*The following is a paper I had written for the Maritime History Society Seminar held at Kerala recently.*
History is the point where the power of reconstruction meets the accuracy of documentation. Reading about any historic personality or event draws the reader into thinking and imagining how would things have been? It also does the fascinating thing of transmuting the reader to the history of that place and time. It isn’t simply enough to know that Person A did thing X which had effect Y on place Z. To know person A, one necessarily also has to know thing X, effect Y and place Z. Something similar happens when one begins reading about Kanhoji Angre. His was a time of great upheaval along the Konkan coast. Older centers of power were on the wane while newer contenders were rising. History, if it may be called that, was in the making. When is it isn’t? And Kanhoji Angre, with all his valour, strategic acumen and unswerving loyalty to the Maratha throne was very much in the center of it.
India’s great empires used the sea for trade and prosperity; rarely have they looked to the sea for military or commercial might; of the major forces that have held sway over the subcontinent, only the Cholas and the later colonial powers can be regarded as true maritime empires. Yet in the emergent period of European colonialism, beginning in the late 17th and early 18th Centuries, a single, semi-autonomous figure emerged along the Konkan coast as the first indigenous defender of local sovereignty over coastal waters. The ensuing pages are a brief reconstruction of this period in history and the part that Kanhoji Angre played in shaping it.
The first important naval figure in modern India, Kanhoji Angre managed to maintain an unquestionable hold over a heavily disputed stretch of coastline throughout the early decades of the 18th century. At its peak in 1729, Angre’s Maratha fleet held a more than 100 ships, many of them little more than overgrown fishing boats engineered by the local kolis (fisher folk) who populated his domain. Yet with the combination of that modest fleet and an unsurpassed strategic mind, Angre established a fearsome authority in the name of the Maratha Emperors over a vast swath of India’s west coast. The competition was fierce and came from some of the greatest ‘players’ of the day – the Portuguese, the British, and the Mughals in the form of their coastal vassals, the Siddis.
Though often classified as a pirate by frustrated European powers vying for total mercantile control over trade routes into and out of India’s west coast, Angre was in fact a semi-autonomous, though steadfast, vassal of the Maratha crown. The latter used his great tactical genius to establish late-Medieval India’s only local power along the coast.
A Time Before Time
In 1680, Shivaji died at Raigad. “The infidel goes to hell”, wrote Khafi Khan, Aurangzeb’s official historian. Shivaji’s elder son, Sambhaji, became the King of the Marathas. At this time, Kanhoji was eleven years old, still a pupil at the house of a Brahmin in Harnai village, fretting against the shortcomings of a Brahmanic way of life – the total absence of meat and spices, the frequency of waterless fasts and long hours spent in chanting meaningless prayers. Unfortunately, these years of Kanhoji’s boyhood are lost in the chaos of the sorry hash that Sambhaji made of his kingdom. Too much was happening in the Deccan: the Mughals were at war with both the Marathas and the Bijapur Kings; the Marathas were at war with the Mughals, the Siddy of Janjira and the Portuguese; even the British, busy minding their account books and performing amazing feats of neutrality in the midst of all this warfare, were called upon to defend themselves against the Siddy’s attack on Bombay.
The most reasonable assumption seems to be that as a boy of thirteen, Kanhoji Angrey joined Sambhaji’s fleet. He was posted at Suvarna-durg, where his father, Tukoji was, or had been until a few years earlier, the Deputy Commander of the fort. It is unlikely that Tukoji was still around when Kanhoji began his military life. Even if he was alive, he must have been in his sixties, and unlikely to be still in service.
Sambhaji, the white hope of the Maratha army, was destined for tragedy. He was a fearless man, second to none in personal bravery, but was a total slave to worldly pleasures, drunkenly oscillating between bouts of war fever and sexual orgies. His debauchery, his rashness, his terrible temper and his cruelty obscured whatever military gifts he may have possessed. Whereas the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, was readying for the last great effort to conquer the Deccan! Shivaji had been dead and it was time to strike the ‘fatal death blow’. The Grand Army was already stirring. Opposing this overwhelming threat should have been Sambhaji’s principle concern, as it had been his father’s. Instead Sambhaji chose to fritter away his strength on the more humble design of reducing the Siddy of Janjira. He secretly planted a saboteur in the Siddy’s fort to blow up the Siddy’s ammunition magazines when the attack began. But this plan was discovered by the Siddy, it is said, through a maid-servant, and the saboteur was promptly put to death.
Sambhaji’s pattern of military campaigns maybe summarized as such: a total disregard for overall strategic exigency and planning, and utter carelessness in the execution of plans. A tattling maid-servant had foiled his plans. The attack when it came, was a miserable failure. The Siddy’s garrison was ready and waiting, its ammunition magazines still intact.
