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December 10, 2023

Maritime India Under British Rule: A Summary

By Aakanksha Nigam

Before independence, the Indian merchant fleet was composed of both Indian and British-owned ships that were operated by India. The ships of both owners flew the red ensign of the British Merchant Navy. It was the exclusive prerogative of British ships to carry out trade with foreign countries from Indian shores. The Britishers were dominant in the coastal trade as well.

The East India Company came under the British Crown on 01 May 1830 and acquired combatant status. The service was then named the Indian Navy. It was renamed Her Majesty’s Indian Navy in 1858.

It was split into two branches in 1863, the Bombay Marine and the Bengal Marine. The Royal Navy then assumed control of guarding Indian seas.

In 1892, the Royal Indian Marine (RIM) was established. RIM’s responsibilities during World War I included military transportation, lighthouse upkeep, and marine survey. The British government in India drastically cut the size of the Royal Indian Marine shortly after World War I ended in 1918. With its headquarters in Bombay, this Service was renamed the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) on October 2, 1934.

The Naval Headquarters was housed inside the Naval Dockyard at Bombay, with a staff of 16 officers. The RIN had 114 officers and 1,732 agniveers on duty on the day when World War II officially broke out. Since New Delhi served as the main hub for command and control throughout the war, a Naval Liaison officer was placed. He was appointed there in October 1939 to speed up the processing of important documents. It turned out to be equally unsatisfactory, therefore in March 1941, the Naval Headquarters was moved from Bombay to New Delhi.

In order to cooperate with the Royal Navy and take on the task of local naval defence during the first stage of World War II, the Royal Indian Navy maintained a seagoing squadron of six escort vessels. Merchant ships were armed, and new types of ships were added to the fleet to secure the Indian ports and the maritime channels leading to them.

The Royal Navy’s Eastern Fleet was present in the distance, but the RIN was in charge of overseeing local naval defence. The RIN participated in combat operations and provided honourable service in the Bay of Bengal and the Middle East.

Additionally, it had ships that travelled through European seas, including the Atlantic and Mediterranean. The Indian ships actively participated in the capture of Massawa by the Italians. Also the battle against the Italian Navy off the coast of Somaliland during perhaps the most significant and early combat assignment in the Red Sea.

They successfully conduct their operations in the Persian Gulf, where their main responsibilities involved coast patrol and escorting supply ships. Following Japan’s entry into the war, Burmese seas became the RIN’s main area of operation. It participated in patrolling and worked well together during joint operations, exemplifying bravery and skill to the highest degree.

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