The Marathas Part 13 Peshwa Baji Rao I Section IV A Peshwa Fades Away

Canberra, 26 December 2021

The Marathas always faced obstacles in establishing strong control over the coastal region of Konkan. The Sidis, and later the Portugues, individually contested the control over this narrow, but strategically important coastal strip. The control of Konkan translated to the control of the lucrative seaborne trade that also included horses and military equipment. How the Sidis were brought under control has already been describes earlier and this feat must be considered as one of Baji Rao’s more astute achievements. However, compared to the Sidis, the Portuguese were more formidable adversaries.

After the capture of Goa and establishing their rule, the Portuguese had established friendly relations with the Vijayanagara Empire. They considered the ruler of Gujarat—independent since the break-up of the Tughluq kingdom—to be their primary adversary in controlling the approaches from the Middle-East to the northern part of the Peninsula. The Portuguese, unlike the French and English in later years, did not make large inland conquests. Their primary objective was to control the trade in the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf. For this they needed to create a chain of commercial posts along the west coast of the Indian Peninsula. They coveted a small island off the Kathiawar coast, called Diva or Diu, which commanded the Gulf of Cambay and was a safe anchorage during the monsoon period. This brought them into conflict with Bahadur Shah, the ruler of Gujarat, who did not want to lose Diu. War was inevitable.

Background to Portuguese Activities

In early 16th century, the Portuguese attacked the coastal cities of Gujarat and those along the western seaboard of Maharashtra. In 1530, and again in 1538, the Portuguese mounted concerted attacks on Bandra and Surat, taking more than 4000 people as ‘slaves’ and transporting them to Goa. To prevent the recurrence of such blatant piracy, a Gujrati officer, Malik Tokan, built a strong fortress at the mouth of River Ulhas, close to the village of Vasai. The Portuguese attacked and destroyed the fort at the same time as Humayun the Mughal was making inroads into Gujarat. Unable to fight a two-fronted war, Bahadur Shah requested the Portuguese to become his allies to fight the Mughal threat and to present a combined front against the invaders. In return for military assistance, he offered to cede Bombay, Mahim, Diu, Daman, Chaul and Vasai to the Portuguese. Buoyed by such a generous offer, the Portuguese military assistance was generous and Humayun was forced to withdraw from Gujarat in 1535.

The Portuguese then set about exploiting their new possessions—Chaul and Diu were converted to strong fortresses and Daman into a thriving port. Vasai was made the capital of the new acquisitions; corrupting the name to Bacaim, which was later corrupted again by the English to Bassein. Vasai was a prized pilgrimage centre for the Hindus, as a seat of worship for Lord Shiva. It housed the ancient Shiva temple on Tungar Hill and therefore the deity in the temple carried the appellation ‘Tugareswar’, ‘God of the Mountains’. The mouth of the River Ulhas was wide, which facilitated ships carrying goods moving far inland and Bassein was located at the mouth. The delta of the river was locally called ‘Sashsti’, meaning 66 villages, a name that was corrupted by the Portuguese to Salcette and subsequently to Salsette by the English. Bassein was a fertile region and grew into a prosperous Portuguese settlement.

In 1661, Bombay was given as dowry for Catherine of Braganza to the English, which initiated the gradual decay of Bassein. From this time on, the Portuguese had two enemies to fight simultaneously—the English and the Marathas. From the time of Sambhaji’s siege of Goa, an almost continuous but desultory war had gone on between the Portuguese and the Marathas.

In 1730, a Maratha army threatened Salsette and was repulsed only with great difficulty. Subsequently, a peace treaty was arrived at through the mediation of the English Governor of Bombay, Robert Cowan. This near catastrophe made the Portuguese realise the sorry state of the defences of Bassein and Salsette, prompting the viceroy to order refurbishing of the forts. However, the funds available were insufficient to fortify both Bassein and Salsette, leaving the fort of Thana, which was the key to Salsette, only partially fortified.   

The Bassein Campaign

By the first decade of the 18th century, Portuguese power in the Arabian Sea, and overall across the world, was in decline. Command of the sea had shifted to the Dutch and the English, and the Portuguese were finding it difficult to hold on to their coastal outposts. The situation was exacerbated by the fact that the Portuguese had not made any attempt, throughout their stay in India, at making friends with or cultivating the local population at Goa and Bassein, their main outposts. As soon as Maratha rule was established in neighbouring Kalyan, the disgruntled local population found expression for their discontent. The Hindu leaders of Bassein approached the Peshwa to deliver them from religious oppression. The Portuguese had instituted the Inquisition in 1550, and persecution of all non-Christians was rife in both Goa and Bassein. The local population was also exasperated by being forced to provide money and labour for building the defences at Bassein and Salsette, mentioned earlier. The Portuguese were isolated from the local population and received no support or sympathy from them.

