His Britannic Majesty's Avenging Warriors (part 12)
HIS BRITANNIC MAJESTY'S AVENGING WARRIORS (pt 12)
HIS BRITANNIC MAJESTY'S AVENGING WARRIORS
The fort at Budge Budge now belonged to the British by conquest according to unwritten but established laws of human tribes or nations. The authorities, however, razed it to the ground and spiked the cannon. Then on the morning of January 1st 1757, the fleet sailed north. Seeing that the Budge Budge fort was abandoned, Clive disembarked with Company troops on the following morning and marched on to Calcutta. The news of the big sardar or more commonly known by the Bengali natives as the Lal Maha Senapati spread from village to village. The red Senapati had no fear. Night or day, come rain or the scorching sun, he would march thousands of miles without stopping. His men, mesmerised, would do the same as long as he was with them. There was one concern among the village and townspeople. Were the non-combatants safe from the victor? The guides, the camp followers and everyone associated with Clive and his men told the people that the British would not destroy property nor would they harm innocent bystanders.
The fleet arrived at Calcutta before Clive and the heavy guns belched smoke and fire but it was unnecessary. There was hardly any opposition from Raja Manikchand who was appointed as the Governor of the city of Calcutta by the nabab who defeated the British militarily. Watson assumed correctly that there was no danger from the enemy so he stopped the guns and sent Captain Eyre Coote to Fort William to take command. He gave him written authority concluding, “You are not to abandon your post or give up your command until further orders from me.”
Coote was delighted and he felt authoritative. So as Clive reached the neighbourhood of Calcutta and sent one of his lieutenants to take charge of the fort, Coote prevented him from entering and arrested him for his attempt at unauthorised entry into a sensitive area of His Majesty's overseas territory. Upon hearing this news, Clive rushed to Fort William and went straight to Captain Coote, the sentry not making any attempt to stop him. Coote showed him the Admiral's written order. Clive lost his temper and shouted, “The Admiral had no right to put an officer in charge of the fort who is inferior in rank to me.” He paced up and down a few times with his hands behind his back and then ordered Coote to hand over the command or face arrest.
The Captain was wise. Whatever his feelings towards a Company writer turned soldier, Clive was a Lieutenant Colonel. He surely had to obey him or he might end up with another court martial. He gave way but obtained permission from the Colonel to write a letter to the Admiral. The letter was vindictive and every attempt was made to turn the Admiral against the Colonel. For example the letter stated that that the civilian soldier dismissed the written order as farcical. Generally the Company commander talked about the Admiral unkindly saying that an old man sitting comfortably behind the guns of a ship had nothing better to do than pass his time issuing orders.
Speke, the Captain of the flagship Kent, arrived and asked Clive angrily, “Who gave you the authority to take command of fort William?”
“I am the authority,” replied Clive angrily moving closer to Speke menacingly. “I am the Commander in Chief of the land forces.”
Speke remained in his position and said haughtily, “You are no soldier.”
“You want to gain some experience of India before opening your big mouth,” said Clive with a faint smile. “If you try to learn a little you will find out how much soldiering I have done.”
Speke moved back a few steps and said contemptuously, “Skirmishes Sir, skirmishes. From what I gather, the Indian cavalry, the enemy of your enemy, always won your battles for you.”
Clive shouted, “How dare you Sir! A mere Captain talking to a Lieutenant Colonel in this manner!”
“A Captain in the King's navy Sir,” retorted Speke. “Not a Colonel appointed by some shopkeepers!”
Clive said firmly but without raising his voice, “This is insubordination. I suggest you go back to the safety of your ship or else.”
Speke looked around him. The land forces were numerous. Some of them were close enough to hear their verbal duel. They looked menacing. “The matter is not over yet,” he said and made a quick exit.
Although Speke described his encounter with suitable embroidering, the Admiral was calm. He did make a mistake after all. In fact there were two mistakes. One was to try to extend his authority to land and, secondly, a disastrous underestimating of Robert Clive. The Colonel gave in at Fulta surely enough and marched with his men all night to Budge Budge. It was clear that he was not going to give in again. Judging by what Speke said, Clive's men were not going to see their hero humiliated. Nevertheless the stone was thrown and there was no way of retrieving it. He sent Speke back again with a letter which stated that Clive, by disobeying the Admiral, had offered an affront to His Majesty's authority and if the fort was not handed over to Coote, the King's fleet would fire at the land forces. “However,” the letter concluded by stating, “I naturally have no desire to spill British blood and I suggest you come and visit me.”
