Command of the Coast: The Mughal Navy and Regional Strategy
Andrew de la Garza
The Indian historian K.M. Panikkar published India and the Indian Ocean: An Essay on the Influence of Sea Power on Indian History in 1945, on the eve of his country's independence. In a conscious imitation of Alfred Thayer Mahan's similarly titled work, he argued that a powerful navy was crucial to the new nation's military and economic well-being. Panikkar summed up his thesis by stating that, "It is an obvious fact to any student of history that India's security lies on the Indian Ocean; that without a well considered and effective naval policy, India's position in the world will be weak, dependent on others and her freedom at the mercy of any country capable of controlling the Indian Ocean. India's future therefore is closely bound up with the strength she is able to develop gradually as a naval power." 1
Four centuries earlier, another rising power in South Asia was faced with similar decisions about building and maintaining a navy. The choices made by the Mughal Empire, however, were shaped by a setting very different from that of the 19th and 20th centuries. The emerging Mughal navy was influenced by a complex web of economic, military, technological and cultural exchange that connected not just the various regions of India but also East and Central Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe. The systems built by the Mughals to manage maritime commerce and warfare are relevant not just to military historians or scholars of South Asia and the Indian Ocean World—they are important for any student of World History.
For much of its history India possessed many of the elements needed to transform this injunction into reality. It had numerous thriving ports, a sizeable pool of skilled sailors and longstanding traditions of commerce and seamanship. There were many shipbuilding centers that produced capable and efficient vessels in great numbers. The country's inherent wealth was sufficient to fund any aspiring king's or minister's grandest naval ambitions. Moreover the Indian subcontinent was in a strategic position, set astride the overland trade routes and shipping lanes that linked the Middle East and Africa with Southeast Asia and China.
Despite these advantages pre-modern South Asia produced relatively few naval powers of note. "Blue water" fleets capable of projecting power far afield were especially uncommon. There were exceptions, however, to this pattern. One of the most formidable navies of pre-colonial India was that fielded by the Mughal Empire. The Mughal navy proved to be very effective in protecting the interests and enlarging the boundaries of the state, but it achieved these goals in a manner much different than that proposed by Panikkar or Mahan. Instead of pursuing the far reaching "command of the seas" so coveted by Northern European nations it established "command of the coast," a system more reminiscent of the navies of the early modern Mediterranean powers. The emphasis was on littoral and riverine warfare. Fleets of war galleys were the primary striking force. The Mughals focused on points instead of lines, controlling ports, fortresses and other strategic locations instead of patrolling the open sea-lanes. Their operations involved close cooperation between ships, land forces and fortifications. While this system might appear regressive or primitive to outside observers—it persisted for a century after the decline of its Mediterranean counterpart—it adequately served the needs of the Mughal state. The Mughals ultimately failed to establish sea power in its modern form, but this lack would not be a deciding factor in the downfall of their Empire.
The years leading up to the rise of the Mughals—the first decades of the 16th century—were a time of transition in the Indian Ocean. The medieval period had been dominated by South Indian naval powers, most notably the Chola Empire based in Tamil Nadu and the kingdom of Sri Vijaya, which arose from Indian colonies in Malaysia and Sumatra. They came as close as any medieval South Asian states to achieving an Atlantic-style command of the ocean. Their fleets controlled commerce and suppressed piracy throughout South and Southeast Asia, raiding and trading from India and Sri Lanka to as far away as Arabia and Vietnam. 2 The decline of these powers after the 14th century left the region wide open. A number of minor states and merchant coalitions—based in Arabia and Indonesia as well as India—competed for Indian Ocean trade. In the absence of a central authority there were few rules. The distinctions between merchantman, man-o-war and pirate were not always clear. Purpose-built warships were rare.
This vacuum would not last long. Vasco da Gama's journey to India in 1498 marked the entry of a new player. The Portuguese upon their arrival had several primary goals—to profit through trade in spices and other precious commodities, to promote Christianity and to suppress Muslim political and economic power. Their presumptive enemies included both the Ottomans and their Arab clients to the west and a number of smaller Indian states that were either ruled by Muslims or bound to them by alliances. The city-state of Calicut, located in present-day Kerala, led the opposition to the interlopers. Its forces clashed with the Portuguese on a number of occasions but were eventually defeated in a major naval battle just outside the city in 1503. This setback led Calicut to enter into an unlikely alliance with the Muslim sultanate of Gujarat and a consortium of Mediterranean powers—including Venetians, Mamluks and Ottomans—interested in preserving existing overland and maritime trade routes to Asia. After some initial success the allied fleet was routed by the Portuguese at the Gujarati port of Diu in 1509. A similar pattern developed in all of these engagements—the larger, more heavily armed European ships were able to frustrate the swarming and boarding tactics of the more numerous Indian vessels. The small, lightly armed indigenous merchantmen that were able to defend themselves capably in the previous "free seas" era were nearly helpless against more specialized gun platforms. This result granted Portugal a large measure of control over Indian Ocean trade and formed the foundation of the first true oceanic empire.3
A new power was also emerging in India's interior. The frontiers of the Mughal Empire would not reach the sea for decades after its foundation in 1526, but the rudiments of a navy would nonetheless emerge very quickly. Huge rivers, including the Indus, the Ganges and their many tributaries, dominate the geography of Northern India. These waterways were ideal avenues for both commerce and warfare. Babur, the first Mughal Emperor, assembled large fleets of boats and small ships—as many as 400 at a time—for his campaigns in the Ganges valley. They were used as both transports for troops and supplies and as gun platforms. Ship- to-ship engagements were rare, but the vessels proved invaluable for amphibious assaults. Babur's forces made several major river crossings under fire, using boats supported by batteries set up on shore. Groups of boats were often assembled into makeshift pontoon bridges or floating gun platforms to support these operations.4
The first true salt water navy was assembled by the Emperor Akbar in the late 16th century after his conquests of Bengal and Gujarat finally provided the Mughals with access to the sea. Yet Akbar did more than just expand the fleet's area of operations—he provided it with a coherent structure. His navy was a dramatic departure from the earlier ad-hoc collections of purchased and requisitioned civilian vessels, which were often assembled and then discarded with each season or campaign. The new organization reflected of Akbar's ongoing program of reform and rationalization, which extended throughout the civil and military institutions of the state. Naval administration is described in detail in the Ain-i-Akbari, a document that served as the official almanac of the early Mughal Empire. That record identifies the navy's four primary objectives—the maintenance of a fleet for both transport and combat, the retention of a corps of skilled seamen, the protection of civilian commerce and the enforcement of tolls and tariffs. There were 12 separate categories for sailors, each with its own pay scale. These included navigators, helmsmen, quartermasters, pursers, gunners and ordinary seamen. Each ship had both an official "captain"—usually a high ranking soldier or civil official—and a sailing master.
