Let there be piracy …
During the centuries of Britain’s rise (1600-1800), a significant source of wealth was piracy – loot of merchant shipping, on high seas.
A particular target of English pirates were Spanish ships, crossing the Atlantic, carrying gold from the Americas to Spain. English pirates attacked and looted these ships. Any ship was a target – and many a time, the ship itself, and not the cargo, was the target of the pirates.
British access to financial liquidity, initially, was a result, of organized piracy – targeting Spanish merchant shipping. Modern British history glosses over this ‘contribution’ made by piracy.
Looting … uh?
Pirate nation to super-power
Till 1856, sea piracy was legal. And not just legal, but also promoted by European Governments.
The British Crown gave permits to pirates for looting on high seas – through, what were known as, letters of marque. With two conditions – English ships would not be attacked and the State would get a part of the loot.
One of the earliest ‘success stories’ was Pirate John Hawkins. So successful was Pirate Hawkins, that he became Admiral ‘Sir’ John Hawkins. Pirates like Admiral ‘Sir’ John Hawkins made money on slave trade and piracy. This model of ‘voyages’, became the norm for the next 200 years. With the encouragement and sanction of the English State, high seas piracy and African slavery combination became the national industry in Britain. Trafficking African slaves one way, piracy the rest of the time.
Descendants of Admiral ‘Sir’ John Hawkins, recently ‘apologized’ to Africans for the crimes of their ancestor – Admiral ‘Sir’ John Hawkins.
Admiral Hawkin’s more famous nephew, was ‘Sir’ Francis Drake. El Draque, The Dragon, to the Spanish.
Drake’s voyage in the ship Golden Hind is an event in British economic history. His attack on the Spanish ship, Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion, nicknamed ‘Cacafuego’ (meaning Shitfire!) captured off Ecuador on March 1, 1579 yielded much loot. It took six days to transfer the loot from the Spanish ship to the British. In this capture, Drake seized 80 pounds of gold and 26 tons of silver. Queen Elizabeth, apart from knighting him, was also a financial partner in these criminal enterprises.
And the Others
Anne Bonney, Henry Morgan (later appointed a Governor in the Caribbean) were other celebrated pirates. Edward Teach (also Edward Thatch, c. 1680 – 22 November 1718), better known as Blackbeard remains famous to this day.
Dutch pirates like Maarten Tromp, Piet Hein (also Heyn), were made admirals. Thin lines divided pirates from official naval forces. Michael de Ruyter , another Dutch pirate became notorious for his raids across the Canadian coastline. Recently, Netherlands named an underground tunnel after Piet Hein – and ditties were written and set to music for Piet Hein. Piet Hein’s became famous when he captured booty worth 1 million sterling or 12 million guilders in gold, silver, and expensive goods like indigo and cochineal from Spanish ships.
Looting from Looters
The main target for pirates – Spanish ships in the Atlantic.
Why only Spanish ships?
Spain, which had a monopoly over most of America by the Papal Bulls, had a steady stream of ships, carrying looted gold from the Americas, after the massacres and genocide of Native Americans.
How did Spain end with a ‘monopoly’ over the New World?
The Vatican in the 15th century, partitioned the world between Spain and Portugal. Each of these nations were given exclusive rights for expanding ‘trade’, and ‘planting the banner of Christ’. These awards to Spain and Portugal, known as Papal Bulls, excluded Britain, France, Danes, Netherlands and German region.
The politics of of piracy
After the break with Vatican, during the reign of Henry VIII, no longer tied by Papal injunctions and diktat, the English decided to challenge Spain. After the grant of duopoly to Spain and Portugal, vide the Papal Bulls, by the Church Of Rome, England, France and Netherlands declared open season against Spanish ships.
Jamaica, captured by the British (1655), from the Spanish, was an ideal hideout from which English pirates, attacked Spanish ships. Further, it was it was a safe-haven for escaping Native American Tainos and African Slaves. Called Maroons, they were recruited by these pirate ships, to bolster manpower.
The Spanish Armada was assembled by Spain to end British piracy.
And Britain decided to form a company to challenge Portugal in India. In 1600, the English East India Company (EEIC) was formed to spearhead English trade with India. By 1650, EEIC obtained the firmaan from Shah Jehan to operate in India – and compete with the Iberians.
At the heart of Britain’s wealth – piracy
The explicit use of pirates in the Caribbean brought great riches to the Britain. For a good part of 300 years (1550-1850), the English crown gave permits for pirates to operate on high seas. The rise of European powers coincided closely to piracy. In a modern context, imagine the Italian government giving legal sanction to the Mafia, or Colombians to the Cali cartel.
Keynes famously linked all British foreign investment to the single act of looting of the Spanish Armada. John Maynard Keynes, famously and honestly, tracked the source of British capital – and computed the compounded value of this loot. Keynes wrote: –
I trace the beginnings of British foreign investment to the treasure which Drake stole from Spain in 1580. In that year he returned to England bringing with him the prodigious spoils of the Golden Hind. Queen Elizabeth was a considerable shareholder in the syndicate which had financed the expedition. Out of her share she paid off the whole of England’s foreign debt, balanced her Budget, and found herself with about £40,000 in hand. This she invested in the Levant Company –which prospered. Out of the profits of the Levant Company, the East India Company was founded; and the profits of this great enterprise were the foundation of England’s subsequent foreign investment. Now it happens that £40,ooo accumulating at 3f per cent compound interest approximately corresponds to the actual volume of England’s foreign investments at various dates, and would actually amount to-day to the total of £4,000,000,000 which I have already quoted as being what our foreign investments now are. Thus, every £1 which Drake brought home in 1580 has now become £100,000. Such is the power of compound interest!
