• Christies auction house James Christie logo

    Sale 7660

    Maritime Art

    29 October 2008, London, King Street

  • Lot 17

    Francis Holman (1729-1790)

    Commodore James in the Protector, with the Revenge and the grab Bombay in the bay off the Suvarnadrug fort at Gheriah, India, April 1755

    Price Realised  

    Francis Holman (1729-1790)
    Commodore James in the Protector, with the Revenge and the grab Bombay in the bay off the Suvarnadrug fort at Gheriah, India, April 1755
    oil on canvas
    40 x 43½ in. (101.6 x 110 cm.)


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    During the seventeenth century, British involvement in India - through the activities of the East India Company - began at Surat (in 1616), expanded to Madras (fortified in 1641) and was then immeasurably strengthened by the acquisition of Bombay (in 1668), a gift from Charles II to whom it had passed as part of the dowry of his Portuguese wife Catherine of Braganza. Already renowned as the finest harbour in India, Bombay proved a great prize particularly when compared with the lack of any similar facility at Fort St. George on the Madras coast. It was probably inevitable therefore that the Company would adopt a more aggressive policy towards the north-eastern territories bordering the Bay of Bengal where lay, within the vast sprawl of the Ganges delta, far more suitable sites from which to base its operations on that side of the sub-continent. A short war against the Moghul Emperor's forces (1685-90) identified the perfect location when, in 1686, E.I.C. ships found unexpected shelter in a bend in the Hooghley River. An ideal deep-water anchorage from which any settlement could be safeguarded by the guns of ships lying off-shore, it was here that the foundations of Fort William were laid in 1697 which, when completed, would become the nucleus of the future city of Calcutta.

    Elsewhere in India however, colonial expansion was progressing less well, not least in the Maratha lands south of Bombay where the ancient Maratha capital of Gheriah was protected by the heavily fortified island of Suvarnadrug. The safe and sheltered anchorage provided by the bay had long been a safe haven for the so-called 'Angrian pirates', Marathas who refused to accept any English involvement in their territory and who, inevitably, became the target for two unsuccessful expeditions to subdue them between 1718 and 1721. By 1750 the situation had improved somewhat, thanks to the Maratha's desire for some English support against their more traditional enemies and, in 1755, it was decided to mount an Anglo-Marathan offensive against Gheriah to root out the pirates once and for all. It was agreed that the Maratha army would attack the city from the land whilst ships of the Bombay Marine would mount an assault from the sea.

    In command of the naval force was Commodore William James, a highly experienced professional sailor who had selected the frigate Protector as his flagship. Specially built in England and mounting 40-guns, she was a true warship and much more powerful than the locally built 'grabs' which accompanied her even though the latter were well-officered and amply supplied with cannon, powder and shot. Despairing of the arrival of the squadron supposedly on its way from Madras to assist him, James sailed into Suvarnadrug Bay on 2nd April 1755 in order to attack the main island fort from the west, along with his two bomb ketches Revenge and Bombay. On that first day, 'eight hundred shot and shell' were expended at a range of less than one hundred yards and, according to a deserter from the fort, caused 'fearful casualties'. On the next day, Protector and her two consorts attacked again, this time from the eastern side and, by nightfall, the fort was ablaze following the explosion of the main arsenal. The next morning, 4th April, the fortress surrendered and James afterwards returned to a hero's welcome in Bombay leaving the Marathas, along with greatly strengthened East India Company forces, to take the city of Gheriah the next year.
    Compared to James's triumphant and somewhat unexpected subjugation of the fort at Suvarnadrug the previous year, the subsequent taking of Gheriah itself in February 1756 proved relatively simple. Although James was once again present, along with his ship Protector, overall command of the much larger naval squadron had devolved upon Admiral Watson whilst Robert [later Lord] Clive had arrived on the scene to assume command of the land forces. The defenders of Gheriah stood little chance against such a powerful combined operation and the city fell within thirty-six hours.

    With his share of the captured booty, Commodore James retired to an estate at Eltham, on the outskirts of London, and was given a baronetcy. Also made a director of the East India Company - and, eventually, its chairman - he died a rich man in 1783 whereupon his widow erected a fanciful replica of the scene of his greatest triumph in his memory; 'Severndroog Castle', as it was soon called by the locals, was located on Shooters Hill where it still stands as a curious memorial to the events of April 1755.

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