Clive refused and told Speke sternly that if he returned again, it would be leg irons for him. Speke returned to the ship without saying a word. The Admiral was in a quandary. He recognised the gross error he made but it was not his code to acknowledge it. He summoned Thomas Latham and said, “That insolent buffoon thinks he is the nabab already. He has refused to obey my orders. Settle the matter, will you?”
Robert Clive received Thomas Latham, a long standing friend, warmly. “I am the Commander in Chief,” said Clive with a wry smile, “and he expects me take orders from a Captain of his!”
“He is getting on a bit you know,” replied Latham. “He does not know what he is doing.”
“But this attitude,” said Clive. “The people of the King's army think that we are some inferior beings to be used but not to be respected nor obeyed.”
“Not all of us think that way Robert,” said Latham. “I know of your ability. Many of us do.”
“Ah but you are a friend, Thomas,” said Clive, grabbing his arm.
They walked through the South River Gate, turned left at the wharf and went over to the Governor's ghat exchanging a few items of personal information.
“Are you still suffering from that stomach pain?” asked Latham.
“You know,” replied Clive beaming broadly. “It has run away. I felt fine these last few days.”
“Perhaps,” suggested Latham, “a trip to Madras and a few weeks with your wife when all this is over will do you the world of good.”
“Margaret is more likely to decide for Calcutta,” replied Clive smiling.
“Well, Calcutta then it should be,” suggested Latham. “After that a trip to England.”
“Ah England,” Clive seemed to be far away. “Manchester. I would like to go to. Manchester.” His eyes became misty as he fixed them upon the river. There was no activity there except for the warships. Even the birds disappeared.
They sat down on a landing step of Governor's ghat and gazed thoughtfully at muddy Hoogli. Latham said suddenly. “What about the Admiral coming ashore? You hand him the keys to Fort William. After all he is senior to you,” Clive refrained from making any comment. Latham spoke again after a while. “At any rate the fort goes to the civilians. As a military man you will surely not be bothered with taking on civilians' task? And look at the gate we came through. There are no gates at all; just a gaping hole; all this repair work! Surely you can't be bothered with it?”
“You are a rogue Thomas,” said Clive laughing. “You are a rogue. Have you thought of standing for parliament?”
Thomas Latham grinned. “I didn't think it was obvious.”
They both got up and Clive said, “That big hole you just talked about. It is useful. Most of my men got through that way; unknown to me of course.”
“Of course,” repeated Latham and Clive walked to the rowing boat with him, shook his hand warmly and said, “So be it. Let pomposity himself come here.”
Clive kept thinking. Calcutta has not been repossessed yet. Nabab still got loyal platoons who could attack the fort and oust the Europeans. He still decided to stay in the fort with some or all of his men as they wished. They could eat drink and be merry said Clive to himself but felt for them not knowing how many would die or how many would be wounded.
Admiral Watson landed the next day. Robert Clive, in uniform, with all the decorations of office received him with a salute. Watson returned the salute but said with a grave face, “We are being acknowledged after all; are we?”
The Colonel said, “You are my superior officer Sir.” He emphasised the word 'you'. Latham and Speke saluted Clive. Eyre Coote moved forward and acknowledged the Colonel a little forcefully. He said, “No offence meant, Sir.”
“None taken,” replied Clive and shook his hand.
They moved into damaged Fort William through the once South River Gate and arrived at the parade ground to be met by Governor Drake, Holwell, Betcher and Watts. The Colonel did not expect to see them but concluded correctly that Thomas Latham, the rogue, was the stage manager for this scene. He looked at his friend with mock anger but Latham quickly found something in the ground to examine briefly. The Colonel handed over the keys relating to the fort to the Admiral ceremoniously who gave them to Governor Drake immediately.
A meeting was held. Clive insisted that the British should declare war on the viceroy of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. Watson was reluctant to start another confrontation with Clive although he did not understand the necessity for a formal declaration of war particularly since the French might make use of it and side with nabab Sirajuddaula. It was explained to him that, if there was a formal declaration of war, the British could legally blockade any river, seize any goods or attack any fortification without being accused of piracy. The British could lawfully protect their trading posts in all India, the number of them being 22 according to the census of the year 1700.
On January 3rd 1757, Governor Roger Drake declared war on the nabab on behalf of the East India Company. Admiral Watson followed suit as the representative of King George II and he warned that anybody assisting Sirajuddaula would be regarded as an enemy of His Britannic Majesty's Government. Two days later, Major Killpatrick and 700 men sailed up the river Hoogli on Bridgewater, Kingfisher and Thunder, a bomb ketch.