After hurling back the Maratha forces from the walls of Janjira, the Siddy added insult to injury by making an audacious raid after the retreating Marathas deep into the hinterland and capturing and carrying away the wife of Dadoji Raghunath, the commander of the Maratha forces which had attacked Janjira. Another expedition to teach the Siddy a lesson now became imperative. (In the meantime, the Mughal army was left free to rampage freely, gobbling up the Deccan in huge chunks.)
In 1682, thirty Maratha vessels had been tasked to search and destroy Kassam Yakoot Khan, the Siddy of Janjira’s fleet. The Siddy had barely half the number of ships at his disposal, but the sea was his natural element. He carefully chose his position and waited. The two fleets came to grips at the mouth of the Thana River. Sambhaji’s ships went charging in, carrying every inch of sail, as though in a thundering cavalry charge of the sea. It was a pathetic example of suicide warfare. Four of their ships, including the flagship were captured by the Siddy, and many others sunk. Their exchange was short and decisive. The Maratha fleet was soundly defeated. It would be interesting to note that the Maratha fleet was also led by a Siddy, Siddy Mistry, who had deserted to the Marathas. He was mortally wounded and died in captivity.
It was in this ill-fated battle that the young Kanhoji Angre received his baptism in fire. If there was one thing he learnt from this battle, it was how not to go into a battle! He had learnt what the majority of the Maratha commanders lacked: the necessity of calculating risks, of “thinking out” a battle before going into it. In modern military parlance, he had learnt to “appreciate situations”.
Heroes Shall Rise
At this stage, it becomes necessary to make a brief excursion to Bijapur, the land of the famous Boli-gumbaz, the Whispering dome. The Sultans of Bijapur, known as the Adil-Shahs, had been the undisputed rulers of the Deccan for close to two hundred years. It was from the domains of the Kings of Bijapur that Shivaji had carved out the Maratha kingdom. The Siddy of Janjira too had begun as a vassal of Bijapur. Even Shivaji’s father, Shahaji, was a chieftain under the Bijapur kings and took part in a number of military actions as commander of the Bijapur forces. With the rise of Shivaji, the power of the Sultans of Bijapur had been on the decline. The Sultans of Bijapur, though Muslim, were independent sovereigns, established in India long before the Mughals came. Thus, in his avowed conquest of the Deccan, Aurangzeb had two enemies to contend with: the Marathas and the Sultans of Bijapur. For reasons best known to him, Aurangzeb decided to concentrate first on Bijapur. Perhaps he felt that with the Shivaji’s death, the Marathas were as good as finished. Judging by the way Sambhaji was carrying on, the emperor wasn’t much wrong.
However, Bijapur fell to the Mughals by the end of the yearlong campaign. They fought valiantly under the leadership of their teenaged king, Sikander. Aurangzeb is said to have wept when he saw the ruins of Bijapur, which did not however prevent him from making a prisoner of its nineteen year old boy-king. Thus ended the dynasty known as ‘the Adil-Shahi’. This was the high point of Aurangzeb’s long reign. The emperor was bigger than ever. Bijapur had fallen and even in the Maratha country, organised resistance had ceased.
There was a new surge of activity amongst the Mughals, an unaccustomed liveliness brought about by the smell of success. Aurangzeb now directed his full attention upon piece-wise raising the Maratha forts, the numbers of which, according to some estimates run to 365, one for every day of the year. He selected two commanders for the task: Yettikad Khan for the highland region, and the Siddy of Janjira, Kassam Yakoot Khan, for the Konkan. The forts began to fall like mud houses collapsing in a flood, without visible signs of damage. Tattora fell, and the whole chain of supporting forts from Tattora to Panhala. In the Konkan itself, Sagargad, Rajkot and Pali were surrendered to the Siddy by their respective commanders without a fight.
The Siddy, in all his power and glory, set Suvarna-durg as his next target. The year was 1688. Suvarna-durg, about a hundred miles south of Mumbai, is an island fort surrounded on all sides by water. Its fifty-feet-high walls enclose an area of eight acres and the fort used to contain three fresh-water wells. It was commanded by Achloji Mohitay. Also in the fort was Kanhoji Angrey, perhaps no more than a ‘sardar of twenty-five’; not yet twenty years old, with many a skirmish, both on land and sea, to his credit; known amongst his comrades and his enemies for his daring and skill, his courage and his amazing strength – already a bit of a hero. The Mughals never considered a siege adequate unless they could surround their objective with troops, and the siege of Suvarna-durg fitted nearly into this tactical pattern. On three sides stood the the Siddy’s fleet, cutting off escape and stopping supplies. On the landside, waiting with barred teeth across the width of the arm of the sea, was a strong detachment of the Siddy’s troops.
