The Marathas Part 18 The March to Destruction: 50 Years of Chaos Section II Renewed English Wars

Canberra, 2 July 2022

In Calcutta, leading the Supreme Council, Warren Hastings had been newly titled as the ‘Governor-General’. He was single-mindedly determined to wipe out what he termed as the ‘disgrace of Wadegaon’. He placed Colonel Goddard as the supreme commander of all forces in Bombay, giving him explicit instructions to restore the credibility of the English military forces and demonstrate their prowess. To begin with, Goddard decided to open his campaign in Gujarat, where the Maratha forces were at a disadvantage, being hampered by long lines of communications. He established base camp at Surat and in January 1780, marched out on campaign.

On 20th January he captured Dabhai and then some other towns belonging to the Peshwa and went on to sign an alliance with Fatehsinh Gaekwad, who was still agitating to take over the leadership of the clan. In keeping with the terms of the treaty, Goddard next laid siege to Ahmedabad and stormed the fort and the town on 15th February 1780. The Maratha army sent to counter the English initiative, under the command of Scindia and Holkar, numbered around 20,000 cavalry and accompanying infantry and artillery. This large force crossed the River Narmada and halted near Baroda on 29th February. Goddard crossed the River Mahi and approached the Maratha camp, but neither Scindia nor Holkar were intent on giving battle and avoided direct confrontation.

A series of fruitless negotiations ensued and on 2nd April, the English attacked Scindia’s camp without causing any significant damage. Madhav Rao Scindia’s strategy was to draw Goddard further away from his main support base so that the lines of communications could be interdicted, and he could be isolated. However, Scindia was only partially successful. At the same time the Pune government was initiating action against Surat and Bombay. In March 1780, Ganeshpant Behere, the commander of the Peshwa’s forces in the northern Konkan invaded Gujarat, in pursuance of the Scindia strategy to isolate Goddard’s army by cutting the lines of communications. However, this force was defeated and Behere himself wounded in battle. The Marathas initially suffered a setback in the Konkan but thereafter went on to win limited tactical success—they managed to isolate a detachment of English troops and captured their guns.

Maratha Initiatives

While military actions were being planned and undertaken, Nana Phadnavis was astutely leveraging off his diplomatic skills. He was aware that the Madras government had angered both Haidar Ali and the Nizam by their earlier actions. As mentioned in a previous chapter, the Madras government had refused to send assistance to Haidar Ali despite being bound by a formal alliance and had also marched through his territories without permission. They had annoyed the Nizam by occupying Guntur, which belonged to the Nizam and by supporting his rebel brother Basalat Jang. Therefore, both Haidar and the Nizam were receptive to Nana Phadnavis’s overtures to form an alliance against the English. Nana Phadnavis offered to cede all lands between the Rivers Krishna and Tungabhadra to Haidar Ali and the tracts of land between Daulatabad and Ahmednagar to the Nizam. Accordingly, both Haidar Ali and the Nizam entered into an alliance with the Marathas against the English.  

The Marathas were once again let down by the Nizam. As was his usual behaviour pattern, he played a double game. The English were aware of the duplicitous nature of Nizam’s dealings and returned Guntur to the Nizam while also promising to stop assisting Basalat Jang. The Nizam then decided to take a step back from the alliance and refused to send forces to assist Nana Phadnavis.

Haidar Ali on the other hand mounted a most formidable attack on English positions. By July 1780, he had assembled 80,000 well-trained troops in Bangalore, some of whom were commanded by French mercenaries. In a well-planned move, this great force poured through the passes onto English possessions. Taken by surprise, the Madras government could not react effectively and the Mysore forces isolated the capital, reaching a mere nine miles from Madras. On 10th September, Haidar Ali’s forces defeated and massacred an English contingent of 3,700 men under the command of Colonel Baillie.

A Two-pronged Counter by the English

The Governor–General in Calcutta, Warren Hastings, remained unruffled by the setbacks being reported from the Carnatic. Taking a leaf out of the Maratha Federation’s strategy, he too resorted to diplomatic overtures to counter the somewhat deteriorating security situation. He formed an alliance with the Rana of Gohad, a subject of the Peshwa, who was induced to declare himself independent. The Rana received a force of 3,000 Company troops under the command of a Captain William Popham, who proved to be an efficient military officer. The combined forces of the Rana and the English crossed the River Yamuna in February, routed the covering forces of the Marathas, and first took the fort of Lahar and later, on 4th August 1780, the main fort of Gwalior itself. Madhav Rao Scindia was seriously upset with the loss of Gwalior. At the same time Warren Hastings deputed Sir Eyre Coote, a sixty-year-old veteran of the Company’s Indian army, to move south and check the advances of Haidar Ali. Coote managed to halt the advance of the Mysore forces and then the arrival of the monsoon rains halted operations for the next three months.

