Kannur [Cananor], Kerala, India

Military Architecture

Soon after his arrival in India, Viceroy Francisco de Almeida decided in 1505 to build a fortification, obtaining the connivance of the local king, the Kolathiri. The decision was due to growing tension with the Muslim community, one of the most important in Malabar. The site had good natural defence conditions, reducing the need for a major military deployment. Attack by sea was impossible, as the peninsula was surrounded by treacherous rocks. Landing was only possible in the bay, while the land front was very short. The fort was baptised Saint Angelo, precisely because it was by the water, like the castle in Rome. The arrangement was sketched out by the viceroy, who left the draft to Captain Lourenço de Brito. It consisted of a wall and ditch that isolated the peninsula from the mainland. The earth and stones gathered when the ditch was dug were used to build the wall, which was made by combining wood and other perishable elements with stone and lime. Materials from the dismantled Angediva Fortress were used, namely window frames originally from the home kingdom. By early 1506 work was well under way; there was a closed defence precinct and a tower keep. According to the chronicler Gaspar Correia, the perimeter had a square plan measuring just over 80 metres per side. At the end were four cubelo towers with an upper level. The two-storey tower keep was located in the centre of the patio. In 1507 the fort’s military capabilities were put to the test. The succession process in the local dynasty culminated with an heir less favourable to the Portuguese and more open to Muslim pressures. The siege was marked by clashes over the supply of water obtained from a well outside the fortification. A tunnel supported by stone arches was therefore built, overseen by the master builder Tomás Fernandes. Before the besiegers were defeated the palm trees next to the fort were cut down to improve artillery coverage. In 1514 the maintenance of the tower keep was already problematic. It was built of stone ashlars and clay and its location was not suited for defending the port. Afonso de Albuquerque then suggested that it should be rebuilt in stone and lime in the corner of the fortress contiguous to the quay. But the same structural problems still occurred five years later, causing it to be abandoned. In 1520 Captain Aires da Gama began work on the plan outlined by Albuquerque, also digging a cistern and wells and installing a large lime kiln for the ongoing work overseen by master Pêro Álvares. Kannur’s defence system then comprised three distinct spaces. To the north was a void between the fortress proper and the exterior ditch and wall, a site of future urban development. Those structures included a thick wall with embrasures and two towers at the ends, and a trough about seven metres wide. The second space was the fortress dominated by the enormous tower keep, with balcony resting on corbels on the side facing south and at the vertices. Standing against the tower was the captain’s residence, along with other small single-storey houses. The tower was located in the northern corner of a precinct bounded by walls that were not very thick. A more robust composition with raised adarve patrol path and high-profile battlements only existed in the sector facing the land. Opposite the keep was a polygonal casemated tower with embrasures on the lower level, whose dating is uncertain. The west end of the peninsula was the fortified area’s ultimate space. Initially it had no built defence works. The emergence of Ottoman power led to the fortress being repaired in 1526. This project included building two bastions in the exterior curtain wall and shoring up the ditch, redoing the weaker constructions in stone and mortar. The wall drawn by Correia around the western part of the point may date from that time. These initiatives were detailed in the chronicler’s drawings, which emphasise the ultra-semicircular format of those bastions – low, thick and endowed with gun embrasures – representing a more evolved stage in the art of fortification in the first half of the 1500s. These efforts thoroughly reformed the external defence structure of the military apparatus, whose essential strength was focused there from then on. This defence system was maintained almost unchanged. In 1635 António Barreto confirmed that its perimeter measured just over 560 metres, adding that the fort had “very imperfect walls”, totally collapsed on the side facing the sea. The deterioration had begun in the late 1500s; in 1613 it was said that “it is so damaged that it has no defence” or even that “it’s almost on the ground”. Its abandonment was considered that year, given the costs of rebuilding and the lack of a good port or river to shelter fleets. But the fort continued to fulfil its function, as during the Muslim attack in 1617. The repair work determined by the king was only implemented in 1620, overseen by the engineer Júlio Simão, who rebuilt the central bastion on the land side. The most important bastion continued to be the one bordering the bay, called the couraça because it led to a landing, with a view to defending the gate and limiting the Moorish bazaar. According to António Bocarro, in 1635 the bay front was still protected by other defence works. Besides the fortress, the Portuguese also counted the “outer stockades”, a curtain enclosing the adjacent area. In 1558 these were deemed old, as they were composed of “very weak rammed-earth works, with some scaffolding and bartizans”. In 1635 their perimeter measured about 1,500 metres long and four high, with many bastions and bartizans. Occasional repairs undertaken in the 1630s were only a palliative. In 1663 the fort was deemed impossible to defend in the face of the Dutch and Muslim threat, as it had “very old and weak walls” and a “blocked-up ditch”, “all very old work”. The oldest core of Portuguese Cananor disappeared after the Dutch conquest. The latter focused on shoring up the land front, making use of the ditch and replacing the existing structures with two powerful and opposing angular bastions. They also rebuilt some of the walls around the peninsula.

André Teixeira