Monday, Feb 06, 2023

Kunjali Marakkars: An ambitious merchant clan of Kerala or early nationalists?

For the early Portuguese traders the Marakkars were nothing more than criminal elements or pirates who were bent on undermining their authority and trade monopoly.

Marakkar, Marakkar movie, Marakkar: Lion of the Arabian Sea, Kunjali Marakkar, who was Kunjali Marakkar, Marakkar Malayalam movie, Malayalam movie, Malayalam film, Priyadarshan, new films, new malayalm film, entertainment news, Indian ExpressCalicut in the 15th century. (Wikimedia Commons)

In the popular history of early modern Kerala, the clan of the Marakkars had a very special role to play. Since the late 16th century when the fourth and last Kunjali Marakkar — the head of the clan who traditionally commanded the local navy — was captured and executed by the Portuguese with the support of the Zamorin of Calicut, the Marakkars have repeatedly featured in the ballads, folk songs and stories prevalent among the Mappila Muslims; championed as the face of resistance against Portuguese domination. They were also the ‘heroes’ of the nationalist historians of the early 20th century, celebrated as the first defenders against imperialism.

The Kunjali Marakkars were first commemorated in cinema in the 1967 Malayalam language film by the same name directed by S S Rajan. It went on to win the national award for the best feature film in Malayalam. Earlier this week, the historic fighters of the Malabar coast hit the silver screen once again in the film directed by Priyadarshan, titled ‘Marakkar: Lion of the Arabian Sea’.

“In the Kunjali Marakkars, we see the sentiment of early nationalism developing, even though this nationalism was not yet full fledged,” says K K N Kurup, former vice-chancellor of University of Calicut. “Why else would they spend so much resources fighting the Portuguese?” he asks. According to Kurup, it is all thanks to the Marakkars that the indegenous language and culture of Kerala could flourish. “Otherwise Calicut too would be colonised like Goa,” he says.

Several other historians, however, would not agree with the view, suggesting that nationalism as a concept developed much later in the 19th century and only in Europe. For the early Portuguese traders on the other hand, the Marakkar clan was nothing more than criminal elements or pirates who were bent on undermining their authority and trade monopoly.

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Pirates of the Indian Ocean

The journey of the Portuguese to the enterprising waters of the Indian Ocean was indeed a historic moment. Several groups of European traders and colonisers had followed. For Kurup, the Portuguese changed the character of trade in the Malabar Coast. “Trade was peaceful before. The Portuguese brought with them armed trade,” he says.

“Before the Portuguese, trade on the west coast was free, where everyone had the right to purchase commodities at market rate. But the Portuguese wanted monopoly. They wanted to be lord of the seas. Anyone who threatened their attempt at trade monopoly were termed pirates,” explains Professor V V Haridas, Head of History Department at Calicut University. The Marakkars emerged as pirates during this period as forces antithetical to the Portuguese.

This view of pre-Portuguese commercial history of the Indian Oceans as being peaceful is contradicted though by historians like Pius Malekandathil, retired professor of History at Jawaharlal Nehru University. In a research paper published in 2011, he writes, “During the early centuries of the Christian Era, when trade was carried out in an intensified way in Roman Empire and its neighbouring economic zones, there was increasing piratical attacks on vessels plying in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean.” He adds that the pirates of the Konkan coast posed severe threats to the Roman vessels conducting trade with Lymrike (Malabar) and Ariake (Ariavartam).


Even when trade with the Roman Empire declined, the pirates did not disappear. Malekandathil writes that as maritime trade between South West India and the Sassanid Persian Empire grew, a large number of pirates began trying their luck in the navigational channels to the Persian Gulf, necessitating the Sassanid rulers to intervene. “Consequently, sometime before 415 CE, as the 11th century chronicle of Seert mentions, a Christian Catholicos, a certain Ahai was deputed by the Sassanid ruler Yasdigird I to investigate the problem of piratical attacks on the ships returning from India and Ceylon to the Persian Gulf,” he writes. Malekandathil also notes that by the end of the 13th century, the Venetian explorer and merchant Marco Polo had witnessed Malabari pirates who used to travel in large numbers along with their family members attacking and plundering merchant vessels as far as the coast of Gujarat.

