Kanhoji Angre or Angria is a political hero in his native India. Although some sources claim he was an African Muslim who immigrated to Bombay some time in his youth, possibly with his family, India claims him as their own. Though he is now considered a driving force in India’s effort to keep out British rule, in his own time he was a pirate to the Dutch, Portuguese and particularly the British.
Probably born some time in the late 1660’s, the conflicting stories of his youth eventually land Angria in the village of Harne not far from the city of Mumbai. His father was a commander of ships, and it is thought that Angria probably went to sea at a young age. By 1698, there is documentation that he was the leader of a private navy with a stronghold near Mumbai called Vijayadrug and two other cities on the islands of Khanderi and Underi in the Indian Ocean under his rule. By this time, Angria had grown rich raiding merchantmen of the British and Dutch East India Companies. From his ports he levied taxes, minted coin and participated in mainland politics, backing men he chose to lead the Maratha kingdom in Mumbai with a great deal of success.
Eventually the Shivaji (Emperor) of Maratha began to worry about Angria’s power, which could potentially challenge his own. In a shrewd political move, he made Angria the head of the Maratha Navy in 1707. This gave the pirate leader access to a larger number of galleys and the Shivaji a portion of all prizes taken by Angria. It also stopped Angria’s continued manipulation of the Mumbai political scene and insured the reigning Shivaji his place on his throne.
With his newly sanctioned leadership, Angria mounted raid after raid against the hated Europeans. His forces not only took merchant ships at sea but made quick excursions on land, devastating settlements of the Portuguese and particularly the British. In 1712, he captured one of the greatest prizes of his career: the armed yacht of the head of the British East India Company in Bombay. Named Algerine, possibly because she was a captured Algerian galley refitted for the purposes of Governor William Aislabie, her capture coincided with Angria’s destruction of the East India Company’s warehouses at Karwar. There the superintendant of the docks, Thomas Chown, had been killed and his wife taken prisoner. Angria held the lady on the yacht and demanded ransom for both. In February of 1713, Governor Aislabie caved in. He paid over 50,000 pounds not only for the galley and the Englishwoman but as a tribute to keep Angria’s ship’s off his merchantmen.
Word of this embarrassing affair got back to England and Aislabie was recalled. In December of 1715 the new Governor, Charles Boone, arrived ready to rule Britain’s territories and her wealthy merchant company with an iron fist. His first order of business was to end Angria’s control in the Indian Ocean. Despite the help of a small Royal Navy force, Boone’s attempts to shut down Angria’s operation failed. Angria struck back by torturing and killing British prisoners. Stories of merchant captains being disemboweled or roasted on open grates circulated in the European community.
The battle between Angria and Boone culminated in Angria’s blockade of the port of Mumbai in 1718. With no way for goods to get out or ships to get in, the East India Company lost hundreds of pounds daily. Governor Boone went the way of his successor and ransomed his port for over 8,000 pounds.
At the end of 1721, the British teamed up with the Portuguese in another attempt to shut down Angria. Under the command of Commodore Thomas Matthews, the combined force included five men-of-war and over 6,000 marines and soldiers as well as innumerable sailors. Small melees on shore and at sea continued for two years but Angria’s raids on shipping continued as well. Rumors began to circulate that Matthews was taking bribes from and trading with Angria. The Commodore was recalled, tried and convicted on collusion with pirates in December of 1723. Governor Boone was recalled the same year.
Despite the arrival of a new Governor, the British abandon any attempt to directly assail Angria’s ports. Instead they instituted a system of convoys, grouping their East Indiamen into flotillas of as many as thirty ships and, when at all possible, including an escort of two or more Royal Navy frigates. Angria’s raids continued, although by now the economy of his city states did not depend on prize money. The great Kanhoji Angria, who ruled one of the most successful freebooting enterprises the world has ever seen, died in July of 1729 leaving his empire in tact.
The strong leadership that made the might of Angria possible did not trickle down to Kanhoji’s descendants. Though his direct heir, Sekhoji, managed to keep his father’s legacy together until his own death in 1733, his brothers were not as capable. Sumbhaji and Manaji both claimed to be the rightful heirs of Angria and their continuous infighting made it easy for the British to make inroads into the now defunct Navy of Maratha. In 1756 the last stronghold of Angria, the fortress at Vijayadurg, was destroyed by the British. One of the brothers taken prisoner and the wealth of Angria was carried away to Bombay.
Kanhoji Angria is remembered in India to this day. His tomb in Maharashtra is an attraction for locals and tourists alike and a statue of him stands at the Naval Dockyard in Mumbai. Angria is the perfect example of the all too true chestnut that one man’s pirate is another’s freedom fighter.
Header: Kanjoji Angria and the Shivaji of Mumbai from a 19th century lithograph