The Phram, it was called: like an angry Makkara, the vehicle of the sea god, Varuna, part elephant-part crocodile, the strange beast rose from the sea, bearing death. The East India Company’s ingenious deception lacked the cunning of the Trojan Horse but made it up with lethality. Forty-eight-pound guns, mounted on a floating platform, let loose at the Maratha fortress of Gheria, as it drifted close to the walls. European soldiers, African mercenaries, Bombay sepoys, Pathans: the infantry massed for the kill.
Like so many brilliant ideas, this one ended in disaster: The Phram sank before it did any damage. To make things worse, historian Anirudh Deshpande has recorded, “widespread drunkenness prevailed in the ranks due to the supply of free rum to boost morale.”
Three centuries ago this year, Kanhoji Angre—victorious at Gheria, and architect of Maratha triumph over the combined navies of two great imperial powers, England and Portugal—could finally bask in the sunshine of being the unrivalled king of the Konkan coast.
Later this week, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets with leaders of the four-nation Indo-Pacific quadrilateral alliance, the Quad, the question of Indian naval power will lie at the core of their discussions. Faced with the rise of China, India is making significant investments. New Delhi knows the United States won’t alone carry the burden of securing the Indian ocean—so new aircraft are being tested for its carrier fleet and new submarines are being inducted.
Kanhoji’s successes—and strategic failure—hold out important lessons for the future of Indian maritime power.
How Kanhoji built his naval fleet
Little is known of Kanhoji’s origins. He is reputed to have been born on the island of Versova, to a father who served under the king Shivaji Bhonsale. Early in his career, he seized the island of Khanderi from the Marathas’ rivals, the Siddis. Then, historian Patricia Risso writes, he used this base to capture a few small, armed vessels. Kanhoji’s early fleet included at least one ship captured from the Portuguese, as well as a large, Bengali-owned ship that was taken when it was carrying freight to Mumbai.
Today, some might call this piracy. Even then, his enemies did.
Late in 1698, an irate East India Company agent in Surat wrote, Maratha forces in Pad had “seized upon two salt vessels belonging to this island, took the Banyans and others that were on board, imprisoned and most miserably beate them, saying they cared not for the English.”
The emissaries sent from Padmadurg to collect the ransom were arrested, and their own salt ship seized. This display of firmness seemed to pay off. “The subedar of Conagi Angra having wrote to the Deputy Governor,” the letter continues, “promising that he would get the two men that were imprisoned by Padamdrooke released, and for the future none of our inhabitants should be abused, we permitted the salt vessel to goe.”
Kanhoji, though, soon picked up where he’d left off. Among other things, his crew seized a ship carrying an East India Company official to its trade outpost in Surat. The officer was killed; Kanhoji kept the ship and raised a ransom of thirty thousand rupees for his wife. As a commander of the crown, he was entitled to a customary chauth—or fourth—of the proceeds.
These actions, though, were no different from those of the great maritime powers. The Portuguese had long preyed on merchant traffic in the Red Sea, bearing treasures from Mughal-era notables for the custodians of Mecca. The East India Company—founded, historian GV Scammell reminds us, by men “experienced in and enriched by Atlantic privateering—in turn profited from the capture of Portuguese traffic and assets from East Africa to South China.
Like the modern Indian ocean, the world Kanhoji inhabited was also a competitive one. Those who aspired to rule the seas needed treasure. The Indian Navy may have received a significantly-enhanced budget this year, but it’s still well short of what it believes it needs. Through the last decade, expert Sameer Patil has noted, the defence budget has barely kept up with inflation.
High noon of the Maratha navy
From early in the eighteenth century, contestation between Kanhoji’s forces and the East India Company escalated. Appointed deputy chief of the Maratha navy in 1690, Kanhoji rose to its leadership in the course of the next decade. “Vessels of all nations were attacked,” Grant Duff wrote in a memoir, “[and] repeated descents were made along the coast… Few of the defenceless mercantile towns, from Travancore to Bombay,” he lamented, “escaped a visit from these depredators.”
Even though Kanhoji’s ships lacked the firepower of the English fleet, historian Anirudh Deshpande has recorded, he proved an adroit tactician. He avoided direct line-to-line confrontations with English ships, slipping into shallow waters under the protection of shore-based artillery when confronted.
In 1718, the East India Company attacked Kanhoji’s fort at Kandheri, with apparently overwhelming forces, and intelligence provided by a defecting Portuguese mercenary. The walls, though, proved impervious to English naval artillery. The use of The Phram did not alter their fortunes in 1720.
Faced with Kanhoji’s growing power, Portugal and England allied in August 1721, committing themselves to a joint attack. This time, they picked the fortress of Kolaba, “enclosed by a wall from twenty to twenty-five feet high and about 700 paces in circuit, with two gates, main gate in the north-east and a small gate in the south, and seventeen towers.”
The key to taking this dangerous objective, Edward Teggin has written, rested on finding an open gate: Instead, “the only means of access was a narrow flight of steps which was heavily guarded.” Fifty attackers were killed. The naval bombardment, too, proved ineffective. The third day of battle saw generals Pilaji Jadhav and Peshwa Baji Rao appear to support the fort, leading the panicked Europeans to withdraw.
For modern Indian strategists, this ought to be a second lesson: a determined and well-led force can face those far superior to them. European technological superiority did not automatically translate into victory.
Bitter end, important lessons
Leaving aside some occasional raiding, Kanhoji’s rule was unchallenged after 1722: one challenge from the Sawant of Kudal ended with the upstart king’s villages being burned to ashes. Leaders like the Siddi of Janjira cast an occasional covetous eye on Kolaba but were easily bribed. Kanhoji tried to make peace with Portugal and even reached out to England in 1724. Five years later, though, he died, leaving behind six known sons from his wives and many concubines.
Even though Kanhoji’s navy held its own against two great imperial powers, its fleet never truly modernised. Transitions from reliance on oars to an oceanic fleet driven by sails never took place. His navy heavily relied on foreign gunners, often mercenaries, and fell behind on technological developments in artillery and musketry. Perhaps most importantly, the Angria forts were vulnerable to being choked since they depended on the hinterlands for supplies.
The Maratha navy, scholar Surendra Nath Sen noted in a 1941 book, “was like a child of arrested growth. It progressed satisfactorily up to a point, and then progress stopped.”
Like so many medieval stories, this one too did not have a happy ending. Kanhoji’s sons fought amongst each other. The English backed their rivals, and the Portuguese and Dutch allied in open hostility. Peshwa Baji Rao himself eventually turned against Kanhoji’s successor, Tulaji, believing the Angre navy to be a bigger threat than the East India Company.
Following Kanhoji’s death, the growth of European economic power had inexorable consequences: even though Tulaji could terrorise merchant shipping, he could never pose a genuine threat to the powers.
The most important lesson, then, is this: India’s naval power reach and influence can’t be independent of its overall economic power. Former Navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash has long argued for India to show greater vision in its pursuit of maritime capacities, and work to become a genuine ship-building power. China doesn’t just have the world’s largest navy but is also the world’s biggest shipbuilder.
The steel of the swords can win great victories—but the foundation of strategic triumph, Kanohji’s story teaches us, is silver.
The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)