Military & Aerospace

Anglo-Maratha Struggle for Empire: The Importance of Maritime Power
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Issue Vol. 32.2 Apr-Jun 2017 | Date : 14 Aug , 2017

Maratha Ship Pal

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, power equations on the West coast had undergone a major change. The Siddi of Janjira, though undefeated and surviving, was much weakened due to the losses suffered by his patrons, the Mughals, in their war against the Marathas. The Portuguese were on the decline, holding on precariously to their possessions in India by attempting to befriend the British. The Marathas and the British were thus the main powers left in the fray for the mastery of the Western coast. After Shivaji’s death, while the Marathas were fully engaged in fighting the Mughals, the Maratha navy continued to grow thanks to a remarkable Maratha Admiral, Kanhoji Angre. The history of the Maratha navy is synonymous with the history of the Angres till the first half of the eighteenth century.

Geography has cast the Indian subcontinent in the role of an independent strategic entity. Enclosed by the Himalayas in the North, dense jungles and mountains in the East, deserts and mountains in the West and the ocean in the South, the region is in semi-isolation from the rest of Asia. Till the advent of sea power in the latter part of the eighteenth century, the only feasible route of ingress was from the Northwest. The rich and fertile plains of North India have been a source of constant attraction to the impoverished people of Asia Minor. Once secure in the North, the eyes of the invaders have invariably turned to the equally rich valleys of the Krishna and the Tungabhadra in the South. In the thirteenth century, tribes from present day Afghanistan attacked and captured most of the Northern plains. The period of the Sultanate in Delhi ended when a Seljuk Turk, Babar, established a kingdom at Delhi in 1556 AD. Popularly known as the Mughal Empire, this was to last nearly 150 years.

All through this turmoil, a significant part of the East, Assam, and most of the South, maintained a tenuous independence. The most durable political boundary in India has been the river Narmada that separates peninsular India from the Northern plains. Even when the invaders from Asia Minor were expanding in the North, in the South, the powerful Chola kingdom was colonising much of South East Asia. The last of the major Kingdom in the South was that of Vijayanagar that lasted till 1588 AD.

The Maratha navy continued to grow thanks to a remarkable Maratha Admiral, Kanhoji Angre…

Maharashtra, consisting of small valleys and rugged terrain located South of the Narmada, is where South India begins. This geographical advantage was fully exploited by Shivaji the Great in the seventeenth century when he halted the Mughal advance to the South. It is true that the Deccan Sultanates held sway over this area for quite some time; but their rule was confined to only urban areas and the countryside was virtually independent. It is in Maharashtra that in the course of twenty-two years of guerrilla war, in the early eighteenth century, the Mughal Empire was destroyed. At the time when British ascendancy in India began, the Maratha confederacy was undoubtedly the most powerful and important military power in the country.

From the latter part of the seventeenth century, the Marathas occupied a dominant position in India. Geographically, the Maratha Empire was centrally located and had an interlocking relationship with both the South as well as the North. The later British rulers were quick to visualise the potential threat from the ideal of Hindavi Swarajya pursued by the great Shivaji. It was in British interest to play down the Marathas. Unfortunately, even Indian historians toed the British line and the Marathas seldom got their due. Sir Yadunath Sarkar in his book the ‘Last Mughals’, describes the Battle of Assaye (AD 1803) during the Anglo Maratha wars, as the last battle of the Mughal Empire. This astonishing conclusion is drawn by Sarkar on the basis that Shindia held the formal title under the Mughal Emperor. But by this token, even the British ruled Bengal under the nominal title granted by the Emperor in Delhi. The use of historiography to consolidate and create myths was at the bottom of this distortion that needs correction.

Advent of the British

The British consolidated their hold on India starting with their bases in three pockets on the coast. The three Presidencies were Madras, Bombay and Calcutta. Unlike in the past, it was the South, East and the West and not the North, that bore the brunt of the initial fighting. The Marathas were in the forefront of this resistance.

Maratha Ship Gurab

Shivaji was one of a handful of Indian rulers to realise the importance of sea power. In November 1664, he laid the foundations of the fort at Sindhudurg. This was to be the Headquarters of the Maratha navy. He also took an active interest in ship-building and by February 1665, decided to test the preparedness of his fledgling navy. With 88 ships, including three large ones, he embarked with 4,000 infantry and raided the seaport of Basrur. En route, his convoy passed close to the Portuguese at Goa, who wisely kept away from the powerful Maratha fleet.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, power equations on the West coast had undergone a major change. The Siddi of Janjira, though undefeated and surviving, was much weakened due to the loss suffered by his patrons, the Mughals in their war against the Marathas. The Portuguese were on the decline, holding on precariously to their possessions in India by attempting to befriend the British. The Marathas and the British were thus the main powers left in the fray for the mastery of the Western coast. After Shivaji’s death, while the Marathas were fully engaged in fighting the Mughals, the Maratha navy continued to grow thanks to a remarkable Maratha Admiral, Kanhoji Angre. The history of the Maratha navy is synonymous with the history of the Angres till the first half of the eighteenth century.