The Portuguese actions in the Konkan had also been against the basic interests of the Peshwa. During the power struggle that emanated after Kanhoji Angre’s death, the Portuguese and the Peshawa ended up supporting different factions. The Portuguese had supported Sambhaji Angre against his brothers, while the Peshwa had stepped in to resolve the quarrel, giving control of Kolaba to Manaji, an illegitimate son of Kanhoji Angre. Sambhaji approached the Portuguese for assistance, promising to cede Revadanda and also return the Portuguese ships that Kanhoji had captured earlier. Manaji obviously appealed to the Peshwa for help. In March 1737, Baji Rao assembled a large force in secret at Kalyan under Chimnaji’s command with a plan to attack the Portuguese. The English had got wind of the Maratha preparations and warned the Portuguese commanding general at Bassein, but the general paid no heed.

The terrain at Salsette and Bassein is peculiar. It is a narrow coastal strip divided by many inland channels and therefore not conducive to large-scale cavalry manoeuvres. Knowledge of the terrain is vital to making both tactical and strategic decisions during planning and execution of campaigns. In this aspect, the Marathas were aided by the local people who knew the countryside intimately. On 26th March 1737, a Maratha advance party attacked the Saint Jeronimo tower and surprised the Portuguese. They managed to secure the passage to Salsette and on 27th March the Portuguese commander left the island. The main fort at Thane surrendered without a fight. The Portuguese were also dislodged from Bandra and Versova.

Simultaneously, another 2000-strong force attempted to storm Bassein. However, the Bassein fort was well defended, the Portuguese were prepared for the assault, and there was no element of surprise to favour the attackers. Although the Marathas seized the outlying posts of Mandvi, Manora and Balapur, they could not breach the walls of Bassein. There was also a change in Portuguese leadership and three attempts by the Marathas to break-in went in vain. The siege dragged on with the Portuguese forces counter-attacking regularly, being reinforced from the sea. In November 1738, they even attempted the recapture Thane fort, but failed to do so with the Portuguese commander being killed in the battle. After this Portuguese initiative, the Marathas renewed their offensive and by January 1739 had recaptured all the lost territories.

Baji Rao had already realised that the Bassein garrison was able to continue to resist only because of the reinforcements flowing from Goa to the besieged fort through the sea. He decided to stem the flow of reinforcements as a prelude to capturing Bassein. On 23rd January 1739, Maratha forces under Vyankat Rao Ghorpade invaded Goa and cut off the supply chain. Bassein rapidly descended into a bad plight with supplies running low. At the same time Maratha artillery was constantly pounding the fort walls and on 2nd May, the walls were breached by mines. Bassein fort capitulated on 5th May 1739. The actual dates vary in different narratives by as many as 10 days. However, in the broader appreciation of the flow of events the differences do not matter. In this prolonged siege, both sides suffered heavy casualties, estimated to be more than 5,000 on each side. In their hour of victory, the Marathas displayed commendable generosity—they gave the Portuguese garrison eight days to leave the fort with all honours of war.

The fall of Bassein signalled the end of Portuguese rule in North Konkan. Except for Daman, all Portuguese territorial holdings were ceded to the Marathas, which was subsequently ratified by a treaty signed in September 1740. The Marathas gained eight other cities along with Bassein and Salsette and also 20 fortresses.

A Peshwa Fades Away

Baji Rao was successful in all the wars that he undertook—he had defeated the Mughal army, the Nizam-ul-Mulk’s forces and driven the Portuguese from Maratha shores. Having successfully reabsorbed the Konkan into the Maratha territorial fold, the Peshwa returned to Pune on 29 July 1739. Even though the previous two years had been greatly successful on the official front for Baji Rao, they had been marred by domestic discord.

Baji Rao had acquired a Muslim mistress named Mastani, who he was inordinately proud of, and to whom he was devoted. There are several stories regarding how the pretty and intelligent Mastani came to be Baji Rao’s mistress—the Chhatrasal of Bundelkhand gave her as a gift; the Nizam-ul-Mulk presented her; she was captured by Chimnaji when he defeated Shahajat Khan and send her to Baji Rao for protection. However, the most feasible explanation seems to be that she was the illegitimate daughter of the Chhatrasal by a Muslim concubine and was gifted to Baji Rao for his assistance in saving Bundelkhand. Irrespective of the actual circumstances of how Mastani came to be with Baji Rao, there is unanimous agreement regarding her ready wit, great intelligence, unparalleled beauty, and extreme daring and courage under battle conditions. It is confirmed that she accompanied the Peshwa in a number of his military campaigns.