Fall of Bassein

In October, the monsoons receded. Colonel Goddard garrisoned both Surat and Broach to ensure their safety and on 16th October 1780 marched south to invest Bassein. The Bombay government send a detachment under Colonel Hartley to reinforce the main force. Colonel Hartley stormed Bawa Malang, a base 10 miles from Kalyan that had long withstood English attempts to capture it. On 13th November, Colonel Goddard, newly promoted Brigadier-General, reached Bassein. After carrying out a careful recce of the terrain and the defences, he laid siege to the fort on 28th November 1780.

The Marathas tried their utmost to relieve the garrison, but their attempts were hampered by the English invasion of Central India that had tied down a significant portion of Scindia forces. The fact that their guns did not arrive on time semi-paralysed the Scindia army engaged in trying to lift the siege of Bassein. Even so, there were some tactical successes for the Marathas. Ramachandra Ganesh, who had been placed in overall command of the relief effort was given two more contingents to hasten the relief efforts. He managed to push back Colonel Hartley’s forward deployed forces, forcing them to fall back into the safety of the main besieging army under General Goddard.

On 10th December, Ramachandra Ganesh mounted a concerted attack on Hartley’s corps and the attack continued unabated in a determined manner through 11th December. On the morning of 12th December, a thick fog enveloped the battlefield. Taking advantage of the fog, Ganesh attempted to surprise the right flank of Hartley’s corps. By sheer misfortune, the plan failed. As the Maratha forces were close to commencing the attack, the fog suddenly lifted, surprise that was part of the Maratha commander’s plan of action was lost and the Maratha army was exposed to the outposts of the English, where they had mounted their guns. The Maratha vanguard was exposed to withering cross fire; Ramachandra Ganesh, personally leading his forces was killed almost immediately; and his second-in-command, a capable Portuguese officer, was seriously wounded. Dispirited by the change in circumstances and the loss of their senior commanders the Maratha attack broke and very soon they were retreating.

While this sub-battle between the Maratha forces and the Hartley corps was being played out, from 9th December onwards, the English had been subjecting Bassein to furious and fairly accurate artillery fire, continuing the barrage without cessation through 10th December. The damage inflicted was such that at 10 A.M on 11th December, even as Ramachandra Ganesh was making credible progress against Colonel Hartley, the Bassein garrison offered to surrender. It is obvious that there was a lack of communications between the besieged garrison and the relief columns outside. Terms for the surrender were negotiated—the soldiers in the fort were permitted to lay down their arms and leave unmolested; the inhabitants of the fort and the city were permitted to retain private property; and only public properties were appropriated by the English. Such magnanimity from the English would not be sustained into the future as their avarice grew along with unrestrained power and hubris. This was a rare display of English courtesy in dealing with a defeated local commander/chief. The English victory can be directly attributed to the excellence of the English artillery that systematically destroyed Maratha defences and blew up ammunition dumps.

The loss of Bassein was a heavy blow to Nana Phadnavis. The Bassein garrison was highly prized by the Maratha government and people, going back in history and lore to the exploits of the venerated Chimnaji Appa. Similarly, the countryside surrounding Kalyan had been the roaming ground of the great King Chhatrapati Shivaji and close to the Maratha heart; the losses were almost unbearable.

The Maratha Offensive

Nana Phadnavis was an astute strategist and although forced on the backfoot by the loss of Bassein, he continued planning for the future. His calm demeanour never externally displayed even the slightest worry regarding military defeats or other calamities that were besetting the nation. He habitually took setbacks in his stride and planned for the next move. With the help of Hari Ballal Phadke, he set about strengthening the Maratha army. The Governor–General in Calcutta knew that it would not be possible to ‘defeat’ the Maratha Empire as the English had done with the smaller kingdoms in Bengal—if anything Warren Hastings was a pragmatic leader. He sent out feelers for a negotiated peace, forwarding his terms and conditions to Pune through Mudhoji Bhonsle. The overture was ignored by Nana Phadnavis and went unanswered.