The overall organization of the navy closely resembled that of the Mughal army. It was divided into two primary units—a Western fleet based in Gujarat and an Eastern fleet based in Bengal. Each of these was built around a nucleus of ships maintained and manned by the central government. The funds for this "standing navy" came from taxes and tolls on civilian shipping and the proceeds from Crown lands set aside especially for that purpose. As was the case with the army, the highest-ranking officers, or mansabdars, were provided with land grants of their own. They were expected to use their earnings from these properties to buy or build additional ships and crew them with sailors and marines. In times of need these forces might be further supplemented by impressed merchant vessels or ships owned by naval mercenaries.5
Fortunately there was no shortage of ships and experienced seamen in the region. By acquiring Gujarat and Bengal, the Mughals laid claim to two of the primary hubs of shipping and commerce on the subcontinent. As the Empire expanded further south it came into contact with India's other major seafaring centers, located in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The trade networks based in these areas extended from Africa, the Red Sea and Persian Gulf in the west to Indonesia in the east, linking India's economy with those of Europe, the Mediterranean and China. Outgoing products included commodities like fish, grain and textiles as well as luxury goods including spices, sandalwood and precious stones. These items were typically exchanged for hard currency—which was especially important due to the scarcity of precious metal deposits in India. Horses were another coveted import, as the armies of the Mughal Empire and other Indian states were heavily reliant on cavalry.6
Both Muslims and Hindus took part in this trade. There were a number of Hindu sub-castes, or jatis, dedicated to maritime pursuits. These included merchants, shipwrights, fishermen and sailors of all sorts. Many of the Indian Muslim seafaring communities may actually have their origins in such groups. All of these sailors, whatever their faith, were part of the Mughal navy's potential labor market. The naval administration did not discriminate. It accepted any "experienced seamen acquainted with the tides, the depths of the ocean, the time when the several winds blow… familiar with shallows and banks" who were also "hale and strong, a good swimmer, kind hearted, hard working, capable of bearing fatigue and patient." 7 Not only did they recruit Indians of all sorts—they enlisted Persians, Arabs, Africans and Europeans.
Many of these foreigners—especially the Europeans—were essentially highly skilled and highly paid naval mercenaries. There were plenty of competent sailors in India, but the European seamen had much more experience in naval combat—especially combat in an arena dominated by gunpowder weapons. The Mughals employed them as advisors and technicians. They served as master gunners, armorers, carpenters and shipwrights. Their expertise was applied towards improving the quality of ships, equipment and tactics. The Italian adventurer Niccolo Manucci described a presentation of the latest in ship design to the Emperor Aurangzeb. "This order was taken to my countrymen… who made a small ship with its sails and riggings, guns and flags. When it was ready it was launched on a great tank. The king and all the court assembled to behold… The European artillerymen accustomed to navigation went aboard the vessel and caused it to move in all directions by adjusting the sails and working the helm with great dexterity and cleverness. Then as if engaging some other man-of-war, they discharged the cannon, turning in all directions."8
The most famous of the Mughals' "sailors of fortune", however, were not from Europe. They were the Sidis, a collection of Ethiopian mercenaries and military slaves who had originally served in the navies of the Deccan sultanates. Shortly after taking the throne in 1658, Aurangzeb bribed the African admiral Siddi Ambar, previously in the service of the Sultan of Bijapur, into defecting with his entire force. With one stroke the Mughals had acquired a powerful new squadron of war galleys, complete with experienced and highly capable crews. The Sidis became a key element of the Mughal navy's Western fleet and provided invaluable service in the long war with the Marathas.9
As might be expected, the trading ports of Bengal, Gujarat and Kerala were also important centers for shipbuilders. These areas were teeming with eager customers and were also located near forests rich in high-quality timber. Two types of tree were especially popular with Indian shipwrights—teak and its Bengali variant the sundari, which provided a hard, reddish wood similar to mahogany. These native woods were much more durable than European equivalents like oak and pine, in some cases lasting more than four times as long before repair or replacement. Unlike European ships, which were built around a rigid skeleton, most Indian ships were built shell-first, with their planks rabbetted and joined either by stitching or wooden pegs. These fastenings had some advantages over European iron nails—they were flexible, resilient and immune to corrosion. By the 16th century Indian shipwrights also used copper sheathing to protect their hulls from barnacles and shipworms. The inherent durability of indigenous ships made them very popular with foreigners. It became common practice for Western traders and colonists to order vessels from Indian shipyards or build them at their own facilities using local materials.10
Most of the ships produced by these facilities were for private use. Many of the units in the Mughal navy, whether requisitioned or built to order, were unaltered versions of these civilian models. They included the bachari—a fishing trawler—the jung—a merchantman built in the square, compartmented style of a Chinese junk—and the balam—a cargo carrier resembling an oversized sampan. These vessels were useful in a support role, transporting troops and supplies. In many cases naval squadrons were also followed by groups of private merchant vessels that sold them rations and other goods. The Mughals, however, did commission a large number of specialized fighting ships. Many of these were based on Mediterranean and Middle Eastern models and built carvel style, around an internal frame. These avoided the primary disadvantage of the traditional Indian shell-first hull design—a lack of rigidity. Ships of that type could not bear the weight or withstand the recoil from guns that were too large or too numerous. This was especially true in an era when specialized naval gun carriages were not yet in widespread use. Cannon resting on land carriages or simply lashed to the deck transmitted much more of their recoil energy into the body of the ship.