Now we all know where the Spaniards got their gold from!
Piracy across the Desert Bloc
Were Europeans the only pirates.
Among Islamic pirates, the more famous were the Barbarossa Brothers – Muslim pirates operating in the Turkey-Mediterranean region. No less capable, or less effective, the Barbarossa Brothers were the most notorious pirates – raiding towns and villages, for slaves. Their raids were feared across the Mediterranean. Against the Barbarossa Brothers were the Knights of St.James.
Indian shipping was also significantly affected by piracy.
Piracy affects India
British historiography claims that Maratha Navy under Kanhoji Angre – which levied taxes on British ships, were privateers and /or a pirate. Before that, Mughal armies removed the Portuguese from Daman, for attacking a royal ship, Rahimi, carrying the Mughal Queen, Maryam uz Zamani, to the Haj in 1613.
Using their ill-gotten gains, from slavery, piracy, crime, loot, et al Islamic rulers and the English outbid Indian rulers. For military elements like saltpetre, elephants, sepoys, horses, armies et al. In India’s military market, the highest bidder usually also won the subsequent wars.
Increased stranglehold of Indian economic output, after the 1857 war in India, gave British a fresh impetus to de-legitimizing piracy. In 1858, Rep. HL Underwood, on June 10th 1858, on the subject of ‘Increase of the navy’, in the US Congress stated that
United States would be the first to resist the unauthorized use of her flag by vessels of other nations fraudulently to carry on said trade, as Great Britain asserts is being done.
British propaganda and the Government made these pirates and privateers into governors, officials and heroes – and the Spanish Armada into an instrument of Catholic repression. In the best Anglo Saxon propaganda tradition, books soon started a ‘white wash’ of slavery and piracy.
One such was the skilled Lord Byron – whose pirate-poem Corsair, sold out its entire print run of 10,000 copies on the first day itself. Another book that chiselled the pirate-image was Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Like Mr.Midshipman Easy, by Captain Frederick Marryat (Retd. Royal Navy), in 1836.
British ‘celebration’ of Drake’s fugitive flight from Spanish ships has been credited by no less than Keynes himself as the turning point in British fortunes. 400 years after the Drake’s ‘exploits’, British historians at the Royal Historical Society (image 1) gloss over the role of the British Government as fountainhead of piracy and slave trading in the first place.
Britain’s official historians, the Royal Historical Society, ignores these facts – and instead takes credit for ‘reducing’ piracy.
Vectors of religion and slavery
To marginally ethical people, without recourse to loot, piracy and slavery under the Indic values system of shubh labh, ‘Desert Bloc’ ethics were an ‘attractive’ alternative. Economically affected by shrinkage in Indian exports due to slave raids and piracy, land grab by the colonial Indian State, some took the easy way of embracing English practices and values – giving the British Empire a leg up in India.
Pirates and slave traders as vectors of the insidious Desert Bloc ethic are usually not factored, analysed or discussed. Indian ship manufacturing centres were world leaders. Hence, ‘traders’ (especially slave traders) from the world over came to India shipyards – centred around Kerala, Gujarat and Chittagong. But slavery and loot are the two elephants in the Desert Bloc room which needs to be recognized, examined – and understood.
When the State commissions crimes!
Behind every great fortune there is a crime – Honoré de Balzac.
For many centuries, piracy, slavery, were encouraged, licenced by European States. Balzac’s statement only be understood with that background.
A 1936 novel by Daphne Du Maurier’s was set in the Bodmin Moor, Cornwall, based on and named after the real Jamaica Inn, a Bolventor pub, that evolved from a coaching inn in 1750, and went on to become famous as a smugglers’ base. Her other book, was the The Frenchman’s Creek (1942), was based on the life of a pirate.
Coppola’s Apocalypse Now was inspired by Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. A book examines this phenomenon tangentially – when a ‘licenced’ fighter goes ‘private’! In Asia. Like Britons did in India.
Remember O’Dyer and O’Dwyer!
End of piracy
Piracy was outlawed by The Declaration of Paris, in 1856, ratified by various powers. Initially by Austria, France, Great Britain, Prussia, Russia, Sardinia and Turkey – but not by Spain, Portugal and the USA.
Beginning of the end for Britain …
Wonder why the Great British culture is taking them nowhere! After they lost their slaves (in 1830), after the end of piracy (1860) and the end of colonies (1960).
Even with a hybrid, mongrel polity, India has emerged as a significant economic force within 60 years of British departure.
Wonder what India missed by a doing this hybrid shindig – instead of a full Indic.
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Behind the rise of British power
British ascent as the prime military power started with the eclipse of Spain during The Seven Years War (1756-1763). Earlier we had seen the importance of Indian saltpetre production to the British empire
The treaty of Paris of 1763 not only established Britain as a leading power, it also confirmed its control over Bengal saltpetre. This was the major source of the main ingredient of gunpowder in the world, and a commodity whose contribution to the maintenance and extension of Britain’s empire has hitherto been neglected. (from Gunpowder, explosives and the state: a technological history By Brenda J. Buchanan.).
Four elements were essential for this rise to happen.
- British naval power
- British access to gunpowder
- British access to financial liquidity
- Increase in British industrial production.
British naval power was based on numerical superiority and less on technical. Ability to commission, pay for and take delivery of warships needed high levels of financial liquidity. British liquidity was built on: -
One – Piracy – with Spanish ships being a prime target.
Two – Later, to piracy, add a huge trans-Atlantic slave trade, where Britain was again the world-leader in slave trading.
