Anglo-Maratha Wars: Defining Conflicts of Colonial India

The word "Confederacy" is derived from the Anglo-French word "Confederacie," which means a league or union, whether of states or individuals. After the death of Shivaji in 1680, there was no great leader among the Marathas who could unite them. Sahu, the grandson of Shivaji, was under Mughal custody (between 1689 and 1707), which made him weak, passive, and dependent on others. The emergence of the Peshwa as the 'de facto' ruler is directly linked with the weak character of Sahu. When Balaji Vishwanath served as Peshwa (1713-1720), he made the king a puppet in his hands and made his own post hereditary.

However, the Maratha Confederacy really began during the Peshwaship of Baji Rao I (1720-1740), son of Balaji Vishwanath, when the Maratha empire expanded in North and South India. The Peshwa put large areas under the control of his subordinates, such as Gwalior under Ramoji Sindhia, Baroda under Damaji Gaekwad, Indore under Malhar Rao Holkar, and Nagpur under Raghuji Bhonsle. The Peshwa's seat was at Pune, and Sahu was relegated to being only a nominal king. The confederacy was strictly controlled by the two Peshwas, Baji Rao I (1720-1740) and Balaji Baji Rao (1740-1761). However, the defeat of the Marathas in the Third Battle of Panipat (January 14, 1761) by the Afghan army of Ahmad Shah Abdali made the post of Peshwa very weak. He was now dependent on Phadnis and other Maratha chiefs.

The Maratha Confederacy was basically a system of collecting and distributing the 'dues'. The Maratha Sardars and soldiers were more interested and engaged in these 'dues'. They collected 'Chauth' and 'Sardeshmukhi' from different territories. The records and the distribution of Chauth and Sardeshmukhi were a regular bone of contention among Maratha Sardars and often led to conflict. The internal conflict, jealousies, and rivalries amongst the Maratha Sardars were important reasons for the fall of the Maratha kingdom.

The First Anglo-Maratha War (1775-1782)

The First Anglo-Maratha War started when Raghunath Rao, after killing Peshwa Narayan Rao, claimed the post of Peshwa. But the widow of Narayan Rao gave birth to Madhav Rao Narayan. The Maratha Sardars, led by Nana Phadnis, accepted the minor Madhav Rao Narayan as Peshwa. Raghunath Rao, in search of a friend, concluded a treaty with the English at Surat on March 7, 1775.

Treaty of Surat

Provisions

1. The English agreed to assist Raghunath Rao with a force of 2,500 men.

2. Raghunath Rao agreed to give Salsette and Bassein to the English.

3. The Marathas would not raid into Bengal and Carnatic.

4. As security, Raghunath Rao deposited six lakhs.

5. Some areas of Surat and Bharuch would be given to the English.

6. If Raghunath Rao or Raghoba decided to enter into a pact with Pune, the English would be involved.

The Calcutta Council became more powerful by the Regulating Act of 1773 than the Government of Bombay and Madras. The Council condemned the activities of the Bombay Government as 'dangerous', 'unauthorized', and 'unjust' and rejected the Treaty of Surat. It sent Lieutenant Upton to Pune, who concluded the Treaty of Purandhar on March 1, 1776.

Treaty of Purandhar

Provisions

1. The English and the Marathas would maintain peace.

2. The English East India Company would retain Salsette.

3. Raghunath Rao would go to Gujarat, and Pune would give him Rs. 2,500 per month as pension.

This treaty was not acceptable to the Bombay Government, and Pune was also not showing any interest in its implementation. In the meantime, the American War of Independence started (1776-1781), in which the French supported the Americans against the English. The French, who were old rivals of the English East India Company, came closer to the Pune Darbar. The Court of Directors of the English East India Company was worried about the new political development, so it rejected the Treaty of Purandhar. The Government of Bombay was more than happy, and the Calcutta Council, obviously, felt insulted. The Bombay Government renewed its ties with Raghunath Rao (The Treaty of Surat), and a British troop was sent to Surat (November 1778), but the British troop was defeated, and the Bombay Government was forced to sign the Treaty of Wadgaon (1779) with Pune Durbar.

Treaty of Wadgaon

Provisions

1. The Bombay Government would return all the territories it occupied after 1773 to the Marathas.

2. The Bombay Government would stop the English army coming from Bengal.

3. Sindhia would get some income from Bharuch.

Once again, the treaty created a rift between the Calcutta Government and the Bombay Government. Warren Hastings, the Governor-General (1773-1785), rejected the Convention of Wadgaon. An army, led by Godard, came from Bengal and captured Ahmedabad (February 1780) and Bassein (December 1780). But the English army was defeated at Pune (April 1781). Another British army led by Captain Popham came from Calcutta and won Gwalior (August 3, 1780). Sindhia was also defeated at Sipri (February 16, 1781) and agreed to work as a mediator between the English and the Pune Darbar, resulting in the Treaty of Salbai (May 17, 1782).

