The Pazhassi Raja’s spy

Paloor is a small village tucked away in one corner of the Mahe, part of the Union Territory of Puducherry. It is bordered by Thalassery, and is today a bustling centre of trade and activity. Most in Thalassery and other parts of Kannur, today visit Paloor for two reasons. One is cheap petrol, and the second, cheap liquor. Most of the people in and around Paloor do not know that their hamlet was once a discussion point, and the person who was the lord of this land had a role to play in one of the most important turning points in the history of Malabar, and most importantly the British Empire in India.

I have always maintained that the history we study in books in school today area totally irrelevant to the land and times we live in. Either important events find irrelevant mention in few lines, or are totally eliminated from the pages. We need to live with that as the perils of having our textbooks developed by Communists who have scant regard for factual history and events, and are there to promote their agenda. Add to that, the typical unawareness of the malayalee of his past and history, which he is least bothered to understand and comprehend for his own good. Therefore, for some of the readers, the events and people mentioned below may be reaching your ears for the first time.

I have written and discussed this before, some in my previous posts, that the turning point in the life and times of Malabar was the invasion of Hyder Ali from Mysore, which began in 1766 and went through till 1792, which ended with the defeat of Tipu Sultan at the hands of the British. It was during this period that the landlords and most of the members of the ruling kingdoms of Chirakkal and Kottayam (Cotiote as called in British records) escaped to the safety of Travancore, leaving the citizens at the mercy of the Mysore army.

The British were not well ingrained, yet, in the local scheme of things. Although they were very much trying to play an active role, till the Mysore army ran amok, they were playing second fiddle to the local rulers. The Mysore invasion gave them a perfect platform to plant their plans into the Malabar region. Even though there was an exodus of the ruling elite to Travancore, some brave ones, stayed back. While the invaders continued their plunder, mass conversions and pillage, those who stayed back had to fight shoulder to shoulder with the British, to get their realm back. The British too had trade interests at Cannanore and Thalassery to take care of, and the Mysore were allies of their arch rival French East India Company, who were well-established at the nearby Mahe enclave. So idyllically, the Mysore Sultans versus Malabar Nairs turned out to be a sub-plot for the English versus French wars in Europe. We could see here, this was where Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja of the Kottayam kingdom (the area that covers the present day Thalassery Taluk in Kannur) stayed back and allied with the English East India Company to fight the Mysore Army.

Moving on with the story, even though it was the Rajas that were the rulers of the land, the real power and land ownership was with the Nair landlord that reigned as subordinates to the kings. These Nair clans of North Malabar were called the Nambiars. And one such Nambiar who held sway over the present day Paloor in Mahe, that was part of the Kottayam Raja’s dominion was Eman Nair (also called as Paloor Eman Nair or Palora Jamen in British records). Eman Nair was the odd one out among the Nambiars of Chirakkal and Cotiote. Like all of them, he had at his disposal, wealth, power, Nair militia, tenants and anything else that the privileged had. But what separated him from the rest was his impeccable relationship with the people that mattered in the British East India Company.

When the war between Mysore and the British in Malabar was in progress, as mentioned earlier Eman and his overlord Pazhassi was on the side of the British. But relations between Pazhassi and the British turned sour once the defeat of Tipu was sealed at the Treaty of Srirangapatnam, after which the British took over the administration of Malabar into its own hands, totally ignoring the erstwhile rulers at Kozhikode, Cotiote and Chirakkal.

It was here that the atmosphere in Malabar took a different turn, and Pazhassi took to guerrilla warfare to anguish the East India Company. The Raja had lost his territories to the British already, but in the ensuing activities of mutual enmity, had to see his palace being raided and razed to the floor, and his family treasures looted. He was left with nothing but a loyal army of a few hundred a few trusted lieutenants to take on the might of the British.

The British were facing high casualties in the war with Pazhassi. They were not trained to fight in the forests of Malabar, which were dense and thick, and were finding it difficult to win, or even give a decent fight in the battle field. It was in these circumstances that the role played by Eman Nair became more prominent and decisive. Since most of the landlords of the Cotiote country still had their allegiance to the Pazhassi Raja, they needed to find someone from within who could supply those details and news about the Raja’s war room plans and whereabouts. And with the prominent relationship that Eman shared with Governor Jonathan Duncan of Bombay Presidency, and General Arthur Wellesley, he was recruited by the British to spy upon Pazhassi. It has been mentioned in quite a few sources that the Englishmen considered Paloor Eman as a “Man of Considerable Property and Rank”. Some say, he was paid an allowance for his services. The amount is disputed, but we can do assume that it was a significant amount of money those days.

We would never know under what circumstances he accepted this offer from the East India Company, but, he must have thought hard and long before he made that decision. Loyalty was a priceless procession those days, and switching them from one pole to another would’ve been really a difficult proposition. Soon, he publically declared his allegiance to the British, and was a prominent advisor to the Company on the activities of Pazhassi.

