When Hindú story-tellers of the present day relate to enraptured audiences the wonderful exploits of Sivaji, they will tell how it came to pass that native Indian and white-faced Englishman first fought together on the shores of Hindustan. And if the story-teller be anything of a philosopher he may go on to declare that the English, by their successful resistance of Sivaji's attack—Sivaji, who feared nobody and was feared by all (unless it be by the proud Aurangzebe, who called him a rat),—foreshadowed themselves the future masters of India. But it is necessary first to know a little of how the English came to be in India, and what they were doing there.
To the Portuguese belongs the honour of discovering the oversea route to India. The great Columbus essayed to find it, but came upon America instead, thus adding another continent to the dominions of his master, the king of Spain. His Majesty of Portugal, who had previously refused Columbus's services, was greatly chagrined by the chance he had thus let slip, and resolved on an expedition on his own account.
So on the 8th of July 1497 the brave Portuguese Mariner, Vasco da Gama, set out from the Tagus with three small ships to seek the land which lay beyond the wild southern seas. They had a perilous voyage; many times it was thought that the ships would founder, so greatly were they buffeted by the huge waves which rolled around them. Night and day the men laboured at the pumps to keep their frail cockleshells afloat, until at length the terror and mystery of the great unknown seized them, and they clamoured to their leader to turn back and brave no further perils. Vasco da Gama was a man great in heart and in deed. He placed the rebellious pilots in irons, and threw overboard every chart and instrument of navigation he possessed. "God will guide us," he remarked placidly; "we require no other aid. And if so it be that that aid fails us, then neither I nor any of us will look upon our native country again."
Faint of heart and weary the sailors toiled on. Each day they saw some comrade stricken down with scurvy—a dread disease they now beheld for the first time. But at length their perseverance was rewarded, and eleven months after they had set sail from Portugal, the far-stretching coastline of Western India greeted their wondering eyes.
The vessels cast anchor off Calicut, which was then ruled by an independent native rajah called the Zamorin. Can you not imagine the feelings of curiosity and delight with which the poor worn-out sailors gazed shorewards upon a new and beautiful country? They saw a noble town containing many fine buildings, with a fertile plain rising up in the background, bounded by a distant range of lofty mountains. The inhabitants flocked down to the beach to behold the strange new-comers, and marvelled greatly at the Portuguese ships. The voyagers found themselves treated kindly by the Zamorin, who was greatly struck at finding his visitors so different in manner and appearance from the foreigners who frequented his port. And so Vasco da Gama discovered India for his master; and although there were many plots laid against him by the Moors, who were jealous at finding their trade interrupted by these audacious strangers, he succeeded in winning his way back to his own country with very marvellous tales of the things he had seen and heard in the East.
Da Gama's voyages were chronicled by one Gaspar Correa, and in the light of present-day circumstances it is curious and interesting to quote a passage from the English translation of this work. It runs thus: "In this country of India they are much addicted to soothsayers and diviners. . . . According to what was known later there had been in this country of Cannanore a diviner so diabolical in whom they believed so much that they wrote down all that he said, and preserved it like prophecies that would come to pass. They held a legend from him in which it was said that the whole of India would be taken and ruled over by a very distant king, who had white people, who would do great harm to those who were not their friends; and this was to happen a long time later, and he left signs of when it would be. In consequence of the great disturbance caused by the sight of these ships, the king was very desirous of knowing what they were; and he spoke to his diviners, asking them to tell him what ships were those and whence they came. The diviners conversed with their devils, and told him that the ships belonged to a great king, and came from very far, and, according to what they found written, these were the people who were to seize India by war and peace, as they had already told him many times, because the period which had been written down was concluded."
It was because the King of Cannanore thought that these pale-faced strangers were the people spoken of by the soothsayer that he welcomed them so kindly. But he was wrong. The Portuguese were not destined to rule over India; and although they monopolised its foreign trade for nearly a century, and established themselves very strongly in the towns along the coast, it was not to be expected that they would be permitted to keep their rich find all to themselves. Soon dazzling tales of the fabulous wealth and vast resources of the Orient began to reach English ears, and England resolved to strike a blow for the eastern trade. A number of wealthy merchants met together to discuss the situation. Difficulty after difficulty cropped up, until it began to look as if their project would never be realised. But at last in 1601 the famous East India Company was incorporated by royal charter, and her ships sailed the main in search of the wonderful lands beyond the seas. The spirit of enterprise was abroad. The Dutch were the great maritime nation of that time, and you may be sure that they did not intend to remain idle while other nations grew rich and prosperous. So it came about that the coast of India became busy with white traders of many nationalities, and bitter was the rivalry which existed between them.
