The Marathas Part 22 Ruling the Waves: The Maratha Navy Section II: Kanhoji Angre Takes Over

Canberra, 04 October 2022

The crisis that followed Shivaji’s death was such that the fledgling Maratha kingdom was at the doors of extinction under constant Mughal and Muslim onslaught. The Maratha polity was saved by the efforts of a number of extraordinarily talented young men who willingly came forward to shoulder the enormous responsibilities of holding the kingdom together and safeguarding its sovereignty. Kanhoji Angre (the family name is also referred to as Angria in some texts) was one of them.

In Shivaji’s navy, most senior commanders were Muslims although several adventurous and ambitious youth had joined the maritime service. Many of them distinguished themselves as naval officers but had always functioned under the supervision of Muslim admirals. By the end of Sambhaji’s reign, a Maratha admiral Bhim Rao, also called Sidoji Gujar, had proven to be competent enough to become the commander-in-chief. Kanhoji Angre was one of his lieutenants.

Early Naval Days

Kanhoji Angre’s origins are obscure, and nothing very much is known about his childhood days. However, it is certain that he did not belong to the nobility on land. Since he was an energetic young man, his rise to power was rapid that in turn created all sorts of improbable stories regarding his birth and career. A famous story states that he was of Arab origin, with some historians going so far as to dub him an ‘Arabian Pirate’. Furthering this myth, even some of the modern analysts claim that he was of Abyssinian origin, without a shred of proof to ensure the veracity of the claim.

The fact is that Kanhoji was a Maratha Kshatriya by birth and the original surname of the family was Sankhpal—the title Angre comes from the family being long-term residents of the village Angarvadi in the Mawal hills. Tukoji, Kanhoji’s father, served under Shivaji and distinguished himself several times. In 1658, he was rewarded with the command of 200 and posted at Suvarnadurg where Kanhoji was born. It was but natural that the son followed the footsteps of the father and joined the Maratha fighting forces.

Reports state that when Rajaram took refuge in Jinji along with Sidoji Gujar, Kanhoji was left in-charge of the fort at Suvarnadurg and successfully defended the fort against an intense attack by the Sidi of Janjira. Rajaram subsequently appointed him Subahdar of the Armada, with the title Sarkhel, although the exact date of the appointment is unclear. However, by 1703, Kanhoji was sufficiently well-known for the Portuguese viceroy in Goa to write a friendly letter and send presents to him.

Kanhoji’s maritime activities must be viewed as part of the larger Maratha struggle to retain their hard-won independence against concerted attacks by Muslim nations in conjunction with the Mughals. This factor explains the inherent and lifelong hatred that he harboured against the Sidi, since the Sidi was the maritime agent of the dreaded Mughals. From 1700, Kanhoji was at war with the Sidi—a conflict that continued intermittently till such times that the Sidi had ceded more than two-thirds of his holdings and revenue from Kolaba, Khanderi and Sagargarh to Angre. In the first decade of the 18th century, Kanhoji’s power increased rapidly, demonstrated by the fact that in 1712 he was simultaneously at war with the Portuguese, the Sidi and the Shahu faction in the Maratha power struggle, and yet managed to hold his own. At the same time his relations with the English were at a breaking point—his mastery of the sea and ability to project power in the maritime sphere was great and had a salutary impact on the Maratha power balance. In the same decade Kanhoji captured an English trading vessel and took six captives in 1702, blew up an English frigate in an encounter in 1707, and captured a Dutch ship of war in 1710. All these activities were crafted to expand the Maratha maritime sphere of influence.


Kanhoji did not possess the genius or vision of Shivaji. There can be no doubting this fact. [It was the unfortunate plight of the Maratha polity that the genius of Shivaji did not visit any of his successors, either within the family or among his warlords. It is true that the Maratha Empire touched the zenith of its glory about half a century after Shivaji’s death. However, in a holistic view of the rise and fall of Maratha power, especially with the help of great hindsight, the analyst can recognise the onset of the gradual decline of the Maratha kingdom from the death of Shivaji. This belief is being asserted because the intellectual genius that was critical to the advancement of any dynasty did not invest itself sufficiently into the Maratha nobility to create brilliance; they were uniformly mediocre, other than perhaps Peshwa Baji Rao I. The glory of the Maratha Empire remained a flash in the pan since there was no one capable of capturing it for posterity.]

