Quilon and Cochin: a punitive expedition and a failed siege

The campaign on the Malabar Coast of 1661-1662 did not come out of the clear blue. Long had the Company been interested in this region, first and foremost because of its pepper and cardamom production. As late as the 1660s, the directors of the Company were motivated to certain actions by the hopes of one day achieving a complete pepper monopoly. In addition, in the past few years the general strategy of the Company had been to completely drive the Portuguese from Asia, and the approaching peace made a speedy achievement of this goal all the more pertinent. Thirdly, there was now Ceylon to be thought of. The hugely valuable cinnamon production there needed to be protected, and it would be prudent to guard its backdoor. Securing the Malabar Coast would prevent the Portuguese or the English from ever using it as a stepping stone to conquer Ceylon.

The strategy that Van Goens en Van der Meijden therefore came up with, in one of the very few instances that they agreed on something, was to secure the Malabar Coast from the South upward. First Quilon needed to be retaken, subsequently the various rulers along the Coast needed to be appeased, then Cochin should be taken, and finally, if time and resources permitted, Diu and Daman should be conquered.[1]

Particularly with regard to Cochin, the Company was in a very good political position at the time. The Malabar Coast was a patchwork of small political entities, of which the central region had long been the scene of rivalry between two main power blocks: Cochin and Calicut. As the Portuguese had centred their trade on the coast around Cochin, the VOC had soon started working together with the Zamorin, the ruler of Calicut. On this campaign, the Zamorin had also pledged to assist the VOC with military reinforcements of his own Nayars, and food supplies. The best card that the Company had recently been dealt, however, was a pretender to the Cochinese throne. A dynastic struggle in Cochin, settled by Portuguese intervention in 1658, had ousted one branch of the Cochinese royal family from the kingdom. The ousted pretender to the throne, Vira Kerala Varma, had subsequently sought contact with the enemies of Cochin and the Portuguese: the Zamorin and the VOC. Here, then, were some nice mutual interests. The Cochinese pretender to the throne had a means of conquering it, and the VOC had found a way of legitimating its conquest of Cochin and ousting of the royal family working with the Portuguese.[2]

As the fleet departed from Colombo, the first seven ships on the the 5th of November and the bulk of the fleet, fourteen large vessels and six smaller ones, ten days later, the wind was certainly not adhering to the prayers that the inhabitants of Colombo and the soldiers and sailors on the fleet had dedicated to the success of the expedition on the 4th of November:[3] the fleet had to sail against the wind, and proceeded extremely slowly. En route, fire also broke out on the Beurs van Amsterdam. The ensuing attempts to extinguish the fire ruined part of part of the powder and the fuses. It was only on the 2nd of December that the entire fleet lay assembled before Travancore, ten miles south of Quilon. Information from the raja there and scouting along the coast before Quilon made clear that although the Portuguese might be willing to surrender, the Nayars of the queen of Quilon would not. The army landed on the 7th of December, 2 miles south of Quilon. The next morning, the march towards the Portuguese city commenced.

These Nayars were the knighthood of the Malabar Coast: a caste of nobles whose raison-d’être was fighting. Wouter Schouten qualified them and their fighting skills as follows:

“The nairos are the keepers of the weapons and are trained in their use from childhood. […] They are very strong and agile in fencing and wrestling, and prove themselves to be real masters at this. They use their weapons all their life. Like brave Europeans, they charge in ranks, and they ably use bow and arrow, muskets, but also artillery. […] They go to battle naked, with only their loins covered. […] When fighting their enemies, they often find their biggest advantage in flight, as they cannot be overtaken: they jump and fly quickly over fences and dams, through shrubbery, swamps, ponds and wilderness, and then suddenly charge again from the other side. With their shields they are able to protect themselves remarkably well and they do more harm slashing and stabbing than shooting, as their aiming is very poor which often makes their bullets fly into the air. They don’t easily retreat, but stand upright like poles, or bravely advance through fire, sword or barrage. By using opium they go quite mad and beside themselves.”[4]

