Gheria 1756

On 12 February 1756, a British naval squadron under RearAdmiral Charles Watson demanded the surrender of Gheria, a stronghold on the west coast of India of the Angrias, a Maratha family whose fleet was a factor in local politics and had been used for privateering attacks on European merchantmen. When the Indians opened fire, Watson `began such a fire upon them, as I believe they never before saw, and soon silenced their batteries, and the fire from their grabs [ships]’. The five-hour bombardment also led to the destruction of Tulaji Angria’s fleet, which was set ablaze with shells. The next day, the British warships closed in to bombard the fort at pistol-shot distance in order to make a breach in the wall for storming and this breach swiftly led to its surrender. Watson noted that `the hulls, masts and rigging of the [British] ships are so little damaged, that if there was a necessity we should be able to proceed to sea in twenty-four hours’. Attacks in 1718 and 1720 had failed. In 1756, Watson co-operated with Robert Clive and with Maratha troops.

The storming of Gheriah would have a faintly ritualistic air. Such were the overwhelming forces at the Company’s disposal on this occasion that the outcome can never have been in doubt. It was a set piece in which the attackers agonized more over the division of the spoils than over tactical niceties. With ample time for reconnaissance, Commodore William James in command of the Bombay Marine, had volunteered to make a survey; and after another typically bold foray right into the pirates’ nest he had reported favourably on the prospects. In fact he was ‘exceedingly surprised’ to find Gheriah nothing like as formidable as it had been painted. ‘I can assure you it is not to be called high nor, in my opinion, strong’ – an opinion amply substantiated by drawings of the place made after its capture. It was big and, like Colaba, impressively sited on the end of a promontory. But there was nothing to prevent warships getting within point-blank range nor to prevent troops from landing nearby and setting up their batteries on a hill that commanded the whole position.

This last consideration was of interest in that, besides the Royal squadron with its two admirals and its six warships mounting some 300 guns, and besides the Company’s ten somewhat smaller vessels, and not to mention the Maratha contingents both naval and military, the action was to be graced with the presence of three companies of the King’s artillery, 700 men in all, plus a like number of Indian sepoys, all under the command of the then Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Clive.

Clive’s presence at Gheriah was incidental and, in the event, not particularly decisive. He and his troops had arrived in Bombay en route to some unfinished business with the French in the Deccan. That expedition was cancelled at the last minute as a result of the Anglo-French peace. And so Clive had indented for a slice of the action – and of the spoils – at Gheriah. What these spoils might amount to was uncertain but surely considerable. It was known that the contents of most of Tulaji’s prizes, including the treasure-rich Derby, had been taken to Gheriah. It was there that he kept his family and his prisoners – mostly English and Dutch; and where a pirate kept such valued possessions, there too would be his treasure.

Before setting out from Bombay, Admiral Watson summoned a meeting of the English commanders to thrash out the question of prize money. A scale was agreed on by which Watson himself would receive a twelfth of the proceeds, his rear-admiral half that, Clive and the captains of the Royal ships rather less, and James and the captains of the Company’s ships less still. It would appear that James and his commanders accepted the subordinate role that this arrangement implied. But Clive did not, demanding for himself parity with the rear-admiral. To resolve the argument Watson offered to make good the difference out of his own share. As he would put it to Clive in Bengal at the next division of the spoils, ‘money is what I despise, and accumulating riches is what I did not come here for’. But Clive, we are told, then refused to accept the Admiral’s money. ‘Thus did these two gallant officers endeavour to outvie each other in mutual proofs of disinterestedness and generosity’, wrote Ives in a footnote that was doubtless designed to deflect some of the criticism which would dog Clive’s every triumph.

Obviously if these arrangements were to be honoured, it was a matter of some consequence that the English and not their Maratha allies should actually take Gheriah. By mid-February 1756, when the armada finally arrived on station, they knew that Tulaji was already negotiating with the Maratha commander; they trusted their ally no more than the enemy, and clearly time was running out. When a first formal demand for the surrender of the fort was answered with procrastinating tactics, Watson realized that to be certain of their reward they would have to earn it. He ignored the possibility of a peaceful handover and gave the order for the fleet to move in.

The English entered the harbour in two columns, five great battleships plus the Company’s Protector forming an inner ring round the fort while the nine assorted ‘grabs’, sloops and ketches went round the outside to reach the enemy fleet as it lay penned upriver. Naturally the first shot is said to have come from the fort. It was repaid with compound interest as one after another the broadsides were brought to bear. Just over two hours later the entire ‘Angrian’ fleet was ablaze and the guns of the fort silenced. Briefly they ‘briskened their fire’ once again; then they fell silent for good.

That night Clive took his men ashore to set up their batteries while the bomb ketches continued to pour their shells into the fort. In the morning the bombardment was taken up both from the land and from the line of battleships. There was no answering fire, the object now being simply to effect a breach or cause such slaughter as would persuade the garrison to surrender. This they did in the course of the afternoon; by six o’clock the English colours were fluttering atop the smoking ruins. Nineteen men of the attacking force had been killed or wounded; of the carnage amongst the defenders there is no record.

