Maruthanayagam Pillai was born in Panaiyur,
Ramanathapuram District, Tamil Nadu ,
India in 1725. From humble beginnings, he became a warrior in the
Arcot troops, later Commandant for the British East India Company troops. The British and the Arcot Nawab used him to suppress the Polygars (Palayakkarar) in the south of Tamil Nadu. Later he was entrusted to administrating the Madurai country when the Madurai Nayaks rule ended.
Later a dispute arose with the British and Arcot Nawab, and three of his associates were bribed to capture Yusuf Khan; he was hanged on 15 October 1764 in Madurai.
Maruthanayagam Pillai (correctly Mathuranayagam Pillai) alias Yusuf Khan was born circa 1725 in the village of Panaiyur, in Rammnad ‘country’ in a
Hindu farming family of Vellala caste.
Education & early career
Around this time, an English captain named Brunton educated Yusuf Khan, making him a learned man well-versed in several languages. From Tanjore he moved to Nellore (in present day Andhra Pradesh), to try his hand as a native physician under Mohammed Kamal, in addition to his career in the army. He moved up the ranks as Thandalgar (tax collector), Havildar and finally as a Subedar and that is how he is referred to in the English records (‘Nellore Subedar’ or just ‘Nellore’). He later enlisted under Chanda Sahib who was then the Nawab of Arcot . While staying in Arcot he fell in love with a ‘Portuguese’ Christian (a loose term for a person of mixed Indo-European descent) girl named Maasa (?Marsha /?Marcia), and married her.
In 1751, there was an ongoing scuffle between Muhammed Ali Khan Wallajah, (who was the son of the previous Nawab of Arcot Anwaruddin Muhammed Khan hence the rightful claimant) and Chanda Sahib his relative and a pretender, for the throne of
Arcot. The former sought the help of British and the latter the French.
Chanda Sahib initially succeeded and became the Nawab, forcing Muhammed Ali to escape to the rock-fort in Tiruchirapalli. Chanda Sahib followed and with the help of the French, besieged Trichy. Muhammed Ali and the English force supporting him were in a grim position. Ensign
Robert Clive , (who had earlier joined the East India Company as a writer) with a small English force of 300 soldiers made a diversionary attack on Arcot to draw away Chanda Sahib’s army from Trichy. Chanda Sahib dispatched a 10,000 strong force under his son Raza Sahib to retake Arcot. Raza Sahib was aided by the Nellore Army and Yusuf Khan as a Subedar must have been in this force. At Arcot, and later at Kaveripakkam , Chanda Sahib’s son was badly defeated by Robert Clive, and it was now Chanda Sahib’s turn to escape to Tanjore where he was killed by Mankoji, a Tanjorean general. The English quickly installed Muhammed Ali as the Nawab of Arcot and most of Chanda Sahib ‘s native forces defected to the English.
Establishment of military career
Yusuf Khan’s military career started during the Carnatic Wars . Under Major
Stringer Lawrence , Yusuf Khan was trained in the European method of warfare and his natural talent in military tactics and strategy blossomed to its full potential. Over the next decade, as the Company fought the French in the Wars of the Carnatic, it was Yusuf Khan’s guerrilla tactics, repeatedly cutting the French lines of supply, that did the French in, particularly during Lally’s siege of Madras in 1758. Thomas Arthur Lally was to later describe the role of the Nellore Subedar’s sepoys in these words: “They were like flies, no sooner beat off from one part, they came from another.”
By 1760 Yusuf Khan had reached the zenith of his career as the ‘all-conquering’ military commandant. (A few years earlier he had been given the rank of ‘Commandant of Company’s sepoys’). His greatest supporter during this period was George Pigot , the English governor in Madras. Yusuf Khan was held in very high esteem even after his death by the English and in their opinion he was one of the two great military geniuses India had ever produced; the other being Hyder Ali of Mysore. Yusuf Khan was regarded for his strategy and Hyder Ali for his speed. Major General Sir. John Malcolm said of him almost a fifty years later,”Yusuf Khan was by far the bravest and ablest of all the native soldiers ever to serve the English in India”.
