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Why the tales of Marthanda Varma and Pazhassi Raja could reform the study of international relations

Updated: Sep 22, 2021

An artist's impression of the Dutch Commander Eustachius De Lannoy to Marthanda Varma.

James Palmer, a British editor at Foreign Policy has written a biting critique of how Western (often mistakenly called ‘global’) understanding of conflict cannot get over, or beyond, the Greeks, with constant references to the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, and the Thucydides Trap, which seeks to explain why established and rising powers go to war.

In his essay, Palmer argues that instead of taking such cues only from the West, the teaching and practice of international relations could do well to pick Asian examples, and while he picks a few good examples from India, the example of a major Asian victory against the West that he can think of is The Seleucid-Mauryan War (305 – 303 BCE) when Chandragupta Maurya got the better of Selucus I.

But because this is a classic (though undoubtedly well-meaning) case of the West telling, and owning, even the story of how the West ignores the East, he misses out on perhaps the two most striking (and more recent) examples.

In 1741, forces of the Dutch East India Company were defeated in the Battle of Colachel by the army of Maharaja Marthanda Varma, the king of Travancore, which effectively halted any Dutch imperialistic designs upon India. It is also one of the first times that an Asiatic principality landed a decisive military victory upon European colonialists.

Varma had been squeezing the Dutch out of the spice trade from the Malabar coast, refusing to honour any trade treaty he thought unfair, and the European trading power, desperate to maintain its arc of influence on the lucrative spice trade was ready to fight to keep its position.

The historian of Kerala, and especially of the Malabar, A. P. Ibrahim Kunju noted that the Dutch sent their influential Governor of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) Gustaaf Willem van Imhoff to negotiate with the maharaja, and proceeded to tell his Indian interlocutor that a failure to come to a conclusion would mean that the Dutch would declare war.

In response, Marthanda Varma is said to have told the Dutchman that he did not really care about any attack from the Dutch, and in fact, he had been planning to attack Europe himself to spread his territory!

The challenge of an ostensibly small Asian principality to one of the most powerful state-backed Western military-trader establishment, and its strategic deployment of military might to force a surrender has never had adequate Occidental analysis. In fact, as in the case of many such victories, in Western history writing, the incident is downplayed as a sort of fluke, a mere accidental win.

But the battle had a significant psychological impact of Dutch designs in India. Dutch Commander Eustachius De Lannoy who surrendered before Varma went onto the join the maharaja’s army and rose to become its commander leading to subsequent victories. Within barely a decade, the Dutch signed the Treaty of Mavelikkara with Travancore where they agreed to not be a hindrance to the maharaja’s expansion and even supply arms and ammunition to him.

The second story is even more illustrative as it involves the defeat of no less a Western general than Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington (who would later defeat Napolean at Waterloo). Between 1793 and 1806, the Kottayam (once again in the present-day Indian state of Kerala) prince Pazhassi Raja fought the British East India Company in a series of guerrilla wars which are the longest armed resistance to British colonialism in India. Collectively called the Cotiote War or Kottayathu War, it pitched the resources and guile of Pazhassi Raja against the forces of the East India Company.

For several years at the turn of the century, the Company forces were led by Arthur Wellesley who, unsuccessful, is said to have confessed that the war could not be won as long as Pazhassi Raja lived. And so it was, it is only after the death of the Raja at the end of 1805, that the British could take over Kottayam.

These forgotten (at least in international relations theorising) stories, in fact, are far more illustrative and important in explaining the nature of current conflict around the world rather than the Peloponnesian War. The reason is quite simple. They bring in a distinct and vital sub-theme of race which Western-centric international relations studies acknowledges grudgingly and very rarely, if at all.

The field of international relations studies was in a sense created to explain (some would argue legitimise) Anglo-American domination of the world. Even today it stands on frameworks built by Western scholars which propagate their point of view of the world. This is why international relations and its studies has embedded in it an ignominious subterranean history of legitimising regime changes, often through coercive methods, in the developing world.

At the heart of this dissection lies the question – whose history is to be considered apt and adequate for the creation of ‘global’ epistemological frameworks? Which incidents are to be selected to draw ‘universal’ inferences from? The study of international relations gives but hesitant and reluctant answers to such questions today. This is why it has spawned a field of ‘area studies’, soto voce for the study of nations which, think the White scholars of the developed world, cannot contribute ideas that could have global or universal framework appeal.

Palmer’s list, while it makes a laudatory attempt to introduce Asian examples of conflict to draw references from, side steps more recent examples which would make for an even more interesting study because they speak directly to colonialism, which is the inflated pachyderm about to be punctured in the hallowed corridors of international relations.

It is only by confronting the legacy of resistance of people like Marthanda Varma and Pazhassi Raja that true reform of the study of international relations can really begin.


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