Most of this battle fleet consisted of war galleys. The standard galley type was the jalba or jalliya, which closely resembled a Mediterranean-style galliot. It typically mounted 30 to 40 oars and carried a crew of 60 to 80. The kosa was an Indian galley variant, widely used in Bengal. Kosas were built especially for sprinting, with a long, narrow profile reminiscent of a modern racing shell. Most of these were rather small, crewed by about 40, but there were oversized versions that approached 150 feet in length and carried over 100 men. Khelnas were small scout boats, similar to the European fusta, used for carrying messages and obtaining soundings.
The galley fleet was supported by sailing ships, especially the ghurab. Ghurabs were originally oared vessels—that name was also used to refer to an Arab and North African galley type—but by the 18th century they evolved into 3-masted sailing ships. During the Mughal era that evolution was still underway, and most ships of the type were actually hybrids, powered by both oars and sails. The salb was a pure sailing vessel that resembled a large dhow or caravel. The largest class of sailing vessel, sometimes referred to as the ganj or "treasure" ship, was an armed transport similar in form to the European galleon. The Mughals used these to carry merchandise and Muslim pilgrims to the Middle East. They were the largest vessels in the inventory, averaging about 700 tons displacement, with a few giants in excess of 1500 tons. Unfortunately they shared many of the failings of similar Spanish and Portuguese treasure ships. They were unwieldy compromises between cargo carrier, passenger ship and warship, truly excelling in none of those roles. Over time both the Mughals and private Indian merchants began to experiment with more "modern" European models, blending native and Western shipbuilding techniques. These changes were not always purely functional. Such ships were ideal as blockade-runners and made less attractive targets for Western revenue enforcers or pirates—while flying false colors they were indistinguishable from the vessels of European powers.11
Most Mughal warships—reflecting their extensive use in riverine and littoral operations—were slightly smaller and not quite as heavily armed as their European equivalents. A very large ganj-style ship might carry as many as 60 cannon. A more typical sailing ship was equipped with 10 to 20 guns mounted broadside. Galleys were usually armed with 4 to 8 mostly forward-firing guns. Some of the bigger ships carried cannon as large as 30-pounders, but guns in the 4 to 12 pound range were more common. In addition to their cannon, most vessels mounted a variety of smaller swivel guns and "wall guns" or oversized muskets, which complemented the small arms carried by the sailors and marines. Some ships were also equipped with rockets. Mughal cannon were primarily bronze or brass—cast iron guns were not yet widely available in India. This reliance on more expensive materials was a further check on the armament of their fleet. Ironically the most heavily armed vessels often had the most difficulty in using their weapons effectively. Ships of the ganj class were expected to carry massive loads of cargo and passengers, often leaving little space to properly serve the guns or store extra ammunition.
Small arms, however, were seldom in short supply. The ships tended to carry very large compliments of soldiers and marines relative to their size. These great numbers were consistent with Mughal naval tactics, which emphasized boarding over gunnery. This was not surprising, as many of their battles took place in the close quarters of rivers, estuaries and bays. In such an environment, close cooperation between naval and land forces was essential. Navy vessels often served as transports for infantry, cavalry and even elephants. In amphibious operations they carried men directly into battle. They also provided security and acted as a supply train for troops moving overland along rivers and coastlines. In regions like Bengal—intersected by numerous rivers, estuaries and lakes—it was literally impossible for armies to function without naval support. A number of naval actions—especially galley fights—devolved into "land battles on the water," with thousands of soldiers and sailors fighting from ship to ship. In other instances the fighting took place in bodies of water so confined that sailors continually exchanged artillery and even small arms fire with soldiers on the shore.12
There are few detailed tactical descriptions of Mughal naval battles, but the most common formation appeared to be a double or triple line abreast. The larger, more heavily armed sailing ships formed the vanguard. They attempted to blast holes in the enemy formation, gaps that could be exploited by galleys emerging from the rear ranks. As the enemy lost cohesion the Mughal vessels would swarm over them in a mass melee and boarding action. There were also specialized defensive formations, reminiscent of the wagon laagers often employed by Mughal ground forces. Groups of ships and large rafts were lashed together to form floating forts. Heavy artillery pieces from army siege trains were brought on board the rafts to supplement the ships' existing guns. Wagons lashed to the decks, stacks of crates and bales of straw or cotton formed makeshift battlements. When the platforms were ready, galleys towed them into place. They were used as mobile batteries to support amphibious operations and attack enemy shore installations or to control entrance to friendly rivers or harbors. In confined waterways they could block passage entirely—for this reason they often served as supports for pontoon bridges.
