Early Revolts against British rule in Tamil Nadu
The East India Company started to consolidate and extend its power in India after defeating the French and their Indian allies in three Carnatic Wars. But the local kings and chieftains resisted. The first resistance to East India Company came from Puli Thevar of Nerkattumseval in Tirunelveli.
Followed by Velunachiyar, Veerapandiya Kattabomman, Marudhu Brothers, and Dheeran Chinnamalai. Commonly referred to as Palayakarar Wars, the highest war in Tamil Region is the Vellore Revolt of 1806. These are some of the examples of early uprisings against British Rule.
Resistance of Regional Powers against the British
(a) Palayams and Palayakkarars
“Palayam” means Military Camp or little kingdom. Britishers referred Palayakkarars as Poligars. Under this system, Palayam was given to any individual for his valuable military service. This system was practiced under the rule of Prataba Rudhra of Warangal in the Kakatiya Kingdom.
This system was practiced in Tamil Region by Viswanatha Nayaka, Nayak of Madurai in 1529, under the support of his minister Ariyanathar. Traditionally there used to be 72 Palayakkarars. The Palayakkarars were free to collect the taxes, administer the territory assigned to them, settle disputes between the parties, and maintain law and order.
Palayakkarars, police duties were called Padikaval or Arasu Kaval. Several times the Palayakarars helped Nayak rule to restore kingdoms to them. The relationship between the king and Palayakkarars made this system last for about two hundred years from Nayaks of Madurai till British rule.
There were Eastern and Western Palayams. The eastern Palayams were Sattur, Nagalapuram, Ettayapuram and Panchalamkurichi. The western Palayams were Uthumalai, Thalavankottai, Naduvakurichi, Singampatti, Seithur.
Palayakarar influenced Tamil Regional politics in the 17th and 18th centuries. They operated as Independent sovereign authorities with their Palayams.
Revenue Collection Authority to the Company Rule
The Nawab of Arcot had borrowed money from the East India Company for Carnatic Wars. When his debts exceeded his capacity to repay, the land revenue collection dues from the southern Palayakarar were given to the East India Company.
Many Palayakkarars refused to pay taxes to the company officials. The company branded the defiant Palayakarar as rebels and accused them of disturbing the peace of the country. This led to conflict between the East India Company.
Palayakkarars’ Revolt 1755-1801
(a) Revolt of Puli Thevar 1755–1767
Mahfuzkhan (brother of the Nawab of Arcot) was sent with a contingent of the company army under Colonel Heron to Tirunelveli in march 1755. Madurai fell into their hands. Then colonel Heron urged to deal with Puli Thevar.
Puli Thevar had much influence over the western palyamkkarars. For want of cannon and of supplies and pay to soldiers, Colonel Heron abandoned the plan and retired to Madurai. Heron was recalled and dismissed from service.
Confederacy and Alliance with Enemies of the Britishf
Three Pathan officers, Nawab Chanda Sahib’s agents, named Mianah, Mudimiah, and Nabikhan Kattak commanded the Madurai and Tirunelveli regions. They supported the Tamil playakkarars against Arcot Nawab Mohamed Ali. Puli Thevar had established close relationships with them.
Puli Thevar also formed a confederacy of the Palayakkars to fight the British. With the exception of the Palayakkarars of Sivagiri, all other Maravar Palayams supported him. Ettayapuram and Panchalamkurichi also did not join this confederacy.
Further, the English succeeded in getting the support of the rajas of Ramanathapuram and Pudukottai. Puli Thevar tried to get the support of Hyder Ali of Mysore and the French. Hyder Ali could not help Puli Thevar as he was already locked in a serious conflict with the Marathas.
The Nawab sent an additional contingent of sepoys to Mahfuzkhan and the reinforced army proceeded to Tirunelveli. Besides the 1000 sepoys of the Company, Mahfuzkhan received 600 more sent by the Nawab. He also had the support of cavalry and foot soldiers from the Carnatic.
Before Mahfuzkhan could station his troops near Kalakadu, 2000 soldiers from Travancore joined the forces of Puli Thevar. In the battle at Kalakadu, Mahfuzkhan’s troops were routed.
