Wednesday, 24 May 2017

How a Drunken Sailor Captured a Fort

     The British Empire, it is said, was won in a moment of absent mindedness. Certainly, it wasn't planned. On the coasts of India, for instance, the European powers were permitted to establish trading posts, to the mutual benefit of both sides. In 1690 a doctor of the English East India Company saved the life of a daughter of the Mogul Emperor, as a reward for which the Company was allowed to set up shop at Calcutta. Alas! The oppressions of the fanatical Emperor Aurangzeb against his Hindu subjects meant that the Empire quickly began to tear itself apart with multiple rebellions and invasions. By 1756 Bengal was in the hands of an upstart ruler who wanted the Company out. The result was a battle notable for the extreme courage of the British soldiers and the extreme cowardice of their leaders, and which ended in the notorious Black Hole of Calcutta. It was clear to the Company that if they were to have any future in India they were going to have to fight. And their numbers were pitifully small against those pitted against them.
     Two relatively small British forces headed towards Calcutta. One was a group of 1,500 soldiers led by Robert Clive, some of whose exploits I have recorded elsewhere. The other consisted of 250 marines under Admiral Watson. After a terrible march through swamp and jungle in the face of the monsoon, they came to the fort of Budge Budge just before Calcutta. You will still be able to find it on the map. Heavy artillery fire carved a breach in the wall, but Clive's men were so exhausted they had to postpone the attack until the following day. As for the others, I shall quote from R. J. Minney's 1931 book, Clive of India.
     Two hundred and fifty sailors, landed from the ships to assist Clive, spent the intervening night in riotous revelry. Flushed with wine, one of them, a hot-headed Irishman named Strahan, set out in a spirit of daring alone for the fort and dashed recklessly through the breach. He found himself amid a surprised party, talking and smoking in a circle.
     Firing his pistol at them, Strahan waved it drunkenly above his head and shouted, "The Fort is mine!" He then called for three hearty cheers, which he alone gave; and, while he was cheering, the enemy fell upon him and would have split his skull had he not whipped out his cutlass to defend himself.
    Strahan fought like a fiend, shouting all the time for help. Some comrades rushed to the rescue, and at the sound of their firing, other English soldiers dashed up. After a brief tussle, the enemy abandoned the fort, and Captain Eyre Cook took possession of Budge Budge in the name of the English.
    The next day the drunken Strahan was dragged before the Admiral. A stickler for the conventions, Watson regarded him with anger and censure. He viewed the sailor's conduct as a grave breach of discipline, and in a severe voice demanded, "Mr. Strahan, what is this that you have been doing?"
     Strahan bowed and scratched his head reflectively; then fidgeting awkwardly with his hat, he wrinkled his nose and said: "Why, to be sure, sir, it was I that took the fort, and I hope there was no harm in it."
     The Admiral, though he could scarcely restrain a smile, refused to acquit Strahan on that ground. He lectured him in a severe, rasping tone on the evils of his drunkenness and dismissed him finally with a hint of punishment, which made Strahan rejoin his comrades with a surly oath. "Well," he declared, "if  I am flogged for this action, I will never take another fort by myself as long as I live, by God!"
     I wouldn't blame him.

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