The Marathas Part 22 Ruling the Waves: The Maratha Navy Section I: Shivaji Lays the Foundation

Canberra 04 October 2022

A seafaring tradition had existed among the people of the Western Coast of Maharashtra for centuries, although there is no evidence of any attempt at creating a naval power before the 14th century. It could be said that the sea was a new and untested element for the Marathas, in terms of its capacity for power projection. Shivaji’s attempts to create a navy that could protect his coastal regions entails him to be bestowed with the title, ‘Father of the Maratha Navy’. Early in his career Shivaji had witnessed the exploits of the Sidis of Janjira at sea and seen the operations of the merchant powers of Europe in the Arabian Sea and had heard of the depredatory activities of the pirates who were called ‘Malabars’.

After Shivaji had secured the Konkan coast as part of his kingdom, Shivaji initiated a closer look at the potential of his coastline for him to move into the maritime arena. He realised that the coastline, broken in many places by creeks and river mouths, offered shelter for ships and that the rugged, and in places rocky, terrain was ideally suited to build naval strongholds. He instinctively knew that to secure the Konkan he would need to build a strong navy of fighting ships.

Acknowledging the Necessity

The Abyssinian ruler, Danda Rajpuri, used to regularly raid the coastal regions of the Konkan, plunder the villages at will, and then escape through the sea to his island stronghold. Shivaji’s forces were helpless to prevent their arrival and unable to pursue them, since they came and went by sea, spending minimal time on land. The prosperity of the larger Maratha kingdom now depended on Sivaji’s ability to put an end to the seaborne raids and to achieve this he needed to create a strong navy to protect the coastal region and to act as a deterrent. It was also clearly apparent that the Konkan ports were ideal for trading with foreign merchants and the development of commerce for the entire kingdom, thus improving the general prosperity, while the economy would benefit through the imposition of custom duties and other taxes. Shivaji wanted the Maratha kingdom also to be able to embark on commercial enterprises like the Portuguese in Goa.

In the 17th century there was no concept of ‘free navigation of the seas’ as it exists today. Every maritime kingdom imposed and enforced their own rights at sea for which they needed a sufficiently strong navy. Of immediate interest to Shivaji was the Arabian Sea, which the Portuguese controlled with an iron grip in the mid-17th century. Anyone who wanted to sail in the Arabian Sea and eastward into the Indian Ocean had to purchase a Cartaz, a naval trading licence, which the Portuguese issued for a price that they set. The Indian traders and rulers accepted the fact that the Portuguese controlled the seas and found ways to work around the inconvenience of the Cartaz, even at the loss of some profits. However, the other European nations in the fray—the English, Dutch and the French—questioned the Portuguese hegemony and disputed their authority to ‘issue’ licences for the use of the Arabian Sea. Shivaji observed these European nations successfully challenging the Portuguese control of the Arabian Sea and decided that he would do the same.

There was another underlying, but compelling, reason for Shivaji wanting to open the sea routes into his kingdom. During his struggle against the Muslim kingdoms of the Deccan and the Mughals, they had attempted to starve him out by blocking the supply routes into his territories. Although the attempt did not succeed,  Shivaji had taken that lesson to heart and knew that once he ventured into the sea and opened the maritime routes to his kingdom, such a crisis would not eventuate in the future. Further, Shivaji was ambitious and believed that if he created a strong enough navy, he could also raise revenue like the Portuguese and the English, by selling permits to merchant vessels to ply their trade from his ports and in the Arabian Sea. Considering the varied benefits that would accrue from becoming a naval power, Shivaji decided that he should equip a fighting fleet to defend his lands, secure the trading routes and thereby increase the prosperity of his people by claiming a fair share of the burgeoning maritime trade.

 A Navy is Born

The date or month when Shivaji decided to embark on a naval program or the exact date when the Maratha navy was launched is unknown. It is obvious that it was an incremental process. An undated report from the Mughal viceroy of Gujarat mentions Shivaji’s move into the ocean as yet another of the Maratha warlord’s perfidies. The report goes on to state that the Maratha navy was engaged in plundering the pilgrims bound for Mecca. The earliest traceable reference to Shivaji’s fleet is found in an official Portuguese letter dated 16th August 1659, written from Goa by the Governor. In this letter the Governor cautions Portuguese captains to be careful to avoid clashing with the Maratha fleet operating from Biundy (Bassein?), Galiana (Kalyan) and Panvel.

1659 can be taken as the year in which the fledgling Maratha navy made an impression on the European powers; the Portuguese were concerned enough to order their fleet to block Shivaji from putting out to sea. Obviously, the fleet would have been some years in the making—in terms of building the ships and operationalising them—therefore it is safe to assume that the core of the Maratha navy was built at least a few years before 1659. There is also no consensus regarding the size of the fleet at the time. The estimates vary from the Indian reports that mention two squadrons each with 200 ships of varying sizes, to the Portuguese estimate of 20 to 30 ships and boats. The estimates, especially made by foreign countries, vary because the Maratha fleet was not harboured in one port but stationed in different ports, many of them not visible to the exploratory eyes of an outsider. The most reliable estimate is that of the English, who reported in 1664 that Shivaji’s navy consisted of between 65 and 80 frigates and three great ships.