Yusuf Khan and Puli Thevar
The organized resistance of the palayakkarars under Puli Thevar gave an opportunity to the English to interfere directly in the affairs of Tirunelveli. Aided by the Raja of Travancore, from 1756 to 1763, the palyakkarars of Tirunelveli led by Puli Thevar were in a constant state of rebellion against the Nawab’s authority.
Yusuf Khan (also known as Khan Sahib or, before his conversion to Islam, Marudhanayagam) who had been sent by the Company was not prepared to attack Puli Thevar unless the big guns and ammunition from Tiruchirappalli arrived.
As the English were at war with the French, as well as with Hyder Ali and Marathas, the artillery arrived only in September 1760. Yusuf Khan began to batter the Nerkattumseval fort and this attack continued for about two months.
On 16 May 1761 Puli Thevar’s three major forts (Nerkattumseval, Vasudevanallur and Panayur) came under the control of Yusuf Khan. In the meantime, after taking Pondicherry the English had eliminated the French from the picture.
As a result of this, the unity of palyakkarars began to break up as French support was not forthcoming. Travancore, Seithur, Uthumalai, and Surandai switched their loyalty to the opposite camp. Yusuf Khan who was negotiating with the palayakkarars, without informing the Company administration, was charged with treachery and hanged in 1764.
Fall of Puli Thevar
After the death of Khan Sahib, Puli Thevar returned from exile and recaptured Nerkattumseval in 1764. However, he was defeated by Captain Campbell in 1767. Puli Thevar escaped and died in exile.
Ondiveeran led one of the army units of Puli Thevar. Fighting by the side of Puli Thevar, he caused much damage to the Company’s army. According to oral tradition, in one battle, Ondiveeran’s hand was chopped off and Puli Thevar was saddened.
But Ondiveeran said it was a reward for his penetration into the enemy’s fort causing many heads to roll.
(b) Velunachiyar (1730–1796)
Gopala Nayak, the Palayakkarar of Virupachi. Gopala Nayak spearheaded the famous Dindigul League, which was formed with Lakshmi Nayak of Manaparai and Poojai Nayak of Devadanapatti. He drew inspiration from Tipu Sultan who sent a deputation to show his camaraderie.
He led the resistance against the British from Coimbatore and later joined Oomaidurai, Kattabomman’s brother. He put up a fierce fight at Aanamalai hills where the local peasants gave him full support. But Gopala Nayak was overpowered by the British forces in 1801.
(c) Rebellion of Veerapandya Kattabomman 1790-1799
Veerapandya Kattabomman became the Palayakkarar of Panchalamkurichi at the age of thirty on the death of his father, Jagavira Pandya Kattabomman. The Company’s administrators, James London and Colin Jackson had considered him a man of peaceful disposition. However, soon several events led to conflicts between Veerapandya Kattabomman and the East India Company.
The Nawab, under the provisions of a treaty signed in 1781, had assigned the revenue of the Carnatic to the Company to be entirely under their management and control during the war with Mysore Sultan. One-sixth of the revenue was to be allowed to meet the expenses of Nawab and his family.
The Company had thus gained the right to collect taxes from Panchalamkurichi. The Company appointed its Collectors to collect taxes from all the palayams. The Collectors humiliated the palayakkarars and adopted force to collect the taxes. This was the bone of contention between the English and Kattabomman.
Confrontation with Jackson
The land revenue arrear from Kattabomman was 3310 pagodas in1798. Collector Jackson, an arrogant English officer, wanted to send an army to collect the revenue dues but the Madras Government did not give him permission. On 18 August 1798, he ordered Kattabomman to meet him in Ramanathapuram.
But Kattbomman’s attempts to meet him in between proved futile, as Jackson refused to give him audience both in Courtallam and Srivilliputhur. At last, an interview was granted and Kattabomman met Jackson in Ramanathapuram on 19 September 1798.
It is said that Kattabomman had to stand for three hours before the haughty Collector Jackson. Sensing danger, Kattabomman tried to escape, along with his minister Sivasubramanianar. Oomaithurai suddenly entered the fort with his men and helped the escape of Kattabomman.
