Sunday, 10 April 2011

Captain's Carpenter and his operations around Rajahmundroog, 1783

Figure 1. Mouth of River Aghanashini near Fort Rajahmundroog.
This river used to be called the Merjee or Mijan River by the EIC. Photo courtesy of Shoba.

Most people reading the history of the British involvement in India read about the events that occurred during the 19th Century, the Mutiny, the Sikh Wars or the North West Frontier.

With hundreds, if not thousands of books written about this period, and with these wars ending in most cases in British victories, it leaves the majority of readers with the impression that the development of the Empire was a forgone conclusion, and that all the action in India had taken place during these major campaigns.

This concentration on the 19th Century in India masks a far more fascinating stories. These come from the far less well known campaigns fought and often lost across the Deccan and Southern India during the 18th Century.

In the last couple of years with the huge increase in the availability of digital copies of original accounts thanks to the huge effort that Google has made to scan in these otherwise inaccessible books, it is becoming possible to piece together the fascinating and other otherwise virtually unknown stories of some of these campaigns.

In many of these accounts there are absolutely fascinating stories about minor or subsidiary campaigns fought in support of the major campaigns. With all of the campaigns run on a shoe string, by under resourced forces, these "second or third fronts" were often undertaken by a mere handful of European's and locally recruited Sepoys, who were taking on substantial Indian states like Mysore, with large armies that were often technically at least as well equipped as the East India Company was itself.

The following is the story of Captain Carpenter's campaign fought in 1783 between the modern towns of Karwar and Honavar on the west coast of India.

Figure 2. Google Earth Image showing the general location of Rajahmundroog and the operations undertaken by Captn. Carpenter's Detachment. Please click on this image for a larger version.

In order to try to divert pressure away from the East India Company's settlements and forces on the Coromandel Coast, which were under sustained attack by Hyder Ali and Tipu, it had been decided to send a force from Bombay to land in Karnaka at Rajahmundroog, called today Kagal Kote, north of the town of Honavar.

Hyder Ali had died in December 1782, but Tippoo Sahib as he was then known by the British had already shown that he was a formidable opponent in his attack on Ponnani.

The purpose of the expedition was set out in the following orders sent to Captain Carpenter by General Mathews.

" To Captain Carpenter.
" Sir,—It is necessary that an active, although small party, should remain in the field, and I have thought of you to command it. You will therefore proceed to Chundoor or Comptah, and collect your partizan force. It will at first consist of two iron three-pounders, drawn by bullocks, and the ammunition carried by men. And whatever men of the European artillery and lascars as can be drawn from Rajahmundroog and Onore, and as many sepoys as can be spared from each place, that is, from the immediate service and security of both garrisons. If you get 15 Europeans, and 150 sepoys, it will be reckoned a small army. The object is to protect the country from plunder and conflagration, and by seizing with spirit and judgment every opportunity of attacking the enemy, you may drive them from the frontiers of this district. It will be a fortunate circumstance if you can approach either the fort of Bilghie or Gurripah pass, as it may serve to keep the enemy at a distance, and alarm them for fear that you should really ascend the hills. The garrison of Mirjee also deserves your attention, and you should endeavour to keep them on the north side of the river. Being lightly equipped, and without tents or baggage, your movements may be as rapid as your sense may render them judicious. In short, all the country between the rivers of Mirjee and Onore, are under your protection ; and Capt. Torriano, who commands the garrison of Onore, has orders to supply you with every thing you may want, and to send all recovered officers and men, whether European or Native, to join you. You will strictly observe to keep this one material point constantly in view, which is, the safety of Onore, on account of our stores, provisions, and many etceteras: Capt. Torriano has orders to detain no more sepoys than the necessary guards. When we begin to act to the southward, the enemy may draw off part of their force ; then will be your time to make an impression, and I have hopes of hearing that the fort of Bilghie will, in a fortnight or three weeks, be in your possession. Capt. Torriano will send 2 three-pounders, and 2 artillery-men, with a few Europeans and what sepoys can be spared. You will keep up a constant correspondence with Capt. Torriano, who will occasionally acquaint me of your motions. Your command will be separate from his, unless he finds it necessary to call your party into Onore, for its apparent security, in which case only, you are to act under his orders. I wish you health and success.

