The Marathas Part 22 Ruling the Waves: The Maratha Navy Section III: The House of Angre is Brought Down

Canberra, 04 October 2022

Kanhoji Angre had many children from several wives and concubines, of whom six sons are known by name in history—Sekhoji, Sambhaji, Manaji, Tulaji, Yesaji and Dhonaji. Sekhoji, probably the eldest son, succeeded to his father’s position without any contest or dissention from his siblings, receiving the robes of investiture from the king on 5th August 1729. He appointed his brothers to different important posts and in turn was well respected by them.

During the early part of his reign the Marathas moved into Portuguese territory demanding sardeshmukhi. In 1731, the Portuguese retaliated by sending a punitive expedition against Kalyan with a plan to reinforce the forces subsequently. However, the reinforcements from the Portuguese Viceroy of Goa were caught in inclement weather and had to take shelter, where Sekhoji attacked them and captured two ships. The Portuguese accused Sekhoji of treachery, since he broke the bilateral treaty that was in place. Sekhoji argued that he was not bound by the treaty of 1722, since the house of Angre was not a signatory to it; the treaty was between the Peshwa and the Portuguese. While this was a technicality, the fact remained that Angre was officially subordinate to the Peshwa. Sekhoji also asserted that as the Maratha Admiral he was fully within his rights to protect Maratha interests, even if it meant commencing independent military action. What can be read into this action is that Sekhoji Angre was powerful enough to go outside the ambit of the Peshwa’s control and initiate military action as he saw fit.

In 1733, Sekhoji attempted to blockade Goa with 11 ships but was driven away by the Portuguese fleet. He was aware that the Portuguese and English were in negotiations to mount a combined expedition against the Maratha fleet and attempted to break the alliance through diplomatic means. In June 1733, he sent two envoys to Bombay with peace proposals, but no progress was made because of some extraneous factors. In the same year Peshwa Baji Rao I went to war against the Sidi of Janjira. Both the European powers were anxious to check the growing maritime power of the Marathas and therefore supported the Sidi who was the only viable counter-balance. The Portuguese sent few ships to Janjira, ostensibly to mediate between the two sides, whereas the English were openly hostile to Sekhoji and his fleet. When Manaji had almost captured the island of Henery from Sidi, the English intervened and prevented the Maratha take over, later claiming the island for themselves.

Sekhoji’s budding career was cut short by his untimely death in September 1733. He was succeeded to the position of the Admiral by his brother Sambhaji who did not possess even a part of the diplomatic capabilities of his father or elder brother. He was brave but abrasive and short tempered in his behaviour. Inevitably he fell out with the Peshwa, remaining at loggerheads with him thereafter. Further, Sambhaji was involved in a simultaneous struggle with the English and the Portuguese. Once again, the power of the house of Angre is demonstrated by this situation, wherein the Admiral could hold his own against both the European powers even without the support of the Peshwa.

Unfortunately, at this juncture Sambhaji’s leadership was challenged by his brother Manaji. Almost immediately, the Angre army and navy became divided in their affiliations—this challenge by Manaji, which was exploited to the full by detractors of the Angre family, ultimately led to the ruin of the great house of Angre and its naval power.

Fraternal Strife

In less than a year of Sambhaji taking over as Admiral, Manaji had mounted a claim for the leadership and in-fighting had started within the family. Sambhaji, following his elder brother’s example, had appointed other brothers to subordinate commands. However, Manaji rebelled and took over Colaba with Portuguese assistance, captured Yesaji who was the commander of the fort and blinded him. Further, he made overtures to all the traditional enemies of the house of Angre—the Portuguese, English and the Sidi of Janjira—to provide him assistance to fight his brothers. The available records do not provides any indications or clues to the reason for Manaji’s actions or whether or not he had been instigated by an external source. The fact remains that a younger sibling, personally ambitious and with some capability, broke away from the decent norms of the family and created a rift that led to inevitable ruin, of the family and himself personally.

The Peshwa, ruling the Maratha entity, also must share an equal share of the blame for the deepening of the internal strife in the Angre family. He supported Manaji since he felt that the Angres had become too powerful and needed to be ‘brought down’ a peg or two, especially since Sambhaji had not given the Peshwa sufficient ‘respect’. Unfortunately for the Maratha Empire, by this time the inherent selfish interest of individual leaders was the guiding light for most of them, to the great detriment of the Empire. The Peshwa’s actions in this case were deplorable. He did not give a thought to maintaining the overall naval strength of the Empire, instead giving vent to petty revengeful actions against a feudatory chief. A statesman would have supported Sambhaji and brought Manaji under control, but the Peshwa in this instance did not behave like one.