Having blocked all the exits, the Siddy was willing to wait, pinning his faith on a proved method of conquest: negotiated surrender. The ‘negotiations’ were soon complete. Achloji Mohitay, the Commander of the fort, agreed to hand over the fort to the Siddy. It was a dream like situation for an ambitious young officer and all it needed was the spark: the hour had struck, it needed the man. For Kanhoji Angrey, it was the moment of cataclysm; his whole life would depend on how he reacted to the situation; whether it was in him to rise to the occasion. It has been well documented in various accounts that he sent a secret message to the king of Raigad, informing him of the Commander’s defection and offering to save the fort if he was given command. The King gave him full authority to take whatever steps he chose for the continued defence of Suvarna-durg. It all sounds nice and proper, but this has never been how revolutions are made. It was also unlike Kanhoji Angrey, a man of fierce pride and passion, quick in thought and action, with too much agility and suppleness to be deterred by the dictates of procedures from doing what he was convinced was right. For one thing, it would have taken at least three days for a messenger to reach Raigad and return with the King’s authority, even presuming that he was permitted an immediate audience with Sambhaji, which is unlikely.
Of necessity, the change-over must have been too swift for any such formalities, but it had to be smooth and sure, for failure would have meant instant death. As such, its detail must have been carefully worked out well in advance. At least two men outside the besieged fort were in the know of the secret. One was Balaji Vishwanath, Kanhoji’s childhood friend, presently working as a clerk in the Siddy’s salt works in Chiplun. He had been doubling up as a spy, sending information about the Siddy’s troop movements to Kanhoji, and it is almost certain, goading him into action. The other was a holy man named Brahmendra-swami, who lived in anonymity in the hills near Chiplun, and of whose influence on Kanhoji would only increase with time.
There was then an overnight coup. Kanhoji and his associates placed Achloji Mohitay under arrest and took over command of the fort. They announced to the garrison that the fort would be defended to the last; that surrender was not to be thought of. Then, after the first shrinking experiment in self-assertion, Kanhoji did a very thoughtless thing. He launched a cross-channel attack against the Siddy’s troops. The attack was a failure. Too late, Kanhoji must have realised that it took more than bravery and leadership to be a successful commander; that the tactics of an audacious commander would not serve to defend the fort. Most of his storming party were neatly picked out by Siddy’s waiting soldiers, and Kanhoji himself was taken prisoner. But he did not remain prisoner for long. He may have bribed his guards to let him slip away, or he may have made a dash for it. In either case, he had to swim the mile-wide channel, and his captors must have laughed at his foolhardiness because they knew that the waves would dash him to pulps against the rocks. Incredibly, within a few hours, he was back in the fort, battered and weary, but once again its commander. The failure taught him an unforgettable lesson. When you were strongly entrenched, it was more profitable to defend. A lesson, which shall come become a life-saving diktat in many a future battle.
The monsoon season was soon approaching. Kanhoji decided to strengthen his garrison and outlast the siege, relying on the powerful monsoons to pull a fast one over the Siddy. Ironically, the Siddy did not even wait for the monsoon. The Marathas were now doing exactly what he had done time and time again. There was suddenly no question of taking the fort without a prolonged siege and a costly attack. After a few weeks of waiting, he quietly withdrew his fleet and went off to seek more rewarding objectives.
The hour had come and gone; the man had withstood its challenge; Kanhoji Angrey had quaffed the first heady glass of the wine of success. He had gambled and won, and most importantly, he had stemmed the tide of defeat. A grateful monarch saluted his courage and initiative by investing him with the robes of a Commander and giving him formal command of the fort of Suvarna-durg, the Golden Fort, where he had spent his boyhood.
The Twilight of the Kings
A significant incidence occurred in 1689 that was to have lasting effects on the Maratha empire in the years to come. The Mughal General, Taqrib Khan, under the orders of Aurangzeb, organized and led a commando raid sixty miles into the heart of the Maratha country through some of the most difficult terrain, to capture and kill the the Maratha king, Sambhaji. He was captured and taken to the Mughal camp at Tulapur. There, under Aurangzeb’s orders, he was publicly exhibited, bound upon a camel. Then Aurangzeb ordered a red-hot iron rod to be thrust into his eyes and his tongue to be cut off! Only after these orders were duly executed, were the head cut off, and his body badly hacked to pieces and thrown to the dogs. The nature of Aurangzeb’s vengeance shook every Maratha to the core. However historians have surmised that what Aurangzeb had intended to serve as an example to terrorise the Marathas into submission, had a directly opposite effect on them: it gave rise to the most terrible vows of vengeance. It was as if, the scattered Maratha columns, had until then, awaited the sight of one common, despicable enemy to come together. And indeed, they had. Unfortunately their unity lasted only as long as the crises lasted.
