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Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Black Hole of Attingal - The Story of A Forgotten Massacre

Generations of students all over the English speaking world were fed on the tragic story of the Black Hole of Calcutta in which, on the night of 20th June 1756, 146 persons were locked up in a small room measuring 18x14 feet and only 23 came out alive the next morning.

What is left of Anjengo Fort - an aerial view 

Lord Macaulay described this in 1843 as 'the great crime, memorable for it singular atrocity'. This event became in the eyes of the British public a powerful myth portraying how the pioneering traders of the Company had overcome through grit and courage such horrors and atrocities by the Oriental despots. 

The source of the Black Hole story is the narration by one of its plucky survivors - John Holwell who was one of the few who remained in Fort William when others, including the Governor, had fled to Falta. Patient research has now established that the testimony of Holwell was rather unreliable and his story was full of holes. 

The 'Black Hole' was not the Nawab's making - it was a room in Fort William used by British soldiers 'to sleep off their hangovers'. There was no way that so many people could be stacked in this small room - the numbers were largely exaggerated. There were Indian,  English, French, Dutch and Portuguese people who had been locked up that fateful night - it was in no way a symbol of British heroism. Finally, Siraj ud Doula had no knowledge of the incident, and it was probably done at the instance of the local soldiers of the Nawab to make sure that the prisoners did not walk away from their custody - in fact many did indeed do just that in the confusion which followed the sacking of the Fort by the Nawab's soldiers! 

Yet the powerful symbolism of victimhood represented by the Black Hole lingered on for generations, justifying not only British occupation, but often British cruelty. As Nirad Chaudhuri remarked, the episode 'threw a moral halo over the British conquest of India'.

Strange that a more tragic loss of British lives in a massacre that took place more than 35 years before the Black Hole, is all but forgotten. While Lord Curzon did erect a marble memorial to the victims of the Black Hole ( which was later on removed at the behest of protestors led by Netaji Subhash), no memorial marks the place which witnessed the cold-blooded murder of 150 Englishmen and more than two dozen Topazes and coolies. 

 There are several versions of what happened in 1721, each embellished to suit the narrator's agenda - patriotic fervour, glorification of the native rulers, valour of the 'Nairs' etc. The version given below is based on the book English East India Company and the Local Rulers in Kerala (2003) by Leena More. This is the most authentic of the versions, as the author 
has dug up several original documents which were thought to have been destroyed. Almost every incident is backed up by entries in the Anjengo diary or despatches to Fort St.George.
Old Attingal Palace - the site of the massacre

The Queen of Attingal was the most powerful ruler of South Kerala in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Other independent principalities of the region included Kollam (Venad), Kayamkulam and Thiruvithamkode to the extreme south. Attingal Queen permitted the English traders - who were originally operating from Vizhinjam (Brinjohn) - to establish a warehouse ('factory') at Anjengo  in 1694 and 'to fortify with stone and to abide there for ever'. 

Although the Queen was sovereign, she used to come under the influence of the powerful local chieftains - the Ettuveettil Pillais and madampees - who would try to bend state policy to suit their private ends. Thus, while it was Cuddamon Pillai who advised the Queen to relocate the English from Vizhinjam to Anjengo, other Pillais instigated the locals against English fortification. 

The fact that Captain Kidd, the notorious pirate was active on the Malabar coast seemed to support the propaganda unleashed by Verdamon Broca ( the authorised Indian trading agent of the Company) that Brabourne and colleagues were indeed pirates. Brabourne could sense the impending hostility and hurriedly built the fort, disregarding not only local protests, but even stern warnings from London that he should gather as much pepper as he could rather than waste his resources on building the Fort. 

Alarmed by such reports, the Queen asked the English to leave the Fort as she did not want them to harbour criminals, pirates, thieves and the like. But, by then, Brabourne had mounted his guns and was ready to defend his territory. 

