A massacre at the seaside
19 February 2016
The life story of Katharine Gerrard Cooke (1695-1745) evokes the struggles faced by the early English pioneers in India. (Part 1)
Summer was at its peak, the river water hot, but the lethargic noon silence was broken by a cacophony of birds, wings flapping, crows and vultures furiously circling the objects floating in the estuary. The people inside the fort were in the punkah rooms, sheltering from the extreme heat, and did not notice the avian turbulence at the river.
Towards evening, a few topasses – native servants of mixed race – came straggling back to Angengo Fort, off the Arabian Sea at Travancore. They were all heavily wounded, their bodies smeared with mud and blood, and broke the news of the massacre at the Queen’s Palace at Attingal, where they had travelled the previous evening.
Their grand procession had left the fort in the afternoon on 14 April, 1721. It was the auspicious day of Vishu, the Hindu New Year, on which the Queen’s subjects paid their respects and gave her their annual gifts. She had given the Honourable East India Company (EIC) the right to build a trading post at Angengo (which they called a Factory), in her kingdom. The Angengo settlement was built around 30 years earlier, during the reign of ‘Queen Ashure’, as the Rani Aswathi Thirunal Umayamma was called in English records. Her country was rich in pepper, and its calico was of excellent quality, but the relationship between natives and English traders had never been smooth. There had been constant disputes and encounters, and a decade earlier, the settlement was attacked by natives who accused the English of lodging pirates. Such skirmishes were routine in most early English settlements along Indian coastlines.
The Attingal Kingdom was a beehive of political intrigue. It was traditionally ruled by matriarchs, although real power was wielded by the Ettuveetil Pillamar – Nair chieftains from eight prominent houses – and their vassals, who controlled revenue collection and enforced caste hierarchy. These families were fighting among themselves for supremacy. After Umayamma Rani’s demise, the chieftain Kudamon Pillai had installed his choice as the queen. This angered his rival, the Vanjimattam Pillai. The factors – the EIC’s official traders at the English fort – played a part in these disputes and intrigues; the Company officials neglected to pay their dues to the queen, leaving the mandatory tributes to her in arrears for several years.
The four-mile march from the fort to the Queen’s Palace was led by chief factor William Gyfford, who had been chief of Angengo Fort for three years. As a young factor at Bombay, he worked as supercargo on English ships to Mocha, in the Persian Gulf. Mocha was famous for coffee, and the Company servants made money through private trade. Sometimes they lost everything to pirates in the Arabian Sea.
Gyfford came to Angengo with his wife Katharine in late 1717, eager to amass “pepper and pagodas” through private trade. The Malabar Coast was famous for its spices, which earned huge fortunes for Company servants. Robert Adams, senior factor at Tellicherry, operated many private trading ships, and was said to have earned a fortune of more than £100,000. Angengo was the place to earn enough for a comfortable retirement at home, and both Gyfford and his wife were eager to build their fortune.
Doing so was not easy, however. At Angengo, English trade was controlled by Simon Cowse – a private trader with many years’ experience – and John Kyffin – a wily, avaricious man – who held the post of chief factor. Kyffin, who had earlier expressed a wish to retire, instead decided to stay put when Gyfford arrived. He soon began to spread rumours about the new arrival, writing letters to his superiors in Bombay and Madras against Gyfford, even alleging that Gyfford used his beautiful wife to achieve his ends.
A desirable girl
Gyfford was Katharine’s third husband, even though she was only 23. She had come to India in 1709, aged no more than 14, accompanied by her parents, two sisters and brother. The family set sail for Calcutta from England aboard the Loyall Bliss in early March 1709, and the voyage lasted seven months. The winds were against them, and by the time they left the Cape of Good Hope, the southwest monsoon winds had stopped blowing, making progress very slow. Many sailors went down with scurvy, and there was an acute shortage of supplies, including water. Captain Hudson decided to weigh anchor at Karwar – on the west coast of India, south of Goa – in search of supplies.