Baji Rao used to consume meat and drink alcohol in her company, which raised the ire of his family and of the broader orthodox Brahman society. In order to wean the Peshwa away from the ‘bad influence’ of the concubine, his son Balaji and brother Chimnaji confined Mastani away from the Peshwa, who immersed himself in battles and conquests. The family felt that Baji Rao’s health was being adversely affected by his obsessive attention to Mastani. The Peshwa, from his side, sought the peace of mind that he was denied in his own home by spending more time on the battlefield and planning fresh campaigns.

Approaching End …

The Peshwa started a fresh campaign against the Nizam-ul-Mulk in the Deccan, since the Nizam was away in Delhi assisting the Mughal emperor to deal with the invasion and violence perpetuated by Nadir Shah. Baji Rao demanded of the deputy, who also happened to be the Nizam’s son Nasir Jung, the jagir of the districts through which the Maratha army would have to pass on its way to North India. Even though Nasir could have granted this, even if on a temporary basis, he refused to do so—inevitably hostilities were renewed. After two months of fighting Nasir Jung sued for peace and agreed to surrender the districts of Handia and Khargoan south of Indore to the Peshwa. Sending his son to Kolaba and brother back to Pune, Baji Rao once again marched north into Hindustan.

While camped at Raverkhedi, about 36 miles from Khargaon, the great Peshwa contracted a fever on 23rd April 1740. After a very brief illness, Baji Rao passed away on 28th April, at the age of 42—lamented by family, his king, and the entire Maratha nation. He left behind four sons by Kasibai, his long-suffering but forgiving wife; the eldest Balaji born on 8 December 1721, Ramchandra, Raghunath and Janardan; and an illegitimate son from Mastani.

Mastani’s Son

It was Baji Rao’s ardent wish to bring up his son through Mastani as a Brahmin. However, even his power and stature were not sufficient to breakdown the opposition of the orthodox Brahmin priesthood, who stood united against investing the sacred thread on the son of a Muslim concubine, irrespective of the pedigree of the father, or that of the mother herself. Brought up as a Muslim, Shamsher Bahadur, was renowned as a soldier for his courage in battle and the audacity of his attacks. In 1761, at the young age of 23, he fell in battle, fighting for the Marathas in the Battle of Panipat, covering himself in posthumous glory.

Shamsher left behind a son, Ali Bahadur, who was send by Nana Phadnavis to Malwa to check the rising power of Mahadji Scindia. Although Ali was not successful in reigning in the Scindia, he managed to corner for himself a considerable tract of land, which he proceeded to rule as an independent nawab. He became the ancestor of the Nawabs of Banda.   

Requiem for a Great Peshwa

Judged by any standard, there is no doubting the fact that Peshwa Baji Rao was a great man. He had a commanding personality and was exceedingly handsome, although he lacked the attractive courtesy for which other members of his family were famous. His manner was overbearing. In dealing with others placed under him, he was always full of censure, never praising the good work that they had accomplished. He rarely wrote to any subordinate other than to reprimand the individual for some actual or perceived wrong-doing. It would seem that Baji Rao expected all his subordinates to perform faultlessly at all times as a matter of routine and therefore they did not merit any praise for their work. In spite of his great talent and extremely loyal service, he was not liked by his king and was detested by the nobles of the court. There is no debating the fact that Baji Rao was respected, and was almost on the verge of being feared, even by his own children.

As a military commander, he lived the same life as his soldiers, eating the same fare and sharing all their hardships. From the time he assumed the position of Peshwa in 1720, till his death in 1740, Baji Rao was engaged in some battle, campaign or war at all times. When he was appointed, Shahu’s position as king was in grave danger—the viability of the Maratha State itself was in jeopardy. Shahu was being challenged by Sambhuji for the kingship and the senior Maratha chiefs were ambivalent about his status. It was Baji Rao who re-established the primacy of the king in Maratha politics. From his first great victory at Palkhed in 1728 over the Nizam, he established Maratha superiority over the Deccan, and more importantly, ended the struggle for the kingship, a feat that Shahu could not have achieved on his own. Defeating Senapati Dabhade brought to a conclusive end the rebellious activities of the senior nobles, making the Peshwa truly ‘the first among equals’. In later years Baji Rao’s stature even overshadowed that of the king himself.  

