European traders in India found themselves in a sorry plight about the middle of the eighteenth century. Not only was their trade sadly hampered and restricted by the bitter rivalry which existed between the various companies of merchants, but they had other and more formidable enemies to deal with—men who knew little and cared less about the laws of honour and chivalry usually obtaining between civilised nations, and who seized every opportunity to enrich themselves at the expense of the unfortunate merchants without stopping to inquire too closely whether they were "playing the game" in a fair and sportsmanlike manner.
These were the dreaded pirates of the Malabar coast—fierce, desperate ruffians all of them, and numbering among their motley bands outlaws and cut-throats of nearly every nationality. Their small, swift-sailing boats—bristling with guns and manned by bloodthirsty and unscrupulous crews—would lie in wait for the richly laden merchantmen trading between India and the west. Swooping down on their helpless victims they would clamber aboard, massacre the crew, and transfer the precious cargoes to their own spacious holds.
Sometimes a stout merchantman would succeed in shaking off her assailants, and would beat her way into harbour with half her crew aboard dead or dying. Others would sail out of port, full of hope and high spirits, never to be heard of again. And then the hardy merchant-adventurers who had sent them forth would shake their fists seawards, and breathe forth terrible threats of vengeance against the pestilential marauders of the high seas.
Why, it may be asked, did not the rival traders bury their differences for a time, and take joint action to stamp out a common foe? It must, alas, be confessed that the conduct of the European trading companies in the matter was not as gallant as it might have been. They were too much engaged in cutting each other's throats for one thing; and again, although they keenly regretted the loss of their own ships, the sight of their rivals' disasters afforded them unmitigated satisfaction. So they submitted themselves to the pirate yoke, made treaties with them, and paid them large sums of money to let their ships pass unmolested.
Head and shoulders above the many picturesque villains who flourished in those bad old days towered the redoubtable Angria.
Here was a very prince of pirates! It would have been strange, indeed, to find him anything else when we consider the bold and adventurous blood that coursed through his mighty veins. Many are the tales that have come down to us of the doings of this remarkable family—tales in which it is probable truth and fiction are closely interwoven. The light-hearted chroniclers of those stirring times took care not to spoil a good story by a too scrupulous attention to the truth. But it cannot be denied that these eighteenth-century narratives are fascinating to a degree, and, be they true or false, shed a vivid light upon the manners and customs of our interesting desperadoes. Let us follow, then, as closely as may be, the story of the romantic uprise of the famous house of Angria.
In the year 1643, so it is said, an Arabian merchantman, putting out from Muscat, fell in with the most unfavourable weather, and, driven by the gale down the west coast of India, went ashore at Length in a small bay near Choul. The long and trying voyage had put rather a strain upon the tempers of both master and men, and at the time of the wreck relations between them were of anything but a cordial nature. When the Rajah of the district heard that a strange vessel had been cast ashore in his territory he sent his officers to investigate matters. Into the ears of these attentive strangers the crew took occasion to pour their unhappy tale, accusing their captain of treating them with great cruelty and inhumanity. The captain also had a story to tell. He dilated at length upon the unruly and mutinous conduct of his crew, and appealed to his judges to uphold the principles of discipline and good order. But, unfortunately for him, he was one and his accusers were many. The officers, with splendid impartiality, decided that the will of the majority must prevail. With all politeness they informed the captain that it was their painful duty to put him to a slow and lingering death, and proceeded to put their sentence into immediate execution.
Now the Rajah, whose territories they had invaded, happened at the time to be carrying on a little war with the Great Moghul. The campaign was not progressing so favourably as he could wish—he had, in fact, been twice defeated—and he regarded the strangers as a welcome addition to his army. So they were grafted on to about a hundred of his own subjects, and, commanded by a petty officer, marched valiantly to the front.
On the way they chanced to run into a party of Moghul troops, who outnumbered them five to one. Deeming discretion the better part of valour, their leader hurriedly betook himself from the scene of action. The others, dismayed by their captain's inglorious flight, prepared to follow his example. But help was to come from an unexpected quarter. The leader of the shipwrecked crew was one Sambo Angria, who, we are told, was a "bold, enterprising, hardy fellow," and this gentleman stepped valiantly into the breach. "Surround yourselves," he cried, "with the wagons and luggage-carts you have brought with you." This was done, and from the hastily improvised shelter they opened a withering fire upon the enemy.