Hoogli was a thriving town with large brick houses of traders from Asia and Europe lining the main street. Mud houses sprawled over nearly up to the Dutch Chinsura in the south on the bank of river Hoogli and up to Bandel to the north, slightly inland. The streets were narrow in common with all Indian towns with houses on either side. There were churches, temples, mosques, schools, factories and shops. The residents were prosperous but the town was full of rumours which made the people curious. They gathered that the Moghal suba's days were numbered and new brigands, who came from an ice-covered land far away, were going to occupy Bengal and enforce their culture and administration on them. Such thoughts did not of course worry the people much because, firstly, they have been slaves in their own country for nearly the last 1,000 years, their rulers losing it to Arabs, Turco-Afghans, Persians and the descendants of the murdering marauders Chenghis Khan and Timur-i-Lang from Central Asia. Secondly, those who knew a little geography told their fellow citizens that this big sardar was going to sail along the Jamuna and make himself the Badsha, emperor, of all Hindustan. By all accounts, these giant-like ice-people would rule justly.
A visitor of no great importance arrived at Hoogli from Rajmahal in Bihar. He was Bengali, a native of Agradip, near the capital Murshidabad. He was called Fakir Dana Shah whose ears were cut off by the present nabab Sirajuddaula personally some 10 months ago on the false assumption that he was a rebel against the Government. He was visiting one of the seminaries of Sunnite learning in Hoogli town. He was advised by his relatives and friends to leave Agradip in case the Moghals came back. His charitable work at Rajmahal was going well and the support he received from the Muslim community enabled him to employ staff. The seminaries known to him as madrasas produced scholars who took up Government positions to influence the rulers in following orthodox Sunni ideas. He was not educated enough to be a scholar, an ulama, but he was anxious to get a little education before returning to Rajmahal. He hoped also to collect some funds for his charitable activities but things did not work out well for him in spite of his effort. The scholars looked down upon him and did not really want to tell him anything. He was about to leave for Rajmahal but heard about the ice people, the future rulers of Hindustan. So he stayed on to have a look at them.
It seemed as if everyone came to Hoogli because he was startled to see Raghu who was a long standing friend and both of them grew up together in their respective ancestral homes in Agradip. Raghu now lived in Black Town of Calcutta and was well placed with the bosses of the Company, working for it as an accounts clerk for a long time.
Raghu introduced his future son-in-law and his uncle. Dana commented about his daughter and son saying that they have grown up even in these last few months.
They walked the whole length of the high street and came to an open field, which served as a park for people, with grass, shrubs and tall trees. Beyond this field they could see two storeyed mud houses neatly arranged in rows with narrow dirt streets in between them.
Upon being asked, Raghu informed him that they were going to Bandel, a town couple of miles from Hoogli. From there they were going overland to Bardhaman.
“Bardhaman,” said Dana. “I have heard about it.”
“I suggest you get out from this area,” suggested Raghu. “These are troubled times.”
“It is all Allah's will,” said Dana Shah. “I want to have a look at these Firingis. There is this chance of this tyrant at Murshidabad meeting his maker in their hands.”
The fakir showed the spots where his ears were. “We know about this uncle Shah,” said Raghu's son Gopal. “It was a terrible day in Agradip when two of the suba's men, Miran and Muhammadi Beg came to inspect our house. We escaped to Calcutta where father already had a house.”
Raghu's future son-in-law's uncle asked, “But the Firingis can do the same to any one of us; can't they?”
“So they can,” said Dana Shah. “If you know the history of this town, you will see what I mean.” By then many people have gathered around him and they all wanted to know so the fakir told them:
They were Portuguese, white but different kind of Firingis to the British. These Firingis settled in Hoogli town some 200 years ago and quite legally by obtaining permission from emperor Akbar at Delhi. They befriended the Magh tribes of Arakan and Pegu beyond the eastern border of Bengal. The Bengalis lived in abject terror of both the Maghs and these Firingis because, without warning, they would land in a village and carry the men off as slaves. The Portuguese were known to Indians as the tribe of Harmad. Once they captured their victims, the harmads would drill holes through their palms, bring them close together, possibly a foot apart, and slip a length of cane through the holes. That done, the men would be thrown into the hold of the ship. The Maghs and harmads went on striking terror all over Bengal. The ruling elite did not like their presence but the Moghal officers seemed unable to catch their fast moving boats which seemed to disappear into thin air with cargo of sugar, salt, gum, saltpetre, opium, silk and cotton.