At Karwar, the passengers were hosted by John Harvey, chief of the English factory there. A “deformed man” and “in years”, he was much excited about the arrival of the guests, especially the young ladies. He even forgot to report the anchoring of the ship at the port, drawing a sharp rebuke from the Bombay Council over this neglect of duty. Harvey proposed marriage to Katharine, and her father – Captain Gerrard Cooke, a gunner in the Company’s Bengal forces – was favourable to the idea. He had heard that Harvey was a man of fabulous wealth, and the suitor promised to make special provisions for the young girl. Katharine was dutiful, so she accepted. When Loyall Bliss left Karwaron after two weeks, on 22 October 1709, she had one less passenger on board: Katharine.
Mariner Isaac Pyke wrote home in 1709 that so many in Bombay lived “in a miserable needs & beggarly condition”, and “not halfe able to maintain themselves but live in Hospitality together”
Harvey dreamed of returning to England and setting up a home in the country with his wife. Already in his 50s, he applied for retirement, but had accounts to settle with his employers. As usual with most EIC servants, his private trade had become entangled with the Company’s affairs. Harvey had rented a small trading ship, the Salamander, to the Company at Karwar, and a treasure chest he owned at Tellicherry had been entrusted with the Company for payment in Bombay. To sort out the accounts, Harvey and Katharine travelled from Karwar to Bombay in April 1711. There she met two young Company servants, Thomas Chown and William Gyfford.
Harvey and Katharine returned to Karwar, but in early 1712, Harvey collapsed and died. His accounts had not been settled, and Katharine – aged just 16 – found herself alone in the remote port town with little help managing her affairs. The Company seized all properties of its late servant, and the Chief Factor at Karwar, Miles Fleetwood, was ordered to pay Harvey’s widow only one third of the proceeds until accounts were settled.
This came as a big shock for Katharine. The custodian reported to the Company that the sale of estates raised £13,141, but no payment was made to Katharine. They found that John Harvey had left a will dated 8th April 1708, just before his marriage to Katharine, and asserted she had no legal claims on his estate.
Thomas Chown, the second man in Katharine’s life, entered at this point. As the supercargo of the Godolphin, a ship that traded at ports in the Persian Gulf, he was sent to Karwar as a factor. After a few weeks, Katharine married him. The two decided to travel to Bombay to stake Katharine’s claims on Harvey’s estates. They set out on 3 November 1712, on the Anne, a small trading ship carrying pepper and wax. The Konkan Coast was pirate infested, and the Anne was escorted by the armed yacht of Governor William Aislabie and a 14-gun frigate, Defiance. En route, they were attacked by the forces of Kanhoji Angre, a Maratha admiral, who held sway over the coast from Goa to Bombay from his fort in the impregnable mountains of Udayagiri. An adventurer of humble birth, he had built a powerful fleet and immense wealth, and his actions had been of great concern to the Company for almost half a century.
As Angre’s forces attacked, the Defiance slipped away, and the Governor’s yacht bore the brunt of the defence. Its top mast was shot off, forcing it to surrender. The Anne made an attempt to escape to Karwar, but it was stopped by two of Angre’s ships. Anne was heavily battered. Thomas Chown was hit by a cannonball, which tore off one of his arms, and he died with Katharine by his side. Thus came to an end her second marriage in less than a year, and by now she was pregnant.
The passengers and crew of the Anne were taken prisoner, and Katharine and a few others were taken to Colaba. There, she spent three months in a dungeon, until the Company’s council in Bombay came to an agreement with Angre over the payment of a ransom. In February 1713, Lieutenant Mackintosh arrived at Colaba with Rs 30,000, and the prisoners were released. Clement Downing, a chronicler of the time, wrote that the Lieutenant was “obliged to wrap his clothes about her [Katharine], to cover her nakedness”. She returned to Bombay on 22 February 1713, and delivered a boy, who she named Thomas Chown.
