The Pirate Angria was in reality Kanhoji Angre, the admiral of the Indian subcontinent’s powerful Maratha Navy. English newspapers reported breathlessly on the movements of ‘Angria, the Indian pirate’ even after he died, and then succeeded by his son, Sekhoji Angre. At times, it was hard to tell whether the reporting was referring to Angre’s ships or actual English pirates and smugglers who were active at the same time.
The Angre Family’s Control
The Mughal emperor Aurangzeb who was much aggrieved by English pirates romancing the Red Sea died in 1707. This event is often taken to mark the original decline of the Mughal empire and the gradual increase of European colonial control.
However, a more immediate effect was the rise in relative prominence of the Maratha empire. Indeed, it was not until the Angre family had lost its naval influence, that the British were able to make significant incursions into Maratha territory.
Angre controlled most of the coastline between Bombay (now Mumbai) and Goa through a combination of fast, well-armed ships, and forts to back them up. By all accounts, he was a highly talented naval tactician. He opposed European powers quite successfully, levying safe conduct fees on merchant ships wanting to trade in or pass through his territory. He was also hard for his own government to control. An army sent to rein in his independent streak in 1713 had no more success than the British East India Company (BEIC) ships he’d cut his teeth on earlier in his career.
Angre and the East India Company
Angre’s attacks on BEIC merchant ships infuriated and frightened the British. In 1737, Clement Downing wrote an Account of the Rise, Progress, Strength and Forces of Angria the Pyrate. According to Clement Downing, Angre advanced from harassing Europeans to full-fledged piracy when, having taken a Portuguese frigate officer rot, he armed the ship and “declared open war with all nations”. It’s the classic language always ascribed to piracy.
In fact, Downing shows in his accounts, the man he calls ‘Angria’ attacking the English, Dutch, and Portuguese ships quite often in the manner of a dominant naval power. Angre makes and even abides by treaties until the Europeans could find “a proper opportunity of making war again”.
Most of Downing’s narrative recounts the battles between East India company ships and Angria’s fleet. In 1712, Angria struck a humiliating blow against the English, when he took the British governor of Bombay’s yacht. Thomas Chown, a passenger on the yacht, who’d been traveling between Bombay and Karwar to try to recover the estate of his wife’s late husband, was killed in the fight. By one account, a cannon took his arm and he bled out. His pregnant wife, Catherine, was captured and held for ransom of 30,000 rupees, promptly paid.
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Angre’s Treatment of Captives
According to Downing, Catherine was not treated well. “The Gentleman who were sent to pay the Ransom were obliged to wrap their Clothes about her, to cover her Nakedness.
Although Downing assures us that she, most courageously withstood all Angria’s base usage, and endured his insults beyond expectation.
The truth of this account is, however, hard to verify. Angre seems to have been eager to pursue a peaceful settlement with the English, and his release of prisoners was unusually rapid. He would’ve had no motivation for mistreating Catherine, not that men necessarily need a reason to mistreat women.
Certainly, though, while men on both sides of an international conflict used her as a symbol, Catherine Chown was no wilting violet. At around age 18, she was already with her second husband. She buried a third, William Gyfford, not many years after her release. And when the East India Company tried to hold her responsible for that husband’s debts, she won over the assistance of a new protector, Commodore Thomas Matthews, who had coincidentally been sent to battle Angre’s fleet. She also counter sued the BEIC and won a settlement of 500 pounds.
Unable to Infiltrate or Break Angre’s Land Bases
To return to Downing’s history, the entire account is just one failure after another. The English are unable to infiltrate or break any of Angre’s land bases, nor do they have any remarkable success fighting him at sea. It ends with the author returning to England and hoping that new ships are being sent after Angria. He writes, “Pray God, give them Success for the future, that by the Conduct of some worthy Gentleman, they may be able to suppress this troublesome Pyrate Angria and his Adherents.”
But when a new leader, Commodore Matthews, was sent to battle Angre’s fleet, he too, had little success, although a plausible case could be made out that he was fundamentally more interested in enriching himself than pirate hunting. He returned home in disgrace in 1723. Self-interest was common enough when it came to the English and India.
Master of the Arabian Sea
One of Downing’s clear motives for writing was to persuade the BEIC to employ him in some capacity, using his expertise on the terrifying Angria and the reasons for the failures against him to make the case.
Again, though, by the time Downing’s work was published in 1737, Angre was resting in peace. Angre, the master of the Arabian Sea, had died in 1729. He certainly left his mark on pirate lore. A half century later, in 1773, Britain’s Lady’s Magazine mentioned Angre’s likeness as one of the standout costumes at a public masquerade, which is more than one can say for any of our other pirates.
Common Questions about Kanhoji Angre
Kanhoji Angre controlled most of the coastline between Bombay and Goa.
Commodore Matthews was sent to battle Angre’s fleet. But, he had little success, although a plausible case could be made out that he was fundamentally more interested in enriching himself than pirate hunting.
One of Clement Downing’s clear motives for writing was to persuade the BEIC to employ him in some capacity, using his expertise on the terrifying Angria and the reasons for the failures against him to make the case.