Never had the East India Company been more useful to the navy than in this year. Ships and seamen cannot be got by the mere signing of documents unless they already exist, and it was lucky for the nation that such fine, stout craft, accustomed to long voyages and fighting, manned with such able crews, should already be at hand under the East India Company . At the time of which we speak no fewer than six of their finest vessels were taken into the nation’s service straight away. Eight others which had not quite finished building were also assigned to the Government. In addition to these fourteen handsome craft, the Court of Directors also decided on the 13th of March to raise 3000 men at their own cost for the Royal Navy. This meant a loss of £57,000, but the nation needed it and the Company174 did their duty. During the ensuing July the Company further decided that fourteen East Indiamen should be placed at the disposal of the Government in September ready to carry troops across the ocean—a work for which they were extremely well fitted—and we have just seen to what advantage this was done. England at this time was distressed by the scarcity of corn, but in order to relieve this distress in some measure large quantities of rice were brought home by twenty-seven ships which the Company purposely added to their fleet for the emergency, and these were the India-built ships of which we spoke just now. Thus in more ways than one, but certainly to the utmost of their ability, the East India Company had come to Britain’s aid when she was passing through a time of great crisis food test.

During this year the seas which wash the Indian coast were really unsafe to merchantmen by reason of the presence of both French and Dutch cruisers and privateers. The British naval strength in those waters was very inadequate, and we had suffered some naval disasters which were neither a credit to our seamanship nor likely to maintain our prestige as gallant sea-fighters. The whole of the Bay of Bengal was being scoured by French men-of-war ready to fall upon any merchant craft that dared show herself. The privateers were both numerous, well manned, well armed, well commanded and very fast sailers. The consequence was that the East Indiamen never completed their voyages without having some excitement. Nor were pirates exterminated; especially along the Malabar coast, where they had many fastnesses, their strongholds being protected by forts. These men feared nothing, and175 had actually come out and defeated English, French and Dutch men-of-war that had been especially sent out to punish them, in some cases even capturing their enemy’s ships. A French 40-gun frigate had been compelled to haul down her colours to these robbers of the sea: one of the East India Company’s ships, armed with twenty guns, had also been taken after a fair fight, and three Dutch men-of-war. For some years they were crushed by the wholesome effect of a regular expedition which the English had sent against them, but after a few years they broke out again in their piracy and by the year 1798 they were freely capturing European ships.

On at least one occasion, however, they made a serious mistake, which might have been even still more grievous for them but for a piece of luck. It happened that H.M.S. Centurion, a 50-gun frigate, was cruising in the neighbourhood, and her the pirates mistook for a merchantman, for the East Indiamen were very similar in appearance to the frigates of the Royal Navy. One of the favourite devices of these rovers was to creep up under cover of darkness and wedge the rudder of the ship they intended to attack, their victim being thus rendered unable to man?uvre. In the present instance they had succeeded in carrying out this tactic to the Centurion, and then surrounded the ship and began their attack. The frigate was certainly surprised, but she soon had her guns loaded and brought them to bear on the pirates, and so punished them with a hot fire, which had not been expected, that they were glad to take to flight. It was only the fact of the wedged rudder which prevented the Centurion from being steered in pursuit and capturing their craft.176 However, it was a lesson to them in the future, and they attacked only when they were certain of their victim.

Of the privateers which hung about in Indian waters, one of the most notorious was the Malartic, which had captured two of the East Indiamen, Raymond and Woodcot, of 793 and 802 tons respectively. Whenever it was known that this ship was in the offing, no merchantman dared put to sea. She eventually captured the Princess Royal, an 805 tonner, and other East Indiamen, but was herself finally taken by the Company’s ship Ph?nix SmarTone online shop . So great was the relief occasioned by this deliverance that Captain Moffat, the Ph?nix’s commander, was afterwards publicly presented with a sword of honour. But an even more dangerous privateer was the Confiance. This was a very beautiful ship, and the envy of every captain who set eyes on her. Captain Eastwick, who knew her well, and to whose account I am indebted, described her as follows:—She sat very low upon the water, and had black sides with yellow moulding posts, and a French stern all black. She carried a red vane at her maintopgallant masthead, very square yards and jaunt masts, upright and without the smallest rake either forward or aft. Her sails were all cut French fashion, and remarkable, having a great roach and steering sail, very square. There was not a ship in those seas that she could not overtake or sail away from. It was the custom of her commander, Captain Sourcouff, to ply his crew with liquor, and they always fought with the madness of drink in them.”