Of their own accord, the Maratha chieftains gathered together at Raigad to decide their future course of action. Sambhaji’s son, Shivaji (later to become King as Shahu), was six years old. Until he came of age, they decided to appoint Sambhaji’s step-brother(and Chattrapati Shivaji’s second son), Rajaram, as Regent.
Emboldened by their success in capturing Sambhaji, other Mughal commanders were bound to attempt similar raids to capture Rajaram. To guard against this, the Marathas decided that Rajaram should have no fixed abode but that he should move about from fort to fort, keeping his movements secret. It was a wise decision. For even as the new Maratha Regent and his councillors were making their plans for the future, the Emperor’s General, Yettikad Khan, was marching towards Raigad at the head of a powerful column. The siege of Raigad began at the end of the rains. But there was no question of Raigad falling easily. It was one of the strongest forts, with plentiful store of food and ammunition. Moreover, a new stubbornness among the Maratha soldiers were already apparent. Besides, Raigad was consecrated ground with a special symbolic significance to every Maratha; it was at Raigad that Shivaji had been enthroned, married, died and cremated. Above all, although Rajaram had left Raigad, Sambhaji’s wife and the young heir to the throne, Shivaji, were still there.
In the end, it was treachery that won the fort for the Mughals. A man called Suryaji Pisal undertook to lead the party of his own soldiers into the fort and to throw open the gates to the Mughals. He did all this for a large tract of land he was given till perpetuity. Our hunger for land, as a race, hasn’t seen much change, if one comes to think of it. He sold his soul for a tract a land. While the fort of Raigad fell, the future king of the Marathas and his mother were also abducted and taken away by the Mughals. The Emperor is however said to have treated them with unusual amicability. Perhaps he was already lamenting the results of his barbarity to Sambhaji. But even the fall of Raigad and the capture of the heir to the throne were not enough to shatter the new spirit amongst the Marathas. Even now, as the Emperor’s victorious columns were fanning the plains of the Deccan, there was no sign of defeatism.
Two more forts, Miraj and Panhala, were surrounded by Mughals, but the Maratha chieftains had already begun to retaliate; they were planning, not panicking; they had formed themselves into independent groups and to carry out lightening raids into the Mughal columns. Rajaram was now ready to make a dash for Jinji, leaving the Deccan to the Mughals and to his Chieftains. But before leaving, the formalities incumbent upon a new ruler had to be completed. He appointed a skeletal Cabinet and gave them the widest powers; he also announced various new military commands and nominated commanders. Among the new appointments was the name of Siddoji Gujjar, placed in command of the Maratha fleet and given the overall responsibility of defending the coast from both the land and sea. Siddhoji Gujjar was granted the overall rank of Surkhail or Grand Admiral. He had two deputies; one of them was Bhiwanji Mohitay; the other was a young man of twenty who had recently soared into limelight. His name was Kanhoji Angrey.
It becomes imperative to make a few leaps in our story of we are to reach the end in time. Leaping over a brief silent period, one arrives at a few months before Rajaram returned to his homeland to assume the reigns of his kingdom. His maritime Commander-in-Chief, Siddhoji Gujjar had died. Everyone knew who the next naval chief would be: the effective command of the fleet as well as the larger portion of the Konkan had already passed into the hands of Kanhoji Angrey. In the maritime sphere, Angrey had performed a miracle of even greater proportions than the transformation of the Maratha army.
In the nine years since the Command of the northern fleet had devolved upon him, he had built it up into a compact, powerful striking force of forty assorted vessels, already spoken of with awe and treated with respect along the coast. During those years, Kanhoji had shown tactical wisdom beyond his years and experience. He had scrupulously avoided a showdown with a major enemy i.e. the British or the Portuguese. Commanders in the field can seldom choose their enemies; but they can often choose their objectives, bearing in mind that a thorough appreciation of the limitations of your own troops is just as important as a thorough knowledge of their capabilities. Before this, the Marathas had shown an inclination to rashness, a readiness to take on all comers. They had little or no knowledge of naval tactics and regarded all naval battles as though they were cavalry charges. Kanhoji Angrey seemed to have learnt to look at warfare with far more detachment; realised that success in battle was not merely a matter of blind courage, that a scrupulous avoidance of unnecessary risks was just as important as any requirement of tactics.
Loyalty is the Best Policy
The relatively peaceful waters of the south Konkan coast must have provided an ideal training ground for Kanhoji’s navy. The Siddy and the English confined their activities to the northern Konkan; the Portuguese in Chaul and Goa never went looking for trouble; the Rajas of Kudal and Wadi were small time chieftains; the British at Karwar were only a paper imitation of the British at Bombay. The wide-open coast of the South Konkan was just made to order for a fleet finding its sea-legs; the further south one went, the pickings became easier and easier. He began employing his ships not as a naval force but as a sort of a coastal police, pouncing upon ships that did not carry Maratha papers and forcing them to pay ransoms.
