Sunday, 10 April 2011

Captain's Carpenter column moves inland, 1783

Figure 1. Exterior of Mirjan Fort.

The forces from Bombay, were quickly reinforced by a brigade brought up from Ponnani on the Malabar Coast where they had narrowly escaped defeat by Tipu Sultan's forces, after a disastrous expedition to Palghat.

Carpenter calculated that  

"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." [1]

General Matthews then determined to attack Mirjan Fort which lay up river along the route that would have to be taken to Compta (or Kumta as it is currently known.) and on to Onore.

Figure 2. Map showing the location of Mirjan Fort,
which threatened the flank of the General's army should it wish
to march to Onore which was situated south of Kumta,
which lay on the route the troops would have to take. 
[Please click on image for larger version.]

The attack on Mirjan started off rather inauspiciously for the East India Company force, however it was quickly realised that the garrison in the fort at Mirjan was not able or willing to put up any significant resistance.

"The arrival of this powerful addition to our force, seems to have determined the General to employ a part of the troops in an immediate attack on Merjee, which looked so invitingly down the river, at the distance of about four or five miles. The division destined for this under Col. Mc'Leod, was accordingly embarked on the river; Lieut. Ross, with whom I became now for the first time acquainted, and myself, with a detachment from the second batt. being ordered on dutv with this force.

We had, however, scarcely entered our boats, when having, for some reason or other, abandoned this design for the present, the General countermanded his orders, and we re-landed.

It is, however, to be acknowledged, that in this change of plan, Gen. Matthews acted with the soundest discretion; since it is sufficiently obvious that by a waste of time, which might have been incurred in attacking a place of such minor importance, the paramount object of the expedition would have been exposed to the hazard of defeat. It is probable that he therefore determined to establish a more centrical, and more eligible basis for his operations, by the reduction of Onore.

Not many nights preceeding, a body of the enemy supposed to belong to the garrison of that place, had made their appearance in the cocoa-nut tope or grove, immediately under the fortified post, at Compta; which I have already mentioned to have been occupied by Capt. Lampard and his corps of grenadiers. With a caution which exposed him to ridicule, that officer, instead of attacking these undisciplined irregulars, chose to cram his whole batt. about four hundred strong, into a work where there was hardly standing room for the men. The enemy deriving courage from this unusual proof of deference, became, as was to be expected, more daring and insolent; although they immediately withdrew on the appearance of the reinforcement, which was hastening to the relief of the post."

Figure 3. Compta or Kumpta today. 
[Please click on image for larger version.][2]

While it is not possible to be certain where Captain Lampard and his grenadiers had built their fortified post. However Google Earth shows that today Kumpta stands on top of a kidney shaped ridge, some 20 to 25 metres higher than the surrounding fields and plantations. It is very probable that this ridge was the scene of the post and Lampard's humiliation.

Figure 4. Kumta today from Google Earth showing the
kidney shaped ridge that was probably the site
of Captain Lampard's post.
[Please click on image for larger version.]

"Whether this circumstance might not have had some influence in drawing the attention of the General more immediately to that quarter, I cannot pretend to say. But the whole united force was shortly afterwards in full march for Onore; Capt. Carpenter's batt. the old second, to which I was attached, or the greater part of it, being left to protect the stores and other equipments, that remained at Rajamandroog."

General Matthew's main force moved off to Onore (known today as Honavar.), approximately 15 miles to the south, where he and his force set about besieging the town. Captain Carpenter's force was set the task of acting as a covering force, moving towards the west and the foothills of the ghats.

"To our unfeigned satisfaction, our confinement at Rajamandroog was now to terminate. Our commandant having received orders, from head quarters, to proceed with his batt. into the districts within land of Onore to the eastward; for the purpose of repelling any attempt that might be made by the enemy in that direction. We marched accordingly in the direction indicated to us; our corps becoming thus a moving column of observation; acting about sixteen or eighteen miles to the eastward of Onore, and in the direct road as we afterwards found to the Bilghy gauht."

The position this column took cannot be determined exactly, but it is very likely that it was on the line of the modern road from Kumta heading inland towards Siddapura. The road traverses the Bilgi Ghat which rises to about 540 metres in about 2 miles as the Crow flies, although many more by actual twists and turns of the road.

Figure 5. Google Earth Image showing the location of the
Bilgie Ghat. It is probable that Carpenter's force was
stationed in the plain at the toe of the Ghat.

"I am disposed to think, that the corps with Capt. Carpenter at this period, after deducting the men detached, could not have mustered more than three hundred firelocks; one-half of which, however, were veteran grenadiers, inured to service.