Three – Britain’s sugar colonies, based on slave labour in the West Indies, though smaller than French and later Spanish sugar colonies, were always the second-largest in the world. Sugar production was a passport to liquidity and profits in the 18th and 19th century.
Britain’s establishment of an industrial base was itself subject to vast financial investments and easy availability to raw materials – where again India played a major role.
What stopped the others
Since 17th-18th century Britain was not the industrial or technology leader that it later became, this begs a logical question. Why could other countries not compete with Britain?
Some 400 ships were made in the Mumbai boat-yards alone. It is this huge industrial ship-building capacity in India gave the British Navy a significant edge. Contemporary writers wrote how
By the close of the Napoleonic Wars, the Royal Navy had come to rely heavily on the potential of India as a source for shipbuilding facilities and material, especially teak, a wood that is resistant to marine borers and seasons (from Warships of the world to 1900 By Lincoln P. Paine; page 13)
The British East India Company, in about 1675, established a shipyard in Bombay, India, for the construction of ships of Indian teak, considered to be the best ship timber to be found anywhere (from To harness the wind: a short history of the development of sails By Leo Block.).
By the time of the First World War, teak was well established as one of the most valuable timbers that the world has ever known. (from Consuming space: placing consumption in perspective By Michael K. Goodman, David Goodman, Michael Redclift).
Why Indian Teak-wood?
teak ships are very strong, as the several pieces of which they are composed always retain their bulk and remain in contact ; its strength compared with English oak, may be considered in the proportion of nine to seven. The ships belonging to the British navy, built at Bombay, are constructed of Teak, its durability is great, as there are several instances of vessels built of this timber, the frames of which are sound, after a service of one hundred years. Tar of an excellent quality is to be obtained from teak, and in such abundance that the chips arising from the conversion of the timber requisite for the construction of the ship, are sufficient to afford a plentiful supply, not only for the purposes required on the hull, but also for the rigging. A small quantity of teak tar has been imported into this country, and found to have the best effects in preserving cordage and adding to its strength. (from An inquiry into the means which have been taken to preserve the British navy, from the earliest period to the present time, particularly from that species of decay, now denominated dry-rot By John Knowles; Published 1821; page 41.)
Made in India, with Indian technology, with Indian teak, this British warship is now some 200 years old. On the other side modern steel-warships, multi-billion dollars worth, have a life of less than 50 years. British ships made of oak wood had an even worse life span.
To us who are accustomed to hear of the durability of ships built with Teak, the rapidity with which those constructed of Oak are said to decay, will appear almost incredible ; and yet the respectable author … tells us, that according to the present mode of ship-building, that noble structure a first-rate man of war, becomes useless from premature decay in five or six years; … Suppose we take somewhere about the medium of these authorities and allow ten years,— the whole British navy, said to consist of about 800,000 tons, to be renewed once every ten years! This, particularly when the scarcity of Oak timber is considered, is by no means a bright prospect; and is the source of a most serious expence to the nation. To us in this part of the world, nothing would appear so likely to remedy this evil as building the navy of Teak…
The following taken from a late publication, are some examples of the durability, of Teak built ships. The Turkish flag ship at Bussorah was built by Nadir Shah more than 70 years ago; this ship was not long since in dock; when all her timbers were ascertained to be perfectly sound. The Hercules, built in 1763, and constantly employed till 1805, when she was captured by the French, sound as when launched. The Milford of 679 tons, after constant employment to China and Europe for ii years, was then examined, but it wan not found necessary to shift a single timber; and the whole of her repairs did not cost £1000. Prejudices, it seems .were entertained in England against Teak timber: it was said to be heavier than Oak; but this is proved to be unfounded, as one description of Teak has been found to be lighter than Oak, and another about the same weight It was also thought to splinter more than Oak; an idea equally erroneous with the former; indeed, Teak is supposed to have the advantage in this respect, and to splinter less than Oak. It a well known that Teak has an oil in it which preserves iron, and destroys the worm; while the acid of the Oak corrodes iron, and appears peculiarly grateful to the taste of the worm. Nor is Teak, we believe, subject to that incurable cause of rapid decay in Oak, called the dry rot.
Having thus cleared the way in favour of Teak, we shall presume that Ships can be built in this country at the same price per ton as in England, which under economical and proper arrangement we believe to be the case, and we will also suppose that a plan was adopted, by which a proportion of the navy should be built in India, and the remainder in England, from timbers sent from this country.
From the foregoing examples, and others that might be cited, we may also presume, that a Teak built ship, having the same sum laid out for repairs as a modern ship, (during her date of 10 years) built of Oak, will be fit for service, for at least half a century: thereby giving her an advantage in point of durability over the Oak ship, of 40 years. (from The Literary panorama and national register, Volume 1 edited by Charles Taylor; INTERESTING INTELLIGENCE FROM THE BRITISH SETTLEMENTS IN INDIA – published 1814,).
British access to India’s huge ship-building capacity, raw-material sources, technicians, shipwright, gave them a decisive edge – considering that Britain controlled Chittagaon (colonial Chittagong), Surat and Mumbai (colonial Bombay), Chennai (colonial Madras), Northern Sircars (modern Andhra Coast) – all famous Indian ship-building centres. Based on this experience, British further expanded teak sources to include Burma by the middle of 19th century. Just before steel started to take over from teak.
