The Marathas Part 18 The March to Destruction: 50 Years of Chaos Section VIII: Balaji Rings the Death Knell: The Third Anglo-Maratha War

Canberra 4 August 2022

On the conclusion of the long drawn Second Anglo-Maratha War, Bajirao managed to maintain cordial relations with the English, who left him alone to pursue his personal interests. Bajirao revelled in the new freedom that he enjoyed, free from the restrictive control of Nana Phadnavis and the intrusive actions of powerful feudatories. The Peshwa selected and appointed his close friends to high offices in the government and gave himself up to vicious pleasure. The English resident at Pune, Colonel Barry Close (later General Sir and 1st Baronet), ensured that the Peshwa did not involve himself in any intrigue with foreign countries or individuals but otherwise left him alone. The English subsidiary forces posted to the Maratha kingdom restored peace and stability to the Peshwa’s domains fairly fast. In turn, the improved politico-economic circumstances started to bring in a revenue of 12 million rupees per annum to the Peshwa’s treasury, which started to overflow. Bajirao also sequestered the estates of some of the nobles who were opposed to him, arresting and confining the nobles themselves, while confiscating all their properties. Bajirao was obviously profuse in his gratitude to the English.

In February 1811, Mountstuart Elphinstone was appointed the resident in Pune and the sanguine atmosphere that had so far prevailed under Colonel Close changed rapidly. Elphinstone was an energetic political officer and took direct charge of the administration of the kingdom. He settled the on-going dispute between the Peshwa and the Maratha jagirdars who were opposed to him. This settlement with the jagirdars—the major ones being the Patwardhans, Rastes and the Desais, who were being vindictively targeted by the Peshwa—which came to be known as the Treaty of Pandharpur, pledged security for them by the Company. This treaty completely dispelled any remaining illusion that Bajirao had entertained of having direct control and authority over his subjects. Ironically, he had never craved their allegiance and loyalty, but had always wanted to use his power to destroy them—his underlying subconscious agenda of vengeance against the Maratha nobility had not vanished. Elphinstone’s arbitration and assurance of security to the jagirdars created a rift between the Peshwa and the English.

The next point of contention came up with the Peshwa’s claims over the Gaekwads of Baroda. The Peshwa had earlier leased some of his estates in Gujarat to Gaekwad, which was renewed on 2nd October 1804. In February 1805, there was a serious uprising in Gaekwad territory, which could only be put down with English assistance. The expenses involved rendered the Gaekwads unable to pay the Peshwa. Bajirao felt that the opportunity was ideal to annex some of Gaekwad territories—as a prelude, he asked that an envoy be sent to Pune to discuss the settlement of dues. Gaekwad sent Gangadhar Shastri, a powerful noble in his own right, as his envoy to Pune to discuss Peshwa’s financial claims. He reached Pune with an English guarantee of his personal safety.

Gangadhar Shastri was murdered on 20th July 1815. The English were incensed, and Elphinstone demanded that the culprits be apprehended and punished most severely. He pinned the blame on Trimbakji Dengle one of Bajirao’s close associates and a favourite minister. Dengle, was a commoner who had risen in power through the Peshwa’s largess and proclivity to promote persons of limited and questionable integrity. Elphinstone had Dengle arrested much against the protests of Bajirao. However, Dengle was anything if not resourceful and with the Peshwa’s active help escaped from prison in Thane on 12th September 1816. After evading recapture, he started to gather an army under the Peshwa’s instructions.

The arrest of Trimbakji Dengle was an affront to Bajirao, who felt he had been insulted and disgraced. While he was still smarting under this perceived insult, the Governor–General informed the Peshwa that his authority no longer extended over his former feudatories and that the Company would no longer assist him in restoring the old order. Quick to believe that the instructions from the Governor–General was a deliberate effort to insult him, Bajirao’s thoughts immediately turned to revenge and retaliation. As a first step, Bajirao increased his revenues, started to recruit more troops for his army and to repair and fortify the forts under his control. He also started to actively search for allies to oppose the English, seeking cooperation from rulers in faraway places—he sent envoys to the Burmese king, Maharaja Ranjit Singh of the Sikhs, and the Rana of Nepal, although no further developments came of these initiatives. Internally he courted Bhonsle and Scindia, while making friendly overtures to the Patwardhans and the Rastes, whom he had wanted to destroy only a few months back. He also attempted to bribe sepoys and European soldiers to desert the Company army.