As the VOC army was marching towards the Portuguese fortress, it was attacked by an army of these Nayars, estimated by Baldaeus to be 7 or 8000 strong.[5] The VOC army was first taken under fire from an artillery battery and various smaller fortified positions. The smaller VOC vessels, which were sailing closely along the coast to provide cover for the army, in their turn took these batteries under fire, “so that the onslaught from that source lessened somewhat.” Wouter Schouten was observing the battle from one of these ships. In the meantime Van Goens tried to circumvent the battery and attack it from behind. Here, however, he was charged by the Nayar army:

“There under the high trees the nairos, cheered on by Portuguese and Mestizos, howling terribly and crazed like tigers and lions, immediately attacked our brave Batavians. The latter charged at the enemy quickly and in good order and shot amply. This first outburst of violence was extremely intense and the unafraid nairos struggled forward bravely, in the hopes of making a breach in our ranks. Most however walked right to their deaths, as our troops had stayed very closely together and had made a closed front. From our ships we no longer dared to fire, as friend and foe had come to clashes behind the batteries and bulwarks, under the shadow of the palm trees. The enemy, gone mad by the opium, remained standing like a wall and slashed and hacked at everything it could get at with big knives. Our Dutchmen however did not falter and opened their ranks on the sides with a few small pieces of artillery, loaded with scrap, to take the naked vermin under fire.”[6]

Battle near Quilon
Impression of the battle near Quilon. Print from Schouten.

This latter treatment soon scattered the ranks of the Nayars, who had to retreat with great loss of life. The various batteries and strongholds were taken. Schouten mentions that as the VOC army was resting, the Portuguese came to the camp negotiate. Van Goens, however, refused the terms and the Portuguese went back to the city empty-handed. This peace offer is not mentioned in Van Goens’ own reports on the campaign.[7] At any rate, the march to the Portuguese city continued that same morning. As the Portuguese saw the army approaching, they simply abandoned the fortress: the women and children went to Cochin by land; the men joined the Nayars for another possible fight against the Dutch.

The next day, the council that Van Goens called together decided to a penal expedition in the region of Quilon. In words that echo Van Goens’ Vertoog very closely, it was stated that now for the second time, the Dutch had come into the region of the Queen of Quilon as a friend, but had been treated as an enemy (the first time being 1659, when a combined Nayar-Portuguese army had forced the Company to evacuate the fortress.) The only thing that the Company could do to change this, was to inspire some awe for the might of the Company again, and teach the queen a lesson.

In the morning of the 10th of December, the army, 24 companies strong, made way to the queen’s capital, having to fight its way through the defences of the Nayars. Resistance was fierce, but the capital was not fortified, except by some makeshift Nayar positions. As soon as the VOC forces had broken through the outer perimeter of the city, fighting went on around the royal palace and the temple. Particularly the temple was fiercely defended; Wouter Schouten speculates that the Nayars amassed there believed that the god to which the temple was devoted would bring them salvation or victory. In any case, it failed to bring the latter. The temple and the palace, from which the queen had already fled, were taken and set ablaze. The cannon that were inside the complex were taken back to Quilon as a prize of war.

Van Goens now prepared to move against Cochin, leaving behind 480 soldiers, mainly inexperienced and sick folk, to garrison Quilon. However, just as Van Goens was planning to send ahead the first eight ships, one of these, the Zeepaard, caught on fire. In the end the crew managed to extinghuish it, but the ship was severely damaged, the powder supply, some 10.000 pounds, had been set overboard and all the fuses, already in short supply, were ruined by the water. Then, just when the first eight ships had left under the command of Roothaas, the ships still before Quilon were hit by a hurricane in the night of the 18th of December.[8] When in the course of the 19th of December the storm turned from southeast to southwest, the ships were in danger of being wrecked against the rocky coast. Several ships lost many of their anchors; the Raadhuis even tore loose of its last heavy anchor and seemed doomed to be hurled against the cliffs, but miraculously came to a standstill in an opening between two cliffs. Although the ship ultimately survived the storm, it was heavily damaged and had lost all its anchors and its rudder.[9] All these disasters, added to the earlier trouble which had plagued the expedition, made Van Goens wonder if higher powers were against him, as it seemed that “while we are making war on our enemies, God our Lord, in his turn, is making war on us.”[10] The Parkiet was sent back to Ceylon to get as much powder and fuse as could be spared there. The Raadhuis remained before Quilon to make a new rudder, and the Beurs, under the command of Godske, would remain at Quilon to conduct peace negotiations with the Signati, the queen of Quilon. The rest of the fleet headed north.