In 1670, the English in Bombay were greatly alarmed by the arrival of 60 to 70 Maratha vessels of war at the mouth of the port, presumably as a show of force. In November the same year, the English Factory in Surat recorded that Shivaji had fitted out 160 ships both small and large, which confirms that Shivaji had put in place a ship building program. Considering the activities of the Maratha navy that at times mounted simultaneous expeditions, it can reasonably be assumed that Shivaji had at least 200 ships of various calibre in his navy. It is likely that the Indian reports also included the mercantile fleet that would have made the tally of total number of ships much higher than if only the fighting ships were accounted.  

In Shivaji’s time most of the senior naval officers were Muslims and the bulk of the common sailors were Kolis and Bhandaris, who were hardy fisher folk from the coastal region of the Konkan. They were also employed by the English and the Sidis of Janjira, who readily acknowledged the courage and endurance of these people. Europeans enjoyed a reputation for being good gunners and sailors and therefore were much sought after for service by Indian trading ship captains. They were also employed in the navies of Indian potentiates, since there was no restriction in employing foreigners into the fighting forces of a kingdom; in fact it was common practice. A basic fact that is not sufficiently emphasised in recounting the evolution of the Maratha navy is that, unlike the army, the Maratha navy was never a purely a Maratha institution, even in Shivaji’s time. It was a racially and religiously mixed entity from its very inception.

Shivaji’s Naval Expeditions

Under Shivaji, the Maratha navy undertook many expeditions, but only three of them could be considered major ones. Early in 1665, Shivaji personally set out for Barcelore (today the village of Basrur in Udipi district) with an army embarked in a fleet of 85 frigates and three great ships. The army disembarked at Barcelore and plundered it. This was the only recorded instance of the great Shivaji undertaking a sea voyage to conduct a military operation. The selection of the obscure village of Barcelore as the target for the raid has not been sufficiently explained in any of the reports.

The next major expedition was in November 1670, when a large fleet of 160 ships were assembled at Nagaon along with an army mobilised, equipped and provisioned for a forty-day expedition. The destination was kept a secret and therefore was unknown to even most of the soldiers and sailors, but the fleet was kept ready for a quick departure. The English in Bombay, closely monitoring Shivaji’s activities and anxious to find out the intentions of this great fleet, determined through spies and friends that the objective was Surat. However, although the fleet sailed, nothing seems to have been achieved. No details are available of what happened and why the fleet and the army were not employed fully to attack Surat. The intention for the assembly of such a large fleet and its primary objective remains unclear even today.

The third was a series of actions against the Sidi of Janjira that finally led to the Maratha occupation of the island of Kenery. Ever since he had witnessed the raids of the Sidi on the Konkan coast, it had been Shivaji’s ambition to capture the island of Janjira which was the Sidi’s impregnable stronghold. The conflict had been on-going since 1648 and the Sidi was gradually driven out of the mainland, finally retreating to the hilly island of Janjira, from where he continued to mount raids on the Konkan coast. Shivaji made several attempts to storm the island, but never succeeded, the island was far too rugged, approachable only through well established sea lanes, and the defences were almost impossible to breach. Janjira was never conquered by the Marathas.

The Sidi fleet used to ‘winter’ in Bombay, where the English provided them with provisions and safe harbour. From Bombay, they planned and executed plundering raids into Shivaji’s territory. Shivaji complained to the English, but they could not do much to dissuade the powerful Sidi from undertaking these raids—there was always the underlying fear that the Sidi would turn against the English themselves, if pressured. The island of Janjira was a prime target for both the English and Marathas but the English preferred to let it continue under the relatively weaker Sidi’s control since the Marathas were far too powerful to control. In 1679, Shivaji occupied the small island of Kenery. The English in Surat tried to dislodge the Marathas, which led to a maritime encounter. Despite their numerical superiority, the Maratha fleet was defeated by the English ships. The Sidi who had come to assist the English, occupied Henery, a twin-island of Kenery and unsuccessfully attempted to storm Kenery, which remained in Maratha hands.

Soon after this encounter, Shivaji died without having realised his maritime ambitions—the Sidi remained defiantly unbeaten at sea and Janjira defied capture; and Maratha merchant and commercial craft did not have complete freedom of navigation, to obtain which the navy had been built, and the English and the Portuguese continued to control the seas. Shivaji’s major achievement was that he made an important start to building Maratha Naval power, leaving it to his successors to continue the developmental efforts. His immediate two successors as kings were far too involved in fighting the Mughals on land and neglected the maritime aspects of the kingdom. In any case did not possess the determination, dynamism and energy that would have been required to continue to develop the Maratha navy. The Maratha navy remained in a state of limbo and status quo—its organisation, policies, ship-building activities and the art and science of maritime warfare remained unaltered for a number of decades, much to its disadvantage. By the beginning of the next century, the command and control of the Maratha navy passed from the king to a family of hereditary and feudal naval commanders and admirals—the Angres.   


© [Sanu Kainikara] [2022]
All Rights Reserved
No part of this website/Blog or any of its contents may be reproduced, copied, modified or adapted, without the prior written consent of the author. You may quote extracts from the website or forward the link to the website with attribution to For any other mode of sharing, please contact the author @ (

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)

No comments yet... Be the first to leave a reply!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: