SHIVAJI Maharaj - A NAVAL Visionary

  • By Uday S. Kulkarni
  • December 11 2020
  • @MulaMutha
  • A manuscript called the Adnyapatra written in 1715 lays down the norms followed in Shivaji’s times. It says amongst others, “A Navy is a distinct arm of the kingdom. Like the cavalry rules the earth, the one with an armada rules the oceans.”

With the world’s only ocean named after a nation at her feet and a huge coast, India’s power lies in its ability to have an effective navy. The sea going tradition in the Indian seas is not a recent medieval phenomenon. The Indian west coast had ports such as Bharuch and Sopara from Ashokan times that traded with the Greeks and the Romans. We have the jataka tales that speak of ancient battles fought by Indian sailors, and their travels are commemorated in the cave paintings at Ajanta. The east coast of India had trade relations with Java and Sumatra. It was by sea that the Cholas spread to Southeast Asia.

It is therefore, a misconception that Indians were laggards in maritime pursuits.

Indians travelled across the sea from ancient times, and their knowledge of astronomy made them excellent navigators. In early fourteenth century, the Khiljis and the Tughlaqs took control of the west coast. New ports such as Thane, Kalyan and Chaul were developed. The all-powerful Portuguese arrived in India in early sixteenth century, finding a new sea route to India. It was either an Arab or an Indian navigator in west Asia who showed him the passage to India.

For some decades, the Portuguese dominated the seas through their navies. However, this was soon challenged by the Dutch and later the English, who developed their own powerful fleets. The Abyssinians were expert mariners and joined the kingdom of Bijapur and became the naval arm of that kingdom.

An indigenous navy was essential to protect the merchant marine from piracy; a scourge that brought buccaneers from Europe and even America to the shores of India, a land that boasted of riches, had a flourishing export of textiles and a perennial demand for gold. In the seventeenth century, in the face of Mughal invasion from the north, and the occupation of Maratha country by the Bijapur sultanate from the south, Shivaji raja emerged as the champion of freedom for his people centering around his patrimony at Pune.

However, it was a while before the raja could move beyond his ancestral jagir. It was around 1657 that he captured Kalyan and Bhiwandi, and in the inland waterways connected to the sea, he began his quest to build a navy for his Swarajya. Although timber was available in plenty in the Konkan, it was not an easy task. 

While the west coast had excellent sailors from the bhandari and koli (fishermen) people, it did not have ship builders. In 1659 therefore, Shivaji raja hired a Portuguese father and son duo named Viegas with 300 more Portuguese men to build his first twenty ships. The Portuguese however ordered their countrymen to leave the job and return to their bases. Thereafter, Shivaji raja had to use his own ship builders – perhaps the first instance of transfer of military technology.

In a short while, the trade was learnt by the kolis and bhandaris of the Konkan coast and the task of building the ships continued. From 20 ships in 1659, the Maratha navy had 50 ships in 1664 and over 85 ships in 1670s. The Maratha navy did not however, venture out into the oceans and was equipped to escort the merchant ships from one port to another.

In less than a decade of its foundation, the Marathas could boast of a hundred strong fleet. The fleet patrolled the west coast and protected the merchant marine as well as stood up to the European navies in the region. The Maratha ships were smaller and divided into three main categories called galbats of gallivats, ghurabs and paals.

Image of ship. 

The galbat was a ship with two masts, of which the mizen mast was small, it was a rowboat and often used to tow the bigger ships out of the harbour to the sea. They did not exceed seventy tons and were light, with six or eight cannons on board that could fire two to four pounder shells. The ghurab was a larger boat with two masts, but some even had three, and ranged from 150 to 300 tons. They were broad in proportion to their length and narrowed from the middle to the end with a prow at the stern end. The ghurab had bigger guns that could fire ahead as well as deliver a broadside to enemy ships. The paals were even bigger and had three masts.

The merchant marine had several vessels named machava, tarand, shibad and so on. Despite having ships, the problem of acquiring good guns and gun powder remained. The English and the Portuguese did not sell them any out of fear of Mughal reprisals. The guns were therefore acquired stealthily from Dutch or French ships.

The threats to the fledgling Maratha kingdom came from the Abyssinian Siddi of Janjira, the Portuguese at Goa and Vasai, and the English who shifted to Mumbai in the 1660s. In sea battles with them, the Maratha ships which had a lower profile in the water were therefore, not easy targets for an enemy ship.

The Maratha strategy of capturing an enemy ship was to fire and destroy the masts of the ships keeping stern of these ships, and once the European ships became immobile in water, they were boarded and taken charge of. By staying astern of the European ships, they were not vulnerable to being fired a broadside.

The manuscript called the Adnyapatra gives us a clue of the orders on fighting a naval war. Although written by Ramachandra Pant Amatya in 1715, it lays down the norms followed in Chhatrapati Shivaji’s times. It says,

 ‘A Navy is a distinct arm of the kingdom. Like the cavalry rules the earth, the one with an armada rules the oceans. Hence there must be a navy. The ships (Ghurabs) should be neither too large, nor too small.’ 

 ‘Make separate commands of groups of ships with a commander for each. Each command should cater for its pay and expenses. The poor should not be extorted. Let the navy be in proportion to available resources.’

 When you meet the enemy, all fight at once. If the wind is not favourable, return to your safe harbour. Protect yourself first.

Many other instructions on the kind of wood & masts to be used and so on also part of ‘Adnyapatra’. The first Generals of the Navy were men named Maynac Bhandari, Daulat Khan and Darya Sarang who were from the sea faring communities along the coastal regions. It is likely that Tukaji Sankpal (Angre), the father of Kanhoji Angre was in this navy and was the holder of the island fort of Suvarnadurg. It was here from a very young age that Kanhoji – the future Sarkhel – learnt his first lessons.