(Signed) "r.mathews.
" Onore, 12th Jan. 1783."
It is very hard to understand how it was thought that a force of 15 European's and 150 Sepoys were going to be able to successfully take on the inhabitants of a substantial province well equipped, defended by large and well built forts.

This small force seems to have been intended act in a similar way to the Chindit columns sent into Burma in 1944, operating behind any force from Mysore sent to attack the larger landings at Onore or Mangalore.

One of the best accounts of the expedition comes from David Price's account which was published in 1834.

David Price was a young Ensign who had only landed in India during the previous year. He had however already taken part in the sieges of Negapatam and Trincomalee.

"On the eve of embarkation on a service of such perilous importance, I shall endeavour to bring to mind the nature and amount of that force which was thus about to be employed. There must have been a considerable detachment of artillery, although I have no recollection of the number, under the command of Capts. Toriano and Jackson, with, I think, Lieuts. Jacob Thompson and West; a corps of European infantry, of about four hundred strong, under- Col. Jackson; the basis of two grenadier batts. under Capts. Lampard and Dunn; and the first batt. of sepoys, under Capt. Edward Nugent. To these must be added sundry details, destined to join' the several native batts. already on the coast. There were, moreover, proceeding to the same destination from Surat and Broach, the third, fifth, and fifteenth batts. under Capts. Richardson, Eames, and Maccullock; which would add to the force already mentioned, probably two thousand rank and file; with some very valuable and experienced officers ; and altogether making a total of about three thousand eight hundred rank and file, of every description. The merit of Lieut. Oakes was already so highly appreciated, that he had allotted to him the command of a separate and independent corps. But with the exception of Lieut. now Gen. Blachford, I have not been able to bring to my recollection the names of any other officers of engineers, who accompanied the expedition.

Of the precise date of our departure from Bombay on this occasion, I have preserved no memorandum; but as far as I am now able to judge, it must have been early in the month of December, 1782—just fifty-two years ago, calculating to the year 1834. There was not among the whole of us, I sincerely believe, a single individual who did not entertain the brightest hopes of success ; and our short voyage of three or four days, for it required no more to bring us to the scene of action, passed in cheerful and unalloyed enjoyment. Ensigns Morris, Lonsdale, and myself, with the detail for the second batt. were embarked on board of a Surat battela, a quarter-deck vessel, peculiar to the north west of India ; which may accommodate from an hundred to one hundred and fifty men."

Captain Carpenter's force was part of a larger force that was going to make landings at Honavar or Onore as it was known at the time. The force was carried down the coast by the ships of the Bombay Marine commanded by Commodore Emptage in his 28 gun flag ship Bombay.[2]

The area where the landings were made are surprisingly unchanged since these events took place in 1783, and it is quite easy to follow the course of the actual events on the ground, on maps and in Google Earth.

The landings were initially going to be made at the mouth of the Mergee or Aghanashini River at the Tadri Creek on the north bank near the modern town of Gokarna, with the intention that the force should attack and destroy a ship building yard at Tadri,where allies of Tipu were building a 50 gun ship, with the potential to out gun most East India Company vessels.

However at the last minute the force went for Rajahmundroog on the south bank. There are several potential landing beaches shown on Figure 3 below. It seems that Price's boat went straight for the smallest beach directly under the walls of the fort, whilst others landed on the slightly larger beach at 3.

"On our arrival at a short distance to the northward of the river Merjee, a small sandy bight or cove was pointed out to us, as the spot on which we were likely to land. This would have brought us immediately on the rear of Tudry, where there was on the stocks, what was called a fifty-gun ship. It was, at all events, a vessel of considerable burden, at a subsequent period, burnt by my friend Ross. We had however, scarcely time to deliberate, when we were hailed to make for the beach, south of the river, just under the straggling fort of Rajamundroog. "We accordingly made for the shore, and ran the battela [3] aground. For some minutes we were rather unpleasantly exposed to the guns of the fort—and several shot passed over us. A party of our troops was approaching at the same time from the land side, to attack the gateway, which looked to the east: and we hastened also in the direction of the gateway, from whence a pretty sharp firing of musketry was kept up on the party under Lieut. Stewart, the major of brigade. The gateway was flanked by two towers with guns; and we were close at hand, when we saw Mr. Stewart lifted up by the sepoys into one of the embrasures ; on which the gateway was immediately thrown open to admit of our entrance.