To these latter, under Lieuts. Hodges and Weldon, I was now attached. The officers present were—Capt. Carpenter, Lieuts. Hodges, Weldon, Fyfe and Lawrence, Ensigns Morris, Lonsdale, and myself. Lieut. Ross must have been left in command at Rajamandroog."

As so often was the case with 18th Century armies, the column had little or no logistical support, and was expected to forage for it's own rations.  

Lieutenant's Weldon and Price troops were engaged in plundering stocks of rice from one unfortunate village when they came under attack. It is not clear if the attackers were infuriated villagers, or part of a relief force heading towards Onore in support of that towns resistance to East India Company attack. 

"Be this as it may, Lieut.Weldon and myself, with part of the grenadiers, were one day on the advanced guard, in front of an obscure hamlet, called Moordnulla, no longer perhaps in existence; and as we held the commissariat in our own hands, the sepoys were engaged in thrashing rice from the straw, which lay stacked about the villages; being at the time the only source from which we derived our subsistence. There was in front, a rice ground, about a hundred and fifty or two hundred yards over; skirted on the other side by a pretty thick wood of forest trees; and we had on our left, a shallow and transparent river, running over a bed of rock and gravel; and, I am inclined to think, the same river that runs by the fort of Merjee to Rajamandroog."

Figure 6. A modern photo taken by trekker's showing
the river near Kumta, with the ghats in the background.
Although it is impossible to be sure if it is the same 
location described, it gives a very good idea of the
type of territory the column was operating in.

"We had a small advanced party in the outskirts of the wood in our front; and it might have been about one or two in the afternoon, when some musket shot from the wood rendered it necessary that our sepoys should relinquish their employment of threshing, and betake themselves to their arms. In the meantime, I was sent forward by Lieut. Weldon, to bring off our party from the wood. While I was calling in the sentries, several shot were fired at us; and the sepoy orderly who attended me, received a dangerous wound between the thighs, which lamed him for life. I was observing their movements of the few matchlock men that made their appearance squatting among the trees, when a shot struck one of the trees by which I was standing; and a splinter grazed the corner of my eye; without, however, any great injury. I thought it, nevertheless, rather a narrow escape—and I now withdrew the party, and regained the advanced guard, which stood to their arms coolly, awaiting the attack. As the enemy gave no further indication of their presence, they must have immediately retired. And this was probably nothing more than what, in magniloquent terms, might be called a reconnaissance, to discover our force and position.

With that decision which marked his character, Capt. Carpenter, at the head of the main body of our diminutive force, immediately advanced to our support; and as if to demonstrate our readiness to accept the challenge, we all together entered the wood in our front: and having pushed through to the opposite side and some distance beyond, without discovering any vestige of the enemy, we took up our ground for the day."[4]

The small column now decided to advance up the ghats. This must have been a daunting task as they faced a steep climb in the dark up a twisting mountain path, that they had never seen or marched up before. The path would be lined on both sides with dense forest. Today the area is very popular with trekkers and wildlife tourists.

"At our evening parade of the same day, Lieuts. Hodges and Weldon received orders to march with both companies of grenadiers, immediately after night-fall, for the purpose of attacking the enemy— now known to have taken post in some strength, in the Bilghy gauht (or ghat—or pass of the mountains) at the distance of about twelve or fourteen miles. Immediately after dusk, accordingly, we set off; and having continued our march during the greater part of the night, about three in the morning, or at all events some time before day-break, we began to ascend the pass—not without considerable difficulty, in preserving the connection of our files in the darkness, and through the ruggedness of the road.

At last, without meeting with any other obstacle, we came to a gateway defended by a tower, with guns on each flank; which we immediately assailed. Lieut. Weldon being lifted up by myself into one of the embrasures, while I pushed myself round the flank and came upon the rear ;—the enemy making off with great precipitation. Seizing a Frenchman, who had been posted here to manage the guns, I held him up in my arms to remove the gate fastenings, which were otherwise above our reach; and the gate being thus thrown open, the sepoys entered without difficulty. We now hastened forwards; and at a short distance further up the pass, came upon a second gateway, fortified in the same manner with the first. This was also immediately attacked and carried, after a very slight resistance."

Figure 7.  The head of the Bilgi Ghat. Even today, and without a tower
commanded by a solitary Frenchman in residence, it is a stiff climb

"On this occasion, having warded off the push of a spear from under the eaves, which had nearly taken my eye, I ascended the tiled roof of the gateway; and the ground rising abruptly in the rear, I jumped down, as it happened, without injury.

Day was now breaking, and we continued to advance to a considerable distance, perhaps more than a mile, beyond the summit of the pass; until we came to the enemy's bazaar, which we found abundantly furnished with every thing we could desire for the supply of our brave and faithful sepoys. All this was accomplished, as far as I am able to recollect, without a single casualty; which, considering how strongly fortified and armed these gateways were found to be, could not have been the case, unless the enemy had been completely panic stricken."

