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Exploiting the ‘pirate’ label: the story of Kanhoji Angre

Recently I’ve been analysing how the media historically reported piracy. The first comprehensive coverage of piracy was in the 1730s. It turns out it was for a man who was not a pirate at all: Kanhoji Angre. Kanhoji is an early example of an authority using a ‘pirate’ label to justify their foreign policy and economic agenda. Under British law at the time, a pirate was a sea-raider who acted without authority. However, sea-raiders operating under an authority that did not conform to British expectations of it could attract the ‘pirate’ label for resisting or retaliating against British trade ambitions. This practice became significantly more common when the European powers began to realise their colonial expansionist ambitions in the early 19th century.[1]

The Atlantic piracy era, now generally known as the Golden Age of Piracy, came to an end just as newspapers began to proliferate widely in Europe. A handful of reports survive today: the most notable being a brief mention of the execution of William Kidd in 1699. Five years after the demise of the Caribbean pirates, the first report of Kanhoji Angre appeared in the London-based Daily Journal on 9 September 1731. Dated some months earlier, the report introduced Kanhoji as ‘Angria the Malabar Pyrate’.[2] It provided an account from a Captain Mackneall who had unfortunately found himself a prisoner of Kanhoji.

Kanhoji Angre was an Admiral of the Maratha Navy. At the time, the English East India Company were pushing to expand along the Malabar Coast (the western coastline of India). The Maratha Sultanate lay to the north and faced consistent pressures that required a comprehensive defense of its territory. With the Sultan’s authority, Kanhoji began leading agitations against a coalition of enemy forces from 1699. Before long, Angre’s forces controlled the coast from Savantwadi to Bombay, the location of the East India Company’s outpost. By designating Kanhoji’s aggressiveness as piracy, the British showed they rejected the authority imbued on Angre by the Maratha Sultanate. Secondly, applying an individual persona to what was actually a collective group helped obscure the severity of his agitations from the British newspapers’ readership. It also makes no mention that Kanhoji Angre himself had died two years earlier.

‘Angria the Pirate’ was portrayed as quite the tormentor: the writer described how he overpowered the British ships Bombay Galley, Bengali and Victoria Grabb. He continued, ‘if our vessels do not fight with more Caution, this Pyrate will be too many for them, seeing he values not Men, so that he gets the least Purchase.’[3] Five years later, ‘Angria the Pirate’ surfaced again when the British joined forces with the Portuguese and Dutch in another unsuccessful attempt to subdue the Marathan naval forces, now commanded by Kanhoji Angre’s son. Letters to the newspapers showed that skirmishes with ‘Angria the Pirate’ continued well into the 1750s.

‘Angria the Pirate’ was also the subject of the first non-witness-based narrative of alleged piracy published in a newspaper. In 1757, Scots Magazine published an account of the Angre family’s exploits by an unidentified writer. ‘Connagee’, as Kanhoji is referred to, is presented as an outlier among a family of significant influence in the region. According to the writer, the Raja imbued Connagee with resources and military support he used to ‘pirate’ and build his sovereign power and authority.  According to the article, Angre and his descendants violated every treaty they entered into with the English East India Company. To the British, this alone justified the application of the ‘pirate’ label yet in the eyes of their own piracy law at the time, the authority imbued in Kanhoji Angre and his family by the Maratha Empire meant they could not be pirates.[4]

Kanhoji Angre’s exploits were popular and widely printed in their day. Today, Kanhoji is portrayed as a hero to the Indian people. Yet the dominance of British sources of his exploits, despite their inherent bias, causes the ‘pirate’ label to persist.


[1] Early European accounts of predatory maritime activities in the region are steeped in their own religious, economic and political agendas, see Young, Adam J, Contemporary Maritime Piracy in Southeast Asia: History, Causes and Remedies, Maritime Issues and Piracy in Asia (Singapore: ISEAS Publishing, 2007), 27. Also See Tarling, Nicholas, Piracy and Politics in the Malay World: A Study of British Imperialism in 19th Century South-East Asia (Melbourne: FW Cheshire, 1963). Murray, Dian H, Pirates of the South China Coast (California, USA: Stanford University Press, 1987). Warren, James Francis, The Sulu Zone 1768-1898 (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1981).

[2] "News," Daily Journal, 9 September 1731.

[3] Ibid.

[4] See for example, Elliott, Derek L, 'The Pirate and the Colonial Project: Kanhoji Angria,' Dark Matter (2009). A Compendious History of the Indian Wars; with an Account of the Rise, Progress, Strength, and Forces of Angria the Pyrate., (London: T Cooper, 1737). An Authentick and Faithful History of That Arch-Pyrate Tulagee Angria (London: J Cooke, 1756).

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