Step into History: Exploring Cochin Fort

The first European-constructed fort in India was the Manuel Fort, or Emmanuel Fort built in 1503 in Cochin (also called Kochi). Named after the King of Portugal, the fort was referred to as Manuel Kotta in the Malayalam language.

The surrounding area is now renowned as Fort Kochi or Fort Cochin, a vibrant and bustling hub of activity. From the Chinese fishing nets to the Jewish Synagogue, Fort Kochi is a destination that offers something for everyone. Whether you're looking for a relaxing stroll along the beach or an exciting night out, Fort Kochi is the perfect place to explore.

Let us take a brief look at the history of Cochin. On December 24th, 1500, the Portuguese under Admiral Pedro Alvarez Cabral made their first visit to Cochin. At the time, Unni Goda Varma Tirumulpad (Unni Rama Koil I), called Trimumpara by the Portuguese, was the reigning Raja of Cochin. The Raja graciously welcomed the Portuguese and signed a treaty of friendship. He also granted them permission to build a factory in Cochin, while the Portuguese promised to free the Raja of the Samoothiri's (The King of Calicut is known as Samoothiri. The Portuguese called him Zamorin) yoke and even to add Calicut to his dominion at some point in the future. 

Vasco da Gama arrived in Cochin on 7 November 1502 during his second voyage to India. The Raja of Cochin welcomed him with a grand reception.

However, upon his departure, the Samoothiri sent forces to attack Cochin in retaliation for the Raja's alliance with the Portuguese.

When Francisco de Albuquerque arrived in Cochin on 2 September 1503, he found the Raja under siege by the Samoothiri, who had declared war on him for his allegiance to the Portuguese. Despite the Samoothiri's efforts, the Raja refused to surrender the Portuguese and had taken refuge on the island of Vypin.

Faria e Sousa reported that Commander Francisco de Albuquerque sent the King of Cochin a generous gift, which included 10,000 ducats. Upon his arrival, the King ran to embrace him, joyfully shouting "Portugal! Portugal!" in response, the Portuguese people shouted "Cochin! Cochin!" in a show of mutual respect and admiration.

Upon the arrival of the Portuguese, the Samoothiri forces were struck with terror and hastily retreated from the city. The Portuguese then reinstated the Raja on the throne of Cochin, restoring the city to its former glory.

The Raja was highly pleased with the assistance of the Portuguese, so he granted Francisco de Albuquerque permission to erect a fort in his kingdom near the banks of the river. This fort was intended to protect the Portuguese factory while their ships were away.

On September 26th or 27th, 1503, the foundation of this fort was laid.

The fort was constructed in the form of a square, each face measuring eighteen yards in length, with bastions at each corner, upon which ordnance was mounted. The walls were composed of trunks of coconut trees, firmly embedded in the ground, and bound together with iron hoops and large nails. Earth was tightly packed between the two rows of timbers, and the entire structure was surrounded by a wet ditch.

The Raja provided materials and workmen for the construction of this fort, and he often visited the site to inspect the progress of the work.

On September 30th, Francisco's cousin, Afonso de Albuquerque arrived in Cochin with three additional ships. The crews of the vessels were immediately put to work, and the task was soon completed.

On the morning of November 1, 1503, Fort Emmanuel was officially inaugurated and christened, with a garrison of 100 men under the command of Captain Duarte Pacheco.

João de Barros notes that Francisco de Albuquerque, who superintended its construction, had a deep devotion to the Apostle James and thus wished for the fort to be named Santiago. Manuel de Faria e Sousa referred to it as Fort St. James.

The first Viceroy of Cochin, Francisco Almeida, arrived in 1505 with the intention of strengthening the fortress. Upon noticing the inadequacy of the wooden fort, he attempted to construct a stone fort. However, Raja Nambiodara (Unni Rama Koil II), who succeeded Unni Goda Varma, was opposed to this endeavor. In a cunning move, the viceroy deliberately set the wooden frames to ablaze, thus obtaining the Raja's permission to construct a fire-proof stone fort and to encourage the others to construct stone houses that were fireproof, similar to those in Portugal.

In 1506, the wooden structure was replaced by a formidable fort, and Francisco Almeida, the Portuguese Viceroy of India, made Cochin the seat of the Portuguese Government. However, in 1530, the Portuguese shifted their government from Cochin to Goa.

Duarte Barbosa provided the following description of the fort in 1518: At the mouth of the river, the King of Portugal had established a large settlement, which was populated by both Portuguese and native Christians who had converted to Christianity after the establishment of the fortress. Furthermore, every day, other Christian Indians who had been converted by the teachings of the Blessed Saint Thomas arrived from Quilon (Kollam) and other nearby locations. In this fort and settlement of Cochin the king of Portugal carries out the repairs of his ships, and builds new vessels, such as galleys and caravels, with the same level of excellence as those constructed on the Lisbon strand. A great quantity of pepper is loaded onto the ships, as well as many other spices and drugs that are imported from Malacca and shipped to Portugal annually.

The Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie – VOC) under the command of Van Goens captured Cochin on 8 January 1663.

The Dutch, unable to manage such a large fort, reduced its size to one-third. A wall approximately one and a half miles in length was constructed with seven formidable bastions, each named after one of the seven Dutch Provinces: Gelderland on the sea-front, and five on the land side - Holland, Zeeland, Friesland, Utrecht, and Groningen. The seventh bastion was named Stroomburg.

town plan of dutch cochin
Town plan of Dutch Cochin in 1671-72 by Philip Baldaeus showing the site of the early Portuguese fort and the later town at the time of the Dutch takeover.

Following is the description of the Dutch fort of Cochin by Stavorinus (Voyages to the East-Indies By Johan Splinter Stavorinus): The city of Cochin is fortified on the land side by six large bastions and a cavalier, and to the eastward it has an irregular outwork. On the water side, it is provided with a formidable wall, featuring loopholes terminating at its eastern extremity in a ravelin before the cavalier. A wet ditch encircles the fortifications, with a covered way and glacis in front.

There were three gates, the Bay-Gate to the west, the New-Gate to the east, and the Water-Gate to the north, leading to the river.

In 1778, Adrian Van Moens completely transformed the fort to one with new ditches 'out of the very ruinous condition into which they had been suffered to fall by former governors'.

In October 1795, the British East India Company under the command of Major Petrie seized Cochin. In 1803, they destroyed the fort, leaving only a faint trace of its former glory.

Now, all that remains is a small reminder of its past grandeur.


History of Christianity in India: From the Beginning Up to the Middle of the Sixteenth Century (up to 1542) By A. Mathias Mundadan

History of Kerala Written In The Form of Notes On Visscher's Letters From Malabar - Volume 1 By K. P. Padmanabha Menon

Portuguese Cochin and the Maritime Trade of India, 1500-1663 By Pius Malekandathil

The Land of the Permauls, Or, Cochin, Its Past and Its Present By Francis Day