The concept of the portable fort was also applied on land. Mughal squadrons usually carried large complements of laborers and engineers and ample supplies of building materials. These pioneer detachments dredged and deepened channels to allow the safe passage of ships and cleared roads through the wilderness to allow the advance of ground troops. The construction of fortifications, however, was their most important task. Their creations ranged from entrenchments and rudimentary field works to surprisingly elaborate fortresses constructed from earth, mud brick and logs. These emplacements were crucial in consolidating Mughal gains. They provided safe bases for garrison troops once the navy had moved on and they commanded roads, waterways and other strategic points. Hastily built fortifications even provided fire support for warships in some close quarters battles.
The invasion of the kingdom of Arakan is one of the best-documented naval campaigns, providing an excellent demonstration of how all of these elements worked in concert. In December of 1665 Shaista Khan, the Mughal governor of Bengal sent 288 ships and more than 20,000 men east. This force had two objectives—to destroy the bases of pirates and naval mercenaries allied with Arakan and to capture the city of Chittagong, one of the most important trading ports in the region. The naval and land forces advanced in tandem along the coastline of Bengal. The ships deployed pioneers and scouts ahead of the line of march. As the main army moved through the jungle it found a road and a series of temporary fortifications already waiting for it. The Mughals further consolidated their position by seizing and fortifying the islands that guarded the approaches to Chittagong. An Arakan fleet—probably exceeding 200 ships—finally confronted the invasion force as it reached the estuary leading to the city. The first clash was an inconclusive night action. A long-range gunnery duel in poor weather and low visibility led to little damage on either side. At daybreak the Arakan ships broke contact and retreated further up the estuary, where they could fight under the cover of shore batteries. The Mughals pursued. A Mughal officer describes the ensuing fight in his journal:
Next morning the Muslims flying their victorious banners, beating their drums, and sounding their bugles and trumpets advanced towards the enemy, firing guns and in this order: first the salbs, then the ghurabs, and last the jalbas and kosas side by side. The enemy lost all courage and firmness and thought only of flying. They turned the heads of their larger ships away from the imperialists, attached their jalbas to them and began to tow back… fighting during their flight. [Admiral] Ibn Hussain, without throwing away caution or making rash haste, advanced in his previous formation. At last… the enemy entered the mouth of the Karnafuli [estuary], reached the island in mid-stream in front of Chatgaon [Chittagong] fort, and drew up their ships off the bank… The imperial fleet too came to Karnafuli and seized its mouth. On the further side of the Karnafuli, near the mouth and close to the village... the enemy had built three bamboo stockades… and filled them with artillery, many Telingas [mercenary soldiers] and two elephants, in preparation for a fight. When the imperial flotilla entered the mouth… these forts opened fire on them with muskets and guns. Ibn Hussain sent most of his ships up the river and many of the soldiers by the bank, and attacked them. After making some vain effort the garrison of the stockades took to flight. The Mughals burned the forts and returned. Now with a strong heart and good hope, Ibn Hussain dashed upon the enemy's ships… A great fight was fought. Fire was opened from the fort of Chatgaon also. At last the breeze of victory blew… The enemy were vanquished; some of their sailors and soldiers jumped overboard; some remaining in the ships surrendered as prisoners. Most of the former carried off their lives, only some being drowned. Many were slain by the swords, arrows and spears of the victors… Many of the enemy's ships were sunk by the fire or ramming of the Mughal fleet; the rest, 135 ships, were captured by the imperialists.13
The city garrison surrendered two days later and the war ended shortly thereafter. The Battle of Chittagong was one of the largest Early Modern galley battles fought anywhere. It probably involved more than 500 ships. The total number of combatants—both sailors and soldiers—may have exceeded 40,000. The result was decisive. The Mughals acquired a sizeable new territory—what is now the eastern portion of Bangladesh—and a strategic port. Arakan never fully recovered from the destruction of much of its navy and the loss of its primary commercial center. It would never again pose a serious threat to Mughal interests in the region.
