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.
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.