On the 30th of December, the bulk of the fleet once again lay assembled before Cochin. Van Goens learned that the English had already informed the Portuguese of Dutch plans to attack, and the Portuguese, in spite of the ever more precarious state of their empire, had managed to send fifteen frigates, well-armed and well-manned with soldiers, from Goa to Cochin. The fortress of Cochin had been reinforced by an earthen bulwark around the existing walls, and the English, it appeared, had provided the Portuguese with ammunition and artillery. In addition, the Portuguese were also aware of the peace negotiations and the marriage between Catherine of Braganza and Charles II. They thus had both the means and the will to defend Cochin to the utmost.

In addition, the local ally of the VOC, the Zamorin of Calicut, also got in the way of plans. For this campaign, the Zamorin had pledged to aid the Company armies with food supplies and Nayars, in exchange for which the Company would conquer Cranganore, the northernmost large city now under the rule of Cochin, which had recently been conquered upon the Zamorin. This city also held a Portuguese garrison. Now, the Zamorin demanded that the Company would live up to its part of the deal before it moved against Cochin. Van Goens, who would have rather moved against Cochin first but who could not afford to cross the Zamorin, grudgingly agreed.

The fleet therefore moved another five miles north to Cranganore, and the army landed there on the 2nd of January 1662. When, on the 3rd of January, the army approached the Portuguese city, it became clear that the Portuguese had also been unusually busy here: the defences had been significantly enhanced, and it would require a regular siege to conquer the city. The Company army therefore got to work: trenches were dug and batteries were thrown up. The Company army started bombarding the city and the Portuguese fired back convincingly. The Portuguese fired on the soldiers digging the trenches incessantly, and made sorties from the city every night to break through the Dutch defences. They were unsuccessful, but caused a lot of dead and wounded among the Company soldiers. Schouten had been ordered off the Rode Leeuw, and now had the job of tending to the wounded right at the frontline. He describes how “we bandaged the wounded as well as we could, with candle light, under the open sky and in the open field, and in grave danger ourselves, as bullets whizzed around our heads. Then we had our wounded carried to the hospital by Ceylonese Lascars who had been appointed to that job, while our brave soldiers tried to bring the attacking Portuguese to a halt.”[11]

Learning from a spy of the bad situation within the walls of Cranganore, Van Goens decided to storm the city. After a last attempt to a negotiated surrender, Van Goens ordered the attack in the afternoon of the 15th of January, after a siege of twelve days. He decided to use a subterfuge: not only did the attack take place in the hour that mass was held inside the city; he also had part of the army perform an all-out attack on one side of the wall, which however was only for show. The main force would meanwhile attack a weak spot in the defences as pointed out by the spy, only defended by Nayars. The plan worked: whereas the force performing the all-out attack suffered heavy losses, the main force meanwhile succeeded in entering the city almost without firing a shot. Bastion after bastion fell to the Dutch troops, until the Portuguese force withdrew into the church. Van Goens then once again requested the Portuguese to surrender, and the 350 soldiers inside the church did. At the end of the day, 50 Portuguese were dead. The Dutch had 20 dead and 80 wounded. The trenches were now filled up, the walls of the city repaired. Cranganoor was garrisoned only by the sick and wounded soldiers that Van Goens had to leave behind, about 200 in number.

Of the more than 2500 [12] soldiers which Van Goens had had at his disposal at Quilon, he was now marching on Cochin with less than 1800. Of these, 300 had to be left at the Periyar river, which sealed off the north of Cochin. To prevent the Portuguese from crossing the river, he had a small fortification built on the northern bank, called it Nieuw Oranje and manned it with 300 soldiers. The remaining force of 1500 soldiers, however, was not sufficient to risk an attack on Cochin. Van Goens presently sent word to Quilon to send 100 soldiers from the garrison there, and had 100 sailors disembark to work as bus-firers. With these 1700, Van Goens would now have to lay siege to a well-defended Portuguese city the size of which he himself compared to the city of Leiden.[13] In addition, the Portuguese could count on the support of the thousands of Nayars of the raja of Cochin.

