History & Culture

Where history comes alive

Boats coming in from the sea on a Sunday evening at Besant Nagar beach is not unusual. Except that each man on these six boats is dressed in a blue and white uniform, carrying a musket.

They land on the beach and run towards a group of men dressed in red and white dhotis, and open attack. The group, however, is ready for them and brandishing their swords, thrusts forward. When a similar situation unfolded 277 years ago on the shores of now-Kanyakumari, it went down in history as The Battle of Colachel.

Where history comes alive

“It was the first time in Indian history that a native army defeated a European force. It was even more unique because an army with firearms lost to an army without one,” says Captain DP Ramachandran (retired), of the Colours of Glory foundation, which organised this re-enactment of the Battle of Colachel of 1741.

The battle was fought between the kingdom of Travancore, led by Raja Marthanda Varma and the Dutch East India Company, whose marines were led by Commander Eustache Benoit de Lannoy. Raja Varma, having recently conquered the neighbouring provinces of Venad, Attingal and Kolam, had now set his sights on Colachel.

The Dutch, fearing losing monopoly over the pepper trade in what is now Kerala, warned Varma to desist from expansion or else they would annex Padmanabhapuram, the capital of Travancore, a few kilometres from Colachel. And so the battle lines were drawn.

Where history comes alive

In the re-enactment, the Travancore army ambushes the Dutch marines with a cavalry attack from behind. Soldiers mounted on horseback, including Raja Varma himself, charge at the marines who were engaged in battle with the foot soldiers. “This majorly draws from my imagination, based on what I've heard and read. Because there are no official records of the battle,” says Ramachandran. “But I believe that to defeat an army with firepower, they would have needed to attack at close quarters, taking them by surprise. Cunning would win here, not dog-headedness.”

Where history comes alive

Overpowered, Commander de Lannoy is forced to surrender. “Interestingly, Varma was impressed by de Lannoy’s military strategy and he took him on as the commander-in-chief of his army,” says Ramachandran.

Over 50 NCC cadets from various colleges across South India took part in the re-enactment, whereas the cavalry was provided for by the Indian Army. There was even a military band from the Officers Training Academy giving a background score to the battle. “We are also grateful to the local fishermen who allowed us to perform here,” says Ramachandran, adding, “They let us hire a boat; we gave the boatman a Dutch uniform to wear, so he was also a part of the re-enactment.” Incidentally, the area had a fort-like building in the backdrop, meant to look like Colachel fort and making the re-enactment more authentic.

Where history comes alive

Ramachandran spent just one afternoon choreographing the war sequence. He critiques his own work with the air of a perfectionist, “The horses were supposed to stay hidden from the audience, but one of them trotted into view moments before it should have… And the boat landed a few metres away from where it was supposed to.” Nobody other than Ramachandran seems to have noticed this.

Where history comes alive

For everybody else, including the cadets and the jawans themselves, it was about acknowledging the military prowess in the country’s history. Basuvaraj M, a havildar who played Raja Varma, flush from his performance says, “I had a lot of fun today. We learnt more about our history and brought it to life at the same time.”

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Printable version | Jan 15, 2022 9:24:20 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/chennai-sees-battle-of-colachel-re-enactment/article24689975.ece

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