Battle Finale -- The Alibag Fort

In Alibag city we looked for a paan shop, and not just any paan shop, for we had a connoisseur among us. At a traffic roundabout we turned left and I drew the car to halt by the side. There was a bustling marketplace around the traffic circle. My friend invested a few glances and concluded that paan shop of our liking eluded us. But I had found something more valuable. It was probably just north of this circle that the large and modern Portuguese army had camped for a few days, three centuries ago, in the Anglo-Portuguese pursuit of a great objective. The objective of controlling Indian coasts un-resisted.

The year was 1721, and it was the 10th day of December. A common threat makes strange bedfellows. The two otherwise European adversaries -- the Portuguese and the English --- pooled their infantries, cavalries, guns and warships with the clear objective of demolishing the Colaba fort – better known to us as the Alibag fort. The Dutch joined them as a distant third. For the Europeans it was not just a question of subduing a last Indian stronghold on the coast (and the only one at sea). It was a question of survival. For, if “Conajee Angria” was not checked, the Europeans would remain only traders, paying taxes for using Indian waters and being forced to pay custom duties once they landed.

Conajee Angria is a distortion of the name Kanhoji Angre. The chief of the Konkan coast had turned the Colaba fort as his capital. Angre acted (though thought nominally so) as admiral to the Maratha Monarch. Angre sacked English ships at regular intervals for not paying marine taxes (dastak). This was a problem for the Europeans, who were lords of the ocean since the end of the fifteenth century. As for Angre’s raids, the recipients were sometimes European merchant ships, sometimes the European naval ships and sometimes it was a formation of both. None were spared. For a while, Angre’s actions seemed par for the course. But all that changed ever since Angre raided armed ships Bombay and Gadolphin in the years 1707 and 1710. The English were seething with anger. The English never quite recovered from the shock. “Angria” had become a forbidden word for the English sailors. It was believed that if you took this name on Indian waters, the ghost pirate Angria would appear in the darkness of night from nowhere and kill every man on board with his crooked blade. For the brave and mighty that follow Angre’s trail, find to their horror that Angria’s ships disappear in the mist wall – into his abode -- the Suvarnadurga – a place beyond mist and beyond horizon. You can follow him through the mist wall at your peril, for no man has ever returned. Suvarnadurga is a distortion of the sea fortress Suvarndurg – the golden fort – 200 km south of Mumbai. (To be fair, this folklore was used collectively for reigns of Kanhoji and SriSumbhaji – Kanhoji’s son, who the Europeans dreaded even more.)

The reputation was formidable and so was the fear. However as a matter of fact, Angre was not a bloodthirsty admiral and killed only in exceptional circumstances. He almost always took people captive, and released them after ship owners paid the tax dues. The English on their part have a nasty habit of coloring history. Every loss in a war is portrayed as a battle of unequals and brushed off. One such occasion was propagating that the Gadolphin was purely a merchant ship with no defenses. That was nonsense. Gadolphin was a navy ship fortified with an array of canons. Another stale style put to ink with regularity was to brand losses as involving a few English merchants that doubled as soldiers. However for every victory, report was of a band of professional English soldiers defeating a vast native army.

Whatever be the motive of colored history, the English ruled Bombay was preparing hard to take on Angria. With a decade in preparation for this ultimate attack on the Colaba Fort, a big number of warships were built at Bombay mostly under the personal supervision of East India Company’s Governor at Bombay, Charles Boone. Another major groundwork for an all-out attack on Angre was branding him a sea pirate, not recognizing him as the legitimate authority of Konkan land and sea. This was in my understanding, principally to keep open the possibility of acquiring official/government help in the form of warships and naval aid from the British Crown. The Europeans engaged in a lot of paperwork and letter writing, trying to establish that the King of Colaba as a sea pirate.