The Moghuls were somewhat taken aback by this new turn of events. But they had no intention of letting their prey escape, and carried on the attack with vigour. Night fell at length, and the valiant Angria devised a new plan of campaign. Calling his crew together, and selecting twenty natives to accompany him, he crept unseen out of the entrenchment. Slowly and silently the little band worked their way round to the rear of the enemy. Now they were within striking distance, and with loud shouts they rushed to the attack. From the shelter of the wagons the remaining portion of the garrison continued to ply a steady fire. The daring enterprise was quite successful. Deeming reinforcements had come against them the Moghuls scattered in confusion. To complete their discomfiture, the garrison now abandoned their defences, and rushed to the attack. All except thirty-six of the enemy were cut to pieces; Angria, it is said, accounting for forty with his own hand.
Laden with spoil, the gallant little company continued on their way. At length they came up with the main army. Angria immediately proceeded to the Rajah's tent and gave him a glowing account of their adventures—not forgetting to mention his own share in the transaction. The Rajah was astonished and delighted. In the joy of his heart he gave Angria an important place in the army, and the valorous sailor soon raised himself to the highest rank. Ten years later he married the daughter of the Grand Vizier, and in 1675 he died, full of years and honour. His master soon followed him into the grave, leaving behind him a son who succeeded to the title.
Now the new Rajah was a little puffed up by his freshly acquired honours. He thought fit to assert his complete independence, and refused to pay tribute to the Moghuls. The Court at Delhi, more amused than alarmed by this little show-off, ordered the Nabob of Surat to invade his dominions and to give the refractory Rajah a few elementary lessons in politeness.
The valiant Angria had been blessed with a son who had inherited in no small degree his father's martial genius. To him the command of the Rajah's army ought by right to have been given. But the young potentate was a little jealous of Angria the second; the chief command was given to another officer. Not unnaturally Angria felt himself slighted. "If I cannot command one side," he reflected, "there is no reason why I should not lead the other." So he offered his services to the Nabob of Surat, who appointed him his second-in-command.
Angria, with an eye to further favours, performed prodigies of valour. He had, moreover, a little score to wipe out against his former master, and every prisoner who fell into his hands was put to a painful death. To his great delight, the officer who had usurped his post was captured and brought before the Nabob. Angria was for striking off his head without more ado, but the Nabob demurred. The prisoner, quick to perceive his captor's merciful disposition, flung himself at his feet and implored protection. "Fear not," said the Nabob, "your life shall be spared." Concealing his chagrin with the best possible grace, the thwarted general stalked away—thenceforward to brood darkly over revenge.
Now the Rajah had come to the conclusion, some time before, that he had committed a serious blunder. Many secret messengers had he sent to persuade Angria to return to the fold. Great were the favours he promised as a reward. "We will," he cried, "give you our sister to wife, appoint you our Grand Vizier, and make over to you the command of our army." The indignant general eagerly embraced the opportunity for revenge. But before he finally deserted the Nabob he won over a number of his officers and men, promising them great privileges if they would go over with him to the other side.
All things being ready, he approached the unsuspecting Nabob.
"I have," he said, "conceived a great plan whereby we shall be enabled to bring disaster upon our foes. Let Your Highness proceed through some secret passes of which I have knowledge, and fall upon the enemy's flank. I will advance swiftly and attack them from the other side, and so shall they be plunged into confusion."
The Nabob thought the idea an excellent one, and set off with the greater part of his army. So well did he obey his general's directions that presently he found himself boxed up in a long and narrow ravine. But when he tried to emerge into the plain he was greatly disconcerted to find his way barred by the enemy. He attempted to retire by the way he had come, but Angria and the disaffected troops were keeping the other end. The unfortunate ruler was caught like a rat in a trap. He made a gallant attempt to break out, but in vain; his whole army was routed, and 6000 of his choicest troops left dead on the field.
Having accomplished his revenge, Angria rejoined his old master. Duly appointed Grand Vizier, his wedding with the Rajah's sister took place shortly afterwards amid general rejoicing. But he was not destined long to enjoy his honours. In 1686, whilst valiantly leading his troops to the attack, he fell with a Moghul bullet through his heart. He left two young sons whom the Rajah adopted and brought up with great care. The elder died before reaching man's estate, but the other, Connaji Angria, thrived exceedingly, and speedily became a great favourite at court.
