Technically speaking, this is not a story that unfolded by gaslight. Gaslighting at the time was still in the distant future. The Calcutta we Bengalis love to be nostalgic about had not yet been born. Rammohun Roy was but a boy then, and one of Mir Jafar’s sons, Mubarak-ud-Daula, sat on the masnad in Murshidabad.
It was early in the morning of 23rd July 1787 that an unnamed gentleman embarked on a cruise of the river. Suddenly, he noticed a well-manned paunchway (pansi) pull up by a small fishing dinghy (dingi). William Hodges had described a paunchway as being similar to a budgerow (bojra), only their “greatest length is somewhat further aft and stems lower”. Upon looking closely, the gentleman observed that the men in the paunchway were transferring the fish from the dinghy to their larger vessel.
This was not the first time the gentleman had seen this scene, and upon one such previous occasion, he had subsequently sailed up to the dinghy and asked them about it. The fishermen had lamented that these were river-pirates who prowled the Hughli. The fishermen usually worked in twos. As a result, these hapless men were utterly defenseless against the attacks of the river-pirates. Once attacked, they simply handed over their catch and blamed their fate. There was no other way. The gentleman, a long-term resident of Calcutta whose name unfortunately has escaped the historical record, had been moved by the plight of these poor, over-worked and exploited fishermen.
Seeing the paunchway and the dinghy jogged his memory and he vowed to do something about it. The whole transaction had only taken minutes to accomplish and the paunchway was already heading away. But the gentleman shouted a command to his magie (majhi) to pursue the paunchway. By then, the slight early morning drizzle had turned into a strong, typically-Calcutta, downpour. But there was no turning back now. What followed was a scintillating chase up the river.
We do not know whither the pirates were headed, but Reginald Heber, writing thirty years later in the late 1820s, mentioned that the Danish settlement of Serampore was infested by river-pirates. We also know that in the 18th century, many of those who fell foul of the law in Calcutta sought to escape justice by moving to the French settlement at Chandernagore. Maybe the river-pirates with their fishy loot were trying to escape to one of these ‘foreign’ domains. Their luck, however, had run out.
As their pursuer closed in on them, the pirates had few options left but to surrender. Soon the gentleman and his servants boarded the paunchway and arrested the magie and the callashy (khalashi), whilst the others were possibly allowed to escape for want of room. The two culprits-in-chief were brought back to Calcutta and handed over to the legendary Magistrate Motte whose name alone, it was said at the time, made the criminals of Calcutta tremble in fear.
Even though river-piracy continued to thrive in the rivers of Bengal throughout the nineteenth century, it became increasingly rare in the immediate vicinity of Calcutta. Moreover, the nature of the loot gradually changed. Notwithstanding the legendary Bengali love of fish, nineteenth-century pirates operating in Bengal usually smuggled contrabands such as salt and opium, not perishable daily staples like fish. The catch on that fateful Monday in 1787 certainly did not put an end to river-piracy, but it perhaps saved two poor Bengali fishermen and their families from having to go hungry that day.