By Sudhir Narasimhan
Few of our history books talk of this legendary Maratha Admiral who ruled the Konkan coast. None of the colonial powers including the Dutch, the Portuguese or the British could challenge his dominance over the Arabian coast during his reign. Indian Navy was a force set up by the British to corner Angre. But they never succeeded.
Our history books are filled with stories about the freedom struggle and tales of how Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru defied the British. You do find references to Subhash Chandra Bose and there is mighty little information about the sacrifices of heroes like Veer Sawarkar or Chandrasekhar Azad or Ram Prasad Bismil who put up a valiant fight against the British. Proof that the writers of our history books have always tended to view history from a narrow prism where too much of importance has been attached to the non-violent struggle led by Gandhi and the Indian National Congress.
Patrick French, a British writer who researched on the declassified documents of Indian Political Intelligence, the intelligence wing of the British that used to spy on the leaders of the Indian freedom struggle points out that the decision of the British was more to do with their losses in the world war 2 and their inability to maintain the troops in India. None of our history books brings this factor that forced the British to desert India in a hurry which also led to the partition of our nation.
Then there are forgotten heroes who fought the invader’s tooth and nail much before the British gained control over our territories. Our historians and educationists haven’t even paid them lip service in the books they have compiled for our youngsters. How many of us today know that the British put together the Indian Navy to defeat a Maratha admiral who controlled the Konkan coast and the Arabian Sea? How many of us know that he remained undefeated throughout his lifetime, despite the best efforts of the British to gain control over our west coast?
The rise of Kanhoji Angre
Kanhoji Angre was born in the village of Angarwadi, 12 kilometres from Pune in August 1669. His second name was derived from the place of his birth. While there is a lot of controversy about his origins, it’s broadly believed that he was a Koli or a fisherman who took to the sea pretty early in his life. He apparently grew up with Koli sailors and honed his seafaring skills. Not a lot is on record on his early life except that he was born to Tukoji and Ambabai. Tukoji served under Shivaji at Suvamdurg, a coastal fort between Mumbai and Goa and commanded 200 posts. According to some historians, Angre was involved in some daring exploits at sea with his father while he was growing up. He grew up to become the governor of Suvamdurg.
Angre rose to prominence in 1698, when the chief of Satara appointed him as Sarkhel or Darya Saranga which translates to admiral. The posting gave him control of the western coast of Maharashtra from Mumbai to Vengurla with the exception of Murud-Janjira which was controlled by Siddis who owed allegiance to the Moghul empire.
Angre started his stint as the admiral by attacking merchant vessels belonging to the British East India company. While doing so, he built a powerful fleet of over 200 vessels. Very soon he built a reputation among the British, the Dutch and the French as a force to be reckoned with. In 1702, he captured a British merchant vessel from Calicut which has six sailors on board. In 1707 he had an encounter with the British frigate Bombay which blew up and capsized during the fight. Angre gained in stature as Chatrapati Shahu took the reigns of the Maratha empire as he appointed Balaji Vishwanath Bhat as his commander who negotiated a pact with Angre in 1707 which elevated him to the post of the Admiral of the Maratha empire.
As the years went by Angre’s grip on the western coast of Maharashtra and Konkan increased. The British, Dutch and the Portuguese vessels that passed through the Arabian coast had to pay Angre a fee for safe passage. While Angre’s power grew, the Maratha empire started weakening. In due course, Angre started operating independently. This didn’t go very well with the Maratha rulers. In 1713, they sent an army under Peshwa Bhyroo Pant to control Angre. But Angre won the battled and took Bhyroo Pant as a prisoner. Then he marched to Satara where Sahooji was the acting head of the state. He sealed a pact with Angre and made him the admiral of the entire Maratha fleet.
Naval bases and European recruits
During his reign, Kanhoji Angre established four major naval bases along the Maharashtra coast. His first base was established in 1698 at Vijaydurg, Devgad taluka, 465 kilometres from Mumbai. He also created an operating base at the fortified islands of `Kolaba’ in Alibaug. He also established a township called Alibag on the southern tip of Mumbai. The main village there in those times is today’s Ramnath. In 1724, he built a port in Purangad, located in Ratnagiri district in Maharashtra. His objective was to tax every European vessel entering the Maharashtra-Konkan coast. At Alibag Angre even launched his own currency called the Alibagi rupiah.
In addition to his Indian seamen, Angre also hired Europeans, particularly the Dutch sailors to command the best of his vessels. He employed a Jamaican pirate named James Plantain and promoted him as his chief gunner. The British considered Manuel de Castro as a traitor for his inability to capture Khanderi island which was under Angre’s control. Angre rescued him from the British and employed him to command one of his ships.
The highlight of Angre’s career were the numerous campaigns he led against the colonial powers of those days which included the British, the Dutch and the Portuguese. In 1720 he captured the vessel Charlotte along with its owner Curgenven, a merchant who was bound for China via Surat. Curgenven ended up spending 10 years behind the bars. Protecting the Maratha sovereignty on the coast was his primary objective and this made him carry out routine attacks on British and Portuguese vessels. On November 4th 1712, Angre and his men captured Algerine, the armed yacht of the British president of Bombay, William Aislabie. He took his wife, who was on the yacht, a hostage. He kept her hostage till Februray 1713, only after the British paid him a ransom of Rs.30,000, a princely sum in those days. He also seized two vessels Somers and Grantham belonging to the East India company near Goa. In 1712 he captured a battleship belonging to Portuguese armada and disabled it.
British Vs. Marathas
Angre eventually signed a treaty with the president of East India company Aislabie to stop harassing the company’s fleet. Aislabie finally returned to England in 1715. On 26th December 1715, Charles Boone took over as the governor of East India Company in Bombay. He made numerous attempts to vanquish and capture Angre. But Angre captured three British ships in 1718, while the British could never succeed against this intrepid Maratha admiral. The British launched a renewed attack on fort Vijaydurg in 1720. Their shells burst in vain against the rocks of the fort. But they were forced to retreat as Angre and his fleet ended up proving too powerful for them. This was when the British created a Naval force in India which would later become the Indian Navy.
On November 29th 1721, the Portuguese and the British decided to launch a joint operation to defeat Angre. The operation which had 6000 soldiers commanded by Thomas Mathews had some of the largest European ships. But they were no match to Angre as he continued to plunder the European ships, aided by Maratha warriors such as Mendhaji Bhatkar. Charles Boone returned to Britain in 1723. From then, till Angre’s death in 1729, there were no conflicts between the two powers. Angre’s exploits in the sea were sustained by his son Sekhoji till his death in 1733. The British then managed to control our forts as the Maratha hold over the region started weaning.
Today, if you were to visit the naval facility in Colaba in Mumbai, it has a statue of Kanhoji Angre, the admiral who inspired the British to start the Indian Navy and an inspiration to a naval force that aspires to become a blue-water navy.
Blurb 2: On November 4th 1712, Angre and his men captured Algerine, the armed yacht of the British president of Bombay, William Aislabie. He took his wife, who was on the yacht, a hostage. He kept her hostage till February 1713, only after the British paid him a ransom of Rs.30,000, a princely sum in those days.