While Bajirao was busy in these activities, Dengle had collected a sizeable number of irregular levies who were starting to increasingly harass the common people of the kingdom. Elphinstone complained to the Peshwa about the illegal activities of Dengle’s levies, but Bajirao pretended not to have noticed anything untoward taking place. Exasperated by the inaction of the Peshwa, the Resident demanded that Trimbakji Dengle be arrested, and his levies disbanded within a month. He also demanded that the Peshwa surrender the forts of Sinhgarh, Purandhar and Raigarh as a pledge that action would be initiated and completed. The deteriorating situation was brought to the notice of the new Governor – General, Lord Hastings, who opted to reinstitute the Wellesley’s old Maratha policy. He instructed Elphinstone to enact all the articles that had been enshrined in the Treaty of Bassein. Till this time the English had been slack in enforcing the treaty on the Peshwa.

Nails Start being Hammered into the Coffin

On 8th May 1817, English forces surrounded Pune and on 13th June forced Bajirao to sign the Treaty of Pune. The terms of the treaty dealt a moral and material defeat to the vainglorious Peshwa. He was forced to issue a proclamation declaring his favourite subordinate, Trimbakji Dengle, as the murderer of Gangadhar Shastri and demanded his arrest. Further, he was forced to surrender the forts as demanded earlier and to permit the English to hold Dengle’s family hostage till his arrest. The Company also enforced other terms of the Treaty of Bassein that had been permitted to lapse, such as the Peshwa having to cede lands that yielded 34 lakh rupees per annum in lieu of the military contingent that he was supposed to furnish. The amount was calculated as required for the maintenance of a force of 5000 cavalry, 3000 infantry and accompanying stores and ordnances. The tract of land handed over to fulfill this obligation encompassed Ahmednagar, Ahmedabad and the northern Konkan. Bajirao resigned all claims against Gaekwad in return for a paltry sum of four lakh rupees per annum.

For all his self-centred behaviour, Bajirao II realised the rapid dissolution of the Maratha Empire in both form and substance. Till the enforcement of the openly humiliating Treaty of Pune, Bajirao had disliked the English in a dismissive fashion and was jealous of their power, but now he was consumed by his hatred for them.

English diplomacy and other activities in the sub-continent, which could be considered interference in local political affairs for a trading company, soon coalesced to start the Third Anglo-Maratha War. By this time, the English had, at least covertly at the higher levels of leadership, resolved to establish their supremacy over the entire sub-continent. The dilution of Maratha power had brought in anarchy in large parts of the sub-continent, which the Company felt was detrimental to their own trade and commercial activities. The chaos was rapidly spreading across large tracts of land that had become lawless, especially through the unchecked looting and pillage activities of the Pindaris, Thugs and other free-booting bandits. The first step the English took to stabilising the situation was to suppress and eliminate these groups.

The Pindaris were horse-mounted freelance marauders who roamed the Deccan and Central India. When they first appeared in the late 17th-century, they were irregular auxiliaries of the Martha cavalry, under the overall command of the Maratha general, but functioning independently at the operational and tactical levels most of the time. Gradually they had removed themselves from the formal central command and become a law unto themselves, with their own organisational structure, commanders and leaders. They operated purely for gaining treasure through loot and plunder with no religious, political or ethnic affiliations. Nor did they subscribe to any accepted norms of morality, integrity or loyalty, other than to a creed that they had formed within themselves. Their sole objective being opportunistic plunder and rapine, the Pindaris avoided pitched battles with all opponents. Concentrating around a place called Nemawar, about 130 kilometres due east of Indore in the Dewas district within Holkar territories, the Pindaris had managed to devastate Malwa, Rajasthan and the northern parts of the Madras presidency of the English East India Company, turning these regions into wilderness. Hastings decided to clean up the region and destroy the Pindaris as well as the other bandit groups.

