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Why name of powerful Maratha Admiral of coastal navy got lost in mainstream history

By Pragya Ranjan* 

The history of India had been under the 200-years of British Raj viewed through a Eurocentric lens. Many leaders and historians have tried to deconstruct the imperialist agenda of history as a writing to glorify British Raj. But even after independence, history written from the point of view of the European colonialists still has a significant mark on contemporary writing on Indian history. 
The Rise and Fall of a Brown Water Navy: Sarkhel Kanhoji Angre and Maratha Seapower on the Arabian Sea in the 17th and 18th Centuries’ is one such book which demonstrates how Indian naval history continues to remain Eurocentric. The name of Sarkhel Kanhoji as a powerful Maratha Admiral of coastal water navy seems to be lost in the mainstream history of India.
Written by Anirudh Deshpande, Professor of History at University of Delhi and Muphid Mujawar, Assistant Professor at Shivaji University; the book is divided into seven chapters and covers about 150 pages. 
It is a scholarly work which provides a significant insight into Indian naval and military history by examining the case of Angre family. It also sheds light on how the Indian brown water navy proved to be detrimental to the European blue water navy for a long time, something which seems impossible in the contemporary world.
The Brown Water Navy operates in the coastal waters and in the case of India, generally bound by an authority on the mainland. The Blue Water Navy on the other hand is a maritime force operating on the high seas at a global level. 
In India, the only attempt to organise a blue water navy was made by Tipu Sultan that could challenge the British Navy in high seas. But before he could succeed, he was ultimately defeated and killed by Lord Wellesley in the fourth Anglo-Mysore War (1799). The navy in India under various rulers other than Tipu Sultan had remained confined to coastal and internal waters.
The general impression that the coastal water navy of India was no match to the European naval power is wrong, especially taking Kanhoji Angre’s power into consideration. In fact the defeat of Tulaji Angre, son of Kanhoji Angre, would have been very difficult or even impossible without Maratha Peshwa’s support. 
The fall of Angre’s naval power was not a cakewalk for the Britishers. In fact, it was a feat achieved after losing many of their ships and men as prisoners to Angre. Deshpande and Mujawar describe this book on the history of Maratha Navy as a microhistory which puts bigger historical generalisations to a severe test.
Starting from the advent of British and Portuguese in India, the book takes us to the journey of Sarkhel Kanhoji Angre whose political ascendancy as Admiral of Maratha Navy began under the third Chatrapati, Rajaram. Not only was he a brave and patriotic leader but also demonstrated his political acumen through the imposition of the ‘dastak system’ for foreign vessels on the Konkan coast. 
It was a parallel system of “passes which had to be procured from the Angre center of power by ship which sailed along the Konkan and Malwan coast” as opposed to the ‘cartaz system’ of Portuguese in the Indian Ocean.
History of Maratha Navy and Angre family is an enlightening reading for a layman interested in colonialism and naval history
Failing to get a pass, it would eventually lead to seizure of the vessel by Angre’s navy on the Konkan coast. In this way, Kanhoji got hold of numerous British and Portuguese ships, sometimes loaded with goods amounting to lakhs of rupees. It was one of the main reasons for the Britishers to refer to Kanhoji as “Conajee Angra, a Savajee pirate” and “chief robber”.
The authors say, “The colonialist assertion that any so-called non-state actor who resisted the rise of British power in India was a pirate or brigand”, another instance of Eurocentrism. Kanhoji political acumen is further discerned through his decision to continue with dual control (du-tarfa amal) with Siddis of Janjira, “his strongest competitors in commerce raiding.” It was against the wishes of Chattrapati Sahu who wanted the Siddis to be completely crushed but Kanhoji knew that it was impossible to completely defeat them.
In India, a naval power, was closely tied to a land authority; in the case of Kanhoji Angre it meant Maratha Chatrapati. However, he was able to secure a considerable level of autonomy for his region through a treaty between Sahu and Kanhoji. This was challenged after the death of Kanhoji which saw a period of turmoil over succession. 
In 1756, Tulaji Angre, the last of the Angre family was defeated by the British with the military cooperation of the Maratha Peshwa. Even though Tulaji was given a chance to surrender without any bloodshed, he chose to die honourably in the war rather than to live a life dishonourably.
‘The Rise and Fall of a Brown Water Navy’ refers to numerous primary and secondary sources, thus making it a remarkable and reliable scholarly work. Apart from scholars, the history of the Maratha Navy and Angre family is an enlightening reading for a layman interested in colonialism and naval history of India. However, a common reader may find it difficult to comprehend the technical terms related to the navy and military as well as the socio-political situation in the country.
The writers seem to have presumed that the reader is already aware of their meaning and import. A reader not well versed in military and naval history might end up looking on the internet, surfing through the social, historical and geo-political background of 17th-18th CE of India as well as Europe. Being a noteworthy scholarly work as it already is, however, had the book been written in a more comprehensive manner, it would have become more productive for the common readers.
In the Angre family we find national pride worth remembering but unfortunately most of the population, apart from the Marathas, is unaware of this personality who has left an indelible mark on India’s past. Hopefully, this remarkable book by Deshpande and Mujawar can help the Angre family earn the same respect on the pages of Indian History as given to the sepoys of the 1857 revolt.
---
*Critic and a story writer who majorly concerns herself with literature and socio-political issues. She has published in online journals, magazines and newspapers like Frontier, Kashmir Times, Mainstream Weekly, Kitaab, among others. She is currently engaged in writing about women's discourse and societal hierarchies

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