Until about 100 years ago, emperor Shahjahan gave orders to destroy the Firingis. He was a puritan and was incensed upon hearing that the Portuguese were even abducting upper class Muslim women. The then viceroy of Bengal was interested in attacking Hoogli for another reason. He learnt that the House of Mercy, Casa de Misericordia, had an immense amount of wealth. So hundreds of galleys rowed by slaves and manned by archers and riflemen anchored on one side of the river while the ever present cavalry and elephants surrounded the city on land, blocking possible escape routes.
There were only a few hundred white Portuguese, the rest being slaves were unreliable and untrained for battle. Nevertheless the streets were barricaded with carts and furniture and the Firingis had an ample supply of ammunition and muskets. However, a Father Cabral went to the enemy General to sue for peace. The Moghal said that before he would even agree to discuss terms, all the slaves must be given up. The Portuguese refused to give up a single slave because they were now Christians and very much a part of the master's household. He returned and a battle raged for three days but even the army and navy of the emperor of India could not overcome the resistance of the determined and disciplined white Europeans.
The soldiers of the Moghal General started to disperse because they could never cope with an enemy who fought as doggedly as these Firingis did. At any rate there were looting, plundering and killing of hapless civilians to do and valuable time was being lost. The Portuguese not being aware of this imminent end to fighting paid ransom to the General, a sum large enough for the Moghal to pay his army a part of their wages.
Having money in their person made the Moghal soldiers unusually enthusiastic and they started to fight again. The General himself was not pleased because he planned for a life of leisure for a while and the Portuguese lost out because the Moghal army retrieved a hundred slaves from them. The Firingis decided to flee down the river hoping to escape to the sea.
Having nothing profitable to do the Indian army pillaged and burned the town. They then followed the Portuguese and fired at them from the river bank. As luck would have it the Indian soldiers were incompetent which helped the Firingis to escape with minor casualties and they hid in a little village for a few weeks but plague and dysentery decimated their numbers. The only choice they had was to take to the river again but they came against chains across the water and showers of arrows fell relentlessly upon them. It was a sorry state of affairs for the Portuguese and the few hundreds who survived were taken to Delhi as prisoners. The emperor spared their lives on condition that they became Muslims which they did.
“So,” concluded Dana Shah, “that ended the Firingi menace for good in Bengal.”
“I know the British very well,” said Raghu. “They are not like the Portuguese you just talked about. They are civilised. I wouldn't mind if they ruled Bengal.”
“Let us hope then,” said Raghu's future son-in-law's uncle, “that the big sardar wins or else the nabab's army will burn Hoogli town again.”
They did not wait to find out about the outcome of the war and they moved westwards in three camel carts with their luggage and passengers. They were not the only ones. It seemed as if the whole town of Hoogli was escaping. The roads were packed with carts and people but Raghu felt all alone. He shivered as he looked at the
premonitory vultures of the day perched in tall trees. He felt fearful of the merciless human predators who keep on descending on unwary people over and over again. The British, civilised though they are, are no better. They must conquer. They sing 'Britain never never never shall be slaves' but they keep on enslaving people all over the globe. He wished there was no armed conflict, no duels between the warlords for territory. He would rather go back to Agradip and pass his time gossiping and smoking his hooka. Raghu moved into the negative coordinates and traced an abstruse forest of despondency.
“Either way,” shouted Raghu with an amount of emotion, “a lot of men, women and children will die”
“Some painfully,” added a stranger travelling with the fugitives from Hoogli.
“That is karma,” sighed Raghu. “There is no escape.”
“And death is so unpredictable,” said Raghu's son, Gopal. “A baby can die suddenly same as an old man. A young boy can disappear in a moment. Death can come any time without notice. We have no control over it. That is why it is such a humiliating experience.”
A little further away, the Captain of the Bridgewater and half a dozen sailors blackened their faces and donned black clothes, covering their heads with black kerchiefs. They swam stealthily to a small boat where a Dutch pilot was having a drink with a few sailors. As they were singing merrily the Dutch soldiers were knocked unconscious by the Captain's men from Bridgewater. The Captain himself with his arm round the pilot's throat dragged him across the water to his ship. The pilot was treated well and apologies showered at him. Major Killpatrick said, “We are at war you see. It is very important that we take this fleet up the river. It is very urgent.” The Dutchman did not feel unfriendly after the royal treatment he received at the hands of the British. Nevertheless he took on an unfriendly attitude and said, “What can I do about that?”
“We need a navigator,” replied the Major. “The Dutch are the only people who know this part of the river.”
“We, unlike you, are not at war with the nabab; are we?” asked the pilot with apparent indignation.
Major Killpatrick was not a diplomatic man. As a soldier, he was only used to giving orders to his subordinates which in turn came from his superiors. He said, “You either help us or we bomb you out of existence from Chinsura.”