While the English were preparing to face-off against the Pindaris, Bajirao was playing his own games. He sent his army on leave with pay, while pretending to the Resident that he was in the process of disbanding his army. In July 1817, he went to Mahuli and met Sir John Malcolm, the political agent of the Governor–General. A gullible Malcolm was completely misled by the charming Bajirao, who had him believe that the Peshwa was the greatest friend of the English. Taken in by the display of good will, Malcolm had the three confiscated forts restored to the Peshwa and obtained permission from the Governor–General for Bajirao to raise troops, ostensibly to join the proposed English expedition against the Pindaris. Bajirao continued to stay on at Mahuli and with the help of Bapu Gokhale, raised a large force, almost doubling the strength of his army.

The Pindari Campaign – In Brief

The objective of the Pindari campaign, as laid down at the highest level, was to round up and exterminate the predatory gangs of Central India, whether Pindari or other bandits. To achieve this, a two-pronged strategy was devised—one a military campaign and the other diplomatic initiatives to deny safe-haven to the hunted bandits. Metcalfe cajoled and coerced the local rulers and formed special treaties with Kota, Bhopal, Bundi, Udaipur, Jaipur and Jodhpur to ensure that none of them would provide safe harbour to the Pindari groups. The combined territories of these rulers covered the entire marauding grounds of the Pindari.

The Pindari were organised as independent groups with their own leaders and commanders. The more prominent groups were under the control of leaders such as Hera Buran, Cheetu, Karim Khan, Dost Muhammad, Wasil Muhammad, Shaikh Dullo and Namdar Khan. These were all independent units and not mutually supporting or affiliated. The Company gathered two armies. Hastings moved initially to Agra and then to Bundelkhand and gathered the Northern Army consisting of 113,000 men and 300 guns. The army was organised in four divisions and co-commanded by Hastings and Major-General Sir David Ochterlony. The Army of the Deccan, commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Hislop with Malcolm as his political agent, consisted of five divisions.

The campaign opened on 16th October 1817. Karim Khan and Wasil Muhammad were routed at Shahbad near Jhalawar—Karim Khan subsequently submitting to Malcolm on 15th February 1818 and being settled in a small estate near Gorakhpur; Wasil Muhammad surrendering to Scindia and thereafter committing suicide after an unsuccessful attempt to escape. On 3rd February Namdar Khan surrendered to Colonel Adams at Darapur near Bhopal and Cheetu is believed to have been killed by a tiger in March 1818. By early April 1818, the Pindari had been brought under control with most of the powerful groups disbanded and their leaders either dead or incarcerated.

A subtle nuance of the Pindari campaign was that it was carefully planned to dove-tail with a Maratha campaign that was being planned, aimed at obliterating all vestiges of Maratha power across the sub-continent as a prelude to establishing English political and territorial supremacy. Since both the campaigns had the same aim, they were planned to complement each other. Before the campaign was launched and even during the initial phase, the Pindari chiefs reached out to the Maratha commanders for assistance but did not receive any favourable response. Bajirao as usual played a double-game, sending out emissaries to some of the senior Pindari commanders while at the same time providing useful hints to the English forces through Elphinstone on methods to suppress the Pindari. On the whole the Maratha establishment was against the Pindari, ever since they had lost control of them a century ago.

The Peshwa particularly wanted to be seen as supporting the English since such a stance gave him the opportunity to raise more troops in the pretext of supporting the Pindari campaign. As the Pindari campaign progressed, the Peshwa and later Raghuji Bhonsle assessed that they had built their strength to an extent for them to overwhelm the small English contingent stationed in their respective capitals.

Bajirao Miscalculates …

After appeasing Malcolm, Bajirao reverted to his old habits and tactics. He started to actively seduce native soldiers in English service, the so-called sepoys, and in some cases even tried to induce English officers to join his army. Elphinstone, the resident in Pune, had established an excellent spy network and was aware of all Bajirao’s activities. On 19th October 1817, Bajirao celebrated Dussehra with great pomp and ceremony. During the festivities, Maratha forces repeatedly behaved in a threatening manner to the English, while at the same time the Peshwa called in more reserves into Pune. The oppressive behaviour continued even after the ceremonies were over and the Resident felt it prudent to withdraw his forces to Khadki (now known as Kirkee), then a small village, on 30th October. Although he continued to stay in Pune with a small contingent of bodyguards, he called in a light battalion and some auxiliary cavalry from Sirur, about 40 miles away from Pune.

