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History: Pemba, the first conflict grave of the English East India Company

9th Apr 2021
History: Pemba, the first conflict grave of the English East India Company

(Photo credit: Parusciom from Pixabay)

M Ahmedullah

On December 21, 1608, a strange exchange transpired onboard the Ascension, the flagship of the fourth voyage of the East India Company. This was between the crew and a group of six or eight captives brought on board after the English captured their three small vessels. The total number of captives was about forty. The incident occurred near Pemba, Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania).

The English were particularly suspicious of the six or eight ‘comparatively pale and fair’ skinned captives. They looked different from the other regional ‘moors’ that they had encountered. So, they accused them of being Portuguese. But the prisoners denied this and claimed, as proof, that, unlike the Portuguese, they were circumcised. The journal entry does not elaborate on this issue or what happened next.

Until a few years ago, I had never heard of Pemba and had very little knowledge of any western involvement in that region. I knew that the Portuguese were active there for a while, but I wasn’t aware of any English deaths in that part of the world so early on. I was surprised to learn that several Englishmen had lost their lives in 1608 from a confrontation with the locals.

As I continued to read about the Ascension’s journey along the channel separating Mozambique and Madagascar, I came to learn of the existence of the islands of Comoros and Pemba.

The fourth voyage of the East India Company left Woolwich in London on March 14, 1608 with two ships. The Ascension was 260 tonnes while the Union’s registered tonnage was 400. Both vessels were small compared to the Red Dragon, the 600 tonnes flagship of the three previous voyages of the Company. The Ascension was part of the first two voyages and had previous experience of sailing in these waters.

The fourth voyage was part of the separate joint-stock system that financed and regulated the first twelve voyages of the East India Company (1601-1614). Sixteen ships were employed during these voyages. Of which, four (chronologically) the Susan, Ascension, Union and Trades Increase, experienced shipwrecked. They operated under separate joint-stock systems. Each voyage was financed and accounted for separately.

It was near impossible to completely split the affairs of each voyage. So, the Company had developed elaborate mechanisms to deal with crossover costs between different voyages. For example, during the first voyage, Captain James Lancaster, in 1602, took his fleet to pirate a Portuguese ship near Melaka, southwestern Malaysia. They captured a 900-tonnes ship carrying a large quantity of Indian textiles, on the way from the Coromandel Coast of India. Much of the stolen goods were subsequently sold at the markets in Banten, West Java, Indonesia.

However, by the time Captain Lancaster left Banten for England on February 13, 1603, there remained unsold textiles. The twenty-three Englishmen that were to remain in Java were instructed to sell the textiles and buy peppers for the arrival of the next East India Company voyage. They were also instructed to further develop the settlement.

From this example, it can be clearly seen how the expenses incurred by different voyages, including the crossover costs and running the settlement, were needed to be sorted out and reconciled in London.

The fourth voyage was a complete disaster as both the Ascension and the Union were lost. The former near Surat in Gujarat and the latter on its way back near the coast of France. As the Ascension hit rocks near the coast of Gujarat, all its crew managed to get to the land and survive. But no one on board the Union was lucky, they all perished. However, the ship was partially standing near the coast of France by the time rescuers arrived, so they managed to salvage some of its contents. As such, some accounts of the voyages of both ships have survived.

Both ships reached Saldanha Bay in mid-July 1608, in the Cape of Good Hope, present-day South Africa. This was the usual place of rest and replenishing for passing ships. They stayed there for just over two months. On the third week of September 1608, they headed east towards the Indian Ocean. But soon they got separated by bad weather and darkness and could not find each other. The Ascension turned alone northward into the channel that separates Madagascar and Mozambique.

Soon after passing Madagascar, they came across the Comoros Islands on the third week of November 1608. They anchored there, stayed for one week and obtained supplies. Staying at Comoros was relatively event-free and included friendly interactions with the islanders and the King.

But as soon as the Ascension arrived near Pemba, the English got involved in unfriendly and suspicious interactions with the locals. At first, the English thought the island was Zanzibar, but they were quickly corrected by a native.

In total, there were two violent incidents between East India Company officers/sailors and the locals. The first was on land near a watering place where two Englishmen lost their lives and one got severely injured. The second one was at sea onboard the Ascension. It resulted in the injury of two to three Englishmen and about 40 fatalities among the captives. This was according to the journal of Captain Robert Coverte.

When the English first arrived in Pemba on December 10, 1608, they faced the question of whether they had the right to replenish at that place. The English party that was sent to find a convenient watering-place, was informed by some locals that the ‘island belonged to the King of Portugal’, and were asked what they were doing there.

Nothing fruitful was reported from that mission. Two days later, another group of Englishmen landed on the island, led by Mr Jordan. A different group of locals told them that ‘the king of the island was a Malabar’. The English found that to be strange. But Mr ‘Jordan told them, though the ship was English, that he was a Portuguese merchant, and the goods belonged to Portugal’.