When Kanhoji became the Admiral of the Maratha navy, the fleet had been functioning for over 40 years. Its aims and objectives had already been clearly defined—first, it had to protect the Maratha merchant fleet from any and all pirates; second, the Maratha lands and its subjects were to be protected against depredations from the sea, especially by the Sidi of Janjira; and third, it was to secure the sovereignty of the sea for the Maratha nation. These were not easy tasks to achieve, since the Maratha navy faced no less than five rivals at sea—the Sidi of Janjira, Savants of Wadi, the English from Bombay, Dutch at Vingurla and the Portuguese based at Goa. At the time of his assuming command, the Maratha fleet had only around ten sea-going vessels. Kanhoji needed money to build additional ships to join his fleet and recruit sufficient sailors to man them. To achieve this basic requirement, he needed to exercise Maratha sovereignty of the seas, compelling alien traders and merchantmen to purchase Kanhoji’s ‘permits’, equated to the Cartaz of the Portuguese. Since so far, it had been the prerogative of the Portuguese to issue permits in the Arabian Sea, Kanhoji’s initiatives encroached on what they believed to be their ‘rights’ and led to conflict.

Action Against the Portuguese

Since the challenge that Kanhoji posed to the Portuguese increased at an incremental pace, the exact date or month when the conflict broke out cannot be determined. Kanhoji captured a Portuguese vessel carrying the retired governor of Chaul, who subsequently died because of his incarceration in a Maratha prison. Next, he fought two Portuguese vessels, burned one of them and captured the other along with 27 Portuguese sailors. There are unconfirmed reports that the prisoners were executed. Kanhoji went on to capture many Portuguese merchant ships, all of them contributing to the Maratha coffers. The most lucrative raid was in 1712, when the Maratha fleet attacked a Portuguese convoy escorted by two frigates. Kanhoji dismantled the flagship and captured around 40 smaller ships, which was a heavy loss for the Portuguese. A similar expedition next year was a failure for the Maratha fleet since the Portuguese had increased the escort for their merchant vessels.

Nevertheless, Kanhoji was in a position to isolate the Portuguese settlements on the coast. He was confident enough to impose a fee for a fishing permit on the Portuguese and on the villages as a whole. In 1713, despite the failure of the earlier expedition, Kanhoji attacked a 34-gun Portuguese frigate at Chaul with a numerically superior force. This mission was also unsuccessful and he was beaten back. The Portuguese viceroy now went on the offensive and sent a flotilla to reduce Colaba—as a prelude, the port was blockaded. Kanhoji hauled his fleet inland, out of range of the Portuguese naval guns; and since the Marathas received their provisions from inland, a sea blockade had no meaning, making it ineffectual. The blockade was lifted after three months.

Putting to Rest Internal Dissent

In the civil war for the Maratha crown between Shahu and Tara Bai, Kanhoji Angre had sided with the latter. In the on-going conflict he had managed to increase his personal territorial holdings on the mainland—he had captured Lohagad, Tung and Tikona while taking Shahu’s Peshwa, Bahirao Pant Pingle, prisoner. However, Kanhoji was pragmatic to the core and knew that his resources were limited—he made peace with Raja Shahu and the English. He could not afford to fight a two-sided conflict since the Portuguese and the Sidi were jointly attacking his ports.

Peace with Raja Shahu was complicated by several factors. Kanhoji was acutely aware that a predominantly maritime power with territorial holdings in the hinterland was susceptible to land attacks and therefore needed to secure his ‘back door’, which only cordial relations with Raja Shahu would ensure. At the same time Balaji Viswanath who had become the Peshwa won over Angre and in a formal peace settlement with Raja Shahu confirmed his position as the Commander of the Maratha fleet. Balaji also promised to assist Kanhoji in his fight against the Sidi.