Some distance north of Bombay is situate the town of Surat. This ancient city was an exceedingly prosperous seaport belonging to the Great Moghul. Ships from many countries brought their merchandise thither, and the fame of Surat as the chief centre of Indian commerce spread far and wide. The European companies set up trading-stations here,—factories as they were called in those days,—and the shareholders at home grew rich on the gold that poured continuously into their coffers.
For some time Sivaji thought wistfully of the riches of Surat, and when Sivaji gave himself over to thought something usually happened. One day the wealthy merchants in the Moghul seaport found their town surrounded by four thousand men, all armed to the teeth, and led by the redoubtable Maráthá chieftain. The strangers did their work leisurely, but well. For four days the city permitted itself to be plundered, and then the Maráthás took their departure, bearing with them many elephants and camels richly laden with booty. It was at Surat that Sivaji discovered he was not invincible. He found the English factory barricaded and placed in readiness for a siege, for the stubborn Englishmen were disposed to yield their treasure to no one. Sivaji was mildly surprised by this show of resistance, and brought his whole strength to bear upon the tiny fort; but the garrison stuck grimly to their task, and for once in his life Sivaji had to acknowledge himself beaten. He had, however, the satisfaction of capturing one Englishman, and to him he gave an object-lesson in eastern methods. The poor fellow was led before Sivaji in a great state of mind, for he fully expected to be chopped into little pieces. He found the famous outlaw seated in a tent outside the town ordering the heads and arms of prisoners to be cut off. But it must not be supposed that Sivaji was naturally cruel or vindictive. He resorted to such violence only when he suspected his prisoners were deceiving him and concealing part of their possessions. While the frightened Englishman watched, expecting his turn to come every minute, a wretched Jew was dragged into the tent.
"Come now," said Sivaji, "tell me where you have buried your hoards and you shall be released." The man obstinately refused. At a sign from their master two swarthy Maráthás flung themselves upon their captive and forced him to his knees, while another held a gleaming dagger within an inch of his throat. Still the unhappy creature refused to speak. Three times the question was repeated; three times the knife grazed his lean and scraggy neck. Then Sivaji leaned back and laughed. "Surely," he quoth, "only a Jew would set a greater value upon his goods than upon his life. Let the man go free."
To the mighty Aurangzebe at Delhi tales were brought of the "Mountain Rat's" audacious exploits. To these the Emperor would listen grimly, vouchsafing little remark. But one day came news which probed even his indifference, and made the ruler of millions feel as angry as the lowest of his subjects. For the one vulnerable part of Aurangzebe was his religion, and that no man might wound with impunity. He learned that Sivaji, with a powerful fleet, was plundering the rich Muhammadan pilgrims as they journeyed to the sacred city of Mecca, and he swore that once and for all the infidel should be exterminated. Sivaji, however, did not accompany his men upon these naval excursions, except upon one occasion, when he was so violently sea-sick that he vowed never more to trust himself on the water.
Once again a large army marched southwards. Sivaji's spies were quick to bring him the news, and for the first time in his life the Maráthá leader showed some signs of fear. The Moghul army far out-numbered his, and was led by a famous general who had never known defeat. Sivaji was perplexed and, contrary to his usual custom, called a council of his principal officers to decide what should be done. Eventually negotiations were entered into. At first the Moghul general was very suspicious of Sivaji's advances, for had he not heard of the fate of the luckless Afzool Khán? He at all events was in no hurry to have any secret conference with the Maráthá, and in the meantime set about invading his territory and capturing his forts. So earnest, however, were Sivaji's protestations of good faith, that the Moghul at length became convinced of his sincerity. "Tell your master," he said to the waiting messengers, "that if he submit he may rely not only on pardon, but upon favour and protection from the Emperor, and this I swear upon the honour of a Rájput."
Sivaji left his native mountains, and, with a small escort, hurried to the imperial camp. There he prostrated himself before the general, and expressed sorrow for all his past misdeeds. Many days were passed in friendly confabulation, and then an agreement was drawn up, Sivaji agreeing to surrender the forts and land he had captured from the Moghuls in return for the right of collecting revenue in certain districts. And thus was a mighty Emperor and his general hoodwinked by a crafty Maráthá who could neither read nor write. For, though they knew it not, the revenue he was allowed to collect would more than compensate him for the territory he surrendered!
To visit the Emperor at Delhi, to see the splendour of his Court, and to be embraced by the great ruler himself, was a long-cherished dream of Sivaji's. Aurangzebe one day received a long letter in which the Maráthá chief set out in courtly strain his desire to visit the Emperor and to kiss the royal threshold. "Bid him come," said Aurangzebe; for his crafty mind foresaw that Sivaji might be a useful ally in the forthcoming campaign against the South. So it being intimated to Sivaji that he would receive a warm welcome at Delhi, he set out in March 1666 upon his journey northwards, Five hundred choice horsemen were told off to escort their loved chieftain and his eldest son, while a thousand sturdy Mawulees completed the procession.
