Khanoji Angre: India’s First Naval Commander

September 2012 – Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations

Not since the British Empire, built on maritime dominance, ended in the mid-20th century, have maritime affairs dictated world politics as they do today. Even in our digital age, when trade happens instantaneously and face-to-face communication occurs at vast distances, seaborne piracy, maritime security and debates over regional supremacy once again dominate the dialogue between nations. For India, with its 7,517 kilometers of vulnerable coastline, this is a particularly urgent issue. 

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: a man called Kanhoji Angre.

The first important naval figure in modern India, 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 mere 80 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 powers 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.

At the time that Angre took his position as the head of the Maratha Navy in 1698, the Konkan was a patchwork of competing forces at the forgotten fringe of the Subcontinent. Over the Ghats on the Deccan plateau, the Marathas faced off against the Mughals, two decidedly continental powers who wasted little time and energy on the sea. On the coast, the Muslim Siddis held a handful of important forts in the name of their Mughal overlords.

The Portuguese remained the largest mercantile and colonial force, based in Goa and Bassein (present-day Vasai). The British – comparative newcomers to the region – had begun the centuries-long process of transforming the incidental island fort of Bombay into one of the world’s great centers of trade. And just offshore, pirates from the Gulf, Europe and the Malabar Coastmarauded the open waters of the Arabian Sea, active threats to free commerce. From his base at Kolaba, Angre established his own semi-independent region. “The people and the noblemen of the Konkan recognized no other master than Kanhoji Angre,” says Marathi novelist and historian Manohar Malgonkar in his 1981 Kanhoji biography The Sea Hawk.

Though Angre neither set foot in Bombay, nor had any apparent interest in international trade, he nevertheless exerted a lasting influence on commerce in the region, antagonizing the European powers, and insisting on the Maratha Empire’s rights to taxation and sovereignty in its own fairly conquered land. Angre’s extraordinary success did not guarantee a long legacy (his navy was destroyed within 20 years of his death in July 1729), but in the eyes of some historians, it has made him among the first “champion[s] of Indian resistance to European Imperialism” (Patricia Risso, ‘Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Piracy’).

* * *

Angre’s family hailed from the inland village of Angarwadi, near Pune, but Kanhoji himself came of age on the water. Immediately following the conquest of the Konkan in 1657, Shivaji had installed Kanhoji’s father as commander at the coastal fort of Suvarnadurg. Kanhoji most likely received a traditional Brahmin upbringing before entering the fledgling Maratha navy around the age of 15.

The fact of any Maratha presence along the coast is itself a testament to the forethought and political intelligence of Chhatrapati Shivaji. According to Commander Mohan Narayan, who now serves as the Curator of the Maritime History Society in Mumbai, “among all the Medieval [14th-15th century] rulers in India, the only ruler who realized the importance of the sea was Shivaji.”

Though the full force of the Marathas never shifted from the Deccan, Shivaji’s Finance Minister Ramchandra Amatya, in his political treatise Rajanati, theorized a centrally funded naval power with military capacity designed to safeguard the state’s interests on the coast and to facilitate commerce at all costs (qtd. V.G. Dighe, Kanhoji Angira, 100).

Though, as historian VG Dighe points out, “[The Marathas’] maritime activities were confined to guarding their ports and castles and protecting their sea-borne commerce, which was inconsiderable in quantity,” the very fact of a theorized naval power suggests Shivaji’s interest in securing coastal control. His blockade of Surat’s harbour prior to the famed 1664 sacking of that once-great port city proves his tactical cunning and inherent understanding of the sea as a viable forum for demonstrating power.

Kanhoji’s own rise through the naval ranks came much after Shivaji’s death. His appointment as Sarkheel – often translated as ‘admiral,’ (though, as Cmdr. Narayan pointed out, the title in fact originates in the land-based cavalryof the Maratha Navy came under the reign of Tarabai, regent to the Maratha crown. With this appointment, says Malgonkar, Kanhoji was “by royal command in independent charge of 150 miles of wide-open coastline” (65).

