ATTACK ON GHERIA, 1756

On 12 February 1756, a British naval squadron under Rear-Admiral 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.

By 1750 events in the Carnatic, including the loss and restitution of Madras and the extraordinary exploits of Clive, had long since upstaged the ‘Angrian’ wars; and with the Company now transformed into the most effective military and territorial power on the Indian peninsula, it was only a matter of time before arrangements could be made to deal with ‘pirates’.

Tulaji, unlike Kanhoji, could expect no support from his Maratha suzerain whose envoys he had sent back with their noses out of joint – literally – plus a message that if the Peshwa wanted to talk he must address himself to what Surgeon Ives delicately describes as ‘Tulaji’s pr—te p-rts’. Indeed by 1754 Tulaji was actually at war with the Peshwa. An Anglo-Maratha alliance was the natural outcome and accordingly, as soon as peace was restored in the Carnatic, a joint offensive was planned against Suvarnadrug and Gheriah. There could, of course, be no question of storming such ‘impregnable’ strongholds. Siege tactics were the answer. The English fleet would blockade them from the sea and the Maratha army invest them from the land. Eventually the ‘pirates’ would be forced to treat.

In command of the Bombay Marine at the time was Commodore William James. Like Jenkins, and in marked contrast to the assorted factors and merchants who had mismanaged Boone’s operations, James had been recruited into the Company’s service after seeing action in the West Indies. He was a highly experienced and professional sailor and he commanded a frigate, the Protector, specially built in England, whose forty-gun firepower and lack of hold space made her a true warship. Additionally the locally built ‘grabs’, fireships and even ‘Phrams’ had lately been much improved. For in 1738 the great Parsee shipbuilder, Lowji Wadia, had been persuaded to remove his business from Surat to Bombay. There he set up the first shipyard and provided the Bombay Marine with extensive dry dock and refitting facilities. James may have commanded fewer vessels than many of his predecessors but all were built for war rather than trade, well officered and amply supplied with powder and shot.

Additionally, another Royal squadron was supposedly on its way from Madras. Admiral Watson, the commander, needed the use of the new dockyards to careen his fleet and he was also in search of gainful employment now that hostilities with the French were temporarily suspended. But as the 1755 monsoon approached, Watson made first for the Dutch port of Trinconomalee in Sri Lanka. James despaired of his arrival before the end of the year and resolved to make a start without him. The Marathas also were ready; the target was to be Suvarnadrug.

While the Maratha troops moved into position, James’s fleet of only four ships put to flight Tulaji’s ‘grabs’. Returning to his station outside the harbour, the Commodore then assessed the Maratha positions. It would take his allies weeks, he decided, if not months, to take the place by conventional siege tactics. But the monsoon was imminent and patience had never been one of his virtues; neither had caution. On 2 April 1755, heedless of a danger that would have had two generations of Bombay mariners turning in their graves, he sailed straight into the lions’ den.

On the map Suvarnadrug is a mere nick in the Konkan coastline. It was in fact a commodious if shallow inlet, ringed by hills and with a rocky island in its midst. The island was about a quarter of a mile from the shore and on it stood the main fort, some of whose bastions and parapets consisted of natural rock. Three further forts, on which the Marathas were already concentrating their attention, commanded the bay from the surrounding hills. Biddulph, whose description makes the place sound much like Navarone, puts the total of enemy guns at 134. Against them would be ranged the Protector’s forty cannon and whatever armaments were carried by the two bomb ketches which accompanied her into the bay.

James was especially anxious about running aground and so spent the first day cannonading the fort from the seaward (western) side. ‘Eight hundred shot and shell’ were expended at a range of less than one hundred yards and, according to a deserter who came over to the English that night, fearful casualties had resulted. But the same informant advised that there was no chance of causing a breach on that side; the walls there were solid rock eighteen feet thick.

Next day James determined to try his luck on the other, eastern, side – between the main fort and the three lesser forts on the mainland. Soundings taken during the night suggested that at low tide the Protector should still have just a foot of water under her keel. Accordingly she stood in at dawn and, sandwiched between the island and the shore, was soon briskly engaged on both sides. ‘It would be difficult’, writes Biddulph, ‘to find a parallel to this instance of a single ship and two bomb ketches successfully engaging four forts at once that far outnumbered them in guns.’ As with The Phram at Gheriah, there was an additional complication in that only the upper of the Protector’s two tiers of guns had the elevation to be brought to bear on the fort’s parapets. On the other hand, so closely did the ship approach them that small-arms fire from her rigging drove the defenders from their guns.

At noon a shell set light to a storehouse within the walls. More musket fire from the Protector’s sharp-shooters kept the garrison from dousing it and eventually the whole place was engulfed in flames as the main magazines blew up. That evening and well into the night the enemy began to withdraw, coming off in small boats which were quickly intercepted by a frigate left at the mouth of the bay. Early next morning all four forts surrendered. Thus, writes Robert Orme, chronicler of the Company’s martial exploits, ‘the spirited resolution of Commodore James destroyed the timorous prejudices which had for twenty years [actually thirty] been entertained of the impracticability of reducing any of Angria’s fortified harbours’.

Returning to a hero’s welcome in Bombay, James accepted en route the surrender of another of ‘Angria’s fortified harbours’ while the Maratha land forces continued the good work until the end of the year. By the time the long-awaited squadron from Madras arrived on the scene, it was all over bar the coup de grâce – the capture of Gheriah.

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.

James’s was less but, along with other windfalls, enough to enable him to buy a stately farm in then rural Eltham on the outskirts of London. For someone who is said to have started out in life as a Welsh ploughman it was a fabulous reward. The hero of Suvarnadrug retired there in 1759, was awarded a baronetcy, made a director of the Company and eventually its chairman. He died in 1783, supposedly of apoplexy after reading Fox’s India Bill which he rightly saw as a parliamentary nail in the Company’s coffin. In his memory his wife erected a fanciful replica of the scene of his greatest triumph. Known as Severndroog Castle it still stands on Shooters Hill in south-east London, a castellated curiosity some sixty feet high bearing no conceivable likeness to the original.

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