The wrecking of Anne over 200 years ago was a dramatic affair

(A weekly column on the region’s past culled from historical documents.)

Squall. Shipwreck. Conspiracy. Escape. These elements get together to weave an adventure in the early 19th century. In one of the oldest files at the Archives is this five-page tale of intrigue which unfolds at sea close to the Lakshadweep islands.

This 208 year-old-story doesn’t have a complete closure. Many queries arise at the end, the answers to which unfortunately may not be documented. Nevertheless, recorded on hand-made paper and in beautiful hand-writing is a dramatic snapshot of history. Add to a ship wreck the conspiracy to kill the captain, it becomes a potent mix.

The story is condensed in a letter along with an attachment from the Assistant Collector, Cochin, to the Principal Collector of Malabar. In the letter despatched from Cochin on April 23, 1804, and received here on the fourth day, James Drummond informs about the safe arrival of some of the vessel’s crew at his port.

The ship apparently wrecked on the 19th and the crew reached Cochin after two full days at sea. Drummond writes about the arrival of the “commander 1st and 2nd officers with seven of the crew belonging to the late Packet Anne of Bengal” the vessel which “unfortunately wrecked near the Laccadives on Thursday 19th instant.”

Packet vessels were apparently used to ferry mails and Anne too had her share of despatches. For the Collector’s benefit, Drummond encloses “the narrative” of Captain Knight on the ship’s loss.

The captain prosaically describes the wreck, the drama he leaves for the letter’s last segment. Anne wrecked even as the “seacunny” spotted land at the far end. Close to midnight on April 19, she ran into a reef of rocks. “The ship struck on the reef of rocks, sand and stones,” Knight writes.

He describes the attempts to save Anne. He writes, “Furled all the sails to prevent her going further on the reef. Hoisted out the boats and run the stream anchor out to the north to keep her from forging head on the reef. Sounded a stern of the ship and found the deepest water to the north-north-west.”

The scenario is worsened by a squall and heavy rain by midnight. If ship wreck in our imagination is about absolute chaos, the captain’s letter sticks to facts. Danger is not dwelt upon, may be because the land was within eye’s view. The focus is Anne. “Sent the people again for the purpose of heaving up the stones at half past one,” he writes, but adds the efforts were showing no results.

The first signs of all not being well appears when he says, “Sent the people below again to heave out the remainder of stones but instead of doing that and exerting themselves and doing what was necessary for the safety of the ship many of them began to plunder what they could lay their hands on and saying there was no danger the land being very near.”

Losing Anne

Giving merely a hint of discontent, the captain goes back to Anne. Salvaging her was proving impossible and the “gunner” reports finding four feet water in the vessel and by daylight, he writes, “the water had gained on the pumps to eight and a half feet.” As water gushed in, the ship, he says, began to strike hard. He writes, “At five, the rudder unshipped and carried away the greatest parts of the stern” and by half past five Anne had fallen over her starboard.

This is the point where the captain loses control. Orders to “the syrang and the lascars” to get masts and sails in the boat along with rice and water is not obeyed. They tell him there is enough on the island and continue to plunder cabins, officer’s chests and trunks. Rather cinematically, the captain hears a plot. “The captain being below for the purpose of securing his papers he heard one of the lascars saying to some of those that refused to get the provision in the boat that when we get on the island they would take the first opportunity of killing the captain, officers and sea cunnies and seizing the boats and going to the Malabar coast.”

On overhearing this plot there is no exaggerated or violent reaction from the captain. Instead of confrontation, he chooses quiet withdrawal.

“The captain was resolved to quit the wreck as soon as possible with as many of the other party the boat could carry.” The smaller pinnace is left for the said conspirators with the instruction to follow the captain. The pinnace, he writes, was “soon out of sight” while the captain and company got into the boat with biscuits and water and looked at Anne one last time. “When we quit the wreck she was laying on her starboard...nearly full of water.”

A total of 14 people including six natives were said to be in the captain’s boat. But Drummond’s letter mentions the arrival of only seven. The questions relating to the alleged conspirators, their fate, their version or even the casualties or the veracity of the narrative all remain unanswered.

(Source: Regional Archives Kozhikode)

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