Inheriting no more than 10 ships, Angre used what resources he had at his disposal – namely teak forests and a humble seafaring population of fishermen – to develop a unique fleet and military techniques to match it. With smaller ships, simpler technologies, and no experience in classical maritime warfare, Kanhoji, says Cmdr. Narayan, “realized he could never fight an overt war with the Europeans, so he started [using] guerilla warfare. He knew his coast; he knew what the advantages of fighting near the coast were.” These guerilla techniques transformed Angre into the most dreaded figure in the Konkan.

* * *

Conflict may never have arisen between Angre and the European powers had it not been for a simple matter of paperwork. Thanks to their undisputed dominion over trade routes across the Indian Ocean, the Portuguese had long demanded that all ships pay for and carry official papers in exchange for (mostly nominal) protection against the European pirate marauders plying the trade routes carrying spices and luxury items from India to Europe across the Indian Ocean. Once established along the coast, Angre imposed a parallel system of registration – with equally dubious rewards – called dastaks, and seized any ship traveling in Konkan waters without them.

Until this point, no Indian power had ever challenged European mercantile dominance on the coast. According to Malgonkar, the English “contended that even the Moghul Emperors” – whose coastal subsidiaries, the Siddis, were no great friends of Angre themselves – “had never claimed any title over the coastal waters, and the attempts of the new Maratha Admiral to enforce his own dastaks on all shipping were regarded by them as hostile acts” (101). Not nearly so hostile, though, as the attacks themselves: tactically ingenious, ruthless and notorious among the other coastal powers. While European ships could easily have obliterated Angre’s forces on open water, by remaining close to the shore, the Maratha admiral provided himself with ample opportunity for surprise and, when necessary, speedy escapes. According to Company representatives in Bombay, Angre could “take any ship except the largest European ships; along the coast from Surat to Dabul, he takes all private merchants he meets” (qtd. 137).

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 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.

Aggression between the British and Angre was not to cease until the final and decisive defeat of the Admiral’s descendents. In his lifetime, Angre became notorious for the viciousness of his attacks, earning his reputation among the European powers as “The Prince of Pirates” (Phiroze B.M. Malabari, Bombay in the Making, 303).

Perhaps ironically, neither Angre nor the Maratha Empire ever posed any real threat to Britain’s mercantile interests – supposedly the only interests of the East India Company in the early 18th century. In his book The Maratha Navy and Merchantships, Dr. B.K. Apte says, “Sovereignty of the home seas was the first objective of the Maratha navy and the economic factor was its corollary. But the corollary was not properly understood by the Marathas” (77). In short, while Angre was intent on maintaining political control over the Konkan Coast, he never positioned himself as a rival for mercantile dominance.

Shivaji recognized the symbolic importance of the sea, but short of some minimally documented salt trade with Muscat and Mocha, he failed to establish powerful trade links outside the subcontinent. In Angre’s period, Maratha trade along the Konkan was limited primarily to cotton textiles form Cheul, and salt, fish gram and cotton through Ratnagiri – hardly international competition for mercantile forces as formidable as the British or the Portuguese.

In another text, Chhatrapatis of Kohlapur, Malgonkar notes, “Since the Portuguese and the British resented Angre’s control of the sea, they were in a constant state of conflict with him” (110). Angre’s interference with trade, which was indeed considerable from a purely practical standpoint, had less to do with European antipathy toward him than his audacity in claiming that he or any local power could claim equal political rights along the coast. Had the Portuguese and English accepted Maratha sovereignty in the Konkan, they may never have faced any serious interference from Angre’s guerilla navy.

As the Mughal and Maratha Empires drove one another slowly into collapse, and as Portuguese power waned, the East India Company saw its opportunity to expand its interests, both commercial and political. “It was in the process of defending its commercial interests against […] country powers like the Marathas, the Sidis, and the Mughals, that Bombay and the East India Company learnt to be aggressive,” says K.K. Chaudhari in History of Bombay, Modern Period. It was the combined forces of an aggressive, militarized East India Company, along with the descendents of the Maratha Emperors who had instated Angre at Kolaba in the first place, that eventually destroyed what remained of Angre’s fleet in the mid-18th century.

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.

Angre may never have extended his might to trans-oceanic trade, but he set an important precedent for the Subcontinent’s local powers. Now as ever, the sea is a constant shaping force in the futures of India and Mumbai alike. The Admiral’s prominence in the modern mythology of the Maratha Empire is a testament to that reality.

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