There was no such thing in those days as the freedom of the seas. Any ship that did not belong to a friendly power was fair game. The objective, somewhat overambitious at this stage, was to enforce all the ships to acknowledge the Maratha domination of the waters of Konkan. On land too, Kanhoji had managed to take back from their commanders some of the Konkan forts that were supposed to be only nominally under his command. In 1695, when he was twenty-six years old, Kanhoji Angrey seems to have been sufficiently confident of how power, and position to have gone off on a religious pilgrimage to Nasik. A few months later, he was back in the Konkan, attacking the fort at Sagar-gad which was taken by the Mughals the year before Sambhaji’s death. He captured Sagar-gad without much difficulty. In the same year, he shifted his headquarters to Colaba. A move that was doubly significant as it brought him squarely in the midst of two major powers along the coast: the Siddy of Janjira and the English at Bombay.
Coming back to the matter of Rajaram returning to reclaim his throne, it was certain that he would promote Kanhoji Angrey to the post of the Naval Commander-in-Chief, now left vacant by Siddhoji Gujjar’s death. But Kanhoji was destined for bitter disappointment. Rajaram was not anxious to fill up the appointment of overall commander of the fleet and of the Konkan. Instead, he promoted both his Deputy Chiefs to be independent Commanders in their own respective spheres: Kanhoji Angrey in the north and Bhawanji Mohitay in the south. It would be pertinent to take note that the return of Rajaram, his assumption of power and his pointed reiteration of the overlordship of the Konkan must have come as a sharp tug at the reins of someone who had been accustomed to nine years of unfettered freedom – and even the rank of Surkhail, the Grand Admiral of the Fleet, must have seemed a brass imitation of the real thing when divested of half its former power and glory.
This surely was a moment of decision; if an excuse was needed to part ways, for renouncing the Maratha overlordship and striking out on his own, this was it. In effect, it would have merely amounted to no more than a continuation of the way he had carried on for the past nine years. Almost surprisingly, Kanhoji Angrey chose to remain within the fold: all that he had done and won on the last nine years of incessant strife, he now placed at the feet of his master, and he was content to take what was given.
Kanhoji’s decision to remain loyal to the house of Shivaji at this stage is the most convincing proof of his credentials – that he was, at all times, a servant of the State, to be promoted or relieved of his duties according to the wishes of his monarch. It was loyalty such as this, an almost blind devotion to an ideal, multiplied a hundredfold in each of the Maratha chieftains that put their tottering kingdom back to its feet. In the next hundred years, the Marathas went from success to success and held sway from Delhi to Seringapatnam. Unfortunately, their fall was even more rapid and spectacular than their rise.
Events take an interesting turn at this juncture. Rajaram had left two sons by two different wives. The older, Shivaji, was ten years old; the younger, Sambhaji, was three. Shivaji was an imbecile. Rajaram’s senior wife (and mother of the elder prince), Tarabai was an ambitious, resourceful woman, hastily rounded up some of the prominent Maratha chieftains, and at one stroke got them to agree to accept her son Shivaji as the heir to the kingdom, with herself as Regent during Shivaji’s minority. Her first action as Regent was to throw Rajaram’s second wife and her son into confinement. Tarabai did not believe in taking chances.
It must also be recollected that the rightful heir to the throne i.e. Sambhaji’s son Shivaji (who would later come back as Shahu) was still in Mughal captivity. He was a ticking time bomb. There had already been an ugly rumour about the young prince in captivity; some said he had been circumcised and converted to Muslim faith; others that Aurangzeb had been regularly dosing him with pousta, a slow-acting poison made from opium, which was guaranteed to kill a man’s will-power and affect his brain.
Kanhoji Angrey, on his part had little time to monitor these courtly intrigues and guiles. By now he had disciplined himself to being merely a servant of the throne. Who sat on the gaddi, the Maratha throne, was not his business. Kanhoji seems to have accepted Tarabai’s Regency without question. At his hour of eminence, Kanhoji Angrey had also begun to offer all sea-going ships his own permits which were called dastaks, at roughly the same prices charged by the Portuguese, and offering roughly the same benefits – protection at sea from pirates and from other coastal powers. Ships not in possession of dastaks were to be seized and held for ransom. The Portuguese equivalent of this was the cartaz. The prudent traders had begun to equip themselves with both the cartaz and the dastaks and then hoped and prayed that they would not run into any pirates, for the protection offered against the pirates by both the Portuguese and the Marathas was merely nominal, only within sight of the coast. Two powers, the Portuguese and the Marathas, were now claiming ownership of the waters of the Konkan. A third power, the English, was determined not to stand any interference from either. Trouble was inevitable.
