Dude, where’s my Fort?

A clutch of luminaries have joined hands in pursuit of a heritage label for Fort Kochi. But could such labels help? Ideally, heritage and conservation should trickle down to the casual, everyday ‘I know that already’
Beach walkway, Fort Kochi
Beach walkway, Fort Kochi

KOCHI: Rampant development, inconsiderate tourism initiatives and sheer neglect has eroded the built heritage in many pockets of Kochi, especially in the twin towns of Fort Kochi and Mattancherry. Experts believe that this indifference primarily stems from a lack of awareness about the history of this centuries-old port city, once the gateway to India and an epicentre of global spice trade.

To ramp up conservation efforts, a clutch of luminaries gathered at TDM Hall this past weekend to chalk out a plan. Among the slew of initiatives discussed, the push to get a UNESCO heritage label for Mattancherry Palace (Dutch Palace) is particularly noteworthy.

But conservation requires more than mere labels, which escape the grasp of commoners. The idea of heritage, history and conservation must be taken off its pedestal and made the ordinary. The casual, everyday ‘I know that already’. Fail to do that, and you’ll end up with youngsters who, when asked, ‘Where’s the fort in Fort

Kochi?’, would throw blanks at you. Here, TNIE unearths the history of this fort and throws light on its current state. Consider this history 101, a sip of a heady cocktail made just to whet your appetite.

St Francis Assisi
St Francis Assisi


Overlooking the vast expanse of the Arabian Sea, Fort Kochi, once a quaint village, has, in just three decades, become the heart of Kerala’s tourism initiatives. One need only look at the state tourism department’s brochure to learn this — the very cover image is likely that of the Chinese nets which dot the beaches here. Tourists have been flocking to Fort Kochi in numbers as early as the 1980s. Back then, the place was known as Cochin.

There are many stories about how this name came to be. One theory is that it has origins in ‘Kochazhi’. Another says it is a derivative of the Sanskrit word ‘Goshree’. Ealroy John V J, the curator of the Indo-Portuguese Museum, says the name has associations with Fort Kochi’s history with the Chinese. “Co-chin. The ‘chin’ is for China. It is named so because Chinese merchants thronged the place before the Europeans eventually settled here,” Ealroy adds.

Chinese, Arabs, Jews… many have found their way to Cochin. Sir Robert Bristow, the British engineer who was the force behind the establishment of the Cochin Port, explains in his book, Cochin Saga, that Cochin was a natural harbour, facilitating the arrival of merchant fleets and, ultimately, European powers.

Arrival of the West

The Portuguese were the first among European powers to discover what is now Kerala. However, the Zamorin of Calicut, a powerful emperor with a sizeable army and naval strength, was not welcoming of them. Later, the Portuguese found an unlikely friend in the Cochin royal family. Infuriated, the Zamorin declared war against Cochin. But with the help of the Portuguese army, the Cochin kingdom was able to ward off the threat. In return for their assistance, the Cochin king, in 1503, granted Portuguese general Alfonso de Albuquerque permission to build a fort.

On November 27, the foundation stone of the fort was laid on the banks of the Calvathy River. The king provided workers, wood and other requirements. “It was built using wood and soil and had several bastions built on each corner. Bastions are structures projecting from the wall of the fortification. Angular in shape, it offers passive resistance, a form of defence,” explains Ealroy.

The fort is named Fort Emmanuel after their then-king, Manuel I of Portugal. However, in Kochi Rajya Charithram, its author, K P Padmanabha Menon, writes that a Portuguese historian, Manuel de Faria e Sousa, had indicated that the fort was called Fort St James.

The ruin preserved at Indo-Portuguese Museum
The ruin preserved at Indo-Portuguese Museum

A church was also built within the fort and was dedicated to Saint Bartholomew. It was later rebuilt with stones. It is now called the St Francis Church and sits inside the region’s core heritage zone. “Tunnels were also built from different parts of the fort to facilitate escape at the time of attacks,” adds Ealroy.

Fall of the fort

The Portuguese ruled for around 160 years. They were finally dethroned by the Dutch. Padmanabha Menon’s work has a detailed account of how the Dutch managed this. They first arrived in Vypeen, which is separated from Fort Kochi by a narrow estuary, and built another fort here called New Orange. A series of gunfights and bombardments between the two European powers ensued. Finally, the Portuguese were defeated, and Fort Emmanuel was reduced to one-third of its size.

“Dutch built bungalows on each of the bastions and gave Dutch names to all of them - Stromberg, Holland, Zeeland, Gelderland, etc,” says K J Sohan, the former mayor of Kochi and a historian. What existed in the fort was completely destroyed when the British finally settled here. They took over the authority of each of the Dutch buildings. Some were rebuilt. The Old Lighthouse Bristow Hotel in Fort Kochi was built by Bristow on the Holland Bastion. It was his residence during his time in Cochin.

Remains of a ruin

Fort Emmanuel, the Portuguese Fort, later came to be known as the Dutch Fort. Subsequently, the place itself came to be known as this fort — Fort Cochin. The remains of the fort are either underground or renovated into other buildings. A part of 1500s Cochin is now underwater.

Centuries-old stones were excavated from different parts of Fort Kochi. “These were under study for a period of time. However, lack of support or interest from higher authorities derailed the project,” says Raigon Stanley, the art collector who initiated the excavation back in 2021.

Now, the Dutch Bastions are heritage sites owned by private groups. The Stromberg Bastion is the Bastion Bungalow and is now a heritage museum; Holland Bastion is the Bristow Hotel; and Gelderland Bastion is the Thakur House. The Bishop’s House was believed to be Zeeland Bastion for the longest time, but it isn’t. Both Ealroy and Raigon agree.

Groningen Bastion is believed to be somewhere near the new bus depot. The other two bastions were Utrecht Bastion and Friesland Bastion, which were destroyed completely ages ago. Another visible part of the fort is under the Indo-Portuguese Museum.

“One of the tunnels starts here — in the basement of the museum. Sometimes, during high tide, the basement is filled with water, obscuring the ruins,” says Ealroy.

Final word

Walking through the Fort Kochi beach walkway and on different roads here, such as the Dutch Cemetry road and Napier Street, one can’t help but wonder if they are indeed walking on the fortifications of the old fort built by Albuquerque. However, conversations with the natives revealed that the fort is indeed gone.

There is an old searchlight with a note on the gunnery of the old fort installed on the beach walkway. It is a reminder for anyone visiting Fort Kochi to dig a little deeper into history and maybe cherish that history a little more.

A tourism magnet?

Former mayor K J Sohan says it’s likely there are remains of the fort still waiting to be found near the Dutch cemetry. “Maybe this could be excavated, raised to the ground level and preserved. It could turn out to be a tourism magnet,” he says.

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