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Lal Maha Senapati (part 11)
Lal Maha Senapati (pt 11)
LAL MAHA SENAPATI
Bengalis called him Lal Maha Senapati, the words translating respectively in English as Red High Commander. Governor Pigot of the Madras Council of East India Company called him The Great Sardar. His father, Richard Clive, a trained lawyer from Styche, called him the Booby. In India, however, at the dawn of the local month of Kartik, November, he set sail from the British Fort St David at Madras with a convoy of ships as Colonel Robert Clive, the Commander-In-Chief of an expeditionary force to repossess Calcutta from which the British were expelled militarily by the nabab of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa four months ago.
Clive wrote to the suba in strong terms demanding that he compensate John Company for the damage caused by his unwarranted invasion of the city of Calcutta with non-proportionate, overwhelming force of elephants, cavalry and infantrymen; the losses sustained by the peasants who supplied both White Town and Black Town with grain, vegetables and meat also be made up in full. The right of the British to trade anywhere in the territory under his jurisdiction without paying taxes and toll money must be restored. If the suba was foolish enough not to meet these demands the responsibility for the carnage that was to follow would be his and his alone.
The select committee met regularly. The members were Governor Drake, Watts, Becher and Holwell together with Clive. Admiral Watson declined to be a member but sat at their meetings occasionally.
Clive had problems. The soldiers Major Killpatrick brought with him died off or became so ill that he had only thirty fit men to join the planned expedition. All in all the Major could muster about a hundred men with the volunteers from Calcutta and the surrounding area. Some of the ships were lost on their way from Madras depriving Clive of 250 European and 400 black soldiers. He also lost most of his stores and artillery. The worst problem was the Admiral, who proved stubborn and unwilling to accept him as the commander of the land forces.
The Admiral had soon good cause to be pleased because two more ships, Salisbury and Bridgewater arrived at Fulta undamaged. He got into a good mood too because he had a small drinking session with Captain Eyre Coote who was a King's regular officer. “How old are you Irish?” asked the Admiral.
Coote beamed because he rather liked being called Irish. “I am 32”, he replied.
Watson laughed. “Oh, the same age as our civilian commander of the land forces.”
“What has the world come to Sir?” asked the Captain seriously. “We have to serve a civilian while an actual war is going on!”
“Well, you are not serving under him really,” said the Admiral sympathetically. “Remember you are a marine for the time being. You are merely assisting him”
“I can't stand the fellow,” said Coote. “I don't think I could take orders from him.”
“It may not be necessary,” said the Admiral as he got up to fill his and his guest's glasses with Scotch. “But be careful. You have already been subject to court-martial once.” Eyre Coote had fled the battlefield at Falkirk during the Jacobite rebellion but the court-martial found him not guilty of cowardice. Seeing the Captain gazing at the floor while twiddling his thumbs, the Admiral handed him the tumbler full of Scotch, patted him gently on the back and said, “Don't look so gloomy. You have a chance now to really exonerate yourself.”
“But the credit will go to that pompous Company clerk, will it not?” asked Coote as he stood up and faced the Admiral.
Admiral Watson put on his jacket and looked at himself in the mirror while adjusting his hat. “We will see, we will see,” he said smiling. “I have to attend a meeting of the select committee. What a waste of time!”
The committee received some useful intelligence which became the main if not the only item on the agenda. Drake read out the intelligence report sent to him by the English physician of the Dutch factory at Chinsura. “As the crow flies,” said Drake, “it is about forty miles north of here.” “I know,” enthused the Admiral. “As you sail towards north of here you come to Mayapur; go a bit further and make a turn north-east from Pengels Point and come to Budge Budge; then Thana Fort followed by Calcutta; from Calcutta, Chitpur, Baranagar, Chandernagore and then Chinsura.”
“About a couple of miles further up is the town of Hoogli,” added Watts.
Drake continued without making any comment about the interruption, “The arrival of the British expeditionary force is known to the Indians”
“I should say so,” said Watson.
Clive felt irritated. He wished he could throw that moon-faced old fool into the crocodile-infested river. He was at the point of saying something sarcastic aiming at the Admiral but Drake beat him to it. He raised his right hand partially and requested, “Please let me continue.”