Ancient Indian Shipbuilding
Ancient Meluha (Saraswati-Indus complex) traded using sea-routes with Egypt, Tyre, Dilmun (modern Bahrain-Oman), Mesopotamia et al. Remember Greek accounts of how Alexander commissioned in India, an entire flotilla to carry his retreating armies. Zheng He, the great Chinese admiral in his 14th century voyages, had his ships repaired at Chittagaon and Kerala’s shipyards. A contemporary British traveller, Abraham Parsons in 1775 wrote of a Mumbai shipbuilding in
a dock-yard, large and well contrived, with all kind of naval stores deposited in proper warehouses, together with great quantities of timber and planks for repairing and building ships, and forges for making of anchors, as well as every kind of smaller smiths’ work. It boasts such a dry dock, as, perhaps, is not to be seen in any part of Europe, either for size or convenient situation. It has three divisions, and three pair of strong gates, so as to be capable of receiving and repairing three ships of the line, at the same or at separate times; as the outermost ship can warp out, and another be admitted in her place every spring tide, without any interruption of the work doing to the second and innermost ships; or both the outermost and the second ship can go out, and two. others be received in their places, without hindrance to the workmen employed on the third or innermost ship. Near the dock is a convenient place to grave several ships at once, which is done as well, and with as great expedition, as in any dock in England. Near the dock-yard is a rope walk, which for length, situation, and conveniency, equals any in England, that in the king’s yard at Portsmouth only excepted, and, like that, it has a covering to shelter the workmen from the inclemency of the weather in all seasons. Here are made cables and all sorts of lesser cordage, both for the royal navy, the company’s marine, and the merchant, ships which trade to these parts of India. Besides cordage made of hemp, cables, hawsers, and all kinds of smaller ropes, are made of the external fibres of the cocoa-nut, which they have in such abundance in India, as to make a great article of trade among the natives of this place and those along the coasts, between Bombay and Cape Comorin. The yarn made of these fibres is mostly manufactured in the towns and villages, on or near the sea coast of Malabar : many vessels belonging to the natives are laden entirely with this yarn, which they always find a quick sale for at Bombay and Surat, let the quantity be ever so great, as it is the only cordage made use of amongst the small trading vessels of the country: large ships use much of it, made into cables, hawsers, and smaller ropes ; it is called kyah. Ships built at Bombay are not only as strong, but as handsome, are as well finished as ships built in any part of Europe; the timber and plank, of which they are built, so far exceeds any in Europe for durability that it is usual for ships to last fifty or sixty years; as a proof of which I am imformed, that the ship called the Bombay grab, of twenty-four guns, (the second in size belonging to the Company’s marine) has been built more than sixty years, and is now a good and strong ship. This timber and plank arc peculiar to India only; the best on this side of India grows to the north of Bombay; what grows to the south, on the coast of. Malabar, is, however, very good, and great quantities of it are, brought to Bombay; it is called tiek, and will last in a-hot climate longer than any wood whatever. (from Travels in Asia and Africa: including a journey from Scanderoon to Aleppo … By Abraham Parsons – Published 1808.).
British access to financial liquidity was a result initially of organized piracy on high seas – targeting Spanish merchant shipping. British ‘celebration’ of Drake’s fugitive flight from Spanish ships has been credited by no less than Keynes himself as the turning point in British fortunes. Drake apart, there were other similar ‘celebrated’ British pirates.
Using slave labour, Britain gained from sugar Caribbean colonies – especially after the fall of Haiti.
50 years before Independence, a 100 years ago, India was one of the largest ship building countries in the world. Indian shipbuilding was centered along the Western Coast in Kalyan, Bhivandi and Mumbai, in South India at Narsapurpeta (near Masulipatnam) and in Bengal at Chittagong and Hooghly.
The “modern era” began with the building of a dry dock at Mumbai (then Bombay) about 1750; a second was erected in Kolkatta about 1780. During the 19th century, the industry was in a period of expansion and prosperity. However, for the last 100 years, the yards have been in a general decline.
During Shivaji’s reign, as per estimates, more than 300 ships of 300 tons capacity were launched. The Wadias alone built more than 350 ships – during 1735-1863 170 war vessels for the East India Company, 34 man-of-war defence vessels for the British Navy, 87 merchant vessels for private firms, and three vessels for the Queen of Muscat at Bombay docks.
After the Bombay Port Trust was formed in 1870, the shipbuilding on the Western Coast moved to Mumbai. In 1872, Jamshedji Wadia, from a Parsi ship-building family, constructed the “Cornwallis”, a frigate with 50 guns, bought by the East India Company. This led to several orders from the British Navy.
Bengal was the other major port where ship building was for global markets. Chittagong was the center for shipbuilding (now in Bangladesh). The Turkish Navy (a major world power till WWI) was a major customer.
The Mughal and British navies were the other significant defence customers. Merchants cargo ships were in significant demand. Ma Huan, the famous chronicler and interpreter of Zheng He (also called Cheng Ho) voyages, during the Ming dynasty, studied boat building in Bengal during the early 15th century (1400-1410).
The third major center for ship building was Narsapurpeta (near Masulipatnam) port – which was a major center of exports of steel, diamonds, saltpetre (potassium nitrate, for gunpowder, to kill Indians, ‘Negroes’, Aborigines and ‘Red Indians’ with) from the Deccan plateau.
These buyers preferred Indian ships, because of better jointing technology and elimination of metal sheeting. Indian shipbuilders had a special system where wood was seasoned in partial vacuum, with oils for timber improvement. British shipbuilders, colonialists ensured through tariff and other barriers, that Indian shipbuilding “was prevented from continuing to develop, even though it had a proven ability to adapt to changing technological needs” – and thus finally killing it. British naval superiority rested on Indian ships – and paid for by exploitation of Indian resources.