To the English, the rules imposed by the Marathas could not have been strange. The Maratha fleet was now only exercising its rightful functions. England had almost identically the same rules in her own waters and the English fleet enforced them with strict vigour. But strangely, the East India Company resented the fact that there had to be any rules at all. For nearly a hundred years now, they had grown used to the fullest freedom of the coastal waters. To them, the rights and wrongs of the case were of no interest. Perhaps it was time to put their smugness to test.
Coming back to the ticking time bomb that was Sambhaji’s son who had been abducted by Aurangzeb, it was sometime after Rajaram’s death that Aurangzeb must have realised that the fires had cooled off; he was not getting anywhere near by taking the Maratha forts one by one after prolonged and costly sieges only to lose them back. He could plainly see the pattern now, the pattern that his was was acquiring. Tarabai’s government would never become a formidable force. At the same time, there was no hope now that the independent columns about the ghats and the Commander of the Konkan fleet could be decisively beaten by his army. If the Marathas hadn’t themselves realised that they had beaten the Mughal army, Aurangzeb saw that the Mughals had lost the war. Shahu, or Sambhaji’s abducted son, was Aurangzeb’s last desperate hope of breaking the Marathas. The plan was simple: to set up Shahu as the ruler of the Marathas and a vassal of the Mughals.
Shahu, on his part, was a youth of twenty, and remembered nothing of his past life, having been brought up in the Mughal camp. But it was time for Aurangzeb to play his last Ace and Shahu would be it. However, Aurangzeb didn’t live long enough to see the spoils of his plan. He had passed his ninetieth birthday and has been documented to have had a premonition of death. Haunted by an unknown fear, he called Shahu to his bedside and made him swear that he would never take up arms against the Mughals. A few days later, on a cold February night in 1707, he died in his white tent, pitched exactly in the same spot where he had camped amidst barbaric splendour twenty-one years earlier, when he began his campaign against Bijapur.
When Tarabai, the Maratha Regent, came to know that Shahu was ‘out in the open’, and trying to get in touch with the Maratha manikaries (chieftains or noblemen) with a aim of reclaiming his throne, a very mortal chill ran through her back. She knew conflict was inevitable. The only person who had initially thrown his lot behind Shahu was Balaji Vishwanath, currently serving under Dhanaji Jhadav, one of the most outstanding military commanders at par with Kanhoji Angrey. The older chieftains, all of whom met Shahu in person recognised him at first glance to be the direct descendent of Shivaji, and hence the legal heir to the throne. In the face of threat to her regency, Tarabai acted swiftly and decisively. She sent for all the prominent Maratha manikaries and boldly announced that Shahu was an imposter, a Mughal stooge pretending to be a Maratha heir. The real king was her son, who had been solemnly enthroned. There was now no going back upon what the priests had sanctified and what the gods had ordained. She gave them a lavish banquet. During the meal, she made them swear, over a plate of milk and rice, that they would never desert her cause. All the commanders who had gathered at Panhala took the milk-and-rice oath, binding themselves irrevocably to Tarabai’s cause. She was a dynamic and resourceful woman. Among those who swore their loyalty to her was Dhanaji Jhadav, whom she promoted to the highest military command in her kingdom.
Later, when it was found that Shahu was not an imposter, one of those who had sworn allegiance to Tarabai was so torn between honour and loyalty that he took his own life; some others, including Dhanaji Jhadav changed sides after making necessary penance to obtain release from their oath. Many others found it expedient to renounce both sides. Kanhoji Angrey did not go to Panhala, and took no oaths. On his part, he had been unswervingly loyal to Tarabai in the past and would continue to do so, but he was not the man to be influenced by intrigue or pressure; he would not have relished the idea of being made to go through a rite to reiterate his loyalty. Indeed, if the time came and his convictions warranted it, he would not have hesitated to break his oath, however solemn, which he did two years from then at Satara. He marched to Satara with his whole army to vanquish Shahu. But one man in Shahu’s camp who had the wherewithal to foil the scent the impeding doom. His name was Balaji Vishwanath. It was Balaji Vishwanath who, in capacity of Shahu’s peshwa had negotiated with Angrey to not attack Satara.
Coming back to the scene of the royal feast, as though to make certain of Kanhoji Angrey’s loyalty, Tarabai announced at her Panhala conference that she had promoted him to the overall command of the fleet and also to the command of the Konkan, and that she had already sent off robes of his new office to Colaba. At last, Kanhoji Angrey had achieved the rank and title to which he had always aspired. His new seal of office proclaimed him to be “Grand Admiral forever”.
