The Ocean Of Churn: How The Indian Ocean Shaped Human History, by Sanjeev Sanyal, is a compelling exploration of medieval geopolitics in the Indian subcontinent and the history that has played itself out along the rim of the Indian Ocean. Given below is an an excerpt from Sanyal’s book on Kanhoji Angre, a Maratha general who beat the European powers—at sea.
Sanjeev Sanyal, The Ocean Of Churn: How The Indian Ocean Shaped Human History, Penguin Random House India, 2016.
While the Dutch were being squeezed by Travancore, the English and the Portuguese were up against another source of indigenous resistance. After the death of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in 1707, the empire had quickly unravelled and a large part of it was taken over by the Marathas. They had begun their rebellion against the Mughals as mountain-guerrillas but were quickly developing capability in other forms of warfare.
In 1712, Kanhoji Angre was appointed the Surkhail or Grand Admiral of the Maratha navy. He is often dismissed as a pirate in the writings of Europeans but he was a legitimate official of the Maratha empire and had every right to impose control over the Konkan coast. When the English resisted, he detained a number of EIC ships and forced them to pay a fine. He did the same to the Portuguese.
The reason Angre was able to impose his will on the Europeans was that the Marathas had learned to challenge them at sea. A favourite tactic was to use smaller but fast and manoeuvrable vessels to approach a European ship from astern in order to avoid the cannon broadside. Sometimes they would also tow a larger cannon-laden vessel that would direct its fire at the sails and rigging in order to disable the ship. While the European gunners were trying to extricate themselves from the tangle of rope and canvas, the faster Maratha boats would close in and board the ship.
The EIC initially agreed to Angre’s demands but were soon found to be violating various conditions. Accusations and counter-accusations flew thick and fast, and the Bombay began to prepare for war. A large fleet was assembled 1718 and sailed down to Angre’s main base at Vijaydurg, a formidable fortress built on a rocky peninsula jutting into the Arabian Sea. The attack was a total failure and the siege was lifted after just four days. The English and the Portuguese would try repeatedly to capture Vijaydurg over the next few years without any success. Eventually, the EIC called for help from the Royal Navy and in 1722, Vijaydurg was attacked by the large combined fleet of EIC, the Royal Navy and the Portuguese. Yet again, the attackers failed to make a dent and were forced to withdraw. Except for the English, the Europeans would make their peace with Angre one at a time.
Kanhoji Angre died in 1729 and his descendants would harass the EIC for the next two decades. On one occasion, Tulaji Angre would engage a fleet of no less than thirty-six ships. However, the internal politics of the Marathas came to the EIC’s rescue. Tulaji Angre had been part of the faction opposed to Peshwa Balaji Baji Rao who was the supreme leader of the Marathas. In 1756, Vijaydurg found itself under siege with the EIC fleet blockading it from the sea and the Marathas from land. The fort and its harbour fell after heavy bombardment from land and sea. Although the Marathas would remain powerful on land for another half a century, they would no longer be a factor in the Indian Ocean.
By the middle of the eighteenth century, with the Portuguese and Dutch in decline, the British had emerged as the strongest naval power in the Indian Ocean. However, the directors of the EIC would have still baulked at the idea of a land empire beyond a few fortified bases along the coast. It was the French, their main rivals, who first attempted to control inland territory. The key person behind this new strategy was Joseph Francois Dupleix, the Governor of Pondicherry. Note that at this time, the British and the French were at war in Europe but their companies in India had initially refrained from attacking each other.
his changed when a British fleet plundered French ships in the Straits of Malacca in 1745. Dupleix immediately requested support from the French naval base in Mauritius. When reinforcements arrived the following year, the French marched on Madras and captured it without much difficulty.
The EIC now complained to the Nawab of Arcot who was the Mughal governor of the area (although by this time the Mughal empire was rapidly dissolving). The Nawab arrived in Madras with a large force but was decimated by French cannon. It was a clear demonstration of the sharp improvements in military technology that were taking place in Europe as it approached the Industrial Revolution. With the largest British settlement under his control and the Indians in awe of his firepower, it would have seemed that Dupleix was in a position to dramatically expand the French territory. However, he was repeatedly undermined by his colleagues and superiors. In 1749, he was forced to hand back Madras to the British as part of a peace deal in Europe.
Dupleix was not yet done, however. Within a year he had managed to place his own candidates as rulers of Hyderabad and the Carnatic coast. Just when the Maratha navy was being tamed on the west coast, the French seemed to have taken control of the east coast. The two European companies began to prepare for war and both recruited a large number of Indian soldiers and drilled them in modern warfare. What followed was a series of engagements known as the Carnatic Wars. The mounting cost of these wars would eventually force the French to recall Dupleix. Meanwhile, the British hand would be strengthened by a decisive victory over the ruler of Bengal in 1757. The British would occupy the French settlement of Chandannagar in Bengal and a few years later would also take over Pondicherry. Both of them were later returned to French rule as part of a peace deal but they would never regain their former importance.
Anyone with even a passing interest in Indian history would have heard of the Battle of Plassey in 1757 where British troops led by Robert Clive defeated Siraj-ud-Daulah, the Nawab of Bengal. Clive had 800 European soldiers, 2200 Indian sepoys and a contingent of artillerymen. The Nawab’s army had 35,000 infantrymen, 15,000 cavalry, 53 cannons and also a small French contingent. This would appear like a big numerical advantage except that a large segment of the Nawab’s army, led by the turncoat Mir Jafar, did not take part in the battle. The French contingent put up some resistance, as did the men led by two loyalists Mir Madan and Mohanlal. However, unsure of how many troops he still controlled, Siraj-ud-Daulah fled the battlefield (he would be later captured and killed). The British losses were ‘4 English soldiers killed, 9 wounded, 2 missing, 15 sepoys killed, 36 wounded’.16 One of the most decisive victories in history was not much more than a skirmish. Mir Jafar became the new Nawab of Bengal but no one was in any doubt that it was Robert Clive who was in charge. This is how the East India Company came to control a major chunk of Indian territory.
The Battle of Plassey has a curious but almost forgotten epilogue. On hearing about Clive’s victory, the Dutch decided that they could revive their fortunes by making a surprise attack on Calcutta. It is quite possible that Mir Jafar had secretly encouraged them. So in 1759, the VOC sent a fleet of seven ships from Batavia (now Jakarta) carrying 300 European and 600 Malay soldiers. They made their way up the river but were routed by the British. It is not clear what the Dutch were thinking but it should have been obvious that Calcutta was not Pulau Run of a hundred years earlier.
You can get your copy of Ocean of Churn here.