There was a period of uneasy co-existence between Attingal and the Company during the first two decades of the 18th Century. The fight between the two Pillais -Vanjamutta and Cuddamon - also helped the English play one against the other. In a concerted attack on the Fort by the Nairs and Muslims, Vanjamutta sided with the English who repelled the attack and destroyed the nair force. 

From 1712 onwards, Anjengo Fort had the misfortune of a succession of unprincipled and dishonest leadership. John Kyffin who became the Chief of Anjengo in 1712 misappropriated the Company's money and was accused of dealing with their enemy, the Ostenders.  He was dismissed in 1719 and was replaced by William Gyfford who turned out to be an even bigger rogue. 'He systematically double-crossed the Company as well as Malabar pepper merchants' (More).

During Gyfford's tenure, the behaviour of the English factors also became increasingly insolent. Particularly hated was Ignatio Malheiros, the official linguist and interpreter, of Portuguese descent. As a staunch Roman Catholic, he instigated young English lads to insult and humiliate Muslims. Instead of punishing the guilty, Gyfford imprisoned the Muslim complainants. The English living in the Fort were also reported to have forced a Namboodiri Brahmin to shave off the beards of their slaves - an act which would lead to the upper caste Brahmin losing his caste. The Hindus were further incensed to learn that Ignatio Malheiros had obtained possession of some Hindu temple lands through a money-lending transaction. Resentment against the English was brewing among the Hindus and the Muslims.
Meanwhile, the annual presents due to the Queeen of Attingal as part of the lease deed of 1694 fell into arrears, partly because there was confusion about the rightful heiress to  Queen Umayamma Rani who had passed away in July 1698. The Pillais tried to snatch the presents but the English insisted that they would hand over the presents only to the Queen. 

Peace was restored in Attingal after Queen Amutamburan was installed as the legitimate ruler. Efforts were made to patch up with the Company which was only too eager to befriend not only the new ruler but both the powerful Pillais, Vanjamutta and Cuddamon. who were bribed handsomely. It was decided that the presents to the Queen which were pending for seven years would be taken personally to Attingal Palace by the Chief of Anjengo. 

Gyfford thus set forth from Anjengo  on Vishu Day, the 14th April 1721, with the presents and his best men of about 150 English and a large number of Topazes and coolies. In fact but for a few invalids, almost everyone joined the pageant which moved up the river for a distance of 4 miles. They were met enthusiastically at Attingal by a large crowd which had gathered to witness the show. 

The main approach to the Palace - Gyfford and team might have taken this walk on the fateful evening

Simon Cowse, who had been the Agent till 1712, happened to be accompanying Gyfford on this mission. Cowse could speak Malayalam like a native speaker and overheard that there was some big plot to finish them off. He also heard that Vanjamutta Pillai was too drunk to receive the Engish visitors. Cowse warned Gyfford who would not believe what he was told; instead he beat up Cowse and imprisoned him in the Queen's palace itself.

The Queen received the presents graciously and invited the team to spend the night at the Palace. She could not accommodate them at one place and they were scattered in several small buildings. Gyfford became suspicious much later in the night when he found that  all their ammunition had been tampered with. All he could do was to send a message through a friendly Malabari to Captain Sewell, the store-keeper of the Fort who was left behind.

Not a single European was spared on the night of the bloody massacre. While most Europeans were killed at one go, the angry crowd had reserved their pent up ire on the perpetrators of past atrocities - Gyfford and Malheiros. Gyfford's tongue was torn out, nailed to a log and allowed to float down the river. Malheiro was administered a slow and painful death, by dismembering his body gradually. Even Simon Cowse and Burton Fleming, the two other prominent English traders, were not spared. Only 17 topazzes survived from out of the party of almost 200. Every European was cut down to pieces. 

The angry crowd then set off for the Fort but the inhabitants had been warned through Gyfford's message and they took defensive action. Three English women whose husbands had been slain, were shipped off to Quilon and Madras and the guns were positioned to repel any attack.