With the monopolistic trade practices of the Portuguese and early European trading companies in the 16th and 17th centuries, a large number of people from the coastal villages of Kerala entered the maritime space of the Indian ocean as pirates. Malekandathil in his work explains that while a majority of them were descendants of traditional pirate families, some of them were also merchants who were displaced from the commercial world by the Portuguese. “The displaced traditional merchants were either compelled to become corsairs or were so labeled and categorised by the European commercial powers in their attempts to eliminate them from the world of commerce,” he writes.

It was during this period that the Kunjali Marakkars emerged. While the Portuguese described them as pirates, unlike other criminals in the oceans, the Marakkars had acquired legitimacy from the Zamorin of Calicut as his fleet admiral. On accumulating enormous wealth, they also asserted their power politically by acquiring new territories. “The Marakkars compiled in them features of piracy along with trade and state building,” says Malekandathil in an interview with


Who were the Kunjali Marakkars?

The 16th century Arab scholar Shayk Zaynuddin, in his work, ‘Tuhfat Ul Mujahideen’, described the struggle between the Muslims of the Malabar Coast and the Portuguese. It was Zaynuddin’s work that for the first time highlighted the heroic resistance put up by the Marakkars. But long before the Marakkars had established themselves as admirals of the Zamorin in his fight against the Portuguese, they were already a powerful trading community of rich merchants. Historian V Kunhali in his article, ‘Origin of Kunhali Marakkars and organisation of their fighters’ (1997), writes that the origin of the word ‘Marakkar’ is traced to an Arabic root, ‘Markab’, which means ship.

“The Marakkar tradition is that when the first immigrants of this class landed on Indian shores, they were naturally asked who they were and whence they came. In answer they pointed to their boats and pronounced the word ‘Markab’, and in consequence they became known to the Hindus as Marakkayar or people from Markab,” writes Kunhali narrating a popular story about the origins of the Marakkars.

But it was not in Malabar where the Marakkars first settled. Historian K J John in his research paper, ‘Kunjali Marakkars: Myth and reality’ (1997), writes that the Marakkars had settled in the Coromandel Coast. They came to Cochin towards the end of the 15th century and settled as a seafaring community with business as their profession.

By the time the Portuguese arrived in Cochin in 1500, the Marakkars were some of the most prosperous traders. John, in his paper, writes that the Italian traveller Ludovico di Varthema described Mamale Marakkar, a trader from the community as “the richest man in the country”. The Portuguese in fact frequently collaborated with the Marakkars in their trading interests. “The Portuguese officials concluded several contracts with the Marakkars to purchase and sell commodities,” writes John. He provides an example when, in 1504, Chinna Marakkar and Mamale Marakkar received an order from the Portuguese officials for the supply of 4,989,000 kg of pepper to the factory at Cochin.

Things began to change from the mid of the 1520s when the Portuguese shifted their support in favour of the casado (Portuguese married to Indian women) private traders. This was a turning point in the relationship between the Marakkars and the Portuguese. In 1524, the Marakkars are believed to have left Cochin for Calicut (Kozhikode). They first settled at Ponnani, one of the ports belonging to the zamorin.


The deteriorating political relationship between Calicut and Cochin was also responsible for the emergence of the Marakkars as a threat to the Portuguese. “Cochin was initially a subsidiary to the Zamorin of Calicut. But with the Portuguese coming in, Cochin assisted them in their commercial interests with the objective of building a kingdom of their own,” says Haridas.

Consequently, Calicut was happy to take advantage of the Marakkar’s dissatisfaction in Cochin.
Under the Zamorin, the Marakkars were given the responsibility of maintaining vigil in the ports. The Zamorin began depending on the Marakkars’ navigational expertise for reviving the trade of Calicut. “‘Kunjali’, in fact, was a title that the zamorin gave to the head of the clan”, says Kurup, explaining that Kunjali in Malayalam means ‘dearest’.


Malekandathil in his paper writes about the type of activities carried out by the Marakkars: “to patrol the west coast of India with the tacit and explicit consent of the Zamorin, blockading and plundering the vessels of the Portuguese and secondly to integrate the native trade networks for sending spices to Red Sea-Venice routes.” He adds: “Thus the corsair activities developed by Kunjali Marakkar’s men turned out to be an alternative arrangement of trade, where plundering and confiscation of enemy vessels (evidently of the Portuguese) went hand in hand with parallel shipment of commodities to the destination of their choice.”