Dealing with the English was relatively straight forward. In February 1713, Kanhoji agreed on the terms and conditions for peace with the English, the main terms being—one, Kanhoji was to return all Company property and prisoners; two, the Maratha navy was not to interfere with English merchant ships; three, the Maratha navy would not intercept any ship, irrespective of its nationality, once it had sighted Bombay harbour; four, English trading ships were to be permitted to use Maratha ports on payment of the usual fees and custom duties; five, the English would not permit any vessel but of English origin to sail under their flag; and six, the Bombay port facilities were thrown open for Maratha use. Kanhoji accepted the terms since they were equal and based on the principle of quid pro quo. However, it must be noted here that the English were evasive in agreeing to Kanhoji’s demand for mutual military assistance in case one party was being attacked. For the English the agreement was an opportunistic deal and not one that they would honour in the long-term. That was clear even to a casual observer.

Fighting the Europeans  

As expected, despite the agreement, a few years later hostilities broke out between Kanhoji and the English. Minor squabbles had continued sporadically regarding cargo, payment of dues and perceived infringement of the terms of the agreement. In December 1715, the new Governor of Bombay started to equip his fighting fleet and preparing for war. The quarrels culminated in Kanhoji capturing three ships and confiscating timber from another Company vessel. Reconciliation efforts were not successful since mutual mistrust and suspicion had increased considerably by this time. Kanhoji refused the English demand to return the captured vessels without any payment and the English were not yet powerful enough to enforce the demand. Tit for tat actions continued for some months—on 17th June 1718, the English declared war on Kanhoji Angre.

The reason for the declaration of war was given as the capture of the three ships and Kanhoji’s refusal to return them. However, according to the terms of the treaty, Kanhoji was correct in his actions—the ships did not belong to the English, only the cargo did, and as per the treaty only English ships were permitted unfettered sea-going privileges. The English contention that the cargo belonged to the Company and therefore, the ships should not have been captured was not tenable and cannot be upheld as correct interpretation of the terms of the treaty in any discussion. Kanhoji was not willing to offer any concession to the English and to ensure that he was not hemmed in, kept the Portuguese placated, a prudent measure to ensure that he did not have to fight a two-front war.

The English commenced the war by sending out expeditions against Maratha ports in June, September and October 1718. These expeditions met with mixed results; some were partially successful, and some were abject failures. The English fleet then made a serious attempt at capturing the island of Kenery, which failed. In January 1719, they continued sailing south ineffectively bombarding coastal areas. At the same time a small Maratha flotilla appeared near Bombay and was chased away in late-January 1719. The hostilities were then suspended for some time as Raja Shahu intervened and put forward a peace proposal. However, the negotiations, in which Angre was also involved, failed to get ratified by both parties and skirmishes resumed. In 1720, Kanhoji captured another English ship while the English sent another futile expedition to Colaba.

In December 1721, the Portuguese and English who had by now concluded an alliance, send a joint expedition against Colaba. The European powers wanted to conquer all Angre lands and cripple his fleet, thus destroying his power completely; they set aside their mutual distrust to achieve this common objective. Although the pact was ‘secret’, Kanhoji became aware of it and initially tried to break the alliance through diplomatic means by sending out peace proposals to the Portuguese, which were rejected. Angre then prepared to assume the offensive and received direct support and reinforcements from the Chhatrapati. The combined European assault, when it eventuated, was an abject failure. The English and the Portuguese blamed each other for the debacle, traded insults, and separated.

Kanhoji, ever the consummate diplomat, had kept a track of the fall out between the Europeans and astutely sent peace overtures, once again, to the Portuguese. By this time there was no doubt that the Marathas controlled the seas. The Portuguese viceroy, who knew this fact and that Kanhoji was being reinforced in strength by the Peshwa, accepted the reality that he had no chance of success in defeating the Angre fleet. He deemed it wise to accept the peace proposals and returned to Goa. However, there was a technical hitch to the Portuguese accepting the peace treaty—their treaty with the English forbade either party from negotiating with Angre without permission from the other party. The English, nit-picking as was their wont, refused to let the Portuguese go forward with the peace negotiations.

Here one must pause to consider the emerging situation. Yes, there had been a treaty between the Europeans. However, it had fallen apart with both sides trading insults about each other’s incompetence. Therefore, the reason for the Portuguese baulking at negotiating with Angre because of an English objection cannot be clearly explained, other than to conclude that they still harboured hopes of getting together with the English against the Marathas at some future time. If that was indeed the ulterior motive, then it is proven beyond doubt that the Europeans were playing a duplicitous game.

