Four against the Fleet

By March 23, 2013February 18th, 2021No Comments

Chafing at their lack of success in persuading the Great Mogul to expel the English out of hand, they attempted to force the pace. Seizing a ship at Surat, they apparently planned to hold her as a pledge till they could exact assurances that the English would be immediately expelled from the Mogul’s dominions and never allowed to return. Unfortunately for them, the Great Mogul’s mother had a considerable interest in the cargo of that particular ship. So great a part does Fortune sometimes play in the making and unmaking of empires!

The enraged and outraged monarch immediately ordered the arrest of every Portugese in his dominions, and despatched Mukarrab Khan, one of his most trusted officers, to besiege the Portugese coast settlement of Daman.

It was at this very moment that four of the [East India] Company’s ships, under the command of the gallant Captain Nicholas Downton, appeared and dropped anchor off Swally. So at last – as it seemed – an opportunity had arrived which, had it been possible to utilise it, might have won the Great Mogul’s favour for the Company then and there – thus establishing its position in India for a long time to come.

But King James had warned Captain Downton on no account to become involved in “the quarrels and contentions which do many times fall out between the subjects of divers princes when they meet the one with the other in foreign and far remote countries”, and had thus so effectively tied his hands that when Mukarrab Khan begged him to “batter the castle” with his ships’ guns on behalf of the Great Mogul, he felt obliged to refuse, and thus aroused wrath where he might have earned gratitude.

The inevitable result was that Mukarrab Khan informed Downton in return that “if we would doe nothing for him, he would doe nothing for us”, and he thereupon, “crossed our proceedings all he might”, while “wee rested perplexed a long while”.

And so now the Portugese themselves were given an unexpected opportunity to adopt a conciliatory attitude towards the Great Mogul, and if they had taken advantage of it the history of modern India might have ended differently. But the Portugese Viceroy, unlike King James, instead of showing any pacific intentions towards the “subjects of other princes”, chose to regard the arrival of Downton and his four ships as a heaven-sent chance not only to drive the entire company of English merchants bag and baggage out of India for ever, but at the same time endeavoured to regain his country’s lost prestige by putting the Portugese themselves into a position to dictate their own terms to the Great Mogul.

He resolved therefore to capture the four English ships – but remembering the fighting powers of Captain Best and his two crews, he first took the precaution of assembling the entire strength of the Portugese “India” fleet at Goa.

These intentions of the “Vice-Roy” first became apparent to Downton when twenty-two of the Portugese “frigates”, during the night of the 23rd December 1614, manoeuvred themselves into position between the English ships and the river-mouth, anchoring in the shallows in such a manner as to shut the Englishmen in among the shoals and at the same time to prevent them from having easy contact with the shore. But this was not all, for reinforcements to the Portugese continually arrived during the next three weeks until there was a fleet of no less than sixty Portugese frigates to harass Downton’s ships in the course of the desultory fighting that followed, during which the frigates, as Downton records, “could passe to and fro over the sands where wanted water for my ships to swimme.”

Then, on the 18th of January 1615, Indian friends informed Downton that they had “discryed a farre off a Fleete of ships looming very bigge”, and soon afterwards there arrived six great galleons, three smaller ships and two galleys. The appearance of this formidable armada showed Downton that the time was at hand when he would be compelled to accept a general engagement. The odds were overwhelming. His four ships would have to grapple with eleven of the enemy, together with their sixty “frigates”. Moreover, the English ships had but eighty guns to oppose an enemy armament of 234 cannon which were of a calibre superior to their own; and the complement of their ships amounted to no more than 400 men to resist the 2,600 European fighting men of the Portugese, who, furthermore, had the assistance of a large number of natives to work their vessels; for in order to omit no possible effort, the work of the ‘Portingalls’ on board was done by their slaves, so that their fighting-men could be kept fresh for battle, whereas Downton’s crews, before ever the battle began would, in their commander’s own words, be “first tired, or halfe spent with the labour of the ship, as heaving at capstains, and getting up our anchors, setting of sailes and other labours”.

Mukarrab Khan, now completely cowed by the formidable display of this Portugese armada, at once made the most abject overtures for peace, “for”, says Downton, “I once overthrowne, his turne had come next”. But the Portugese Viceroy, counting with confidence upon an easy and early victory as being beyond possibility of doubt, scornfully rejected the Indian’s proposals.

Thus the die was cast. Downton knew that the stake was a heavy one. “If I should now be overthrowne,” he wrote, “the enemy would make peace with this people upon what conditions he list, to the expelling of our Nation from this country for ever”. 

His first impulse was to invoke Divine assistance – “ever as I could be solitary or free from others; very earnestly craving aid and assistance from the Lord of Hosts…and that God would grant my request, I had strong confidence”. 

But next, being of a practical turn, as well as a religiously minded man, he invited the captains of his ships, together with some of the mates, to join him in conference at supper and to discuss a plan of campaign against an enemy, who according to his own view, only sought “to disturbe or intercept the peacable and quiet trade of the English with the subjects of the Mogul, a great King in his own Countrey”. 

The next morning, therefore, 20th of January 1615, Downton gave battle. The Portugese faced him with a courage that called forth his unstinted admiration, but in spite of all their valour and their immensely superior weight of man-power and armament, they were outwitted and outfought from morning till night. Downton’s tactics and seamanship, his skilful use of the wind, the tide, and the shallows, together with the deadliness of the Englishmen’s gunnery, were such that the enemy weakened continuously, and by nightfall had already had far more than enough of the fighting. A Persian eye-witness who saw the Portugese dead brought ashore for burial during the night gave some idea of the indescribable havoc wrought by the English guns.

When morning broke the Portugese decided, rather than continue the battle, to endeavour, after all, to arrange a truce with Mukarrab Khan. But the Indian spectators of the battle had already changed their outlook and these negotiations soon broke down. The Portugese Admiral next decided to reduce Downton’s four ships by blockade rather than to resort to another pitched battle.

But on the 13th of February, to the amazement and delight of Mukarrab Khan and his army, as well as the English crews, the enemy armada put out to sea and disappeared.

Downton’s victory was not only amazing, but in every respect complete. Mukarrab Khan, now completely won over to the English side, arrived in pomp with his elephants, tents, and entire retinue in order to congratulate Downton upon this remarkable exploit. Pitching his tent in great state close to the English ships, he entertained Downton with much ceremony “under a very faire tent, open on all sides round about, environed with many people”, and even pressed him to stay longer to enjoy his hospitality.

Jarvis HW (1946) Let The Great Story Be Told, London: Sampson Low, Marston and Co Ltd, pp 61-65