The Maratha fleet had a very active time defending their merchant marine and their forts against their enemies. The years 1664 and 1670 saw Shivaji raja attack the rich Mughal port of Surat and bring back considerable wealth which he used to build new sea forts and reinforce old ones. The attack on Surat and bringing wealth from Mughal regions was to prepare to fight a war against them.

It is said that Raja Shivaji said to the Mughal officials, “Tell your king, he has attacked my people and forced me to wage war for which I have to maintain an army. That army must be paid….   It was a means to make the Mughals pay for the war he had to fight against them.  

Vijaydurg Fort. 

The forts built at this time were located so that they could counter his immediate enemies. Therefore, the island of Kansa near Janjira was the site of a fort named Padmadurg to counter the Siddi. To keep a check on the Portuguese power, Sindhudurg was built near Goa, and at the entrance to Mumbai harbour, the fort of Khanderi was built in 1679. The fort of Vijaydurg was also rebuilt giving it a triple wall defensive fortification.

Interestingly, Shivaji raja also embarked on his warships and led an attack to Basrur in 1665. He began from Malvan in south Konkan with a large fleet of nearly ninety frigates. Basrur was a port of the kingdom of Bednur high in the hills of the Western Ghats. The port was surprised, and immense loot obtained after which he returned by the land route.

Raja Shivaji was keen to develop an effective merchant marine that could cross the sea and trade with Arabian ports. In 1665, it is reported that he was building larger vessels that would annually visit Persian ports, Basra and Mocha with goods. Jaitapur was another port used to build ships meant to travel across the Arabian Sea. Surprisingly, at this time the Mughals had no fleet of their own and the richly laden ships heading out from Surat towards Mecca were easily plundered.

Although Shivaji raja met with success in some of these invasions, the capture of the Siddi’s main fort at Janjira eluded him. He did build many forts in the Konkan near Janjira to prevent the Siddi from swooping down on the region when Maratha forces were engaged elsewhere.

In 1670, after four years of peace with the Mughals, Raja Shivaji launched his campaign against Janjira and enforced a strict blockade. At one point, Fath Khan, who commanded the fort, was distressed enough to accept a sum of money to hand over the fort. However, his three Abyssinian slaves arrested and imprisoned him and continued to hold out. At this stage, the Siddi sought to change his allegiance from Bijapur to the Mughals and the fleet joined the Mughal power. During Maratha preoccupation in Khandesh, the Siddi came ashore and took the fort of Danda on the coast from the Maratha commander, and from then on a bitter struggle between the Siddis and the Marathas continued until well into the eighteenth century.

In 1672, Aurangzeb sent down a fleet from Surat that attacked Maratha sea forts. The chief of this fleet, Siddi Sambul, earned Maratha enmity by his atrocities, killings and religious conversions in the villages along the coast. The year 1674 saw a war on a river in Ratnagiri district that saw the Maratha chief Daulat Khan defeat Siddi Sambul. However, Danda Rajpuri could not be recaptured from the Siddi. Raja Shivaji – and his son Sambhaji raja after him – continued to fight the Siddi all through their reigns. In 1676, yet another campaign began against the Siddi. Many smaller sea battles were also fought over the next two years.

Seal of Chhatrapati Shivaji.

In 1679, Raja Shivaji began to build a fort at Khanderi, an island thirty miles north of Janjira and near Mumbai. The work of building the fort continued even in the monsoon months that year. The English resented the proximity of the new fort to Mumbai and planned an attack on the new fort.  The first of many battles took place just as the monsoon was getting over that year. Some Englishmen tried to land on the island fort and were killed. The Maratha fleet under Daulat Khan came up to defend the fort.

In the next two months, the English suffered reverses, and soon the Siddi came up to help the English. At this time, the English prudently decided to withdraw from the battle. The Siddi’s efforts to capture Khanderi however, did not succeed. As a counter to Khanderi the Siddi built a fort on the island of Underi nearby in January 1680. Repeated Maratha assaults on Underi did not succeed. The two forts continued to face each other until Underi was captured in 1759 in the reign of Nanasaheb Peshwa.

Although Raja Shivaji died in 1680, the naval arm of the Marathas had been firmly established. It proved a deterrent to not just the Siddi, but also the English and the Portuguese in the years to come. Under Kanhoji Angre who became the Sarkhel of the Maratha navy in 1698, the naval strength increased manifold and exercised control of the western coast.

It was the vision of Chhatrapati Shivaji that led to the setting up the navy, establish naval bases, build a merchant marine and take on well-established naval powers on the west coast, keeping it free of the encroachments by Europeans in this region. In later years, Bajirao Peshwa and Chimaji Appa took this work forward by winning the northern territory of the Portuguese from Salcette Island to Daman, and most of the Siddi’s territory. In the final analysis, Chhatrapati Shivaji’s founding of the Maratha navy must rank as one of the visionary acts of a ruler in those times.

Photos in article credits. Pic 1 is courtesy Bharat Itihas Sanshodhak Mandal. Pic 2 is by the author. Pic 3 courtesy Sachitra Shivcharitra by Balasaheb Pant Pratinidhi, 1930.

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2. Shivaji Raja – From Agra to Battle of Salher

3. A History of Maratha Navy and Merchantships

4. Rani Abakka defeated the Portuguese at Sea

5. The Cholas – Naval Supremacy

6. Lessons from the Cholas – Ensuring Order for Peace, Trade and Prosperity

7. Indian Navy draws inspiration from Shivaji Maharaj 

8. Shivaji revived India's Naval Power 

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