Baji Rao was a visionary and realised much earlier than any contemporary Maratha chieftain or strategist that the future of the Maratha Empire lay in moving north and making a bid to replace the Mughals. He was also the first to appreciate that the erstwhile Mughal Empire was on its last legs and that no amount of life support could bring it back to invigorated life, especially after Nadir Shah’s invasion and the sacking of Delhi. The Maratha policy of Northward Drive was crafted by Baji Rao and was his personal initiative. It became the foundation for establishing all-India Maratha supremacy and for bringing the provinces from Punjab to Bengal in North India under Maratha sway by mid-18th century.

By an unfortunate twist of fate, this far-sighted Peshwa died young. His successors were never able to fully understand the underlying reason for Baji Rao’s insistence on the Northward Drive—they lacked the capacity to dream of a Hindu Empire and the organisational and military ability to bring the dream to fruition, even if such a dream was available to them in their limited vision. Baji Rao’s dream of the Marathas replacing the Mughal overlordship over India remained unfulfilled.

Supplanting the Chagatai Empire – A Dream?

There is on-going controversy whether Baji Rao intended to create a Hindu Empire to supplant the Mughal Empire or not. Before this conundrum is debated, it has to be acknowledged that Baji Rao, as Peshwa, transformed the fragile and somewhat fragmented Maratha kingdom into an empire. Further, there is also no doubt that his vision was to move the Marathas into the central position in Hindustan, occupied by the Mughals for nearly two centuries. This fundamental aim was the one providing the underlying impetus for Baji Rao’s policy of Northward Drive and the concerted military campaigns in Malwa, Gujarat and Bundelkhand, taking the Maratha army all the way to the doorsteps of Delhi.

After considering the plethora of information available through the correspondence of nobles and other literature of the time, this author is certain that Peshwa Baji Rao intended to establish a pan-Indian Hindu Empire, which would cover the entire North and Central India, and the Peninsula. This may seem overarchingly ambitious, but then Baji Rao was not one to be intimidated by the enormity of the task. His ambition and vision dovetailed. However, he seems to have been somewhat held in check by the docile and compromising approach adopted by King Shahu in the pursuit of empire. The Peshwa would not go against his king; Baji Rao was compulsively loyal to Shahu at all times. Therefore, Baji Rao’s grand imperial designs remained understated, and his early death made them unachievable in the face of less illustrious successors. 

Although abrupt in his behaviour and curt in giving his decisions, all his contemporaries acknowledge that Baji Rao aspired to administer the kingdom equitably; wanted to earn the good will of the people; and bring prosperity to all, while filling the royal coffers with wealth. His intention and integrity were never in question. Some modern narratives tend to allude to Baji Rao’s somewhat cordial relationship with Sawai Jay Singh, the Rajput commander of the Mughal army in the Central and South, and with the Bundela chiefs as an effort by the Peshwa to create Hindu sovereignty in India. There is no variable evidence to suggest that such a move was even contemplated by Baji Rao—for him Maratha interests and the march towards Maratha supremacy in India trumped all other impulses, notions and considerations. He remained first and foremost an advocate for the creation of a Hindu Maratha Empire.

On the other hand, his early attempts at creating influence in the somewhat defunct Mughal court indicates that he was pragmatic enough to realise that a pan-Indian Hindu Empire was a distant dream, to be achieved through all means available to him. Vision and ambition can be kept separated from awareness and reality for a long time and could also lead to acceptance that an overlap may never occur. Peshwa Baji Rao was a conqueror, not an administrative consolidator, a role he may have assumed had he lived longer, but one that his successor should have taken on to solidify the foundations of the fledgling empire his father had created. Unmatched as a cavalry commander in the battlefield—he never lost a battle or an encounter in 20 years of campaigning—he was a visionary without having the reformatory chutzpah to realise the vision through combining military victory with transformative administrative restructuring. For Baji Rao the gap between vision and its fulfilment remained as large as ever throughout his life.

Baji Rao was not a financial wizard, in fact from contemporary correspondence it is evident that he was unschooled in the intricacies of managing the treasury. Throughout his illustrious career he was juggling debts that threatened to overwhelm not only him, but the kingdom itself. Some analysts have pointed to this shortcoming and his single-minded pursuit of power and prestige for the Maratha kingdom as the harbingers for the lapses and failures of the kingdom in the second half of the 18th century. This is an unjust assessment—an attempt to find a scapegoat for the failures and incompetence of his successors, who with their limited capabilities could not hold the burgeoning empire together.

Peshwa Baji Rao was a man of action. He unerringly provided the leadership needed at a critical juncture in the history of the Maratha Empire—he provided stability, secured complete freedom for a kingdom that was already in the throes of collapse and internecine conflict, gradually opening the door for territorial and diplomatic expansion. No man could have achieved anything more in 20 short years.


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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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