“By all means,” replied Watson trying to make a gentlemanly bow. “The floor is yours; the creaky floor that is.” This was a derogatory reference to the ship. Fort William, the temporary Government House where the meeting was being held.
“The report says,” continued Drake, “that the foujdar, the Indian commander of troops in the garrison town of Hoogli, has written to the nabab as has Raja Manikchand. The nabab's order is to fight the English.”
“The British, if you don't mind Mr Chairman,” interrupted Watson.
“The British, I beg your pardon,” came the apology from Drake. “Mr Watts will fill you in with the details. Mr Watts?”
“Lang may your lum reek,” shouted Watson.
Watson smiled at the Admiral and then said, “The recent orders from the highest Indian authority are that the raja will go to Budge Budge and the foujdar to Thana. Raja Manikchand has taken most of his troops from Calcutta. At Fort William, there may be some 500 or so black soldiers. I am informed that this group of black soldiers are of little consequence to us but ships are being filled with sand with the object of blocking the river by sinking them.”
“In that case,” interrupted Watson, “we had better get a move on. Without my ships you don't stand a chance of retaking Calcutta. I suggest you have your meetings after we, the regular military, hand over the city to you.”
Holwell made a point that an operation of this nature would need native guides but could they be wholly trusted? Drake said, “We probably are all right on that score. Our intelligence report is clear on this. At the moment the nabab's subjects have no security. They don't even know if they can keep their harvest. All the nabab is after is extorting money from his poor subjects. I am told the natives will love to see him paraded around the province in chains. We are probably quite safe regarding recruiting and making use of native slaves; beg your pardon; I mean guides.”
Clive listened carefully as Drake spoke and then added when he finished, “There is no 'probably' about it. Even if the ruler was just the natives can be bribed readily. The main thing is that the raja, who is now in control of Fort William is completely on our side.”
Admiral Watson stopped being flippant for a change. He asked, “This nabab had put him on a pedestal. By making him the Governor of Calcutta, a Hindu, the young fellow must have incurred the wrath of many a Muslim nobleman. He is surrounded by enemies in his court I gather. Even consider us. We have no right to be here but we are pursuing him relentlessly. We will surely destroy him. I can assure you of that.
But what right have we to say that 'do as we tell you or else'!”
The committee members listened and wandered whose side the old fool was on. Watts looked at the Admiral with a serious face. He said, “Indians are treacherous by nature and extremely avaricious. The young fellow, all credit to his grandfather, has been brought up to respect non-Muslims. But he is inexperienced and naive. He has antagonised everybody except Mohan Lal, Mir Madan and Monsieur Jean Law. They protect him. We have bribed Raja Manikchand with money and land. He will help us retake Calcutta.”
Clive added, “My experience with the black soldiers is that Indians are servile to us Europeans. Our white skin and impressive physique frightens them. They have developed a slave mentality; even the upper echelon or I should say particularly them. So it will not be difficult to intimidate his officials and the military hierarchy. To be sure though make sure that all the Indians in high positions and especially the military hierarchy are amply bribed. Also use chicanery; I am going to use it as often as possible. We must intimidate the young suba and do our utmost to drive a wedge between him and Jean Law.”
The meeting was very useful for Clive but he became ill with high fever suddenly. It was out of the question for him to leave the bedroom or receive visitors but he communicated with people by writing. He wrote to Major Killpatrick asking him to expedite matters. His memorandum said that since he himself was unable to get up, the Major had full authority to act as he saw fit but speed was essential. It was the plan to take the fort at Budge Budge and then proceed to Calcutta by land. It would have been better if the army could start marching right away from Fulta. His letter concluded by stating, “It would be a singular service if you could prevail on the bazar people to follow us up the river to Budge Budge.”
Admiral Watson held a council of war on board the Kent. “Gentlemen,” he announced. “I suggest that Operation Budge Budge be carried out in the following manner. The European troops including Mr Clive's corresponding men should go by ship and disembark at Mayapur which is about five miles south of Budge Budge. There they will join the Company's black soldiers who will march overland. Mr Clive then should march with his European and native troops and isolate Budge Budge from Calcutta by occupying a position about two miles north of the fort at Budge Budge. His job it will be to prevent anybody escaping from the fort or indeed stop any reinforcements from coming in. We propose to bombard the fort from the fleet in the morning.”