Next day the victorious English got down to the serious business – plunder. According to Ives, who was Admiral Watson’s personal surgeon, they ‘found 250 pieces of cannon, six mortars, an immense quantity of stores and ammunition, one hundred thousand pounds sterling in silver rupees and about thirty thousand more in valuable effects’. It was less than expected but sufficient for several small fortunes, Watson’s share being about £10,000 and Clive’s about £5,000.

A painted scroll depicting different types of ships of the Marathan Navy including some captured English ships.

The Pirates of Malabar

The ransoming of the Colaba prisoners was part of a wider non-aggression pact signed between Kanhoji and the Company in 1713. Under its terms the Marathas agreed not to molest ships belonging to the Company and not to interfere with any shipping in Bombay harbour. In return the Company undertook to see that only ships ‘what belong to subjects of the English nation’ should fly the Company’s colours. Peace of a sort was restored. But it was this latter definition of English shipping which would provide a new bone of contention. Just as in Bengal the Company’s servants persistently abused the privileges of the 1717 farman by granting custom-free passes (dastak) to anyone, English or Indian, who would pay for them, so in Bombay they abused the agreement with Kanhoji by interpreting the term ‘English shipping’ as denoting not ownership of the vessel but ownership of its cargo. Thus any vessel, whether owned by the Company, a private English trader or an Indian trader, was deemed a Company ship if it carried a consignment belonging to the English or any of those living under their protection.

Needless to say, this was not how Kanhoji understood the matter. In 1716 recriminations flew between the ‘pirate’ and Bombay over the capture of four Indian vessels which supposedly carried English-owned cargoes. In 1717 the richly laden Success belonging to the Company’s Indian broker at Surat was taken and another ship, belonging to the Company itself, was relieved of part of its cargo. Again Kanhoji seemed willing to discuss reparations; but Bombay under Charles Boone, its new and vigorous Governor, was not. Boone had made the suppression of ‘piracy’ his personal crusade; £50,000 a year was being spent on building up the Bombay Marine; the Company’s own fleet of ‘grabs’ and ‘gallivats’ was coming off the stocks at Surat and elsewhere; and Bombay itself was being readied for war with the construction of the first city wall. Repeated requests for troops were sent to Madras and Calcutta, and from England as many as 500 recruits arrived in Bombay in a single year.

‘Let the bottom [i.e. the vessel] be whose it will’, wrote Boone to Kanhoji in protest at the latest prize-taking, ‘the money lent on it is worth more than the ship and the goods are English, you well know.’ But Kanhoji could not accept this logic. Today the English governor might be chartering only a single ship ‘but tomorrow Your Excellency will say that you have a mind to freight fifty or a hundred ships of Surat merchants. If so, what occasion have they to take the pass (dastak) that they formerly took of me?’ And whence, then, was the Maratha admiral to derive his revenue? But the Bombay Council was unmoved and in 1718 Boone resolved to hit back hard. When one of Kanhoji’s ‘gallivats’ was taken while peacefully going about its business in Bombay harbour, it was the end of the truce. ‘From this day forward’, wrote the Maratha, ‘what God gives, I shall take.’ It was no idle threat.

First, though, it was Boone who took the offensive with a raid on the Maratha fleet as it was being laid up for the monsoon in a sheltered inlet behind Gheriah (Vijayadrug), the most impressive of Kanhoji’s strongholds. So formidable were the rocky cliffs of Gheriah that an English historian would liken the place to Gibraltar. Not to be outdone, an Indian historian (writing in the first heady days of India’s independence) describes Boone’s surprise attack as ‘Pearl Harbor two centuries before its time’. There was, though, one difference. In spite of a motley armada and some 4000 troops, Boone’s raid was a total failure.

Downing, whose claim to have taken part has since been discredited, reports that the considerable firepower of the Company’s ships made little impression on the fort, whose rocks were too slippery for a landing and whose walls were too high for the scaling ladders. ‘We soon found that the place was impregnable.’ A simple boom across the river prevented the Company’s fireships, including one hopefully named the Terrible Bomb, from reaching the Maratha navy; and when a landing party was sent to deal with this obstacle it first blundered into a swamp and was then raked by fire from the fort. The only mystery was why the Marathas did not take greater advantage of the situation. Downing’s explanation, though scarcely consoling, probably contained much truth. ‘I question’. he wrote, ‘whether there were a hundred men in the castle during the siege.’ After four days the ‘siege’ was lifted and the Company’s armada returned to Bombay.

Undismayed, Boone used the closed season of the 1718 monsoon to plan a second assault, this time on Khanderi, an island only ten miles down the coast from Bombay itself. Again the fleet was packed with more than enough troops to carry the place, again a landing was effected, and again through sheer incompetence aborted. When Kanhoji himself appeared on the scene at the head of his fleet and threatened Bombay, the Company’s ships quickly scuttled back to the protection of the big guns of Bombay castle.