On 18th January 1781, General Goddard captured the fort and island of Arnala near Bassein. He sent Nana Phadnavis, Warren Hasting’s terms for a peace agreement, which was immediately and formally declined. The Regent continued to prepare his army to defeat and destroy the English army of the west. As a precautionary measure, he had the boy-Peshwa removed to the safe fort at Purandar. The Maratha move towards battle was initiated by sending a large contingent under Parashrambhau Patwardhan into the Konkan to interdict the English lines of communication.

Nana Phadnavis himself leading a great army, assisted by Hari Phadke and Tukoji Holkar, moved up the Indrayani valley to face-off against General Goddard. Nana Phadnavis had immense and calm energy, never being flustered and his very presence brought a calming effect on the Maratha army.

On 16th March 1781, Parashrambhau encountered an English detachment, immediately south of Matheran and inflicted heavy losses on them. The remnants of the battered contingent limped into base camp. Goddard who was in the Sahyadri hills at this time was alarmed at the gravity of the danger gathering around him and started to fall back to Panvel. While General Goddard’s main body was withdrawing from the Sahyadri ranges, yet another detachment of Company forces was attacked and badly mauled by Maratha cavalry. On 1st April, three battalions of Company sepoys accompanied by cavalry and artillery, who were escorting grain and stores to Panvel for the main army, were repeatedly attacked by Maratha forces. They lost 106 men and a large part of the stores being carried. The English force was only saved from total annihilation by the timely intervention and rear-guard action by forces from the Bombay garrison.

General Goddard took stock of the situation and found his position highly untenable. Accordingly, on 19th April he decided to retreat, which was the beginning of his misfortunes. On 20th April, Hari Phadke, sweeping down from the hills leading his force of cavalry captured a large quantity of baggage and ammunition of the retreating army. The English camped at Chauk and then on 21st April fought their way to Khalapur where they rested for a day, while being continuously harassed by Maratha forces. The dispirited army resumed their march on 23rd April. Harassed throughout their retreat by Maratha cavalry, they finally reached Panvel late on the same day. The retreat from the Sahyadri hills to Panvel had cost the English 456 killed, of whom 18 were English officers.

With Goddard’s ignominious retreat, the Konkan was cleared of the English and Maratha morale restored. With the monsoon rains about to set in, Nana Phadnavis started to plan a two-pronged, cold weather, post-monsoon offensive against the English—one against the garrison at Bombay and the other into Bengal. He hoped to bring the English to the negotiating table accepting his peace terms. However, this was not to pass; before the monsoon season of 1781 had passed, defections from the ranks weakened the Maratha polity to an extent wherein Nana Phadnavis did not feel confident of carrying forward his plans to deal simultaneously with the English in Bombay and Bengal and bring them to heel.

The Defections

During the usual lull in the fighting during the monsoon rains, the English made concerted attempts to court Madhav Rao Scindia and Mudhoji Bhonsle on whose active support Nana Phadnavis had based his post-monsoon strategy to deal with the English. Sadly for the Maratha Federation, before the monsoon rains had abated, both Madhav Rao Scindia and Mudhoji Bhonsle had accepted separate, bilateral treaties with the English.

From early 1781, Scindia had been suffering minor defeats in Central India. After capturing Gwalior, the Scindia stronghold, Captain Popham had cleared the Gohad territories of Maratha outposts and forces. On 16th February 1781, Madhav Rao Scindia managed to surround an English force, but the commander managed to extricate the contingent and escape with great difficulty. Scindia could not capitalise on this exploit. On 24th March, the very same force, under the command of Colonel Carnac, attacked and defeated a Scindia contingent in a determined night operation. When the monsoon rains set in after a month, Carnac occupied Scindia territory and laid waste to it with hardly any opposition. At the end of his tether and unable to safeguard his territories, Scindia signed a treaty of neutrality with the English on 13th October 1781. According to this treaty, Madhav Rao agreed to remain neutral in any future Anglo-Maratha wars and also to act as an intermediary for peace negotiations with the Maratha Federation in Pune on an as required basis. In one stroke, the English had managed to neutralise a big chunk of Maratha military power.

Weaning Mudhoji Bhonsle away from the Confederacy was much easier. He was given a considerable amount of money and assisted in recapturing the districts of Karra and Mandela from the officers of the Peshwa. These districts had been held by the Peshwa since 1742. These two military–diplomatic successes placed the English in an advantageous position vis-à-vis the forthcoming negotiations with the Pune government. Madhav Rao Scindia attempted to impress upon Nana Phadnavis the advantages of accepting the English proposal and peace terms. While these manoeuvres were on-going in Central India and the Deccan, Haidar Ali, now a declared Maratha ally, was being repeatedly beaten in battle by the forces led by Sir Eyre Coote—in July 1781 at Porto Novo; Pollilore in August; and Sholingur in September. 

