Krishval Musings

Monday, 15 December 2014

Know your less known hero:
Kanhoji Angre, the only known Admiral of medieval India.


The novel “Jala Deepam” by Chandilyan caught my attention when I was glancing through the library of the Mylapore Club. It was a historical novel based on the life of Kanhoji Angre a Maratha navy commander. 

India never had a naval history because of the taboo on crossing the ocean, locally known as “Kala Pani”.   The only recorded naval force was that of   Rajendhra Cholan of Thanjavur in 10th century.  His powerful navy dominated    the entire Bay of Bengal  right upto the Malacca straits in Singapore. There are no historical evidences of a strong Indian navy in the western coast in spite of centuries of overseas trade. 
The western coast became very active ever since Vasco da Gama visited Calicut in 1498 AD.  The European colonizers started crowding the western coast  to establish their trade monopoly as there was  no Indian naval  force to control them in the Arabian Sea.  Portuguese and the British were the dominant forces from Surat to Cochin a stretch of over 3000 KM long. The eastern coast was wide open  and a cakewalk to the  European colonizers .

                             Rajendra Chola n”s overseas domination Ref: www.  

Chatrapathi Shivaji the great Maratha Emperor   (1627 – 1680 AD) realized the importance of sea security and developed a coastal navy to protect his large kingdom from Gujarat to Goa.  According to Captain H. Balakrishnan (Ind. Navy Rtd)   Shivaji's acumen in building forts guarding the entrances to harbours like Vijaydurg, Ratnagiri, Malwan, Sindhudurg etc along the Konkan Coast, reflects a deep strategic thought process. One has to actually see the location of the forts to understand Shivaji's brilliance.

                                   Chatrapati Shivaji, Maratha Emperor

Kanhoji Angre (1669-1729 AD), a   privateer (an armed individual navy adventurist) from a village near Pune  emerged as a powerful and successful naval commander of the Maratha navy. He was made the Admiral (Sarkhel)  by the then King   Chatrapathi  Rajaram   in 1699 AD.  He gained almost total control over the western coast.    He was challenged by the British, Portuguese, Dutch, and Siddis(immigrants from Southeast Africa) of Moguls, however, none of them were able to contain his domination.  He became a terror to the greedy European trading companies and held the Maratha supremacy until his death in 1729AD. 
Following were his engagements against  the Europeans and Siddis .
1702 - Seized small vessel in Cochin with six Englishmen.
1706 - Attacked and defeated the Siddi of Janjira.
1710 - Captured the Kennery (now Khanderi) islands near Mumbai after fighting the British vessel Godolphin for two days.
1712 - Captured the yacht of the British President of Mumbai, Mr. Aislabie, releasing it only after obtaining a hefty ransom of Rs. 30,000.
1713 - Ten forts ceded to Angre by British.
1717 - British ships bombarded Kennery island and Angre signed treaty with Company paying Rs. 60,000.
1718 - Blockaded Mumbai port and extracted ransom from English East India Company.
1720 - British attacked his HQ Vijaydurg (Gheriah), but failed.
1721 – British led by Commodore Thomas Mathews and Portuguese jointly attacked Alibagh, with 6000 soldiers but were defeated by Angre.
     1723 - Angre attacked two British vessels, Eagle and Hunter
    1724 – The attack on Vijayadurg by the Dutch with 7 ships and 1000 soldiers          was repulsed with heavy loss for the Dutch.
He did not have well equipped battle ships like the Europeans; however, with the help of some 150 over grown fishing boats and his own courage and tactics he was able to remain undefeated by his enemies.  According to Rear Admiral Satyindra Singh(Retd) the success of the Maratha Fleet against bigger and better equipped ships of England, Portugal and Holland and those of the Moguls and the Arabs stretching over several decades was mainly due to Kanhoji's tactics of using a large number of light, strong and fast craft, adequately equipped, which surrounded the heavier vessels of the enemy and simultaneously attacked them from all sides "thus overwhelming the crews of the enemy ships and then boarding them and putting them out of action by scuttling them or setting them on fire

Though he was confined to defending the western coast and did not venture out   in the open sea/ ocean for expeditions, he can be compared with the most adored Lord Nelson of British navy who had the same qualities of courage and brilliance that gave him victories in many naval battles against Napoleon.  Kanhoji was the only known Indian Admiral who demonstrated a superior sea power of India to the arrogant Europeans.   Frustrated by the humiliations inflicted and   their inability to defeat the valiant hero, the British unleashed their   mudslinging by branding him as a pirate and denying him the dignified status of a naval commander.   The same British knighted (Sir) Francis Drake in 1571 AD, an English privateer and a slave trader who was a wanted pirate by the Spanish and Dutch governments

Kanhoji’s  descendents however could not continue his valiant deeds and maintain the dominance of the Maratha navy.  The British were able to overpower the heirs of Kanhoji when the Maratha Chieftains neglected the importance of naval security. The first Indian naval chief of staff of independent India was Vice Admiral Ram Doss Katari  who took charge in 1958, 230 years after Kanhoji.   Absence of sea power provided a valuable leverage to the European conquest of India.   A very strong navy is a must to protect the 7500 km long coast line from Gujarat to West Bengal, a lesson to be learned from our past.   


The Indian Government has adequately honoured Kanhoji Angre by naming the Western naval command as INS Angre, erecting   his statues in Mumbai, renaming the old Kennary light house as Angre lighthouse and releasing postal stamp with his picture in 1999AD.

It is surprising to find The Indian Encyclopedia edited by Subodh Kapoor mentioning Kanhoji ‘a Maratha sea captain or pirate chief.’

I found that the history books speak more about the freedom fighters after the Sepaih mutiny in 1857AD and neglect the prior years.  As I do not know about Kanhoji Angre, I feel the people in the North may not know about Katta Bomman or Mardu Pandiar or Dhalavai Velu Thambi of South.  Although the Indian Government has given due recognition and honour to these regional brave hearts, the history books should have a holistic coverage as a unifying force to prevent sectarian politics.   

Dr. Krishnan Arunachalam

Jala Deepam, Tamil Novel  by Chandilyan.
The Indian Encyclopedia (Ed). Subodh Kapoor Vol.13 page 3868, Cosmo Publications, ND
- Chiefs/132Personnel/ -RD-Katari
-knoje angre/Pauline's Pirates & Privateers


Horatio Lord Nelson of British Navy.  Re:



(Published in Mylapore club magazine Aug/2014 by the author)

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