Rise of the Marathas
Anglo-Maratha War Struggle for Supremacy :- As the Mughal Empire declined, one of the staunchest and hardiest of the empire’s adversaries, the Marathas, got a chance to rise in power. They controlled a large portion of the country; besides, they also received tributes from areas not directly under their control. By the middle of the eighteenth century, they were in Lahore thinking of becoming rulers of the north Indian empire and in the court of the Mughals playing the role of kingmakers.
Though the Third Battle of Panipat (1761), in which they were defeated by Ahmad Shah Abdali, changed the situation, they regrouped, regained their strength and within a decade achieved a position of power in India.
Bajirao I (1720-40), considered greatest of all the Peshwas, had started a confederacy of prominent Maratha chiefs to manage the rapidly expanding Maratha power, and to some extent appease the kshatriya section of the Marathas (Peshwas were brahmins) led by the senapati Dabodi. Under the arrangement of the Maratha confederacy, each prominent family under a chief was assigned a sphere of influence which
he was supposed to conquer and rule, but in the name of the then Maratha king, Shahu. The Maratha families which emerged prominent were—
- (i) the Gaekwad of Baroda,
- (ii) the Bhonsle of Nagpur,
- (iii) the Holkars of Indore,
- (iv) the Sindhias of Gwalior, and
- (v) the Peshwa of Poona.
The confederacy, under Bajirao I to Madhavrao I worked cordially but the Third Battle of Panipat (1761) changed everything. The defeat at Panipat and later the death of the young Peshwa, Madhavrao I, in 1772, weakened the control of the Peshwas over the confederacy. Though the chiefs of the confederacy united on occasion, as against the British (1775-82), more often they quarrelled among themselves.
Entry of the English into Maratha Politics
The years between the last quarter of the 18th century and the first quarter of the 19th century witnessed the Marathas and the English clashing thrice for political supremacy, with the English emerging victorious in the end. The cause of these conflicts was the inordinate ambition of the English, and the divided house of the Marathas that encouraged the English to hope for success in their venture. The English in Bombay wanted to establish a government on the lines of the arrangement made by Clive in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. So it was a longed-for opportunity for the English when dissensions over a succession divided the Marathas.
First Anglo-Maratha War (1775-82)
After the death of Madhavrao in 1772, his brother Narayanrao succeeded him as the fifth peshwa. However, Narayanrao’s uncle, Raghunathrao, had his nephew assassinated and named himself as the next peshwa, although he was not a legal heir. Narayanrao’s widow, Gangabai, gave birth to a son after her husband’s death. The newborn infant was named ‘Sawai’ (One and a Quarter) Madhavrao and he was legally the next peshwa. Twelve Maratha chiefs (Barabhai), led by Nana Phadnavis, made an effort to name the infant as the new peshwa and
rule for him as regents.
Treaties of Surat and Purandhar Raghunathrao, unwilling to give up his position in power, sought help from the English at Bombay and signed the Treaty of Surat in 1775. Under the treaty, Raghunathrao ceded the territories of Salsette and Bassein to the English along with a portion of the revenues from Surat and Bharuch districts. In return, the English were to provide Raghunathrao with 2,500 soldiers. The British Calcutta Council, on the other side of India, condemned the Treaty of Surat (1775) and sent Colonel Upton to Pune to annul it and make a new treaty (Treaty of Purandhar, 1776) with the regency renouncing Raghunath and promising him a pension. The Bombay government rejected this and gave refuge to Raghunath. In 1777, Nana Phadnavis violated his treaty with the Calcutta Council by granting the French a port on the west coast. The English retaliated by sending a force towards Pune.
Course of War
The English and the Maratha armies met on the outskirts of Pune. Though the Maratha army had a larger number of soldiers than the English, the latter had highly superior ammunition and cannons. However, the Maratha army was commanded by a brilliant general named Mahadji Sindhia (also known as Mahadji Shinde). Mahadji lured the English army into the ghats (mountain passes) near Talegaon and
trapped the English from all sides and attacked the English supply base at Khopali. The Marathas also utilised a scorched earth policy, burning farmland and poisoning wells. As the English began to withdraw to Talegaon, the Marathas attacked, forcing them to retreat to the village of Wadgaon. Here, the English army was surrounded on all sides by the Marathas and cut off from food and water supplies. The English surrendered by mid-January 1779 and signed the Treaty of Wadgaon that forced the Bombay government to relinquish all territories acquired by the English since 1775.
Treaty of Salbai (1782): End of the First Phase of the Struggle Warren Hastings, the Governor-General in Bengal, rejected the Treaty of Wadgaon and sent a large force of soldiers under Colonel Goddard who captured Ahmedabad in February 1779, and Bassein in December 1780. Another Bengal detachment led by Captain Popham captured Gwalior in August 1780. In February 1781 the English, under General
Camac, finally defeated Sindhia at Sipri.