Clive disobeyed medical instruction and attended the meeting only to be frustrated and fuming inside at the liberties taken by the bumptious man. He waited long enough in silence he thought and felt obliged to interrupt the Admiral's monologue. He said forcefully, “I don't agree to having my men marching overland all night.”
“This is war Mr Clive,” said Captain Coote. “A soldier does not sleep in a feather bed simply because it is night time.”
“I am aware of that,” replied Clive sharply. “But marching is unnecessary. My men will have to be shipped all the way to the destination.”
“Mr Clive should make an attempt to learn from men who are trained in warfare,” came a terse comment from Mr Coote.
Clive lost his temper. He thumped the table with his fist as he shouted, “Mr Coote has little Indian experience. Otherwise he would have known that I fought a few battles in Hindustan successfully.”
“They were battles, were they?” retorted Eyre Coote.
“At least I did not turn tail in a moment of danger; did I Mr Coote? Asked Clive looking from end to end at the members around the table.
“I am Captain Coote to you,” shouted Coote.
Clive shouted back. “I am Colonel Clive to you.”
The Admiral seemed to encourage the confrontation. When it was over, he asked, “Well gentlemen does anybody else think the same way as the Colonel?”
Either nobody had the desire to take sides openly or none of them were interested in the verbal duel that just finished. None of them gave an answer and the Admiral took it upon himself to overrule Clive's protestation.
A feverish activity followed. Loading and embarking went on throughout the day. The European soldiers and sailors were excited. “We will avenge Black Hole,” some of them shouted frequently. The 39th foot were the most vengeful and they did not wish to associate with the Company's Europeans. Although a sailor again Strahan preferred to be with Company Europeans and when all was quiet he walked a while and found himself sitting on the rock platform under the big tree. Sundari came out running and sat beside him. “There is nobody now in our village sahib, she said without waiting. “They have all gone to the river to see the big ships, the lal paltan and the kala sepahis” kala meaning black.
“Have they now?” responded Strahan softly looking at her in the inadequate visibility of the twilight of the winter of Bengal.
“There is going to be a big war,” said Sundari with high excitement in her voice. “The raja of Murshidabad is very angry with the sahibs. And the sahibs have brought a big sardar from a land called Deccan millions of miles from here. He, believe it or not, is already here. He can and does travel faster than the mind. How does mind travel sahib?”
“Sundari, I will be going away as well,” said Strahan without taking his eyes off her.
“I know,” she replied smiling, “You will go and fight the raja of Murshidabad and get killed.” She picked up a blade of grass and started to gyrate, describing two very small opposing arcs with the sides of her body. Strahan observed that at that moment her large eyes were helplessly sad. Even when she smiled her eyes seemed to betray an inner despondency.
“I won't get killed,” said Strahan smiling, “if you pray for me.”
Sundari was puzzled. She did not know what the sahib meant by 'pray'. Strahan had difficulty in explaining what he meant by 'pray'. The little illiterate girl got the gist of it. She said slowly, “We give puja. Puja involves looking after one or more devatas such as bathing their images, dressing them and providing food.”
Strahan did not quite comprehend the answer given by the girl but he got up to return to the fleet. He said, “Ask Krisna to protect me from death in battle. If I live I will come and see you again”
Sundari smiled and said, “I will ask. Make sure you keep your promise.”
There was roast beef for supper. It was a long time since the impoverished fugitives to Fulta had such a grand repast. There was an unlimited supply of Madeira to wash down the food as well. Colonel Robert Clive came to the Company Europeans and talked to them for a while. He then went to the Tamil sepoys and watched them eat their rice, sambar, a dal, and vegetables sitting on the deck in rows. He avoided the King's troops who were now drunk and abusive with foul expletives.
The fleet moved on, their sails fluttering and the guns shining. The muddy Hoogli became muddier. The crocodiles moved out of the way. The silvery fish followed the familiar mammalian forms on board ships for a while. Ominous rhythms resounded as the sentries marched to and fro on the decks.
The following morning, December 28th, 1756, the ships anchored at Mayapur. The expected dawn did not break because a vicious, viscous fog drowned the infant sun. The earth sulked. The Lal paltan and the kala sepahis froze while the fleet remained impassive as the portentous morning ushered in the doom that was only a few yards away for the unwary, hapless Indians.
