Military History Maratha Navy
Amarendra Kumar
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0232


During the second half of the seventeenth century, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj (b. 1630) founded the Maratha Empire in the Deccan region of the Indian subcontinent. The nascent empire was carved out of the territories belonging to the Mughals and other Deccani sultanates, against whom Shivaji constantly waged wars. Shivaji was aware of the nature of challenges his empire was going to face in the near future. Hence, while he carried out daring cavalry attacks on his enemies, he also laid foundations of a seagoing navy. We have very little idea about the visionary Chhatrapati whose naval fleet, at its peak, consisted of about two hundred assorted vessels of various sizes—some having three masts, and equipped with artillery. The use of the navy facilitated the Marathas to achieve two-fold objectives: projection of power in the adjoining stretch of the Arabian Sea along the Konkan Coast; and, providing an alternative option of a temporary escape to the sea, in case the military pressure from land couldn’t be gainfully negotiated. The navy was supported by coastal and island forts with guns mounted on their ramparts. During the early eighteenth century, Kanhoji Angre, the Maratha admiral, raised his naval capacity in such a manner that the Maratha navy became one of the key contenders for the control of the western coast of India. To enforce navigational parity in the adjoining sea, he issued navigational passes—the possession of which was mandatory for all. This brought the Maratha navy into conflict with the Europeans and the Mughals. The Europeans usually supported the Mughal fleet captained by the Siddi of Janjira. Realizing that a direct naval confrontation with the Europeans would be asymmetrical, the Marathas resorted to small-scale engagements where tactics, based upon their appreciation of geographical realities, played important role. They preferred coastal surroundings to offer battles where their medium-sized, flat-bottomed rowing vessels could maneuver effortlessly. Disengagement under duress, to escape to the nearby shallow creeks, was another way to evade destruction. For the deep-hulled European sailing vessels, maneuvering during wars was extremely difficult in the costal vicinity because of the absence of sufficient breeze. The Maratha navy, thus, successfully maintained its hold over the Arabian Sea along its marine front. In 1755, however, the Maratha Peshwa invited Bombay Marine, the naval arm of the English East India Company (EIC), to fight against his own admiral. In 1756, with the support of the Royal Navy, the Anglo-Maratha combination defeated and destroyed the Maratha navy near Vijaydurg. The main heroes of the action, Admiral Charles Watson and Robert Clive went on to inaugurate a new era of British imperialism in India at Plassey in 1757. The Maratha navy constitutes a glorious chapter from the perspective of local history. However, this subject has largely remained unexplored. Recent research has helped place the Maratha navy and the persona of Kanhoji Angre in the right perspective. Attempts have also been made to assess the wider implications of the Maratha navy by linking it with Indian Ocean studies.

General Overviews and Biographies

Apte 1973 remains the sole monograph on the Maratha navy at present. Sarkar 1973 and Mehendale 2012, being biographical sketches of Shivaji, refer to the naval activities during the Chhatrapati’s reign. Dhabu 1939 and Malgaonkar 1959 focus upon the life of Kanhoji Angre whereas Sen 1979 elaborates upon the naval administration of the Marathas up to the Peshwa period. A broader picture of Maratha naval activities can be seen in Desai 1970. Among the European authors, Ballard 1984 and Biddulph 1995 took note of the naval activities of the Marathas, but they fail to discover any merit in the Maratha navy but for its “piratical” orientations.

  • Apte, B. K. A History of the Maratha Navy and Merchant Ships. Bombay: State Board for Literature and Culture, 1973.

    This is an indispensable, comprehensive guide to the rise and fall of the Maratha navy. Contains separate chapters on naval battles, administration, and Maratha ship-building.

  • Ballard, G. A. Rulers of the Indian Ocean. Reprint. Delhi: Neeraj Publishing House, 1984.

    Originally published in 1927, it is one of the earliest works which takes note of European naval activities in the Indian Ocean during in the age of sail. The exploits of the Maratha navy have been placed in the wider context of the Indian Ocean during the eighteenth century in chapters10 and 11.

  • Biddulph, John. The Pirates of Malabar and an English Woman Two Hundred Years Ago. Reprint. Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 1995.

    Originally published in 1907, this book takes a closer look at the maritime conditions prevailing in the Arabian Sea during the eighteenth century. In particular, the troubles caused to the East India Company (EIC) because of the daring naval activities of Kanhoji Angre have been recounted. The work borrows from Clement Downing’s account of the EIC’s naval action on the bases of Kanhoji Angre.

  • Desai, W. S. Bombay and the Marathas up to 1774. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1970.

    This work examines the Anglo-Maratha relations following the transfer of EIC headquarters from Mughal-controlled Surat to the island of Bombay. It also analyzes the activities of the EIC to ensure that the balance of power in the Mughal-Maratha struggle was maintained.

  • Dhabu, D. G. Kulabkar Angre Sarkhel (Angre Gharanachya Itihas). Alibag, India: Author, 1939.

    Based on family papers and other contemporary documents, this work is a comprehensive history of the rise and fall of the house of Angre. It contains a list and description of the different types of vessels constituting the Angre fleet.

  • Malgaonkar, Manohar. Kanhoji Angre—The Maratha Admiral. Bombay: Asia Publishing House, 1959.

    This work falls into the category of a eulogy—representing a larger than life picture of the Maratha admiral Kanhoji Angre under testing circumstances. It provides a better insight into the strategy and tactics of the Maratha navy, aided by pictorial representation of the naval actions.

  • Mehendale, Gajanan Bhaskar. Shivaji: His Life and Times. Pune, India: Param Mitra, 2012.

    A well-researched biography of Chhatrapati Shivaji based on contemporary sources. Mehendale makes sure that he presents a realistic picture of the activities of the Maratha navy during the time of Shivaji.

  • Sarkar, Jadunath. Shivaji and His Times. Reprint. New Delhi: Orient Longman, 1973.

    First published in 1919, this book remains the standard modern biography of Shivaji to date. This was the first work on Maratha history which took note of their naval establishment. It includes a separate chapter titled “Naval Enterprises.”

  • Sen, S. N. The Military System of the Marathas. Reprint. Calcutta: K.P. Bagchi, 1979.

    Originally written in 1928, this book devotes four chapters to present a comprehensive account of the Maratha navy since its inception. This work counters the notion of piracy which the Europeans often applied while referring to the challenges posed by the non-European naval powers.

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