India - Victor Surridge

How the British Fought the Pirates

On the 26th of December, in the year of grace 1715, a stout merchantman sailed gaily into Bombay harbour and dropped anchor amid the thunderous salute of guns and the loud cheering of the populace. Bombay had got a new Governor, and the valiant merchant-adventurers expected great things of him. Worthy Governor Boone was not the man to disappoint the people if he could help it. He straightway announced his intention of reducing the fierce pirates of Malabar. No more should British ships sail the seas in fear and trembling; henceforward they should be masters of the waves. And the townsmen who heard his words shouted "Huzza!" and waited for their Governor to carry out his promise.

From that day Bombay began to resound with the clanging of hammers and the rasping of saws; slowly and laboriously huge inchoate masses of timber and iron resolved themselves into the dim outlines of noble vessels. Governor Boone was building a fleet. For many months he watched their gradual progress with eyes lit up with fond paternal pride. At length all was finished, and within two years of the new Governor's arrival there sailed out of Bombay one of the strongest fleets the East India Company had ever set in eastern waters.

Nine brave ships of war, bearing such good English names as Britannia, Victory, Defiance, Revenge, Fame Galley, Hunter Galley, Hawk Galley, Eagle Galley, and the Princess Amelia, carried between them one thousand two hundred and fifty men and one hundred and forty-eight guns. Besides these there were a number of fireships and smaller vessels carrying the troops who were to attack the fortress by land. Of these two thousand five hundred were European soldiery, while one thousand five hundred were Sepoys, that is to say, native soldiers in the service of the Company.

On the 17th of April 1717 the fleet sighted the lofty turrets of Geriah, and the larger ships were told off to bombard the castle. But a serious difficulty awaited them. By no means whatsoever could the soldiers ascend the steep and slippery face of the frowning promontory. Any attempt at escalade was out of the question. So the troops were landed at some distance from the fortress, and marched to attack the shipping which lay within the harbour. Again disaster overtook them. When they had proceeded about half the distance they found themselves sinking knee-deep into the yielding soil. The spring-tides flowing over the sands had converted them into a treacherous quagmire. Further progress in this direction was impossible. Meanwhile, as the bewildered soldiers were floundering helplessly in the mud, a brisk cannonade was opened upon them from the town, spreading disaster and dismay through their already disorganised ranks.

Sadly and painfully the little company retreated to the ships, where a council of war was now held. It was found that the guns of the fleet made little or no impression upon the massive fortifications of the castle. There was nothing to do but to abandon the expedition, and, baffled and disconsolate, the fleet sailed back to Bombay. But no flying of bunting or firing of cannon hailed their arrival. Of the gallant little band who had sailed so valiantly out of the harbour but a few days before, two hundred had been committed to their last resting-place beneath the waves; three hundred others lay aboard seriously wounded. The survivors declared morosely that the fortress was impregnable, and that any attempt to capture it was merely a waste of money, ships and men. But wise-heads ashore shook their heads sagely, and it soon began to be whispered that bad management and inefficient officers might possibly explain the failure of the long-cherished project. Be it as it might, one thing was certain—the pirates had won the first round.

Governor Boone, However, was an obstinate man. He would sooner have died than admit defeat, and this first reverse only stirred him into fresh activity. Eighteen months later his fleet again put to sea, this time with the addition of two vessels, the Addison  and the Dartmouth, recently arrived from England. But their destination was not Geriah; that fortress was deemed unassailable. It was decided to direct the attack upon the island of Kaneray, which from its position just outside Bombay harbour was a serious menace to British shipping.

To the north, south and west Kaneray is bounded by steep walls of precipitous rock; to the eastwards, however, there is a fine sandy cove where the pirates were wont to anchor their vessels. Fronting this was a great castle, flanked by two grim bastions, one on either side of the cove. From each of these bastions six wicked-looking guns pointed threateningly sea-ward. It was clear that any boats attempting to effect a landing upon the flat-stretching sands could be sunk in a few seconds.

It was Guy Fawkes day when the fleet cast anchor off the tiny island, and each man aboard swore lustily that the pirates should be treated to a display of fireworks such as they had never before witnessed. For five days the frigates poured broadsides into the front works of the castle and the enemy's guns, which had belched forth at first, were one by one dismounted and reduced to impotent silence.

