Right Word | Chhatrapati Shivaji and his Navy: Why PM Modi dedicated new naval ensign to him

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Responding to the need for building a national navy, Shivaji not only built a naval force but also constructed many sea forts

(File) At the grand event, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that INS Vikrant is an example of Indian government’s thrust to making its defence sector self-reliant and has made the country part of the select group of nations who can indigenously make aircraft carriers. He also unveiled Indian Navy’s new ensign which now has the royal seal of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. ANI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi commissioned the country’s first indigenous aircraft carrier Indian Naval Ship (INS) Vikrant at Cochin Shipyard Limited (CSL) on 2 September 2022. During the event, the prime minister also unveiled the new Naval Ensign, doing away with the colonial past befitting the rich Indian maritime heritage. He dedicated the new ensign to Chhatrapati Shivaji. But why Shivaji?

Need of a national navy

Shivaji realised very early the need of a national navy for Bharat. Sir Jadunath Sarkar, one of the foremost authorities on this great Hindu King, explains in Shivaji and His Times (Orient Blackswan; pp 192-196), “Nothing proves Shivaji’s genius as a born statesman more clearly than his creation of navy and naval bases. His father had left to him only a few inland districts; but Shivaji at the very commencement of his own independent expansion, immediately after gaining the towns of Kalyan and Bhiwandi (1658), started building ships of his own in the creek below them. Three years later, when his land forces overran the South Konkan coast, he made a survey of the sea-side down to the frontier of Goa, and embarked on a plan for building new naval bases there and strengthening the older ones. He instinctively perceived that without the command of the coastal waters, his inland territories would not be protected, nor the economic prospects of his subjects would be assured.”

Right Word  Chhatrapati Shivaji and his Navy Why PM Modi dedicated new naval ensign to him

A statue of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj was erected in Bodhan. PTI

There is also a historical context for the need felt by Shivaji to set up a strong navy which reveals a lesser-known aspect about his all-encompassing vision. According to Sarkar, “A series of raids by the foreign ships on the Konkan Coast with their attendant atrocities, for a thousand years past, had burnt into the memory of Maratha people the bitter truth that they were helpless if they could not defend their seaboard. In the first century of Islam, in the years 636 and 660 AD, pirate fleets from Arabia had sacked the flourishing port of Thana. Even as late as 1530, Portuguese ships from Goa burnt the suburbs of Kalyan and took from them a large booty; in 1540, they plundered and burnt another great port, Agashi and burnt 300 vessels lying in it.”

Sarkar adds, “The rich products of peninsular India were collected in the historic ports on the west coast for export to foreign countries. India’s seaborne trade was in constant risk of destruction if these emporia could not be guarded against foreign raiders…To our Arab and Abyssinian invaders by the sea were added in the 17th century formidable gangs of European pirates working in the Indian waters, mostly British by race. It was only a strong national fleet, supported by naval bases close at hand that could protect our west coast towns and the trade which was their life blood… Finally, there was the loss and insult to which the Portuguese were subjecting all Indian shipping by compelling them to buy pass-ports from the Government of Goa, for plying in the Indian Ocean.”

Building a strong navy

Responding to the need for building a national navy, Shivaji not only built a naval force but also constructed many sea forts. Kedar Madhavrao Phalke gives an overview of this gigantic effort by this great Hindu King in The Legacy of Chhatrapati Shivaji: From Kingdom to Empire.

‘Shivaji built a navy and many sea forts. He built Sindhudurg to challenge the threat of the Portuguese of Goa, Padmdurg was built to fight the Siddis of Janjira, to fight the English of Mumbai, a sea fort was built on the Khanderi island. He strengthened the sea forts like Vijaydurg and Suvarnadurg. The main battleships of the Marathas included Guraba, Gulbat, Shibad, Tarande, Taru, Machva, Pagar, Sangamiri, Hodi, Pal, Jahagiri, Balyav and Fatehmar.

With the building of the navy, the doors of international trade opened up permanently for Marathas. The ships of Marathas sailed through the Gulf of Persia and Red Sea. They had a capacity to carry 150 to 300 people and they could carry goods weighing between 180 and 300 tonnes. On every ship, six, nine, twelve or eighteen canons would be fixed.’

Naval organisation

Anil Madhav Dave, a scholar (known for his detailed study on Shivaji’s governance system) and a former Union Minister who passed away in 2017 had outlined the details of naval organisation and its edifice built by Shivaji in his seminal work Shivaji and Suraj (pp 140-142), “The navy must be divided into several segments or unit. Each unit must contain 5 Gurabs and 15 Galbats (types of warships). An admiral at the top must be the commander of the force, whose orders all naval personnel must obey. Taxes must be collected from a certain domain for meeting the expenses of the navy. If traders arriving at the ports are harassed for obtaining revenue for operating a navy, trade at the ports will dry up. The security of the port must be adequately ensured. If this is not done, essential goods from overseas may not be available in the hour of need.”

Dave further adds, “Sea forts like Padmdurg, Vijaydurg and Sindhudurg were constructed to acquire uninterrupted sea routes. Shivaji gave priority to the Koli and Bhandari communities in recruiting personnel for his navy. The sea has been the home for these fisher-folk communities for generations. They were given proper training and were introduced to bigger ships and the methods of operating them. It were these sons of Konkan who demolished the pride of English officials and colonialists of England being invincible at sea.”

A legacy carried forward

The naval legacy built by Shivaji was carried forward by his successors. Under the admiralship of Kanhoji Angre, the Maratha navy had a complete sway on the seas in the early 18th century. According to Phalke, “In December 1715, the English Admiral Charles Boon proved to be troublesome for Marathas. Kanhoji captured a ship full of beautiful Arabian steeds, and snatched control of all the horses, and assembled a new army. When the English attacked Kanhoji, he captured three of their ships.”

On 17 April, 1718, the English navy launched an attack on Vijaydurg. Under Angre’s leadership, the English navy was handed a crushing defeat. Around 200 English soldiers were killed and more than 300 were wounded. A humiliated English navy retreated to Mumbai. On 2 November, 1718, the English navy attacked Khanderi but it was again defeated and it had to retreat to Mumbai. On 19 September, 1719, the English navy again attacked Vijaydurg. It was again defeated and Brown escaped by rushing back to Mumbai. On 12 December, 1721, the combined navies of the English and the Portuguese attacked but they had to suffer another defeat at the hands of Kanhoji Angre.

What Angre wrote to the British Governor of Mumbai, William Phipps (23 July, 1724) aptly sums up the naval legacy of Chhatrapati Shivaji, “I am only a disciple of that Shivaji Maharaja who established the Maratha kingdom by waging war against four powers. Those who do business in accordance with law and order will not be harmed by us.”

The writer, an author and columnist, has written several books. Views expressed are personal.

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