Control of Madurai
Going back to 1734, when the Madurai Nayak King Vijaya Ranga Chokkanatha Nayak died in 1731, he was succeeded by his widow, Queen Meenakshi, who acted as Queen-Regent on behalf of a young boy she had adopted as the heir of her dead husband. She had only ruled a year or two when an insurrection was raised against her by
Bangaru Thirumalai, the father of her adopted son, who pretended to have claims of his own to the throne of Madurai approached Safdar Ali Khan , the son of Dost Ali Khan , the Nawab of Arcot with a couple of millions, while the queen sought Chanda Sahib, Safdar Ali Khan’s brother-in-law.
At this time the Madurai Nayak ruler was a feudatory to the Mughal emperor in Delhi, whose local representative was the Nawab of Arcot, and an intermediate authority was held by the Nizam of Hyderabad, who was in theory the subordinate of the emperor, but the superior of the Nawab. The treacherous Chanda Sahib after extracting a huge amount from the queen humbled Vangaru Tirumala and later murdered him. After a few years Chanda Sahib breached the agreement with the queen and assumed control of Madurai, keeping the helpless Queen Meenakshi under house- arrest in the rock-fort at Trichy. The haples queen soon consumed poison. After the death of Chanda sahib in the last of the Carnatic wars, Madurai kingdom came under Mohammed Ali’s (the incumbent Nawab of Arcot) control, who in turn gave the tax collection rights of the whole Madura kingdom to the British, from whom he had borrowed huge sums of money.
Controversial wars with Palayakkars
During this time Yusuf Khan battled with Puli Thevar , a polygar of Nerkattumseval (Original Name was Nelkettaanseval), a small town to the south-west of Madurai. Puli Thevar was rebelling against the Nawab and the British. Yusuf Khan (marudhanayagam) quickly separated Travancore Raja from Puli Thevar’s group after entering into an agreement. Yusuf Khan captured several of Puli Thevar’s forts which were earlier tried unsuccessfully by the British. Later in a battle Puli Thevar was captured by Yusuf Khan, however Puli Thevar escaped in Sankarankovil (Is believed to be disappeared in Sankarankovil Gomathi Ambal Sanathi) where he was planned to be hanged. Puli Thevar remains a legend in the area and no further details about him is available.(Puli Thevan is today recognized by the Government of Tamil Nadu as a freedom fighter). Also during this time the Dutch captured the town of Alwartirunagari , to which Yusuf Khan retaliated by chasing them back to their ships anchored at Tuticorin.
Start of the dispute
Reports of Yusuf Khan’s brilliant victories now filled the Arcot Nawab with jealousy and alarm that he might depose him. Yusuf Khan by now instructed all the traders to render taxes directly to Yusuf Khan, while the Arcot Nawab wanted to have taxes routed through him. The British Governor (by now the British were good enough to have one) “Lord Pigot”, diplomatically advised Yusuf Khan to do as per Arcot Nawab’s order, also some British traders supported the same citing Yusuf Khan as Nawab’s employee. To make matters worse the Nawab’s brother Mahfuz Khan started planning to poison Yusuf Khan, with the whole hearted support of the Nawab.
In 1761, and again in 1762, he offered to lease Tinnevelly and Madura for four years more at seven lakhs per annum. His offer was refused, and whether he was enraged at this, or whether he thought himself powerful enough to defy his masters, he shortly afterwards threw off his allegiance and began to collect troops in an ambition to be the lord of Madurai.
Around this time some British traders reported (or rumored), to the Nawab and the Company, on Yusuf Khan” as encouraging people with anti-British sentiments, spending vast sums on his troops”.Nawab, in turn with the British sent Capt. Manson with orders to arrest Yusuf Khan.
Meanwhile Yusuf Khan sent a note to
Sivaganga Zamindari reminding them on their pending Tax arrears.
Sivaganga ’s Minister and General came to meet Yusuf Khan in Madurai, and after not getting their expected respect, got a rude warning, citing annexure of certain territories for the failure of arrears. The enraged Sivaganga Zamindar, immediately ordered Yusuf Khan to be “captured and hanged like a dog”. Meanwhile, Ramnad Zamin’s general Damodar Pillai and Thandavarayan Pillai met the Arcot Nawab in Trichy, complained on Yusuf Khan’s plunderings of Sivaganga villages, his cannon manufacturing plant in association with a certain French Marchaud, whom he befriended earlier, with plans for a war against the Nawabs.