At the gate of the Ramanathapuram fort, there was a clash, in which some people including Lieutenant Clarke were killed. Sivasubramanianar was taken, prisoner.
Appearance before Madras Council
On his return to Panchalamkurichi, Kattabomman represented to the Madras Council about how he was ill-treated by the collector Jackson. The Council asked Kattabomman to appear before a committee with William Brown, William Oram and John Casamajor as members.
Meanwhile, Governor Edward Clive ordered the release of Sivasubramanianar and the suspension of the Collector Jackson. Kattabomman appeared before the Committee that sat on 15 December 1798 and reported on what transpired in Ramanathapuram.
The Committee found Kattabomman was not guilty. Jackson was dismissed from service and a new Collector S.R. Lushington appointed. Kattabomman cleared almost all the revenue arrears leaving only a balance of 1080 pagodas.
Kattabomman and the Confederacy of Palayakkarars
In the meantime, Marudhu Pandiyar of Sivagangai formed the South Indian Confederacy of rebels against the British, with the neighboring palayakkars like Gopala Nayak of Dindigul and Yadul Nayak of Aanamalai. Marudhu Pandiyar acted as its leader.
The Tiruchirappalli Proclamation had been made. Kattabomman was interested in this confederacy. Collector Lushington prevented Kattabomman from meeting the Marudhu Brothers. But Marudhu Brothers and Kattabomman jointly decided on a confrontation with the English.
Kattabomman tried to influence Sivagiri Palayakkarars, who refused to join. Kattabomman advanced towards Sivagiri. But the Palayakkarars of Sivagiri was a tributary to the Company. So the Company considered the expedition of Kattabomman as a challenge to their authority. The Company ordered the army to march on to Tirunelveli.
The Siege of Panchalamkurichi
In May 1799, Lord Wellesley issued orders from Madras for the advance of forces from Tiruchirappalli, Thanjavur, and Madurai to Tirunelveli. Major Bannerman commanded the troops. The Travancore troops too joined the British. On 1 September 1799, an ultimatum was served on Kattabomman to surrender.
Kattabomman’s “evasive reply” prompted Bannerman to attack his fort. Bannerman moved his entire army to Panchalamkurichi on 5 September. They cut off all the communications to the fort. Bannerman deputed Ramalinganar to convey a message asking Kattabomman to surrender.
Kattabomman refused. Ramalinganar gathered all the secrets of the Fort, and on the basis of his report, Bannerman decided the strategy of the operation. In a clash at Kallarpatti, Sivasubramanianar was taken, prisoner.
Execution of Kattabomman
Kattabomman escaped to Pudukottai. The British put a price on his head. Betrayed by the rajas of Ettayapuram and Pudukottai Kattabomman was finally captured. Sivasubramanianar was executed at Nagalapuram on 13 September.
Bannerman made a mockery of a trial for Kattabomman in front of the palayakarars on 16 October. During the trial, Kattabomman bravely admitted all the charges leveled against him. Kattabomman was hanged from a tamarind tree in the old fort of Kayathar, close to Tirunelveli, in front of the fellow Palayakkars.
Thus ended the life of the celebrated Palayakkarars of Panchalamkurichi. Many folk ballads on Kattabomman helped keep his memory alive among the people.
(d) The Marudhu Brothers
Periya Marudhu or Vella Marudhu (1748–1801) and his younger brother Chinna Marudhu (1753-1801) were able generals of Muthu Vadugar of Sivagangai. After Muthu Vadugar’s death in the Kalaiyar Kovil battle, the Marudhu brothers assisted in restoring the throne to Velunachiyar.
In the last years of the eighteenth-century Marudhu Brothers organized resistance against the British. After the death of Kattabomman, they worked along with his brother Oomathurai. They plundered the granaries of the Nawab and caused damage and destruction to Company troops.
Second palayakarar war
The second palayakarar war was referred to by British records done by Marudu Brothers (1800-1801). After defeating Kattabomman in 1799, revolt once again broke out in 1800. This rebellion was directed Marudhu Pandiyan of Sivagangai, Gopala Nayak of Dindugal, Kerala Verma of Malabar, and Krishnaappa Nayak Dhoondaji of Mysore.
