The Pirates of Malabar

Chapter III: The Rise of Conajee Angria
Native piracy hereditary on the Malabar coast-- Marco Polo's account-- Fryer's narrative-- The Kempsant-- Arab and Sanganian pirates-- Attack on the President-- Loss of the Josiah-- Attack on the Phoenix-- The Thomas captured-- Depredations of the Gulf pirates-- Directors' views-- Conajee Angria-- Attacks English ships-- Destroys the Bombay-- Fortifies Kennery-- Becomes independent-- Captures the Governor's yacht-- Attacks the Somers and Grantham-- Makes peace with Bombay-- His navy-- Great increase of European and native piracy

Europeans were not the only offenders. The Delhi Emperor, who claimed universal dominion on land, made no pretension to authority at sea. So long as the Mocha fleet did not suffer, merchants were left to take care of themselves. There was no policing of the sea, and every trader had to rely on his own efforts for protection. The people of the Malabar coast were left to pursue their hereditary vocation of piracy unmolested. The Greek author of the "Periplus of the Erythraean Sea," who wrote in the first century of our era, mentions the pirates infesting the coast between Bombay and Goa.

Two hundred years before Vasco da Gama had shown the way to India by sea, Marco Polo had told Europe of the Malabar pirates.

    "And you must know that from this Kingdom of Melibar, and from another near it called Gozurat, there go forth every year more than a hundred corsair vessels on cruize. These pirates take with them their     wives and children, and stay out the whole summer. Their method is to join in fleets of 20 or 30 of these pirate vessels together, and then they form what they call a sea cordon, that is, they drop off till there is an interval of 5 or 6 miles between ship and ship, so that they cover something like a hundred miles of sea, and no merchant ship can escape them. For when any one corsair sights a vessel a signal is made by fire or smoke, and then the whole of them make for this, and seize the merchants and plunder them. After they have plundered they let them go, saying, 'Go along with you and get more gain, and that mayhap will fall to us also!' But now the merchants are aware of this, and go so well manned and armed, and with such great ships, that they don't fear the corsairs. Still mishaps do befal them at times."/1/

From the Persian Gulf to Cape Comorin the whole coast was beset by native pirates, and with the rise of the Mahratta power, the evil increased. Petty chiefs sometimes levied blackmail by giving passports to those who would pay for them, claiming the right to plunder all ships that did not carry their passes; but often the formality was dispensed with. Owing to the paucity of records of the early days, and the more serious hostility of the Portuguese and Dutch, we hear little of the losses sustained from native pirates, except when some ship with a more valuable cargo than usual was captured.

Fryer tells us how, in his day, a rock off Mangalore was known as Sacrifice Island, "in remembrance of a bloody butchery on some English by the pirate Malabars." He further tells us how, in 1674, between Goa and Vingorla, he took part in an attack on a pirate ship that they came on as it was plundering a prize it had just taken, while the Dutch watched the engagement from the shore.

    "We soon made him yield his prize to engage with us, which they did briskly for two hours, striving to board us, casting stink-pots among us, which broke without any execution, but so frightened our rowers, that we were forced to be severe to restrain them. They plied their chambers and small shot, and slung stones, flourishing their targets and darting long lances. They were well manned in a boat ten times as big as our barge, and at least sixty fighting men besides rowers. We had none to manage our small gun" (the gunner having deserted at Goa).
However, the pirates were beaten off, and Fryer and his companions were mightily praised by the Dutch. These pirates hailed probably from Vingorla, where the Sawunt Waree chief, known in those days as the 'Kempsant,'/2/ carried on a brisk piratical trade. The name was a corruption of Khem Sawunt, a common name of the Vingorla chiefs; the Portuguese changed it into Quemar Santo, 'the saint burner,' on account of his sacrilegious treatment of their churches.