Historians disagree on where the massacre of Attingal took place. Most asserted that the English were attacked and killed on their way to the Queen's palace. Recent scholarship, has however, proved beyond doubt that the massacre took place within the Palace and after the presents had been handed over. The violent reaction from the combined force of Nairs and Muslims was partly out of commercial interests but mostly due to the insensitivities of the English factors to local customs and beliefs. The incident had not been chronicled properly and, therefore, no lessons were probably learnt. More than a hundred years after the Attingal Revolt, English had to pay a heavy price for their lack of sensitivity to Hindu and Muslim sentiments in the run up to the 1857 Revolt! After all, history teaches us that it teaches us nothing !

Today, the old Attingal Palace is a crumbling building without any sign to show that it was the venue of the first ever organised revolt by the local interests against English domination. There is a prominent notice on a wall that the entire property has been attached by a commercial bank under SARAFESI Act for non-repayment of loans taken by some of the owners who had been running a hospital. Unless the Government of Kerala intervenes, we could lose one more precious heritage building. And all this under the watchful eyes of the Maharaja of Travancore whose bust, protected by a glass shield, stands next to the site of the massacre. 

Bank notice seizing our common Heritage The Maharaja - looking the other way!


  1. other than passing by the fort many years ago, i have hardly paid any attention to it. but like many others, the stories behind it are chilling and interesting. thanks for bringing out this less talked about part of EIC history.

  2. Thanks for The Attingal Black Hole story. I never heard of this before. Even your black hole of Calcutta story has new material. I am quite impressed by your committment to preserving the heritage of Kerala. I only hope you could get some youngsters involved in this project.
    It all goes to show that we Indians are as capapble as the white man when it comes to cruelty and barbarity.

  3. Calicut Heritage Forum is grateful to Sri B.R.P.Bhaskar, the veteran journalist for referring to this entry in his blog Vayana While doing so, he has observed that there was a terrible reprisal by the English against the Attingal massacre and that he was not aware whether Leena More has mentioned about this in her book.
    CHF has scanned all available works of history dealing with that period and fail to locate any reference to such reprisal. Leena More has not mentioned about it because such an event did not take place. On the contrary,the English were so powerless to take revenge (as anticipated by the people of Attingal) that they were rendered contemptible in the eyes of the locals. All their forces were tied up in their battle against the Angrias of the Maratha country. In September 1722, the Queen entered into a treaty with Alexander Orme, the Agent of Anjengo which provided that the ring leaders in the attack on Gyfford should be punished and their estates confiscated, and that the Queen would compensate the Company for all losses. The treaty was witnessed by the Queen's brother, the King of Quilon.The reprisal (if one could call it thus)was led by Marthanda Varma in 1729 with the assistance of troops from the Nayaks of Madurai and it ended in annihilating the Ettuveettil Pillais.
    All this is beyond the purview of the CHF investigation which aims to draw attention to the wanton destruction of our heritage and the Government's inability to preserve these. Attingal Palace is important to us because it was the venue of one of the earliest bloody revolts against the British presence in India. While CHF will not take sides, it feels that it has a duty to portray facts and not be swayed by jingoistic sentiments.

  4. The British seems to get connected to black holes somehow. I think we can add to this the Wagon tragedy also connected with the so called "Mophala Rebellion"

  5. Never heard about this. Very interesting piece of information. Thanks for bringing this up.

  6. Hi... my father was from Anjego so I consider this my ancestorial place. The fort was one of the places he used to take us when we were kids... even today we sometime visit the fort, though we have to be very careful not to offend the locals.

