The Marathas Part 18 The March to Destruction: 50 Years of Chaos Section I: Early English Invasions

Canberra, 23 June 2022

Moroba Phadnavis who was the prime plotter in the repeated attempts to capture the infant Peshwa, his mother and the senior ministers of the Federation had not been chastened and remained at large to further pursue his nefarious activities, brought on by his intense jealousy of his cousin Nana Phadnavis, the de facto Regent. Nana in the meantime was engaged in attempting to arrest nobles who had supported Raghunath Rao during the coup and civil war attempts. Moroba managed to leverage the friction between the Holkars and the Scindias, long festering because of a common border and rivalry, and bring Tukoji Holkar into his fold. Holkar’s defection became clear when he refused to obey the Federation of Minister’s orders to proceed with his forces to aid Hari Phadke battling in the Carnatic. Sakahram Bapu, always a fence-sitter, also deserted the Pune camp around the same time.

In 1778, Moroba and co-conspirators approached the English Bombay government and invited them to invade Pune to place Raghunath Rao on the Peshwa’s throne. The English, already irritated with Nana Phadnavis for what they wrongly perceived as his overtures to the French, readily agreed to the proposal.

The Maratha–French Dalliance

The French ‘ambassador’ in India was an adventurer named St. Lubin who had a dubious permit from the French government to proceed to Pune, interact with the Marathas and obtain whatever advantages he could for the French. By the second half of the 18th century, French influence and holdings in the sub-continent were meagre.

On reaching the Peshwa’s court he tried to induce Nana Phadnavis to cede the port of Choule to the French and enter into an offensive–defensive alliance in return for the French providing 2500 European troops and training 10,000 Maratha soldiers in French fighting techniques. In order to win Nana’s favour, Lubin pretended outrage at the murder of Narayan Rao and blamed the English for supporting Raghunath Rao. However, Nana Phadnavis was not even temporarily taken in by this ‘gentleman-cheat’. He considered Lubin’s general conduct despicable, which lowered the status of the French nation as a whole in his estimate.

St. Lubin was a man of excessive vanity as well as short-tempered and alienated himself from all his companions. Nana Phadnavis was aware of the conniving nature of Lubin, but gave no outward appearance of the same, pretending to tolerate him at all times. This behaviour was misinterpreted by the English who became alarmed at the perceived influence of the Frenchman in the Pune court.   

The English demanded a written invitation to invade the Maratha kingdom, signed by Sakharam Bapu, the senior most noble among the conspirators. However, the wily old man was too wary to comply.

Simultaneously attempts, first to capture Moroba by the Federation and then Nana by the conspirators, were both thwarted but indicated the steadily deteriorating politico-security situation in the kingdom. Alarmed at the attempt to capture him, Nana Phadnavis retreated to Purandar fort and asked Madhav Rao Scindia and Hari Phadke to immediately bring their forces to his assistance. At this time, Scindia was in the middle of negotiations with the Raja of Kolhapur and Phadke fully involved in the Carnatic. They both could not comply immediately.

Realising the precariousness of the situation, Nana decided to adopt diplomacy to contain the emerging threat. He approached Moroba and cajoled him to become the Minister-in-Chief while permitting him to appoint some of his followers to positions of power. Nana voluntarily divested himself of most of his power, mainly taking over the responsibility to be in-charge of the young Peshwa in Purandar. Moroba accepted the proposal and assumed supreme power.

Nana Phadnavis had calculated well, knowing the character of his cousin. After assuming power, Moroba’s support for Raghunath Rao diminished, since Raghunath’s appointment as the Peshwa would remove him from absolute power. Essentially being an inherently a jealous person, Moroba’s ambition was to wield power as his cousin used to before him. As soon as he assumed complete control of the administration, he broke off negotiations with the English and withdrew support for the return of Raghunath Rao. He started to rule the kingdom as an independent ruler. The dream was too good to last for long.

As soon as he was able to leave the Carnatic, the loyal Hari Phadke joined forces with Madhav Rao Scindia at Miraj. Thereafter both these generals followed separate paths and finally joined up with Nana Phadnavis at Purandar on 6th June 1778. Moroba had not had the time to build up a loyal following or create his own forces and Nana Phadnavis was once again master of the situation. On 22nd June Hari Phadke arrested Moroba Phadnavis—Moroba was ordered to resign all his offices; disband the small force that he had gathered; and retire into private life. As was natural to him, Moroba did not comply and was soon found to be in treasonable correspondence with the English. He was rearrested on 22nd July and imprisoned in fairly harsh conditions at Ahmednagar fort, where he remained for the next 22 years. Other senior members of his coterie were treated more severely, and the threat of a coup fully averted.

Initial English Actions

The English and Raghunath Rao, although dismayed at the return of Nana Phadnavis to power, continued with their intention and preparations to march on Pune. Raghunath Rao could still not control his ambition and harboured and nurtured his desire to be the Peshwa. The Bombay government was wary of Nana Phadnavis’s designs on Salsette and so was prepared to take military action. In August, the Supreme Council in Calcutta, still trying to impose their control over Madras and Bombay, ordered the Bombay government to not engage in war with the Marathas unless it became necessary as a defensive measure. The Bombay government decided to covertly ignore the orders and renewed the alliance offers made by Raghunath Rao in Surat earlier. However, their preparations for the invasion of the Maratha kingdom were haphazard.

