Kanhoji Angre: 18th Century Maratha Navy Admiral Who Was Never Defeated by European Forces
Kanhoji Angre! He is a familiar name in Maharashtra, but almost unknown to the rest of India. Do you know he was involved in naval battles with the British, Dutch and Portuguese in the Indian waters many times? For more than four decades, he guarded the western coast of India and became a terror to European powers at sea. He always led his sailors to victory. He never faced defeat. He emerged as a master of the Indian waters from Surat to south Konkan. He elevated the naval prestige of Maharashtra in particular and India in general in the Indian waters during a period when the Mughals, British, Portugese, and Dutch held power. He remained victorious until his death! Such was Kanhoji Angre’s power, supremacy and control in the waters that enemy forces termed him a pirate. He captured many ships of the British, Dutch and Portuguese. Despite his victorious feats, does he find a place in History textbooks? No!
India has around 7,517 kilometers of vulnerable coastline. Historical records corroborate the stationing of naval forces by the Mauryas, Guptas, and Cholas in the Indian waters. The Chola Navy led naval expeditions between 900 to 1100 AD. Few successful naval expeditions include conquest of Indonesia (then known as Sri Vijaya) and Ceylon islands. It was under Rajaraja Chola I and his son Rajendra Chola I, that the Chola dynasty expanded their territories with a robust military and naval base. Chandragupta Maurya’s Prime Minister Kautilya (Chanakya) in his book Arthashastra had written about ocean waterways.
The history of Indian maritime dates back to thousands of years, as early as the pre-Rigved period. The Rigved finds mention of Varun, the God of water and the celestial ocean, as having knowledge of sea routes. Sanskrit terminologies like Navadhyaksha, Nava Dvipantaragamanam, Samudrasamyanam, Matsya Yantra, etc. that find mention in ancient manuscripts refer to the existence of sea routes, ships, exploration, sea warfare, navigation, and sea trade in ancient times. Excavations at Lothal in coastal Gujarat in present Mangrol harbour substantiate the historicity of the port area dating back to 2300 BC corresponding to the Indus Valley Civilization.
Besides land route, though trading happened between India and other foreign countries via sea route, it was during the emergent period of European colonialism that there was danger of occupancy of the Indian waters. From the 17th century, the strong Maratha Navy under the kingship of Chhatrapati Shivaji, defended the Indian waters in the west against numerous foreign forces. The Maharaja’s naval force was well trained and their ships were mounted with cannons, always ready for action. Shivaji Maharaj had almost 200 fighting ships of various sizes. He erected watch posts on the Andaman Islands, which helped him keep a watch on foreign ships. His naval forces attacked English, Dutch and Portuguese ships and captured British vessels. Such was the robustness of the Maratha naval forces and ships in the Indian waters that Shivaji, who started the robust bases, came to be known as the ‘Father of Indian Navy’.
One of the bravest Maratha naval commanders was Kanhoji Angre. Under the leadership of Angre, enemy forces could not use the sea route freely in the west waters for four decades. Other Maratha commanders worth mentioning are SidhoJi Gurjar, Mainak Bhandari, and Mendhaji Bhatkar.
Kanhoji Angre was born to Ambabai and Tukoji in 1669 at Angarwadi, a village located six miles from Pune. Tukoji served under the army of Shivaji at Suvarnadurg, a fort and a naval post in a small island in the Arabian Sea between Mumbai and Goa. He was entrusted to command 200 posts. Kanhoji Angre spent his early life in Suvarnadurg and often accompanied his father in his heroic exploits at the sea. He grew up watching the Maratha ships making out for the open sea and the naval fleet falling upon the enemy’s fleet victoriously. And thus began his practical training of seamanship from a young age!
After the death of Chatrapati Shivaji, the Maratha navy had shrunken. His son Sambhaji carried on his father’s mission, with SidhoJi Gurjar as the Admiral. Sambhaji died in 1690. The chief of Satara appointed Kanhoji Angre as the Admiral (Surkhel ) in 1698. He won this title after he attacked merchant ships of the British and looted their wealth. His plundering of British, Portugese, and Dutch ships continued. By 1700, he was deemed as the ‘most daring pirate’ in European records!
The Maratha empire turned weak over time. Shahu Bhonsle, the grandson of Shivaji ascended the throne in 1707. Kanhoji Angre started gaining authority in most of the naval bases. The king signed a pact with Angre and made him the head of the Maratha Navy. When there were rumors about his authority, the king sent an army under Peshwa Bhyroo Pant to control him. The Peshwa was defeated and held prisoner. Another pact was signed. Kanhoji Angre was made Admiral of the entire Maratha Navy fleet. He was also appointed as the head of 26 forts and fortified places of Maharashtra.
Kanhoji Angre made Kolaba his headquarters and formed bases at Vijayadurg (485 km from Mumbai). Later, over time, he expanded his base to cover Alibag (southern tip of Mumbai), and Purnagad (port at Ratnagiri). He started attacking English, Dutch and Portuguese ships that were moving to and from East Indies. For the next forty years, he was the undisputed leader of a heavily disputed stretch of coastline. He had a fleet of only 80 ships then with many of these used as mere fishing boats by the Kolis (local fishermen), who knew the complete paraphernalia of the sea routes in that region. It was by devising winning strategies that he maintained his hold! He gallantly defeated the English, Portuguese, Siddis who were aided by Mughals, the Dutch, and the Sawants of Wadi.
Kanhoji Angre led several victorious exploits at sea in between 1698 until his death in 1729. And all of these without fresh reinforcements, no resources or allies to help! On 4th November 1712, he captured Algerine, the armed yacht of William Aislabie, the British President of Bombay. He killed Thomas Chown, A British chief and took his wife prisoner. He let release of the captured yacht and the lady prisoner on 13 February 1713 against a ransom of 30,000 Rupees.
In 1712, Kanhoji Angre captured several British vessels, namely EastIndiamen, Somers and Grantham, near Goa. These British vessels were captured en route from England to Bombay. Ten forts were ceded to Angre by the British in 1713 as a result of the latter’s defeat. The British made several attempts to capture Angre after Charles Boone was appointed the new Governor of Bombay on 26 December 1715, but in vain. During the naval battles, the British lost three ships to Angre. In 1718, Angre blockaded Mumbai port and collected ransom. Governor Boone himself led an army against Angre in 1720 and stormed the Vijaydurg fort. But he lost the battle and retreated.
On 29 November 1721, the British led by General Robert Cowan and Portugese led by Viceroy Francisco José de Sampaio e Castro jointly attacked Kanhoji Angre. But they were no match to Kanhoji’s valor. They were badly defeated. Similarly, several attempts by Dutch and the Siddis failed too.
Angre continued his victorious exploits at sea until his death on 4 July 1729. After his death, his sons Sekhoji and Sambhaji continued with the Maratha naval campaigns.
My India My Glory salutes the valor of Kanhoji Angre. Jai Hind!
Featured image courtesy: Quora and shivray.com