It all started in 1498 when Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama reached the shores of Calicut around the Cape of Good Hope opening up a whole new sea route that would change the course of Indian history. On the pretext of expanding the Indian spice route to Europe, the Portuguese soon established their authority on Indian soil on the strength of their superior navy, shrewd business acumen and understanding the pendulum of power amongst the various dynasties and kingdoms.
By the 1500s, they had taken control of Goa, Chaul, Korlai, Daman and Diu as well as Salsette Island also called Sashthi Island (name attributed to the sixty villages). The Portuguese were well-known for their religious intolerance, forced conversions to Christianity using unspeakable barbaric means, persecution of Hindus and most importantly total lack of respect for the prevalent culture and heritage of India.
It is this religious oppression that angered the mighty Marathas and led to many hard-fought battles. Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, the great visionary had already understood the importance and value of creating his own navy and fleet of ships that would be better suited for the waters of the Arabian Sea and the Indian coastline to counter the Portuguese. Under the able supervision of India’s first naval commander Kanhoji Angre acting on the instructions of Chhatrapati Shahu, the Marathas developed the most formidable navy the world had ever seen.
There were several clashes between the Marathas and the Portuguese even during the reign of Chhhatrapati Sambaji and Chhatrapati Rajaram. However, conflict with the Mughals kept the Marathas engaged for several years and it was conclusion of the famed Bombay Treaty (treaty between the Marathas and Portuguese mediated by the British) that finally saw the beginnings of the battle for Sashthi Island. A trusted aide of Peshwa Baji Rao I also known as Bajirao Ballal was sent to Goa to discuss new terms for the above treaty as well as allocation of land for the Marathas in Sashthi Island.
The sitting Viceroy of Goa, Conde de Sandomil was an intolerant man who had begun harassing Hindus the moment the Bombay Treaty had concluded. He did not find merit in the request of Peshwa’s aide and instead insulted the Peshwa calling him a ‘negro’. Chimaji Appa, the loyal brother of Peshwa was of the firm resolve that the Portuguese must be defeated and thrown out of Sashthi Island.
The year is 1739. The Marathas were ready to go to battle with the Portuguese and leading this daring mission was Chimaji Appa who had already proven his mettle in the earlier battles against the Nizam and in North India alongside Peshwa Baji Rao. The Vasai Fort had ten bastions of which San Sebastian was deemed as the most important with two entrances.
Chimaji Appa and Peshwa devised a strategy to encompass Vasai by attacking their forces at sea. Malharrao Holkar, Ranoji Shinde and Vyankatrao Joshi attacked from Thane, Daman and Goa respectively effectively cutting off the movement of the Portuguese.
One by one, surrounding forts around Vasai were captured by the Marathas with forts on Sashthi Island also being taken over by them. Only the fort of Vasai remained which was considered to be one of the safest and best built forts of its time. The fort was situated on an island with the Vaitarna river on the north, Vasai creek on the south and the Arabian Sea in the west.
Chimaji Appa set up camp at Bhadrapur near Vasai with an impressive 40,000 infantry, 25,000 cavalry and 4,000-odd soldiers who were trained in tunnelling and mining. Both Holkar and Shinde along with their army joined Chimaji Appa and the massive army at the doorstep of Vasai sent the Portuguese into panic.
They tried to secure the assistance of the British and Siddi of Janjira but both refused to help. With the capture of Bandra, Versova, Mahim, Dharavi and Uran, the Portuguese were cut off from both land and sea access.
The siege of Vasai Fort began on February 17, 1739 with exchange of fire happening through the months of February – April. Chimaji Appa decided that the only way to win the fort was to bring it down and so, he decided to besiege the northern walls while tunnelling in the sandy coast in the north. The tunnellers made slow and steady progress keeping in mind the water level as well as the depth of the tunnel to avoid being seen. Ten such tunnels were made that reached the base of Remedios and San Sebastian towers.
Ten mines were laid near the tower of Remedios which breached a part of the rampart but not enough for a full-fledged attack. The multipronged attack of setting off mines and charging into the fort continued on May 2, 1739. There were heavy causalities on the Portuguese side but despite being under continued attack, they responded swiftly with gunfire and other military tactics.
On May 3, 1739, the tower of San Sebastian came crashing down after a mine was set off and the Marathas stormed into the fort unafraid of being fired at as the towers no longer held any artillery or men to fire at them. The decisive defeat of the Portuguese was accomplished and Chimaji Appa asked them to either surrender or get slaughtered. The remaining troops surrendered on May 5, 1739 and were given safe passage to Goa.
On May 23, 1739, the Zari Patka was hoisted at Vasai Fort ending a cruel Portuguese regime of two hundred years that saw unmentionable atrocities, heinous form of torture, unethical forced conversions to Christianity and deplorable religious persecution.
Chimaji Appa built the beautiful Vajreshwari Temple in honour of the Goddess after his victory at Vasai. Large bells collected at Vasai now adorn the sacred temples at Bhimashankar, Menavali, Omkareshwar and Ramlinga at Shirur.
A majestic statue of Chimaji Appa, the unsung hero of the Marathas and India stands tall at the Vasai Fort, a tribute to his valour and outstanding courage. The inspirational warrior is seen with his sword raised in the air ready for battle astride a horse, destined for eternal glory.
Written by Lakshmi Subramanian
* Photos are only symbolic (Taken from public domain/internet and any copyright infringement is unintentional and regrettable)
* Information about the Battle of Vasai is taken from archives