The Portuguese, who were very unhappy at having to part with the island of Bombay, were quite pleased to see the Marathas check the power of the British. The main irritant in Portuguese-Maratha relations continued to be the activities of the missionaries. The Portuguese missionaries often attempted to forcibly convert Hindus to Christianity. In addition, after King Shahu came to be the recognised head of the Marathas, the Portuguese stopped paying ‘chauth’ (1/4 of the revenue) that they had paid to Shivaji as well as his son Sambhaji. They adopted a legalist position and did not deal with Shahu claiming that he was (at least nominally) a mere Provincial under the Mughals. This fight went on for nearly three years.

The British were now free to use their mastery at sea to strategic advantage in land battles…

The British faced the gravest threat to their position on the Western coast in 1739 AD. In that year, after a number of fierce battles, the Marathas under Chimnaji, the Peshwa’s younger brother, captured all the Portuguese outposts on the Northern Konkan coast. Right in the beginning, the Marathas captured the islands of Thana and Sashti. With the Marathas in occupation of Bandra, the British at Bombay had to live under the shadow of Maratha guns. In 1738, the Marathas also captured Elephanta Island. Now Bombay was truly bottled up. The British kept a position of strict neutrality throughout the conflict between the Marathas and Portuguese, despite the secret clauses of the original treaty which enjoined them to come to the help of the Portuguese (the marriage settlement by which Bombay was ceded to the British by the Portuguese).

In 1740, Bajira o I died and his son, Balaji Bajirao, popularly referred to as Nanasaheb, became the Peshwa. Nanasaheb was an ambitious Peshwa and strained every nerve to increase his own power at the expense of other offices. He soon came into direct confrontation with Admiral Tulaji Angre, who had succeeded Sambhaji Angre after the latter’s death in 1742. Tulaji was capable but hot headed. Under his vigorous leadership, the Maratha navy increased to nearly 60 large ships. A total of 6,000 trained sailors manned it and that included many Europeans. Tulaji established complete sway over the West coast and extracted taxes from the British, the French and the Dutch. He fought several engagements with them and emerged victorious. The relationship between the Peshwa and the Admiral was precarious at the best of times; under a hot-headed Tulaji and ambitious Nanasaheb, it deteriorated to such an extent that a punitive war against Tulaji became a distinct possibility.

Maratha Ship Galbat

Admiral Tulaji as the appointee of the Maratha king was required to send a part of the revenue to the central government. This he flatly refused and even tortured the messengers sent by the Peshwa and the King. Even the normally conciliatory King Shahu was driven to initiate action against Tulaji.

Right from 1749 onwards, the Peshwa had initiated talks with the British to carry out a joint operation against Admiral Tulaji Angre. On March 19, 1755, the Peshwa and the British signed an agreement to carry out joint operations. The two navies were to operate under a British commander. The first phase was to consist of an attack on Suvarnadurg, Vijaydurg and Anjanvel. The Peshwa was to receive all the property captured from the various forts and the captured navy was to be divided equally between the two. Vijaydurg and the other two forts were to go to the Peshwa while the British were to get Banakote and five villages near it.

On February 11, 1756, a large British fleet arrived to attack Vijaydurg, the main base of Admiral Tulaji Angre. The fleet consisted of six large ships of the Royal Navy under Admiral Watson and Rear Admiral Pocock. In addition, 18 ships of the Bombay Marine also joined in. The fighting ships carried a combined punch of 214 guns of various calibre, the largest being a 24-pounder. Small fishing boats to be used for landing troops accompanied the bigger ships. The Army component consisted of 800 European and 600 Indian soldiers under Lieutenant Colonel Robert Clive.

A 2,000-strong Maratha Army of the Peshwa as well as nearly 18 small ships were already in the area of Vijaydurg. Ramajipant was the overall commander of the Peshwa’s forces and had a personal interest in replacing Tulaji Angre. Maratha generals such as Samsher Bahadur (the Peshwa’s half brother) and Khandoji Mankar had got in touch with Tulaji to avert the disaster. Tulaji was more than willing and a compromise was well in sight. The British, however, refused to accept any peace and pressed on with the attack. Admiral Watson had been given secret instructions that on no account were the British to permit the Peshwa to conclude peace. Contrary to the signed treaty, the British also intended to keep all the wealth captured and give no share to the Peshwa. This double-cross by the British took the naive Peshwa by surprise later; but by then, it was too late.