The Peshwa believed that the English soldiers had been withdrawn because the Resident feared the growing Maratha power and resolved to defeat them before the reinforcements from Sirur could reach Khadki. On 5th November 1817, Maratha action against the English was initiated by an army led by Bapu Gokhale, who moved out of Pune with 18,000 cavalry and 8,000 infantry soldiers. Elphinstone seeing the advance of the Maratha forces crossed the River Mulla and joined his forces at Khadki. Although the English forces at Khadki numbered only about 3,000, as soon as the Resident joined them, the commander Colonel Burr decided to take the offensive and prepared to attack the far larger Maratha force.

Bapu Gokhale opened the Maratha attack by sending 6,000 cavalry to isolate and attack the English vanguard that had moved too far ahead of the main body. The terrain was however not conducive to rapid cavalry manoeuvre and the vanguard was able to save itself. Battle was then joined on the plains stretching between the Chaturshringi Hill and Khadki. In the ensuing Battle of Khadki [Kirkee], the English lost 86 men to the Marathas approximate loss of nearly 500 soldiers. Then the Sirur contingent arrived at Khadki and both the sides disengaged. On 13th November 1817, General Smith arrived with the 4th Division from Nasik, considerably increasing the English strength. On 15th November battle was joined again—Bapu Gokhale was defeated by the combined English army in the Battle of Yerawada. While Bapu Gokhale fought a rear-guard action, the Peshwa retreated to Purandhar and then fled to Satara. On 17th November 1817, the English entered Pune without any opposition.

… and an Empire Bites the Dust

On 22nd November General Smith started his pursuit of the Peshwa. Bajirao had by then doubled back from Satara, taking the Raja of Satara Pratap Singh the son of Shahu II who had died on 3rd May 1808 and his family with him, and effected a join up with Trimbakji Dengle, north of Junnar. Smith, a canny planner, called for reinforcements from Sirur to plug the gap in the English lines that would have permitted the Maratha forces to slip away to the Konkan. The reinforcements under Captain Francis Staunton—one battalion of infantry, 300 irregular horse and two guns manned by 24 Englishmen—reached the high grounds above River Bhima on the morning of 1st January 1818.

They encountered the Maratha cavalry moving to recapture Pune, who now turned, determined to intercept the reinforcing troops. Staunton made a feint to cross the River Bhima, then turned back and took position at Koregaon, a village on the eastern bank of the river. He positioned the two guns that he had; one to guard the road from Sirur and the other to protect the approach from the river to his defensive positions. Then he awaited the Maratha attack.

Bajirao, now reinforced with 5,000 ‘picked’ infantry, attacked Koregaon. Three units each of Arab and Maratha infantry, each of them 300-strong, crossed the river under cover of artillery shelling. By afternoon the Peshwa infantry had reached the outer posts of Koregaon, displaying great courage and initiative, and had captured the gun guarding the approach from the river. The English forces were in dire straits with four officers and the gun crew killed and the outpost on the verge of being overwhelmed. The surviving English soldiers appealed to Staunton to surrender while there was still an opportunity to do so, which he refused to do. He led the remainder of his forces in a spirited counter-attack that carried everything in front of it—the captured gun was retaken in the nick of time and fired point-blank at the approaching Maratha reinforcements with devastating effect. The English forces thereafter defended Koregaon till nightfall and the end of skirmishes for the day.

The Maratha forces did not renew their attack the next day. Their morale had been so badly shaken by the fierceness of the counter-attack by an adversary they had considered to have been defeated. Bajirao, mortified by the debacle at Koregaon in which his own lack of leadership played not a small part, abandoned the battlefield and his ambitions to reclaim Pune; he embarked to the South. He continued his southward journey for the entire month of January, hoping to receive assistance from the Raja of Mysore, which was not forthcoming. Now fearing that he would encounter the army led by General Monroe if he went any further, he recrossed the River Krishna and rapidly moved to Sholapur.

On 7th February 1818, the English forces under General Smith captured Satara, symbolically raising the Union Jack over the citadel. Perhaps without knowing it, General Smith was heralding the arrival of the British Empire into the sub-continent—the last of the great bastions that stood in their way had been shattered. General Smith recommenced his pursuit of the Peshwa while General Pritzler was given the task of capturing the forts around Pune.

