On the history trail: Sea Power of the Marathas under Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj

A long stretch of the Konkan coast had come under the Marathas but, it was imperative that this coast was secured and therefore, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj spent a great deal of time to ensure the loyalties of the local nobility by either destroying them or receiving a substantial tribute from them.


The Abyssinian State of Janjira however eluded Maharaj. Though Maharaj had fought several successful campaigns with the Abyssinians and stripped them of some of their richest districts, the army was never able to make any headway into Janjira on account of their superior naval resources.


The Siddi’s naval forces were always ready to swoop into Maharaj’s dominion as and when required. It was clear to Maharaj that he would have to create an equally powerful navy if a siege of Janjira was to be implemented. Shivaji had also ascertained that the naval strength of the Siddis made it possible to levy contributions on mercantile vessels plying in the Konkan and it was now necessary to deprive him of this source of income and plunder.


Maharaj painstakingly collected artisans and masters skilled in the art of shipbuilding with the help of his shipwrights. Maharaj took the help of Pitambar Shenoi, a consummate diplomat who was well acquainted in the affairs and rivalries of the European traders and knew how to read and write their language to understand the valuable details of the levy of chauth and borrow the services of a few Portuguese naval and artillery experts from Goa.


A Portuguese engineer also offered his services and Maharaj was soon able to launch a navy consisting of four to five hundred vessels of all forms and sizes at a cost of ten lakhs of rupees. These vessels were designed for the waters of the Indian coastline and were lighter than the Portuguese ships.


The Maratha crew comprised of men who were well-versed with the coastline like pirates, fishers and lascars. To combat the English, Portuguese, French, Moors, Dutch and Siddis, Maharaj arranged for sheltered anchorages for his naval contingent on the west coast. The fortifications of the Fort of Kolaba were restored and made as the centre of his naval activities. Cargo of all foreign and native boats would be searched and examined here.


The fortified sea forts of Suvarnadurg and Vijaydurg sent the Portuguese into a state of panic. They sent their envoy to the court of Maharaj to obtain exemption and privileges for the commerce of their nation. Shivaji adopted the chauth system for his own purpose and developed it into a profitable instrument for the expansion of his dominion. It was agreed that the Portuguese would furnish a certain number of guns and ammunition and other war supplies every year in return for free passage of their ships.


Maharaj led his navy only once which was for the Sack of Basrur but the voyage was a painful experience as both Maharaj and a great number of his men suffered from seasickness. Maharaj also realised that the fleet is at the mercy of natural elements and a great amount of uncertainty would accompany every journey. He felt that a strong land force to support the navy would be the best form of attack.


It is estimated that Shivaji’s naval armament had about six hundred and forty vessels of which thirty were of the largest size known on the western coast of India. Three hundred were of an intermediate size while rest were smaller crafts. Though the purpose of raising this navy force was to take down the Siddi of Janjira, it was never achieved because the Siddi shifted his loyalties from the Adil Shahis of Bijapur to the Mughals.


Maharaj decided to build his own maritime fortress that will rival Janjira. The shores of Malwan were chosen and the task of building this indigenous maritime strategic outpost was entrusted to hereditary boatmen and fishers who knew the conditions of the harbour and its topographical features intimately.


An army of about three thousand masons, smiths and artisans worked tirelessly to erect the new sea fort. Five thousand Mavalis were on guard during the building operations to protect the workforce from any attacks by the Portuguese, Siddis, Mughals and English.


Maharaj personally supervised this ambitious project and devised his own methods for laying the foundations deep under the waters. After the foundations were completed, the construction of the superstructure commenced thereafter. Maharaj left to Raigad after handing over the charge of this structure to Govind Vishwanath Prabhu Subhedar.


The entire fortification took three years to be completed. Upon completion, Maharaj came from the fort of Panhala to Malwan for the grand opening ceremony. The new fort was called Sindhudurg or The Fortress of the Sea and its erection and equipment cost a crore of pagodas. A garrison of three thousand Mavalis were stationed here to protect this engineering feat. Similar sea forts were constructed by Maharaj in Anjanwel, Ratnagiri, Padmadurg, Sarjekot, Khanderi and Rajkot.


With Kolaba, Malwan and the west coast firmly in Maharaj’s possession and fortified bases at Kolaba, Suvarnadurg, Vijaydurg and Sindhudurg, Maharaj looked towards Goa. Ponda and Karwar were two important posts lying in the south of Goa which belonged to Bijapur and needed to be annexed to keep a check on the Portuguese movements.


Soon after his coronation, Maharaj deputed Annaji Datto to try and capture Ponda from the Adil Shahis. Annaji proceeded with his men and began attacking the fort in August 1674. The fort was valiantly defended and so, Maharaj arrived from Rajapur on 22 March 1675 sending forty vessels with war material by sea to be used against Ponda.


Maharaj proceeded by land and besieged the fort on 8 April 1675. Bahlol Khan gathered his force to help his commander in Ponda but was opposed on the way by Maharaj’s men. The fort was surrendered to Maharaj on 6 May 1675.


Maharaj immediately strengthened the defences of the place and picked a strong garrison to protect the fort. He had now established his own counterpoise against Goa. He thereafter marched southwards and captured Karwar and its marine fort Sadashivgad. He annexed the neighbouring State of Sonda.


The southern move extended his territorial control and proved to be an effective check on the Portuguese. Dharmaji Nagnath was put in charge of this region while Raoji Somnath was to manage the lands from Rajapur to Malwan.


The Rani of Bednur solicited help from Maharaj to subjugate her disloyal general Timmanna Naik. Maharaj readily accepted the mission and extended his principle of chauth to the Rani’s jurisdiction.


Maharaj returned to Rajapur on 12 June 1675, having confirmed his hold on the western coast from Ramnagar in the north to Basrur Port in the south.


Written by Lakshmi Subramanian


* Photos are only symbolic (Taken from public domain/internet and any copyright infringement is unintentional and regrettable)

* Information about the Sea Power of the Marathas is taken from archives

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