Then the British decided to land their men. But this proved no easy matter, and sixty brave sailors bit the dust before the first of the company succeeded in gaining the sands. "Forward, men," cried their leader, his cutlass glittering in the air, "the fort shall fall to-day!" But his words ended in a choking gurgle as he fell with a bullet through his lungs. Then a fierce rush was made uphill towards the castle walls. But the pirates were ready for them. Every loophole in the massive ramparts spat its deadly fire, and each discharge littered the ground with dead and dying soldiers.

Alas, that such actions must be chronicled! Two of the commanding officers now disgraced their flag by showing the white feather. Instead of leading their men resolutely up to the walls to storm, and maybe to carry, the position, they were the first to turn and flee. The storming party, lacking a leader, wavered and broke in confusion, and a wild stampede for the boats ensued. The contest was abandoned; the fleet returned to Bombay; and nearly a quarter of the men it had carried were left stiff and stark before the frowning battlements of Kaneray.

Need it be said that the pirate king was exceedingly jubilant when he heard of this disaster? He greatly increased his fortifications and defences, and from his impregnable rock uttered a proud defiance to all the world. Moreover, he received a welcome addition to his forces, for a number of Dutch and English pirates, who had been sweeping the Arabian seas until these waters became too hot to hold them, now hastened to enroll themselves under his flag. So instead of being weakened by all the assaults that had been made upon him, he found himself stronger than ever, and his daring exploits became daily more audacious and bloodthirsty.

What now of that staid body of merchants in London, in whose hands the direction of the East India Company was placed? They received the news of their servants' disastrous exploits with keen dismay. The Court of Directors did not care much for martial glory—save as a means of gaining dividends; but they recognised that stronger steps must be taken if they wished their ships to sail immune from piratical attacks. So they sent a deputation to the King, and unburdened themselves of all their grievances. Their manifest distress so aroused the royal compassion, that His Majesty graciously appointed a squadron of battleships to proceed to India to stamp out the notorious pirates. To Commodore (afterwards Admiral) Matthews fell the distinction of the chief command, and in the beginning of September 1721 he led his little fleet into Bombay harbour. There were only four vessels, it is true, but they were well manned, and carried one hundred and sixty guns between them, and hopes ran high that this time, at any rate, the British sailors would come off victorious.

To make assurance doubly sure, however, it was decided to invoke the aid of the Portuguese. Somewhat to the Englishmen's surprise this was at once forthcoming, and the Viceroy of Goa, the Portuguese General of the North, and all their troops drew up in martial array at Choul. Here they were joined by the British land forces, who. brought twenty-four fine field-pieces to assist in the assault. It was decided to attack the pirates in their stronghold at Allabeg (about forty-two miles south of Bombay), and towards Allabeg the combined armies marched.

Meanwhile the fleet, which now consisted of all the Company's vessels as well as the royal squadron, sailed southwards and entered Allabeg harbour. Misfortune, however, fell early upon them, for one of the largest ships went ashore en route  and sustained severe damage. The land army, now five thousand strong, drew up to the town with a great flourish of trumpets and encamped upon the sands. All was ready for the attack.

At this juncture the Viceroy of Goa began to repent the haste with which he had adventured his precious person into an atmosphere savouring of possible danger. He pretended to be seized with a sudden attack of sickness, and caused himself to be carried aboard one of the ships out of all harm's way. With a fine flow of generosity he declared that he did not wish the joy of the forthcoming combat to be delayed until his recovery, and prayed that the assault might be allowed to proceed. So the General of the North took his colleague's place at the head of the Portuguese army, and the allied troops boldly advanced towards the castle walls of Allabeg.

The besieged pirates offered a stubborn resistance, and a desperate fight took place. Scaling-ladders were raised against the walls, up which the troops courageously swarmed. Many were killed in the conflict, but at last it seemed as if the enemy were beginning to give way. A gallant little middy named Thomas Bellamy clambered up the defences, the colours flying in his hands, and succeeded in fixing them fast to the summit of the wall. At this moment the great gates of the castle swung suddenly apart, and Angria's hordes poured forth to the attack. With elephants and cavalry they flung themselves fiercely on their foes. Frightened at this unexpected development the General of the North sounded the retreat, and the Portuguese fell over each other in their efforts to escape the long glittering swords of their antagonists. The British, deserted by their allies, were cut to pieces and the greater part of their ammunition captured. Once again the pirates had triumphed, and the dashing attack upon the castle was converted into a miserable rout.