This combination met at Virupachi in April 1800 and decided to organize a revolt against the company. This revolt initially broke out in Coimbatore in June 1800 and soon spread to Madurai and Ramanathapuram. Then the company declares war against Krishnappa Nayak of Mysore, Kerala Verma, and others.
Palayakars of coimbatore, Sathyamangalam and Tarapuram were hanged. Then two brothers of Kattabomman, Oomathurai and Sevathaiah escaped from Palayamkottai jail in February 1801. They went to Kamudhi from where Chinna Marudhu took them to Siruvayal his capital.
Then Panchalamkurichi fort was constructed. Colin Macaulay and his troops captured the fort in April and the Marudhu brothers went to Sivagangai. English asked Oomathurai and Sevathaiah from Marudhu Pandyas. But they refused.
Colonel Agnew and Colonel Innes marched into Sivagangai. Then in June 1801, Maruthu Pandyas issued the Proclamation of Independence called the Tiruchirappalli Proclamation.
Tiruchirappalli proclamation of 1801
Tiruchirappalli’s proclamation of 1801 was an early call to unite all Indians against the British. Proclamation of 1801 was pasted on the walls of the Nawab’s palace in Tiruchirappalli fort and temple walls of Srirangam.
Chinna Maruthu made 20,000 men fight against the English. English forces rushed from Bengal, Ceylon, and Malaya and the raja of Pudukkottai, Ettayapuram, and Thanjavur stood by the British. Palayakkarars were separated by the British divide and rule policy.
Fall of Sivagangai
In May 1801, the English attacked the rebels in Thanjavur and Tiruchirappalli. The rebels went to Piranmalai and Kalayarkoil. They were again defeated by the forces of the English. In the end, the superior military strength and the able commanders of the English Company prevailed.
The rebellion failed and Sivagangai was annexed in 1801. The Marudhu brothers were executed in the Fort of Tirupathur near Ramanathapuram on 24 October 1801. Oomathurai and Sevathaiah were captured and beheaded at Panchalamkurichi on 16 November 1801.
Seventy-three rebels were exiled to Penang in Malaya. Though the palayakkarars fell to the English, their exploits and sacrifices inspired later generations. Thus the rebellion of the Marudhu brothers, which is called the South Indian Rebellion, is a landmark event in the history of Tamil Nadu.
Carnatic Treaty, 1801
The suppression of the Palayakkarars rebellions of 1799 and 1800–1801 resulted in the liquidation of all the local chieftains of Tamilnadu. Under the terms of the Carnatic Treaty of 31 July 1801, the British assumed direct control over Tamilagam and the
Palayakarar system came to an end with the demolition of all forts and disbandment of their army.
(e) Dheeran Chinnamalai(1756–1805)
Born as Theerthagiri in 1756 in the Mandradiar royal family of Palayakottai , Dheeran was well trained in silambu, archery, horse riding, and modern warfare. He was involved in resolving family and land disputes in the Kongu region. As this region was under the control of the Mysore Sultan, tax was collected by Tipu’s Diwan Mohammed Ali.
Once, when the Diwan was returning to Mysore with the tax money, Theerthagiri blocked his way and confiscated all the tax money. He let Mohammed Ali go by instructing him to tell his Sultan that “Chinnamalai”, who is between Sivamalai and Chennimalai, was the one who took away taxes.
Thus he gained the name “Dheeran Chinnamalai”. The offended Diwan sent a contingent to attack Chinnamalai and both the forces met and fought at the Noyyal river bed. Chinnamalai emerged victoriously.
Trained by the French, Dheeran mobilised the Kongu youth in thousands and fought the British together with Tipu. After Tipu’s death, Dheeran Chinnamalai built a fort and fought the British without leaving the place.
Hence the place is called Odanilai. He launched guerrilla attacks and evaded capture. Finally, the English captured him and his brothers and kept them in prison in Sankagiri. When they were asked to accept the rule of the British, they refused.
So they were hanged at the top of the Sankagiri Fort on 31 July 1805.
Vellore Revolt 1806
Before reducing all palayakkarars of south Tamilnadu into submission the East India Company had acquired the revenue districts of Salem, Dindigul at the conclusion of the war with Tipu in 1792. Coimbatore was annexed at the end of the Anglo-Mysore War in 1799.