Kanhoji and the British
The relationship between Kanhoji Angrey and the English had been an uneasy one from the beginning. The English, on their part, could neither completely ignore him, nor were they prepared to accept the extent and scope of his power. Angrey, in spite of his brilliant strategic acumen and seamanship skills knew that he could never directly engage with the British. While at the same time fierce pride, bravery and ambition tugged at him to chart a way wherein he could dominate the Konkan without necessarily dominating the British.
Kanhoji Angrey’s Tactics. The tactical system of the Maratha navy had finally evolved. Its requirements were fairly simple. There was no question of engaging in a fleet action with the European ships on the high seas: the waters had to be chosen and the ships had to be isolated. The wind could be of little advantage. Often enough, Kanhoji’s commanders chose to attack from leeward, so that whenever the opposing ship turned on its pursuers, they could drop away to the leeward and sneak off into shallower waters or to the protection of the coastal guns. Bearing in mind the disparity between their respective naval strengths, Kanhoji often went to extremes to avoid the prospect of making new enemies. He realised that in case of hostilities, the Siddy would join the English, and Kanhoji was in no position to withstand a naval battle with their combined fleets. So, in 1703, he must have deeply pondered over the open hostility shown to him by the Company by seizing a ship bearing his dastak, before taking any action.
A year later, he had decided on his course of action. He sailed with seven gallivats and camped at the mouth of the Pane river, close to Bombay: just that and nothing more. No shot was fired, no rude notes exchanged, no ships seized and no villages plundered. His mere presence was now enough to block off Bombay’s communication with the mainland. All shipping between Bombay and the mainland was paralysed. Then, after doing sentry-duty at Bombay’s door for a week, Kanhoji Angrey withdrew his squadron and sailed off on a cruise. It was a triumph of pure tactics, like a clever move in a game of chess. The Council at Bombay saw it and took in its full meaning: if Kanhoji Angrey chose to be difficult, he could cause a lot of damage to their trade by merely blockading Bombay. His point was made.
In 1710, Angre captured and fortified Kandheri Island at the mouth of Bombay harbour, and by 1713, English non-compliance with Angre’s dastak policy had resulted in such damaging raids on Company ships into Bombay that truce seemed the only option for ensuring the safe passage of Company goods to the city’s steadily growing harbour. In the treaty, Angre agreed to let Company ships enter the Konkan’s coastal waters without his dastaks.
The peace of 1713 lasted just two years. Conflicts renewed between Angre and the East India Company with the arrival of Charles Boone as the new British Governor General of the Bombay Presidency in late 1715. Angre contended that, under the 1713 treaty, only ships bearing Company papers were exempt from his dastaks, while Boone expected all ships bearing Company cargo or a British flag to receive the same exemption. This was the single greatest reason that precipitated the thirty-eight year old war between the English and the Marathas. It is also worth noting that even the East India Company, with characteristic ambivalence, had themselves followed the contemporary practice of issuing dastaks and seizing ships which did not bear their dastaks. Governor Boone had himself seized a merchant vessel belonging to a subject of Angrey, Trimbukji Meghji.
The Governor further issued secret orders to his fighting ships if they happened to run unto Angrey’s ships, meaning thereby that they were not to go looking for them. As it happened, within a few days of this order, a shibar which belonged to the Angrey squadron at Alibag, happened to stray into Mahim. The Company’s ships pounced upon the Shibar and took her to Bombay. At the seizure of one of his naval boats in flagrant violation of the treaty between himself and the East India Company, Angrey flew into a rage. “Our friendship is over”, he wrote to Boone. Boone, never known for his civility of manners, replied in a similar vein, and now ordered his ships to go out and seek Angrey’s ships and to sink or seize them. Thus began the thirty-eight year old war.
The first target was on the island of Khanderi situated at the mouth of Bombay harbor. This had been under Angrey’s jurisdiction for the past four years when Emperor Shahu transferred its administration over to the admiral. Two frigates, the Fame and the Britannia were sent with a company of sepoys to attack from land and sea the fortress of Vengrula. They were joined by another frigate, the Revenge and a dozen or so gallivats to land the troops. Biddulph claims the force returned after unsuccessfully bombarding the fort and being unable to even land the troops for the main assault. The expedition’s leader was blamed for the failure, accused of being a coward, and dismissed from service.
Later the same year another force was assembled of over twenty vessels and 2500 European soldiers and 1500 sepoys. The target was Kanhoji’s headquarters: the fortress of Geriah. This undertaking too proved a failure. The only result was to declare the castle impregnable at the cost of two hundred men killed and three hundred “dangerously wounded.”
Next year the British made an attempt to dislodge the Marathas from their naval base at Khanderi, but again without success. Another force was assembled of over twenty vessels and 2500 European soldiers and 1500 sepoys and topasses. The target was Kanhoji’s headquarters: the fortress of Geriah. This undertaking too proved a failure.