Fall of the Pune Forts

On 14th February 1818, General Pritzler marched to Sinhgarh, which resisted gallantly from 24th February to 2nd March and then surrendered. On 11th March he reached Purandhar which raised the white flag after a three-day bombardment. Another detachment took Chakan on 26th February, Visapur on 3rd March and Lohgarh on 5th March.

By 3rd May General Pritzler was the master of all forts in the neighbourhood of Pune.

Bajirao was now fleeing without any definite plan, closely pursued by General Smith. On 19th February, Smith overtook the Maratha army at Ashta, a village in Sholapur district, about 15 miles from Pandharpur. A few days earlier, Bapu Gokhale had lost his son in a skirmish with the English. He was by now completely fed up with the feckless behaviour of the Peshwa and devastated by watching the grievous calamities befalling his beloved country. He charged the English regiment of cavalry crossing a riverbed and was in turn attacked by a squadron of Dragoons. Bapu Gokhale was cut down in the fighting while the cowardly Peshwa fled the field. The English captured the Raja of Satara, Pratap Singh, and his meagre entourage along with a large quantity of the Peshwa’s baggage. With the capture of Pratap Singh, the Company started to pose as if they were fighting to install the descendant of Chhatrapati Shivaji on the throne of the Maratha kingdom, enticing few jagirdars in the Peshwa’s camp to abandon him.

Bajirao had by now given up all hopes even of an amicable settlement, let alone a victory, and was concentrating on ensuring his own personal safety. He considered moving to Nagpur, the Bhonsle headquarters that was already controlled by the English (this narrative is given later in the book). However, realising that no shelter would be offered at Nagpur, Bajirao fled to Kopergaon and then to Chanda. The English soon captured Chanda and Bajirao II, the Peshwa, was forced to surrender to John Malcolm on 3rd June 1818 at Mhow, near Indore.

Bajirao’s Last Days

The English now openly announced their intention to annex the Maratha kingdom. Bajirao was settled by the English at Bithur, 12 miles north-west of Kanpur, on the banks of the River Ganga, with an ample pension to sustain a lavish lifestyle and a Captain Lowe as the resident. He indulged in his wildest dreams of debauchery, which may have consoled the last Peshwa for the loss of an empire and power that he in any case had never learned to wield correctly or effectively. Although married 11 times, six times in Pune and five times after being confined at Bithur, he never fathered a son. On 6th June 1827, Bajirao adopted Dhondupant, the son of a priest Madhav Rao Bhat, and subsequently his two brothers. Dhondupant would become famous as Nana Sahib later in his life. [The life and times of Dhondupant alias Nana Sahib will be narrated in the forthcoming Volume XI of this series of books on Indian history—From Indus to Independence: A Trek through Indian History]

Bajirao II died in 1851, aged 80. During the last 30 years of his life, he lived a life of easy-going pleasure with absolutely no responsibilities to assume or discharge. It is highly unlikely that he even felt the loss of a kingdom or throne, which he had never deserved. As a final analysis: Bajirao II was a physically timid person, almost cowardly in all his actions; politically short-sighted; vacillating in his decisions and wilfully treacherous in his dealings. He had no good qualities that could be mentioned, even as a platitude towards a dead Peshwa.

In 1818, with the annexation of the truncated remnants of the once great Maratha Empire, the English East India Company created the beginnings of the British ‘Dominion of India’.

Immediate After Effects

The end of what came to be called the Third Anglo-Maratha War left the English in control of virtually the entire Indian sub-continent south of the River Sutlej—either through direct rule or through subsidiary alliances with local rulers of princely states. The defeat and disintegration of the Maratha kingdom finished the last vestiges of dynamic opposition to English supremacy in the sub-continent. The Peshwa’s territories were annexed directly to the Bombay Presidency of the Company, while the captured Pindari territories eventually became the nucleus of the Central Province of British India. The valiant princes of Rajputana had been gradually, but incessantly, crushed—over a period of more than three centuries—to the status of feudal lords who accepted the paramountcy of English power. Pratap Singh, the direct descendant of the great king Shivaji, was recognised as the ceremonial head of a non-existent Maratha kingdom/confederacy.

The long history of the Indian sub-continent was to enter another era of a different kind of subjugation, that transcended the political and was intended as plunder and economic exploitation without the conquerors ever acknowledging it.

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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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