In the early 18th century, Bombay’s English society was small and closely knit. Everyone knew about Katherine’s story and how she was left without support after Harvey’s death. The Company’s Bombay Council offered her Rs 1000 from her former husband’s estates, which they had seized and withheld. They also offered her an allowance as a widow of a slain servant. In October, the Council paid her Rs 7492 from her late husband’s estates, though they had earlier refused to make any payment from a will John Harvey was said to have left.
Katharine learnt a difficult lesson in dealing with a company that called itself the Honourable East India Company. Its servants were paid poorly, so were allowed to trade privately, as long as such activity did not interfere with the Company’s interests. Servants were posted to distant places, communication was difficult, and fraud, malpractice and swindling were rampant. The Company never trusted its servants, who in turn held grievances against their masters. In 1698, an anonymous memorandum was circulated in London for the consideration of members of Parliament, which described the “Great Oppressions and Injuries” that the managers of the EIC had inflicted on the “lives, liberties and estates” of their fellow subjects. The private correspondence of the servants was also full of such complaints.
Salaries were poor and living and working conditions were hard on the servants. Mid-level servants like Thomas Chown – who had been a factor – earned only £20 per year, less than the annual earnings of a labourer in London at the time. The governors and members of the council, and influential senior servants, made huge fortunes and lived in splendour, but the less fortunate lived in poor, unhealthy conditions. Mariner Isaac Pyke wrote home in 1709 that so many in Bombay lived “in a miserable needs & beggarly condition”, and “not halfe able to maintain themselves but live in Hospitality together”. He wrote that five or six people “lye in one Room & if any has a Room to himselfe tis not easye to guess how mean & sorry a hole it is.”
Life was full of risks and they had no hopes of support from anyone. Katharine’s second husband had lost everything in such an accident. His ship, Godolphin – laden with merchandise from Mocha – reached Bombay on a monsoon evening, and they failed to reach the harbour before nightfall. Fearing pirates, they anchored outside, a near-suicidal act. In heavy weather at night, the cables snapped and the ship became wrecked at the foot of Malabar Hill. They lost everything except their lives. Such incidents were common, but the Company took little notice.
The grievances and complaints of the Company servants and their families received little attention. After the death of her first husband, Katharine petitioned the Company – including the directors in London – many times. Letters to Thomas Woolly, Secretary of the EIC for over 25 years till his death in 1728, kept in the British Library contains a few from Katherine Chown and William Gyfford. She never, however, received replies to her entreaties.
A final husband
Katharine had become a widow for a second time, and had a child to care for. William Gyfford was a young and unmarried friend of Thomas Chown’s from his early years in Bombay. Some accounts say that Thomas, as he was dying, asked Katharine to go to William if she escaped. Late in 1713, Katharine once again married, this time to William Gyfford, her third and final husband. Soon they had a daughter, Anne Gyfford.
William spent a few years as supercargo to the ship Catharine, which traded in Persian Gulf ports, such as Mocha and Bandar Abbas. In 1717, he was appointed the factor at Angengo, where chief factor John Kyffin had expressed a wish to retire. Kyffin had become unpopular in Company circles, which led to his decision to quit. When William and Katharine arrived at the fort on the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent, which served as the final port of call for ships travelling to Madras and Calcutta, a cold welcome from the fort’s chief awaited them. In a letter to the Governor in Bombay, Kyffin makes several allegations against William. He accused him of the serious offence of having insulted a Brahmin by forcing him to shave the head of an untouchable man.
Gyfford was mercurial. He ignored the social conventions and divisions of the country. The Attingal Kingdom’s ruling family was Hindu, but the traders were also Muslim and Christian. There were disputes and confrontations between various communities, and the country was in a chaos. The authority of the Queen was challenged by chieftains. The Pillamar families controlled the lands and acted autonomously.
Gyfford, as soon as he started trading in his new post, got entangled in the palace’s power games, and annoyed powerful communities in the country. He had taken over some land through a money-lending business, which put him in opposition to Kudamon Pillai, a chieftain who had an eye on that property. A close aide to Gyfford was the linguist at the factory, a Roman Catholic of Portuguese descent, Ignatio Malheiro, and a hated figure for his money-lending deals. Malheiro had wrested a large property in a deal that had enraged Nairs, who feared he would defile the temples in a holy grove.