In the same year, the Raja of Thanjavur whose status had been reduced to that of a vassal in 1798 gave up his sovereign rights over that region to the English. After the suppression of the resistance of Kattabomman (1799) and Marudhu Brothers (1801), the British charged the Nawab of Arcot with disloyalty and forced a treaty on him.
According to this Treaty of 1801, the Nawab was to cede the districts of North Arcot, South Arcot, Tiruchirappalli, Madurai and Tirunelveli to the Company and transfer all the administrative powers to it.
(a) Grievances of Indian Soldiers
But the resistance did not die down. The dispossessed little kings and feudal chieftains continued to deliberate on the future course of action against the Company Government. The outcome was the Vellore Revolt of 1806. The objective conditions for a last-ditch fight existed on the eve of the revolt.
The sepoys in the British Indian army nursed a strong sense of resentment over low salary and poor prospects of promotion. The English army officers’ scant respect for the social and religious sentiments of the Indian sepoys also angered them.
The state of the peasantry from which class the sepoys had been recruited also bothered them much. With new experiments in land tenures causing unsettled conditions and famine breaking out in 1805 many of the sepoys’ families were in dire economic straits.
The most opportune situation comes with the sons and the family members of Tipu being interned in Vellore Fort. The trigger for the revolt came in the form of a new military regulation notified by the Commander-in-Chief Sir John Cradock.
According to the new regulations, the Indian soldiers were asked not to wear caste marks or earrings when in uniform. They were to be cleanly shaven on the chin and maintain uniformity about how their mustache looked. The new turban added fuel to fire.
The most objectionable addition was the leather cockade made of animal skin. The sepoys gave enough forewarning by refusing to wear the new turban. Yet the Company administration did not take heed.
(b) Outbreak of the Revolt
On 10 July 1806, in the early hours, guns were booming and the Indian sepoys of the 1st and 23rd regiments raised their standard of revolt. Colonel Fancourt, who commanded the garrison, was the first victim.
Colonel MeKerras of the 23rd regiment was killed next. Major Armstrong who was passing the Fort heard the sound of firing. When he stopped to enquire he was showered with bullets. About a dozen other officers were killed within an hour or so.
Among them, Lt. Elly and Lt. Popham belonged to His Majesty’s battalion.
Major Cootes, who was outside the Fort, informed Colonel Gillespie, the cavalry commandant in Arcot. Gillespie reached the fort along with a squadron of cavalry under the command of Captain Young at 9.00 am. In the meantime, the rebels proclaimed Fateh Hyder, Tipu’s eldest son, as their new ruler and hoisted the tiger flag of Mysore sultans in the Fort.
But the uprising was swiftly crushed by Col. Gillespie, who threw to winds all war ethics. In the course of suppression, according to an eyewitness account, eight hundred soldiers were found dead in the fort alone. Six hundred soldiers were kept in confinement in Tiruchirappalli and Vellore awaiting Inquiry.
(c ) Consequences of Revolt
Six of the rebels convicted by the Court of Enquiry were blown from the guns; five were shot dead; eight hanged. Tipu’s sons were ordered to be sent to Calcutta. The officers and men engaged in the suppression of the revolt were rewarded with prize money and promotion.
Col. Gillespie was given 7,000 pagodas. However, the commander-in-chief Sir John Cradock, the Adjutant General Agnew and Governor William Bentinck were held responsible for the revolt, removed from their office, and recalled to England.
The military regulations were treated as withdrawn.
(d) Estimate of Revolt
The Vellore Revolt failed because there was no immediate help from outside. Recent studies show that the organizing part of the revolt was done perfectly by Subedars Sheik Adam and Sheik Hamid and Jamedar Sheik Hussain of the 2nd battalion of 23rd regiment and two Subedars and the Jamedar Sheik Kasim of the 1st battalion of the 1st regiment.
Vellore Revolt had all the forebodings of the Great Rebellion of 1857. The only difference was that there was no civil rebellion following the mutiny. The 1806 revolt was not confined to Vellore Fort. It had its echoes in Bellary, Walajabad, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Nandydurg, and Sankaridurg.