As much as Van Goens thought it useless, he sent representatives into the Portuguese city to offer terms to the Portuguese. The two representatives were politely received and heard out by the Portuguese commander, Ignacio Sermento, and the latter also politely declined to accept the terms, telling the representatives that even should they take the city, they would simply have to return it afterwards by the terms of the imminent peace treaty. The Dutch representatives therefore returned empty-handed, as Van Goens had expected.

After these formalities, Van Goens proceeded with the attack. Leaving behind the garrison in the newly-built fortification, Van Goens silently embarked his army in the night of the 1st of February, and landed four miles south of Cochin the next morning. No river to protect the city on this side. To the pleasant surprise of Van Goens, the Portuguese had apparently not counted on this move of the army: he had been very concerned about the landing, but no Portuguese was even in sight. The Cochinese pretender to the throne, who had been in exile in Beccenore, slightly inland from Cochin, now joined the Dutch army. He had Van Goens promise that the local population was to be left completely unharmed, and Van Goens instructed his troops accordingly.

The same day, the VOC army headed for Portuguese Cochin, meeting surprisingly little resistance from Portuguese forces. Van Goens, however, learned that a great force of Nayars was amassing in the old city to defend the palace and the royal family. Having this large enemy force looming in the background while the Company army was besieging Cochin could prove a serious liability, and it was therefore decided first to attack the old city and effectuate the planned ‘regime change.’ Nine companies moved towards the old city. An attempt at negotiation ended in a shoot-out, after which the VOC troops attacked the Nayar force. The old queen of Cochin, who had been ousted by the conflict in 1658, was still living in the palace as a hostage of sorts, but she was successfully evacuated from the scene by VOC forces. Both Vira Kerala Varma and the old queen gave the Company forces carte blanche to slaughter the present royal family, and the Company forces acted accordingly. The palace was attacked from two sides to prevent anyone escaping. It became a slaughterhouse: more than 500 Nayars met their deaths, as well as the new king and his closest advisors and family. As Schouten describes, the “walls were painted with blood and spattered with brains.”[14] Vira Kerala Varma was now king. Van Goens left the palace to him, but also left two companies of VOC soldiers there.

Battle in old Cochin
The battle in Old Cochin. Print from Schouten.

Now, Van Goens needed to come up with a way to attack Portuguese Cochin, the second largest city in Portuguese India, well-armed and well-stocked. As mentioned before, he himself was low on troops. This made a regular siege problematic: in spite of the fact that the city was sealed off by a river and the small Dutch stronghold on the north side, by the ocean and the Company fleet on the west side, and by swamps and backwaters on the eastside, the 1400 soldiers which Van Goens still had at his disposal were not enough to securely seal off the remaining 1100 meters of city wall, particularly considering the fact that Van Goens expected the garrison inside the city to be at least as large as his own army. In addition, the rain season was approaching rapidly. All in all, Van Goens had neither the time nor the resources to take the fortress the usual way. His only chance of success was a surprise attack on a weak spot in the city’s defences.

Thus, on the 4th of February, the entire VOC force stormed the eastern side of the wall, just off the river. At this spot, the city actually continued outside the city wall, which was a serious liability to the Portuguese defences there. At some spots, the VOC forces managed to break through the Portuguese defences and enter the city. The Portuguese, however, were clearly expecting the attack. They rushed to the scene, and soon the Company forces were caught up in skirmishes. The Portuguese set fire to some of the buildings in which the Company forces had taken cover, and shortly afterwards the Company army was in retreat.

As this first surprise attack had not managed to breach the defences in any way, Van Goens was unwilling to risk another storm attack. On second thought, the city was simply besieged with what little resources the army had. Trenches and tunnels were dug, batteries thrown up and moved ever closer. The city was steadily bombarded, both from the fleet, the trenches and batteries on the south side, and the fortification on the north side.