‘This ill-success was a great trouble to the President [Boone]’ noted Downing. In 1719 no new attack was mounted and there was even talk of peace. But as Kanhoji’s confidence had grown, so had Boone’s bulldog spirit. ‘He now did all in his power to suppress this notorious pyrate’, building in addition to more ships ‘a great and mighty floating machine’. Called The Phram, this contraption seems to have been half raft, half castle, ‘pretty flat’ with a draft of only six feet, and a single mast and topsail. But what impressed Downing was the thickness of its sides ‘made by the nicest composition cannon-proof’ and its twelve monstrous guns each of which fired a forty-eight pound cannon-ball. (Twenty-four pounders were the largest guns then favoured by the Bombay Marine.) ‘It must of course prove of great service to us against any of those castles which we could approach near enough to cannonade.’

With just such a demonstration in mind, Boone launched a second assault on Gheriah in 1721. As in 1718 the landing parties effected nothing. But great were the expectations of The Phram. It was manoeuvred into position, the massive gun carriages were wheeled to the ports, the charges laid and the fuses lit: With an almighty splash the great shells fell into the sea rather less than a stone’s throw from the vessel. Someone had miscalculated the angle of fire; either the carriages were too high or the ports too low. The Phram was withdrawn for modification.

By the time it was ready for further trials, word had got round the fleet that those armour-plated sides were not much use either; once again insufficient allowance had been made for the elevation of the ‘Indian Gibraltar’. If The Phram discharged its guns from a distance, its murderous missiles were more of a danger to the waiting landing parties than to the fort, but if it moved into a more effective range the guns of the fort could lob their own shells onto its flat and crowded decks. Both expedients were tried and, amidst heavy casualties, both failed. It was thought that two of Kanhoji’s ‘grabs’ had caught fire as a result of a separate bombardment and with this very doubtful claim to ‘victory’ the English fleet withdrew.

Meanwhile more merchant shipping was falling into Maratha hands. The trade of beleaguered Bombay was suffering and in a bid to end piracy once and for all the Company’s directors in London applied for the assistance of the Royal Navy. With great ceremony a squadron was duly dispatched to the Indian Ocean in 1721, ostensibly to root out those Anglo-American buccaneers still operating out of Madagascar but additionally, and perhaps primarily, to take on Kanhoji Angrey. By now it was painfully obvious that the Company’s ‘sentinels’ made indifferent storm-troopers even when primed with copious liquor and fired by the promise of cash bonuses. Similarly their counting-house masters made dismal admirals. It was time for the professionals to try their hand.

Commodore Matthews in charge of the Royal squadron reached Bombay in 1722 to a welcome soon noted for its acrimony. In a rerun of the quarrels between the Old Company and Ambassador William Norris – the last occasion on which Royal ships had visited India – Matthews claimed precedence by virtue of his commission and was soon planning a series of voyages designed to ensure for himself a handsome share of the Company’s profits. He seemed bent on discrediting the Company and, worse still, he completely repudiated the Company’s contention that any ship carrying an English consignment was entitled to fly English colours, thus in effect supporting Kanhoji’s case. Governor Boone, however, was resolved on one last, all-out offensive. His term of office was drawing to a close; he had just engineered an offensive alliance against the Maratha admiral with the Portuguese; and he desperately needed Matthews’s cooperation. Swallowing his pride, he deferred to the Commodore and set about planning the downfall of Colaba.

Unlike previous attacks, that on Colaba was waged from the land, an odd choice given the importance attached to the presence of Matthews’s squadron. With a combined strength of 6,500 plus an artillery train, the Anglo-Portuguese forces surrounded Kanhoji’s stronghold while the English fleet prevented any relief reaching it from the sea. In spite of the unexpected appearance of a Maratha detachment of horse and foot, the arrangements were more than adequate for the task in hand.

But once again the affair was woefully mismanaged. Without waiting to set up their batteries, and leaving the Portuguese to deal with the Maratha detachment, the English charged the fortress. The gates held, the English ladders were too short, and casualties were heavy. Meanwhile the Portuguese had been routed by the Marathas who now threatened to cut off the English attackers. A chaotic retreat ensued. Had the Marathas followed up their advantage it would have been the worst ever defeat for English arms in India. Matthews’s squadron had contributed nothing except 200 marines lent to the land forces; compared to the conduct of the Company’s reluctant sentinels, their bravery had been conspicuous.

Immediately after this fourth failure Boone sailed for home while Matthews took his squadron on a trading venture to Surat and Bengal. Ever open to anything that might discredit the Company, in Calcutta the Commodore was approached by a distraught but still pretty widow who was being detained in India pending payment of £9000 from her late husband’s estate. Matthews listened to her long and heart-rending story with interest; and convinced that no one who heard it could fail to condemn the Company’s ingratitude, he promptly took the young lady under his wing and into his cabin. She was, of course, none other than Mrs Katherine Gyfford, previously Harvey and Chown, née Cooke, lately of Karwar, Colaba, and Anjengo. Together the Commodore and the widow sailed back to Bombay, where old acquaintances were duly scandalized by Mrs Gyfford’s new liaison, and then to England. Years of litigation over the tangled affairs of Anjengo followed, their outcome unknown. But evidently Mrs Gyfford returned to India for she died in Madras in 1745.