There were no more determined pirates than the Arabs of Muscat and the Sanganians of Beyt and Dwarka, who between them intercepted the trade of the Persian Gulf, while the Coolee rovers of Guzarat took their toll of the plunder. In 1683 the Company's ship President was attacked by the Muscat Arabs with two ships and four grabs, and fought a gallant action. The grabs/3/ were generally two-masted ships, from one hundred and fifty to three hundred tons burden, built to draw very little water, and excellent sailers, especially in the light winds prevalent on the Western coast. They had no bowsprit, but the main-deck was continued into a long overhanging prow. The favourite mode of using them was for two or three of them to run aboard their victim at the same time, and attack, sword in hand, along the prow. Being built for fighting and not for trade, they could sail round the clumsy merchantmen that hailed from the Thames; and if pressed, could find safety in the shallow bays and mouths of rivers along the coast. Three grabs grappled the President at once, but the boarders were beaten back, and all three were blown up and sunk, on which the rest of the squadron made off. The President was set on fire in sixteen places, and lost eleven men killed and thirty-three wounded.

In the following year the Josiah ketch was attacked by the Sanganians while at anchor, and in the heat of the engagement blew up. A few of the crew saved themselves in a skiff, but the greater number perished, among them the commander, Lieutenant Pitts, whose father was known in Bombay as 'the drunken lieutenant.'

In September 1685, the Phoenix, a British man-of-war that had been sent for a two years' cruise in Indian waters, was attacked by a Sanganian vessel that mistook her for a merchantman. It was almost a calm, and Captain Tyrrell hoisted out his boats to capture the Sanganian ship, but they were beaten off, so he sunk her with a couple of broadsides. Forty-one of the pirates were picked up, but many of them refused quarter, and one hundred and seven were killed or drowned. The Phoenix had three men killed, one wounded, and two drowned. According to Hamilton, Sir George Byng, the first lieutenant, was dangerously wounded; but the log of the Phoenix is silent on that point, though it gives the names of the casualties.

Three years later, the Thomas, Captain Lavender, was less fortunate. Attacked by four Beyt ships, after a brave resistance, the Thomas took fire, and all on board perished. Their depredations were not confined to the sea. In 1697 some Beyt pirates landed and plundered a village within sight of Broach.

But the losses occasioned by native pirates were at first nearly lost sight of in the more serious losses occasioned by European corsairs.

    "As for those Sanganians and those Mallabars and professed pirates," wrote the Directors in 1699, "we see no cause why you should not wage an offensive as well as a defensive war against them when they fall in your way: but it is hardly worth the while to keep small vessels to look after them, for they are poor rogues and nothing to be got of them to answer any charge."

In 1707, the year of Aurungzeeb's death, the pirates of the Persian Gulf made a great haul of plunder. A squadron of them made their way to the Red Sea, waylaid the Mocha fleet, and returned home laden with booty. In the following year, a squadron of fourteen Arab ships from the Gulf, carrying from thirty to fifty guns, and with seven thousand men on board, appeared on the Malabar coast and surprised Honore, Mangalore, and Balasore(?); but the people, having lately been plundered by the Seedee, were ready with their arms, and beat them off with the loss of four or five hundred men.

"The Arab insolencies are often in the thoughts of the Court," wrote the London directors, "but the Court fears they shall not be able to do anything effectually to check their growing strength during the present war, which finds employment for all our naval force. Further, the Court sympathizes with Madras on their severe losses by the pirates, which puts a damp on the Company's trade, and affects their revenues."

Annoying as were the losses that were suffered from the chronic depredations of the Arabs and Sanganians, they sank into insignificance when compared with the troubles experienced on the rise to power of Conajee (Kanhojee) Angria. The growth of the Mahratta power under Sivajee had been accompanied by the formation of a formidable fleet which harried the coast of the Concan, and against which the Seedee chief, the Emperor's representative afloat, could hardly maintain himself. In 1698 Conajee Angria succeeded to the command of the Mahratta navy, with the title of Darya-Sáranga. In the name of the Satara chief he was master of the whole coast from Bombay to Vingorla, with the exception of the Seedee's territory. Defenceless towns as far south as Travancore were attacked and plundered, while at sea, vessels of native merchants were preyed upon.