    Out of curiosity, I had done some research on the fort and on this massacre. More than the hatred agaist the British it was against the company, also there was a strong rivalary between the local feuds (ettuveettil pilla) and the maharani that made grounds for the massacre. Some accounts mention that though they went to the palace to meet the rani, they were told that she was not there and were asked to wait for a day which explains why they stayed overnight even though the situation was hostile. The construction of the fort was started by the Dutch. Anjego used to be a major trade zone on the likes of Vizhinjam. The massacre saw the winding of the factory at Anjengo and subsequent decline in trade. Poverty and famine roused the little village and still continues.

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  8. Interesting article...I grew up listening to my grandma's stories about her ancestral connections with the Attingal palace...however right now I have no means of finding out the facts...Anyway nice piece of information..anything on this topic is always thrilling to me..

  9. the use of ettuveetil pillai is totally wrong.we have not received any documents from palace records which is available that tells there ever existed this ettuveetil pillamar.ananthan pattu or song is a villadichan pattu or folk song which exists even today.the incidents narrated are used exactly by the cv raman pillai.even he quotes verses from this song in many chapters in his novels.the word ettuveetil pillais were popularized after his novels.

    in travancore king was considered as a loving father and subjects were thus like his in all the official records while addressing a staff or government servant ,person name was suffixed by the word pillai.even the government posts were sometimes suffixed with pillai.examples rayasam means clerks work ,to write files ,records etc.the post and the person ie clerk was called rayasa pillai.suprendent of clerk is neettezhuthu.he was authorised to go to court take notes and records directly from king and from the court .they were denoted as neetezhuthu wise many posts were sufixed by the word pillai implying my child was widely used. the kanakkezhuthu pillai or accountant ,which is used even today occasionally is another example which shows that people may have also imitated this method.
    this custome was due to the influence of tamil culture.

    perumal pillai is a caste in tamil nadu.there are other castes which use pillais ,but generally they consider themselves as ezhavar ,descenders of villavars.many from thirunelveli district and Coimbatore have matrimonial relations with ezhavars and thiyyars of kanyakumari dist,trivandrum and from pallakkad,thrissur and malapuram districts.this i have gathered from my own travels.

  10. Thank you very much for your for your valuable comments. We concede that the reference to Ettuveettil Pillais in the context of the Queen of Attingal was inaccurate. In fact, in Attingal, only four Pillais had influence in that territory, the chief being Venganoor Pillai (referred to by us, based on English records, as Vanjamutta Pillai), and Cuddamon Pillai.
    But to deny the very existence of the Ettuveettil Pillais may tantamount to denying the authenticity of important historical sources. P. Shangunny Menon in his History of Travancore gives the names of the 8 powerful Pillai families: Ramanaa Madhathil Pillai; Marthanda Madhathil Pillai; Kulathoor Pillai; Kazhakkoottathu Pillai; Chembazhanthi Pillai; Pallichal Pillai; Kudamon Pillai; and Venganoor Pillai.
    A. Sreedhara Menon also refers to the Ettuveettil Pillais in his work, Kerala History and its makers: (Martanda Varma) 'Raja turned his attention against the Yogathil Pottimar (trustees of the Sri Padmanabhaswami temple)and their agents, the Ettuvittil Pillamar, who were no respecters of royal authority and had almost set up a parallel centre of power in the kingdom'.(pages 134-135)
    Records of Travancore history indicate that the term 'Pillai' was used at least in three different contexts - firstly for a child, which is common to both Tamil and Malayalam; secondly, as an official as in rayasam pillai (head clerk). If you recall that under the rayasam pillai, there were many rayasams (clerks), it will be clear that the title 'Pillai' is used here as a honorific.The Ettuveettil Pillais who were functioning as the collectors of revenue in and around Trivandrum on behalf of the Pottis who had controlled the Padmanabhaswami temple, also used the title as a honorific.Thirdly, Pillai is also a caste, as pointed out by you.
    We look forward to your further comments on this interpretation.

  11. More on Ettuveettil Pillais. Maddy ( has sent us this link which gives a vivid picture of the times of Marthanda Varma and the Pillais.The comments are particularly interesting.
    Thank you, Maddy.


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