In the event, the objections were overcome by the peace negotiations being done with the Peshwa Baji Rao, instead of Kanhoji Angre, thereby technically adhering to the English–Portuguese treaty terms. On 9th January 1722, the treaty between the Peshwa and the Viceroy was formally concluded at Alibagh, according to which there was agreement on mutual assistance at sea with the ports of both parties being thrown open to the ships of the other party. At least for the time being the English were left to fight Angre on their own. Kanhoji increased his anti-English activities; the results were mixed but with more success than failures. In October 1722, Kanhoji sailed out from Colaba with the stated intention of destroying the English. When asked for assistance, the Portuguese refused, although bound by the recent treaty—it had taken them just nine months to make up the differences with the English and to break the terms of the treaty with an Indian monarch. Such about-faces were normal for the Europeans. The Angre expedition did not amount to much.

Last Days

In 1723, Kanhoji came into conflict with the Savant of Kudal over a prize that Kanhoji had claimed. Kanhoji, far more powerful than the Savant, captured and burned the Savant’s fleet, landed near Vingurla and burned the villages to the ground. Kanhoji was pragmatic enough to realise that if the Savant joined with the Europeans he would be overwhelmed in a possible contest against the combined fleet. Further, he also received information that the Savant was poisoning Raja Shahu against him. Kanhoji needed to have a cessation of hostilities with the Europeans. In 1724, he proposed a peace treaty to the new English Governor of Bombay, William Phipps. Although an exchange of prisoners took place in 1725, no peace treaty eventuated.

Prudent as always, Kanhoji ensured that he gave no cause for the Portuguese to initiate any action and then renewed his peace treaty offer with the English. In 1725, the Sidi of Janjira appeared before Colaba with a large fleet intent on invasion, a development that added to Kanhoji’s pacifist attitude. He was certain that the Angre fleet would not be able to face and hold back the Sidi and therefore, bought him off at an unknown but obviously high price.

‘For reasons unknown to us, the Maratha Admiral considered it unsafe to face the Sidi on the sea, and, as was usual in the Age, silver served to avert the danger when steel offered little or no remedy.’

—S. N. Sen, The Military System of the Marathas, p. 188.

The last few years of Kanhoji’s life was peaceful and he died on 20 June 1729. Kanhoji Angre has often been referred to as the second founder of the Maratha navy, which is perhaps an accurate assessment of his achievements. He picked up the threads left by the great Shivaji, which had gone into disrepair because of various reasons, and re-established Maratha power and prestige at sea.

Kanhoji Angre’s Maratha navy employed the same tactics as that of the famed Maratha cavalry, reproducing a maritime version of guerrilla warfare. The light Maratha vessels were faster than the heavily laden merchantmen and could sail around them without becoming targets. They could also vanish fast, when pressed, into shallow creeks and river mouths where the heavier European men-of-war could not pursue them. They could also keep out of the arc of fire of the famed ‘broadside’ of the English and Portuguese warships, attack them from front or rear with impunity and pick them off one at a time. The Marathas were also adept at boarding the victim ships and taking control.

At the height of his powers, Kanhoji commanded a navy that was strong enough to withstand the joint efforts of the English and Portuguese to dislodge him, while keeping the Sidi of Janjira at bay—no simple feat. He was known for being true to his word—he honoured all commitments to the Portuguese, not interfering with their shipping as long as the mutual treaty held. Although the treaty with the English fell apart, the article which was the one in contention was genuinely aligned in Kanhoji’s favour. The English took a different view that would not stand even a minor scrutiny. The same kind of steadfast integrity cannot be said to have existed on the part of the European powers. Evidence clearly shows that despite treaties having been signed, the Portuguese assisted the Savant against Kanhoji—they preferred a weaker and more malleable power to be their neighbour. Kanhoji was not innovative by nature and therefore made no changes to strategic or operational aspects of the navy that he inherited. However, he left behind a large province and a strong and respected fleet to his successors.  

© [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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