Sindhia proposed a new treaty between the Peshwa and the English, and the Treaty of Salbai was signed in May 1782; it was ratified by Hastings in June 1782 and by Phadnavis in February 1783. The treaty guaranteed peace between the two sides for twenty years. The main provisions of the Treaty of Salbai were:
- (i) Salsette should continue in the possession of the English.
- (ii) The whole of the territory conquered since the Treaty of Purandhar (1776) including Bassein should be restored to the Marathas.
- (iii) In Gujarat, Fateh Singh Gaekwad should remain in possession of the territory which he had before the war and should serve the Peshwa as before.
- (iv) The English should not offer any further support to Raghunathrao and the Peshwa should grant him a maintenance allowance.
- (v) Haidar Ali should return all the territory taken from the English and the Nawab of Arcot.
- (vi) The English should enjoy the privileges at trade as before.
- (vii) The Peshwa should not support any other European nation.
- (viii) The Peshwa and the English should undertake that their several allies should remain at peace with one another.
- (ix) Mahadji Sindhia should be the mutual guarantor for the proper observance of the terms of the treaty.
Second Anglo Maratha War (1803-1805)
The Second Anglo-Maratha war started in circumstances similar to those of the first. After Peshwa Madhavrao Narayan committed suicide in 1795, Bajirao II, the worthless son of Raghunathrao, became the Peshwa. Nana Phadnavis, a bitter foe of Bajirao II, became the chief minister. The dissensions among the Marathas provided the English with an opportunity to intervene in Maratha affairs. The death of Nana Phadnavis in 1800 gave the British an added advantage.
Course of War
On April 1, 1801 the Peshwa brutally murdered the brother of Jaswantrao (also called Yashwantrao by some historians) Holkar, Vithuji. A furious Jaswant arrayed his forces against the combined armies of Sindhia and Bajirao II. The turmoil continued and on October 25, 1802, Jaswant defeated the armies of the Peshwa and Sindhia decisively at Hadapsar near Poona and placed Vinayakrao, son of Amritrao, on the
Peshwa’s seat. A terrified Bajirao II fled to Bassein where, on December 31, 1802, he signed a treaty with the English.
Treaty of Bassein (1802) Under the treaty, the Peshwa agreed:
- (i) to receive from the Company a native infantry (consisting of not less than 6,000 troops), with the usual proportion of field artillery and European artillery men attached, to be permanently stationed in his territories;
- (ii) to cede to the Company territories yielding an income of Rs 26 lakh;
- (iii) to surrender the city of Surat;
- (iv) to give up all claims for chauth on the Nizam’s dominions;
- (v) to accept the Company’s arbitration in all differences between him and the Nizam or the Gaekwad;
- (vi) not to keep in his employment Europeans of any nation at war with the English; and
- (vii) to subject his relations with other states to the control of the English.
Reduced to Vassalage After the Peshwa accepted the subsidiary alliance, Sindhia and Bhonsle attempted to save Maratha independence. But the well prepared and organised army of the English under Arthur Wellesley defeated the combined armies of Sindhia and Bhonsle and forced them to conclude separate subsidiary treaties with the English.
In 1804, Jashwantrao Holkar made an attempt to form a coalition of Indian rulers to fight against the English. But his attempt proved unsuccessful. The Marathas were defeated, reduced to British vassalage and isolated from one another.
- (i) Defeat of Bhonsle (December 17, 1803, Treaty of Devgaon);
- (ii) Defeat of Sindhia (December 30, 1803, Treaty of Surajianjangaon); and
- (iii) Defeat of Holkar (1806, Treaty of Rajpurghat).
Significance of the Treaty of Bassein
Admittedly, the treaty was signed by a Peshwa who lacked political authority, but the gains made by the English were immense. The provision of keeping English troops permanently in Maratha territory was of great strategical benefit. The Company already had troops in Mysore, Hyderabad and Lucknow. The addition of Poona on the list meant that the Company’s troops
were now more evenly spread and could be rushed to any place without much delay in times of need. Though the Treaty of Bassein did not hand over India to the Company on a platter, it was a major development in that direction; the Company was now well placed to expand its areas of influence. In the circumstances, the observation that the treaty “gave the English the key to India,” may be exaggerated, but appears understandable.
Third Anglo-Maratha War (1817-19)
Lord Hastings had the imperialistic design of imposing British paramountcy. By the Charter Act of 1813, the East India Company’s monopoly of trade in China (except tea) ended and hence the company needed more markets.
The Pindaris, made up of many castes and classes, were attached to Maratha armies as mercenaries. When the Marathas became weak, the Pindaris could not get regular employment. As a consequence, they started plundering neighbouring territories, including those of the Company. The English charged the Marathas with giving shelter to the Pindaris. Pindari leaders like Amir Khan and Karim Khan surrendered while Chitu Khan fled into the jungles.