But what remained unknown to the British and most others around was that Eman Nair was playing a dangerous double game. The Pazhassi Raja still had a lot of trust on him, and despite resistance from his other advisors, the Raja kept Eman close to him. Clandestine to his new masters, the Governor Duncan and General Wellesley, Eman was actually supplying the so called rebel leaders’ valuable information regarding all the plans, movements and strategy of the East India Company. Not only that, since Eman was the one who was trusted by the British, he was not in hiding and still was in control over his vast estates. This gave him access to money and food grains, which was supplied to the Raja in exile, as and when the situation arose. The Raja’s army in émigré were never found wanting for food and supplies, thanks to Eman.

The war continued for months and years, and despite the initial failures on their side, the British slowly but steadily was pushing the rebels more and more into the forests. Most of the hinterland was under the control of the Company’s foot soldiers. And in situations like these, hunting with the hounds and running with the rabbits do take its price. Most of the Raja’s men already had their needles of suspicion on Eman, and it was just a matter of time the British too found out what Eman was up to.

Eman Nair became a fugitive on the run, for the British. The British would not forget Eman’s betrayal soon, especially since they believed him to be their trusted aide. Like most of the Raja’s supporters, a reward was put on his head too. He defected entirely from the British, and joined Pazhassi in the jungles of Cannanore and Wayanad. He had a huge following among various tribal groups in Wayanad, and persuaded quite a lot of them to join the rebel forces of Pazhassi. Sadly, fate had different ideas, and it would not be long before the resistance of Pazhassi ended. Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja fell to the Company’s bullets on 30 November 1805, ending the confrontation that lasted for almost 13 years and shook the very foundations of the Empire where the sun never sets, at least in Malabar.

Eman Nair had lost his master. But he was still strong enough to lead a miniature army and survive a few more months in the battlefield. Quite a few associates of the Raja were either killed in engaging hostilities or due to self inflicted wounds to prevent capture. Alas, Eman Nair was not one of them, and was captured by the Company’s forces, sometime in 1806.

Eman Nair was tried in Seringapatam (Mysore) which has become a British ally after the defeat of Tipu and return of Wodeyars, where he was sentenced to death, but somehow, by the idiosyncrasy of fate, or maybe due to the intervention of his friends in the Company’s command, his punishment was reduced to life imprisonment. There was no less a price that a native could pay for waging a war against an all powerful European power.

Despite sentencing him to spend the rest of his life in jail, the British did not yet fully done deal with punishing him. Deceit can be a dangerous thing, and maybe, they did not want to set a precedent for future informers to cross over from them again. They found it fit to deport him to one far corner of the earth, somewhere in the Australian archipelago where the British used to dispatch hardened criminals they have punished, to be jailed there and with the least chances of an escape route.

He survived the journey, and for the rest of his life, for almost the next 13 years, was a prisoner in a far off island, detached from the life of valour, courage, riches and aristocracy that he lived, never to return to his homeland. Thus ended the life of an individual, who, if not for the cruel games of providence, would have lived to tell a different story.

Paloor to this day survives in one corner of South India, tucked between Kannur and Mahe, without an undertone or whimper about its past master, who once was the key to a lot of secrets.

Epilogue:

There is nothing much that is written of about Paloor Eman Nair in the history books, so I had to base my writings on information I had gathered through Malabar Manual, and stories I have heard through folklore. The literature above is open to debate.

There have been two movies on Pazhassi Raja, one released in 1964 and the other in 2009. In the latest movie, the role of Paloor Eman Nair was essayed by actor Lalu Alex.

 
Depiction of the Pazhassi story, encrypted in his tomb at Mananthavady, Wayanad
 
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3 thoughts on “The Pazhassi Raja’s spy”

  1. Nice introduction to an interesting person's life..
    Are you sure Emman supplied rice to Pazhassi? i think one Moosa of Tellicherry did that according to the Pazhassi chronicles, maybe I am wrong..
    He was sent to Penang off Malaysia, not Australia, as you would have gathered by now.

    Like

  2. Dear Maddy, thanks for reading.

    The Moosa of Tellicherry you referred has to the Chovvakaran Moosa, right? Yes, from what I had heard, he was a sympathiser of Pazhassi, and he had supplied lots of Money. but not sure if he supplied rice. (May or may not have) Moreover, what I felt that the relationship b/w Pazhassi and Moosa was a debtor-creditor one, giving money when it was required, in return for favours/securities of various kinds. Moreover, Moosa has a good relationship with the EIC too, as he was a leading businessman of his times. The family website of the Keyi family to which Moosa belongs http://keyifamily.blogspot.in/ mentions more of his relationship with the Arabs and British and has no reference to Pazhassi or the other royals of that time except Arakkal.

    Even in the movie of Pazhassi Raja, there was just one passing comment of Moosa in it, and if he was a bigger role to play, he would have been characterised somewhere in it, that's what I feel.

    Yes, my reference to him being sent to Australia was a mistake, but as I told you, mine was more based on what I have gathered from non-literary sources.

    Reading your article has cleared many gaps that existed in my version of the story.

    Thanks, Nidheesh

    Liked by 1 person

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