In war, the smallest things can end your battle. For the Dutch soldiers at the Battle of Kolachel in 1741, it was a tiny spark from their own gunpowder that ignited and set fire to their reserves of rice.
As is well known, armies march on their stomachs. The foodless Dutch forces, led by their captain, Eustachius De Lannoy, were forced to surrender to the Travancore army. This defeat, considered a landmark one for an Indian kingdom fighting a colonial power, did not end the war. But it was a hard pill to swallow for a European power accustomed to winning against larger forces through the use of guile, strategy and superior weaponry.
Hungry, and doubtless afraid of what was going to happen to them, they were imprisoned in Udayagiri fort – today a part of the Thiruvananthapuram-Nagercoil highway. But Captain Eustachius won the favour of king Marthanda Varma and his prime minister, and along with his men, was permitted to serve the Travancore state.
The military legacy Eustachius built for Travancore was grand, enough that this is the inscription that marks his grave – at the same Udayagiri fort he was first imprisoned in.
“Stop way farer. Here lies Eustachius Benedictus De Lannoy, who as the General-in-chief of the troops of Travancore was in command, and for nearly 37 years served the king with the utmost fidelity. By the might of his arms and the fear (of the name), he subjected to his (the king’s) sway all the kingdoms from Kayamkulam to Cochin. He lived 62 years and 5 months and died on the 1st June 1777. May he rest in peace.”
This is the story of how a European Naval Commander became the architect of the Travancore fighting force.
VOC for Adventure
In 18th century Europe, those seeking adventure would join the first multinational company of the ages – the Dutch East India Company (known in Dutch as Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC). The Dutch Republic was in its golden era, as its merchants traveled across the world – colonizing and trading at will.
Eustachius, a Belgian, worked for the VOC, in a time where its absolute hold over the pepper trade in South India was weakening. The British East India Company’s associations with smaller kingdoms were a thorn in the site of the VOC. Tensions loomed when the newly anointed Maharajah of Travancore started annexing the neighbouring kingdoms around him – which were key pepper-producing regions for the Dutch. Eventually, war came to the Dutch territories.
Eustachius was a Naval Commander when he set off for Colachel from Cochin. Following their defeat at Colachel, he and another Belgian named Donaldi stood out from the crowd for their weary condition – attracting the attention and pity of the notoriously ruthless king. Marthanda found that nobody could understand what these two men were saying, and made an effort to find a translator.
Once he could understand them, he liked what he heard. He decided to put them in charge of disciplining and regimenting the Travancore forces. The power equation was unique. The king treated Eustachius and his men well, and even had built a catholic church at the Belgian’s residence in Udayagiri. His role was initially to regiment and discipline the Travancore army, but he was promoted to captain and eventually general – under the watch of the prime minister. Within the VOC, it’s said that these soldiers could seldom rise above the rank of sergeant – making the shift to Travancore a well-timed career jump.
Eustachius’ knowledge of warfare and strategy earned him the name ‘Valia Kappithan’ or ‘Great Captain’ among the Travancoreans.
De Lannoy’s legacy
Eustachius soon restructured the Travancore army in the European model, and developed advanced fortifications across the coast – some of which remain today, such as the Udayagiri fort itself.
He was an early proponent of Make in India in defence (though there was no India in those days). He established an ammunition manufacturing facility at Udayagiri, moulding cannons, mortars and other weapons . The manufacture happened in a small fort called Marunthukottai – literally meaning gunpowder fort, a short walk away from Udayagiri.
Eustachius’ expertise lay in fortification. His most famous would come to be known as the ‘Travancore line’ – a 48 kilometre long line of forts and ramparts that protected the boundaries against invasions from the north. Twice in history would this line be tested – both after Eustachius’ passing. The first against Hyder Ali of Mysore, and the second by Hyder’s son, Tipu Sultan. Both times, the walls fulfilled their purpose and repelled the invaders – though the second attempt mostly resulted in their destruction.
The impact of this repelling was that Travancore was among the few kingdoms to remain outside of Mysorean rule.
Eustachius married a translator from Anjengo (now Anchutengu). It is said that the bride’s family disapproved of the marriage, and the Maharaja himself intervened in DeLannoy’s favour. With her, he had a son – who he would lose years later in the battle of Kalakkad.
It was Eustachius’ wish to be buried alongside his son – at the same fort where it all began, Udayagiri. A small community of the descendants of the Dutch soldiers that accompanied Eustachius lived in Cochin for a while, though none remain today. The last mention of them is in a journal from 1842.
The locals remember Eustachius today as ‘Istach’. What made the Belgian serving in a Dutch Army a loyal and valued commander of the Travancore forces was a sense of belonging that transcended nationality. His legacy today lies in the fort he was buried in along with his family, and in the annals of Travancore military history.
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