The English were then permitted to have everything they wanted. A ‘Moor’ was sent ‘to show them the watering-place.’ The local ‘Moor’ that helped the English boarded the Ascension and stayed in the ship overnight. Another local man that also helped the English stayed in the Ascension on a separate night.

On another occasion, when one of the king’s brothers boarded the English ship and stayed overnight, three English men were sent ashore as security. Some natives were said to have once saluted the English in the Portuguese fashion. Some Portuguese, about six to eight, were also seen in a house on another occasion. They were identified as Portuguese from their clothes. The natives had earlier told the English that the Portuguese on the island were evicted for their forceful behaviour. But the English did not believe them anymore.

Everything was going well, and the natives were helpful. But suddenly, without further information, Captain Robert Coverte wrote that the friendly welcoming was all ‘sugared words… only a cloak to their treacherous designs.’ Why the English thought there was a treacherous plan being hatched is not stated in the journal. So, it is impossible to understand why the natives suddenly became unfriendly and devised a plot against the English. It is possible that the natives discovered that Mr Jordan was not Portuguese and lying about his identity, which would have indicated that the English were up to no good. Or it could be that the Portuguese in the island instigated the islanders to turn against the English.

The situation deteriorated and caused the first casualties on both sides on the morning of December 14, 1608, when several Englishmen went ashore to procure supplies.

Later during the day, the Pinnace of the Ascension, a smaller English vessel, went near the shore. They saw their colleagues who went earlier ‘standing near on the sands underarms. The king’s brother was then on the sands. He ordered ‘a negro to gather cocoa-nuts to send to our general and desired Edward Churchman to go and fetch them. He went accordingly but was never seen or heard of more. Finding that the English refused to land, and stood on their guard, the ‘word was given for the assault and a horn was sounded, upon which our men at the watering-place were immediately assaulted’.

John Harrington, the boatswain’s mate, was slain. The injured one, one badly hurt, managed to get back to the Pinnace as the crew fired muskets to frighten away the attackers’. On December 16, when the Pinnace went ashore again ‘they found the body of Harrington stark naked, which they buried on an island near Pemba’.

The second incident occurred on December 21. They set sail from Pemba the night before and by midnight the ship got aground on the shoals of Pemba. Next morning, they ‘pursued and took three small boats’, which contained ‘above forty persons, six or eight of whom being comparatively pale and fair, very differing from the other Moors, was thought to have been Portuguese; but being asked, they shewed their backs all over with written characters; and when we still insisted, they were Portuguese, they said the Portuguese were not circumcised as they were’, as recorded by Captain Robert Coverte.

The English ‘remained watchful’ on the rear cabin roof of their ‘ship, looking carefully’ at their ‘swords, which lay naked in the master’s cabin, which they too seemed to have their eyes upon. They seemed likewise to notice the place where I and Mr Glascock had laid our swords and anxiously waiting for the place to be clear. They even beckoned several times for me to come down upon the spar-deck, which I refused, lest they might have taken that opportunity to seize our weapons.’

The pilot of the local boats ‘had a concealed knife’, which he used and ‘stabbed our master in the belly, and then cried out. This probable signal for the rest, for they immediately began the attack on our people on the spar-deck’.

There followed a violent incident. The English shot and killed most of the captives, including about ‘four or five of the white rogues’, which ‘brought the rest under subjection’.

Those who survived were first thought to be useful in helping the English navigate their way out of the waters of Pemba. But then it was thought they could not be trusted as they ‘had treacherously attacked’ them and as such a decision was made to slew them. But they managed to jump overboard, swam fast and got onto one of the local vessels captured by the English and escape.

Exactly why the English decided to capture the three vessels they came across and brought the forty-plus men on board the ships is not explained in the journal of Captain Robert Coverte. From the brief description of what occurred on board before the violent incident, during and after, the most important thing to note is that the English handled the matter very badly, in terms of security onboard the Ascension. Perhaps, the capturing of the vessels was a form of revenge as according to the journal, when the English mentioned the murder of their men a few days previously, the ‘white moors’ became nervous.

The Ascension then sailed northward, visiting Socotra and the Red Sea and then eventually towards India where it met its destiny. Near the coast of Gujarat on September 2, 1609, it struck a rock and started to break up. Meanwhile, the Union followed behind independently a path similar to the Ascension. This was for a while before directing its course towards Aceh in Indonesia.

The Union visited Zanzibar in early February 1609. There, several Englishmen got killed and one taken prisoner from a violent incident with the islanders. Perhaps, the native reaction against the crew of the Union as described, if true, was due to the earlier incidents in December 1608, linked to the Ascension in the nearby Pemba islands. The news must have spread fast around the area and on the coast of Africa on the Indian Ocean.

After that, the Union decided to go to Madagascar. There, they also experienced a violent incident that resulted in the deaths of several Englishmen at the hands of the natives.

For more on the East India Company incidents in Pemba reference Fourth voyage of the English East India Company, by Captain Alexander Sharpey and Voyage of Captain Richard Rowles in the Union, the Consort of the Ascension.

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