the Mappilias), they shake their swords at them.

This confession together with a wealth of other evidence punctures the other great myth that the Mapillas were uniformly subjected to harassment by the Hindu landowners in Malabar as we shall see in the next part.

To be continued

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