The Marathas Part 17 The Supreme Council of Calcutta: English Interlude

Canberra, 23 June 2022

In April 1774, when he started his retreat from his march towards Pune, Raghunath Rao entered into negotiations with the English East India Company through their Bombay Government. The English, still basking in the glow of the resounding victory Robert Clive had achieved in Bengal, readily grasped at the overtures although believing that they could on their own overthrow Maratha power. They promised to provide the rebel with 2000 soldiers on two conditions—they would be paid 20,000 rupees in cash; and as soon as Raghunath Rao was installed as the Peshwa, Salsette, Bassein and neighbouring islands would be ceded to the English. To his credit, which was not very high, Raghunath refused to cede the islands and offered districts in Gujarat worth 11 lakh rupees in revenue per annum as an immediate payment. He also promised an annual tribute of six lakh rupees and a sum of 1.5 lakh rupees if 15 guns were added to the force being detached to him.

On 12th December 1774, a hubris–filled and fuelled English invaded Maratha territory—on 28th December they stormed Thane and before the end of the year reduced Salsette. Raghunath Rao had no option but to accept what had transpired and entered into an alliance on 6th March 1775 that gave control of Bassein also to the English in exchange for an enhanced force of 3000 soldiers of which at least 700 were to be Europeans. The primary reason for Raghunath accepting this lopsided treaty was that his army had been almost fully destroyed by Hari Phadke, in conjunction with Holkar and Scindia. In Gujarat, his ally Govind Rao Gaekwad, had been threatened by a vastly superior army and was forced to raise the siege of Baroda, falling back beyond the River Mahi. Hari Phadke and his ally Fatehsinh Gaikwad, who was also a claimant to the Gaikwad leadership in the clan succession struggle, crossed the River Mahi in three places, attacked the army of the Raghunath Rao–Govind Rao combine and wiped them out. Raghunath Rao fled with a thousand soldiers and took shelter with Charles Malet, head of the English factory at Cambay. He did not have the military strength to negotiate as an equal with the English.

This unequal treaty would be discussed by the Supreme Council in Calcutta and in the headquarters in Europe and would subsequently lead to what is generally referred to as the First Anglo-Maratha War. Govind Rao retreated to the frontiers of Kathiawad with the remnants of his broken army. Raghunath Rao went from Cambay to Bhavnagar and then to Surat where he joined the relief column led by Colonel Keating. On 11th April 1775, Govind Rao with 8000 soldiers joined the English column. His forces were on the verge of mutiny for arrears of pay, which was averted by Keating making some payments out of his own war chest. Keating wandered up and down the southern coast of Gujarat, rather aimlessly, twice engaging Hari Phadke with no serious loss to either side.

On 5th May Keating was ordered by the Bombay Government to advance on Pune with his somewhat puny force. This order from Bombay could be considered the height of English hubris as well ignorance of the Maratha military power. Raghunath Rao who was aware of the reality tried to stop the order from being executed, but to no avail. On 17th May the small English army reached Napa in Kaira district and on the 18th, they spread out into the plains of Arras. Here, in a vulnerable position, they were attacked in the rear by Hari Phadke who inflicted significant losses initially. The English then rallied and fought a valiant rear-guard action, forcing the Maratha forces to withdraw. In this encounter, which came to be called the Battle of Arras, the English suffered higher casualties although they also claimed victory. The English reprieve was dearly purchased—they lost 222 men, of whom 86 were Europeans and included 11 officers.

Despite the loss, the English continued south and reached Broach on 29th May. Even though the monsoon rains had set in, on 8th June they made an attempt at crossing the River Narmada, already in flood. Only at this juncture did Keating finally realise the futility of attempting to reach Pune during the monsoon season and retreated to Dabhai. He intended to lay siege to Baroda during the winter months. The arbitrary changes to the aim of the campaign by the field commander is indicative of the lack of direction from the higher command as well as the inherent feeling within the English command structure that they could do whatever they wanted to, without facing any opposition or detrimental consequences. This attitude was to become entrenched in the English mind as their territorial conquests in the sub-continent continued to expand at a rapid rate.  

