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A History of the Maratha Navy and Merchant Ships Review


A History of the Maratha Navy and Merchant Ships by B.K Apte has a wealth of historical details, but it is let down by the poor quality standards of the book, with many errors and mistakes in English, and a difficult style which often plods and lacks for focus. It makes for a good book to add additional detail to the subject, but a very general history or introduction.

It cannot be overestimated just how many small, but petty and annoying errors of English are present in the book. Seemingly every page has some phrase which is at least awkwardly rendered, a misspelling, an overly literary “calque” from %arathi, or an incorrectly rendered word. Nowhere does this make the book incomprehensible, but it often makes it supremely frustrating to read!

Beyond what is directly wrong, there is also the problem of the author’s style: like many older historical texts, he has an unfortunately tendency to focus on historical minutiae of borders and state changes, with little relevance to the overall theme of the book. And indeed, despite being about the Marathas, B.K Apte’s book’s focus remounts to the hazy days of antiquity, excessively broadening the focus of the book for little gain. For a Western reader (and I presume that a Western reader was at least in part his target audience given that the book was written in English rather than in an Indian language such as Hindi, even if English knowledge is of course, near universal among the Indian elite), it is extremely hard to know what parts of the continent and what cities he is referring to without maps, which are not given alongside the subjects he is discussing.

While there is a decent amount of detail on the ships, equipment, and some of the support personnel on the fleet, there is nothing for a truly detailed and incisive examination of the make up and sociological profile of the navy - nothing like say, James Pritchard’s excellent “Administration of Louis XIV’s Navy, 1748-1762,” which has a great section on the French fleet’s sailors, and officers. Who were the men who commanded the Marathan fleet? Some of the privileges and attributes of the admiralty, such as the right to beached merchant ships, is mentioned, but the actual men of the fleet are essentially ignored.

Neither does funding, organization, and bases/support facilities come into into play. For a navy which focused so much it seems on raiding and commerce warfare, how was profit apportioned, and was there anything equivalent to the joint-stock financing of French raiding expeditions under the rule of Louis XIV? The level of details goes at most to noting that the Marathan naval commanders were impressed by the idea of using a wheel-and-crane arrangement to load their ships more quickly.

Despite these crucial omissions, the book does have real strengths. It has a very good description of the ships of the fleet, although there could have been further detail of the operational capacities. Furthermore, it has a listing of fleet units which is very useful too, showing what the strength of the Marathan navy was. While the discussion on “feudalism” and the internal divisions of the Maratha power base is hard to follow at times, it does do a good job of what seems to have been the principal weakness of the Maratha fleet, its lack of unity, and the decentralized nature of Marathan power structure. There is also some discussion of spirituality of the sailors of the fleet and their shrines, rituals, and beliefs, which is always interesting to read since there is a vague belief of Hinduism's hostility to the sea present in many older works.

A decent companion to more polished works such as Naval resistance to Britain's Growing Power in India, 1660-1800: The Saffron Banner and the Tiger of Mysore, but not to be read on its own, A History of the Maratha Navy and Merchant Ships lacks the polishing and correct focus to make it into a star on the subject.

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