The prominent traders in Attingal were Muslim, and called themselves Maraccars. In 1719, Gyfford had loaned money for procuring pepper to 18 traders: eight Muslims, three Christians, one of a low caste and the rest Nairs, Pillais and other upper castes. The Muslim traders complained that Malheiro insulted their people, but Gyfford refused to listen to their complaints and expelled them from the fort, after breaking their swords over their heads.
Alexander Hamilton, a Scottish sea captain, in his 1737 chronicle of his travels in the East Indies – ‘A new account of the East Indies’ – commented that the servants’ “heels and language saved them from Massacre, and they brought the sad news of the tragedy.”
The traders complained about the Company’s shady business methods. They received a part of the payment for pepper as an advance, and were promised the rest on fulfilment of orders. But they said that the Company cheated them by using false weights and writing fictitious entries in the account books. In a list of payments for the year 1719, individual traders had separate agreements with the Company, and prices ranged from 280 to 325 fanams per candy of pepper. A fanam was a silver coin used in the Madras Presidency until 1815, worth 1/12th of a rupee. One candile, or candy, was equal to 225 to 250 kilograms, the value varying in different parts of India.
Resentment towards the English traders grew, as did the number of attacks on the factory. The Angengo Fort was well protected and the attacks were resisted, but the Company’s business came to a standstill. In a letter to Fort St. George (the Company’s Madras headquarters) on 26 August 1719, Gyfford wrote that there was difficulty procuring pepper, “that trade being now wholly lost except what’s on your Coast.” He complained that very little grain could be procured by Angengo factors. To break the deadlock and resume normal trade, the Company sent Walter Brown, council member in Bombay, to Angengo to start negotiations. With the help of Vanjimuttam Pillai, he was able to get things moving again.
Trade picked up, and on that fateful night, Gyfford – accompanied by Company servants, soldiers and topasses – embarked on his goodwill mission to the Queen’s palace. Accounts vary about the number of people killed there, but it is generally thought to have been between 120 and 140. Only a few native servants survived. Alexander Hamilton, a Scottish sea captain, in his 1737 chronicle of his travels in the East Indies – ‘A new account of the East Indies’ – commented that the servants’ “heels and language saved them from Massacre, and they brought the sad news of the tragedy.”
The night of the massacre
The sequence of events has been described in various ways. William Logan, in his 1887 history of the region, Malabar Manual, wrote that the Angengo factors were asked for the annual present due to the Rani, which were overdue by seven years. The demand was made by the Queen’s chieftains, who assured Gyfford “that they came to demand it by the Queen’s order”. But Gyfford felt that if the presents were sent, they would never reach Her Highness, and so he refused to pay them into the hands of anyone but the Rani.
John Biddulph had a different view. In his 1907 book, The Pirates of Malabar, Biddulph wrote that Gyfford resolved to revive the custom of offering presents to the Rani with a view to ingratiating himself to her. “Accordingly, accompanied by all merchants and factors… Gyfford started for Attinga, four miles up the river”. He had carried valuable gifts, and their negotiations and distribution took some time. At the end of the proceedings, Gyfford ordered the firing of a salvo to celebrate the successful conclusion of his mission.
The ceremonies at the palace were led by Kudamon Pillai. However, Vanjimuttam Pillai, who had better relations with the English, was not to be seen. The guests were informed that he was drunk, and would meet them when he was fit. It was a credible excuse on the eve of a festive occasion, but it roused the suspicions of Simon Cowse, the English trader who accompanied Gyfford. He knew the people well and doubted the veracity of this excuse. He advised return to the fort immediately, but Gyfford refused.