In 1498, Vasco da Gama’s ocean-going ship, the Sao Gabriel came to India. The Portuguese caravels are well-known. But what do the Portuguese call their ocean-going ships?
Yes, nau as in Hindi, for boat. Few of these Indian built ships have been recovered in various parts of the world. British naval superiority, of 200 years, built on Indian shipbuilding capacities was first challenged by Germany.
The new German empire owned no colonies but had the world’s third-largest merchant marine and thus needed cruising warships to show the flag overseas. … the naval-industrial complex that helped make Germany a first-class naval power in the years before the First World War. After the Kaiser and the Deutschland, all German battleships were built in German shipyards; aside from Zieten and some torpedo biseoats constructed in Britain, all smaller warships likew were built in Germany. Stosch also took steps. (from Naval warfare, 1815-1914 By Lawrence Sondhaus.).
Indian shipbuilding expertise ruled the world – till colonialism killed it. The Mumbai dockyard was used till 1932 for shipbuilding. Another 40 years later, British shipbuilding was wiped by the Japanese.
What about modern India itself. This shipbuilding and sailing tradition continues. Thousands of small Indian boats criss-cross the Indian Ocean. Carrying scarce material to Somalia, smuggling gold into India earlier – and sometimes hijacked by terrorists, like the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai.
Is it then surprising that the British Crown gave up America, allowing them to focus their war efforts against wars raging across India, against British expansion.
- Sir John Hawkins (socyberty.com)
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- Britain’s Defense Cuts: Grim Portent for U.S. Military? (time.com)
- The Revolutionary War (socyberty.com)
- You: Pirates and private navies (search.japantimes.co.jp)
- ‘British Raj was not a vampire empire’ (quicktake.wordpress.com)
- Starving India to India Starring (behind2ndlook.wordpress.com)
- Jeremy Paxman on the British Empire: where men went to run wild (telegraph.co.uk)
- How the US Planned to Destroy Britain Just a Few Years Before World War II [Military] (gizmodo.com)
- Victory over Japanese at Kohima named Britain’s greatest battle (historychannelfromthewar.wordpress.com)
The making of the modern world
The modern world has been significantly shaped by four historic events, in the 35-year period of 1765-1800.
One – The most influential of the four was the French Revolution (1789–1799) that released a secular spirit across Europe. This French idea tried to unite Europe under a Republican banner, in the personages of Napoleon and Hitler. The French Revolution also, for the first time, united anti-Republican monarchies of Europe like Catholic Spain, Protestant Britain and Prussia against Republican-Catholic France. In spite of being a colossal failure, the French idea of Republican nations finds takers even today.
Three – The British loss of colonies in North America (now USA) is easily the most well-known of the four events.
Four – Events in India, during this 35-years period, as British power in India grew, are the least understood of the four.
Modern history ignores the complex interplay between these four events. What linkage could Tipu Sultan have with War of American Independence?
Where did the US get their gunpowder
British supplies of gunpowder were assured as they controlled India’s saltpetre production, the largest in the world. Where did the American leadership get the gunpowder to fight a war against the British?
As war began to appear inevitable in 1775, the Continental Congress launched an all-out drive to stimulate gunpowder making. Its main focus was on manufacturing adequate quantities of saltpeter. By January 1776 these efforts began to bear fruit as 50 tons of saltpeter poured into Philadelphia and many more tons to New York. While some new mills aided in this production, the bulk of the saltpeter appears to have been produced by farm families encouraged by government bounties and instructed by many “how to” articles printed in newspapers and other publications.
Powder was often very scarce, especially at the beginning of the war. Much was later imported from France, but though great efforts were made to manufacture an adequate supply in America, there was often a shortage.
Another writer confirms
Imports of both gunpowder and saltpeter had to be depended upon, principally from the West Indies islands of St.Eustasia and Martinique. It is estimated that 115000 pounds of gunpowder were manufactured prior to 1777 in America from domestic saltpeter. An additional 2152000 pounds of gunpowder was imported, captured, or manufactured from imported saltpeter. Although this sounds like an impressive amount, gunpowder was to remain in comparatively short supply at Ticonderoga throughout 1776. It was not until the French entry into the war in 1778, that an adequate quantity of high quality gunpowder was available to the Continental army. (from The American northern theater army in 1776: the ruin and reconstruction of … By Douglas R. Cubbison.).
Frenchmen like Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, worked on a commercial arrangement through a front company Rodrigue Hortalez et Cie (Roderigue Hortalez & Co. in English) to route American tobacco to Europe and buy saltpeter from France and Spain for fighting this war.
The French go with Haiti
Why would France sell gunpowder?
Behind this stratagem was the French fear that the stretched British would not attempt conquest of Haiti, a prized French colony.
After The Seven Years War (French and Indian Wars in American History) ended in 1763, the French chose to keep its sugar colonies of Haiti (and Gaudeloupe, Martinique). The French agreed to give away their Canadian colonies, parts of America, and were left with little of their colonial possessions.
The purchase of Louisiana
Obtained from Spain, Louisiana was retained by the French to serve as “a granary for this empire and produced flour, salt, lumber, and food for the sugar islands” of Haiti (and Gaudeloupe, Martinique). After Haiti’s successful war of freedom, by the African Slaves, the territories of Louisiana were of little use to France.
The sale of the remnant American possessions by Napoleon, bought by USA (1803-Louisiana Purchase during Jefferson’s presidency), limited European possessions in North America to a still sizable Canada (Britain) and Mexico (Spain). It is the freedom fighters of Haiti, who the Americans must thank for Louisiana, and not “the foresight of Thomas Jefferson, who considered the purchase as one of his greatest achievements“.