The very fickle play of altering loyalties now became apparent with Fatehsinh Gaikwad leaving Hari Phadke and entering into an agreement with the English and Raghunath Rao, believing that his chances of success in the clan leadership struggle would be better if aligned with this faction. He wanted his brother Sayyaji to be left in possession of Baroda for a fief of 10 lakh rupees to be paid to Govind Rao. With these political manoeuvres, Raghunath Rao seemed to be gaining ground in the on-going but undeclared civil war… and then he suffered a great setback.

The Supreme Council in Calcutta

The Supreme Council was formed in Calcutta under the chairmanship of Warren Hastings on 19th October 1774. The Council consisted of Colonels Clavering and Monson, Philip Francis and Richard Barwell, made (in)famous by Macaulay’s detailed report on the Council. The Council was entrusted by the British Parliament in London with the control of all English dominions and activities in India. While considerable in-fighting between the members for the exercise of power stymied the efficient functioning of the Council, they stood united in asserting their control and superiority over the governments of Madras and Bombay.

In order to stamp their authority across all jurisdictions, they seized on the Bombay government’s engagement in ‘foreign’ wars and its entering into treaties with local rulers without the Council’s express permission. The Bombay government was promptly censured. The Supreme Council declared the treaty with Raghunath Rao null and void and the war being fought on his behalf to be ‘impolitic, dangerous, unauthorised and unjust’. Immediate cessation of hostilities was ordered, and Colonel Keating fell back to Karod, about 20 miles east of Surat.

Having brought Bombay under control, the Council despatched a Lieutenant Colonel Upton as an envoy to negotiate with the infant Peshwa’s government being run by a Federation of Ministers. The Federation complained against the Bombay government; promised to pay a sum of 12 lakh rupees to the East India Company to cover the cost of their Salsette campaign; and in return demanded that Raghunath Rao be handed over to their control, while Salsette was to be evacuated along with some other districts that the English had occupied. Upton insisted on Bassein and Salsette being surrendered to the English. The Marathas argued, justifiably, that they could not understand the reasoning of the English who were seeking to derive advantage from a war, which they had themselves declared unjust. Obviously, neither Colonel Upton nor the Supreme Council in Calcutta were amused by this logical arguement. The English started vigorous preparations for war.

The Federation of Ministers, ruling on behalf of the infant Peshwa, knew that a combined assault by the English and Raghunath Rao would be disastrous for the Maratha kingdom and reluctantly ceded Salsette and gave the English the revenues of Broach city and neighbourhood. The Treaty of Purandar was signed on 1st March 1776 between the East India Company and the Federation of Ministers of the Maratha kingdom, including the de facto regent, Nana Phadnavis. The Marathas paid an additional 12 lakh rupees to the English and in return had the Treaty of Surat between Raghunath Rao and the Bombay government repudiated. The Purandar agreement also stipulated that Raghunath Rao was to disband his army and take up residence in Kopergaon, a town on the River Godavari. However, the Bombay government refused to hand him over, in direct defiance of the Supreme Council. The Federation had to accept the shortfalls in the English meeting the conditions of the treaty since internal politics within the Maratha kingdom was in turmoil with many pretenders to the throne coming up in different places, who had to be captured, proven as impudent imposters and then executed. The strain on the body politic was enormous.

The Federation of Ministers Takes Action

Having contained Raghunath Rao, at least temporarily, even though he was still resident with the English, the Federation turned to neutralising other enemies of the state. The primary adversary to the Marathas at this stage was Haidar Ali ruling Mysore, with the Nizam, Mudhoji Bhonsle and the Raja of Kolhapur waiting in the wings to take advantage of the dissentions and any display of weakness by the central administration in Pune.

In 1776, Haidar Ali captured the strong Maratha fort of Gooti and imprisoned the commander Murarirao Ghorpade, who subsequently died in captivity. He then moved into Maratha territory between the Rivers Tungabhadra and Krishna. The Federation was not confident of taking successful independent action and therefore sought an alliance with the Nizam, treacherous and self-serving as he was, to counter Haidar Ali. From an analyst’s point of view, considering the past shenanigans of the Nizam, especially his proven track record for treachery, this was a surprising move by the Federation.

An army send under command of Konher Rao Patwardhan was met at Sansi by the commander of Haidar Ali’s advanced forces, Mohammad Ali. He used the same ruse that the Marathas had often used before to lure the enemy into an ambush by making a provocative move to reconnoitre the area and then pretending flight to bring the pursuing enemy into the pre-set trap. Surprisingly, the Maratha commander fell for this common trick. The pursuing Maratha forces were slaughtered by hidden cannons and their senior commanders captured.