For the Portuguese, the agenda was different. Haunted by their former glory, the erstwhile conquerors of India’s West Coast were now at risk of being marginalized. Two centuries ago they had pressed into Konkan and parts of Malabar like hot knife through butter. They were the solitary power to have hand-held fierce gun power, long before Moguls got them in small quantities. Konkan fell abjectly and its sons were reduced to being targets for shooting practice, bleeding to death everyday, much like the Japanese Rape of Nanking. The invaders harvested our daughters for their nocturnal pleasures. Portugal’s centuries of total control had started crumbling away more than half a century before this attack on Colaba, when Shivaji challenged Bijapur and then Goa. Goa did not fall, but its territories had shrunken to very little. The two major strongholds continued to be Basein (today’s Vasai) and Chaul (today’s Revdanda). Chaul was one of the biggest international trading cities from the time predating the Christ’s birth. Maratha wars had encircled everything around Chaul, creating all the uncertainties that were detrimental to a trading city. But the Portuguese continued to be lords of the sea even in the year 1700, collecting taxes at will, and freighting goods to maintain their clear lead, if not monopoly, on the spice trade. The only other minor force on sea came from the sea citadel of Janjira, manned by a meritocratic order of immigrant Africans. But Janjira was sporadic at best, for it had no friends, no popular support in a land that was not theirs. Janjira would not risk extinction by taking on the Portuguese. The convenient equilibrium had persisted for centuries. For the Portuguese, the equilibrium of power was now upset. Angre demanded taxes from them and seized their ships on non-compliance. This was unthinkable even at the turn of the century (1700). For the Portuguese, it was a matter of survival. The native naval force of Angre needed to be eliminated, else Portuguese would lose more possessions every passing year.

The Dutch had small possessions on the Konkan, but were powerful fighters, highly alert to any moves made by Indians that harmed Dutch interests.

Now the three had come together. A naval fleet had surrounded Alibag Fort from south-west to the north-east. As per the Europeans’ mutual agreement, the naval force was largely supplied by the English and the land forces by the Portuguese. The navy consisted of about dozen large ships with heavy gunpower, something the English had put together assiduously over the preceding decade, for this very attack. There were probably a large number of smaller vessels, making their formation at a further distance, to avoid fury of Alibag Fort’s guns. In all, Alibag’s sea fort was surrounded by ships and boats from all sides except the east.

Standing at the traffic circle in Alibag town of present day, I spent my thoughts on the Portuguese army that had arrived here 291 years ago. They had camped for ten days. The Portuguese had brought in a large and modern army of more than 6000 soldiers, complete with guns, canons, ammunition and tents. Most were white soldiers, but a portion consisted of African soldiers in Portuguese service, probably as slaves. The English army being less than half of that number, camped its forces somewhere half-kilometer south from our present-day location at the traffic roundabout. The combined army of the Europeans was a multiple of Kanhoji’s inside the fort. There was some help from a Detachment of the Maratha army, under General Pilaji Jadhav, numbering 2500 men. Still, much smaller in number. Remember, given the technological advance and superior management, Europeans could swallow our native armies several times their own size. At the battle of Plassey that was over in a single day, the Nawab’s soldiers had outnumbered the English at five to one.

Over the next few minutes, we drove off from the traffic circle towards the sea fortress, hoping to find a paan shop now only on our way back. We came face to face with the promenade along the beach, crowning the walls that protected the land from sea’s encroachment. There lay an open ground to our right, where we could easily find a parking space. We stood exactly east of the sea fortress now, the land side, which was occupied by the Euroepan armies, with the remaining sides being blocked by ships.

The special thing about the fort is that the sea recedes at low tide post-monsoon, providing a walkthrough to the sea fortress from the land side. This window of access is available every day for a few hours. This was a matter of strength for the fort, as well as its greatest weakness. Late in the afternoon, we had chosen our visit to coincide with the low tide. It was now possible to walk there. It had been a long day already and given my general laziness, I was at loath to walk. So we took a horse-cart instead. The horse-carts had queued up in good number and one had to avail them from the formal queue. There was to be no bargain and each passenger was to be to be charged 100 rupees. The twin-horse driven cart got us at the fort’s entrance speedily. Once there, the horse man set us a time limit. Water would start rising after 5.30, he informed us. In the same breath he warned us that he would leave us to spend the night inside the medieval fort, should we not return in time.

The fort is made of large and solid rocks. The sea forts like these predate the ornate aesthetic of the Mughal era, dating back to an era where instability was order of the day and rebellions many. Authority was hard to enforce and challengers plenty. The Ahmedashahis who ruled the north of Deccan struggled to consolidate power and their rule in far flung areas was often punctuated by invasions from Bijapur or Golkonda. Biggest challenge however lay from Muslim factions within the court – a threat that prompted the Ahmedshahis to nurture Hindu contingents. The calm open sea at Alibag fort has witnessed many wars and lived under constant stresses of preying eyes from the land and ocean. That explained the hard rock build of the fort. My friend asked me about the fort’s origins. It was built by BIjapur, later won by Shivaji, I misinformed him. Next day as I sipped coffee quietly in office, I recollected that the Colaba (Alibag) fort was the last fort built by Shivaji. Why did I make that mistake, I thought. As I compared photographs of various sea fortresses of Konkan, shot over the years, I found reasons to excuse myself. The Colaba fort looked remarkably similar to the ones built by Bijapur (later won by Shivaji), such as the Angre “abode” Suvarndurg. While Suvarndurg was built with Bijapur money and diktat, its architects and engineers were very much the sons of Konkan. The very same people also built the Colaba fort. It is therefore not wholly surprising that the Bijapur-built Suvarndurg looks identical to the Maratha-built Colaba. According to the late Manohar Malgonkar (noted historical writer on war and warfare), Colaba draws its name from its location. Kul means rock and aap means water. The rocky mass of Colaba Fort was therefore Kul-aap, distorted to Kulab and then to Colaba.