The Dutchman thought carefully. None of them forgot about the whimsical way Sirajuddaula robbed them after sacking Calcutta. If the British could teach him a lesson, it would not be a bad counterbalance. At least he had heard that that was the thinking of the administrators at Chinsura. He said simply, “All right. It looks as if I have no alternative.”
The British ships reached Hoogli on 9th January and immediately started bombarding in the afternoon. Raja Manikchand stayed in the fort trying to understand the situation. He had done all that was necessary to help the topiwallas but why this fury against him! He raised the white flag but the British took no notice. Manikchand had no alternative but to flee. He did so as soon as it was dark as did the bulk of his soldiers. The cannonade stopped during the night.
Major Killpatrick suggested that Captain Coote should occupy the town. The Indians who stayed on in Hoogli felt relieved as the guns stopped. The nabab's army had fled again! At last, perhaps, fate took a kindly turn and their troubles were over.
The person who was unhappy was Strahan. He felt foiled. If he did not start roaming from place to place, he will lose a lot of income. He worked out a strategy with four fellow travellers from his Calcutta days. They must slip out unnoticed, make their fortune and return.
The citizens of Hoogli town were out in the streets. They were friendly to Strahan and his gang who moved about freely. Strahan said to his companions, “You see this high street, that's where all the business class will be. When the soldiers of Captain Coote go about occupying the town, we will raid these shops. We can take away coins, gold and silver and as much as we can of any valuables.”
“But,” asked a man, “all these people roaming about. They will catch us.”
“No fear of that,” said Strahan laughing a little. “Bengalis never fight. At any rate they are not going to shed any tears over these rich Indians.”
By 9.00 am, the familiar rhythm of marching soldiers was heard. The streets became crowded. To the little Indians the big red soldiers were a phenomenon as they formed and split up into little squads to occupy predetermined areas of Hoogli town. Suddenly the sky reverberated with blood-curdling cry of 'Black Hole, Black Hole.....' as if from a thousand roaring volcanoes.
Strahan looked aghast. “I don't like this,” he said to which his companions muttered, “Nor do we.” He shouted to the crowd, “Run, run, run for your life.”
Pandemonium broke loose. Men stampeded on women; women on children. The air quivered with wailing sounds as the soldiers rushed Indians piercing their targets with bayonets and swords or simply shooting at them with their flintlocks.
Soon the squads disintegrated. Unruly groups formed and rampaged the town as the Portuguese did before them, as the vargis did and, inter alios, the Arabs and Central Asians before them. A group of five from the 39th foot became particularly wild. Strahan and his mates saw them getting hold of a young teenage girl, rip off her clothes and gang rape her. The innocent little soul gave heart rending screams but the warriors had no mercy or remorse in them. Her screams stopped and she whimpered a little before being silent for eternity as she died of fear and brutality. The five spotted an old women bent from the waist at right angle, barely walking with a stick in her right hand. “You have no right to be here!” said one of them and applied all the force he could muster to straighten her. She cried in severe pain but, fortunately, died quickly.
An old man saw this. “Was it right to do that son?” “Son!” exclaimed the soldier who killed the old woman. “I am your son! You n****r.” The butt end of his musket fell on his head with a mighty thump. The old man's head split in two.
They attacked men with their fists or simply cut open their stomachs watching their entrails gush out into the street. The others cried 'Black Hole' and tortured, raped and killed Indians who came within their running distance. His Britannic Majesty's warriors moved for more and more victims, shouting wildly, 'Black Hole, Black Hole....'
A group went into a few occupied huts and dragged out the young women. After undressing and raping them, the women were hanged by their legs from tall trees. Some of them threw little children in the air for them to concuss or break their necks as they dropped onto the ground. A soldier cut open the stomach of a pregnant woman and announced gleefully, “I always wanted to know how it looked.”
The beams of verandahs and branches of trees became crowded with men hanging by their necks. A group went to the madrasa. “You are all priests are you?” shouted one soldier. The scholars were then tied up against pillars and then the madrasa was set on fire. Fires broke out every where as the huts and houses burned. Eventually, killing stopped as the exhausted soldiers started to move back to the ships in small groups.
Strahan and his companions cut down as many men and women as they could from the verandahs or trees but only a few. They were chased off by jeering soldiers who were roaming the streets, now looting the shops and houses.
Much later, when the town of Hoogli was deserted, a lone Muslim without ears roamed the hell that His Britannic Majesty's mighty warriors created. He looked up at the sky and muttered reproachfully, “Allah, where were you?”