Treaty of Salbai

Provisions

1. The British would support Raghunath Rao, but he would get a pension from Pune, the headquarters of the Peshwa.

2. Salsette and Elephanta were given to the English.

3. Sindhia got the land to the west of Yamuna.

4. The Marathas and the English agreed to return the rest of the areas to each other.

The Treaty of Salbai established the status quo. It benefited the Company because they got peace from the Marathas for the next twenty years. They could focus their energy and resources against their bitterest enemy in India, which was Mysore.

The Second Anglo-Maratha War (1803-1806)

The internal conflict of the Maratha Confederacy brought them once again on the verge of war. The Peshwa, Baji Rao II, after killing Bithuji Holkar, the brother of Jaswant Rao Holkar, fled from Pune. Holkar installed Vinayak Rao as Peshwa at Pune. Baji Rao came to Bassein and signed a treaty with the English on December 31, 1802. The Company, which was always in search of such a situation, made the Peshwa virtually a puppet.

Treaty of Bassein

Provisions

1. The English would help Peshwa with 600 troops and artillery.

2. Peshwa agreed to cede, to the Company, territories yielding an income of 26 lakhs of rupees. Territories included Gujarat, south of Tapti, territories between Tapti and Narbada, and some territories near Tungabhadra.

3. Peshwa promised that he would not keep any European in his army other than the English.

4. Peshwa would give up his claim over Surat.

5. Peshwa would not have any foreign relationship with other states without English approval.

6. Peshwa would settle all its disputes, if any, with the Nizam of Hyderabad and Gaekwad of Baroda with the Company's mediation.

The Peshwa, with the help of Arthur Wellesley, entered Pune on May 13, 1803, and captured it. However, the Treaty of Bassein was perceived as a great insult by other Maratha chiefs. Daulat Rao Sindhia and Raghuji Bhonsle joined hands together against the British. Instead of bringing peace, this treaty brought war. The war started in August 1803 from both North and South of the Maratha Kingdom. The Northern Command was led by General Lake, and the Southern Command by Arthur Wellesley. The British started fighting in Gujarat, Bundelkhand, and Orissa. The strategy was to engage all the Maratha chiefs at different places and not allow them to unite. On September 23, 1803, Arthur Wellesley defeated a joint army of Sindhia and Bhonsle at Assaye, near Aurangabad. Gwalior fell on December 15, 1803. In the North, General Lake captured Aligarh in August, Delhi in September, and Agra in October 1803. Sindhia was defeated again at Laswari (November 1803) and lost south of the Chambal river. The English also captured Cuttack and succeeded in Gujarat and Bundelkhand.

This humiliating defeat forced Bhonsle and Sindhia to conclude a similar kind of treaty as signed by the Peshwa. On December 17, 1803, Bhonsle at Dergaon, and on December 30, 1803, Sindhia at Surajarjan Gaon signed the 'Peace Treaty'. Bhonsle gave Cuttack, Balasore, and the western part of the Wardha River to the British. Sindhia gave Jaipur, Jodhpur, north of Gohad, Ahmadnagar, Bharuch, Ajan, and all their territory between Ganga and Yamuna. Both agreed that in resolving their outstanding issues with Nizam and Peshwa, they would seek English 'help'. They agreed that they would not allow any enemy of the English to stay in their territory, that they would keep a British Resident in their capital, and they would accept the Treaty of Bassein.

Holkar, so far aloof from the war, started fighting in April 1804. After defeating Colonel Monson in the passes of Mukund Dara near Kota, he advanced towards Delhi and made an unsuccessful attempt to seize Delhi. He was defeated at Deeg on November 13 and at Farrukhabad on November 17, 1804. Finally, he too concluded a treaty with the British on January 7, 1806 at Rajpurghat. He agreed to give up his claims to places north of the river Chambal, Bundelkhand, and Peshwa's territory. He promised not to entertain any European, other than English, in his kingdom. In return, the British promised not to interfere in the southern territory of the river Chambal.

The Third Anglo-Maratha War (1817-1818)

The Third Anglo-Maratha War was partly related to the British imperialistic design in India and partly to the nature of the Maratha state. In 1813, the Charter Act was passed which ended the monopoly of the English East India Company. All the English Companies, now, were allowed to sell their products in India and purchase raw material from India. The British capitalists were in search of a greater market. Annexation of Indian territories meant a big market for British goods in India and cheap raw materials for British industries. English cotton mills were heavily dependent on Indian cotton and the Deccan region was famous for cotton produce. The policy of 'non-interference' with Indian States was no longer relevant.

