The Marathas Part 18 The March to Destruction Section VI: Acceleration of Decay and Dissolution

Canberra 21 July 2022

Richard Wellesley (1st Marquees Wellesley, 2nd Earl of Mornington) was a member of the English East India Company’s Supreme Council in Calcutta from 1793 and was appointed the Governor–General in 1797, holding the post till 1805. When he took over, Nana Phadnavis in the last years of his life and in failing health predicted, ‘Evil days seem to be ahead—there seems to be no escape from destiny.’ The great statesman was scanning the horizon to seek the future of his beloved, and once great, Maratha Empire, which was unquestionably diminishing in front of his eyes. On taking over, and perhaps even before that, Wellesley (generally referred to as Lord Mornington) had realised that Tipu must be brought down as the highest priority. At the same time, he was also studying the Maratha nation, its leaders and getting an intimate knowledge and understanding of the perennial disunity that troubled the kingdom.

In his despatches Wellesley mentions the ‘treachery, low cunning, cautious jealousy and perverse policy’ of the Marathas. (Edward Thompson, Making of the Indian Princes, p. 19) Accordingly, the Governor–General treated the senior and major leaders of the Maratha Empire as independent powers on a bilateral basis, rather than as part of a Confederacy, which in fact they were, although reluctant to accept the same. The gradual seeds of division being sown is clearly discernible.

Bedlam in the Carnatic

Ever since the treaty of 1792, in which the terms imposed on Tipu were disastrous for him, he had been planning vengeance against the English. He induced the Nizam’s son to rebel against his father, hoping that if the revolt succeeded, he would be able to garner the resources of the Nizam’s dominions for himself. Unfortunately for Tipu, the rebellion was crushed in its initial stages and his plans failed. In 1796, Tipu sent an embassy to the court of Zaman Shah ruling Afghanistan proposing a military alliance against the English, which also did not succeed.

Growing increasingly desperate, Tipu became a French citizen and then sent an embassy to Mauritius asking the Governor to despatch 40,000 troops to Mysore, of which 10,000 were to be pure French soldiers and the rest locals officered by Frenchmen. The Governor was obviously not able to match the demands and no forces were sent, although a few adventurers opted to join the Mysore forces as privateers. On the eve of the last Anglo–Mysore War (to be described in detail in the next book in this series) Tipu requested the Peshwa, Scindia, and Raghuji Bhonsle to at least remain neutral if they were not going to assist him against the English. He warned Hari Phadke with these prophetic words, ‘You must realise that I am not at all your enemy. Your real enemy is the Englishman of whom you must beware.’ (G. S. Sardesai, New History of the Marathas, Volume III, p. 192.) This warning was like the sinister whispering of a soothsayer announcing the arrival of a new nemesis.

Even before he became the Governor–General, Lord Mornington had determined that Tipu must be destroyed once and for all at all costs. He prepared for war and asked the Nizam and the Peshwa to send military contingents to assist the English forces in the campaign. The Nizam sent a force of 16,000 troops while Bajirao II, unable to make any serious policy decisions, did nothing. In the battle that ensued, Tipu was outgeneralled, comprehensively beaten in the battlefield, and killed on 2nd May 1799, when his capital, and the supposedly unconquerable citadel Seringapatam, was stormed. Tipu’s death on the battlefield was a shock to all other Indian princes—they had not anticipated the viciousness and brutality of the English attack, which was the portent of things to come. The readings of history were unmistakable and clear to the perceptive and brilliant statesman Nana Phadnavis. He warned the Peshwa, ‘Tipu is finished; the British power has increased; the whole of east India is already theirs. Pune will be the next victim.’ (G. S. Sardesai, op cit., p. 354.)

The Mysore kingdom was divided between the English, Nizam and the Peshwa. A small part was restored to the infant son of the last Hindu ruler of Mysore—Chamraj who had died in 1796—with his mother as the regent under direct English protection. The Nizam ceded his share of the territory to the English as payment for the upkeep of the ‘European’ battalions in his service, which the English had taken over after dismissing the French officers. The territory nominally set aside for the Peshwa was never handed over and the English controlled it fully. In Pune, these developments were met with complete consternation. The English now controlled not only Bengal, but almost the entire Carnatic; an intelligent observer could clearly see that their ultimate objective was to become masters of the entire sub-continent.

Chaos in the Maratha Empire

The affairs of state within the Maratha kingdom were declining from bad to worse and the administration had almost ceased to function. The disgruntled widows of Madhav Rao Scindia had moved to the protection of the Raja of Kolhapur, who in espousing their cause started an open war with the Peshwa. At the same time a rebel general from the Scindia forces was ravaging Scindia domains and Yashwantrao Holkar commanding a body of freebooters was plundering Malwa. Daulat Rao Scindia, now without the able assistance of de Boigne who had returned to France, was unable to counter any of these threats.

