The case diary of the British officer who led the charge against Pazhassi
(A weekly column on the region’s past culled from historical documents.)
Pazhassi Raja took on the British. The colonisers, in turn, planned meticulously to lead him to his end. In what is an intimate first-hand report, Sub Collector T.H. Baber, who led the operation against Pazhassi, details the final moments of the ruler. Strategies were many and money and muscle power used liberally to end the man who rebelled against the British for almost a decade. Pazhassi has been re-ignited into our imagination with movies and books as a ruler who chose to rebel instead of allying.
Pazhassi died in 1805 fighting in the hills of Wayanad. Baber’s account, over 200-years-old, is of course, the British version of the story. Pazhassi is the crowning glory in his career and he reminds his superiors of how “fortunate and important an event” this was.
But not to be missed is Baber’s grudging acknowledgment and respect of the vanquished.
Baber’s letter from Kannur to the Principal Collector of Malabar on December 31, 1805, reveals that the British excelled in mind games. They isolated Pazhassi and party by gleaning away supporters and snapping the lines of subsistence.
The capture of Tallakel Chandoo was a turning point. Baber visited the locality where Chandu was held captive and distributed goodies to those who lent a helping hand in the capture. He writes about distributing “to the Kolkars the reward you authorised.” He goes on, “I did not fail haranguing the inhabitants on the occasion and in particular enlarged on the magnitude of the crimes of Chandoo and I have no doubt the circumstances will have a lasting impression.”
Baber diligently took stock of the sentiments of the people towards Pazhassi. “Throughout the Northern and Western parts of the Districts, I found the sentiment in our favour, at the same time a considerable disinclination to afford the smallest information of the Pychi Rajah or his partisans.” He also understood the regard for Pazhassi in most regions. “In all classes I observed a decided interest for the Pychi Rajah, towards whom the inhabitants entertained a regard and respect bordering on veneration which not even his death can deface.”
He meticulously details the war-plan, the steepest task being information gathering. His most arduous task was to tame the Chettiars, he writes. The wealthy of the region were the Chettiars and the Goundas. He calls a meeting of all communities to warn them against helping Pazhassi. He nevertheless understood that they presented themselves “from no other impulse than a dread of the consequences of absenting themselves, neither did they thereby throw off their connections with the rebels.”
Baber also believed that the Chettiars arrived for the meeting after getting a sanction from Pazhassi. He particularly targets the Chettiars and warns them that he is out to find out their real loyalties. “I warned them against giving me the smallest shadow to suspect they were continuing in the Rebels interest.” Baber slowly made himself a frequent figure in the region, taking marches day and night. He notes the changes in the people’s demeanour. “They began evidently to alter their conduct and in some instances they came forward with information.”
The “rebels”, he writes, sensing the change, retreated from Parakameetil to the eastern extremities of Wayanad. Stepping up his offensive, Baber takes the search to the next level. He chokes the lifeline of their subsistence as Pazhassi is confined to the eastern frontier, close to Mysore. He writes to the Resident at Mysore who in turn imposes severe penalties on people who facilitated movement of goods and articles. Pazhassi’s gang begins to feel the pinch.
With the “rebels” confined to “Wayanad Hobly”, Baber decides to begin the quest. He recounts marching down Pulpally with his men and not seeing even a single inhabitant on the road. Most of them had fled to the mountains, sensing the climax was close. Here, Baber adopts a different tactic. Instead of causing harm to the habitation of the natives, he chooses to send them invitations to come back. With the move, he hoped to sever their ties with the “rebels” and also gather information about Pazhassi’s exact whereabouts.
His days at Pulpally were action-packed. But Baber was putting together a plan with the trickling information from the villagers who have returned. He says “exhortations and occasional presents” finally induced many to part with information. “I took the precaution of swearing all of them to secrecy,” he writes. Finally, he gathers that Pazhassi’s men were on the opposite side of Kaynara river.
Baber sets out with Lieutenant Colonel Mill and the troop in total secrecy. After a trek of almost 10 hours, Baber describes that Charen Subedar who was leading a party suddenly halted. Baber rushes to the spot and finds, “About 10 persons unsuspecting of danger, on the banks of the Mavila Toda or Nulla”. He orders an advance and 30 men dash into the unsuspecting Raja’s party. The contest was short. Most of Pazhassi’s men fell. Baber hears a gunshot and finds a new group of Pazhassi’s men who he says were Coongan’s party. They retreat after shots are fired at them.
Baber writes, “From one of the rebels … I learnt that the Raja was amongst those whom we first observed on the banks of the Nulla.” Pazhassi, he writes, was among the first to fall. He recreates the episode. One of Baber’s servants, Canara Menon, cornered Pazhassi and at this moment “the Raja having put his musquet to his breast” is said to have spoken in a “most dignified and commanding manner to Menon ‘not to approach and defile his person’.”
A gold knife and waist chain were retrieved from the arena. “The former I have now in my possession, the latter I presented to Captain Clephen.”
“The Raja’s body was taken up and put into my palangueen while the lady who was dreadfully reduced from sickness was put into Captain Clephen’s.” According to Baber, Pazhassi’s body was given due respect. “The following day the Raja’s body was dispatched under a strong escort to Manantoddy and the Sheristadaar sent with orders to assemble all the Brahmins and to see that the customary honours were performed at the funeral.”
Finally comes Baber’s salute to Pazhassi. “He was one of the natural chieftains of the country and might be considered on that account rather as a fallen enemy.” “Thus terminated the career of a man who has been enabled to persevere in hostilities against the company for near nine years,” he writes. Pazhassi’s “annihilation became necessary for the stability and security of the Government.” Baber calls Pazhassi an “extraordinary and singular character” and “the records of India and England will convey to posterity a just idea of him.”
(Source: Regional Archives Kozhikode)