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Chapter One: Bombay

TMO-KANHOJI ANGRE

Governor Charles Boone’s head was on the verge of exploding from boredom.

It wasn’t the first time Boone had been on a long voyage. He had prepared himself mentally to withstand the monotony of a six-month long journey from Southampton to Bombay.

In his defense, the crew of Honor, the ship he was traveling on, was terribly boring. The governor was quite fond of the stories seafaring folks used to narrate when they had had too much rum.  Unfortunately for him, the crew was much too careful to crack silly jokes with a man of such a high station. This hesitation on the crew’s part had rendered Boone’s journey utterly dull.

For most of the day, Governor Boone used to sit on the front deck reading The Pilgrim’s Progress. As daylight faded, he used to retire to his cabin solemnly.

The year was 1715, and Charles Boone had been recently appointed the governor of Bombay. The position had come after many in London had grown worried over the situation of the Honorable East India Company in Bombay.

According to most naval and trade experts in England, Bombay was the future of trade in the years to come. After the sacking of Surat by the Marathas in 1664, the allure of the Gujarat port had faded. Bombay instead presented the future and it is for this reason the East India Company had promptly availed the lease to operate on Bombay from the British Empire.

Bombay was an important port for the ambitions of the East India Company. It had thus come as a surprise to many people back home including Boone when they learned that the lucrative port had been handed to the Company at an annual price of £10.

Charles Boone was not a man of the Company. However, his job did mandate him to make the life of Company officials easier. From all the rumors Boone had heard about the situation in Bombay, the Company desperately needed help.

As much as Boone was excited about establishing order for Britain in Bombay, the long journey was making his stomach churn. He just wanted to reach the city and get on with the job.

Some of the crew members had sensed creeping boredom on Boone’s face. When the captain of Honor heard about this, he immediately informed Boone that they were only a few days away from Bombay and that they had already entered the Arabian Sea. Even a few days was a mountain of time for Boone, who simply nodded and thanked the captain for informing him about their current position.

He lay on his bed during that night, turning from one side to another as sleep eluded him. It was then that he heard some loud noises coming from the deck. Up until then, the crew had been very quiet during the night so as to avoid pirate marauders. Boone wondered whether Honor was being tracked by some unwashed pirate. He immediately jumped out of bed and went outside to ascertain what had happened.

Honor was enclosed on both sides by two small boats, both barely larger than normal fishing boats and manned by two men each. Before the governor could ascertain who sat on these boats, one of the crew men came running towards him.

‘Guv’nor! I apologize if the noise disturbed you’

 Boone dismissed the apology. ‘Don’t worry about that. What’s going on?’

The crewman smiled slyly. ‘Angria’s men. Nasty lot if you ask me. Don’t you worry though. We’ll soon be on our way’

Boone didn’t seem too happy with the assurance of the crewman and decided to check what was going on. He walked across to the front deck where the noise was coming from.

The captain of Honor, John Cross was standing along with two other crew members, huddled around an Indian man sitting calmly on the chair which was otherwise occupied by Boone during the day.        

‘Governor Boone’ blurted Cross as he saw the governor climb onto the deck. The Indian man didn’t bother looking at Boone.

‘Captain Cross, may I inquire what is going on?’

The captain hesitated. ‘M-my lord. You’re up at this hour?’

‘Yes’ said Boone. ‘I am. You still haven’t answered my question’

The captain nodded, understanding clearly that the governor may lose his temper soon if he isn’t told what was happening. ‘Governor Boone, this gentleman here is a man of Kanhoji Angria’

‘The pirate?’

A series of hushes reverberated across the deck, the present crewmen surprised by Boone’s supposed impetuousness.

The Indian man sitting calmly on the chair got up, this time to speak. ‘Pirate you say?’

The captain tried to salvage the situation. ‘The governor is still new here sir’

‘I see. Please show me your dastak’ said the Indian to the captain.

‘Of course.’

The Indian man eyed Boone one last time, and then took a look at the document handed to him by the captain.

‘Hmm’ whispered the Indian under his breath as he examined the document. ‘So your ship belongs to the Company?’

‘Quite so sir’ replied the captain.

The Indian looked around the ship one last time. ‘Very well, you’re free to proceed to Bombay’

Just before the Indian man was about to deboard Honor, Boone couldn’t resist a question. ‘How do we know you are a man of Angria and not some petty pirate?’

Whispers reverberated across the open deck, with the crew dumbstruck at the governor’s unchecked insolence. Boone wasn’t deterred by the apprehensions of his travel companions and waited for an answer. The Indian was only too happy to give him one.

‘Look around gora. Look at these waters. Do you think any pirate dares to roam the waters of Kanhoji Angre?’

Boone had a reply ready and lined up, but thought it best to stop the conversation, much to the relief of Captain Cross and his crew.