The baffled army assembled once more upon the sands, and proceeded to count their losses. Then an incident of a comic-opera nature occurred. Commodore Mathews, who had been surveying the contest through his telescope, came ashore in a terrible rage. White with fury and inarticulate with passion at what he considered the cowardice of the Portuguese, the bluff English sailor danced up to the General of the North. For a few moments he could only prance about and wildly gesticulate; then a happy thought struck him. Lifting his cane he thrust it into the haughty general's mouth. Thus only could he express in fitting terms his consuming wrath at the treachery of his ally!

And so the great expedition met with the fate of its predecessors. Small wonder then if the Europeans grew disheartened, and began to despair of ever ridding themselves of their dreaded enemy. Even the chance capture of one of Angria's warships a short time afterwards did not do much to relieve the general despondency, although they tried valiantly to persuade themselves that the tide of success was at last turning in their favour. As this was the first prize they had ever taken from the pirates, any enthusiasm they may have felt was to a great extent excusable. But Angria soon made amends by recapturing his vessel, together with several others belonging to the Company, and the spirits of the little factory at Bombay sank once more to zero.

In 1734 Connaji Angria died. But if the British thought that they would now be left in peace for a time, they were doomed to disappointment. Sambaji Angria, who succeeded his father, continued the sport with renewed zest. Albeit, in 1745 he too went the way of all flesh, and his brother reigned in his stead.

The new Angria was a fine figure of a man. So at least we are told by an English merchant who had on one occasion the doubtful pleasure of making his acquaintance. Tall and well built, with a fine olive complexion and fierce martial aspect, he looked every inch a pirate chief. Nor did he belie his appearance, for every vessel that came his way was ruthlessly set upon and plundered by his cut-throat band. Matters grew from bad to worse, and the European traders began again to meditate the feasibility of another attack upon Geriah. But when they thought of its immense strength and unassailable position, their ardour cooled and they would sigh despairingly for some deus ex machinâ  to place the doughty pirates at their mercy.

For Angria was at this time stronger than ever before. His strip of coast-line held many spacious ports, and the inhabitants of the district were glad to acclaim him as their king. An army of thirty thousand men defended his possessions, while his gunners and sea-officers were mostly skilled Europeans. Add to this a fleet of over sixty vessels, elephants, cannon, and small arms innumerable, and you have an approximate total of Angria's fighting forces.

But, as the old adage has it, pride is wont to precede the fall; and one of the causes of the pirate's overthrow was his insolent behaviour towards his old friend and aforetime ally, the Rajah. To this potentate the Angrias were in the custom of paying tribute as an acknowledgment of his former services. The new ruler, however, refused to pay, and when ambassadors were sent to claim the money, he slit their noses, and sent them back to their master with contemptuous messages. The Rajah was furious, and sought British aid to revenge himself upon his enemy.

That was in 1755; and about this time a squadron under the command of Admiral Watson put into Bombay harbour to refit and clean. As they had not very much to do, it was decided to embrace the opportunity to wipe off old scores against the pirates. So, promising to assist the Rajah by every means in their power, the British set to work to prepare for the expedition.

Shortly afterwards a strange vessel made its appearance off the pirate's stronghold. Angria surveyed it with amused interest. What innocent lamb was this that dared to venture so close to the wolf's lair? Presently his amusement gave way to astonishment. "Have all the crew lost their wits?" he muttered to himself as he brought his telescope to bear upon his mysterious visitor. Certainly the conduct of the vessel was not a little peculiar,—tacking about from side to side, heaving-to now and again, and altogether behaving in a curious and apparently aimless manner. After this had been going on for some little time the pirate became annoyed. He ordered two gallivats to be manned, and bade their commander tow the stranger into port. Gallivats, it may be mentioned, were vessels of seventy tons, each carrying from two hundred to three hundred men.

But as soon as the attacking force emerged from the harbour, the mysterious craft went about and scudded seaward under all sail. The pirates gave chase but had to return empty-handed. Angria's curiosity was piqued; he would have given a good deal to know the nature of his unbidden guest's business. Had he been told that Watson's trusty lieutenant, Sir William Hewett, was aboard, and that he had been spying out the land for the forthcoming expedition, it is probable that he would have cursed himself heartily for letting the ship escape so easily. As it was, Sir William returned to Bombay with a detailed chart in his possession which proved afterwards to be of incalculable utility.

