On the history trail: Maratha Navy and The Battle of Basrur

The Kanara coast which extends from Majali in the North to Someshwar Mangaluru in the South was controlled by Sondha and Bednore chiefs who though, were feudatories of Bijapur had become independent after the death of Mohammad Adil Shah. The Europeans were slowly but steadily stamping their importance and power over this coastal area by building factories and warehouses which were well-fortified and defended by their impressive armies.


The Portuguese who ruled at Goa, English at Rajapur and Karwar and the Dutch in the Malabar coast had started monopolising the trade of spices and rice. Seeing the increasing aggression of the Europeans and their control over the coastal region, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj devised a plan to grab some control over the Konkan coastal belt that was long, fertile and had abundance of rice and other crops.


Young Shivaji had begun to understand the need for a strong navy as the kingdom that possessed it would rule over the sea and thereby the trade routes. With the intention to secure the Konkan coast, Shivaji Maharaj decided to form the navy as an autonomous branch of the state after he won the Kalyan – Bhiwandi territory on October 24, 1657. Shipbuilding was a novel concept for the Marathas and so, Shivaji Maharaj sought help from a Portuguese engineer to help him in this endeavour. He sent his trusted aides to surreptitiously learn this technique so that he could model his new fleet to suit the Indian coastline and waters.


The British were highly amused seeing a fleet of 18 – 20 ships of the Marathas sailing from Kalyan to Vasai doubting its power and capability. This small but extremely efficient and advanced fleet of ships grew into a full-fledged navy by 1664. The Europeans were monitoring the progress of the Maratha navy but were unconcerned as their ships seemed very tiny in size and lacked the firepower which the larger European ships possessed.


By 1657, Shivaji Maharaj has successfully taken possession of North Konkan and was making steady progress in South Konkan by capturing Tale, Ghosale, Danda and Rajapuri from the Siddis. With the West coast from Kolaba to Malwan already in his control with fortified bases at Kolaba, Suvarnadurga, Vijaydurg and Sindhudurg, Shivaji Maharaj set his sights on the elusive Janjira fort that was the base of the Siddis. The Portuguese from Goa and two strategic posts of Ponda and Karwar which were under Bijapur were constantly keeping checks on his movements.


Shivaji Maharaj decided to expand his territory in coastal Karnataka that had important ports like Mirjan, Honnavar, Bhatkal, Baindur, Kundapur, Basrur and Mangaluru which engaged in large transactions with the West in spices, rice and forest products. This was part of a multipronged strategy to not only gain economic benefit but also political leverage to further his ambition of Hindavi Swarajya.


As the Marathas inched closer to Karwar and the Kanara coast in 1663, the British began to have real fear of the consequences of such rapid expansion by the Marathas. When the Bednore court plunged into chaos, the Portuguese seized the opportunity to capture Basrur and Mangaluru, while Shivaji Maharaj sent four scout ships to the port of Bhatkal and raided Barkur by sea. He descended on the town and exacted contribution from the Karwar factories run by the British who paid him one hundred and twelve pounds.


Though Shivaji Maharaj could not establish his authority in Karwar on this mission as he was intercepted by Khawas Khan with the forces of Bijapur, the Dutch soon saw the need to build a fort to protect them from yet another attack by the Marathas.


In early February, 1665 Shivaji along with his mighty army raided many towns under Bijapur and the nearness of his army alarmed Somashekara Nayaka I of the Keladi dynasty who solicited protection from Shivaji Maharaj on payment of yearly tribute. He also requested Shivaji Maharaj to liberate the prosperous trading ports of Basrur and Gangolli from the clutches of the Portuguese.


With the invitation of the king of Bednore, Shivaji despatched a navy of 85 small frigates, 3 little ships and small crafts with 4000 soldiers on February 8, 1665. The time of the attack was fixed to coincide with the first week of the new moon and was pegged to be the first day after Maha Shivaratri. He set sail on his first naval expedition from the creek of Malwan accompanied by Daryasarang Mayank Bhandari, Ventaji Sarangi and Daulat Khan. The Maratha navy passed quietly by the coast of Goa that was in the hands of the Portuguese who were too busy spying on the activities on the Mumbai port to be bothered about the Marathas movements, evaded the Dutch at Vengurla, managed to hoodwink the Portuguese again at Panaji and Vasco – Goa and the British at Karwar. The navy sped steadily on the waters of the Arabian Sea passing the North Kanara coast and reached Kundapur thereby covering a distance of 200 miles in 4 – 5 days.


Basrur is situated 5 miles inland in the southern branch of the Kundapur creek and the entry to the town was extremely challenging as the only opening to the sea was obstructed by large mounds of sand. Shivaji took the help of the Konkanis who were desperate to be rid of the European oppression to enter the town in the shortest way possible and return to sea without being ambushed by the Europeans.


In the early hours of February 13, 1665, the Portuguese woke up to the war cries of ‘Har Har Mahadev’ and ‘Jai Bhavani’ and much to their astonishment saw the Marathas leaping off their ships brandishing swords. The Portuguese garrison of 5000 – 6000 soldiers was decisively defeated and the Zari Patka was unfurled at Basrur freeing the traders from the suffocating clutches of the Portuguese. The plunder which consisted of not only cash but cloth, grains, spices and horses was estimated by the Dutch to be 3,00,000 guilders!


The magnanimity of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj to accede to the request of the kingdom of Bednore to protect the interests of local traders would pay rich dividends in the years to come. This was the only naval expedition led by Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj who is rightfully titled ‘Father of the Indian Navy’.


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 Basrur is taken from archives

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