Harking Back: Famous pirates who served Mughal Lahore

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, June 29 , 2014


Imagine walking down Kalli Beri Bazaar before you reach Paniwala Tallab – the Waterworks - behind Bazaar Baroodkhana and let your imagination flow to the early days of Aurangzeb. In a ‘haveli’ in the middle of the bazaar lived the Pirate King of Madagascar.

Sounds bizarre, of this there is no doubt, but then this colourful character known as James Plaintain was one of many Europeans who lived in Mughal times in the walled city. He was arrested by the Mughals, for after looting British merchant ships in the Pacific under his jolly roger banner had moved to the more lucrative Malabar Coast and was trapped.

Pirates by their very ‘profession’ survived because of their excellent gunnery skills, and if it came to hand-to-hand fighting, they were excellent swordsmen, not to speak of their ruthless stabbing and escaping skills.

Aurangzeb respected their mercenary dare and skill and allowed them, like his father, to set up small recruitment companies offering to provide skilled artillery units to the court. James Plaintain’s company provided the Mughal Army a detachment of gunners, and he is given in account books as receiving the salary of a ‘master gunner’.

In 1711, as a Dutch document informs, a certain John Wheeler also lived in Lahore, the exact location is described as near the big mosque. Court documents show him being paid the salaries of 20,000 horsemen. He is described as a person of great importance who lived in a ‘haveli’ facing the fort.

The role of French and English mercenaries in the pay of the Mughals has been rarely researched. Without doubt their role was much greater than in the reign of Maharajah Ranjit Singh. Greater numbers of European mercenaries were available all over India when the Mughals needed them. French regular soldiers fled Europe after Napoleon was defeated, and a lot of them headed east to find a fortune.

The ones who came during Mughal times were mostly pirates, privateers and scoundrels who had escaped the noose of their motherlands.

In this respect have the description of Niccole Manucci, the Italian who served Prince Dara Shikoh as a gunner when he came to Lahore. He writes that in the army of Shah Jehan and Aurangzeb over 100 English gunners served at “very attractive salaries”.

He singles out two characters as Thomas Rooch and Reuben Smith, both pirates who had escaped from British Naval authorities. They once tried to steal his belongings.

Among the gunners that Aurangzeb employed was a pirate by the name of John Masson, who had, according to British Navy records of the period, escaped hanging in an incident off the African coast.

He turned up in India, and how he got there is anyone’s guess. My interest lies in the fact that the man now lies in the graveyard just behind Ewing Hall at Nila Gumbad. Next to him are three other graves whose tombstones have been stolen.

British, French, Portuguese and Italian adventurers all operated as one, for in that lay their salvation. In one delightful incident in Agra, the emperor Jahangir allowed in 1609 William Hawkins to lead 60 Europeans in a church service where two Mughal princes were baptised as Christians. The catch was that they would be allowed to marry beautiful Portuguese girls. This incident has also been described by Finch in his travelogue. The emperor allowed the English to brew their “strong water” for he joked that “an Englishman without strong drinks is like a fish out of water”. Finch suggests that he had ‘strong’ personal reasons to allow production of ‘strong water’.

But one such recruiting company in Lahore in 1722, as Clement Dawson describes it, provided the court in Delhi with 70 European personal bodyguards, as locals were not trusted.

The Mughal Empire was disintegrating and few could be trusted. Probably the best known pirate in Mughal times was the French pirate Walter Reinhardt, known in the sub-continent as ‘Somru’.

Even the legendary ‘thugs’ worshipped him for his ruthlessness. He had deserted the French Navy and joined the British. He then took off with a British ship on pirating expeditions.

The seas were soon dangerous for him for every navy was seeking his head.

He headed for land and India and set up a ‘Company of Free Companies’. His first office was outside British-held India, and he worked for different Rajas and Nawabs with his small army of former pirates.

He helped Mir Qasim capture Patna in 1763 and on his orders personally butchered 200 English soldiers with his own hands. When the following year the British prevailed he escaped and came to Lahore, where he set up an office inside Mori Gate.

Here he supplied the three Sikh rulers with soldiers. He then moved to Agra, where he died, but his wife kept the company going. The story of such pirates and privateers makes exciting reading. To my mind the most baffling story is that of Skinner, the pirate.

James Skinner escaped to India after a battle off the Malay Peninsula. He joined the East India Company and excelled in whatever he did. In 1803 he set up a cavalry unit named ‘Skinners Horse’.

His regiment became the 1st Duke of York’s Own Lancers and in Lahore it was known as Sikander Sahib ka regiment. “Assal mard tha janna” is how old Sikh soldiers described him.

This was one pirate who proved that he could operate on both sides of the law with distinction.

Published in Dawn, June 29th, 2014




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