What was the British reading of this situation
Not just the French thought that territories of North America were less valuable.
Even the British thought so.
A highly influential British writer of the time, who wrote of these affairs was David Hume, the historian-philosopher. Hume’s most successful work was History of England. Initially a 6-volume work, written and published over 1754-1762 period, it became a best seller, with more than 10 editions over the next 100 years, with the 1810 edition growing to 12 volumes. Written just before The Battle of Buxar, and the American War of Independence, concurrently, during The Seven Year War, Hume wrote how
by the restoration of her West India possessions[Haiti], we had given her [France] back the means of a most beneficial commerce; and thus had put her in the way of recovering her losses, and being again formidable on our own element. …
France, by possessing a much greater quantity of sugar land, had been long superior to us in this lucrative branch of commerce. She had thus enriched her merchants, increased her revenue, and strengthened her navy: why then, after we had in a just and necessary war deprived her of such valuable possessions, should we restore to her the means of again annoying ourselves ? The retention of the considerable French plantations, was necessary to the permanent security of a peace. Besides, after so expensive a war, our victories gave us a claim to some indemnification ; in that view, the islands would have been the most productive of our conquests.
Our acquisitions in America might tend to our security, but it would be very long before they could lead to our indemnification. They neither increased in any important degree our commerce, nor diminished the commerce of France; but the West India islands, if retained, would have been an immediate great gain to Britain, and loss to our rival. The retention of the West Indies was farther necessary to the improvement of our acquisitions in North America, and also to our commerce with Africa.
In that event, it was argued, the African trade would have been augmented by the demand for slaves, and the trade of North America would have all centred in Britain; whereas, the islands being restored, a great part of the northern colony trade must fall, as it had hitherto done, to those who had lately been our enemies, and would still he our rivals. For these reasons, either Martinico or Guadaloupe, or even both, should have been retained by Britain.
The cessions made in Africa and in the East Indies would have fully justified the reservation to ourselves of our West India conquests. Provident policy required that we should have reserved those possessions, and our resources and resistless naval strength would have enabled us to retain them, in defiance ol the enemy. If in the negotiation, availing ourselves of our advantages, we had decisively refused such cessions, the enemy would not have adhered to the requisition, with the alternative of the continued war; or, had they been so obstinate, British force would soon have reduced them to compliance. (from The history of England: from the invasion of Julius Cæsar, to …, Volume 12 By David Hume; text within […] supplied.).
This reading of French actions dilutes current historical assumptions of mishandling and bungling of the American possessions by the ‘visionary’ George-III.
Spain fights for American colonies
Much before Spain declared war on England 21 June 1779, Spain started hostile actions and support to the American rebels. This continued, till peace was declared in September 1783. The Spanish contribution has been ignored (was it due to subsequent Spanish-American War over Cuba). The actions of Spanish General Bernardo Galvez at Pensacola are rarely recalled today.
How long would have Washington’s mutinous troops fought against the British, without Spanish monetary contributions and gun-powder supplies, arranged by uncle-nephew-Galvez-duo of Jose de Galvez and Bernardo de Galvez? Can America ignore Don Francisco de Saavedra de Sangronis?
India – prized and essential
Portrayed by modern history as an uncaring and bungling despot, George-III had few choices. For 18th century Britain, forced to choose between their American possessions and India, was a no-brainer. The Indian prize was essential for the ‘emerging’ British imperial agenda – and more prestigious.
Essential because of India’s industrial capacity in shipbuilding, steel and gunpowder – all essential to Britain. Prestigious, no doubt, as India was the land that Semiramis, Cyrus The Great, Alexander, Rome, Abbasids, Aghlabids, Fatimids, Ummayads, Genghis Khan had failed to conquer.
We have seen in earlier posts, how historical characters like Semiramis and Alexander were portrayed differently – as was India. For Britain, the ‘conquest’ of India was vastly more rewarding. Economically rewarding and definitely more challenging than defeating some upstart ‘freedom-fighters’.
The rest, as they say is history.
Britain were still not in a strong position, even after cornering the saltpetre trade and the diwani of Bengal. In 1764, after Buxar, the British gained their first sense of the Indian ‘opportunity’, after 150 years in India. British rule through the East India Company, immediately sparked conflict across India.
The company, informed of the wars that had broken out in India, sent over lord Clive, with powers to act as commander in chief, president, and governor of Bengal. His’lordship arrived at Calcutta, on the 3rd of May 1765.
To deal with this, the East India Company turned to Robert Clive. To work with Clive a council of four empowered members was created.
An unlimited power was also committed to a select committee, consisting of his lordship and four gentlemen, to act and determine every thing themselves, without dependence on the council. It was, however, recommended in their instruction«, to consult the council in general as often as it could be done conveniently ; but the sole power of determining in all cases was left with them, until the troubles of Bengal should be entirely ended. (from Encyclopaedia Britannica: or, A dictionary of arts, sciences, and miscellaneous literature, enlarged and improved, Volume 11; Publisher A. Constable, 1823 edition).
This was the very same Robert Clive, who had earlier faced a prolonged investigation with his reputation in tatters. For the EEIC to turn to this very Robert Clive, whom they had hounded a few years earlier, must have been a bitter pill.
But, then the situation in India was grave.
Tiger, tiger … burning bright
First came the Mysore Wars.
Tipu Sultan was one of the first Indian rulers to see the irreversible decline of the Mughals and the rise of the Marathas.
