Off-centre History & Culture

Kanhoji Angre the undefeated admiral, and the island named in his honour

The Kanhoji Angre lighthouse was built in 1766 after the British captured the island.   | Photo Credit: Paul Noronha

A barren hillock cast off from the Western Ghats as they taper down into the Arabian Sea, doomed to a life of solitude just 5 km off the Maharashtra coast, Kanhoji Angre Island makes for an unlikely tourist destination. A lighthouse — and not much else — operates from a historical fortress here. Drinking water is scarce.

Undaunted by the prospect, Mumbai Port Trust has plans to develop the island for tourism. Engineers have begun work on parks, walking tracks and restaurants. Sonkusaley, the engineer who oversees the public-private partnership project, tells me about 40% of the work is complete, and that the tempo will increase after the monsoon.

The name Kanhoji Angre catches my fancy. The island isn’t the only thing named in his honour — the Indian Navy’s Western Command is called INS Angre. History doesn’t reveal much about this shadowy admiral of the Maratha Navy who fought off the great Western navies. I decide I must learn more about this great sarkhel — admiral who never lost a sea battle in his life.

Angre was born on the Konkan coast in 1668. So I hop onto a slow night train that takes me to a wayside station in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri district, where sea and shore forever nudge each other.

The dark grey asphalt road beyond Dapoli goes downhill, past wooded slopes and thick groves of mangoes and coconut palms. The road runs along a sandy beach and ends at Harnai, a thriving fishing village. Here, the hills converge into an outcrop of craggy rocks that jut out into the sea in juxtaposition to an old fort.

Powers at sea

Harnai is Angre’s birthplace, and its location is historically important. Shivaji’s success on land tends to overshadow his strategic insight at sea; but, as Sir Jadhunath Sarkar said, his genius lay in founding the Maratha navy and naval bases to fight the Western powers at sea and prevent them from occupying the West coast.

It was in Harnai that Angre honed his seamanship. He was born here among the Kolis of the Ratnagiri coast, who with their rafts and country boats had engaged with the sea for centuries, making them ideal recruits for Shivaji’s navy.

The Harnai Kolis still go to sea — fishing continues to be the main occupation for the majority of the 8,000-strong population.

But today it is a prosperous place, with literacy at 86.18% and many youngsters finding work in Mumbai and Ratnagiri. And for most people, the Angre surname belongs to a hoary past.

Angre’s father, Tukhoji Angre, was a sarkhel in Shivaji’s naval service at Suvarnadurg fort, just across the water from Harnai. The Angre surname comes from their ancestral village, Angrawadi. Angre spent his formative years at the fort with his father, learning battle tactics and nautical manoeuvres.

Remarkable feat

Angre would go on to become sarkhel in his own right and defeat the Portuguese, Dutch and English at sea, never losing a battle — a remarkable feat considering how his smaller ships were outmatched by the blue water navies of the European powers.

Broadly speaking, his tactics at sea were similar to Shivaji’s on land — surprise and stealth. Making sudden, lethal strikes, he drew the much bigger enemy ships into the shallows where they would hit the rocks, and then pounded them with cannon fire, before getting on board for close combat. Victory ended in plunder. In its heyday the Maratha Navy levied chauth — taxfrom every vessel that passed through the western waters.

Two decades and more

The sarkhel died in 1729; his last resting place is in Alibaug on the other side of the sea, beyond Thal. His death marked the end of Maratha naval supremacy. He had operated out of a fortress on Khanderi Island for the last 21 years of his life; it would one day be renamed Kanhoji Angre Island in his honour.

Old cannons in a bastion of the fort.

Old cannons in a bastion of the fort.   | Photo Credit: P. Krishna Gopinath

The British captured the island, and in 1766 built the lighthouse that still stands sentinel.

It is 11 nautical miles to the island from the Gateway of India. In the 10 o’clock heat the sea is swelling in tidal waves. The hovercraft heaves. Soon the shoreline is invisible. ONGC’s bare rigs rise over the water like skeletons from another time. We cut through the navigational channel.

It is terribly lonely on the boulder-strewn 18-acre island. Much of the fortification has crumbled. The wind howls incessantly. Inside the bastion are two rusty cannons, still directed at imaginary enemies from the sea. In rains the island is cut off from the mainland.

Mr. Kokate, a short, dark man, is on duty on the day of my visit. He takes me up the steep spiral stairs to the top and patiently explains how the signal system works.

I wonder if satellite communication and electronic systems haven’t rendered lighthouses obsolete. Kokate says lighthouses are still foolproof and ships prefer to verify their courses visually.

It is high tide; time to go back. As we walk to the jetty, near the eastern ramparts of the fort, I see a structure with its façade painted brilliant orange and its doors framed in blue. This is the island’s Vetoba or Vetal temple. The Konkan Kolis worship Vetal, the god of ghosts.

As the yacht takes me back to Mumbai, the light fades. In the main channel a huge container ship placidly voyages towards Nava Shewa. It seems almost unmoving. As if a black wall of waves has risen from the seabed to anchor there till eternity. Is this why Kanhoji Angre’s people still appease ghosts?

The writer is a photography and classical music enthusiast.

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Printable version | Jul 25, 2021 8:05:48 PM |

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