For a time he seems not to have meddled with the Company's vessels; as the size of his ships increased, he grew bolder, and in 1702 his doings began to excite apprehension. In that year he was addressed to release a small trading vessel from Calicut with six Englishmen on board that had been seized and carried into one of his harbours. What had roused his anger against the English does not appear, but a month later we find him sending word to Bombay that he would give the English cause to remember the name of Conajee Angria, a threat that he carried out only too well. Two years later we find him described as a 'Rebel Independent of the Rajah Sivajee,' and Mr. Reynolds was deputed to find him and tell him that he could not be permitted searching, molesting, or seizing vessels in Bombay waters: to which he returned a defiant answer, that he had done many benefits to the English, who had broken faith with him, and henceforth he would seize their vessels wherever he could find them.

In 1707 his ships attacked the Bombay frigate, which was blown up after a brief engagement, and for the next half-century Angrian piracy was a scourge to the European trade of the West coast. In 1710 Conajee Angria seized and fortified Kennery, and his ships fought the Godolphin for two days, within sight of Bombay, but were finally beaten off. He had now grown so powerful that in 1711 the Directors were told he could take any ship except the largest Europe ones; "along the coast from Surat to Dabul he takes all private merchant vessels he meets."

Owing to the minority and imprisonment of Sivajee's grandson, Sahoojee,/4/ the Mahrattas were torn by internal divisions, in which Conajee Angria played his part. On the death of Aurungzeeb, Sahoojee regained his liberty, and was seated on the guddee of Satara. Owing to his want of hardihood and weakness of character, the dissensions continued, and Sivajee's kingdom seemed to be on the point of breaking up into a number of independent chiefships.

Among those aiming at independence was Conajee Angria. In 1713, an army sent against him under the Peishwa, Bhyroo Punt, was defeated, and Bhyroo Punt taken prisoner. It was reported that Conajee was preparing to march on Satara. Ballajee Rao, who afterwards became Peishwa, was placed at the head of such troops as could hastily be collected together, and opened negotiations with Conajee. An accommodation was arrived at, by which Conajee agreed to acknowledge allegiance to Satara, in return for which he was confirmed in command of the fleet, with the title of Surkheil, and granted twenty-six forts and fortified places with their dependent villages./5/

The first result of this treaty was a war with the Seedee, who had enjoyed some of the places in question for a number of years. Conajee was supported by the Satara arms, and the Seedee was forced to submit to the loss. To all intents and purposes, Conajee was now an independent chief. He was the recognized master of a strip of territory between the sea and the western ghauts, extending from Bombay harbour to Vingorla, excluding the Seedee's territories-- a tract, roughly speaking, about two hundred and forty miles in length by forty miles in breadth. With his harbours strongly fortified, while the western ghauts made his territories difficult of access by land, he was in a position to bid defiance to all enemies. Moreover, he was the recognized chief of the hardy coast population of hereditary seamen, who to this day furnish the best lascars to our Indian marine.

Angria's exploits on land had not interfered with his interests at sea. In November 1712, he captured the Governor of Bombay's armed yacht, together with the Anne ketch from Carwar./6/ In the engagement, Mr. Chown, chief of the Carwar factory, was killed, and his young wife, a widow for the second time at the age of eighteen, became Angria's prisoner. A month later, the Somers and Grantham, East Indiamen, on their voyage from England to Bombay, were attacked by a grab and a gallivat belonging to Angria, off the coast north of Goa. Owing to there being a calm at the time, the East Indiamen were unable to bring their guns to bear: "for which reason and by y'e earnest intercession of y'e whole ship's company to y'e captain" the boats of the Somers and Grantham were hoisted out, and an attempt was made to board the pirates. The attack was beaten off with the loss of four men killed and seventeen wounded; but the pirates found the entertainment so little to their liking that they made off.