Closer to home, the Mughals used large permanent forts to guard their ports and other strategic locations. Most of these facilities were built around existing fortresses constructed out of stone. The more "modern" trace italienne fortifications popular in Europe were never widely adopted in the Empire, but there were concessions to the demands of gunpowder weaponry. Existing forts were retrofitted with ditches, earthworks and defensive gun emplacements. Even before the advent of cannon, however, the region had already undergone a substantial revolution in fortifications, beginning as early as the 14th century, in response to the introduction of both primitive gunpowder bombs and more powerful trebuchets imported from Europe and the Middle East. The resulting structures were massively overbuilt, with walls and foundations much thicker than those of corresponding medieval European castles, defenses that proved to be surprisingly resistant to cannon. Yet there were few Mughal maritime defensive works as large and elaborate as the great fortresses that guarded Corfu and Malta. This omission might suggest a lack of initiative and foresight on the Mughals' part—but there were reasons for their inaction. For most of its existence the Empire never faced a serious threat of invasion from either land or sea. Its armed forces had two significant missions—to expand the borders and to keep the peace within those borders. The greatest potential dangers to their home territory were rebellion and civil war, not the actions of a foreign power. An "obsolete" stone fort was perfectly adequate to repel typical threats—pirates, brigands or local rebels—but at the same time it could not withstand an extended siege against the artillery train of the Imperial army. A brand new Italian-style or Vauban fortress would be more than just an expensive indulgence—it might also be a dangerous temptation for an over-ambitious governor or prince.14
Even without the danger of invasion, the Mughal navy faced a number of strategic challenges. Arabia and East Africa were under the influence of the Ottomans, who for the most part maintained cordial relations with the Mughals. The Safavids, who controlled much of the Persian Gulf region, were more bellicose. They fought a series of border wars with the Mughals along the Afghan frontier, but they posed little threat to the coastline or shipping interests. The Safavid navy was rudimentary at best. The most dangerous adversaries in the south and west were the Deccan Sultanates and later the growing Maratha state, which fielded a formidable fleet under the stewardship of the famous chieftain Sivaji and his successors. During the latter half of the 17th century Maratha raiders menaced the coast from Bombay north to Gujarat, attacking both shipping and shore targets. Mirroring the situation on land, the Mughal navy fought a decades-long war of attrition against this enemy, only gradually gaining the upper hand. The situation along the eastern frontier was more complex. The area between Bengal and Burma was a patchwork of small states, some of which possessed substantial navies of their own. These principalities were often troublesome. They ignored border raiding and piracy based on their territory—or secretly sponsored such activities for their own ends. In successive campaigns from 1610-1612, the Mughals consolidated their control of Bengal by crushing the local monarchs Musa Khan and Pratapaditya. Half a century later they sought to extend their borders even further east, attacking the kingdoms of Ahom and Arakan, located in present day Assam and Burma. Each of these wars saw the extensive use of naval units by both sides, with battles involving hundreds of ships. The region was also an arena for internal conflict. The prince Shah Shuja, one of Aurangzeb's rivals in the 1658 war of succession, used Bengal as his base of operations. He assembled a makeshift fleet there and fought a number of engagements with the Imperial navy, but ultimately his efforts were unsuccessful. After a series of defeats he fled into exile in Arakan.
Relations with European powers were another ongoing concern. The Portuguese had maintained a presence in India for decades by the time the expanding Empire finally reached the sea. They held fortified bases in Bengal and scattered along the west coast from Gujarat to Kerala. Portuguese policy towards the Mughals and other Indian states centered on the control of overseas commerce. In addition to conducting their own trade, they competed with local shipping interests, carrying consignments for Indian merchants in their vessels. They also sought to control the maritime labor market—many Portuguese-flagged ships sailed with Indian crews. Those indigenous carriers that remained in service were required to pay duties and purchase passes, or cartazes, in order to conduct their business abroad. They were also forbidden from trading with any enemy of Portugal. Captains who flaunted these regulations were subject to harsh punishments. The Portuguese lacked the resources to closely monitor all shipping, but the risks involved were sufficiently great to compel compliance—smugglers might lose their cargos, their ships and even their lives.
Initially the Mughal authorities had little choice but to abide by these conditions. Not only did they consent to the extortion of private merchants but they were also forced to make the same payments for the safe passage of state owned vessels. The Mughals had few options—in a conflict over sea lanes, fought in the open ocean, their galley-based navy would be overmatched by heavily armed caravels, carracks and galleons. Attacks on Portuguese trading posts would also be problematic—these facilities were heavily fortified and could be supported indefinitely from the sea. Some local governors and other notables attempted to avoid payments to the Portuguese by building unusually fast and heavily armed merchantmen to serve as blockade runners. This tactic met with mixed results. In most cases simply giving in and buying cartazes was less expensive than the cost of maintaining armed merchant ships and the inevitable losses in both cargos and vessels. The Portuguese were vulnerable, however, when operating close to shore and away from the shelter of friendly fortifications. They were fully aware of this limitation, and they never made any serious effort to restrict the coastal trade between Indian ports.
During the early part of the 17th century two rivals—England and the Netherlands—emerged to contest Portugal's maritime dominance. Sensing an opportunity, the Mughals made overtures to these newcomers. The VOC and the English East India Company offered a number of advantages. Like the Portuguese, they provided goods and transport in direct competition with Indian merchants—but for the most part they did not attempt to impose the same level of surveillance and control over commerce in the region. They also conducted trade much deeper in the Indian hinterlands, where they were reliant on Mughal protection. This exposure afforded the Empire substantial leverage. When the Dutch briefly attempted to impose a Portuguese-style system of restricted passage they were deterred by the threat of a Mughal trade boycott. After 1630 the Emperor Shah Jahan began to aggressively promote English and Dutch interests at the expense of Portugal. He ejected the Portuguese from their bases in Bengal and ordered his navy to harass their shipping. Instead of attacking on the open ocean the Mughal ships lurked in bays, rivers and estuaries. Any Portuguese vessel that ventured into confined waters risked an ambush by galleys and fire ships. In some cases Mughal and English or Dutch ships conducted joint operations, with the Europeans providing escorts for Indian convoys. Shah Jahan also issued letters of marque and reprisal to English captains, authorizing them to attack any Portuguese vessels deemed a threat to Mughal shipping. The Mughals went so far as to issue them extra ships, cannon and ammunition to assist with their convoying and privateering duties.