There they were: the ships, Kent, Salisbury and Tyger belonging to the navy. Two other ships which survived the journey were Bridgewater and Kingfisher. All in all the 39th foot provided 120 men. The Company had 400 Europeans and 500 Blacks. The 74 gunner Cumberland with another 250 men of the 39th foot and the East Indiaman Marlborough with 430 sepoys and most of the artillery seemed lost in the storm.
Disembarking began. The two field pieces and the ammunition cart were guarded heavily once they were brought ashore carefully. Bullocks could not be found to transport the guns so Clive detailed some men to drag them. It was easy to find Indian guides. When all this was done, Clive ordered his men to rest without exception.
The fleet moved on at three in the afternoon but the infantry waited till the sun diffracted many colours from the western horizon. Then the long march started. The green carpets from the rice fields were now gone leaving only residual yellow stumps at orderly intervals. The ledges partitioning the fields were bald except for tufts of green grass hanging on either side. The non-arable land skirting the depressed paddy fields were undulating here and there due to small man-made protuberances largely composed of soil and grit dumped as building materials, excess to requirement.
The guides took a tortuous route moving west, east, north, back south and north again. Captain Pye lost his patience. He asked through an interpreter why the guides were not following a route north? Why were they not cutting through paddy fields? The Head guide said, “Sahib, there are suba's men everywhere. If we are spotted that will be the end of you and us.”
“But you are taking so long,” stated Captain Pye firmly. “At this rate we will not reach Budge Budge in time and our men won't be able to stand the strain. I am ordering you to cut across the paddy fields.” Although the soldiers could march through the hard soil, dragging the ammunition cart and the field pieces became nearly impossible. Each time a ledge came the men had to practically lift the wheels over them and these obstructions came every fifty yards or so. The idea had to be abandoned and the army started moving around the paddy fields.
“I don't trust these guides Sir,” said Pye to Clive.
“Neither do I but we have no alternative,” replied Clive blandly. He counted them and added, “In fact there is something amiss. Some of the guides are missing.”
The landscape was interspersed with swamps. Not infrequently, rivulets appeared from nowhere across their path. Dead tree trunks blocked their way. Mosquitoes buzzed annoyingly and stung the men relentlessly. Strange noises greeted them, possibly, the jackals howling or the vultures flapping their wings at being disturbed. Clive urged the semi-exhausted men on, moving from front to rear, from one side to the other. At last the sun rose to their right.
It was a clear dawn without the intimidating fog of Mayapur but the gazelles looked at them with apprehension and then ran out of sight. Wild boars grunted menacingly but retreated without attempting a confrontation. The monkeys seemed in a fearful temper as they threatened by baring their teeth or ran or jumped up and down. The crows let out cacophonous caws unceasingly. The vultures in the sky circled.
“A few hundred yards men and we are there,” shouted Clive and at 8.00 am the exhausted soldiers halted two miles north of the fort in a position to be able to control the Calcutta- Budge Budge road. They heard the fleet's guns booming and echoing in the air and the ships were now visible. Tyger and Salisbury were turning and twisting to take up positions for action. Flagship Kent was already discharging broadsides towards the fort of Budge Budge. The fugitives from Fort William, Calcutta, now designated as the volunteers from Fulta, were detailed to move north and hide themselves in the jungle to watch out for any enemy troops. Captain Pye advanced down the river bank with his Europeans and sepoys, evicted the occupants of the few huts standing there and took up positions inside them. Upon seeing the Captain and his men, Captain Eyre Coote from the Kent and Captain Weller, his senior, from the Salisbury disembarked with their men. Coote put Captain Pye under his command.
Clive ordered his men to rest. He was in a unique strategic position. To the west was the river and the nabab did not have a navy to the best of his knowledge. The volunteers were watching the north while his able Captain Pye was in the south. The east was scattered with bushes and short trees so he felt it unnecessary to post any pickets there. The men welcomed the rest and dozed off. Clive sat against a tree and shut his eyes. Suddenly, a crashing volley killed some of his men and they ran around in total confusion. The gunfire came from the eastern jungle. A large body of soldiers appeared out of nowhere, overpowered some of Clive's men and took control of the field pieces and the flintlocks. Clive shouted out orders and his soldiers soon formed into a line. A messenger was despatched to the north. In the meantime, the nabab's matchlock-men kept on firing but, fortunately, they did not know how to use the flintlocks they had just captured. The matchlocks were slow and Clive's men rushed the enemy with bayonets fixed on their muskets. A gruesome hand to hand fighting ensued. To Clive's surprise, the enemy did not flee. They were also racially different; short and mongoloid they preferred to fight with their curved knives, inflicting heavy casualties on Clive's army. The volunteers came up in time to recover the field pieces and Clive himself led three platoons who destroyed all the little men.