On hearing of the capture of the Governor's yacht, the Portuguese wrote to propose a joint attack on Angria. A few months before, he had captured the greater part of a Portuguese 'armado,' and disabled a thirty-gun man-of-war that was convoying it. Governor Aislabie declined the Portuguese offer, but it had the effect of bringing Angria to terms. Thinking it politic to make peace with the English, while his affairs with the Rajah of Satara were still unsettled, he sent a messenger to Bombay, offering to deliver up all vessels, goods, and captives taken from the Company, if an Englishman of credit was sent to him to settle on terms of peace for the future.

Aislabie demanded that in future English ships should be free from molestation; that no ships of any nation coming into Bombay should be interfered with between Mahim and Kennery; that English merchants should have liberty of trade in Angria's ports, on payment of the usual dues; and that Angria should be responsible for any damage done in future by the ships belonging to his Mahratta superiors. In return, the Governor engaged to give passes only to ships belonging to merchants recognized by the Company, and to allow Angria's people full trading facilities in Bombay, on the usual dues being paid.

To these terms Angria agreed, but failed to get the Governor's consent to additional terms of an egregious nature: that he should be supplied by the Company with powder and shot on payment; that a place should be assigned to him to make powder in; that if pressed by his enemies, he should be assisted by the Company; that merchant ships should not be convoyed in or out of Bombay harbour.

There remained the duty of sending him 'an Englishman of credit' to 'deliver him the articles.' The Council, 'knowing him to be a man of ill principles,' thought it improper to order any man on such a risky service, but Lieutenant Mackintosh, in consideration of a gratuity of one thousand rupees, undertook to go, and departed for Colaba with Rs.30,000 as ransom for the European prisoners, the convention sealed with the Council's seal, and ships to bring back the restored goods.

And so for a time there was security from Angria's attacks, but with his hands free on the Satara side, and in a more secure position than ever, it was not likely that the peace would be of long continuance. With a fleet of armed vessels carrying thirty and forty guns apiece, with Kennery island in his possession within sight of Bombay harbour, Angria and his successors continued to be a menace to the existence of Bombay, while the Angrian territory became the Alsatia of the Indian seas, where desperadoes of all nationalities were made welcome.

The next few years saw an enormous increase of piracy in the Indian seas. Angria was practically secure in his fastnesses along the coast, and plundered every ship not strong enough to defend itself. His finest vessels were commanded by Europeans, generally Dutch. The signing of the Peace of Utrecht brought a fresh swarm of European adventurers to reap the harvest of the seas. The privateersmen, disregarding the peace, under pretence of making war on France and Spain, plundered ships of all nations. Conden,/7/ White, England, Taylor, and many others, made Madagascar their headquarters, and emulated the feats of Every and Kidd.

The Beyt pirates were as mischievous as ever, while the Muscat Arabs could muster, in 1715, a ship of seventy-four guns, two of sixty, one of fifty, eighteen carrying thirty-two to twelve guns each, and a host of smaller vessels carrying never less than four guns. The Company was forced to rely on its own exertions, as there was not a single King's ship in Indian waters. The few armed vessels belonging to Bombay convoyed the more valuable vessels along the coast. The larger ships, that made the ocean voyage between India and Europe, sailed in company for mutual protection. 


/1/ Yule's "Marco Polo."
/2/ The 'Kempason' and 'King Kemshew' of Downing.
/3/ From the Arabic ghorab, 'a raven.'
/4/ Known in the English annals of the time as the Sow Rajah, and the South Rajah.
/5/ The principal forts were Kennery, Colaba, Severndroog, Viziadroog or Gheriah, Jyeghur, Deoghur, Manikdroog, Futtehghur, Oochitghur; and Yeswuntdroog.
/6/ See *An Englishwoman in India*.
/7/ The name of this pirate is also given as Congdon and Condent. 

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