A brother of the Raja of Satara repeatedly defeated the forces of the Peshwa sent to subdue him and in one of these encounters, Parashrambhau Patwardhan was mortally wounded. To crown the misfortunes of the Peshwa, Nana Phadnavis died on 13th March 1800—his health had been failing ever since his incarceration in Ahmednagar. With his death the last vestige of wisdom and moderation in strategic decision-making also died within the Maratha polity—the fall into decay accelerated appreciably.

Nana Phadnavis–An Appreciation

Judged by any standards, there is no doubt that Nana Phadnavis was a great man. Some analysts blame him for a lack of physical courage, citing his refusal to either join the fight or even to let Patwardhan fight the Scindia army when they were marching on Pune. A charge of lack of physical courage, a euphemism for cowardice, is easy to make and extremely difficult to disprove or dispute fully. Once such a charge is made by reputed and senior historians, the stigma can never be fully removed. In the instance being quoted against Nana Phadnavis, he knew fully well that his forces would face certain defeat against Scindia’s superior army. It is argued here that even in the late-18th century, to court certain defeat could not have been considered a sign of great valour but of enormous foolhardiness. True valour has always been girded with discretion—discretion, tempered with pragmatism, which always keeps the ultimate strategic objective of the Empire/Cause as the highest priority. The charge against Nana Phadnavis regarding his lack of physical ‘courage’ cannot be substantiated.

On the other hand, Nana Phadnavis possessed unsurpassed political courage and foresight. He spent his entire life guarding the throne for his young master. Tragically his excessive care for the young Peshwa resulted in unintended consequences and may even have indirectly contributed to the illness and subsequent death of the Peshwa, whom he had no doubt loved like a son. Unfortunately, the last phase of his life is not a fitting epilogue to an otherwise sterling career. In the last few years, the punctiliousness that had always characterised his life vanished. He ruined Maratha interests by selfishness and a wanton disregard of strategic vision. Ill health, brought on by imprisonment in somewhat harsh conditions, sapped his vitality and shook his once rock-steady commitment to the well-being of the Empire—an unsavoury epitaph for a great statesman.

In his private life he was truthful, kind, frugal and generous to others. He regulated his waking hours in such a manner that the amount of business, both private and public, that he transacted in a day was prodigious and considered almost beyond normal human capacity. If he had any character weakness, it was his excessive fondness for the fair sex. He married no less than nine times in his life, although at his death only two wives were surviving, both of them child-brides—Bagabai aged 14 years and Jiubai who was only nine at his death. He left no living children at his death, one son and two daughters from earlier marriages having died prematurely at young ages.

Even in death controversy followed Nana Phadnavis. The payment to his Arab bodyguards was in arrears and they sealed off his house, not letting anyone enter or leave, to extract their wages. Bajirao paid off the guards and discharged them. The child wife, Bagabai died of some illness two weeks after Phadnavis’ death and Jiubai was taken by Bajirao and confined to a room in his palace.

The Life of Jiubai

After being confined in the Peshwa’s palace, Jiubai was released by Yashwantrao Holkar and sent to Lohgarh fort, which was still being commanded by a Nana Phadnavis loyalist officer, Dhondu Ballal Nitsure. Two years later the English forced Jiubai to surrender the fort to them and removed her to Panvel, where she stayed for 16 years under English protection. They also made Bajirao give her a yearly stipend of 12,000 rupees. When Bajirao was overthrown, Mountstuart Elphinstone, the English commander, moved her to Pune and along with her pension conferred the townships of Menvali and Belbagh on her.

In 1827, she adopted the youngest son of Ramakrishna Gangadhar Bhanu and renamed him Madhav Rao. On her death, the pension and other allowances were withdrawn but the English let Madhav Rao and his descendants continue to keep the two townships.   

There is one critical point regarding Nana Phadnavis’ character that is often missed and not often mentioned in recounting his contributions to the Maratha Empire. Through his long career, Phadnavis had multiple opportunities to usurp or seize the Peshwa’s throne for himself. It is to his credit that never once did he nurture such ambitions, nor did he move an inch closer to gathering more power for himself at the cost of the Peshwa. His loyalty to the family of the Peshwa was unquestioned, to the extent that it was a sacred trust for the great statesman.

