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Naval Resistance to Britain's Growing Power in India, 1660-1800 Review


Histories of naval combat in the Indian Ocean have often been European-centric, focusing on the interplay between the British, French, Dutch, and Portuguese, with only limited roles allocated to the Indians, or even the Arabs or Ottomans, other than the initial Portuguese arrival in India. Naval Resistance to Britain's Growing Power in India is thus refreshing in offering a history which is anchored in the efforts of the indigenous Indian states to achieve their naval objectives, ranging defending their coasts, enforcing territorial and revenue claims, supporting armies, denying enemy trade, and in the most ambitious proposals, originating from Mysore, dominating the sea and engaging in foreign commerce for their own account. Instead of being simply a history of the European navies in the region, Philip MacDougall's book is an excellent military (although limited mostly to this) history which manages to show the impact, the potential, and the actual experience of the naval conflicted.

Organizationally, the book is largely divided into three sections. The first one covers the initial European expansion into the Indian Ocean, driven by the Portuguese, who fought in pitched battles against the local sultanates and princedoms. Rapidly winning these stand-up battles, even with Ottoman intervention into the region, the local powers sought to respond by adopting a strategy of hit-and-run and guerrilla war tactics, launching raids on isolated Portuguese ships before retiring to the coast. This would succeed in increasing the cost of Portuguese action, but could never hope to fully expell them.


The second section of the book concerns its title - the Marathan Navy of the early and middle 18th century. MacDougall argues against the traditional trope of the Marathan Navy being piratical forces without state direction, and shows that by contrast they were acting as part of a well defined legal perspective which stressed territorial control over the immediate waters of the Marathan state. He continues on by examining the battles, organization of the Marathan navy, and the internal political struggles which were exploited by the British to defeat it.

The final section regards the most ambitious effort by a local state to build up a fleet capable of challenging the European navies: Mysore, under the able leadership of Hyder Ali and the Tipu Sultan, who aimed to build up a conventional fleet capable of meeting the British at sea, to protect international trade and commerce. This fleet was able to at times hold its own at sea in fighting with the British, but the lack of time, coastal fortifications, and defeat on land meant that it was ultimately incapable of gaining command of the sea. In the end, the failure of these Indian efforts would lead the subcontinent vulnerable to complete European colonization.

There are a number of structural limitations to an otherwise splendid volume. It could have covered other areas of naval war in India, being focused above all else on the Malabar Coast and Western India in general. What about the Eastern parts of the continent in the Bay of Bengal? Why are these all but missing in his analysis? Was it that they were simply not included, or did they not possess any equivalent to the Maratha and Mysorean naval efforts?

Perhaps even more important in a missing structural factor, is the commercial one related to the relationship between European trading posts in India and Indian merchants and producers. In Europe, it has been assumed that the merchants were strong backers behind the development of powerful national navies: certainly this was so with the Dutch Republic and the United Kingdom, where the navy was bound up tightly with the protection and promotion of commerce. In contrast, in India, what was the role of the merchants in state policies and what was their relationship to the state navy? Did merchants have any real power in Indian courts to press for the development of naval forces capable of protecting their interests? Did they have a reason to, when European trading companies were coming to their shores to buy their goods in any case? European trading companies also were themselves willing to protect shipping lines, such as the international cooperation to guard the pilgrimage shipping to Mecca for the Mughals during the 1680s. I am quite sure that there have been plentiful books about the political preferences and loyalties of the Indian merchants and their attitudes towards colonialism, which could have been very well integrated and used here.

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There are also some specific wars which do not include sufficient detail. For example, the Dutch-Travancore War included the mildly famous Battle of Colachel, which included a significant naval component in the Travancore blockade of the Dutch position. This could have been a very interesting example of Indian naval power managing to effectively coordinate with land armies against a European enemy.

MacDougall has perhaps a somewhat overly teleological view of the inevitability of Indian colonization. Certainly, European naval dominance made colonization possible, but British colonization of the subcontinent seems to have relied upon a lucky series of breaks in Bengal that were not necessarily inevitable, combined with the temporary disappearance of French power during the French Revolution which left them unable to oppose the British at a crucial period. Certainly, the idea of a European conquest of the sub-continent must have seemed unimaginable to the native rulers - confronted as they were with only small groups of merchants, and not vast hosts of men. Mentality too, is an aspect which could have been covered better - what was the "Hindu" attitude towards the sea? There is a stereotype of Indians in colonial society as fearing and loathing the waves, so much so that Indian sepoys mutinied rather than serve overseas - is that the response of insular soldiers, from the deep interior, and not wiashing to leave their native land, or representative of a broader trend in Indian society? The maritime communities and how they related to the sea, their religion, how ships were manned - these are vital aspects and yet are neglected.

There are fortunately many excellent points. Legal points is one which is particularly well done: the book does an excellent job in showing how the Company attempted to promote a legal view, inherited from the Dutch, which declared that all water was free for commerce as it belonged to no country - which contradicted with both broader European (including British), and Indian, views of territorial waters. MacDougall does brilliant work in showing how these contrasting legal claims between the British and the Maratha led to conflict as Maratha naval commanders attempted to establish their legal perspective which required British ships to purchase passes in their territorial waters, and disagreed with the usage of these passes by third parties. The Company effectively managed to paint these state-backed efforts to control merchant traffic in territorial waters as piratical, a view which has largely entered into historiography.

Maratha naval war against the British is another excellently covered topic, as the book splendidly shows the actions fought between the British and the Marathans, both on the sea and in the various British attempts, sometimes successful, sometimes not, to storm Marathan fortifications and naval bases. This also presents excellent perspectives on the internal Marathan politics which the British were able to exploit, and peculiarities of the regional power structure, such as the Janjira state centered around the fort of the same name, formed by African-descended people. Perhaps comparison could have been drawn to France for the Marathan naval war: reading about the corsairs and state raiding missions on European shipping, it reminds one very much of the exploits of the famous French corsairs such as Duguay Trouin or Jean Bart! Certainly, the book demonstrates that these really were corsairs and not just pirates, and their exploits receive excellent light. The fighting with the Portuguese by Indian states in the beginning of the 16th century is also well covered, showing the guerrilla style warfare on the sea which rapidly was adopted to attempt to harry and attrition Portuguese ships.

Ship design and the support and building is a final brilliant aspect, as Naval Resistance does a very credible job in discussing what types of ships were used by the Indian states, their evolution, construction, design, and how they were created and what sort of support facilities and bases were available to them. There is always room for more detail of course, but for providing a good general overview, it is very well done!

Overall, Naval Resistance to Britain's Growing Power in India provides a superlative examination of a subject which is otherwise mostly uncovered, placing Indian naval activities into their own light and correcting long-present historical myths. It makes for an irreplaceable work to begin a journey of greater research into the subject, or to at least gain a new and valuable perspective on the Indian Ocean and the centuries before British colonization of India. For moving beyond a Eurocentric perspective on naval history, it deserves great accolades.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Ryan C Thomas

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