Wednesday, September 14, 2011


Possessing foreign lands in the way that Britain colonised much of the world for so many generations is often facilitated by disunity amongst those colonised. The Scots and Welsh certainly found this to be true in their efforts to resist English advances in earlier times, as did India from the mid-17th century.
However, although even in India regular attempts were made to loosen the British grip, it is often the efforts of outsiders that can sometimes prove most troubling. As the British found out for themselves in India.

The incident of 18th November, 1809 is perhaps a vivid example. In the spring of 1809 the beleaguered French managed to get a small squadron of two Frigates and a Corvette past the British blockade of French ports. They were destined for the Bay of Bengal, where they intended to inflict the maximum possible economic damage on Britain’s valuable trade which was substantially financing the war between Britain and France. Arriving a few months later they wrought some carnage on the commercial and smaller naval vessels that were part of the British operations in India.

On November 18th they encountered a small convoy of ‘East Indiamen’, as the lightly armed cargo vessels of the east India Company were known, outward bound to Bengal.  The ships were under the command of Captain John Stewart; their cargo 200 passengers, mostly newly recruited officers for the all important East India Company army.
On sighting the French ships, Captain Stewart signalled for the two other members of his convoy, the Charlton and United Kingdom, to close with his ship, the Windham, in order to jointly pick off the French ships one by one.
Ship for ship, the French frigates outgunned the British; and worse, the British crews were mostly ‘lascars’, many of them Bangladeshis from Sylhet, excellent sailors, but untrained with guns.

They might have still had a chance, if they had worked together, however the captains of the other British vessels declined to close, with the result that the French were able to capture the English ships one by one.
Putting prize crews aboard the captured ships, captain Hamelin began the journey back to France with his captives, surviving a hurricane along the way.  However the captured ships were not all destined for France, blockading British naval ships were able to recapture The Windham and release the imprisoned British soldiers aboard.
The history of the British in India is far from one dimensional. It was indeed a rich and colourful history, and the affair of November 18th was but one of countless such reversals of fortune over the two hundred years of British occupation of the sub continent.

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