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The Mughal Siege of British Bombay

Siddhant A. Joshi | University of Warwick

The year is 1689. The Mughal Empire, led by Emperor Aurungzeb, is the master of all India and is protected by one of the finest military forces in the world. The bulk of their massive army is bogged down in the hills of the Deccan, fighting the nascent Maratha State, and the Emperor’s attention is taken fully by this conflict – as a Maratha victory would destroy Mughal domination in the Deccan. Simultaneously, the Mughals are engaged— half-heartedly— in a war of commerce with a group of foreign merchants, the East India Company. The East India Company, controlling a mercenary Indian army supported by ships of the Royal Navy, has been harassing Mughal merchant ships, pilgrimage routes and trade caravans with a view to negotiating a better trade agreement with the Mughal Emperor. In 1689, however, the East India Company makes a mistake that could easily see them ousted from India, deposits at their doorstep a very real existential threat, and brings a force of 14,000 Mughal soldiers supported by hundreds of artillery guns to the gates of Bombay. The Siege of Bombay has begun.

Map of the Deccan Plateau
The highlighted area is the Deccan Plateau

The Mughal Army, 1526-1689

What would unfold between 1689 and 1690 would not have been possible without the Mughal “Military Revolution”. To understand the scale of the army that the British decided to take on in 1689, we must first travel back to 1526 and the army of the first Mughal, Emperor Babur. When Babur, then an invading Timurid warlord, rode into the plains of North India and crushed the once-mighty Delhi Sultanate in a single battle at the First Battle of Panipat in 1526, he introduced a new technology in India – the firearm. Babur’s firearms, from primitive matchlocks to field artillery to siege mortars, were designed and manufactured by Ottoman engineers, and it is likely that he had one of the first armies in the world to be entirely comprised of gunpowder units. It was this army that batted away all opposition in medieval North India and paved the way for the domination of the Mughal Empire.

The Mughal Army of Babur and his son and successor, Humayun, were not very different from each other. Both numbered about 25,000— split equally between cavalry and infantry. Both were similarly equipped with early Ottoman weaponry: the Tofi-Firangi (Foreign Cannon) field artillery gun, the tufeng matchlock rifle and, most importantly, the zarbozan; a light artillery gun mounted on a swivel that could be fired from horseback or camel-back but was most commonly mounted on specially designed carriages. With these weapons, the early Mughal Army outgunned, outranged and outclassed the horse-archer and light cavalry armies of North India. The zarbozan fired a projectile of similar weight to the one fired by the tofi-firangi at over 5km – a range that no contemporary weapon could hope to match. These were employed in great number by Babur and his son, with Humayun maintaining a force of 700 zarbozans. By comparison, Ibrahim Lodi – the last Sultan of Delhi – fielded an army that would have been formidable in the 1450s. He had no artillery of any form, and his cavalry, all of which wore light armour and formed the bulk of his army, was especially vulnerable to the cannons brought by Babur. The sound produced by the terrific cannonade shocked Ibrahim Lodi’s horses and elephants, and very quickly his army was routed.

The Tofi-Firangi as depicted in the Baburnama
The Tofi-Firangi as depicted in the Baburnama (The History of Babur)

By the time Emperor Akbar, known today as Akbar the Great, took the throne in 1556, the army he inherited— essentially the same as the army commanded by his grandfather— was becoming quickly outdated. Under him, the matchlocks were replaced with muskets, better and more artillery guns were purchased from the Portuguese gunsmiths at Calicut, new training regimens were created, and new doctrines were practised. But his greatest achievement was his complete reorganisation of the army with the introduction of the Mansabadar system. The Mansabadar system was an early system of military ranks that defined how a commanding officer could hire/recruit soldiers, how he was required to train them and what was expected of them. Essentially, this meant that the Mughal Army was now a professional standing army – with soldiers paid regularly (some accounts say every month, others say weekly), trained regularly and in service throughout the year. Though the Emperor’s household troops (those under the direct command of the Emperor) remained small, the total size of the Mughal Army by the time of Akbar’s death had swelled to about 300,000 professional soldiers, which could be padded up to 900,000 by ranks of conscripts.

Ceremonial weapons.
A drawing of ceremonial Mughal weapons produced in the 1800s. Seen in the centre is a ceremonial matchlock (tufeng) from Babur’s time.

These men were not loosely organised either. Accounts from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries show that the Mughals had initiated a battalion or regiment system (though, obviously, not as refined as later systems), and the Mughal Army had a very clear chain of command. The largest single  unit of the Mughal Army was that of the field army, numbering 50,000 musket-armed cavalry, 10,000 musketeers and between 200-400 artillery guns of various designations. Under Akbar’s successors, the Mughal Army would grow larger still.

Map of Mughal Empire
The Mughal Empire at its territorial zenith under Aurungzeb

It reached the zenith of its power under Emperor Aurungzeb— perhaps the most famous Mughal Emperor. By the time of the Second Mughal-Maratha War (1680-1707), the Mughal Army under Aurungzeb had a professional force of 500,000 troops— including cavalry and elephants— padded by another 400,000 bandukchi (essentially conscripts). The reign of Aurungzeb was defined by constant conflict on the fringes of the empire and the incessant expansion of the empire’s frontiers. By the time Aurungzeb died in 1707, the Mughal Empire stretched from Afghanistan in the north to the tip of India in the south, from the frontiers of Gujarat in the West to Burma in the east. It would take decades after the death of Aurungzeb for this empire to collapse but, in 1689, it was a behemoth of military power. It was this army that the British had decided to antagonise.