When he reached his twentieth year a great feast was held to celebrate his coming of age. But of the many rich presents then bestowed on him, the one young Angria prized most was the gift of his uncle the Rajah. Just inside the harbour of Bombay, about three leagues distant from the anchoring-ground, is the small rocky islet of Kaneray. From its precipitous shores a strongly fortified and well-nigh impregnable castle raised its towers skywards. This stronghold the benevolent Rajah presented to his nephew, at the same time giving him a number of vessels, and placing a company of officers and men under his command.
In return for this favour Angria joined the Rajah's army. Another rupture with the Moghuls had occurred, and so greatly did he distinguish himself in the campaign that the worthy Rajah was quite overcome with gratitude. Honours and distinctions were showered with a prodigal hand upon the fortunate young soldier.
Angria meanwhile had been pondering how best to make use of his island possession, and had been seized with a brilliant idea. He had been very much struck by the vast wealth of treasure which the European traders brought from over the western seas. Why, he meditated, should not some of these riches be his? He confided his views on the subject to his royal relative, who was no less enthusiastic. His sympathy took the practical form of money, ships and men, and Angria commenced strongly to fortify his sea-girt castle. Then he sallied out in his vessels and plundered the rich merchantmen that came his way, and it was not long before he became a source of terror to the peace-loving traders.
But the young pirate was not satisfied with his tiny rock-bound island—he had far more ambitious aims. So he assembled an army of about 20,000 men, and sailed along the coast looking for fresh fields to conquer. A glance at a map of India will show the town of Geriah marked about half-way between Bombay and Goa. The Portuguese had built some strong fortifications here, and Angria came to the conclusion that it would make an excellent base from which to conduct his marauding expeditions. So here the expectant army was landed, and soon there arose, grim and forbidding, upon the palm-covered Malabar coast one of the most formidable strongholds in the eastern world.
Picture to yourself a wide and spacious harbour. A mile from land a rocky promontory rises boldly from the sea, its face washed round and smooth by the surging waves of ocean. On its crest a giant fortress, enclosed by massive walls and flanked by lofty towers, looks frowningly down upon the seething waste of waters. A narrow strip of land connects this promontory with the shore, and here in this sandy isthmus are capacious docks where the ships of the pirate fleet are built and repaired. Such was the fortress which Angria had seized upon and added to, and it was destined in after-years to prove a very tough nut for our gallant jack-tars to crack.
But the pirate chief did not confine his depredations to seizing Geriah. By driving out the Portuguese and other traders he acquired a strip of land along the coast one hundred and twenty miles long by about sixty broad. Here other settlements and ports were built, and Angria found himself virtually a king ruling over a considerable tract of country. The chance capture of a vessel on which a large number of the finest Arabian steeds were embarked gave him another idea, and soon a considerable body of cavalry was sent to swell his already formidable army. In that heterogeneous force many nationalities were to be found. Hindús and Moors, Dutchmen, Portuguese, and Frenchmen—aye, and even Englishmen—swore allegiance to the freebooter's blood-stained flag—reckless, devil-may-care fellows, each one of them, fierce fighters and conscienceless villains, whom their own countrymen had cast out of their communities on account of their lawless ways.
In his sea-girt castle, Angria established all the state and ceremony appertaining to a mighty monarch. Ambassadors from the neighbouring states and provinces flocked to do him homage. A brilliant throng surrounded his throne; richly dressed generals, admirals, and other high officers were in constant attendance. No silken courtiers these—but terrible desperadoes, whose bejewelled swords and glittering daggers had all been stained in the blood of the helpless and terror-stricken victims of their insatiable greed.
Such, then, is the story of Angria's rise to power. Here let us leave the pirate king. To follow him through all his romantic adventures, to narrate in detail the wars he waged against his cousin the Rajah, his audacious incursions into the neighbouring provinces, and the rich prizes that fell into his hands at sea, would take a book in itself. We have marked well his audacious exploits; we have seen him become a scourge and terror to traders far and near; now let us follow the repeated attempts made to oust him from his proud position and to raze his castle turrets to the ground