Kanhoji Angre was reported to be calm and composed even when faced with the biggest and the most sophisticated European force ever seen on Indian Territory. The English ships consisted of the largest ships such as the Victory (24 canons) to ship Leopard (6 canons). The English armada was led by Commodore Matthew, from his flagship the Lion. It was the morning of 24th December, the Christmas Eve. The English vessels, more than 50 in number, had covered the entire sea side from south to the north, forming a semi-circle. The English canons atop the Company’s ships spat fire all day, preventing Angre’s Maratha warships from other bases to come to Colaba’s aid, probably even damaging some. The Company canons also kept firing on the fort. The fort must have trembled under constant firepower, but it is unlikely that Kanhoji Angre would have wasted his gunpowder on ships anchored far away. The western side gate where we later photographed ourselves must have been the most dangerous place to be standing in --- being in direct line of fire.

Functionality dominates the Alibag fort. But it seemed to be in much better condition than the original Angre bastion of Suvarndurg. While the latter was reduced to a rubble during the British bombing of the fort in 1850s, the Alibag Fort has some parts still standing. As we entered through the gate – a gate that the Portuguese and the British had dreamed of opening -- we found ourselves in a wide passage guarded by walls on both sides and clear sky over it. The passage curved sharply to left and brought us very much inside the fort. We found ourselves standing at a corner where two walls of the fort formed a right angle, and next to what looked like a very old well. Yes, a sweet water well in the sea! Using the age-old pulley system, buckets full of water were being drawn out for consumption. The walls were those that guarded the fort from sea waters, wind and enemy – from land or sea, depending on the time of the day. We climbed atop the formidable walls that had long, running parapets on them. We found two tiny canons positioned on one of the fort’s 17 bastions. I touched the canons, trying to feel their weight. The tiny canons seemed very heavy. These canons were most certainly of Indian origin, lacking any mobility component of their own. On my way back though, I found the canons juxtaposed. The canons were found by overenthusiastic men, I thought. Further up and towards the north-western end of the fort, we found ourselves at the highest remaining scalable part of the parapet, overlooking the wide open sea. This end of the parapet, hosted two largish canons with narrow mouths. My military knowledge is too limited and could not tell if these canons posed a threat to the English ships that were anchored to the southwest in the battle of 1721. But surely these canons could keep ships from veering very close to the fort. One thing could be said with reasonable confidence: that the canons were distinctly English. Were these the ones that Kanhoji procured from the English earlier and turned it on them? Or were these the trophies from the English rout at his gates? (very unlikely, given the fact that these goliaths could not have been dragged through the sandy beach). A third possibility could be that this was the war machinery for Sri Sumbhaji (Kanhoji’s great warrior son). Under open skies, the rusting canons sit majestically facing the west, as if waiting to pour their gunfire on the huge English armada that covered vision in every direction in the ocean.

