The chaotic conquest of India

The East India Company's predilection for paranoia and aggression soured Britain's relations with the subcontinent for 350 years. Jon Wilson investigates...

Bombay, the East India Company's port on the Malabar Coast of India, 1755. Company trading vessels are depicted in the foreground and quayside warehouses and buildings behind. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

In 1720, a group of Muslim merchants came to visit Simon Cowse, a British trader at the small fort of Anjengo, 70 miles north of India’s southern tip. Rather than negotiating a deal to sell pepper as they intended, they were attacked and daubed with coloured paint by Christian employees of the British East India Company. It was Shrove Tuesday, a day local Catholics celebrated. But the festive mood was used as an excuse to humiliate members of a rival religious community. The merchants angrily took their complaint to the British chief of the fort. But William Gyfford compounded the merchants’ disgrace by breaking their swords on their heads and throwing them out. These insults sparked a small war that different social groups in southern India took part in, many of which had their own reasons to challenge the East India Company’s power.

The Company’s stores of pepper were burnt; its fort was almost stormed. Four heavily armed British ships arrived and imposed peace for a few months. The six-foot walls around their fort protected the British from the local population; but they also insulated them from the scale of animosity against them. So when, in April 1721, Gyfford decided to show the Company’s strength by marching in full military regalia to the local queen’s castle, his retinue was attacked. All but a handful of the 120 merchants and soldiers were massacred. Simon Cowse was the only Briton who got away. But while fleeing back to the fort he was killed by a man who owed him money.

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