As the men reformed and started to move the wounded, Raja Manikchand appeared on the scene on an elephant with about a thousand cavalrymen. The field pieces of the British went into action bringing down a few horses with their riders. Raja Manikchand kept on urging his men to charge but the cavalry hesitated. Suddenly a ball blew the raja's turban off upon which the enemy started fleeing in disorder. The 39th foot who by now had joined the Company soldiers chased the enemy shouting, 'Remember black hole' and killed many of the opposing horsemen. They then all returned to the position near the fort of Budge Budge.
Raja Manikchand raced to Calcutta. He wrote to the suba expressing regret that he could not check the enemy. They have now a new type of sardar who could not be killed. Bullets seemed to bounce off him. He could run hundreds of miles without stopping to rest or eat and drink. He had some black soldiers with him who were quite willing to fight against their own.
The British army men buried the 18 European soldiers who were killed but the dead Indians posed a problem. The task of digging to bury corpses was beneath the dignity of the black soldiers. At any rate they were Hindus and accordingly everyone must be cremated. There were only a handful of Company soldiers who died but Raja Manikchand's cavalry left behind a large number of dead horsemen. The first thing to establish was whether they were Hindus or Muslims to choose the correct funeral method.
“We could take care of all these dead Indians,” suggested Major Killpatrick.
“We haven't the time,” snapped Eyre Coote impatiently. “If we have to worry about the funeral arrangements of the blacks each time there is a battle on, we will get nothing done!”
“It will mean,” added Captain Pye, “going back to bury or burn them. There is no time really.”
A lone soldier fired in the direction of the British from the fort. Clive looked up as the musket fire was repeated. The fort of Budge Budge was in a bad condition. The ramparts collapsed in many places and the cannon were unmanned. Now and again though a desultory cannonade came from the Admiral's fleet, quite unnecessarily. The sun, now in mid position, supplied the welcome thermal shower in the cold Indian month of pous. Vultures gathered in the sky and landed in trees in the north-easterly direction in anticipation of the feast that should follow when the humans below resume slaughtering one another. The delay in the food supply made the carrion eating dogs bark viciously. The green parakeets returned to the trees, perhaps, to see the on-coming drama, one wonders. The noisy crows made the men drowsy. Clive's men were happy and relieved because he wanted them to rest until the following morning. He himself went aboard the Kent to confer with the Admiral. The meeting with the Admiral was satisfactory since he persuaded Watson to send 150 sailors with two nine pounders to bring an end to the drama surrounding the fort.
However, all was not well for the Colonel. Weller, being taken ill, had returned to the Salisbury and Eyre Coote was automatically in command of the 39th foot. He came up to Clive and without exchanging the expected niceties said in an authoritative tone, “I have decided to attack the fort now and finish the job.”
A furious Clive shouted, “You have decided! I am in command of the land forces!”
“Let us not get excited,” replied Coote with a superior attitude. “If you had any experience or training in military operations you would have known that a mopping up operation must follow to stop the enemy from regrouping.” The Captain looked around him. The men of the Company and the 39th foot could hear them. It became a matter of prestige for him to win the argument to establish himself as the leader of the expedition.
Clive paced up and down with his hands behind his back for a while. He then came up to the Captain, shook his forefinger at him and shouted, “You passed the night in the comfort and security of a ship but these men have remained outside all the time with the hazards that go with it.”
Some of the 39th foot whispered between themselves. “That's telling him,” shouted a soldier from the anonymity of the crowd. Eyre Coote heard this and at once decided that a new slant must be given to the argument. He said, “If we have to wait it will mean that the men of the 39th foot and the sailors will have to spend the night in the open. I cannot allow that.”
Someone shouted, “Hear, hear.”
