Indian piracy- a chapter of the Indian Maritime History that is often disregarded due to various misunderstandings and lack of information. The taboo and stigma associated with the term “piracy” negate the possibility of actual reasoning behind the activities carried out and create misconceptions swindled by sources.
History has its varied versions; spread across the time written by various people who project their perception through their works. In a similar context, “Piracy” as terminology is understood as an act of vandalism due to its nature and the mainstream media manipulation, although the reason for an act to be conceived as piracy remains disputed.
In the context of “Indian piracy”- Maratha piracy is one topic that lies disputed. While some historians intricately deal with the issue by tracing the actual story of the admirals of the Maratha navy, the others outright label them as pirates further hindering the understanding of the actual story behind some battles, conquests, and trajectories that carved the history of Maratha Navy. Referring particularly to the most well-known and equally conflicted family due to misunderstandings and lack of appropriate information – the Angres of the West Coast carve out their own space in the history of the Maratha navy.
The Angre’s of the Maratha empire, situated at the Western coast from Bombay Harbour to Vengurla were the unofficial chiefs of the west coast of India. They controlled the marine territory and overlooked the trade of merchant ships, frigates and the overall sea activity. They issued passes- also known as “dastak” to the companies such as the English East India Company, the Portuguese armada fleet and other traders wanting to conduct business via the sea route. Being in charge of the area, the merchants who refused to align with these ideas or act by the rules were charged with treason. Those who tried to go against the rules stated by the Angre were met with consequences.
Further elucidating on the Angre it is essential to understand the lineage of the flagbearers of the Maratha navy. The transition of Angre to Angria comments on the negatively projected identity of Angre as pirates rather than officials of the Maratha empire in the history of India. Tracing the history of the Maratha admirals, one of the most important names who begot the legacy of the Angre is “Sarkhel Kanhoji Angre” which translates to “Admiral Kanhoji Angre”.
Some of the most popular narratives recall Kanhoji Angre as the fierce admiral of the Maratha navy fleet who acted upon the orders of the Shahu Maharaja I and later the Balaji Vishwanath Peshwa. He was succeeded by his sons- Sakhaji and Sambhaji, and his other sons- Tulaji, Manaji and Yessaji.
Sakhaji, his eldest son established himself at Kulaba fort and Sambhaji established himself at Suvarnadurg. Sakhaji however passed away in the year 1734 and Manaji and Yessaji took over the administration of the fort Kulaba. However, Manaji did not side with his brothers and turned against them. He joined hands with the Portuguese and captured the Kulaba fort, defeating and executing his brother- Yessaji. Upon knowing this, Sambhaji besieged the fort but influenced by Manaji’s request; the Peshwa intervened and the siege was raised. As a result of this, the Peshwa was gifted the Angre forts of Kulta and Rajmachi.
Kanhoji Angre had another son who succeeded him- Tulaji Angre. He was one of the most powerful Angre and his reign extended from Cutch to Cochin. Tulaji Angre had such a strong commandment of the navy that the English and the other foreign powers feared his strength and reign. To further elucidate on his prowess, in 1713, the fort Suvarnadurg was formally handed over to Tulaji by Shahu Raje I. Tulaji was one of the most powerful successors after Kanhoji Angre and his influence over the sea was even more widespread compared to his father. However, during this period, the Peshwa was not on good terms with the Angre and was terrorized by the extent of control of influence that Tulaji- a person who was not under the commandment of Peshwa held. The terror created by Tulaji and his fleet was such that the Peshwa had to ally with the English to suppress Tulaji and together they launched an attack on Suvarnadurg to gain control back over the sea routes.
Tulaji and his brother Manaji had both competed to be appointed as Sarkhel of the Maratha navy but Manaji was appointed as the admiral. Tulaji continued to exercise his control over the seas as an independent entity. One of Tulaji’s biggest conquests was the seizure of the French ship Neptune in 1743 which added to his treasury and his naval strength continued to increase. As a result of the huge built naval fleet and army, when the Dutch attacked Tulaji in 1754, they lost the battle and suffered severe losses against Tulaji.
Witnessing the growing power of Tulaji despite him not being the admiral of the Maratha naval fleet deeply troubled the Peshwa and this became a matter of importance that needed to be dealt with. In 1755, the Peshwa conspired along with the English and attacked Suvarnadurg. However, they were unsuccessful in capturing Suvarnadurg. The issue was settled later and after many years of negotiations, talks of handing over, several misunderstandings, Suvarnadurg, was ultimately handed over in 1756.
Tulaji Angre- one of the finest seamen was captured and placed in the Peshwa’s prison custody. The arrest of Tulaji marked the decline in the legacy of the Angre who controlled the entire west coast and built a strong naval fleet. His sons Raghuji and Sambhaji escaped the prison but failed to make a significant contribution to the name of the Angre. The rich legacy of the naval admirals Angre started with Kanhoji Angre and drew towards an end with the finest, most powerful seamen- Tulaji Angre. The significant contribution of the Angre’s to the naval history of India and helped steer the vessel of the Indian navy and set it on sail for other successors to be the flagbearers of the Indian navy.
- Mathew, K. S. Studies in Maritime History. Pondicherry University, 1990.
- Saletore, Rajaram Narayan. Indian Pirates: From the Earliest Times to the Present Day. Concept, 1978.
- The Gazetteers Department – Kolaba, https://cultural.maharashtra.gov.in/english/gazetteer/KOLABA/his_mediaeval_period.html.
- MacDougall, Philip. Naval Resistance to Britain’s Growing Power in India: 1660-1800 ; the Saffron Banner and the Tiger of Mysore. Boydell Press, 2014.
- Elliott, Derek L. “Pirates, Polities and Companies : Global Politics on the Konkan Littoral c. 1690- 1756.” Department of Economic History, Mar. 2010, pp. 1–50.