The Europeans were more than glad to help the rebel. For nearly three decades they had been trying to bring about the downfall of Angre naval power, which they detested. This was a golden opportunity to divide the Angre clan and diminish their influence. They poured in money, military stores and evil advice to assist Manaji in his rebellion against his brother and incited him to further action. In 1735, the Peshwa intervened directly, as was his duty. However, even in this intervention he was catering to a personal interest—the Peshwa had always wanted to have a controlling interest in the Konkan, which had been denied by Kanhoji Angre for a long time; now was an opportunity to achieve this aim. The Peshwa’s arbitrative decision further alienated the brothers.

The Peshwa decided to divide Kanhoji Angre’s territorial holdings, his army, navy and other resources between the brothers. Manaji was permitted to hold on to Colaba as his headquarters and given a new title, ‘Vajarat–maab’, which could approximately mean Lord of the Seas. Sambhaji was asked to headquarter at Suvarnadurg and permitted to keep the paternal title of Sarkhel. He was unhappy about the division of the family holdings and appealed several times to the king to reverse the Peshwa’s orders, to no avail. With this division of Angre assets the days of the Maratha navy being a strong and powerful arm of the Empire were definitely over, the curtain was gradually being rung down on Maratha maritime power.

Divided We Fall

When war broke out between the Peshwa and the Portuguese, both the brothers assisted the Peshwa, although there was no concerted plan of action and no joint effort to bring their resources together; each acted on his own. Purely on hindsight an analyst can distinguish actions that could have been undertaken jointly by the Angre brothers, but were not, which could have easily turned the tide of the war against the Portuguese rapidly. (The above is just a regretful observation regarding past actions.) While engaging in assisting the Peshwa, both the brothers were also independently fighting the English. They had completely forgotten their father’s dictum of fighting one enemy at a time to ensure victory. The great Kanhoji’s sons were not equal to him in forethought or perspicacity and fell short when it came to having to use better judgement to further their common cause.

The details of the Maratha–Portuguese maritime conflict, as it is known today, are taken mainly from the Portuguese records that are available since the Maratha records have been lost in antiquity. Sambhaji was initially successful in intercepting several Portuguese ships and gathering large amounts of treasure and capturing some ships. However, his operations lacked focus and the Portuguese were able to continue supplying their ports because Sambhaji had diverted his fleet to capture some Dutch ships, targets of opportunity, instead of ensuring a complete blockade. Thus, Bassein was relieved. Sambhaji was a ‘short-term-gain commander’, unable to see the long-term objective that would further the overall success of the broader Maratha enterprise.

The Portuguese proposed an alliance with the Dutch, not only against Angre but the entire Maratha Empire, espousing the principle that all European nations should act in concert against Asiatic adversaries. In the meantime, the Dutch had dispatched eight warships to reclaim their merchant ships captured by Sambhaji. In 1739 near Mangalore, Sambhaji attempted to intercept a Portuguese convoy carrying provision to Goa. The Angre fleet was beaten back by the escorting ships after a long-drawn battle that lasted two days.

Manaji was more successful in some of his operations. In 1739, a few days after Sambhaji was beaten back by the Portuguese, Manaji captured the island of Karanja after a short siege and then besieged Chaul, a Portuguese port. On 23rd May, the Marathas took possession of Bassein. In 1740, the Angre brothers, acting independently, inflicted the greatest defeat the Portuguese had suffered in Indian waters. Manaji captured a man-of-war. Sambhaji, smarting under the earlier setback, attacked and defeated a Portuguese fleet, capturing the Admiral and many prisoners. Portuguese records show that the prisoners were well treated and returned to Goa. However, the ill-will prevalent in the Portuguese camp towards the local kings and chieftains percolated into all aspects of their behaviour. Even while reporting that the Admiral and the prisoners were treated well by Angre, the records go on to petulantly mention that the return of the prisoners was done only because Sambhaji wanted to save the money that would otherwise have been expended on their upkeep. The Portuguese did not have it in them to acknowledge this gracious act of courtesy by an Indian chief, nor credit Sambhaji with an act of gallantry. The records of the European powers, across all their dealings with local kings and chiefs, are peppered with such biased reportage.

Both Sambhaji and Manaji were able seamen and tactically astute admirals. Had they united to act against the European powers attempting establish a toehold on the Peninsula, they would have realised the ambition of their father of conquering the entire coast from Bombay to Goa and further south—a task the brothers would have found easy to achieve jointly. Unfortunately, the differences between the brothers were never reconciled and in 1940, they erupted and degenerated into a bitter fight. Sambhaji was never able to accept the loss of Colaba and was always on the lookout for an opportunity to recover it. In April 1740, he landed at Alibagh, captured Hirakot and Sagargad, then laid siege to Colaba. Manaji was in dire straits and appealed to both the Peshwa and the English for assistance. The English had always disliked Manaji—however, they considered Manaji the lesser of the two ‘evil’ Angre brothers. Further, neither the Peshwa nor the English could let Sambhaji destroy Manaji and become all powerful. A Maratha army contingent under Balaji Rao and an English naval squadron arrived simultaneously at Colaba. On the arrival of these forces, Sambhaji beat a hasty and ignominious retreat.