On the 7th of February 1756, Admiral Watson hoisted his flag on the line-of-battle ship Kent  and led his squadron out of Bombay harbour. The force included three ships of the line, one vessel of fifty guns, another of forty-four, several armed vessels belonging to the Bombay Marine, and five "bomb ketches," and it carried over four hundred guns and nearly three thousand seamen. Besides these there was the land battalion, comprising seven hundred Europeans and six hundred Sepoys, commanded by the great and gallant Clive, who, although still a young man, had already achieved deeds which had set the world ringing with his name. These, however, must be left to another chapter.

For several days the squadron sailed southwards along the palm-covered Malabar coast. Then in a spacious creek a little to the north of Geriah they came upon their Maráthá allies. Between forty and fifty ships had been sent by the incensed Rajah to assist in the wiping out of his wrongs, while on shore a widespread city of canvas covered nearly ten thousand of his warriors.

Something like consternation reigned in the pirates' stronghold. Never before had such a mighty force been sent against them. Their fate was wavering in the balance. Angria left the fortress in his brother's charge and hastened to the Maráthás' tents, hoping to effect a compromise before it became too late. If, he thought, he could only bring about another reconciliation with his erstwhile friend, all might yet be well; their combined troops would together wipe out the British force. But the memory of the insults to his ambassadors still rankled deeply in the Rajah's heart; he rejected the pirate's overtures with scorn.

Storming of Geriah


Four days later the British ships arrived off Geriah, and next morning, in two parallel divisions, advanced to within fifty yards of the embattled rock. A wisp of smoke spurted from one of the bomb ketches, there was a heavy boom, and a shell went whizzing and shrieking towards the pirates' stronghold.

Soon all the British guns were in action; shot and shell rained furiously about the massive walls and turrets. The enemy replied with spirit, plying their cannon in no half-hearted fashion. In the middle of this fierce duel a sheet of flame was seen to shoot skywards from the harbour; a stray shell had set one of the pirate ships afire. The flames spread rapidly; ship after ship fell victim to the leaping tongues of fire, until at length the entire fleet was wrapped in a mantle of flame. In a few minutes nothing was left of the once-dreaded flotilla save a few blackened and dismasted hulks.

At four o'clock in the afternoon Admiral Watson gave the order to cease firing; but the enemy's cannonade, which had become desultory and spasmodic, was at once renewed with fresh vigour. So the guns from the ships boomed forth once more, and for two hours continued to riddle the defences with destructive fire. By six o'clock Angria's guns were silenced. Yet a flag of truce sent ashore in the expectation that the enemy would surrender, received as answer only a volley of musketry.

Three hours later Clive landed at the head of his men and stationed himself between the Maráthá army and the fortress, in order to prevent the Maráthás from plundering the castle when it should fall.

When morning dawned the white flag of surrender was seen to be flying from the smoke-stained turrets, and Clive marched to take possession. As they approached the fort the pirates' guns once more rang out, killing one man and wounding an officer. The British retreated to their former position, while the ships once more poured broadsides on the obstinate and treacherous foe.

For yet three hours the picturesque Malabar haven continued to resound with the dull, heavy booming of the guns. Then the pirates deemed they had had enough; their flag was hauled down for the last time from their castle towers. Never again should it float over such a desperate company of ruffians!

When the news of the surrender became known the Maráthás made a rush towards the castle, eager to strip it of the vast store of plunder believed to be concealed within its walls. But quick as they were, the British were before them. Drawing his sword and brandishing it above his head, Captain Forbes swore by his Maker to strike the Maráthá leader's head from his shoulders if he advanced one step farther towards the fort. Sulky and discontented, our allies gave way.

Cooped up in its dank and desolate dungeons when the British took possession of Geriah they found eight Englishmen, two Scotchmen, and three Dutchmen, who had fallen into the hands of the robbers. The booty captured was considerable. Elephants and cannon and vast piles of rupees awaited the pleasure of the victors.

And Angria? His reign was over; his Nemesis had overtaken him. But though he never fell into the hands of the British, he ceased from that day to trouble the Indian seas. It had taken long to destroy his power, many lives had been lost in the process, but the tardy retribution had at length fallen, and Angria and his famous Castle Geriah were together banished into the limbo of half-forgotten things.