Rani Abbakka : The Forgotten Freedom Fighter of India

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We all know that Independence to our country was not served to us on a silver platter. It was fought for by the people of our country with blood and sweat. Men, women, and children all were involved in this hard-fought battle. However, not all have been given due recognition for the work they have done. Many prominent ladies have been a part of the struggle. Hardly any of them are given the limelight which they deserve. This week post Women’ International Day 2020 we’ll be sharing stories every day celebrating the spirit of womanhood, we bring to one such glorious story of a woman freedom fighter – Rani Abbakka Chowta, who was martyred for this noble cause. Rani Abbakka was one of the earliest Indians to fight any colonial powers and is historically considered as the “first woman freedom fighter of India.”

She was the only woman who dared to confront, fight, and successfully defeat the Portuguese in several battles. She preceded the valor of Rani Laxmi Bai of Jhansi by about 300 years. It was the latter half of the 16th century. The Chowta dynasty is known for following the system of matrilineal inheritance. The leader of the clan, Tirumala Raya Chowta, decided to crown his niece Abbakka as the first Tuluva Queen of Tulu Nadu in 1625. Puting was the capital. The secondary capital was of Ullal. It is the present-day of Mangalore.  

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Before his death, Chowta king Thirumala Raya III got her married to Lakshmappa  Bangaraja, the King of the Banga principality in Mangalore. It was a part of a strategic alliance. However, soon after marriage, she had to separate from her husband due to differences. Her three children stayed with her in Ullal while Bangaraja compromised with the Portuguese. Rani Abbakka was a Digambara Jains by faith. However, her administration was well represented by Hindus and Muslims. Her army consisted of people of all sects and castes, including Mogaveeras, a fisherfolk community. Towards this end, She forged alliances with the Zamorin of Calicut and other Muslim rulers south of Tulunadu. The sole objective was to keep the Portuguese at bay. She also focused on improving the marital ties with the local rulers of the neighboring Banga dynasty.

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EARLY CHILDHOOD

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Abbakka was an extraordinary child, and as she grew up showed signs of being a visionary. There was no equal to her in military science and warfare, mainly in archery and sword fighting. Her father encouraged her in military education. After she was well versed in all areas, she was married to a neighboring local king of Bangher. The marriage did not last long, with Abbakka breaking the ties by returning the jewels given by him to her. The husband thus nurtured revenge against Abbakka and later on joined the Portuguese in a treaty, to fight Abbakka. 

FIGHT WITH COLONIALISM

Portuguese had captured Goa and set up various ports along the Mangalore coastal line. Soon, their attention was diverted to Ullal. The region was known for its fertility. It was also an important port for the export of spices and textiles, which was flourishing under the leadership of Rani Abbakka Chowta. The Portuguese had been trying to exact tributes and taxes from Rani Abbakka. However, she refused to accede to the unfair Portuguese demands. Ullal being a port town was known for its strategic importance. That is why the Portuguese were desperate to capture it. Rani Abbakka ‘s non-compliance with the Portuguese demands further fuelled their plan to get hold over the region.

As a result, the Portuguese started their campaign against the Queen. Little did they know that she was highly skilled in warfare. It resulted in the colonial powers losing the first of the many battles.  

 

THE VARIOUS BATTLES

It was in the year 1525 when the Portuguese first attacked on the South Kanara coast. They destroyed the Mangalore port. Rani Abbakka was alerted by the incident and started preparing herself to protect her kingdom. The Portuguese, clearly upset by Abbakka’s tactics. They were able to continue with their trade with the Arabs even after the Portuguese frequently attacked her ships. They sent Admiral Dom Álvaro da Silveira in 1555 to fight her after she refused to pay the taxes. Though she had a smaller army as compared to her enemies, yet the battle ended in an uneasy truce.

Two years later, the Portuguese attacked with a more significant force and were able to damage the capital to an extent. Rani Abakka was successful in pushing them back. It was only possible through her powerful battle tactics and diplomatic strategy as she had collaborated with Arab Moors and Zamorin of Kozhikode.  

In 1558 the Portuguese army created havoc in the city. This caused death to many men and women, both young and old. They even plundered the temples and burnt down the ships before settling down in the city. Again, in 1567, the Portuguese army attacked Ullal for the fourth time. However, the Queen was successful in resisting it. 

In 1568, João Peixoto, a Portuguese general and a fleet of soldiers where sent by the Portuguese Viceroy António Noronha Ullal and managed to capture the royal palace. However, Rani Abbakka escaped before they could capture her. Along with 200 loyal soldiers, she raided the Portuguese in the dead of night and killed the general along with 70 of his soldiers. Frightened by the ferocity of the attack, the remaining Portuguese troops fled to their ships. In further attacks, Abbakka Rani and her supporters killed Admiral Mascarenhas and the Portuguese were also forced to vacate the Mangalore fort.

 By this time, the Portuguese had become alarmed about Rani Abbakka’s growing reputation inspiring other rulers. When repeated frontal attacks did not work, they resorted to treachery. A series of edicts were passed to ally with the defiant Queen illegal. However, Rani Abbakka continued to dismiss these rulings with contempt and scorn. The stunned Portuguese now decided to send Anthony D’ Noronha (the Portuguese Viceroy of Goa) to attack Ullal. In 1581, 3000 Portuguese troops supported by an armada of battleships attacked Ullal in a surprise pre-dawn attack. 

Rani Abbakka was returning from a visit to her family temple and was caught off guard, but she immediately mounted her horse and rode into the battle, leading her troops in a fierce counter-offensive.

Her piercing battle cry – “Save the motherland. Fight them on land and sea. Fight them on the streets and the beaches. Push them back to the waters”, echoed through winds as she and her soldiers fired flaming arrows at the Portuguese ships.

While many of the ships in the Portuguese armada burnt that night, Rani Abbakka was wounded in the crossfire. The enemy captured her with the help of a few bribed chieftains. Rebellious till the very end, the fearless Queen breathed her last in captivity. However, her legacy lived on through her equally fierce and brave daughters, who continued to defend Tulu Nadu from the Portuguese.

A warrior queen who gave her life in defense of her freedom and motherland, Rani Abbakka remained a significant thorn in the Portuguese’s side throughout her rule despite their superior military power. This itself speaks volumes about her courage and ingenuity. For her bravery, she came to be known as Abhaya Rani or ‘The Fearless Queen.’ Nevertheless, her splendid story remains primarily forgotten by history books.

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Apoorva Iyer
Apoorva Iyer is a student of B.A Political Science (Hons.) at Deshbandhu College, Delhi University.

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