In the ensuing decades the Portuguese maritime empire declined and the English and Dutch became the preeminent European trading powers in the Indian Ocean. For the most part their relations with the Mughals remained cordial, but there were interruptions to this peace. Disputes between the Europeans and Mughal officials over security, taxation and the terms of trade sometimes turned nasty, and both sides resorted to seizing ships and cargos or holding agents hostage. Most of these conflicts were eventually resolved amicably. In one instance however, a trade dispute led to open war. In the last decades of the 17th century, increasingly frequent attacks by English pirates on Mughal shipping strained relations with the East India Company. The English were unable to suppress the corsairs, but more ominously, "legitimate" British merchants were starting to behave in a way that blurred the distinction between ordinary commerce and piracy. The English East India Company had been granted a monopoly on trade with Asia by the Crown. In accordance with the mercantilist economic policy that was the rule in Europe, the Company attempted to suppress all rivals—unlicensed English traders, other Europeans and any Asians who would do business with these interlopers. The ensuing seizures of ships and cargoes in Indian waters were seen as criminal acts by the Mughals, who from their position atop the commanding heights of the Indian economy had long enforced a policy of free trade. Sir Josiah Child, the East India Company's chief executive, responded to Imperial censure with even greater aggression. He believed that the Company's private army and navy—originally intended for defense against European rivals—were capable of waging open war against the Mughals and forcing them to honor the English trade monopoly. After inconclusive negotiations punctuated by occasional clashes, he declared a state of war with the Empire in 1688. His game plan was very similar to that used with great success by the British against China in the Opium Wars, another conflict over trade a century and a half later. Company squadrons would attack Mughal shipping on the high seas and raid ports and coastal towns while expeditionary forces wreaked havoc inland. Yet a strategy well suited for the technologically superior Western forces of the 19th century did not work so well in this earlier setting. The ensuing conflict, often referred to as "Child's War," lasted almost two years before ending in disaster for England. As expected the English dominated the action on the high seas, severely damaging the Mughal merchant fleet and overwhelming even heavily guarded convoys. But the Mughals, with a navy tailored for littoral warfare, held the advantage inshore. They destroyed the English outposts in Bengal and captured Bombay. In each instance Mughal galleys blocked the approaches, keeping Company ships at bay while ground forces routed the English flying columns and then closed in on their home bases. After the fall of Bombay, surviving company officials were taken into Aurangzeb's presence and forced to beg the Emperor for forgiveness. In 1690 the English, desperate for the resumption of trade, negotiated a treaty that reinstated the status quo ante bellum. This result showed that the balance of power between Europe and Asia had not yet shifted at the end of the 17th century. The Empire was still more than capable of defending its coastline, and there was no Western power that posed even a remote military or political threat.
In 1695 there was another, especially outrageous, incident. A pirate squadron led by the notorious Henry Every captured the Emperor's own armed merchantman Ganj-i-Sawai, kidnapping, torturing and murdering a number of the nobles and wealthy traders onboard. Aurangzeb responded with more sanctions and arrested a number of East India Company officials. This time the English, mindful of earlier events, were extremely zealous in their pursuit of the pirates. Avery was condemned in absentia by a special resolution of Parliament and a massive manhunt was launched. Many of his crew were tracked down and imprisoned or hanged; their captain went into hiding and never sailed again.15
As these crises suggest, piracy was an ongoing problem for the Mughals. Pirates lurked all around the borders of the Empire—in far South India, the Arabian Peninsula, Burma and Indonesia. They included both natives and Europeans. Many of these were true freebooters, acting only on their own behalf. Other professed pirates, however, were actually the agents of hostile governments, which sought to undermine the Mughals or simply profit at their expense. "Plausible deniability" was a concept that existed long before the 20th century. The Burmese kingdom of Arakan was especially notorious for such tactics, supplementing an already sizable regular navy with an irregular force composed of both local tribesmen and renegade Portuguese. These corsairs hunted merchant ships and conducted shore raids, but they were especially notorious as slavers. They shared their plunder—human and otherwise—with the government of Arakan in exchange for safe harbors and logistical support. This policy would eventually backfire. The continued outrages led to a declaration of war by the Mughals—and a crushing defeat for Arakan.16
Piracy from outside of the region posed an even more vexing problem. The late 17th century outbreak of piracy was caused by pirates from North America and the Caribbean who began to operate in the Indian Ocean. These included such infamous buccaneers as Henry Every, Thomas Tew and William Kidd. Their favorite targets were Indian merchantmen, laden with specie on the return leg of trading voyages. Their ships were fast and well armed, and the crews lived by the commerce raider's maxim: "outrun what you can't outfight and outfight what you can't outrun." These pirates were especially frustrating for the Mughals. Forcing a fight with them on advantageous terms was nearly impossible, and their bases were remote—out of range for preemption or retaliation. The Mughals increasingly relied on a convoy system for security. The corsairs responded by joining forces and hunting in squadrons, the most notorious example being the wolf pack that brought down the Ganj-i-Sawai.