The Peshwa and the Marathas began paying the price of the lack of a navy almost immediately after the loss of Vijaydurg…

On February 12, 1756, the British opened fire on the fort. Talks between Tulaji Angrey and the Peshwa’s generals were on and Tulaji instructed the defenders of Vijaydurg not to reply to the British fire. Seeing the lack of resistance, the British quickly took advantage and landed their troops under Clive on February 14 and launched an attack on the fort which was captured quickly by the British as there was no resistance. Clive refused to let the Marathas even enter the fort and agreed to keep only a token garrison of 25 Maratha soldiers against his own 1,400.

Taking this opportunity, the British set fire to one large ship of Tulaji (Restoration, earlier captured from the British) and floated it towards the bay where the bulk of Angre’s ships lay anchored. The fire soon spread to all the ships and the entire Angre navy was destroyed. The British paid scant regard to the agreement with Peshwa on sharing the navy or war booty.

The battle resulted in the burning of one large fighting ship of 74 guns, eight gurabs of 200 tonnes and 60 galbats. On an average, a gurab cost anything up to Rs 1,200 and took nearly one to two years to build. This loss crippled the Maratha navy decisively and they could never match the British strength after this. The British captured war booty worth £130,000 worth of gold, silver and precious stones. Also captured were 250 guns, six brass mortars and huge quantities of ammunition. The British were not content with just the destruction of the ships; they also set fire to the shipyard. The Peshwa and the Marathas were kept out. Even Vijaydurg was handed over to the Marathas after many requests and long delays. The British clearly outwitted the Marathas.

The destruction of the navy built by the Angres was a major turning point in the history of the Anglo-Maratha struggle. The British were now free to use their mastery at sea to strategic advantage in land battles. The loss of control over the West coast also meant that at a future date the Marathas could not have an effective alliance with the French to oppose the growing British power. Aliwardikhan, the Mughal Governor of Bengal was well informed and on hearing about the loss of the Angre navy he recorded the gain that the British had made and the threat they now posed to all the native rulers of India.

The burning of the Maratha navy, established by a visionary like Shivaji and nurtured by Admiral Kanhoji Angre, was a turning point in the history of India. This loss coupled with the land orientation of the Marathas, meant that the British could have a free run along the Indian coast. The Marathas thus lost the ‘means’ to keep in touch with the West. It also became impossible to bring in the countervailing power of the French to balance the British. This also sounded the death knell for the Indian shipbuilding industry, then comparable with the best in the world. This also set the unhealthy precedent of seeking help of foreign powers to settle domestic disputes. Most Marathas were well aware of the importance of sea power. The Siddi of Janjira was first attacked by Shivaji in 1664 and it took the Marathas nearly 70 years and repeated attacks to finally subdue him in 1732-1733. The Siddi’s strength was his navy. It is, therefore, all the more inexcusable that the Peshwa Nanasaheb was blind to these facts and literally cut his nose to spite his foe.

On February 24, 1756, Admiral Tulaji Angre met Peshwa general, Khandoji Mankar. In a letter of the same date to Peshwa, Khandoji wrote, “Tulaji came and met me and had talks for four days. He insists that the Peshwa must end his treaty with the British, they will turn against us eventually. He is ready to come to Poona and even hand over the Vijaydurg fort to us unconditionally.”

The subsequent events proved Tulaji to be right. The British launched an attack while negotiations were going on. In any case, the main aim of the British was the destruction of the Maratha navy, which they had achieved at a very low cost as due to the ongoing talks there was no resistance. True to the prediction by Tulaji, the Peshwa did not get any share in the wealth looted and even Vijaydurg was given back reluctantly by the British. The Peshwa and the Marathas began paying the price of the lack of a navy almost immediately after the loss of Vijaydurg.

Personal, social and economic factors played a major role in the decision that led to this destruction. Tulaji Angre was born to a concubine and, therefore, was not acceptable. This was possibly his greatest fault. Nanasaheb Peshwa was equally insecure psychologically. His insecurity was born out of the fact that his father, Bajirao, wanted to make Samsher Bahadur, born to his lady love Mastani (a concubine), the Peshwa. Nanasaheb spent most of his childhood in the company of not his illustrious and dashing father, but his uncle Chimnaji. The personality of the Peshwa and the prevailing animus against lowly born but capable people, played a major role in this affair. Nearly 40 years later, another capable General Yeshwantrao Holkar was to suffer for similar reasons.

