When Marathas defeated Portuguese : A forgotten story

This is the story of how Marathas defeated Portuguese long before British became powerful in India. Even before the English set foot on shores of India, Portugal had already established a colonial Empire in India. In the 16 th century, Portuguese first established their base in Goa after defeating Bijapur Sultans. During the course of 1530s, they acquired many territories in the northern Konkan. These included Daman, Diu, Salsette, Bombay, Vasai etc. which they acquired from Sultan of Gujarat. Almost all the areas of current Mumbai city were under their control. This was a sizable area which extended more than 100 km along the coast and probably 30-40 km inland. This was called the Northern Province of Portuguese India.

On the high seas, the Portuguese reigned Supreme. Mughal shipping had to take permission from them for trade or even for visiting Mecca. They were infamous for enslaving people travelling in a ship that had not paid them. In their colonies themselves, situation was dire for non-Christians. In 1546, Inquisition was instituted in Portuguese India, on request of Jesuit Missionary Francis Xavier. Hindus, Muslims, Neo-Christians, Protestants, Parsis, Jews etc were persecuted. The Konkani language was outlawed, Hindu temples were destroyed and forced conversions were norm. Such was the legally instituted persecution that only Christian witnesses were admissible in a court of law. Tales of the cruelty perpetrated in the Inquisition reached even Europe and Voltaire wrote about it.

The situation continued, with varying intensity, for the whole duration of Portuguese rule in India. During 17 th century, Portuguese power declined. English and French had also come into India and started military activities along with trading. Mughal Empire was at its peak. Still Portugal held on to Indian possessions. In 18 th century, the situation changed. Mughals were becoming weak and Marathas were rising in Deccan. They had a powerful Navy under Admiral Kanhoji Angre, who had gone against every colonial navy in India and came out undefeated.

Portuguese made the mistake of insulting and angering Bajirao Pehwa. They had aided Siddis of Janjira in their struggle against Marathas. Peshwa decided to teach them a lesson. The Northern State was ruled from the strong fort of Vasai{Bassein/Bacaim}. In 1737, invited by the local populace and having their grouse against Portuguese, Marathas captured Thane and Salsette. Areas like Bandra, Mahim, Versova, Sanjan still remained with Portuguese along with Vasai. There was an interlude as Marathas became busy in the North against Nizam and Mughals. Having defeated the Mughals and Nizam at Bhopal, they turned attention again to Deccan. Portuguese had recaptured some of the forts. Marathas captured them again in first half od 1739. Finally in May 1739, Maratha General Chimnaji Appa, brother of Bajirao Peshwa I, laid siege to Vasai. The outposts around it, like Dharavi, were taken and overland supply lines cutoff. The sea was patrolled by Manaji Angre. The Portuguese decided to defend the castle.

Marathas defeated Portuguese
Where Marathas Defeated Portuguese- Entrance of Vasai fort. Pic by Himanshu Sarpotdar on Flickr

How Marathas defeated Portuguese in Vasai?

Vasai Fort was on land but surrounded from three sides by water. It is bounded on the west by Arabian Sea and on the South and East by Vasai Creek. Marathas attacked from their camp at Bhadrapur in North. Vasai Creek was blockaded and mines were laid under fort walls. The mines detonated and Marathas poured into the fort. Portuguese fought valiantly and had the advantage of better arms. Marathas died in large numbers but they made slow advance. It is recorded that when the tower of Saint Sebastian exploded, the Portuguese lost morale. They surrendered on 16 th of May. All the top generals of Portuguese were dead, so a captain signed instrument of surrender. Chimnaji gave eight days to the Portuguese to leave. Many Hindus who had been forcibly made Catholic were allowed to convert back. This victory was cherished by Marathas for a long time.

The areas around Vasai were finally ceded to English after third Anglo-Maratha War. After independence Jawaharlal Nehru completed the work that Chimnaji had started and Goa was liberated in 1961. In our history, usually we talk about the defeats of Indian powers by colonial Europeans. The real history is complex. Indian powers defeated colonial powers many times in the eighteenth century. From victory of Travancore against Dutch, of Hyder Ali against British, of Marathas against British and Portuguese are some of these forgotten chapters. It is time we remember, recognize and honour them.

Note : This post first appeared in Times of India blog of 16.05.2020. To read my other articles, click here.

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2 Replies to “When Marathas defeated Portuguese : A forgotten story”

  1. Thank you for this very interesting snippet of history. Could you please cite your sources and give me any more so I may research more details.

    1. Dear Jaysin,
      Any history of Bombay province or Deccan will have the details. You can also refer Gazatteer of the Bombay Presidency.

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