On 6 June, 1674, at a moment pronounced auspicious by the priests, Shivaji was enthroned at Raigad. For the first time in history, a Maratha was ruling in the land of the Marathas. No one remembered who the last Hindu King was, nor when and where he reigned; neither did they care, on that day. The proclamation made at the coronation described Shivaji’s kingdom as ‘extending up to the limits of the ocean’.

Among those who came to Raigad for the ceremony was Mr Henry Oxinden, leading what is described as an ‘embassy’ sent by the East India Company’s President at Surat. Mr Oxinden brought a dozen shawls and a diamond ring as a gift for Shivaji and stayed on in Raigad three months to conclude a treaty. The Company wanted greater trading facilities: a reduction of customs duty, and the restoration of all their wrecks on the Konkan coast.

‘We asked,’ says James Douglas, ‘what we ourselves had not then the ability to grant in our own kingdoms.’ Mr. Oxinden doggedly stayed on at Raigad all through the suffocating premonsoon heat and then the terrible lash of the early rains, his embassy eating so much goat’s meat as to have alarmed its Muslim butcher. But he got the concessions he wanted.

The reference in the coronation proclamation to the control over the oceans must have caused Mr. Oxinden considerable distress.

None of the other rulers in India had so far shown any interest in the sea. At the same time, Shivaji’s claim was not altogether a flight of fancy in the fourteen years that he had taken to carve out his kingdom, he had also built up a formidable fleet. Indeed, they say that the sea was his first love, dating from the time he spent as a youth in Mahad, near Bombay.

The Portuguese, in Goa, had already taken note of the growing power of Shivaji’s fleet and signed a treaty of friendship with him. The Viceroy had sent his emissary to Shivaji with gifts and had undertaken to supply him with cannons at a fair price in return for a promise that he would not molest their ships.

At the time of his coronation, Shivaji had 57 major ships of war (excluding smaller craft) with a total fighting strength of over 5,000 men. Five years later, there were 66 major ships. Even his expedition to Karwar and Ankola nine years earlier had been mounted with 85 assorted gallivats, each ranging from 30 to 150 tons, and three three-masted ghurabs, with a total fighting strength of 4,000 men – a formidable force even by today’s standards.

This Karwar expedition is notable for two reasons: it did not fight any battles, and it was the only naval expedition of any size that was personally commanded by Shivaji. It is said that Shivaji’s ship was blown off-course by an unseasonable gale which he took to be a warning from the gods. He was also a very bad sailor and is said to have suffered miserably from sea-sickness.

The main object of the Karwar expedition was almost certainly not territorial gain or plunder, and it cautiously avoided the Portuguese coast. Shivaji’s fleet was barely five years a-building, raised from scratch. It was now being given its trial run; the ships and their commanders and men were being put through their paces much as they do with newly fitted-out ships to this day.

Once again, in 1670, the fleet went out to ‘show the flag’, and caused the English at Bombay many anxious moments. They had convinced themselves that Shivaji was mounting a combined operation against Surat. The fleet sailed past Bombay, its every move watched by the English with bated breath, but turned back without firing a shot. It was only then realized that this too was a full-dress rehearsal and a flagshowing voyage of the coast.

Shivaji’s military genius was far ahead of the tactics understood in those days. Shivaji was unquestionably the first ruler in India to have realised the need for protecting the coast.

His ships gradually began to patrol the coast in increasing numbers, ‘defying the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Siddies, and the English and (in all) twenty-seven hostile powers; living on the tributes offered by the people along the coast and collecting for the King, rations ... gold ... and other tribute. In this manner, it soon came to be regarded as a formidable fighting force, a veritable army upon the high seas.’

Side by side with the development of the fleet, Shivaji carried out a systematic campaign to capture the forts along the coast and to build up fortifications at strategic points. He collected around him hand-picked men who might, in today’s phraseology, be described as ‘technicians’: engineers, shipwrights, workers in brass and lead, gunsmiths. There were Muslim workers in his service, as indeed, Portuguese, French, and Dutch.

In all, Shivaji built thirteen new sea-side forts along the Konkan coast, and fortified and improved many others. The hulks are still there, with great gaping holes in their sides. Perhaps the best preserved is Sindhu-durg, built on an island off Malwan, earmarked but never destined to become the headquarters of the Maratha naval force. Thirty-two flags used to wave there over as many bastions; today it stands a sullen sentry in dented armour, forgotten at his post.

You can go all around Sindhu-durg and still miss the entrance gate, for it is concealed in many folds of walls which are miraculously preserved, as though the daily prayers chanted by the descendants of the priests originally appointed by Shivaji to ensure that ‘the sea should not encroach upon its walls, nor should an enemy prevail,’ still retain their efficacy. A footprint of Shivaji, implausibly large, is still worshipped in Sindhu-durg, the Fort of the Ocean.

In 1679, Shivaji took over the island of Khanderi close to Bombay, and had it fortified in the teeth of the strongest opposition by the East India Company.

The Company sought the help of the Siddy of Janjira in an effort to oust the Marathas from Khanderi, but the Siddy double-crossed his allies and himself went and occupied the adjoining island of Underi, which is said to have caused the English even more distress than the occupation of Khanderi by Shivaji. For more than a hundred years, Khanderi remained with the Marathas, although the very next year the Siddy sent a raiding force to Khanderi and brought back to Bombay as a peace-offering to the Company basket-loads of human heads to display in the streets. He was only prevented from putting them up on poles in the streets by the horrified protests of the Company’s Governor.

Perhaps the last sea-side fort that Shivaji built was on a rocky out-crop off Alibag, twenty miles south of Bombay. Hitherto, this small island had, for many years, contained a minor outpost of the Maratha forces. Now it was to be converted into an impregnable, self-contained, fortress with numerous ‘sweet-water’ tanks and with its own ship-building yard capable of holding out for long periods without outside help. Since the island was nothing more than a vast, bare rock (kul) surrounded by water (aap), the new fortress came to be called Kul-aap, a name which, even before the fort was completed, was transformed by the people into the much simpler ‘Kulaba’ or ‘Colaba’.

In years to come, the fortress of Colaba became the home and headquarters of successive generations of the hereditary naval chiefs of the Maratha Kings, the Angreys. In later years, the family came to be known as the ‘Angreys of Colaba’.

But the Angreys did not have much to do with Colaba until after the turn of the century. Before following up the beginnings of their story, it might be just as well to get some idea of the political background to the career of the first of the Angreys: Kanhoji. In order to get properly oriented, it will be necessary to delve into the history of the Konkan and find answers to the questions that naturally arise. What were the Portuguese doing in the Konkan all those years ago? And the British? Who or what were the Siddies? What were they up to?

Excerpted with permission from ‘The Sea Hawk: Life and Battles of Kanhoji Angrey’, Manohar Malgonkar, HarperCollins.