Heroes don’t feature in the stories around forts. A villain sometimes makes for a more interesting tale. That is the legend I hear when I land in Kannur. Colonial flavour runs high in the town even centuries after Vasco da Gama landed in Kerala (nearly 100 km south at Kozhikode, in 1498). Driving around forts, lighthouses and churches takes you to the era when battles were fought at sea and enemies were thrown in dungeons.
It is almost sunset and I am driving towards St Angelo Fort in Kannur to listen to its stories.
The fort stands majestically with history plastered all over the walls. Standing there I look out into the little fishing hamlet. Children are playing hide and seek while their families watch, disinterested. A guide walks up to me and narrates a story about a famous prisoner of the fort. The only interesting element is that the captive who was locked up in the fort was neither Dutch nor British. He was not an Indian king either, but a fellow Portuguese. And the tale revolves around conspiracies woven 500 years ago.
The stone fort was built by the first Portuguese Viceroy of India, Dom Francisco de Almeida, in the 16thcentury on the shores of the Arabian Sea. We go back to the time when the Spice Trade was at its peak along the coast and the entire region was at siege from various dynasties from India, Europe and Middle East for control of the trade.
While several battles were fought bitterly on sea and shore, one was the Battle of Diu. A combined force of the kings of Gujarat and Calicut came together with the support of international allies like Egyptian, Ottoman Turks and Venetians who opposed the Portuguese. The battle was won by the Portuguese and while the Viceroy emerged victorious, a political conspiracy ensued. Almeida arrested Afonso de Albuquerque, the general who had fought along with him in the Battle of Diu, as the latter was in line to supercede Almeida as Viceroy. He was imprisoned for six months at this very fortress. Ironically, the powers back home in Portugal supported Albuquerque, who eventually took over the reins, but by then the Portuguese had to relinquish their hold on the fort.
A century later the Dutch took over the fortress and restored it. Bastions were built and the fort was modernised but it was eventually sold to the Arakkal royal family in the 18th century. Even today, the palace of the Arakkal family stands near the fort and has now been converted into a museum. A few years later, the fort changed hands again, this time with the British benefiting. They built the first-ever lighthouse in Kannur and strengthened it further. However, the old Portuguese fort was completely destroyed except for the tale of its famous prisoner.
Walking around, I can see three large bastions built by the Dutch, an old lighthouse that used to be lit by a lamp during the British days, a restored chapel, barracks, cannons and tombstones. The fort is triangular and built with laterite stone. We climb the old staircases and look out into the Mopilla Bay, a natural harbour. Small and large barges are returning home as twilight colours reflect in the waters. Yonder is Dharamadam Island, a haunt of tourists. A few tourists are walking along the wall of the fort. The children are now quiet as the parents prepare to leave. There is a listlessness in the atmosphere.
The sun has finally been tucked away in the clouds and we are deprived of a rosy sunset. But I stare at the waters and wonder how the sea was once home to fleets from all over Europe and the Middle East battling for control of the spice trade. My reverie is interrupted by the tourist policeman who politely requests us to leave as it is time to call it a day.