The Treaty of Bassein, described as “a treaty with a cipher (the Peshwa)”, wounded the feelings of the other Maratha leaders. They saw the treaty as an absolute surrender of independence.
Lord Hastings’ actions taken against the Pindaris were seen as a transgression of the sovereignty of the Marathas; they served to once again unite the Maratha confederacy. A repentant Bajirao II made a last bid in 1817 by rallying together the Maratha chiefs against the English in course of the Third Anglo-Maratha War.
Course of War
The Peshwa attacked the British Residency at Poona. Appa Sahib of Nagpur attacked the residency at Nagpur, and the Holkar made preparations for war. But by then the Marathas had lost almost all those elements which are needed for the growth of a power. The political and administrative conditions of all the Maratha states were confused and inefficient. After the death of Jaswantrao Holkar, Tulsi Bai, the Holkar’s favourite mistress, came to the helm of affairs in Poona. Though a clever and intelligent woman, she could not administer the state properly because she was influenced by some unworthy men such as Balram Seth and Amir Khan. The Bhonsle at Nagpur and the Sindhia at Gwalior had also become weak. So the English, striking back vigorously, succeeded in not allowing the Peshwa to exert his authority
again on the Maratha confederacy.
The Peshwa was defeated at Khirki, Bhonsle at Sitabuldi, and Holkar at Mahidpur. Some important treaties were signed. These were:
- June 1817, Treaty of Poona, with Peshwa.
- November 1817, Treaty of Gwalior, with Sindhia.
- January 1818, Treaty of Mandasor, with Holkar.
In June 1818, the Peshwa finally surrendered and the Maratha confederacy was dissolved.
The peshwaship was abolished. Peshwa Bajirao became a British retainer at Bithur near Kanpur. Pratap Singh, a lineal descendant of Shivaji, was made ruler of a small principality, Satara, formed out of the Peshwa’s dominions.
Why the Marathas Lost
There were several reasons for the Marathas’ defeat by the English. The main reasons were as follows.
(i) Inept Leadership The Maratha state was despotic in character. The personality and character of the head of the state had a great bearing on the affairs of the state. But, unfortunately, the later Maratha leaders Bajirao II, Daulatrao Sindhia and Jaswantrao Holkar were worthless and selfish leaders. They were no match for the English officials such as Elphinstone, John Malcolm and Arthur Wellesley (who
later led the English to conquer Napoleon).
(ii) Defective Nature of Maratha State The cohesion of the people of the Maratha state was not organic but artificial and accidental, and hence precarious. There was no effort, right from the days of Shivaji, for a well thought out organised communal improvement, spread of education or unification of the people. The rise of the Maratha state was based on the religio-national movement. This defect of the Maratha state became glaring when they had to contend with a European power organised on the best pattern of the West.
(iii) Loose Political Set-up The Maratha empire was a loose confederation under the leadership of the Chhatrapati and later the Peshwa. Powerful chiefs such as the Gaikwad, the Holkar, the Sindhia and the Bhonsle carved out semi-independent kingdoms for themselves and paid lip service to the authority of the Peshwa. Further, there existed irreconcilable hostility between different units of the confederacy. The Maratha chief often took sides with one or the other. The lack of a cooperative spirit among the Maratha chiefs proved detrimental to the Maratha state.
(iv) Inferior Military System Though full of personal prowess and valour, the Marathas were inferior to the English in organisation of the forces, in war weapons, in disciplined action and in effective leadership. The centrifugal tendencies of divided command accounted for much of the Maratha failures. Treachery in the ranks was instrumental in weakening the Maratha forces. The adoption of the modern techniques of warfare by the Marathas was inadequate. The Marathas neglected the paramount importance of artillery. Though the Poona government set up an artillery department, it hardly functioned effectively.
(v) Unstable Economic Policy The Maratha leadership failed to evolve a stable economic policy to suit the changing needs of time. There were no industries or foreign trade openings. So, the economy of the Maratha was not conducive to a stable political set-up.
(vi) Superior English Diplomacy and Espionage The English had better diplomatic skill to win allies and isolate the enemy. The disunity among the Maratha chiefs simplified the task of the English. Diplomatic superiority enabled the English to take a quick offensive against the target.
Unlike the Marathas’ ignorance and lack of information about their enemy, the English maintained a well-knit spy system to gather knowledge of the potentialities, strengths, weaknesses and military methods of their foes.
(vii) Progressive English Outlook The English were rejuvenated by the forces of Renaissance, emancipating them from the shackles of the Church. They were devoting their energies to scientific inventions, extensive ocean voyages and acquisition of colonies. Indians, on the other hand, were still steeped in medievalism marked by old dogmas and notions. The Maratha leaders paid very little attention to mundane
matters of the state. Insistence on maintenance of traditional social hierarchy based on the dominance of the priestly class made the union of an empire difficult.
In the end, it can be concluded that the English attacked a ‘divided house’ which started crumbling after a few pushes.