Thunder on the Bay

Thunder on the Bay

Soundarapandian was firm in his idea. “Thalaiyva (addressing his boss Sri Sukurama Chetti), this is the only way we can send our goods to Europe and hit the EIC where it hurts the most. Otherwise, workers of Bengal and our own people will go hungry without any work. Since generations, their family knows only cultivation, weaving and dyeing.” 

Sri Sukurama Chetti, however, was worried. The East India Company (EIC) had helped his family to export the famous Bengal and Salempuri textiles in European markets directly without the Arab middlemen. This had resulted in phenomenal increase in the family wealth. But now, with the new regulations placed in London in 1701 and the EIC’s ever tightening grip on sea routes in the Bay of Bengal, his access to Europe was dwindling. The EIC had placed huge taxes on textile exports and any export to Europe had to be done on their ships which were even costlier. He knew he had to do something. 

He turned to Soundarapandian. “But why Sundar? (he always called him by this name) Why do you trust this pirate?” 

Thalaiyva”, said Soundarapandian, “Zubair Pasha has a long history of enmity with General David Burns. Burns has thwarted many of his attempts of looting EIC merchant ships, but he has also been successful many times. He was shot in the arm once by Burns and he holds a personal grudge. That aside, his contacts in Ceylon and Arabian Sea are beyond compare. He is the only one who can do this.”

Sri Sukurama Chetti took a deep breath and clutched the gold pendant tied to his necklace. An image of Lord Murugan was inscribed in it. He believed it gave him strength in tough situations and this was something which would decide the family’s future and that of scores of people engaged in the textile industry in Bengal and South India.

Finally he spoke up. “Let’s do it”. I will ask Amarenda Goswami (textile baron of Bengal and trading partner), to set up a meeting with Zubair Pasha. You take Taraknath and meet him secretly and tell me what he says.”

Soundarapandian was elated and bowed down and bid him goodbye. 3 months later, he met Taraknath at Tamraplipta (present day Tamluk). Taraknath had a worried look. 

“What’s the matter Tarak? Did the wife scold you again”?” asked Soundarapandian with a laugh and patted his back. “Don’t start again, Sundar!” replied Taraknath with a smile. “She might scold me, but we both know that it is for my own good. I was worried about our meeting.”

“Why? Is he not coming?” 

“It is not that. He is coming. But what I have heard is that he is a nutcase. Only God knows what he will say to our proposition”. 

Zubair Mohammad Pasha was the most feared pirate in the Bay of Bengal. His fiery eyes, huge moustache and beard, which hung till his belly, could send shivers down anyone’s spine. People swore by his immense physical strength and cunning ways of giving the British EIC the slip. He considered himself Robin Hood to the poor villages which dotted the coast of Bengal, Orissa and the Arakanese province of Burma. The EIC had placed a bounty on his head, but he always managed to avoid being caught. The only man who could get close to him was David Burns, but then too, Zubair Pasha fled with only a gun-shot to his arm. Since that day, Zubair Pasha had only one aim – to kill David Burns. 

Soundarapandian spoke first. “Pasha Bhai.” he began, “our textile exports….” 

Zubair Pasha raised his hand and bellowed “I know what you want from me. Tell me what do I get in return?”

Soundarapandian and Taraknath looked at each other in surprise. Looking at their faces, Zubair Pasha continued, “You want your textile products to reach Europe and you know that only I can deliver them, so you have come to me, correct? So, I ask again, what do I get in return?”

“What do you want Pasha Bhai?” Soundarapandian asked seeing that Taraknath was too scared to open his mouth. 

Zubair Pasha leaned forward and whispered – “The head of David Burns!! Can you get that for me? Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha!!!” His laughter rang out in the darkness. For a moment, Soundarapandian recalled Taraknath’s words – “he is a nutcase”. “But that’s how pirates are supposed to be, weren’t they?” he thought.

Zubair Pasha then straightened up and spoke with a serious tone. “I hate the British as much as you do. David Burns is the only thorn in the Bay of Bengal who can stop my ships. Keep him busy while I go past Chennapatinam and enter the French waters of Ceylon. After that, no one can stop me. As far as my payment, I trust Sri Sukurama Chetti to be fair in his dealings.”

Soundarapandian could not believe his luck, but was cautious. “Pasha Bhai, hope you remember the British EIC outpost in Hooghly and Calcutta…” he started, but Zubair Pasha waved him off. “That is my problem, not yours. You ensure all goods are loaded onto my ships in Tamralipta. That way we will avoid Calcutta port & Fort William and sail into the Bay of Bengal immediately. I will load the next consignment in Pulicat and set sail for Ceylon. Inform Sri Sukurama Chetti to keep David Burns busy at Fort St. George, 1 day before I reach Pulicat. He should go to Fort St. George so that David Burns himself, has to be present and keep him occupied for next 3 days Once I reach Ceylon, I will get in touch with my Arab associates who will deliver your goods to Venice and onwards to London.”