Sivaji expected great things of the visit. He had an idea that Aurangzebe would create him Viceroy of the South, which practically meant making him absolute ruler over all the Moghul possessions in the Deccan. When he drew near the capital he looked out for some high dignitary of the Court to bid him welcome, for it was the custom that guests of distinguished rank should thus be met. But to his disgust only two officers of inferior rank came forward, and the slight rankled deeply in the Maráthá's heart.
It seemed to be Aurangzebe's purpose to do everything possible to humiliate his visitor, and to overwhelm him with the power and grandeur of the Moghul Empire. Sivaji was kept waiting three months at Delhi before the Emperor would give him audience. When at length a day had been appointed for the Maráthá to be presented at Court, Aurangzebe made great preparations to impress him with his own magnificence. It was his usual custom to dress very simply, but now he caused himself to be arrayed in his most splendid garments, strings of dazzling jewels hung round his neck, whilst diamonds and rubies of great size glistened and shone from his turban. Seated upon the radiant, gem-incrusted peacock throne he was a magnificent sight—calculated (as he thought) to strike awe into the heart of any man.
What a brilliant spectacle an audience in those splendid halls must have been! Can one not imagine the great throne, mounted on a high dais, and glittering with a thousand points of light—the Emperor, sparkling from head to foot with jewels, haughtily surveying the assembled courtiers,—the golden plat-form whereon the great nobles stood in all their gorgeous attire,—the other platforms of silver and marble thronged by the lesser nobles in order of their rank? It is difficult in these prosaic days to conjure up in our minds such scenes of Oriental splendour.
In the midst of all this magnificence, Sivaji held a haughty head—and nursed a burning heart. If Aurangzebe thought to tame his fiery spirit by such parade of pomp and circumstance he was mistaken. Sivaji found himself admitted to the gold platform, but he also found himself placed at the very bottom of the long row of attendant nobles, and at this fresh humiliation his anger overflowed. He saw his hopes of the Viceroyship dashed to the ground, he realised that Aurangzebe was trifling with him, and his indignation, which had been smouldering for months, broke forth tempestuously.
Out of the glittering ranks he stepped—a short, spare figure with flashing eyes and fierce gesture, and in ringing tones addressed his reproaches to the Emperor. No one dared to stem the torrent of his wrath as he voiced his bitter resentment at the manner in which he was being treated.
Aurangzebe listened in stony silence; once only, when the furious Maráthá chief accused the courtiers around him of cowardice and servile adulation, did he permit the ghost of a smile to flicker across his thin lips. The outburst was soon over, and Sivaji swung angrily out of the chamber. Aurangzebe gave orders that he should be admitted to no more audiences. He further commanded that a guard should be set about his house, which he should not be allowed to quit without an escort responsible for his safe custody.
Thus did Sivaji find himself a prisoner. His faithful soldiers were allowed to return to their own country, and he and his young son were left alone in his enemy's capital. Aurangzebe was happy, for he thought he had the Maráthá completely in his power. They brought him news that his prisoner was sick—almost at the point of death. The Emperor was indifferent; sick or well the "Mountain Rat" could do little harm at Delhi. But after a while the invalid grew better. You will remember that Sivaji was a pious Hindú, so that it was only natural that he should send thank-offerings of fruit and flowers and other things to the Brahmins and nobles of his acquaintance. The most curious part of these gifts was the baskets in which they were packed. They were long and slender, and bore a remarkable resemblance to coffins; but after some weeks the guards stationed outside the house became quite accustomed to the sight of these unwieldy-looking packages.
One evening a strange thing happened. Sivaji, who was supposed by all to be still weak and ill, jumped out of bed in surprisingly active fashion, and proceeded to tie up his son in one of the coffin-shaped baskets. This being done, he put himself into another one and was borne by his servants out of the house, through the cordon of soldiers outside, along the crowded thoroughfares, to a distant part of the city. There horses were awaiting them, and the wily Maráthá—whose illness had been nothing more than a hoax—succeeded in escaping unobserved from the capital. Once outside the gates they put spurs to their horses, and set out in hot haste for the Deccan. Great was Aurangzebe's wrath the following day when a trembling officer told him the story of the ruse. But by that time pursuit was out of the question, and in December 1666, after nine months' absence at Delhi, Sivaji, in the guise of a pilgrim, once more set foot in his own dominions.
Sivaji openly defies the Great Moghul.
It may be imagined with what joy the Maráthás welcomed home their loved chieftain, whom they had almost given up for lost. To celebrate the event was their first impulse, and this they did by recapturing most of the territory they had been obliged to give up to the Moghuls. But there was one stronghold in particular that Sivaji longed to recover. This, Singurh by name, was a well-nigh inaccessible fort, held by a strong garrison. Sheer from a deep glen in a precipitous mountain side a mighty crag rose to the height of nearly ninety feet. On its summit, two miles in circumference, Singurh was built. On one side the rock shelved gradually inward, and as it was considered utterly impossible to attempt an assault from this quarter, it was not so strongly fortified as were the others.