This inability to confront pirates at their staging areas in Madagascar and East Africa—much less their home ports in the New World—highlighted the most significant failure of the Mughal navy. It lacked the ability to project power abroad. Unlike its European contemporaries, the Mughal Empire never established a worldwide naval presence. Its strategy was regional, not global. In doctrine, tactics and equipment their navy was more reminiscent of the Mediterranean fleets of the 16th century than the blue water flotillas of Northern Europe. This approach was very successful locally, but it left them at a disadvantage when conducting trade and diplomacy outside of their area.
There are a number of reasons why the Mughal navy never evolved into a high seas fleet on the Atlantic model. The first of these was technological. Indian blast furnaces of this period were inferior to their European counterparts and were incapable of generating the temperatures required to manufacture cast iron cannon in quantity. As John F. Guilmartin observes in Gunpowder and Galleys, the wide availability of inexpensive iron guns was crucial to the development of a more "advanced" European system: "If entire fleets of broadside sailing ships capable of exercising command of the seas in the Mahanian sense could have been built and armed, the situation would have been different. But they could not. Until the advent of cast iron… there were simply not enough cannon available. The expense was too great… command of the sea was not truly possible for a nation which relied solely upon bronze cannon."17
Social and cultural barriers also played a role. The Mughal state was originally an inland empire with its roots in Central Asia. Ships and seamanship were largely unfamiliar to its ruling class of Turks, Persians, Afghans and Rajputs. Sailors and merchants did not occupy a very high status in this society. Many nobles and administrators did profit by sea borne commerce and even held ownership stakes in cargo ships and trading companies, but the people involved in these activities were treated as subordinates and hired hands—albeit well compensated ones. Merchants could amass great fortunes in the Mughal Empire, but there was nothing resembling the politically empowered mercantile elite that existed in the Netherlands and England. As M.N. Pearson notes, "For this militarily oriented elite culturally sanctioned activities were land activities, especially heroic cavalry charges, and more prosaically the struggle to control more land and resources. To quote only one of several contemporary Muslim aphorisms: 'Wars by sea are merchants' affairs and of no concern to the prestige of kings.'"18 As the Empire expanded and reached the sea, the need for a navy became clear. This new institution, however, never became truly independent of the existing military and civil bureaucracy. Its highest-ranking officials—both soldiers and civilians—were landsmen, not professional sailors. Its administration, doctrine and tactics were strongly influenced by those of the army. Ultimately the Mughal navy was an organization designed to support and supplement shore installations and ground forces—not to act independently on the open sea.
In the end, however, there is one overwhelming reason why the Mughal Empire did not build an overseas fleet—such an institution was not necessary to its survival. Mahan describes a number of conditions in which sea power is critical for self-preservation. The first of these is geographic: "When the sea not only borders, or surrounds, but also separates a country into two or more parts, the control of it becomes not only desirable, but vitally necessary. Such a physical condition either gives birth and strength to sea power, or makes the country powerless."19 This was not a concern for the Mughals. They were not confined to an archipelago like Britain or Japan or trapped on a narrow peninsula like Italy. Unlike Portugal or the Netherlands, they were not on a virtual island, with access to the mainland blocked by larger and often hostile neighbors.
Mahan also argues that naval power is crucial for the maintenance of overseas colonies, which provide valuable resources and strategic depth. In the Mughal case there were no obvious avenues for overseas expansion. By the time the Empire reached the sea any nearby potential colonies had already fallen into European spheres of influence. India already had a deep and diverse resource base. The few commodities not available internally—such as horses and precious metals—were easily traded for. The Mughals also had little need for advance bases and a defense in depth. For most of its history the Empire faced no credible threat of invasion. Even the theoretical threats came from the land, not the sea. There had been only one successful seaborne invasion of India in recorded history—the Arab conquest of the Sind in the 8th century—and it only succeeded in defeating a small, weak state occupying a remote corner of South Asia. Not even the most formidable of the contemporary European maritime powers had the logistical resources and sealift capacity to threaten a distant continental power on its home ground.
Another of Mahan's justifications for a powerful navy is the protection of internal sea borne trade in cases when rough terrain, lack of infrastructure or lawlessness made land transport impractical. The Mughals had access to an excellent network of roads, canals and rivers for inland transportation. Their borders were secure and there were relatively few problems with crime or civil unrest. Their coastal and riverine fleets were sufficient to protect their internal maritime commerce. Seagoing squadrons could in theory have been valuable in facilitating the Empire's overseas trade. They might have more effectively protected shipping, suppressed piracy and prevented the imposition of extortionate regulations by Western powers. Yet the Mughals were able to effectively play European powers against one another and use diplomatic and economic pressure to induce Western navies to perform many of these services for them. In the final accounting, when compared to those of the European naval powers, a much smaller portion of the Mughal economy was based on long distance foreign trade by sea as compared to internal production, overland trade and short haul shipping routes. It is questionable whether the Mughals could have recouped the considerable expenses involved in creating a true blue water navy of their own. Such a project would have been a luxury, not a necessity.