After this episode, Sambhaji was convinced that irrespective of his own power, he needed allies to have assured victory in military encounters and made overtures to the English to negotiate peace. It is significant that of the three adversaries that he was dealing with, he thought it appropriate to reach out to the English rather than to his own brother or the Peshwa. This action provides a clear insight into the prevalent mindset of the Maratha leadership and their inherent distrust of each other. In this case, Sambhaji—impulsive, arrogant and with no sense of diplomacy—demanded terms for the peace treaty that was immediately and conclusively rejected by the English as being ‘absurdly extravagant’. After his outreach was rejected, Sambhaji considered any further attempts to reconcile with the English to be futile. In the mid-18th century, alliances, treaties, hostilities and skirmishes were always a matter of convenience and furthering self-interest, and lasted only as long as it suited both parties. Treaties and agreements were put together and fell apart with monotonous regularity. In November 1741, Sambhaji unsuccessfully fought a Portuguese ship. Immediately after that he started to put together a treaty with the Portuguese, banking on the mutual hatred that the Portuguese and he shared against the Peshwa. However, before any tangible development could take place, Sambhaji died on 12th December 1741.

Sambhaji’s Fleet. It is reported that Sambhaji was a hard-working commander who paid personal attention to all aspects of maintaining and operating a fleet of ships in good working order. However, his treatment of the sailors was considered harsh even for the times—their payment was almost always in arrears, and no one was permitted to leave the fort without his express permission. He did not provide any written orders to his officers but publicly announced the orders before the fleet sailed out. The fighting ships of his fleet were handled with dexterity and the sailors and gunners were well-trained, although a majority of them were foreigners. Almost all reports, most of them from European sources, maintain that the Maratha fleet relied more on oars than sails to manoeuvre their fleet, indicating that they were more effective in calm waters than in rough seas. Sambhaji Angre’s fleet, despite its drawbacks, enjoyed a good reputation on the Malabar coast.

Continuing Rift

Sambhaji was succeeded by Tulaji who also shared his dislike for the Peshwa. The Peshwa had treated Manaji shabbily several times and therefore was also disliked in the Manaji camp. Even the common hatred for the Peshwa shared by the Angre brothers would make them reconcile their feud and the animosity continued unabated. The need to push back on the Peshwa’s influence and initiatives, while understood by both the brothers, was not a common cause they were ready to espouse, to the detriment of the family and its broader influence and power. Instead, Manaji now claimed that since he was elder to Tulaji, he should be given his father’s title of Sarkhel. Raja Shahu played the brothers against each other, keeping the title of Sarkhel as a sort of prime bait.

In a sort of undeclared contest to prove their worthiness for the title, on 25th January 1745, Tulaji captured the fort of Anjanvel (also called Gopalgad) lying at the mouth of River Vashishti about 32 miles from Chiplun in Ratnagiri district. Manaji engaged a strong Portuguese naval fleet, escorting merchant ships, in a battle that lasted six days, withdrawing thereafter without achieving any tangible success. Manaji now turned to cultivating the Portuguese, offering cooperation against the Peshwa Balaji Rao. Tulaji on the other hand was not even faintly diplomatic and had an indifferent relationship with the Portuguese—although through 1745 to 1751 he remained cordial to the Europeans, even avoiding minor skirmishes. In 1751, he captured two Portuguese boats and even while renewed proposals for an alliance was being discussed, he attacked a Portuguese frigate in December 1752, near Calicut. In 1753, a Portuguese report states that Tulaji was the most powerful maritime power.

Tulaji was unable to capitalise on his strong position since he followed erratic policies that catered only for the here and now. He was incapable of having a long-term vision or crafting a strategy for the future. The other European powers in the fray—Dutch, French and English—also suffered from Tulaji’s attacks. The English losses were the highest, mainly because by this time their trading interests were the maximum in the region. The English were exasperated but could do very little to curb the Angre brothers. Even though the brothers were mutually antagonistic and disunited, they remained invincible. For the previous half-century, all attempts to bring down Angre sea power had failed. In the mid-1700s, both the Angre brothers, individually could defy any maritime power on the Western Coast. Then came disaster.