Sri Sukurama Chetti looked happy after hearing the news. He went to the prayer room, bowed down to the family God – Lord Murugan and said a silent prayer. On opening his eyes, he ordered –“Sundar, please take extra 10 caskets of gold and 10 caskets of silver and donate to the Bargabima temple (also called Bheemakali Temple) in Tamralipta. Take the blessings of the Mother Goddess and return successful.”

The year 1720 – Soundarapandian, after the holy “Pongal” festival, set sail to Tamralipta to get the fresh consignment from Bengal. He had given clear instructions to Taraknath – only finished products were to be handed over. These included Murshidabad silk, Bengal cotton, tangail, tant, and other exotic clothes. Soundarapandian already had had a taste of David Burns before he set sail as the latter raised serious questions about the journey and path to be taken. He was shown documents which stated that the journey was towards Bali for procuring raw cotton, but being  experienced navy general, he had his doubts. The clout of Sri Sukurama Chetti worked and the voyage finally started, but Soundarapandian had the last words of David Burns ringing in his ears – “pray to your God that I don’t catch you smuggling”. 

Soundarapandian met Taraknath on disembarking at Tamralipta and was put up at the guest house, built by Sri Amarendra Goswami, near the port as per normal protocol.  The next morning, both went to pay obeisance to The Mother Goddess at Bargabima Temple. Taraknath had made arrangements for a small puja in name of Sri Sukurama Chetti. Soundarapandian requested to add the name of Zubair Pasha. The head priest – was taken aback, but took his request and all prayed for the success of the mission, which was dangerous and also life threatening. Once the puja was over, he then took Soundarapandian and Tarakanath to the temple’s basement where the donations, sent by Sri Sukurama Chetti, would be kept. The caskets were carried by 40 temple priests. No other person would be allowed inside. At the centre of the basement, A 10 feet idol of Mahishasura Mardini and the walls were painted with stories of The Mother Goddess and Devi Kali. The head priest pressed both his palms together, said a small prayer and bowed down before the Mother Goddess. Then he touched the palm of Her hands one by one and then he touched the big toe and pulled it forward. To everyone’s amazement, the central floor gave way and showed a spiral staircase going down. 

“Come this way”  said the head priest with a smile. “This is the place where all the temple’s donations are kept and used for the well-being of those who need it”. Soundarapandian had never seen such treasures in his life. He and Taraknath placed bowed down to the head priest as a mark of respect and prayed that the good work will continue. 

After having the sacred “Prasad” of the temple, Taraknath took him to his house, where a sumptuous Bengali spread consisting of Padma Hilsa (Ilish to locals) cooked in yellow mustard “jhol” (gravy) and plain white rice, dhokar dalna, Aam chutney, paapad and paayesh, was laid out. Soundarapandian felt elevated to heaven and forgot his worries during that time. 

“Thank you very much Didibhai, (sister) that was a very wonderful meal” said Soundarapandian to Sabitri Devi as he washed his hands and rinsed his mouth after the meal.

Sabitri Devi, true to her traditions, said with a smile, “Bhalo thako Dada. Aashche bochor abaar aashbe”, (“Be well brother, come again next year).

They, then, went to check the goods in a nearby warehouse. These would be loaded onto Zubair Pasha’s ships at night. Zubair Pasha, true to his word, was right on time, and the loading was done within the next 3 hours. The plan was that Soundarapandian would sail rapidly to Pulicat & wait for Zubair Pasha. 

Meanwhile, Sukurama Chetti had requisitioned 6 ships from Bali laden with silk, indigo dyes and other goods from Bali & French controlled Indo China (present day Vietnam). The plan was to get David Burns busy in checking these ships while Zubair Pasha slips away unnoticed. The six ships docked at Fort St. George exactly 1 day before Zubair Pasha was to dock at Pulicat. Sri Sukurama Chetti, himself went to Fort St. George to meet David Burns and clear the goods. 

“Well, well, well! Look who is here! The great Sri Sukurama Chetti himself! And why do I have the honour of your presence?” David Burns guffawed at the top of his voice. A veteran naval general in the East India Company, David Burns had quickly risen up the ranks and now was the head of the EIC operations at Fort St. George. 

 “You know well how to honour and insult someone at the same time” Sukurama Chetti thought to himself. 