In the winter of 1776–77 a 30,000-strong Maratha army under Parashrambhau Patwardhan moved out to join up with a 40,000-strong force of the Nizam in Mysore territory to effect a pincer attack on Haidar Ali’s forces. Unfortunately, the Maratha army was a rag-tag force whose pay was in arrears for months and suffering very low morale. To compound the situation, Parashrambhau was an over-cautious commander who opted to stay behind the River Krishna without even attempting to engage the enemy. Two facts emerge from this situation—one, that the calibre of Maratha military’s field commanders had declined from their audacious best just decades back to being content with making a demonstration of taking the field and then hiding; and two, resource availability to the Federation was strained wherein the Maratha army was in arrears of pay, a situation never heard of before.

The commander of the Nizam’s forces, Ibrahim Beg Dhonsa was bribed by Haidar Ali and retired behind the Nizam’s borders as rapidly as he had appeared on the scene. Instead of actual battles being fought in the field, the game was being played out in behind-the-scenes intrigue. After almost a year of this fiasco, a 60,000-strong force under Hari Ballal Phadke, crossed the River Krishna and reached the banks of the River Tungabhadra. At this juncture, the bane of Hindu politics—treachery and traitorous behaviour—once again raised its head. Haidar Ali was assisted by a traitor Konkanastha Brahmin called Baji Rao Barve who befriended and managed to bribe Manaji Scindia, one of the secondary commanders of the Maratha army, with six lakh rupees to desert Hari Phadke at an opportune moment when the engagement was already in progress.

Manaji’s treachery was discovered, his force surrounded and massacred. Even though his scheme had not worked, Haidar Ali attacked the Maratha force. Hari Phadke realised that Manaji’s treason was more widespread than he had imagined, with even some of his own personal guards having been compromised. Several leading officers of the Maratha army were arrested and executed. However, unsure of the loyalty of all his subordinate commanders, Hari Phadke did not feel strong enough to take on Haidar Ali’s Muslim army and decided to withdraw. He retreated, harassed all the way to the banks of the River Krishna. Haidar Ali captured Dharwar but believing some rumours of a large army coming from Pune as a reinforcement for Hari Phadke, obtained an armistice by paying a large sum of money to the Maratha commander.

Kolhapur and Mudhoji Bhonsle

Submissions of the Raja of Kolhapur and Mudhoji Bhonsle were achieved more easily. The raja of Kolhapur was under the influence of Jijabai, the widow of Sambhaji, who was intensely jealous of the Peshwas. He had joined Raghunath Rao after the murder of Narayan Rao and recaptured territories earlier annexed by Madhav Rao Scindia. The Federation’s forces (Peshwa’s forces) led by Ramachandra Kanade met with the Kolhapur army commanded by Yesaji Scindia and inflicted a resounding defeat on them. At the same time Madhav Rao Scindia arrived on the scene with his own forces and overran the entire Kolhapur territory while the capital was besieged. In January 1778, a much-humbled Jijabai ceded territory to the Peshwa, paid an indemnity of 20 lakh rupees and agreed to break off existing alliances with Haidar Ali and Raghunath Rao.

Mudhoji Bhonsle was aligned with Raghunath Rao but was in the middle of a succession struggle with his brother Sabaji, who was in turn being supported by the Federation of Ministers in Pune. Earlier, on 26th February 1775, in a pitched battle between the forces of the two brothers, Sabaji had been shot dead. However, when Raghunath Rao fled to Gujarat, Mudhoji had quickly changed sides and made peace with the Federation. True to form he once again changed sides and joined Raghunath Rao when the latter became an ally of the English. The Federation asked the Nizam to control his feudatory, which was easily achieved by invading and laying waste Berar. Mudhoji submitted to the control of the Federation of Ministers.

While the Federation of Ministers was struggling in Pune to control and contain internal rebellions, the English were plotting and planning their next moves. Unfortunately for the great Maratha Empire, there was no dearth of traitors to provide assistance to the foreign marauders—once again a repeated fact in the long history of the Indian sub-continent. Through the centuries and even today, the very soil of the land seems to nurture such traitorous elements in plenty.    


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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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