On 22nd November 1778, six companies of English sepoys (locals recruited and trained by the English, who would go on to form the bulk of the British Indian Army a century later) under the command of Captain James Stewart captured Bhor Ghat. There is very little information available regarding Captain Stewart, who was venerated by the sepoys as a brave and efficient officer, giving him the local nickname ‘Ishtur Phakde’ (meaning the Heroic Stewart), an honour not often bestowed on English officers. His instructions were to hold Khandala at the head of the pass, which he performed with great skill despite repeated Maratha attempts to dislodge him.

On 23rd December 1778, a 4,000-strong English army arrived on the scene along with Raghunath Rao and his adopted son. Raghunath Rao brought along 2,000 cavalry of his own along with supporting infantry. The commander of the expedition, Colonel Charles Egerton, planned on a swift campaign and therefore all logistical calculations were made accordingly. He was unaware of the strength of the Maratha army under Nana Phadnavis and the preparations that had been made to defend Pune.  

The Company’s Military Officers

As the English East India Company was establishing itself as a power in the Indian sub-continent, it had started to build-up an army of sepoys, officered by English army officers. However, the majority of the officers who entered the Company’s service were normally at an advanced age and had come to an end in their careers in the normal British army. They came to India not to attain rank and honour but to make their fortune by any means possible. Their pay from the Company was meagre and inadequate. However, since the logistical supply system was not yet institutionalised in the Company army, they resorted to shameless and outrageous corruption and embezzlement. The price paid for this behaviour was the efficiency of the army.

Colonel Charles Egerton was one such officer. He replaced the respected General Robert Gordon as the commanding officer of all company forces in Bombay. Egerton had served in Europe but was extremely mild as a commander and totally unacquainted with the fighting conditions in India and its local population. Further, he was in failing health and unfit for field service.   

Nana Phadnavis had an admirable system of espionage that provided him with accurate information of even the most secret deliberations of the Bombay government. The Maratha army being assembled was large—Tukoji Holkar had re-joined the Pune ministers with 6,000 soldiers; Scindia had come in with 1500 troops; and other feudatories had send around 9,000 men under arms. In combination with the Peshwa’s own troops Nana Phadnavis fielded a 40,000-strong army.

Nana Phadnavis simultaneously instructed the chief commanding Sagar in Central India, Balaji Govind Bandela, to ensure that any reinforcements being send by the Supreme Council in Calcutta would be blocked and unable to reach the Deccan. Bandela was so effective in carrying out his responsibilities that Colonel Leslie leading the reinforcement army from Bengal was unable to pass through Central India. Leslie also frittered away the good weather period before the monsoons by unnecessarily interfering in the local affairs of the region that he was passing through. He managed to advance only 120 miles in five months, while the expenses of his army were estimated at 12 lakh rupees per month.

The Bombay army also was making tardy progress, moving forward only eight miles in 11 days. On 4th January 1779, the highly acclaimed Captain Stewart was killed while reconnoitring the surrounding region from the top of a tree. His death depressed the English army. On 9th January the English reached Talegaon and to their surprise found it burned to the ground. The English had planned to resupply at Talegaon and now faced the possibility of being starved of resources. Nana Phadnavis had decided on adopting a scorched earth policy to counter the English advance into Maratha territory, even to the extent of making preparations to burn to the ground the Peshwa’s palace in Pune, if it became necessary. At the same time, part of the Maratha forces moved along the Konkan as far as Panwel and cut off the English army’s communications link with Bombay.

Here the importance of morale to the performance of a fighting force becomes very apparent; this situation is almost a classic case study. The English army was only 18 miles from Pune and had about four to five days of provisions left with them. Forced marches would have taken them to Pune in two days and that timeframe would not have been sufficient for the Maratha leadership to have Pune stripped bare, leaving no resources for the English to capture. The English would have found sufficient resources for resupply and also found backing from the faction that still surreptitiously supported Raghunath Rao’s claim to be the Peshwa.       

Unfortunately, the death of Captain Stewart and the burning of Talegaon had pushed the English army into unnecessary despair. The English officers complained to Raghunath Rao that this was not what had been promised by him in Gujarat when the alliance was being created. Raghunath Rao continued to maintain that it would be easy to capture Pune with a determined push. His exhortations to move ahead fell on deaf ears and the English decided to withdraw. Raghunath Rao, the valiant general who had successfully led 50,000 Maratha cavalry all the way to Attock in the North-West Province of the Hindu Kush, had become equally odious to his countrymen and despicable to his allies—his opinion was not sought, and when given, it was ignored.

On 11th January 1779, at 11 PM at night the combined English and Maratha rebel army meant to foist Raghunath Rao as the Peshwa on an unwilling people began its retreat, abandoning its heavy guns at Talegaon. The guns were later recovered and put to use by the Marathas. The Maratha army had started to encircle the small English force by the time they decided to withdraw and now attacked them from all sides. On 13th January, at Wadegaon, unable to withstand the constant battering, the English asked a for a truce and send a negotiating team to the Maratha high command. The preliminary condition laid down by the Federation of Ministers to continue any further negotiation was the surrender of Raghunath Rao to them. They believed, correctly, that he was the fundamental cause of the friction between the English and the Marathas.