The Company was in search of an excuse to wage war against the Marathas. The issue of Pindaris provided an opportunity. The Pindaris, who consisted of many castes and classes, were attached to the Maratha armies. They worked like mercenaries, mostly under the Maratha chiefs. But once the Maratha chiefs became weak and failed to employ them regularly, they started plundering different territories, including those territories which were under the control of the Company or its allies. The Company accused the Marathas of giving them shelter and encouragement.

Lord Hastings, the Governor-General (1813-23), made a plan to surround the Pindaris in Malwa with a large army and to prevent the Marathas from assisting them. By the end of 1817 and early 1818, the Pindaris were hunted across the Chambal. Thousands of them were killed. Their leaders, Amir Khan and Karim Khan, surrendered while the most dangerous, Chitu, fled into the jungles of Asirgarh. The direct conflict between the English and the Marathas, however, started when Gangadhar Shastri, the ambassador of Gaekwad, was killed by Tryanbakji, the Prime Minister of Peshwa. The English Resident, Elphinston, told Peshwa to hand over Trayanbakji, but he escaped. Colonel Smith besieged Poone and forced the Peshwa to sign the Poone Pact (June 13, 1817). The Maratha confederacy was dissolved and Peshwa's leadership was brought to an end. The fort of Ahmadnagar, Bundelkhand, and a vast territory of Malwa was ceded to the Company. Peshwa agreed to keep English troops at Poone and his family under British custody till Triyanbankji was arrested or surrendered.

The Pune Pact was, once again, humiliating for the Marathas. The Peshwa too was not happy. He started thinking of revenge, so he burnt the British Residency and started a war against the English. He was defeated at Kirki in November 1817. In the same month, Appaji, the Bhonsle chief, was also defeated at Sitabaldi. In the Battle of Mahidpur (December 1817), Holkar was defeated and was compelled to sign a treaty at Mandsor (January 1818). He had to cede Khandesh and the vast territory across the river Narmada.

The Peshwa continued the war but he was defeated again at Koregaon (January 1818) and finally at Ashti (February 1818), he surrendered. A small part of his territory was given to the descendant of Shivaji, based at Satara, whereas a large part of his territory was annexed including Pune. The post of Peshwa was abandoned and Baji Rao was sent to Bithur (near Kanpur). An annual pension was fixed for him. With this defeat, the British supremacy in the Maratha kingdom was already established and the hopeful successor of the Mughals lost all hopes.

Causes of the Maratha Defeat

1. Nature of the Maratha State

The Maratha state was never stable. An English historian called their state a 'Robber's state'. After the death of Shivaji (1680), various Maratha chiefs carved their independent kingdoms. During the Peshwaship of Baji Rao I (1720-40) they were loosely attached to the Peshwa, but after the debacle of Panipat (January 14, 1761) they became enemies of each other and plundered each other's territory.

2. Unstable Economy

The success of any kingdom depended heavily on its resources. The regular civil war had ruined Maratha's agriculture, trade, and industry. Plunder was their main source of income. The Maratha chiefs were always found in debt. They failed to evolve a stable economic policy. War and plunder became the most sought-after job for Maratha youths, but most of the time their chiefs struggled to pay them. The soldiers always shifted their loyalty. Many of them joined the Company's army, where they were getting at least a regular salary.

3. Weak Rulers

Most of the Maratha chiefs, with few exceptions, were not capable of leading the Marathas. Rulers like Daulat Rao Sindhia were lovers of luxury. Besides, Maratha rulers were jealous of each other and always conspired against each other. It helped the Company's cause.

4. Inferior Military Organisation

The Marathas failed to adopt modern techniques of warfare. Except for Mahadji Sindhia, no Maratha chief gave importance to artillery. He too, was dependent on the French. The Poone Government set up an artillery department, but it hardly functioned effectively. The Marathas also gave up their traditional method of guerrilla warfare which had baffled the Mughals. Besides, there was no motivation for the mercenary soldiers of the Marathas; a loss of a battle only meant a temporary loss of employment to them.

5. Superior English Diplomacy and Espionage

Before any war, the British always made some allies and isolated the enemy. This was the policy which most of the European nations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries adopted but the English succeeded the most. In the Second Anglo-Maratha War, they were allies of Peshwa and Gaekwad and in the Third Anglo-Maratha War, they made Sindhia their ally.

6. The Company's Espionage System

The Company's espionage system had no match in Asia. They carefully recorded each and every movement of their enemies, their strengths, weaknesses, military methods, etc. The entire diplomacy of East India Company was based on the 'inputs' provided by their spies. The Marathas, on the other hand, were completely ignorant about the activities of the Company. The English learned Marathi and other Indian languages, but the Marathas failed to learn English. They had no knowledge about England, English people, their factories, their arms, and their strategy. Wars were fought on the battlefield but strategies were made on the table which required 'inputs'.

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