Sivaji, however, believed in doing what was least expected. One moonless night a thousand picked men set out by different paths for Singurh, uniting in a thicket a few hundred yards from the base of the rock. Tannaji, Sivaji's trusty lieutenant who had charge of the expedition, motioned his men to keep silence, and crept cautiously forward, until he stood right underneath the slippery crags. Then with a dexterity born of long practice, he threw a thin line, to which was attached a leaden ball, over one of the trees which projected from beneath the battlements. By this means a knotted rope was drawn up and secured by a springed hook to the tree.
One by one the Maráthás, active as cats, noiselessly ascended the rope, climbed the projecting wall and lay down inside. No sentry ever patrolled this remote part of the stronghold, and so they were secure from interruption. But when the three hundredth man was scaling the frail ladder, he slipped, and thinking himself falling, uttered an involuntary cry of alarm. The others held their breath and strained their ears to detect if the noise had been heard. It had; for a soldier came forward carelessly, lantern in hand, to see what was the matter. His shrift was short, for a bowstring twanged and the man fell heavily to the ground with an arrow through his heart. Again all was silence, but even as they listened, a confused hubbub arose from the interior of the fort.
Tannaji, hoping still to take them by surprise, pushed forward with his three hundred men. Silently and unseen the bowmen plied their deadly arrows in the direction of the voices, until a number of blue lights and torches gleamed forth, lighting up the scene with lurid glare, and enabling the garrison to discover their assailants. A desperate fight took place, and the Maráthás, with panting chests and aching limbs, strove hard to win the fort. The odds were overwhelming, but slowly and surely they forced the enemy back. Then their brave leader fell, and losing courage they began to retreat. At this moment Tannaji's brother came up with the reserve force. "The ropes are destroyed," he cried, "escape is impossible; the fort must be captured or you die. Now is the time to prove yourselves Sivaji's men!"
Above the clatter of arms and the groans of the wounded, the fierce battle-cry of the Maráthás rang out upon the air. "Hur, Hur, Madheo!" they yelled, and rushed anew to the attack. "Hur, Hur, Madheo!" and the defenders gave way before that furious charge. "Hur, Hur, Madheo!" and the invaders had gained the fort. But their loss was heavy; over a third of their number had perished in the fight. Five hundred of the garrison, together with their gallant commander, were slain, while hundreds more, trying to escape over the rocks, were dashed to pieces in the attempt. Sivaji was overjoyed when he heard of the success of this exploit, but wept bitterly when he learned of Tannaji's death. "The den is taken," he cried, "but the lion is slain; we have gained a fort, but, alas! I have lost Tannaji, my faithful friend!"
The crowning point in Sivaji's career was, figuratively as well as literally, his coronation. In his extraordinary life he had never looked back on good fortune; year by year his power and prestige had steadily increased, and now he was no mountain robber, but a ruler holding sway over a vast territory and governing a mighty people. He had long struck coins in his own name, and styled himself Rajah and Maharajah. It would be a fitting climax, he thought, to declare his independence, and set up a new dynasty and a new kingdom.
And so on June 6, 1674, Sivaji was solemnly crowned. The Maráthá leader had not forgotten what he had seen at Delhi, and the function was carried out with an amazing wealth of pomp and circumstance. When at length the ceremony was over, the newly crowned "Ornament of the Khsetriyu race, Lord of the Royal Umbrella, and King of the Maráthás," was weighed against gold, as was customary on such occasions, and the gold distributed among the Brahmins. These gentlemen were very much disappointed to find how little Sivaji weighed, for he was a small, spare man, without a superfluous ounce of avoirdupois!
On the fifth day of April 1680, in the fifty-third year of his age, there passed away one of the greatest leaders of men the world has ever seen. For despite his faults, which were many, Sivaji must go down to history as a great man and a great genius. Himself an enthusiast, he had in addition that rare faculty—the quality of inspiring enthusiasm in others. When we consider how he embarked upon his adventurous career with a mere handful of half-naked Maráthás, how he had to contend with innumerable difficulties, yet never let himself be dismayed by adversity, and how finally he founded a power which was destined mightily to affect the history of India, and which actually became our own immediate predecessor in conquest, we cannot withhold from him our tribute of the deepest admiration.
Aurangzebe heard of the death of his most formidable enemy with great gladness. Yet though he affected to despise Sivaji during his lifetime, in death he paid him a generous compliment. "He was," he said, "a great captain, and the only one who has had the magnanimity to raise a new kingdom, while I have been endeavouring to destroy the ancient sovereignties of India; my armies have been employed against him for nineteen years, and nevertheless his state has been always increasing."