Being in dire straits, the English may have complied with this demand, but was saved from the ignominy by Raghunath Rao himself. Perceiving the direction of the negotiations, the wily general, cunning as ever, had already deserted to the Scindia camp with some infantry support and a band of 300 cavalry. Scindia received Raghunath courteously but arrested all the nobles accompanying him. Madhav Rao Scindia was also a calculating leader and would not permit nobles loyal to the renegade to operate freely within his camp. The Marathas demanded the English cede Salsette and all the acquisitions of the Company in Surat and Broach. Although the English initially demurred because the demands were harsh, they later ceded all holdings in the Konkan to the Federation in Pune and their holdings in Broach privately to Madhav Rao Scindia. The English army was permitted to return to Bombay unmolested.

At this juncture, the English had already started showing their true colours in a series of duplicitous dealings with the local rulers and chiefs, a character trait they would continue to display throughout the more than two centuries that they forcibly stayed in the Indian sub-continent. It will not be an exaggeration to state that the English never delivered on their part of the bargain fully in any treaty with an Indian potentate, always finding some excuse to back away after their objectives were achieved. At the same time, they would accuse local rulers of breaching the terms of a treaty for some minor infraction and make that an excuse for their own dishonourable behaviour. The English behaviour with local rulers, from the time of their arrival in the sub-continent till their forced withdrawal, was despicable, to put it mildly.

Following the trend elaborated above, on the safe arrival of their army in Bombay, the English repudiated the agreement of Wadegaon and dismissed the officers who had negotiated the truce for acting without proper authority. A trumped-up charge if ever there was one. Before the Maratha Federation of Ministers could react effectively to the English repudiating the agreement of Wadegaon, the English rapidly sent an independent delegation to Madhav Rao Scindia proposing to enter into a separate treaty of friendship with him. Scindia, already nurturing ambitions of his own to become the senior Maratha power base instead of Nana Phadnavis, considered the English overture as a golden opportunity to further his ambitions. Obviously, he did not consider the damage such a move would inflict on the greater Maratha polity—personal ambition stood above all else. The bane of short-sighted Indian rulers continued to plague the Maratha kingdom. It is surprising that while being extremely astute and intelligent, the senior leadership could not fathom the ultimate objective of the English and see through their manoeuvres. Here again one sees the beginning of the English policy of ‘divide-and-rule’ that would in later years become their primary strategy in dealing with multiple Indian princes and sundry rulers.

The Supreme Council in Calcutta replaced the recalcitrant Colonel Leslie with the more dynamic Lieutenant Colonel Goddard, who successfully evaded the 20,000-strong cavalry send to intercept him and reached Surat on 26th February 1780. From there he sailed to Bombay with the reinforcements. The Maratha government was disappointed with the Wadegaon agreement being unilaterally nullified by the English, who ill-used the good faith that had been bestowed on them. Their separate approach to Scindia rankled but had to be accepted. The Maratha Federation could not do anything about this blatant misuse of good-faith and was robbed of the fruits of a clearly one-sided victory.

Raghunath Rao–Shenanigans

The Federation of Ministers now turned the neutralising sedition at home, which was still rampant in some quarters. Raghunath Rao’s supporters, including Sakharam Bapu were imprisoned and some who had been involved in the murder of Narayan Rao executed. However, the main culprit for the decade’s long turmoil in the Maratha kingdom that had destabilised the empire, Raghunath Rao, continued to remain at large. Nana Phadnavis wanted Raghunath Rao to be transferred as a state prisoner, but Madhav Rao Scindia declined to do so. Instead, he insisted on some territories being transferred to his control to defray the expenses of keeping Raghunath Rao suitably lodged at Jhansi. Again, the higher priority being given to personal ambition as opposed to the greater good of the kingdom is demonstrated.

Madhav Rao Scindia permitted Raghunath Rao to march to Jhansi with the 300 cavalry that had accompanied him on his desertion of the English camp. Scindia deputed a force under Hari Babaji to escort Raghunath to Jhansi. On the way, Raghunath Rao learned that Scindia had no intentions of using the lands that were transferred to keep him in luxury and dignity and that the plan was to shut him up as a prisoner in Jhansi fort. Ever the opportunist, Raghunath Rao waited for the right time to strike. While crossing the River Narmada, he attacked the escorting force and cut them to pieces and he, along with his followers escaped to Broach where he joined the English camp. The English received him honourably. Yet another setback for the Federation of Ministers brought about by the egoistic self-interest of Madhav Rao Scindia, covertly supported by the English.

The boy-Peshwa had now become six-years old and was brought to Pune for the religious ceremonies that would initiate him into the fold of the Brahmins (the thread ceremony as it is known). The celebrations were splendid but not overly extended. Nana Phadnavis knew that war with the English would not be long in coming.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2022]
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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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