The Marathas Part 22 Ruling the Waves Section IV: A Requiem for the Maratha Navy

Canberra, 04 October 2022

There is no mention of the Peshwa possessing a naval fleet up to the mid-1700s, even in any of the treaties concluded with the Europeans. The first mention of a Peshwa fleet is in the treaty that he signed with the English in 1739 and then again in 1740–41 in the treaty signed with the government of Goa. By 1750, it is reliably reported that the Peshwa’s fleet was active at sea like the old navy of the Angres. There is a report dated 14th January 1751 in which the Portuguese complain about their vessels being harried by the Peshwa’s fleet. In 1755, the Peshwa’s fleet is reported to have been sighted near the Bombay harbour.

Even though the Peshwa had started to build a naval fleet, it appears that he was unable to enlist experienced sailors and captains in his navy. By mid-18th century, the fleet had a strength of about 50 vessels. However, its efficiency seems to have been limited according to English Commodore James who complained that the Peshwa’s ships send to assist him were more of a hinderance than help because of their poor seamanship. The Admiral of the fleet was Naro Pant, a veteran soldier but with no experience at sea. He was still in command when Balaji Rao attempted to conquer Janjira after Gheria was reduced and Tulaji captured. Even the capture of Gheria should be credited to the English assault and the machinations of Ramaji Mahadev who had bribed Tulaji’s bodyguards and personal servants to abandon him. During this encounter, it is reliably learned that Naro Pant always stayed at the rear with his fleet whenever bombardment was imminent.

The Peshwa’s fleet was inadequate to reduce Janjira and Balaji’s latest ally, the English, refused to assist in fighting the Sidi who they had always cultivated as a counter-balance to the Marathas. Balaji then requested the Portuguese for help. The Portuguese fleet sent to assist, on approaching Janjira found the English flag flying over the fortress—not prepared for a war with the English, they retreated. The Peshwa fleet was also forced to withdraw since they were ineffectual as a fighting force. For the next 15 years the Maratha navy did routine work, issuing passports and licences, seizing ships for ransom but not taking possession of them for lack of expertise. They managed to capture few Dutch and Portuguese ships but kept well clear of attacking of harassing English vessels, obviously for fear of retaliation. Local reports suggest that the ineptitude of the Maratha admirals and other officers made their success at sea minimal, at best.

Gheria continued to be a major hub of the Maratha fleet although its prestige as a naval base had declined considerably from its heydays under Angre management. In 1767, a numerically superior Maratha fleet was beaten back in an encounter very near Gheria by a small flotilla of Portuguese ships, indicating the loss of capability and importance of Gheria as a bastion of Maratha maritime power. During the First Anglo–Maratha War, the Peshwa’s fleet created some trepidation in Bombay, but very little action was initiated by the navy and almost no damage done to the adversary. Even so, two naval engagements took place.

The first was in 1755 near Gheria when two English naval ships encountered the Maratha fleet close to the port. Although numerically superior, the Maratha ships elected to flee with one of their bigger ships being overtaken by the pursuing English and blown up after a three-hour battle. In the second encounter, the English were defeated by the Maratha fleet commanded by Anand Rao Dhulap, perhaps the ablest of the Maratha naval commanders of the time. The encounter took place after peace had been arrived at although Dhulap was unaware of it. He captured an English frigate but released it on being made aware of the conclusion of peace between the English and Marathas.

In another unmistakable acceptance by the Pune government of its inability to hold its own at sea and the lack of confidence in its own fleet to achieve the necessary objectives, the Peshwa asked for Portuguese assistance again in 1787 to fight Tipu’s fleet. Six years later, when the last expedition to capture Janjira was being planned, the Marathas once again asked the Portuguese to form an alliance. However, nothing eventuated after extensive planning. The last achievement of the Peshwa fleet was the capture of the island of Ximpi (Kurmagad?) in 1791. This island had long been considered impregnable and therefore the Maratha success in capturing it impressed the Portuguese who had also coveted the island.

On the whole the Peshwa fleet did not cover itself with glory. While the Maratha cavalry left behind an enviable reputation for bravery, gallantry and success in battle, the Maratha sailor hardly rates a mention in the recounting of Maratha history, even when the narrative is focused on military action.

… and to Conclude

A study of the Maratha navy during its existence of more than a century brings out one stark fact—the navy made no progress in either the art of maritime navigation or in its tactics for employment in naval engagements. The reports of their engagements and their modus operandi during battles, written more than six decades apart by European observers are the same, leading an analyst to believe that the naval leadership of the Marathas did not attempt to transform, adapt or alter tactics that had been handed down from earlier days. Further, the Marathas made no effort at developing engineering and technical innovations to better the performance of the fleet while at the same time span, great improvements in ship building technology, naval armament and employment tactics were being affected in the West. This stagnation of imagination and innovation finally led to the Maratha leadership acknowledging European dominance over both the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean.

From internal reports and correspondence of the Pune government it is apparent that the Maratha leadership understood that the domination of the sea by European powers was a clear and present danger to the well-being of the Empire. Therefore, it is surprising that no tangible effort was made learn, improve or innovate the employment of their fleet and its local manufacture. No attempt was made to improve the seamanship of the officers and sailors so that the fleet-in-being could be optimally utilised for the security of the State. There is a long list of faults that can be identified within the functioning of the Maratha navy. There are numerous recorded instances of a numerically superior Maratha fleet sailing away from the adversary, at times even when faced with only a single European man-of-war. This situation is in direct contrast to the Maratha cavalry who were brave to a fault even in the face of extreme danger. The sailors were of the same people, and therefore the behaviour on the high seas can only be attributed to their lack of confidence in the naval leadership and their professional inexperience.

The European sailors had traversed the world and fought their way to the Arabian Sea, whereas the Maratha sailors were used to hugging the coast and staying within their comfort zones. The adventurous spirit that had made the Maratha cavalry range from Attock in the north-west frontier to deep inside Bengal seems to have been extinguished when it came to maritime activity. The Maratha ships continued to be relatively primitive and as time went on, they were out-gunned and became redundant by not adopting progressive engineering.

Throughout history it can be discerned that in all aspects of human endeavour there must either be tangible progress, failing which noticeable decline sets in. Since the Maratha navy did not, or could not, go forward at a pace that could keep it abreast of other maritime powers, it was relegated as a redundant force to the background where it festered and gradually became insignificant in the larger scheme of national security. Under the circumstances this was an inevitable fate, decreed so by nature. The term ‘survival of the fittest’ had taken on a new meaning by mid-18th century. Gone were the days when physical prowess was sufficient to win battles and wars—the requirement was to optimally balance scientific innovation with intellectual acumen to achieve and maintain a winning edge, even in minor military encounters. By being stubbornly conservative, and almost wilfully rejecting technology and innovation, the Maratha navy sank into a self-inflicted and hopeless decrepitude. 


© [Sanu Kainikara] [2022]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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