Any further development of the Mughal navy was halted by the Empire's decline and fall in the 18th century. Doom came not from the sea but from within. During the reign of Aurangzeb the state would be afflicted by political and economic mismanagement, religious intolerance and a terrible, decades-long war of attrition in the Deccan that drained its treasury, manpower and—most tellingly—the goodwill of its subjects. The borders of the Empire reached their greatest extent under Aurangzeb's rule, but within a few decades of his death in 1707 the state would be torn apart by factionalism, rebellion and the machinations of foreign powers. By the middle of the century it had fragmented into a collection of squabbling successor states—an Empire only in name and easy prey for both regional and European aggressors.
20th century naval theorists like Panikkar argue that sea power in its Mahanian form will be vital in preventing a similar fate for the modern Indian republic. That may be true in the era of mass industry, global commerce and steam and nuclear powered battle fleets. The successes and failures of the Mughal navy, however, do not make a good basis for their arguments. That institution, imperfect as it was, was still quite capable in its limited role and adequately served the essential interests of the state. It was a reasonable and effective solution to the demands of that particular time and place. The absence of sea power in its modern form was not a significant factor in the fall of the Mughal Empire. Even the most formidable of fleets would have done little to prevent that final disaster.
Andrew de la Garza is an Instructor in Asian, Islamic, Military, and World History at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
1 K. M. Panikkar, India and the Indian Ocean: An Essay on the Influence of Sea Power on Indian History (London: Allen & Unwin, 1951), 92.
2 John F. Guilmartin, Galleons and Galleys. London: Cassell & Co., 2002). Guilmartin describes the entry of the Portuguese into the Indian Ocean, along with the technology and weaponry that facilitated their dominance, in Chapter 3 of Galleons and Galleys.
3 Pradeep Barua, The State at War in South Asia (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2005).
Ancient and medieval Indian navies are discussed in Chapter 1 of Barua and Panikkar, India and the Indian Ocean, Chapter 2.
4 Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur, The Baburnama. Trans. Wheeler M. Thackston (New York: Oxford, 1996), 427 – 439.
5 Abu al-Fazl, Ain-I-Akbari, trans. H. Blochmann (New Delhi: Oriental, 1977), 288 – 292. Offers a detailed listing of ranks and duties. Mughal naval administration is discussed at length in Atul Chandra Roy, A History of the Mughal Navy and Naval Warfare (Calcutta: World Press, 1972). See also Jan A. Qaisar, "From Port to Port: Life on Indian Ships in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries," in Panikkar, India and the Indian Ocean, 331 – 347. Qaisar discusses the organization of crews on civilian ships, which did influence the Mughal model.
6 Ashin Das Gupta, The World of the Indian Ocean Merchant, 1500 –1800 (New Delhi: Oxford University, 2001) and M. N. Pearson, "India and the Indian Ocean in the Sixteenth Century," in India and the Indian Ocean, 1500 – 1800, Ashin Das Gupta and M.N. Pearson, eds. (Calcutta: Oxford University, 1987), 71-93. The introduction to the former work and the article by Person in the latter provide an especially good overview.
7 Abu al-Fazl, Ain-I-Akbari, 289.
8 Niccolo Manucci, Memoirs of the Mogul Court, trans. Michael Edwardes (London: Folio, 1957). 47.
9 Roy, A History of the Mughal Navy, describes the naval labor market in Chapter 2; in Chapter 7, he specifically discusses the Sidis and their exploits.
10 See Sinnappah Arasaratnam, Maritime India in the Seventeenth Century (New Delhi: Oxford University, 1994), Chapter 9, and Roy, History of the Mughal Navy, Chapter 4, for a detailed discussion of Indian shipbuilding techniques.
11 Roy, History of the Mughal Navy, and J. Gommans, Mughal Warfare (New York: Routledge, 2002) both make estimates as to the armament of Mughal ships, but there were apparently few detailed contemporary descriptions of this weaponry.
12 Roy History of the Mughal Navy, describes a number of Mughal naval formations and tactics—including the "floating fort"—in Chapter 3. See also, Jadunath Sarkar, Studies in Aurangzib's Reign (London: Sangam Books, 1989), which draws on eyewitness accounts to provide one of the best descriptions of Mughal naval tactics and operations in actual combat. This is especially true of the interaction between naval and ground forces.
13 Sarkar, Studies in Aurangzib's Reign, 143 – 144 (Quoting the journal of Shihabuddin Talish).
14 Gommans, Mughal Warfare discusses Mughal fortifications in Chapter 5. Douglas E. Streusand, The Formation of the Mughal Empire (New Delhi: Oxford University, 1989),
analyzes the effective Mughal monopoly on siege weaponry and its influence on fortifications in Chapter 3.
15 Ongoing relations—of the Mughals, other Indian states and private merchants—with European powers are discussed at length in many of these sources. Perhaps the best detailed narrative can be found in Das Gupta, The World of the Indian Ocean Merchant, Chapters 12 –18. See Chapters 8 and 9 of Burgess for a description of the "pirate round" from North America and the exploits of Every and others.
16 The general problems of piracy are described in Roy, History of the Mughal Navy, Chapter 7 and Arasaratnam, Maritime India in the Seventeenth Century, Chapter 8. Sarkar, Studies in Aurangzib's Reign, provides a detailed account of the corsairs of Arakan—and their role in provoking a disastrous war—in Chapters 12 – 13.
17 Guilmartin, Galleons and Galleys, 280.
18 M. N. Pearson, "India and the Indian Ocean in the Sixteenth Century," 79.
19 Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783. Online: Gutenberg – University of Illinois, 2004.
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