Figure 3. The landing beach and fort at Rajahmundroog. Please click on image for larger version.

"The garrison, whatever they were composed of, had entirely disappeared, with the exception of one man, a Carnatic matchlock man; who suddenly arose from among the long grass, with a wisp of hay in his mouth, and threw himself at our feet. I cannot but remember this man, who was one of the tallest and stoutest natives I ever saw; and I often met him afterwards, as he became enrolled among our ordnance lascars. The fort contained about twenty iron guns of different calibres."

Figure 4. Rajahmundroog Fort, showing ruined building sites. Please click on image for larger images.

"The troops were now disembarking in various directions, particularly from the river, which enters the sea immediately below the hill on which the fort is erected; and was of sufficient depth to admit the anchoring of the old Bombay Grab, a ship of twenty guns. They were encamped across the ridge of the hill to the eastward of the fort, looking directly towards Merjee; which, in a declining sun, appeared rather formidable, with its double line of walls and towers, fausse-bray, and ditch. One of the grenadier batts. was detached under Capt. Lampard to occupy the post at Compta, a little hill fort on the beach, about five miles to the southward. A few days afterwards we were joined by the troops from Malabar: consisting of the forty-second, and hundredth, King's regiments, under Cols. Mc'Leod, and Humberstone: the second, eighth, and eleventh batts. of sepoys; with a proportion of artillery, under Capt. Hislop, a very promising officer of that corps, in the King's service. He was killed not long afterwards in the attack of Hyder gauht, on the march to Bednour. Adding these to the troops already assembled, under Gen. Matthews, I may, I think, venture to state, that the whole amount of force employed on this occasion, in the invasion of Kanara, did not exceed, at the utmost, 5,800 men; of whom scarcely 1,200 were European soldiers."[5]

It is possible to locate quite closely the probable site of the camp to the east of the fort, and from there it is clear that Merjee or Mirjan Fort must have appeared very formidable as it showed up in the setting sun, which would have been behind David Price's shoulders. With that red stone set into the green hill it must have been very impressive.

It must also have been frightening to think that you might have to try to climb up its walls in a few days time.

Figure 5. Image showing possible site of camp and the view towards Mijan Fort. Please click on image for larger version of image.

As the following photo clearly shows the fort at Mirjan was a very formidable one, and it was going to require a very substantial attack if it was going to be taken.

Figure 6. Mirjan Fort, looking towards Rajahmundry. [6]

If you live near these forts or have pictures that you have taken of either Rajahmundroog or Mijan Fort, I would love to have a copy of those photos.

If you are able to point me in the direction of other accounts of these actions, I would also love to hear from you, especially if they come from the Indian point of view. From similar projects in Kerala I am aware that there are a surprising large number of oral stories preserved within the communities affected by these events, and they can be extremely accurate.

If you have one of these please contact me.

Figure 7. Mirjan Fort from Google Earth.

In a future blog I will attempt to follow the fortunes of this expedition as it moves inland.

[1] David Price. Memoirs of the early life and service of a field officer, page 65 & 66.
[2] C. R. Low, The History of the Indian Navy, volume 1. page 180.
[3] Battela, a word that seems to come from Portuguese originally, that is applied today to a particular type of double ended rowing boat, but which seems to have been applied in this case to a local type of ship from Surat with a deck at the stern and substantially larger than the modern Portuguese Battela.
[4] David Price. Page 67.
[5] David Price. Page 68.
[6] Photo by Ranjaub see This thread has many more photos of this very interesting and impressive fort, that appears to be undergoing a substantial restoration.


Nina said...

Interesting reading abt the lesser known parts of India & their history. Complement you on your research.

Suhana Ansari said...
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