Peace Treaty of Salbai 1782–83

On 17th May 1782, the Treaty of Salbai was signed between the Maratha Federation and the English East India Company. The terms stipulated that the English would no longer support Raghunath Rao and his claim for the position of the Peshwa. Raghunath would reside in Scindia territory on a monthly maintenance allowance of 25,000 rupees. The English would retain Salsette but restore all other captured territories to the holdings as at status quo ante to the Treaty of Purandar. Further, Ahmedabad and other Gaikwad towns were to be returned to Fatehsinh Gaikwad, who in turn would pay a tribute to the Peshwa in perpetuity. Broach was bestowed on Madhav Rao Scindia for the role that he played in bringing to fruition the entire peace negotiation. From his side, Nana Phadnavis agreed to ensure that the Peshwa/Maratha Federation would not form any alliance with the French or any other European nation hostile to the English. He also agreed to compel Haidar Ali to restore captured territories to the English and the Nawab of Arcot.

The Treaty of Salbai was concluded after extensive negotiations on 17th May 1782; ratified by both parties on 6th June 1782; and formally exchanged on 24th February 1783.

The treaty finally extinguished Raghunath Rao’s unquenchable thirst to become the Peshwa. He opted to move to Kopergaon on the banks of the River Godavari with his wife Anandibai, whose vaulting ambition had been the cause of most of his misfortunes. The enforced inactivity and the loss of status were more than what the old warrior could bear and accept. He died in February 1784, a year after the formal exchange of the Treaty of Salbai. Raghunath Rao left behind his widow, an adopted son Amrat Rao, and his own son Balaji. Anandibai gave birth to another son after Raghunath Rao’s death, who was named Chimnaji Appa. Bitter to the end, Anandibai blamed Nana Phadnavis for all the misfortunes and failures that befell her husband and never forgave him. She kept him within her vengeful wrath throughout her life. She brought up Balaji to hate the Maratha Federation and with an undying flame in his mind to avenge the ‘wrongs’ done to his father—as will be described later, Balaji grew up willing to destroy the country to avenge his father.

Concluding Analysis

English historians laud the Treaty of Salbai as a great achievement of Warren Hastings. Some modern Indian historians have taken this assessment to be accurate and continued to proclaim the ‘victory’ of Warren Hasting’s military–diplomatic initiatives. A deeper analysis of the treaty and the circumstances of its formal acceptance reveals that the real victor at the end of the prolonged conflict was Nana Phadnavis and the Federation of Ministers in Pune that he controlled. He had won the long war that had been waged to determine whether Raghunath Rao or Madhav Rao Scindia would be enthroned as the Peshwa, with the Boy-Peshwa never being in the reckoning of the principal actors in the power play. Nana Phadnavis turned out to be a great man who controlled the destiny of the Maratha Empire.  

Despite enormous dissentions at home, disloyal allies and myriad other obstacles, Nana Phadnavis had single-mindedly pursued his objectives and achieved his goal—he had secured the throne for the son of Peshwa Madhav Rao. His unnaturally serene character that viewed victory and defeat at the tactical level with the same equanimity delivered a strategic victory for the Maratha Empire like none other. Even though many battles had been fought, some lost and some won, in the process, he had secured the Peshwa’s throne in Pune.

Nana Phadnavis’s assessment of the English and his sweeping strategic vision for the future of the Maratha Empire is laid out clearly in a letter he wrote to Madhav Rao Scindia. It states,

‘… We were never ambitious to conquer the Company’s lands. We never did them any harm. It was they who declared war against us and caused us heavy losses for six whole years. They have attempted to weaken the framework of our empire by trying to win over the Gaikvad and Bhosle, two pillars of our state. If we let them act as they wish, we shall only bring calamity on ourselves and subvert our empire. We shall neither give nor ask for favours, but make a treaty of peace with the greatest caution and care. We must not only insist on the reparations of our wrongs, but we must try to recover that part of the Carnatic conquest of the great Shivaji which is now occupied by the English. They can never establish their supremacy at Delhi, if the Marathas act vigorously and in union.’

It was unfortunate that this clarion call for unity of purpose and unity in action went unheeded by the petty chieftains that peppered the regime.   

© [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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