The First Mysore War (1766-1769), saw the tripartite alliance of Marathas, Nizam and the British against Hyder Ali, the King of Mysore. Yet to recover from the enormous Seven Years War, the British and their Indian allies were dealt a significant defeat – just 7 years before the American Declaration of Independence.
The Second Mysore War (1780-1784) ran concurrent to the American War Of Independence. A Wikipedia entry enthusiastically writes how Mysore armies, “decimated British armies in the east, repelled a joint Maratha-Hyderabad invasion from the north and captured territories in the south”.
Surprisingly, there is an overlap between the First Maratha Wars (1775-1782) and the Second Mysore War. It seems strange that the Marathas were battling the English in part of the country and collaborating with them in another theatre. This colonial classifications of War and battles probably needs re-examination of the battles in these wars.
The British fighting a wars on two fronts at the opposite sides of the world, lost both the wars.
The Third Mysore War (1789-1792) On the eve of this war, we are told, “Cornwallis saw danger near and far, to all British interests in India, and in the wider international spheres of Europe and America. His experience had accustomed his mind to world-wide maps.” I am willing to believe that such a danger to the British Empire existed.
The end of the War in America had an impact in India. Relieved from pressures of waging a war in America, the British concentrated their military resources on Tipu Sultan. This 3-year war went badly for Tipu Sultan – and he lost half his kingdom. His sons were taken hostage by the British.
The Fourth Mysore War (1799) – A truncated Mysore kingdom, faced a resurgent Britain. Rid of their American War, with the French in disarray, the British were poised at the edge of initiating their imperial ambitions.
Tipu’s European allies, the French were in disarray. The Catholic Bourbons of France were out of power. The French Republic had became a danger to European monarchies. Catholic Bourbons of Spain allied themselves with a Protestant Britain to fight against a Republican France under Napoleon. The Marathas and the Nizam, the two major military powers were allied with the British.
Tipu’s Mysore kingdom came to an end.
The challenge in North America, was tame in comparison to action in India. At the Battle of Yorktown, where Cornwallis finally surrendered to the French-Americans troops, the total number of soldiers on both sides were 25,000. 17,000 French and American troops surrounded 8,000 of Cornwallis troops.
On the other hand, it has been estimated that “Tipu Sultan deployed as many as six thousand jurzail-burdars, or “rocket-men” during the battles of Seringapatam (1792 and 1799) against the armies of the English East India Company”.
The machinery for Tipu demonizing and British self-glorification worked very well: the London stage between 1791 and 1793 saw three full-scale shows produced on Tippoo Sultawn or British Valour in India, with subsidiary productions (usually with official sponsorship) offered in all the major cities of England, Ireland and Scotland. Countless satiric skits, newspaper caricatures, and crude engravings and prints (of Tipu clothed like a tiger and in a cage, feasting on raw meat, beating a young English boy, standing over a group of scantily clad and cowering Indian women) helped further establish the notion that an alien and illegitimate ruler in a distant, exotic land could be the British public’s Enemy Number One (from Indian Renaissance: British romantic art and the prospect of India By Hermione De Almeida, George H. Gilpin.).
Like Robert Clive in 1765, the British this time turned to Charles Cornwallis, the loser at Yorktown. The selection of Cornwallis by the EEIC to head its India operations, “by the singular caprice of circumstances, the man who had lost America was sent out to govern India.” After much persuasion, Cornwallis accepted.
Neither the government nor the English people blamed Cornwallis. His schemes had been admirable in a political as well as in a military aspect, and had it not been for the arrival of the French troops they might have succeeded. As early as May 1782, when Cornwallis was still a prisoner on ‘parole’ he was asked to go to India as governor-general and commander-in-chief …
Both Pitt and Dundas thought him the only man capable of restoring the military and civil services of India to an efficient state and of repairing the bad effect upon English prestige of the defeat experienced in the second Mysore war.
Lord Cornwallis was making the greatest efforts … It was the first time the British armies in India had been led by a Governor-General in person, who enjoyed the undivided exercise of all the civil and military powers of the state, and commanded the resources of all the Presidencies (from The history of India By John Clark Marshman.).
The British put everything they had, behind their military campaign against Tipu Sultan. Clive’s extraction and loot, or the loss of American colonies did not occupy their minds. Cornwallis defeat did not mark him out to be loser.
India – continuing wars
British problems did not cease after Tipu’s death. In 1799, Dhondia Wagh continued the war against British across Shimoga, Chitradurg, Dharwad and Bellary districts (soon after the defeat of Tipu Sultan). By 1824, it was the turn of the Kittur region, where Rani Chennamma spread the fire. Five years later, Sangoli Rayanna’s started his guerrilla war. Peasant revolts continued in Karnataka up to 1833.
Coinciding with the War in America and the Mysore wars was also a series of battles between the British and the Marathas – known as First Maratha War (1775-1782). Frequently, involving tens of thousands of troops, British energies were divided. After the end of the First Maratha War in 1782, the British held their peace with the Marathas for the next 20 years.
Till Tipu Sultan was dealt with.
From all sides
A significant opposition to the British misrule came from Indian forest-dwellers and migratory peoples. The Chotanagpur area (Surguja, Ranchi and Hazaribagh areas) passed to the British from Mughals in 1765. War and famine followed. The Bengal Famine of 1770 (1769-1773) was much written and analysed. The Jharkhand area remained on the boil for nearly 150 years after Buxar.