The visiting party was invited to spend the night at the palace, and Gyfford accepted. The rooms were too small and the guests were all dispersed. Soon, the English discovered that their ammunition had been removed, and their guns were secured by palace guards. Gyfford became uncomfortable and sent a note of warning to Robert Sewell, store keeper at the fort, through a native courier:
Captain Sewell. We are treacherously dealt with here, therefore keep a very good look-out on any designs on you. Have a good look to your two Trankers [palisades], We hope to be with you to-night. Take care and don’t frighten women; we are in no great danger.
The English, scattered in different rooms, were defenceless. Late at night, a crowd of natives surged upon the English, drove them to an open enclosure and cut them down. The leaders among the English were singled out and subjected to torture before being killed. Company trader Cesar Burton and the Fort’s surgeon were among the dead. Malheiro was “gradually dismembered, while Gyfford had his tongue torn out, was nailed to a log of wood, and sent floating down the river,” as Biddulph reports.
Simon Cowse spoke Malayalam, the local language, and managed to escape from the palace to the fort through a less frequented path. Unfortunately, he encountered a “Mohammedan merchant who owed him money”, according to Biddulph’s account. Cowse offered to acquit him of his debt, but the man apparently had little faith in the English trader’s word and cut him down, thus settling his accounts.
Explanations of what prompted the massacre also differ. Most scholars say that it was the result of internecine feuds among feudal vassals for control over trade and wealth. The English had provoked and caused resentment among major trading communities, but the massacre was organised by chieftains close to Kudamon Pillai. The queen was accused of playing a part in the murderous schemes, and Vanjimuttam Pillai’s suspicious behaviour led to the conclusion that he was playing a double game.
A few days after the massacre, the fort was attacked by native soldiers, and only a few people left to defend it. It was a precarious structure with weak defences, and had only about 35 boys and a few older people to form a garrison, with “not twenty [of them] fit to hold” a gun, as a report sent to Fort St. George said. The fort house had been described by a visitor as “no more than timber covered with palm leaves […] so very dangerous taking fire.” When attacks came, the palm roof was hurriedly dismantled to discourage fires, 700 bags of rice with salt fish were stored, and the Company’s treasures were brought inside for safe keeping. Urgent requests for reinforcements were sent to Calicut and Bombay. The day after the massacre, on 16 April, women and children were sent away, to Madras and other places.
The siege lasted for six months. Attacks were mostly made by throwing firearms inside, burning buildings and scaring those inside. A concerted attack began on 24 June, when the native soldiers attacked from three sides, except the sea. The soldiers made entrenchments on two sides, and on the third they set up camp at the house of Simon Cowse, whose widow and children had abandoned the large stone building. By this time some reinforcements had reached the fort – a small force of seven men came a week after the massacre, and two weeks later, an ensign and 51 men from Calicut and Tellicherry, arranged by senior factor Robert Adams, had joined them. With these forces, the fort was able to withstand the assault, and soon overpowered the native soldiers camped in Cowse’s house. A small party marched to the house and threw hand grenades in to disperse the soldiers, who hurriedly evacuated the building. Some jumped into the river and drowned, or were shot from the fort’s ramparts. In mid-October, Captain Blackett Midford, with a force of 300 men, arrived and took control of the fort, effectively quelling the native uprising.
After the massacre, the English tried to intervene in local politics, to consolidate power into a central authority capable of putting down the chieftains who disrupted trade
After the massacre, the English tried to intervene in local politics, to consolidate power into a central authority capable of putting down the chieftains who disrupted trade. This was proposed by Alexander Orme, who had been made chief of the Angengo factory soon after the attacks. He was a surgeon who had come to India in 1706 as an adventurer. He was described by Angengo servants as a “very capable and ingenious person that would be extraordinarily serviceable to our masters and us in sickness”. Orme’s medical skills were in demand at the fort, as the previous surgeon had been killed in the massacre.