Captin Pye moved towards the men. He shouted, “If I hear anyone being flippant again, I will put him in chains.”
Clive said, “It is a strange argument Sir,” and laughed derisively. “You expect soldiers and sailors to sleep in feather beds in times of active service! I have yielded once and I have made my men march all night. I will not let that happen again.”
“I insist,” shouted Coote, “the marines and the 39th foot must have their rest.”
“That being the case,” said Clive, “You take up the argument with the Admiral. I will not stand in the way if he feels that the men should return to the ships.” Eyre Coote went back to the flagship to report the matter to the Admiral but the men of the 39th foot and the marines remained ashore. After supper, the sailors finished off the extra rum that was sent from the flagship possibly by the Admiral when he realised that Coote had no argument.
Strahan sat by himself and felt totally unhappy. He was thinking of a little girl in Fulta who said that she, hence the Hindus, do not pray; silly girl. What would life be like without prayer or the ones hereafter after death! For some unknown reason, he thought of Brahmin sahib and the question he poses.; not relevant to Strahan's present situation at all and not really something in which he would be truly interested. In one of his lectures he asked, “What is zero? Can one measure zero?” “True enough,” he said, “One of you will say that it can be measured because we say zero, shunya in Sanskrit, equals nothing. Someone must have measured it somehow or how else one would know the answer.” According to him zero is the same as infinity because you cannot get hold of zero. You cannot reach infinity either because as you float to reach it, it moves away from you further. It is like the statement in the ancient Indian writings in the Vedas, usha, dawn, can never touch ratri, night, and vice versa. Strahan nodded his head, “What sort of an argument is that? It is no argument at all.” Suddenly he shouted, “It was not right. Killing all those blacks and leaving them to the jackals and vultures.”
Some of the men looked at him but only momentarily. Strahan examined the tips of his fingers. Subjacent to the skin are the flesh, sinews and blood. If the blood rushes out, one's soul escapes with it. All those souls in the battlefield are probably roaming aimlessly hoping to go to heaven. His own soul, concluded Strahan, will end up in hell.
He sauntered along to the fort. He sobered up substantially as he fell a few times over the debris but managed to struggle over to the rampart. On noticing three soldiers eating a meal he said in Bengali, “Now carry on eating your chapati and goat. You can give me some but don't fight.” He pointed to his gun and said, moving close to them, “This is loaded and it is a flintlock. It does not need a fuse like your matchlock each time you want to fire. Understand me, Eh!” Unfortunately, the soldiers did not understand him because Bengali was not their language or simply that they did not want to know what an enemy had to say. They looked at each other and got up.
“Now, now,” shouted Strahan, holding his hand in front in an obstructing pose, “I don't want to kill you. All I want to do is conquer your fort. The bosses are arguing you see. Given the chance they will find excuses to spill more blood. So I will take the fort and stop all the argument.” The Indians took no notice and instead made a move to go for their guns. As quickly as a mongoose catches a snake, Strahan jumped, drew his cutlass and cut them down. He then went to the rampart and fired his musket. It had two effects. The nabab's residual army fled the fort and a hundred or so seamen came running and joined Strahan noisily. The British flag was soon hoisted with shouts of 'Hip Hip Hurray'.
Captain Eyre Coote was furious. He reported the incident to the Admiral saying that the enemy fort had been taken but without the least honour to anyone. Strahan was summoned to the Admiral who asked him, “Did you take it upon yourself to attack the fort?”
The sailor replied indignantly, “Why, to be sure, Sir, it was I who took the fort. But I hope there was no harm in it?” The Admiral appeared to be serious while the men and officers found it very difficult to keep straight faces.
The Admiral thundered, “You should have never captured the fort without first obtaining permission from me in writing. You have flouted naval discipline before but this is the most serious. When the current operation is over, you will probably be subject to court martial. For the moment, I must consider whether you should receive a few lashes or not.”
Admiral Watson turned to the assembled audience in the lounge bar and gave them a lecture about discipline. Without the virtue of discipline, he said, nothing will be achieved. Then turning to Strahan he said, “You are dismissed.”
As the Admiral and his officers left the lounge, the men laughed at Strahan but he simply walked away from them. He muttered as he walked, “If for this here action, I am flogged, I will never take another fort by myself for as long as I live, by God.”