Marathas v/s Portuguese – Vasai , May 1739.

The Marathas , under Chimaji Appa , laid seige to this Portuguese stronghold on the western coast of India during 1737 – 1739 . A resounding victory followed, ensuring that the Maratha empire continued to dominate Maharashtra’s coastline. Another feather in Peshwa Bajirao’s cap. The final celebrated assault on the fort at Vasai happened around 16th of May 1739.

Background : The reasons for the Maratha – Portuguese conflict to break out in the second half of the 1730s.

Primary was the help the Portuguese had given to the Siddi of Janjira some time prior. Also, Peshwa Bajirao wanted to build a  trading post on Salsette Island (Sashti – today’s suburban Mumbai) as per a Treaty signed in 1732 – but had to instead contend with dillydallying on part of Portuguese. Lastly, the Portuguese General Luis Botelho had called Bajirao a ‘nigger’ during one of the negotiations for above trading post.

War breaks out :

The whole campaign happened around what is today’s Mumbai and it’s suburbs, as also the surrounding areas of Belapur , Panvel , Thane , Manor etc . The following map gives idea of forts and ports involved : Various places in and around Mumbai – Fort , Bandra, Versova , Vasai , Badlapur , Thane , Kalyan , Belapur , Uran etc.

This campaign can be divided into two parts – one before Bajirao left to counter the Nizam , and one after he had returned .

Initial attacks of the Marathas :

 

Bajirao’s aim was to capture Salsette Island by attacking the various forts guarding it. With this aim, Chimaji Appa , Bajirao’s younger brother headed towards Kalyan via Badlapur. Then the garrison turned and attacked the fort at Thane. Around the 6th of April 1737 the fort of Thane fell to the Marathas. Parsik hill was captured around same time. Sashti was attacked next , as the Maratha armies fresh from the victory at Thane , poured onto the huge area making up today’s suburban Mumbai . Much of it quickly fell to Chimaji Appa, except the forts at Bandra and Versova – where the British garrison from today’s ‘ Fort’ area aided the Portuguese. A fortified village at Marol was captured by Chimaji Appa. Honaji Balkawde valiantly led attacks to capture Bandra and Versova , but was eventually beaten back. From Sashti , the Maratha armies moved to Belapur and captured the Portuguese fort there. To the north of Vasai , Manor and Arnala were captured. The fort of Dongri on the northern side of Sashti was also taken. ( I believe this is the region identified as ‘ Dongri ‘ in Mira Bhayander today as per google maps. Please correct me if I am wrong on this count. Said Dongri is right on Vasai creek mouth and strategically excellent). Maratha soldiers then began attacking the fort at Vasai. Takmak , Kamandurg and Tandulwadi fell in quick succesion after that. After the rainy season, Shankaraji Pant alongwith Mahadaji Keshav and Krishnaji Shinde attacked and captured Mahim (Thane) as also Kelve and Shirgaon.

Various places involved in the campaign in 1737 / 1738

Portuguese claw back lost ground :

 

In April 1737, the Portuguese Viceroy at Goa sent reinforcements to Sashti. Luis Botelho was removed and Antonio Cardim Froes was appointed in his place. Almost immediately, the Portuguese began gaining back lost ground. The fort at Dongri was recaptured in May 1737 itself. . He also managed to defend the fort at Vasai against some spirited Maratha attacks. Reinforcements arrived from Portugal via Goa enabling Antonio Cardim Froes and Pedro De Mello to recapture Maratha outposts like Mahim and Asheri. Around this time , with the Peshwa’s campaign against the Nizam of Hyderabad in full bloom, Chimaji Appa had to leave the coastal regions of Maharashtra and was instead stationed near the Tapi river. Chimaji Appa’s presence on the Tapi was crucial for preventing Nasir Jang and the Nizam’s army at Hyderabad from marching north. Without a charismatic leader like Chimaji Appa , the Marathas quickly lost ground against the Portuguese ….

Bajirao encircles the Portuguese :

By the end of 1738 , with his campaign against the Nizam ending in a resounding victory, Bajirao turned his attention to the Portuguese. Chimaji Appa was sent to Sashti around Nov 1738 . Malharrao Holkar , Pilaji  Jadhav and Baji Bhivrao accompanied him. Bajirao also sent Shankarji Keshav Phadke with a force of around 18,000 to the Portuguese colony of Daman & Diu to prevent provisions and reinforcements reaching Vasai from the north.Ramoji Shinde was also sent – he captured Nargol , Umbergaon , Dahanu etc. In January of 1739 , Bajirao sent 16,000 troops under Vyankatrao Joshi and Dadajirao Bhave – Nargundkar to Goa to prevent supplies from reaching Vasai from the south.

Maratha campaign begins :

Malharrao Holkar soon reached the fort at Thane while the remaining headed towards Sashti. Cardim Froes, unaware of the large force that had descended onto Mumbai, attacked Thane fort . With the guns being manned by Holkar , a heavy toll was taken of the Portuguese ships . On the 8th of January , Chimaji Appa alongwith Pilaji Jadhav and Shankaraji Phadke captured the fort at Mahim. The fort at Thane was already in their hands . By the middle of the month , outposts at Kelwa and Shirgaon had been taken. Then the Maratha armies consisting of Chimaji Appa , Malharrao Holkar , Ranoji Bhosale , Baji Bhivrao , Yashwantrao Pawar etc laid seige to the fort at Tarapur . Mines were laid at the base of the fort walls and the bastions blown up. Heavy fighting followed in the battle to capture the fort in which Baji Bhivrao Rethrekar was killed . After capturing Tarapur , Chimaji sent a force of around 4,500 to Asheri and captured the place in February of 1739 . To the south , Margao and Rachol in the Portuguese colony of Goa had been captured by Vyankatrao Joshi.