To the southwest of the sweet water well, lay much of the fort. As we walked along, there lay massive remains to our left, in the form of vegetation interspersed with debris. To the right, lower half of walls of the ground floor of a building remained, with nothing in it. Stone/cement floor in it (if original and not ASI built) is testimony that the building probably housed people. The building must have been more than one floor vertically, given the limited space within the fort and the need to maintain large troops inside. Then there was the Angre household too. Did they stay here? One of the fallen buildings was a huge granary. Further down there is a temple standing. Given the accessibility of the fort by land during certain hours, I imagine it would not have ever been abandoned. As a result the temple thrives. Its build shows old and the new --- pointing to its restoration and rebuilding. Nothing else in the fort seems to have received a reconstruction ever since the Angre days. Opposite the temple is a water reservoir complex. A modest yet beautiful gate leading to what must have once been a splendid reservoir of fresh water amid the endless expanse of brine. The water is now still, green and opaque. The round shaped reservoir has several steps running on its circumference, the topmost and widest of which is intersected by a twin-entrance (on either sides), single window (facing water) dwelling, probably meant for leisure for the noble ladies of Angre family. Tall walls stand firmly behind the circumference, guarding it from outside view. That could mean that it may have also been used as bathing pool for the women’s quarters. Further down after more wild and debris on both sides, we passed through what seemed big for a gate complex with sentry posts on both sides. If it was a guest house, then the guests would have to put up with highly constrained conditions, and in that case a thoroughfare in it seemed bizarre. We stopped there to take photographs. A while later it struck me that this must have been the Naqqarkhana --- the drum house! Naqqar (Nagara in hindi) stands for country drums. As we walked past the Naqqarkhana, we ended up at a large gate which overlooked rocky masses and wet sands some 20-30 feet below. In an hour’s time the sea waters would have risen to hide the masses below and touch the bottom rung of the gate. I thought that this must have been the main gate then, given the Naqqarkhana and one we entered through must be the rear gate – although most sources say the opposite. The rocky mass beneath was then curious. Was it to misguide unsuspecting enemy ships/boats headed for the gate, to crash into these rocks? Or was the rocky mass itself a landing dock?

By afternoon of 24th December 1721, as the tide lowered and the fort’s eastern side was exposed, The East India Company army moved in to storm the fort. The moment had arrived for the Colaba guns, as it fired on the Company’s army. Our tiny canons on the eastern bastions must have had their feast. Fierce battle raged at the spot our horse-cart waited impatiently for our return. The guns took down many Company soldiers. The rising casualty among English soldiers was being watched nervously by the large Portuguese army, which had moved in closer and now camped exactly where my car was parked in a ground. The Portuguese were to enter the battle just when the English would open the fort’s gates. It was at this point in time that Kanhoji Angre sent a word to Maratha General Pilaji Jadhav, stationed north of Alibag, to take the Portueguese by surprise through a full-scale cavalry attack.

In no time, a good number of East India Company soldiers scaled the walls and entered the fort to force open gates. Portuguese army was now ready to charge. Just then, the terrifying war cries of “Har Har Mahadev” was heard in a distance. Before the source of sound could be placed, the cries had become loud enough to a scale of thunder. Pilaji’s Cavalry had arrived. Over the next half hour, the Portuguese were mowed down by Pilaji’s horsemen with their thick and curved swords. Meantime, inside the fort, the English soldiers were being cut piece by piece, not one reaching the gates. By sunset, the remaining soldiers of the East India Company had deserted their ranks and guns and rushed to the ships --- I am sure, promising themselves not to disembark ever on Alibag soil. The remaining Portuguese ran for their base camp, near our present day traffic circle. There were rumours of a very large fleet of Kanhoji Angre coming from Sindhudurg. The battle was over.

This was near sunset for us too. Our horse-cart man was now making the right noises that had got two of us sacred. The thir among us, my friend, whose family had hosted a sumptuous fish and meat lunch earlier in the day, was undeterred. He asserted that we could stay longer. At this point the sacred lot of the two of us ran out of the fort’s gate, hoping that he will follow. As we emerged out of the fort’s gate, I noticed the stretch of land on which the horse-cart was parked. This stretch of non-sandy land was the battleground for a large number of white English soldiers of the East India Company. The elevated piece of land before the gate holds itself up, showing off the trees on its soil like hoisted trophies, even after the salty waters reclaim everything around it. Once the battle was lost, the English abandoned their guns, light canons and few hundred dead buddies --- right on this stretch of land. We soon headed back. I could see the point the horseman was making. Once the water starts rising, it does so in rapid strides. I wished I could stay over here through the twilight and through the moonlit night.

As we reached the ground where my car was parked, we were very close to the twilight. The timing and location could not have been better. Some 291 years ago at the same time at the same place, a giant and aggressing foreign army lay here --- bare and cut open, demolished and defeated. My headache was getting worse and my friend had to take over the wheels, as I treated myself to a paracetamol. As we drove out of the parking ground, I felt the car trampled over a field of dead Portuguese soldiers.

The Alibag fort was the last attack on Kanhoji Angre by the Europeans. The total defeat meant that there was no retaliation from either the East India Company or the Portuguese for the rest of his life, even as Kanhoji went about tormenting European properties at sea in the decades that followed.

It had been a hectic day and we drove back through the dark highways only at modest speeds, discussing history, spirituality and our lives in general. By now I too was desperate for the paan shop. Two and half hours later, at Panvel, we had found our paan shop.


Param said...

i feel like your blogs allow one to travel in space & time at the same time. keep it up...

Unknown said...

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