Following the fall of Onore, General Matthews had marched inland to Bednur using a route that ran to the south of the Bilgie Ghat route. His success in marching inland may have diverted attention away from the route Captain Carpenter's force was taking. Unfortunately Matthews was over stretching himself and disaster would follow.

Meanwhile Captain Carpenter's detachment found itself in what sounds to have been a very pleasant and hitherto untouched settlement. As so often in war, the arrival of troops resulted in a disaster for the inhabitants, who after a brief resistance, took to the nearby hills, forced to look on in horror as their town was ransacked for food and valuables.

"In the course of the two following days, Capt. Carpenter joined with the remainder of the detachment; and we had by this time learnt, that the town of Bilghy, the capital of the district, lay at the distance of about twelve or fourteen miles to the eastward of the pass, of which we had so fortunately obtained possession. On the night of the third, or at latest of the fourth day, after such possession, the whole detachment was on the march to attack the town. We encountered neither obstacle nor interruption until a little before day-light; when a small guard at a sort of barrier gate at the entrance of the place, discharged their matchlocks at us; but immediately making off, left us an unmolested passage.

When day-light came, the town being completely evacuated by the inhabitants, we took possession of the palace of the Rajah; a spacious mansion at the eastern extremity of the long street, of which the town of Bilghy is principally composed; and we found it stored to profusion, with the richest stuffs, shawls, sauries, and other splendid articles of dress; which, at a proper market, might have been disposed of at considerable value. We afterwards learned, to our regret, that all this was the property of the Rajah, said to be favourably disposed towards the British government. Of all, however, we had, without ceremony, taken possession; making on the spot a fair and equitable distribution of the property. There were, however, other articles of considerable value, which we could not so conveniently dispose of; in particular, an extensive assortment of brass and copper ware of every variety, to the value of thirty or forty thousand rupees, which we were constrained to leave untouched.

It may be needless to observe that our operations required despatch, as the enemy must have been in superior force close at hand; and there was full in our view to the eastward, at the distance of not more than eight or nine miles, a respectable looking hill fort, to which our information assigned the name of Goopty. Indeed we must reasonably have expected, considering the paucity of our numbers, that our retreat to the gauht would not be accomplished without molestation.

Having therefore passed the day and the ensuing night, in, and about, the palace of Bilghy, we were assembled about four in the morning round a blazing fire, in the square of the palace; when a jassous or courier, entered, and delivered a note into Capt. Carpenter's hand. The note was from Gen. Matthews himself; announcing the triumphant intelligence, that he was in possession of the ancient and opulent metropolis of Bednour."[5]

The enthusiasm with which this most welcome intelligence was hailed, may be easily conceived— nor shall I ever forget the joy, amounting almost to extacy, with which the sepoys passed to each other the triumphant word "Nuggar lear—Nuggar is fallen."* This gratifying information must then have been received by us about the 31st January, 1783; as Gen. Matthews is known, from his own letters, to have entered Bednour, at the invitation of Ayauz Saheb (usually called Hyat Saheb) on the 29th of that month. The General's note conveyed at the same time an order, that our small force should proceed immediately to the northward, for the reduction of the enemy's forts and districts, north of the river of Merjee. The resolution to withdraw from our present position, which had been taken prior to this information, was thus confirmed or enforced, by the instructions of our Commander-in-Chief.

Figure 8. Bilgie Village.

You get the sense that David Price and the other members of the column found a rather special village at Bilghie, and one that was different to the many others they had visited in their campaigns. Sadly they were like to pillage the village like many other generations of soldiers before and since them.

"I have perfect recollection of the singular cleanness exhibited in every part of the very pleasing little town of Bilghy. The small verandah, in front of every house, was the very pattern of neatness and purity; and I do not bear in mind the image of any place that, in this respect, I can venture to compare with Bilghy as it then stood; unless it be the neat and well ordered weaving town of Gohkauk, below the fall of the river Gutpoorba. It was, however, a complete solitude: for, during the day and night which we remained there, we did not see a single living being, ourselves excepted, in the shape of an inhabitant."

The poor inhabitants watching on from the nearby hills, must have been very pleased to see them leaving for the coast.

It is not possible from the Google Earth images to readily identify the Raja's Palace. Has anybody ever visited Bilgie?

If you live in the area, I would be fascinated to see pictures of the village, and especially any of the older houses. Do they still have verandas?

[1] David Price. Memoirs of the early life and service of a field officer, page 68.
[2] Photo taken by Natasha Chanda Acharga, posted on the IndiaMike website. 
[3] David Price. Memoirs of the early life...
[4] David Price. Memoirs of the early life...
[5] David Price. Memoirs of the early 76.

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