It was rumoured that during his long tenure, Nana Phadnavis had amassed great personal wealth. If he indeed did so, the treasure has never been found. The rumour however was so strong that on his death both Bajirao and Daulat Rao Scindia searched his entire palace for the treasure but could not locate it. Bajirao, cruel and inconsiderate as always, imprisoned and tortured Nana Phadnavis’ friends to find the ‘hidden’ treasure, but to no avail. It is certain that the rumour of great wealth having been accumulated was just that, a rumour meant to sully the Regent’s reputation. Since he could not find any treasure at the Phadnavis estate, Bajirao decided to plunder the Patwardhans. Their entire estate was stripped of all valuables and then all their houses burned. With Nana Phadnavis dead, Bajirao felt a renewed sense of freedom. However, if he had thought that he was free of tutelage, he had not counted on the restrictions that would come with the ambitious Daulat Rao Scindia taking over the role of the First Minister.

Peshwa–Scindia–Holkar Civil War

Bajirao was careful not to upset Scindia or be on his wrong side since Daulat Rao had now become all powerful in Pune. Therefore, he turned his attention to Yashwantrao Holkar, who he felt was more malleable to manipulation. Yashwantrao, the illegitimate son of Tukoji Holkar, was a man with a great capacity for endeavour. Starting with a small army and achieving minor successes, he had managed to quickly gather a sizeable army and build it into a cohesive fighting force. Since he himself was an illegitimate child, he started to proclaim that he was acting solely on behalf of Khanderao, his nephew and legitimate heir to Tukoji, who was being held captive in Pune by Scindia.

Bajirao, wily as always, instigated Yashwantrao to invade Scindia domains so that the two most powerful clans would fight each other into exhaustion, leaving him relatively more powerful. Yashwantrao fell for the ploy and invaded Scindia domains, although his initial forays were beaten back. He then bought off the Frenchman de Drenec commanding Scindia forces, who defected bringing along with him the well-disciplined regiments that he had raised and trained. Thereafter, Holkar was able to ravage Scindia territories at will. Daulat Rao was on the horns of a serious dilemma. He was reluctant to physically leave Pune even though his personal territories were being plundered. Leaving Pune to confront Holkar who had grown into a formidable adversary would have meant relinquishing his favoured position in the Pune court. However, as the situation in his personal fief became dire, he was forced to move out of Pune. Even so, he managed to extort 47 lakh rupees from a reluctant Peshwa and marched north to give battle to Yashwantrao Holkar.

Some of the inevitable skirmishes and battles that ensued were indecisive, but Yashwantrao won a brilliant victory near Ujjain. However, his further progress was stopped at Burhanpur and then Holkar was defeated at Indore. Bajirao was exultant at getting Scindia out of Pune and went on an orgy of revenge, once again demonstrating his vicious and selfish nature. He targeted all the prominent families who had ever opposed his father, true to the vengeful nature that his mother had inculcated in him as a young boy in his formative years—she had been successful in creating a flawed monster. The Raste family, who had been in the forefront of opposing Raghunath Rao, was devastated. The head of the family, Ramachandra Raste was imprisoned in squalid conditions, after being captured treacherously.

Vithoji Holkar, the second illegitimate son of Tukoji Holkar and a close friend of Nana Phadnavis was captured near Bhamburda. He was taken to Pune, where he was tied to the foot of an elephant and dragged around the streets of the town until he died. Bajirao personally supervised the torture and gloated over Vithoji’s suffering in public. The torture and murder of Vithoji was a crime since he had not committed any anti-national activity. More importantly, the murder of Vithoji was a great error of judgement by Bajirao, who had started to consider himself invincible, without ever having taken to the field or won a battle. Yashwantrao had been deeply attached to his brother and enraged at the unfair treatment meted out to him, abandoned the fight against Scindia and marched straight to Pune, vowing terrible revenge. The Maratha edifice was crumbling from the inside, brought about by the thoughtless actions of a person who was as unfit to be the Peshwa as his father also had been.

When Holkar disengaged and moved towards Pune, Daulat Rao sent one of his senior generals, Sadashivrao Bhaskar, chasing after him. However, Yashwantrao skilfully managed to evade confrontation with the Scindia forces and on 23rd October 1802, camped between Loni and Hadapsar, few miles north-east of Pune. Sadashivrao joined up with the somewhat meagre forces of the Peshwa and in a bloody battle fought on 25th October, Yashwantrao Holkar decisively defeated the Scindia-Peshwa army. The much-vaunted battalions of the Scindia army disappointed in their performance, except for four battalions that had been earlier personally trained and commanded by de Boigne. Perhaps in memory of that great mercenary soldier, these four battalions stood and fought to the last man, gradually cut to pieces by the furious and repeated charges of the Holkar cavalry, personally led by Yashwantrao.