On the conflict side, the Paharia Revolt (1766-1778), by the hill-dwellers of Rajmahal Hills, soon followed. Santhals, opened a wide front against the British. One of the first of many such campaigns, started operations from the Tilapore forest against the British from 1781-1785 – led by Tilka Manjhi (also spelt Majhi). The dates of Tilkha Majhi’s revolt, vary widely – some continuing till 1799. The Tamar revolt (1783-1789) was another revolt in the modern Jharkhand area which occupied British attention in India – while they were fighting the American colonies. The Anglo-Santhal battles continued for the next 100 years. The Kol (also Khol, Khole) continued these insurrections in early 19th century.
Immediately after Buxar, in 1764 Major Hector Munro, who took charge of “the Company’s army, found the sepoys in a state of open revolt. There is no instinct of obedience in native armies in India …” complains the English ‘historian’. In 1780, the East India Company faced revolt in Benares from Raja ‘Cheyt Sing’ who was appointed to “furnish the company with three regular battalions of Seapoys” who instead ‘massacred , in cold blood, thirteen of Capt.Wade’s men, who fell into his hands in the Hospital at Mirzapoor’.
If this was not enough, there were the Sannyasi rebellions (1763-1800)
When the levee breaks
The Anglo-Maratha Wars, the Sikh Wars continued to plague British rule in India. This was apart from suppressing nearly another 200 revolts in India.
From the Sikh Empire, Britain could retain only the southwest areas. Having failed in capturing Sikh Empire’s north-east Afghan areas, Britain declared Afghan areas as separate from India. Britain could declare their conquest of India as complete only after declaring Afghan areas as separate from India. This break of Afghanistan from India remains till date, ‘official’ Indian history.
With the ‘conquest’ of India complete in 1840, Britain’s reign over India was short-lived. From 1840-1947. Slightly longer than the foreign rule by the Slave Dynasty-Tughlaq rule (1206-1290). With the end of African slavery between 1830 (Britain)-1865 (USA), the focus of slavery shifted. India’s indentured labour fed the sugar colonies and the building of colonial infrastructure across Africa (railways, telegraph networks).
An estimated 10-15 million Indians were shipped out of India by Britain. This transshipment of Indians picked up steam in 1830,and continued till 1917 – but most were shipped out during 1850-1900 period. This, from a population of some 3 crore men of prime working age of 20-35 (from a total population of 25 crores). The supply of Indian indentured labour dried up under the kaala-paani campaign, an ingenious ploy devised by Indian Brahmins. As the supply of Indian labour dried up, so began the beginning of the end of the British Empire.
No longer able to build imperial networks (railway, telegraph) on the backs of cheap coolie labour, British grip on their Empire weakened. A 100 years after Napoleon, Britain was challenged on European mainland again, this time by Germany. As the German challenge ended, in 1945, so did the British Empire.
The American response
The rich and landed American leadership, sensed the European stretch and exploited the ready-made opportunity to take-over Britain’s American possessions. They found a ready-made supporters in the European Bourbon royal family (Catholic rulers of France and Spain).
Adams went to work right away in drafting what would be known as the Plan of Treaties. He ensured the document was primarily a commercial agreement. Offering any nation the right to trade with the newly formed United States was thought to be sufficient for any foreign aid … The calculated maneuver by Congress to declare independence as a means to gain foreign assistance was risky. They had no assurance of knowing their calculated maneuver would be successful.(from Irreconcilable Grievances: The Events That Shaped American Independence By Patrick J. Charles.).
With this support, America could win against a stretched Protestant British Government – fighting many wars in India. Much like how Romans had taken over Alexander’s Mediterranean territories and expanded into Europe and Asia Minor.
Spain, France and Britain, the three main European powers derived significant benefits from the West Indies (the Caribbean), including Cuba, Haiti et al. Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, the French supporter of America’s cause, spelt out the rationale of French interest in this war. A worried de Beaumarchais wrote to the French king that the French “sugar islands have, since the last peace, been the constant object of the regrets and hopes of the English“.
The Catholic Franco-Spanish rulers from the Bourbon dynasty saw benefits of keeping a Protestant Britain engaged in North America to buffer their Caribbean territories from British expansion. Spain saw benefit when it loaned the American leadership, 8 million reales for food and supplies (military and medical).
The end of the Bourbons in France, overthrow of French rule by African slaves in Haiti changed this calculus. Modern narratives of King George-III as a blundering king, ignore the realities of 18th century, as also the other ‘achievements’ of King George -III.
The king who lost America was also the king who triumphed over Napoleon, oversaw the Industrial Revolution in Britain, and saw the birth of the successful expansion of the British Empire into India and Canada. (from Colonialism: an international social, cultural, and political encyclopedia By Melvin E. Page, Penny M. Sonnenburg.).
An interesting book on this period in American history is Irreconcilable Grievances:The Events That Shaped American Independence by Patrick J. Charles. Gushes a reviewer, “rare to come across a groundbreaking piece of scholarship about the nation’s founding”. The paperback version has 346 pages. How many times does this book mention India at all!
- Indian summer: the twilight of British influence in India (independent.co.uk)
- Churchill’s Secret War, By Madhusree Mukerjee (independent.co.uk)
- Thank you Jinnah – The Great Leader (teabreak.pk)
- Understanding 1857 (behind2ndlook.wordpress.com)
- George Washington named Britain’s greatest ever foe (telegraph.co.uk)
- Death of Indian Shipbuilding (2ndlook.wordpress.com)
- 1857 – A Failed ‘Mutiny’? (2ndlook.wordpress.com)
- Fresh pressure to rename airport after Tipu Sultan (thehindu.com)
- An unsung hero (thehindu.com)
- 1857 – A Year in Hindsight (2ndlook.wordpress.com)
- Why Britain lost the Indian jet deal (quicktake.wordpress.com)