Sunday, 22 June 2014

The Battle of Prai, 1791

In 1791, the Sultan of Kedah attempted to seize Penang back from the East India Company and assembled a fleet of Illanoon prahus and a force of about 8,000-10,000 men in a series of forts at Prai. Below is an account of the ensuing battle, extracted from the subsequent dispatches of Francis Light to Lord Cornwallis, Governor of the Bengal Presidency.

Our apparent enemies are called Lanoons and consist of 37 large prows (perahus) from the island of Magindano of the Philippines, as well as 25 others from various places. This fleet sailed from Siak, a river on Sumatra opposite Malacca to attack Perak. The Dutch cruisers luckily entered the river before them and gave alarm to the Dutch fort. AS the Dutch cruisers carry 9 and 12 pounders, the Prows were afraid to come in reach of their fire. They landed in hopes the Malays in Perak would join them but receiving no assistance, they suddenly went off for two or three days and then returned. The enemy burnt and destroyed all the houses about the river's mouth and carried off the people. They came to Larut and about eight leagues to the northward of Perak, they stayed near fifteen days taking a number of merchant Prows that were coming here; from Larut they came to the river Kurau about seven leagues from here. From the prows that were plundered, we learned that their intention was to come this way to the Settlement and this made me summon the 'Princess Augusta', a ketch mounting 12 three-pounders, to come to the protection of this station.

On the 26th they appeared on the opposite shore and some of them had been at the Prye River just opposite to us.  They took away several fishermen. I armed the cruisers 'Dolphin' with two longboats and the 'Royal Admiral to drive them away. The cruisers came up in the evening. The Prows formed a line at about six hundred yards distance; neither side made any attack. They sent a small boat to the Princess Augusta and said they were friends and going to Queda. After dusk, the Prows weighed anchor and raon off to the southward and in the morning they wee out of sight. The cruisers had scarcely returned when the Prows retuned; before the cruisers could get up to them, again they were off. They were gone to the Boonting Islands near Queda and the cruisers were now watching their motions. The King of Queda had staked the mouth of the river and laid a chain across. At the same time he admitted the Lanoon into the Lolar River which is close to Boonting Island and under the pretence of fear had stopped all supplies from coming to the Settlement. The people in general are of the opinion that he has invited the Lanoon and promised them assistance of provisions, arms and ammunition, with the plunder of our place, which is not trifling. In various goods and merchandise, and in ships, this is not less than £300,000.

This formidable fleet failed to deliver the intended attack due to dissensions among the commanders of the fleet of Prows. However, on the 15th of March, the King of Queda began preparations for an attack; early in April, a large force of Malays, estimated by Captain Glass the commander of the Settlement garrison at 8,000-10,000 men, was concentrated at Prye on the mainland, while the fleet of Lanun Prows assembled in readiness to support the Queda army. On the 19th, twenty of the Lanoon Prows quitted Qualla Mooda at the mouth of the Queda River and anchored under the Malay forts at Prye, which is on the opposite side of the harbour and within random shot of our forts. At the same time. they sent a letter to the Penggawa, who is chief of our Malays, desiring him to assemble all the Mussulmen to drive out the English. This letter the Penggawa immediately delivered to me.

It being now apparent that the Malay force was bent on accomplishing our destruction and Captain Glass was of the opinion that it was necessary for the security of the settlement to attack the enemy immediately. Accordingly, we fitted out four gunboats with the 'Dolphin', 'Princess Augusta' and 'Valiant' (a vessel belonging to the King of Acheh) to attack the Prows. Captain Glass embarked with three companies of Sepoys on boats at 4.00 a.m. on the 12th instant and having landed undiscovered on the opposite shore, surprised at dawn of day the fort upon the point. He dispersed with little loss the large force that had been collected for the fort's defence, then proceeding to the second fort, where the enemy made some show of resistance. But the Sepoys mounted the ramparts and soon put them to flight. Both these forts were immediately burned.

Under the commands of Lieutenant Raban and Mylne, the gunboats at daylight advanced to the attack of the fleet of Prows. For a considerable space of time, the gunboats bore heavy fire from the whole fleet; at length our vessels, which were retarded for want of wind, were rowed in and both troops and gunboats returned fire and the enemy's fire was silenced by noon. The enemy's forces retired out of sight and by the night of the 12th the Lanoon Prows absconded. On the 14th, the Prows again appeared at the mouth of the Prye River in great numbers and I desired Captain Glass to prepare for a second attack. Having refitted the gunboats and mounted an 18-pounder cannon on a large punt, the boats and vessels attacked the prows a second time on the morning of the 16th and, after a short action, made them retreat with great loss, pursuing them to the distance of four miles. Our loss, considering the number of the enemy and the heavy cannonade they kept up, was very small. Troops on land and sea showed the greatest steadiness; the vessels that were able to approach near enough to the Prows kept a well-directed fire.

A messenger arrived from the King of Queda with a letter blaming the affair on the bad conduct of his officers at Prye, denying any intention of attacking this settlement, requesting that he may still be allowed 10,000 Spanish dollars per annum and everything be forgot. To this I have not yet returned an answer. In the meantime, the King of Queda's Prows remain blocked up by our vessels in the Prye River.

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