Many of those of us who grew up in the United States studied the British East India Company in school, but what we learned was only part of the story. The truth, for the Indian people, was that the East India Company represented an oppressive force, colonialism, and the taking of freedom.
The first Indian to begin an armed rebellion against the British East India Company was Kittur Rani Chennamma. A woman.
Rani Chennamma was born in the small village of Kakati on October 23, 1778. From a young age she was trained in horseback riding, sword fighting, and archery. She rose to be Queen of Kittur in Karnataka, southern India, and married Raja Mallasarja.
Rani Chennamma and the Raja had one son, who died in 1824. Following the death of her son, Rani Chennamma adopted a son named Shivalingappa, and named him heir to her throne.
The British East India Company refused to acknowledge Shivalingappa’s legitimacy as Rani Chennamma’s heir and exiled him, using a policy stating their complete authority over all things political in India, but Chennamma defied the order. She sent a letter of protest to the British leadership in Bombay, requesting a reinstatement of her adopted son, but she was refused, leaving her without an heir.
In response to Rani Chennamma’s perceived rebellion against the East India Company, the British attempted to confiscate the treasure and jewels of Kittur, which we can value today at around 1.5 million rupees. The British attacked Kittur with a force of 20,000 men and 400 guns.
At the start of the war, in October 1824, Rani Chennamma’s forces prevailed and the British took heavy losses. One of their leaders, John Thackeray, was killed and two British officers were taken as hostages.
A deal was made, and Rani Chennamma released the hostages under a truce with the British that stated that the war would end. But the British continued the war with even more soldiers. Chennamma fought fiercely, but was captured and taken prisoner. She was brought to the fort at Bailhongal, where she died after five years of captivity on February 21, 1829.
Rani Chennamma grew to become a legend in India. During the freedom movement, her resistance to the British became the subject of plays, folk songs, and stories.
A prestigious girls’ school was founded in honor of her, with a mission statement that includes the goal to “impart sound learning for girls…in a social context where the cause of women was totally neglected.”
On September 11, 2007, a statue of Kittur Rani Chennamma was erected at the Parliamentary Building in New Delhi. The statue was unveiled by Pratibha Patil, the first woman President of India.