The Indian left and the governor retreated to his quarters. His initial thought was to question Captain Cross about Angria’s men, but he resisted the notion after deciding to collect his thoughts regarding the matter. He lay down on his bed, closed his eyes, and formed an image of Angria in his mind. Even before setting foot in Bombay, he had identified his first order of business, dealing with Angria.

……

A dense fog shrouded Bombay, as Governor Boone stood on the front deck, his eyes searching for a glimpse of the city.

Aftera six-month long journey, Boone’s spirits were finally up. In his mind, he was already threading schemes and strategies he wished to implement immediately. On the top of his list was the case of Kanhoji Angria.

The little episode on the deck of Honor a few days back had scared the crewmen, so much so that a few of them had even dared to scowl at the governor the morning after. To Boone, the encounter was as astonishing as it was educational. The Bombay presidency belonged to the British Empire. Any attempt made by a foreign power to stop a British vessel traveling to British land seemed preposterous to Boone, and he had conveyed the same to Captain Cross the morning after the fiasco. 

‘You don’t understand guv’nor’ the captain had said. ‘Angria rules these waters with an iron fist. You’ll see when you take charge in Bombay that it’s better to negotiate with the local folks at times’

Negotiate? Boone had half a mind to toss the captain overboard upon hearing the remark. However, he did understand one thing about Angria very clearly after the conversation.

Everyone feared Angria.

Fear was a great motivator, Boone understood that plainly. If battle-hardened captains of the British Empire feared Angria, then surely the man must be of some stature.

As thoughts danced in his mind with every passing second, the sun finally showed itself. The fog dissipated swiftly thereafter, and the first sight of Bombay offered some sense of satisfaction to Boone, even though it was short-lived. There were no patrol troops on the harbor to monitor the sea and no sign of grandeur most British cities were known for. From what it seemed from afar, Bombay seemed nothing but another Indian city.

The city gave no impression of being a part of His Majesty’s Empire. Rows of short shanty structures were visible from afar, some hald-broken while some seemingly on the way. The only things which seemed ‘imperialistic’ by any standard from the sea was the fleet of company ships lined across the dock and the shipyard, which resembled the ones Boone had seen in England.

The worst part, according to Boone, was the lack of protection of Bombay. No walls protected the harbor, which Boone believed was the cause behind the audaciousness of people like Angria. The list of things he had to accomplish was getting longer by every passing minute.

The scent of mud and iron soon stimulated Boone’s senses as Honor drew closer to the dock. The reverberating chorus of ringing bells was audible near the dock, which Boone assumed was coming from the temples nearby. He had been to Calcutta some years ago and was well familiar with the clanging of bells in Hindu temples.

Boone bid a brief farewell to the crew and quickly disembarked from Honor. A motley of dignitaries of Bombay were waiting on the pier to welcome the new governor of Bombay.

‘My Lord!’ called out one of the dignitaries, wearing a crisp black blazer and grey trousers. He stepped forward with his right hand stretched out while he held his withered hat with the left. ‘Welcome to Bombay’

Boone shook his hand. ‘Thank you sir. And you are?’

‘Jonathan Small, my lord. I am your secretary’

‘Oh’ acknowledged Boone. ‘Of course Mr. Small. It is a pleasure to have your acquaintance. Will you be so kind as to introduce me to the rest of the gentlemen?’

Small did as he was told as Boone shook hands with the people he had to work with, or as he thought, the people he had to bring in line. The newly appointed governor had never had such authority, but understood the exact extents and purview of his powers. While most men in his position used such powers with hesitation, Boone was eager to test the limits of his authority.

After exchanging some necessary niceties with the dignitaries, Boone and his secretary boarded a carriage together and left.

‘Small’ exclaimed Boone ‘How long have you been in Bombay?’

Taken aback by Boone’s immediate questioning, Small fretted. ‘Five years sir’

‘Ah’ remarked Boone. ‘Pray tell me about the defense of the city?’

‘I’m sorry my lord, but I don’t follow. The defense?’

‘Yes, Small. The defense. Surely you must be on the watch for Angria roaming the seas’

Jonathan Small was sure Boone was looking for an answer, but he wasn’t sure whether the governor would like it. ‘We signed a peace treaty with Angria a few years back my lord. The Siddhis won’t trouble us, and the Portuguese are in no mood for confrontation’

‘So you mean to say there isn’t any preparation for the defense of the city’

Small sighed. ‘No, my lord. I mean to say that there is no need for preparation at present’  

Boone eyed his secretary keenly for a second, holding back the stern words he wanted to say. He leaned back into his cushioned chair and stared out through the window. He saw the ragged markets opening up, hawkers setting up their shops besides the moist and muddy road, their faces bearing a strange tiredness. It had a long time since he had come to Calcutta, which was when he had seen native Indians for the first time. For all the diversity on the subcontinent, the faces of people in Indians bared the same idle weariness.

‘I think I’ll retire for the day’ yawned Boone. In India, fatigue was almost infectious.

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