Noose around Vasai tightens

Battle at Vasai ! :

Thus by the start of 1739 , all the Portuguese outposts around the major fort at Vasai had been taken. Their supply routes from the north and south had been blocked and with the Angres manning the seas, even that route was unreliable . Chimaji Appa arrived at Bhadrapur near Vasai in February 1739 . According to a Portuguese account , his forces numbered 40,000 infantry, 25,000 cavalry, and around 4,000 soldeirs trained in laying mines. Plus he had 5,000 camels, 50 elephants etc. More joined from Sashti in the following days , putting the total Maratha troops amassed to take Vasai at close to 1,00,000 . The Portuguese, alarmed at this threat on the horizon, decided to vacate Bandra , Versova and Dongri so as to better defend Vasai. As per orders of the Portuguese Governor, only Vasai , Daman , Diu and Karanja (Uran) were to be defended. These were duly fortified. In March 1739 , Manaji Angre attacked Uran and captured it from the Portuguese. This was followed by easy Maratha victories at Bandra , Versova and Dharavi which the Portuguese garrison had vacated. Manaji Angre joined Chimaji Appa at Vasai after this. Thus by the April of 1739, the noose around Vasai had further tightened. The capture of Thane and Dharavi meant that even small boats could not reach Vasai without being fired upon by Maratha cannons.. Still, General Martinho De Silva wanted to fight a losing battle . Chimaji Appa now decided to bring down the fort of Vasai itself.


The siege begins :

All except Vasai in Maratha hands – including the forts at Bandra , Versova , Dongri , Uran ..
The fort at Vasai is situated on land with the Arabian sea on one side , the Vasai creek on another two sides . The village of Vasai itself and the large Maratha camp at Bhadrapur were to the north . Within the fort itself , the towers of San Sebastion and Remedios faced the Marathas at Bhadrapur. The barracks and everything else was inside , with the main gate facing the Vasai creek. Chimaji Appa began the siege on the 1st of May 1739 by laying 10 mines next to the walls near the tower of Remedios. Maratha soldiers charged into the breach caused by exploding four of them. Almost immedietly they came under fire from Portuguese guns and muskets. Chimaji Appa , Mahlharrao Holkar , Ranoji Shinde and Manaji Angre goaded their contingents to scale the walls throughout the day. Next day on the 2nd of May , the tower of San Sebastion and Remedios were repeatedly attacked . More mines were set off duing the day, causing large breaches in the walls, between the two towers. Around 4,000 Maratha soldiers tried to pour into the fort, but the Portuguese opposition was fierce. They also managed to defend the two towers by lighting firewood etc.

Old drawing of Vasai fort , the towers are towards the village. Courtesy – old photos bombay blogspot

On the 3rd , the tower of San Sebastian was demolished by a Maratha mine. Maratha armies could now easily march into the fort , without the fear of being fired upon from the tower. The encirclement and defeat of the Portuguese was complete. Chimaji Appa decided to settle the war at this point by sending an envoy to the Portuguese . In his letter , he warned them that the entire garrison would be slaughtered and the fort levelleved if the war continued . The Portuguese commander in charge of the fort duly surrendered on the 5th of May 17. On the 23rd of May 1739 , the saffron flag flew atop Vasai .

Effect :

According to the treaty with the Portuguese , the Marathas had aqcuired :

  1. The entire region from Versova to Daman.
  2. Four Portuguese ports
  3. The Island of Salsette or Sashti and Arnala.
  4. 22 forts and 2 hill forts
  5. Eight towns including Vasai.
  6. 350 villages giving annual revenue of 2,50,000 rupees. The Portuguese were left with only Daman , Diu , Chaul and Goa. Bajirao and Chimaji Appa had stamped Maratha authority on the coastal regions of the empire. Having got the better of the Mughals, the Nizam and various zamindars and sundry chieftains across the length and breadth of the country , the Marathas added another feather in their cap by ridding North Konkan and Mumbai of the Portuguese.References : ( * Some names which occur in one book do not in the other – eg Malharrao Holkar , Ranoji Shinde)
    1. Bajirao Peshwa – Outstanding cavalry general – Col (Retd) Palsolkar
    2. Konkan – From Earliest times to 1818 – Dr. VG Khobrekar
    3. Marathyancha Itihas – Vol 2 – Khare & Kulkarni
    ____________________________________________________________ © Aneesh GokhalePublished author of two books –

    1. “ Sahyadris to Hindukush” [ Describes Maratha conquest of northern India , Lahore and Attock]
    2. “ Brahmaputra” – The Story of Lachit Barphukan, Assamese contemporary of Chhatrapati Shivaji.

    He has written articles for various newspapers and magazines and gives public talks on Maratha / Indian history in both English and Marathi. For more of his writing and visit – www. aneeshbooks. wordpress . com (remove spaces) Looking forward to your feedback 🙂

Vasai fort main entrance