The trends exhibited in this first major internecine clash among the Marathas, were to be a constant feature of the Maratha history in the later years. Yet it is undoubtedly true that the loss of the navy had a far reaching effect on the history of the Indian sub-continent in the years to come.

(Based on the extracts from a forthcoming book “MARATHAS: THE LAST HINDU EMPIRE OF INDIA”)

Notes and References


‘The highlands which border on the Western coast of India poured forth a yet more formidable race, a race that was long a terror of every native power and which after many desperate doubtful struggles, yielded only to the fortitude and genius of England.

Soon after Aurangzeb’s death, every corner of his wide empire learnt to tremble at the name of the mighty Marathas.’

2. There is an enduring myth that the British first destroyed the economy and then ‘absent mindedly’ acquired an empire. Orme, a contemporary historian has quoted that the British exports to India were Rs. 0.5 million worth of goods and nearly Rs. 2.7 million worth of Gold. India had a favourable balance of trade for much of the nineteenth century. The Indian economy was destroyed subsequently once the British acquired full control with the use of military force.

Most historians have relegated the struggle between the Marathas and the British for domination of the Western coast to a secondary position. The impact of loss of sea control on land has seldom been recognised. The Battle of Kulaba in 1721 has not even been mentioned by Indian historians, though it was a major event that forced the British to look for expansion on the Eastern coast when logistically the Western coast was ideal.

The British historians have described Kanhoji Angre as a pirate ignoring the reality that he was an appointee of the Maratha King. Even Indian historians have dealt with the Angres as a separate entity when they were a part of the Maratha Empire.

There is a constant theme in British writing of past that showed the racial superiority of the British. In every battle the Marathas are depicted as being defeated despite large numbers. In the description of the Battle of Kulaba of 1721, various authors have given the strength of the Maratha army under Pilaji Jadhav as 25,000 cavalry! Interestingly, it is British author, Colonel John Bidullph who has given out the right figure i.e. 1,000 infantry and 1,500 cavalry. One look at the map shows this to be the correct estimate. Even Indian historians ranging from Dhaboo to Apte have made the same mistake.

The destruction of the Maratha navy in 1756 was indeed a turning point. The British, though allies of the Peshwa, double crossed him. But since subsequently the British were to constantly charge the Marathas with ‘intrigue’, many British historians have glossed over this major event. Authors like Douglas do not even mention the treaty with the Peshwa or the fact that the destruction of the Maratha navy was possible only because of the co-operation of a short sighted Peshwa. The dispute over the amount of ‘bounty’ between Lt. Col. Robert Clive and Admiral Watson shows that not just the Marathas but all combatants in that era had loot as the legitimate objective in war.

3. “Letters of the Angre Period,” S V Awalaskar (Ed), BISM, Poona, 1948. Marathi.

4. “The Maratha Navy and Merchant Ships”, Dr B K Apte, Maharashtra Board for Literature and Culture, Bombay, 1972.

5. “Bombay and Western India”. James Douglas, Vol I & II, Sampson Low, Marston & Co, London, 1903.

6. “The Portuguese and the Marathas”, (Trans) Kakodkar P R from original Portuguese by Dr P S Pisurlekar, State Board of Literature and Culture, Bomaby, 1975. (Marathi).

7. “Sarkhel Angre of Kulaba”, D G Dhaboo, BISM, Alibagh, 1939. (Marathi).

8. “Honourable Company”, M Belasis,Hollis& Carter, London,1952.

9. “The British Rule In India”, W M James, (first published 1882), Discovery Publishing House, New Delhi, 1984.

10. “Territories Conquered From Peshwa”, M Elphinstone, Bombay, 1850.

11. “The Pirates of Malabar & an Englishwoman in India two hundred years ago,” Colonel John Bidullph, Smith, Elder & Co, London , 1907.

12. “Dutch Activities in the East”. N R Ray, The Book Emporium Ltd, Calcutta, 1945.

13.  “Biography of Chatrapati Shahu”, M R Chitnis, 1823.

14.  “History of the Angre”, Sambhajirao Angrey, Military Press, Gwalior, 1903. (Marathi).

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Col Anil Athale

former Joint Director War History Division, Min of Defence. Currently co-ordinator of Pune based think tank 'Inpad' that is affiliated with Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.  Also military historian and Kashmir watcher for last 28 years. He has authored a book ‘Let the Jhelum Smile Again’ and ‘Nuclear Menace the Satyagraha Approach’ published in 1996.

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