They sat over coffee and conversation was direct to the point. Sukurama Chetti knew that any kind of drama and David Burns will know smell something fishy. Since the owner himself had come, David Burns had to stay for the entire procedure to get over (as was the rule laid down by EIC). The whole exercise took 3 days and Sukurama Chetti said that he would come the next day to collect the consignment. 

You will come to take delivery?? exclaimed David Burns. “Why? Send someone else, now that all formalities are over.” But Sukurama Chetti shook his head, “No, I need to be here.” 

David Burns was left pondering. “Need to be here”?? Never in the past 30 years did Sukurama Chetti come to collect his goods. “What’s happening?” he thought to himself. He immediately informed coast guard vessels to spread out as much as possible and report on any suspicious movements in the high seas. He would stay awake the whole night & wait for news. And what a news it was! 10 ships commandeered by the infamous Zubair Mohammad Pasha laden with “raw material” from Bengal had docked in Pulicat and then started out to the high seas. 

David Burns clicked his tongue – “You shouldn’t have done this Sukurama. I will come to you after I deal with this pirate.”

At the stroke of dawn, David Burns, commandeering 5 battleships, confronted Zubair Pasha’s fleet of 2 pirate ships and 8 freight vessels in the middle of the Bay of Bengal. The message was simple – surrender, give up all documents & goods, name the trader and there would be no death penalty. 

Zubair Pasha’s answer was even simple. “FIRE!!!” A huge ball of fire from the cannons boomed into the 1st battleship and it started to sink. A cry of panic rang among the EIC soldiers as they jumped into the water and swam to the nearby ship. Zubair Pasha laughed in his trademark style and thundered “you thought I will come unprepared?” He moved his sword across his throat and pointed at David Burns. 

“It’s your neck today, my friend, and I will be most happy to cut it” whispered David Burns, to himself, then bellowed his orders – “FIRE AT WILL” which was echoed to all the battleships. Zubair Pasha was ready, he ordered his men to fire rope arrows towards the EIC ships so that the pirates can jump on and fight with swords. The pirate army swung with ease into the EIC ships and started the battle of swords. Blood flowed like water while the cannons kept on firing. The freight vessels narrowly escaped the firing line as per plan laid out by Zubair Pasha, but the barrage of gunshots had killed many men. Once he was satisfied that they were out of reach of the firing line, he quietly swung through a rope to the ship commandeered by David Burns, killed 3 soldiers and dislocated the right arm of another. Face to face with David Burns, he said – “Stop all the firing. It is now between you and me. Winner takes all.”  

With a wry smile, David Burns ordered his men to cease fire. Once the firing stopped, an open space of 20×20 sq.ft. was created in the middle of the EIC battleship. Zubair Pasha revealed his arm, which had been wounded by Burns in his previous encounter. Burns acknowledging the same and pointed to his head. With a war-cry that would scare away any warrior, both charged at each other. The duck and slash were swift to the blinking eyes, the surprise on the face remained as the head rolled for a while and stood stationery a few feet away. 

Zubair Pasha had had his revenge. All the EIC soldiers immediately dropped their weapons and were seized by the pirates. However, Zubair Pasha allowed the survivors to board one remaining EIC ship (others had already sunk) and instructed them to go back to the mainland. He would be halfway to Ceylon by the time they disembarked at Fort St. George and reported the events. 

Zubair Pasha and Sri Sukurama Chetti were true to their words. The consignment was smuggled into Europe and London within the same year, thanks to the network set up by the Arabs. Sri Sukurama Chetti got his money’s worth, but also earned the wrath of the EIC, which increased taxes on all sources of the family income. He would later have to completely stop export of textiles because of their tightening grip. Zubair Pasha was paid through donations to Barghabima Temple, Sri Jagannath Temple (Puri) and the Htukkanthein monastery in the Arakanese State of Burma. His followers would not go hungry for the next 50 years. 

The British Government in London passed the Calico Act of 1721 which banned all imports of textile raw material from India and South East Asia which dealt a severe blow to the local industry and daily wage-earning weavers and dyers. Europe then looked towards the New World (the Americas) where slaves were used in cotton and other textile manufacturing units to produce cheaper and higher quality garments. The events leading to the year 1757 in Bengal, saw the EIC starting to collect taxes from three districts and the total control of agricultural output of the region.

In the 1760s, with the invention of “picking stick” and “flying shuttle”, which sped up the process of production of cloth, the Indian handloom products saw decline in demand. 

The story of Soundarapandian, Zubair Pasha and David Burns were somewhere lost in history, but remains to be told in folklore of the coastal areas of present-day Tamil Nadu. 

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