Whereas this steady bombardment was certainly bad for Portuguese morale inside the city, the situation of the Company was not getting any better either. Several of the ships which had sailed along with the fleet had orders to continue to Suratte and Persia, and Van Goens reluctantly allowed them to go. These ships took with them a great number of sailors which Van Goens had deployed to operate artillery. In addition, a prince of the royal house which the VOC had recently almost, but not quite, eradicated, was now building an anti-Dutch coalition in Purracad, slightly further south, and was rumoured to have amassed as many as 6000 Nayars there. The arrival of 1000 Nayars to reinforce the Company army from Calicut did not help an awful lot: the arrival of these Nayars from the old enemy of Cochin greatly antagonized the local population, some of whom now started fleeing the area. As the Company had too few small boats to completely control the river, and the Portuguese still had several frigates, the latter were still capable of getting supplies into the city and even getting their possessions, women and children out. Disease was once again making itself felt among the Company forces. And worst of all: the powder and fuse supply, which had been so severely diminished by fires and storms earlier in the campaign, was now rapidly running out.

Van Goens, who had earlier declared that he would continue the siege right through the summer monsoon if necessary, now saw his supplies run out, his soldiers go ill and his trenches ruined by the first rains by the end of February. He finally had to admit that continuing the siege any further was pointless. In the night of the 2nd of March, the army secretly embarked, covered by a small group of constables which made enough noise for the entire army. Vira Kerala Varma, who had been in power for a month, was informed of the retreat and immediately packed to leave for Mannar. He would just have to go into exile for a little longer.

The fleet presently split up. Roothaes stayed before Cochin with a few ships for a while longer, to prevent reinforcements from coming in. Van Goens went down the coast in the Notenboom to make treaties with the various rulers, so that his conquests would be secure and his possible return next year would be provided for. Two yachts were left before Cranganoor. The whole expedition had cost the lives of 500 VOC employees, half of them dead by disease, half of them in combat. In addition there were 400 wounded.

Van Goens, of course, was very disappointed, as would be the Hoge Regering. Nonetheless, the expedition had been a partial success. Cranganore and Quilon were now in possession of the Company. The failed siege of Cochin might partly be attributed to the fact that the expedition, which had nothing less as its aim than to completely drive the Portuguese from the Indian coast, had to be conjured up in very little time on the basis of developments in Europe. Expectations had been too high, and the means too few. Van Goens himself had been particularly unhappy with the quality of the fresh reinforcements from Europe: these young men without any fighting experience had been sailed right from the Netherlands into this intense campaign, and had therefore not received the usual training in Batavia. On various occasions, they had simply fled the battlefield. This did not surprise Van Goens, as their first combat experience consisted of being stormed by howling, intoxicated Nayars who greatly outnumbered them. In addition, the fleet had its fair share of those eventualities of war that could not be planned for, such as storms and fires ruining the ammunition supplies.

List footnotes

Meilink-Roelofsz, Vestiging Malabar, 246. All of this chapter based on this work, C5, unless stated otherwise.
T.I. Poonen, Survey of the Rise of Dutch Power in Malabar (Trichinopoly 1943), 75pp.
Schouten, Oost-Indische Voyagie, 184.
Schouten, Oost-Indische Voyagie, 193-194.
Baldaeus, Exact description, 644.
Schouten, Oost-Indische Reis, 194.
Meilink-Roelofsz, Vestiging Malabar, 257-258; Schouten, Oost-Indische Reis, 194.
This came unexpected as the hurricane season on this side of the Indian Ocean is during the summer monsoon, i.e. from April to September.
Schouten lived through this storm on the Rode Leeuw. His description is of the storm is great but too long to quote here. See Schouten, Oost-Indische Reis, 200pp.
Quoted in Meilink-Roelofsz, Vestiging Malabar, 262.
Schouten, Oost-Indische Reis, 207.
That is 2139 European soldiers and 240 Lascars counted before the arrival of the Rijzende Zon and Huis te Swieten. The latter two ships must have brought at least 200 more soldiers.
Interestingly, at the siege of Leiden in 1574, the city had had 15.000 inhabitants. As Cochin had about 14.000 when Van Goens laid siege to it, his estimation was in that respect pretty accurate. At the time Van Goens made this statement, however, Leiden had four times as many inhabitants.
Schouten, Oost-Indische Voyagie, 216.