In 1781, finding herself in a tricky spot with the English East India Company, an Indian woman sent a courier to the Ottoman sultan bearing a plea for assistance. Abdul Hamid I was inclined to help and, summoning the English ambassador in Istanbul, expressed hope that “the Beebi Sultan, the Queen of Malabar" would be treated sympathetically by his countrymen. It was a generous gesture, certainly, but like most gestures did not translate into any tangible advantage for his supplicant. In 1783, on the contrary, since she had allied with the wrong side during the Company’s war against Tipu Sultan, her fort in Cannanore (now Kannur) in Kerala was invaded, and her palace plundered. Plunder, that is, in addition to the Rs2.6 lakh she was compelled to pay as indemnity, of which a lakh, she discovered, was off the books to satisfy the personal (and secret) avarice of certain officers. A treaty was signed with both sides promising, somewhat ambitiously, to uphold it “as long as the sun and moon shall last". Six years later, these exalted celestial bodies were brushed aside abruptly as the two parties went to war once again; and this time, the lady lost her fort forever.
The woman in question, Junumabe II, belonged to the Arakkal family of Cannanore that controlled the Lakshadweep islands from at least the 16th century, though of course no ruler ever actually condescended to visit their little kingdom, parked as they were across the water on the Indian coast. The origins of the house are obscure. One tale connects them with a legendary Malayali monarch who converted to Islam and sailed for Mecca—an eternal flame was maintained in Arakkal Palace in memory of this “uncle". Another story features a Hindu princess who, the Dutch said, “was made pregnant by a prominent Moor or Arab", spawning a Muslim royal line that followed Hindu matrilineal succession. The firstborn ruled regardless of sex as the Ali Raja; if it was a girl, she had the additional honorific of “Bibi". Yet another origin myth shows their ancestress in chaster light—she was drowning when a Muslim youth dived in to her rescue, but having been touched by a stranger in a compromising watery situation, she took him and his faith as her own. A final story erases all royal links and simply points to a noble family that transferred its allegiance to Islam many centuries ago, and over time rose to princely status.
Either way, a local raja from the mainland granted this Muslim line the sovereignty of Lakshadweep in return for tribute. “In its palmy days," one scholar notes, “the House administered its own laws, maintained its own currency and exercised powers of inflicting capital punishment over its subjects." These subjects are believed to have gone in boats from Kerala to populate the islands a long time ago, some claiming descent from high-caste Hindu clans. At a certain point, a saint revered locally as Munbe Muliyaka sailed in and persuaded them to embrace Islam, though the religion actually practised was a blend of Quranic principle and Hindu custom. It was the Portuguese who first disturbed the independence of the islands, and in the resultant bloodshed, the islanders sought the protection of a Hindu raja—the very ruler who would transfer the suzerainty he thus gained to the progeny of the drowning woman. This new royal family grew wealthy by cultivating commercial networks as far away as Arabia and Persia, and their approach to the islands now in their possession was also driven by calculations of profit and loss—a policy that led to great discontent in Lakshadweep.
It appears that the islands were viewed, from the comforts of the palace in Kerala, more as a cash cow than as a community to which its rulers also had certain obligations. In the 1760s, for instance, the Ali Raja introduced a coir monopoly under which islanders were prohibited from selling their goods to outsiders. The prices approved by the Arakkal treasury for coir, however, were vastly lower than the market rates. There were other rules too, some of them ridiculous enough to infect the air with a mood of rebellion. “Except jaggery," we are told, “all the minor products of the islands" (including tortoise shells!) were monopolized. Cowries, for instance, were purchased dirt cheap from Lakshadweep and sold at a 400% profit by its absentee princes in markets elsewhere. With tobacco, the arrangement was “particularly scandalous", the Bibi reaping profits of up to 1,000%. Agents of her government stationed on the island made things worse—their measly annual salaries meant they too were anxious for cuts. If a bovine were killed, the agent was entitled to a quarter of its meat. If a new boat was to be launched, the Bibi’s men could seize it if they were denied their fee.
In the 1780s, the cluster known as the Amindive islands revolted and pledged itself to Tipu Sultan. And when that ruler was defeated, control of these islands passed to the English as spoils of war. The Bibi, though, retained Minicoy and the Laccadive cluster, paying tribute to the Company now—during negotiations, she claimed her revenue from these was only Rs20,000, while a British investigation revealed that she drew nearly six times that figure in actual income. Her tribute was settled grudgingly at Rs15,000 a year. The islanders, however, continued to clash with their overseas royal government, and, by the middle of the 19th century, several years of tribute was in arrears—in 1869, it was discovered that Arakkal had, in fact, lost control over most of the islands and had no revenue to begin with. A “phantom sovereignty" remained in force, while the British took matters into their own hands. If Arakkal wanted the islands back, the Bibi was informed, she would have to improve her style of government—and, of course, settle the pending payments. Neither of these, everyone knew, was actually feasible.
Decades passed in this fashion, till in 1908 the impasse was broken. Imbichi Ali Raja, the then Bibi, agreed to surrender sovereignty over Laccadive and Minicoy in return for an annual malikhana (pension) of Rs23,000—an amount that is still paid to the family, which a few years ago petitioned for a raise. A seven-gun salute appears to have been granted, along with British recognition of the title “sultan" for heads of the dynasty. As for the islanders, these events generated hope of a better, or at least fairer, regime. And to a certain extent, conditions were created, if not of prosperity, of fewer exactions. After all, in shaking off the autocracy of a princess in Kerala, the islands were only placing themselves under the very different variety of tyranny that came with becoming subjects of the British empire. And any real promise of progress would have to wait for some more decades till the colonial government withdrew, and a democratic state handed over the destinies of Lakshadweep, at last, to its own people.
Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne: Chronicles Of The House Of Travancore.
He tweets at @UnamPillai