Marakkar, Marakkar movie, Marakkar: Lion of the Arabian Sea, Kunjali Marakkar, who was Kunjali Marakkar, Marakkar Malayalam movie, Malayalam movie, Malayalam film, Priyadarshan, new films, new malayalm film, entertainment news, Indian Express The Zamorin began depending on the Marakkars’ navigational expertise for reviving the trade of Calicut. (Wikimedia Commons)

By the middle of the 16th century, the Marakkars had accumulated a significant amount of wealth and were keen on creating power structures and stately institutions. For this purpose they set up a fortress at Pudupattinam in present day Tamil Nadu, where ammunition was stored. “The amount of power that Kunjali wielded by this time was equivalent to that of a stately ruler, and the Muslims of Malabar used to recognise him almost like their king,” writes Malekandathil. Further, the Marakkars assumed several power wielding titles for themselves as well like ‘lord of the Arabian Sea’, ‘Prince of Navigation’ and ‘King of the Malabar Moors’. The authority exercised by them was such that ambassadors from the Mecca and the Mughal empire are known to have assembled in their court for political tie-ups. Such developments did not go unnoticed by the Zamorin and soon became a matter of concern for him.


The zamorin interpreted the state-building activities of the Marakkars as means that would undermine his own suzerainty. Apprehensive of these developments, the Zamorin, who had for over 50 years mentored the Marakkars, turned against Kunjali Marakkar IV, and joined hands with the Portuguese. As a result of the joint operation between the Zamorin and the Portuguese, Kunjali was captured and later beheaded by the Portuguese at Goa in 1600 CE.

Malekandathil explains that the execution of Kunjali Marakkar did not put an end to pirating activities on the West Coast. Rather, a large number of Muslim sea-farers, who were till now under the control of the Kunjali Marakkar, got a free hand and turned into full-fledged ‘sea-robbers’, who would frequently attack Portuguese vessels. Many of them offered their services as sailors and traders to other European companies. “The friendship between the corsairs of Malabar and the English must have been a part of the tactics to forge a commercial partnership between the forces, which opposed the Portuguese trade system,” writes Malekandathil.

Early nationalists or ambitious merchants

John in his work writes that the first serious historical work on the Marakkars was written by Sardar K M Panikkar in 1929 titled, ‘Malabar and the Portuguese’. “Sardar K.M. Panikkar with a definite bias against the Portuguese, went to Europe, claimed to have researched Portuguese sources, and made a pioneering effort to reconstruct the ‘heroic struggle’ of the Marakkar dynasty against Portuguese imperialism”. Panikkar’s conclusion was the Marakkars under the guidance of the zamorin waged a 100 years war against the Portuguese. His analysis of the Marakkars being defenders of nationalism and patriotism was accepted and elaborated upon by other historians like V K Krishna Ayyar and O K Nambiar.

Marakkar, Marakkar movie, Marakkar: Lion of the Arabian Sea, Kunjali Marakkar, who was Kunjali Marakkar, Marakkar Malayalam movie, Malayalam movie, Malayalam film, Priyadarshan, new films, new malayalm film, entertainment news, Indian Express The Kunjali Marakkar Memorial erected by the Indian navy at Kottakkal, Vatakara. (Wikimedia Commons)

A few years back Kurup had reached out to the former Defence Minister of India, George Fernandes, requesting the creation of a marker in Goa where Kunjali Marakkar was beheaded. “Unfortunately, nothing was done,” he says. “The Kunjali Marakkars were Muslim nationalists whose role in the history of India has not highlighted enough.”

Malekandathil agrees that the Marakkars are particularly worshipped among the Muslim community of Kerala. “Among the Muslims, they symbolised resistance, both against the Portuguese and against the local ruler or Zamorin,” he says. But adds that “communities often create or inflate their heroes beyond their historical stature.

According to Malekandathil, the Marakkars had no sense of ethnicity, language or politics to consider their spirit as nationalist. “They were anti-Portuguese. But that does not mean nationalism. For that matter, they came into conflict with the Zamorin himself who was a local ruler. The Marakkars had their petty interests of self-assertion as well, and now we are reading too much into them,” he explains.

“The Kunjali Marakkars fought against the Portuguese, without knowing their nationality. So I am not sure if that can be called nationalism,” says Haridas. “However, it is definitely true that they were fighting against a foreign power under a local ruler. Whether we consider that nationalist or not depends on one’s interpretation of nationalism”


Further reading:

First published on: 05-12-2021 at 11:48 IST
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