Orme was the brother-in-law of Robert Adams. He was married to Adams’ sister Eleanor, with whom he had a son, historian Robert Orme. In 1722, Orme reached an agreement with the Queen of Attingal over the actions to be taken to punish the ringleaders, safeguard the Company’s interests and the security of its servants. But the Directors in London were lukewarm in their response. They felt that “in the present case We fear We shall buy our Esteem at too dear a Rate”, and extricated itself from responsibility for taking steps against the attackers. The Company noted: “We are sorry to find it included in the Treaty, That We must supply Souldiers to carry on the War against her rebellious Subjects for which she [the queen] is to pay the Charge.” But the Company did not think they would ever recover the money because of the “variable temper and poverty of those people.” In an indictment to those slain men and all who served the Company in these distant lands, the directors wrote: “To what purpose of her Grant to Us of all the Pepper in her Countrey, If Our unfaithful people there get all for themselves and none for Us.”
Later, Orme appeared to have been more concerned about his personal enrichment. One of his associates in Bombay, Robert Cowan – senior servant and later Governor – wrote to a friend in October 1723 that: “Mr. Orme is far from giving that satisfaction in the management of the Company’s affairs at Angengo as might have reasonably been expected [of] him”. He was, according to Cowan, not acting as per his covenant, but preferring his “private Interest to that of the Companys.” He also hinted at some serious charges levelled against Orme by a servant named Wallis, which, “if he is able to prove, must displace him.” Whatever the conclusion of the charges, it was clear that Orme worked hard to get himself out of trouble, and even tried to bribe influential people in Bombay. Timothy Davies notes that a senior servant, Thomas Waters, was reprimanded by the Company in 1731 for accepting a “bribe of four thousand rupees” from Orme at Angengo, to represent his conduct favourably to the Governor and Council at Bombay.
Robert Adams, who represented the Company in Malabar for three decades, had also fallen out of favour with the Company’s authorities. His financial transactions with local rulers caused tension, as the Company suspected that its resources were being bled. Adams had lent a large amount of the Company’s money to Zamorin of Calicut, a native ruler, to fund his wars. There was no way to recover it. In 1726, Company director and future chairman Edward Harrison, a friend of Adams’, wrote to warn him that the complaints received in London, and “the confused narratives you send us of all your transactions” had “raised such a storm” that it would be difficult to ward them off.
In March 1728, Adams was relieved of his post, and his successor John Braddyl reported that Zamorin’s debts to the Company amounted to a substantial 668,122 fanams (approximately £40,087 – six pence amounted to one fanam at the time). The Bombay Council tried to restrict Adams’ movements, but the order was later rescinded, and Adams and his wife left Malabar for Fort St. George, and then London.
The Company failed to protect its own servants, and abandoned their families to their fate. A number of English women, including Katharine, had lost their husbands, and many children their fathers
That is how things stood after the massacre, the first incident of mass murder of English traders in the history of English rule in India. The Company failed to protect its own servants, and abandoned their families to their fate. A number of English women, including Katharine, had lost their husbands, and many children their fathers.
Robert Adams, one of the lucky servants who successfully returned home with his riches and became a Company director, never disguised his true feelings about his long-time masters. After retirement in London, he wrote to friends in India that the way business was being conducted at East India House was so bad that the names of the directors had “almost become a reproach.” In an assessment of the directors’ attitudes to servants who were forced to indulge in private trade in inhospitable circumstances to supplement their income, Adams noted that they had “limited all their servants trade” so much that “they will not be able to gitt a livelihood honestly.”
Honesty was not on anyone’s agenda. In the dog-eat-dog early 18th century, they all fought for survival, and most succumbed to tropical diseases or accidents, disappearing without leaving even a headstone. Only a few returned home to enjoy a comfortable life, reminiscing about the uncertain days they spent in the hot tropical east.
Uncertainty loomed ahead as Katharine and two other women, with their children, set out on their voyage to Madras as refugees, under the cover of darkness the day after the massacre. Their rickety vessel provided little relief at the height of summer.
To be continued… Read what happened to Katherine after the massacre here.
~ N P Chekkutty, a senior journalist based in Calicut, is co-author of three books on South India’s European heritage, including the two-volume Malabar: Christian Memorials and Nilgiri Hills: Christian Memorials.