In 1720, the British lost their vessel Charlotte which was seized by Kanhoji and taken as prize. 1721 saw the most ambitious attack yet: a joint operation with the Portuguese starting in November to take the island and fortress of Colaba. This time the Royal Navy was brought in under the command of Commodore Matthews and thereafter no non-military Company servants led military expeditions. The Portuguese were to march overland a short distance from their own territory in Chaul with 2,500 land forces while the East India Company were going to supply a similar force with the addition of five ships, on top of the Royal Navy, to bombard the fortress from the water and land artillery on shore. When victorious, the Portuguese were to receive Colaba and the East India Company was to take Geriah. Both parties agreed to be full allies and not to enter into separate peace with the enemy. Commanding on the Portuguese side was the Viceroy of Goa himself, Don Antonio de Castro and the General of the North.
Kanhoji, having learned of the planned attack, had earlier been able to secure the assistance of 25,000 of Shahu’s troops, which were on their way from the ghats. Marathas came victoriously in this war. Again and again it was proved beyond doubt that the Maratha naval bases were impregnable.
Kanhoji’s Ships. It is documented that there were as many as fifty-one different kinds of vessels moving around the Konkan during that time. Of these only five were exclusively used for fighting ships: the ghurab, the gallivat, the manchawa, the shibar and the pal. The manchawa was no more than a tony or a fishing boat, only suitable for coastal use and carried no more than fifteen men; and the gallivant was a row-boat with sails. The pals, the shibar, and the ghurab were sea-going vessels equipped with two or three masts and carrying sails.
The biggest naval ships were the ghurabs, usually with two and occasionally three masts. They ranged from 150 to 300 tons and there were always one or two ghurabs of about 40 tons. The ghurab can be compared to the British and Portuguese frigates of those days, bearing in mind that neither the ghurab nor any of the other Maratha naval ships were anywhere near as seaworthy as their European counterparts. As their main armaments, the ghurabs carried two big guns firing forward through their portholes cut in the bulkhead. These were from the nine to twelve-pounder guns. There were also twelve to sixteen other guns, from six to eight on each side, which fired shots of from six to nine pounds. Each ghurab carried 100-150 fighting men in addition to the crew.
A Final Word
Kanhoji Angre died on 4 July 1729, having never lost a battle against the English. Neither had the Company ever seized any of his vessels at sea. Angria successfully extended Maratha sovereignty over the seas against not only the English company, but also the Dutch, and the Portuguese. Thus Kanhoji Angre had emerged as a master of the Arabian Sea from Surat to south Konkan.
Kanhoji is also credited with the foresight that a Blue Water Navy’s role is to keep the enemy engaged away from the shores of the land. It is said that “Had he been in England, like Drake, he would have been knighted and lionised as a national hero, but in India he died merely as an independent ruler who never permitted any foreign ruler to filch even a part of his precious little dominion”
Now, some 283 years after his death, Angre’s name remains the stuff of legend – above all, ironically, in Mumbai itself. Khanderi Island, the former stronghold where the English East India Company once attempted to unseat the Maratha Admiral, now bears his name: Kanhoji Angre Island. From the naval dockyards in south Mumbai, a statue of Angre overlooks the mouth of the harbour.
The naval base behind the Asiatic Society Library – one of the great monuments of Raj-era Bombay – now also bears his name.
Hundreds of years after his reign on the Konkan, Admiral Angre peacefully infiltrated the British stronghold, an image of local sovereignty at the Colony’s former mercantile heart.
REFERENCES & BIBLIOGRAPHY
1. Bidulph, John, The Pirates of Malabar pp.12-13
2. Edwardes, S.M., The Rise of Bombay pp.34-35
- Dhabu, D.G., Kulabkar Angrey Sarkhail (Marathi Trans.). pp88-89
- Grant Duff, J., History of the Marathas. Pp.12-17
- Manohar Malgaonkar, Kanhoji Angrey – Maratha Admiral. Pp-18-40
- Bombay District Gazeteer pp.IX-X. Chapter 8
- Deshpande, C.D., Western India. Pp48-50
- Banaji, D.R., Bombay and the Sidies.pp.50-88
- Macdonald, John, Memoirs of an Eighteenth Century Footman, pp8-19
- Manohar Malgaonkar, Kanhoji Angrey – Maratha Admiral. Pp-230-260
- Orme, R., History of the Military Transactions in Hindustan (1923) pp.23-90
- Low, Charles, History of the Indian Navy Vol I (1910) pp.12-16
- Malabari Phiroze B.M., Bombay in the Making. Pp 68
- Mottaram, R.H., Trader’s Dream pp.88-100