British Forces in India in 1689

At the outset of war, the British forces in India were spread throughout India, though chiefly focused on the city of Bombay and the British factory at Madras. The British numbers at Bombay, the focal point of this article, were as follows:


  • ~2,000 Maratha mercenaries

  • ~150 Portuguese mercenaries

  • 150 British infantry

  • About 100-200 cannons

If one is to take on a force of 500,000 professional soldiers, supported by 400,000 conscripts, all armed to the teeth with the latest possible weaponry and supported by thousands of pieces of artillery, it is perhaps a good idea to ensure that one’s forces are at numeric parity with that of the foe. This, it appears, did not occur to the British when, in January of 1689, a force of East India Company ships attacked and seized an unarmed Mughal grain convoy off the coast of Bombay. This grain convoy was carrying food and rations to the Mughal Field Armies in the Deccan, which were busy fighting the Marathas and this impediment to the prosecution of his war Emperor Aurungzeb would not tolerate.

The Course of the Siege

Map of Bombay Archipelago
5 A map of the Bombay Archipelago produced in the 1740s

By February of 1689, Mansabadar (modern equivalent would probably be Major General) Siddi Yakut Khan— an African-origin general serving with the Mughal Army and one of their most talented commanders—had landed a force 14,000 strong on the Bombay archipelago. Within a week, having overcome what little British resistance there was on the islands, they were within artillery range of the British city of Bombay. It is likely that the British prepared to repel the invaders within the confines of the city. However, neither Yakut Khan nor Aurungzeb wanted to capture the city. Instead, the army of Yakut Khan set up camp on Dongri Hill (coincidentally meaning Hill Hill). Here, they would create a dense network of trenches and artillery dugouts by the end of February.

British coastal fort
6 A print showing the British fort at Bombay, late 1600s

Over the next fifteen months, this Mughal force turned Bombay to rubble. Despite accounts by a few British authors, such as John J. Ovington, stating that the defenders of the city repelled multiple Mughal attempts to break through the walls, the Mughals never advanced beyond their camp. Mughal accounts, as well as more accurate British accounts, show that the siege was characterised by constant artillery duels in the first month of fighting, with the infantry rarely ever coming into contact with each other. However, the Mughals had the numerical superiority and, by the end of March, the British artillery had been silenced.

By the end of February, the British had been ousted from the Bombay Archipelago and the small outposts they’d set up throughout were evacuated, with all British forces converging on Bombay to defend the fort and city. Despite this, there was nothing they could have done, and by the time the siege was lifted in 1690, the only structure still standing in Bombay was the fort— all other buildings had been destroyed by the shelling.

According to modern historians’ work, the Bombay Archipelago had a civilian population of roughly 1,000 at the start of the war, though it easily could have been higher. By the time the siege was lifted, only sixty civilians were left alive, and almost every British or mercenary soldier had been killed. The scale of the siege was such that, even in 1710 after the British had put in a lot of time and effort in rebuilding the city, it remained scarred by warfare. A visitor to the city in that year recounts how much of the northern part of the city and island had become a war cemetery, dedicated both to the British and Mughal soldiers who had died fighting in the war.

Across India, British holdings had been seized through overwhelming force by the Mughal Army— from Surat to the west (Gujrat) to Madras to the east (modern-day Chennai). It is a testament to the skill of the British negotiators that they were at all allowed to retain their territories after the cessation of hostilities.


The question of why the East India Company, despite the odds, engaged in this war is beyond the purview of this article— but, in short, they were facing increased pressure from their board of directors to grow their profit margins, and they felt the best way to do it was to engage the Mughals in a war they would not want to fight. The result, it is obvious, was anything but. A victory of this magnitude, while already engaged in a massive war elsewhere on the subcontinent, would not have been possible without the concerted efforts the Mughals had made over the past century and a half to grow and strengthen their army. This model of military governance would be followed by the Marathas, the immediate successors of the Mughal Empire in the domination of India. Despite this, by the late eighteenth century, the Marathas would be on the back foot with an outdated army using outdated technology against the East India Company’s forces— forces that had been shaped by the European military revolution.


Further Reading:

  • J. Gommans, Mughal Warfare: Indian Frontiers and Highroads to Empire 1500-1700 (London: Routledge, 2002)

  • A. D. Garza, The Mughal Empire At War: Babur, Akbar and the Indian Military Revolution, 1500-1605 (London: Routledge, 2016)

  • S. N. Sen, The Military System of the Marathas (Hyderabad: Orient Longmans, 1928)

  • Hunt, Margaret (ed.), Stern, Phillip (ed.), The British East India Company at the Height of Mughal Expansion: A Soldier’s Diary of the 1689 Siege of Bombay (Boston: Bedford/St Martin's, 2015)

Siddhant A. Joshi is an MA student at the University of Warwick. His dissertation focuses on the Mughal Siege of Bombay in 1689 and its immediate consequences for the British. He has previously been published in the Journal Medieval World (‘A Medieval Cold Case: Killing the King of Jerusalem’, Vol. 7, 2023, pp. 34-37). He is the co-founder of and head writer at Easy History ( where he regularly writes about the history of the Mughal Empire as well as that of independent India.


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