True to his cowardly character, Bajirao had taken no part in this battle. On hearing about the defeat of the Scindia army and the vehemence of Holkar’s anger, he fled from Pune—first to Sinhgarh, then to Raigarh and later to Mahad, from where he implored the English for protection. The English also behaved true to form, immediately granting the Peshwa protection. They took him onboard one of their ships at Rewadanda, which then sailed for Bassein, reaching that port on 6th December 1802.

The flight of the Peshwa left Yashwantrao Holkar in charge of the Maratha State. He was astute enough to realise that his status as an illegitimate son of Tukoji Holkar precluded his ruling the kingdom indefinitely. He therefore summoned Amratrao, the adopted son of Raghunath Rao and appointed him Peshwa. Then Yashwantrao Holkar did something that will be eternally counted as a discredit to him—he sacked Pune, already reeling under the repeated onslaughts of Bajirao and Ghatge, with brutality and viciousness that knew no bounds. No logical reason can be found for this action, other than to speculate that he was giving vent to his combined frustration at Bajirao’s escape from his clutches and his own status as an illegitimate offspring that prevented his donning the mantle of the Peshwa.

Peshwa Bajirao II – The Villain

When looked at from a broad strategic point of view, Bajirao without doubt emerges as the villain in the fall of the once great Maratha Empire—the flow of events from the time of his becoming the Peshwa in 1796 till the final curtain came down could be equated to a Greek tragedy.

He was installed as the Peshwa in December 1796 by Nana Phadnavis with the consent of the great feudatories of the State—Scindia, Holkar, Bhonsle—and even the Nizam. From the beginning, Bajirao was eager to exercise power, although he lacked the boldness necessary to acquire such power for himself. He was habitually suspicious and insincere with no great or uplifting character traits to mitigate these glaring deficiencies. It is possible that he suffered from low self-esteem since he consistently consorted with low dependents with whom his perceived ‘superiority’ would remain unquestioned. The most damaging of all was his inherent character trait of being viciously vindictive—cultivated and nurtured by his equally vindictive mother in his childhood. This great flaw, when combined with his natural proclivity towards artifice and intrigue made him a formidable enemy in the game of court politics. He was also reported to have been fond of courtesans and to indulge in sexual peccadilloes bordering on debauchery.

‘The author of Peshwyanchi Bakhar, Krishnaji Sohoni, who was an officer in the last days of the Peshwa and therefore, a close observer of events, was constrained to remark, “words fail to describe Peshwa Baji Rao, who unlike any other member of the family, was lacking in manly character, suspicious of nature, incapable of choosing wise advisers and was altogether wanting in military talent.”

—S. N. Qanungo, ‘Decline and Fall of the Maratha Power’,

in, The Maratha Supremacy, p. 489

This was not the man to arrest the decay and dissolution, which had started to set in before he came to power but was accelerated by his antics. The English resident in Pune, who was assiduously courted by Yashwantrao Holkar, continued to support Bajirao’s cause even after the Peshwa absconded. The resident was finally permitted to leave Pune on 28th November and met the Peshwa in Bassein on 16th December. Under the Governor–General’s instructions, he initiated the preliminary discussions for a treaty to be signed between the English East India Company and the Maratha Empire, represented in the body of the absconding Peshwa.

The basis for the treaty was the proposals made by the Peshwa himself in October 1802 when he had to flee Pune, wherein he wanted to place the Maratha Empire in a ‘subsidiary alliance’ with the English. The treaty, which came to be called the Treaty of Bassein, was drawn up and signed in late 1802 and ratified by the Governor–General in March 1803. It was meant to be an alliance of equals with emphasis on the defensive aspects for both the signatories, or at least that was what it was made out to be by the English. The reality was something completely different.

According to the Treaty of Bassein, the Peshwa agreed to:

  • receive from the Company no less than 6000 regular native infantry, with accompanying artillery and other equipment and pay for their upkeep and maintenance;
  • cede in perpetuity to the Company territories yielding 26 lakh rupees per annum. These territories were situated in four different parts of the Peshwa’s possessions—Gujarat, territories to the south of River Tapti, territories between the Rivers Tapti and Narmada, and territories near the River Tungabhadra;
  • relinquish forever control of Surat;
  • give up all claims of Chauth from the Nizam’s territories; 
  • respect the bilateral treaty between the Company and Gaekwad; and
  • not engage in negotiations with any State without the prior approval of the Company government.

By no stretch of imagination could this treaty be considered a mutually defensive one between equal partners. The Treaty of Bassein completely annihilated the Maratha Empire, ending its independence and giving the Company undisputed supremacy over the State. More importantly, it indirectly gave the Company the foundation to grow its own empire in the Indian sub-continent.

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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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