In 1755, Tulaji was confronted by a double-sided attack—bombardment of Suvarnadurg by the English, the strongest European sea power; and an invasion by the Peshwa’s armies, the strongest land power in the sub-continent. This situation was the complete opposite of what had happened in his father Kanhoji’s time—in 1721 when an Anglo-Portuguese army had attacked the Angre headquarters at Colaba, Kanhoji had been assisted by Peshwa Baji Rao himself leading a force in his support. What had happened in the mere span of three decades to make the Peshwa join a European country to undermine the power of his own naval admiral and a powerful feudatory family? There have been several speculative reasons put forward, all of them with some grain of truth in it. The reasons range from Tulaji defaulting on his annual tributes to the Peshwa; his insulting the Peshwa in some correspondence; and mainly that he was persecuting Chitpavan Brahmins in his territories. Balaji wanted to avenge all three reasons and therefore collaborated with the English in attacking Tulaji. The only excuse provided by the apologists of the Peshwa is to emphasise that he had to take some action, even if it meant aligning with the English.

The weak reasons and the excuse do not warrant the actions that the Peshwa initiated. The fact remains that the Peshwas had been trying to undermine Angre power ever since Kanhoji died, and they had aligned with the Portuguese in the treaty that had been signed in 1740. The real reason is that the Peshwa saw Angre as a threat to his own position, especially since Tulaji was powerful at sea, while also harbouring sufficient land forces in his territories. Compared to other feudatories—Gaikwads, Bhonsles—who he could influence and coerce to enforce his will, the Angres remained completely outside the Peshwa’s reach. The Peshwa decided to ally with the English to bring down Angre, without thinking through the long-term implications of his actions. The English were more than happy to bring about the downfall of Angre power—the only maritime power that stood in their way and was capable of successfully challenging English supremacy of the seas. To achieve the aim of destroying Angre power with the active assistance of the Peshwa was like icing on the cake for the English. The unsolicited fallout of the Peshwa’s action was that it acted as a tacit permission and catalyst, setting the precedent for other feudal chiefs to openly cooperate or ally with foreign powers, particularly the English, against other Maratha feudatories and other local kings.

Fall of the House of Angre

The Peshwa and the English acted rapidly after a hastily concluded treaty was signed on 19th March 1755. In a joint operation, Suvarnadurg was captured on 3rd April although the Angre fleet managed to escape. Even though the Peshwa had by this time gathered a fleet of his own, it was far inferior to the Angre fleet, and he was completely dependent on the English to win any engagements at sea. Tulaji appealed to the Portuguese for assistance, they demanded a huge price for it and part of the demanded amount was promptly paid. A Portuguese detachment set out for Gheria and the Peshwa angrily protested this move. The power equation between the Portuguese and the Marathas had altered to an extent in the past 15 years that the Portuguese were compelled to recall their detachment; they could not afford to offend the Peshwa, the unquestioned chief of the Marathas. The Portuguese had passed on as a power of note.

Tulaji was now left isolated, even physically since his personal servants had been bribed to desert him. He fled from the fort and surrendered to the Maratha commander, who refused to hand him over to the English despite their vociferous demands. The fort was captured without a fight. The great Angre naval fleet that had terrorised and controlled the entire Arabian Sea for over sixty years, flying the Maratha dwaja, flag, high in the oceans, was put to the torch and burned to ashes. In this instance, another iteration of the great fleet would not rise like the phoenix from the ashes. Tulaji spent the rest of his days as a prisoner of the Peshwa.

Manaji tried to continue the Angre tradition in a much diminished manner and died in 1758. It is unclear whether he regretted his actions or even understood that he had been the root cause of the decline and fall of the great Angre power. His son Raghuji who took over the mantle, continued to take part in sporadic expeditions—participated in the conquest of Henery in 1760, captured a Portuguese sloop-of-war in 1778 and concluded a treaty with the Governor of Goa on equal terms. Although this treaty was not validated by the Portuguese government in Europe, it demonstrates the independent status of the head of the house of Angre, even at this late stage. In some ways Raghuji could be considered the last noteworthy Angre chief, specially since he continued to maintain a great deal of pomp and splendour without the power to back it. The real power of the house of Angre was destroyed at the defeat and capture of Tulaji.

There was still a small Angre fleet that sailed the seas, sometimes harassing the merchant ships but no longer a flotilla that threatened anyone. Raghuji’s death in 1793 was followed by endless confusion regarding succession since his son was a minor at his death. Soon after, even the remnants of the great fleet that was left were burned down in a fire that occurred in the harbour. The complete disappearance of the Angre fleet is only a matter of theoretical interest since the English had long become the most powerful maritime entity in the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. An ignominious end to a great naval fleet, assiduously built by intrepid seamen and admirals.

After the Peshwa’s territories were annexed by the English, the Angres of Colaba continued as a feudatory of the English till 1840, when its last ‘chief’ died without an heir. 


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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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