The Marathas Part 20 The Prominent Feudatories of the Empire Section II: The Rajas of Nagpur

Canberra, 20 August 2022

The Rajas of Nagpur come from a branch known as the Hingnikar Bhonsles who were closely related to the main branch of the Bhonsles in Satara. The founder of the dynasty Mudhoji is better known as the father of Parsoji Bhonsle who was instrumental in making the dynasty, and the kingdom that they ruled, achieve prominence. Both Parsoji and Rupaji, Mudhoji’s brother, have been mentioned as distinguished captains in the army of Shivaji Maharaj. Parsoji led expeditions to Berar and Gondwana and assisted Raja Rajaram in establishing his kingdom. He was rewarded with the grant of a saranjam and permitted to collect Chauth from Berar and Gondwana. Parsoji established his headquarters at Bham in Berar.

When Raja Shahu returned home in 1707 after being freed by the Mughals, Parsoji was one of the first chiefs to offer unstinting support to him. He was also instrumental in dispelling the rumoured doubts regarding Shahu’s legitimacy that were being spread by the Regent Tarabai. It is claimed that he ate food from the same plate as Raja Shahu to demonstrate to the people the high-borne status of the prince. On claiming the throne, a grateful Shahu conferred on Parsoji the military title ‘sena sahib subah’ and gave him a sanad that granted him six ‘sarkars’ and 147 ‘mahals’ in Berar. (It has not been possible to determine the actual meaning of either sarkar or mahal. It is possible, that the term sarkar may have been used to indicate a province, but no such equivalency can be found for the term mahal, which remains an enigma. Speculation – it may have indicated small villages??) Parsoji died in 1709 and was succeeded by his son Kanhoji.

Kanhoji Bhonsle was the incompetent son of an extremely efficient chief and from the very beginning mismanaged his saranjam, being unable to remit the traditional revenue to the Raja or even provide proper allowances for his uncle and nephew, Ramji and Raghuji. Perhaps because of the default in paying tribute, Kanhoji was also involved in disputes with the Raja and a few of his relatives. Exasperated by the non-payment of the customary tributes and the constant bickering of Kanhoji, Raja Shahu ordered a division of the Bhonsle saranjam, a decision that obviously displeased Kanhoji. He also followed the traditional route of disgruntled Martha feudal chiefs—immediately turning to the Nizam-ul-Mulk, the Mughal viceroy in the Deccan, offering to enter his service against the Maratha king. He does not seem to have given even a passing thought to the fact that this whole calamity was brought on and perpetuated by his personal failings.  

In scanning the history of the Marathas such behaviour by different chiefs is encountered repeatedly. However, it is still difficult for an analyst to fathom and reconcile in any logical sense the indifference of these chiefs to considering the ‘greater good’ of the Empire. It was beyond the thought process of these petty chieftains to think through the broader implications of their actions and the harm they caused the Maratha nation—so great was their focus on their individual greed and need for ego-satiation. The well-being of the Maratha Empire time and again fell by the wayside for lack of support by its own stalwarts. One is forced to state, with a certain amount of surprise, that the Maratha Supremacy was achieved despite the chiefs working against it. In the case of Kanhoji, Raja Shahu initiated action immediately on coming to know of his approach to an enemy of the State. He sent Raghuji Bhonsle to contain his uncle, who was captured and imprisoned without difficulty.

Raghuji Bhonsle

Raghuji succeeded to the saranjam and titles of the family. He proved to be the most capable leader of the family by a large margin, expanding the dynasty’s influence and reach through conquests as far as Bengal. Raja Shahu gave him permission to collect Chauth from Berar, Gondwana, Allahabad, Patna in Bihar and Maksudabad in Bengal, in return for Raghuji maintaining 5,000 cavalry for the service of the State and paying nine lakh rupees per annum to the central treasury. He was also bound to produce 10,000 cavalry on demand and to accompany the Peshwa to any quarter, as desired. The demands were high and meant to be strict, but the Bhonsles more often that nor left them unfulfilled.

Raghuji’s predecessors, Parsoji and Kanhoji, had established themselves in the Berar-Gondwana region and it was natural for Raghuji to move in that direction; the comfort zone of the family. In 1735, Raja Chand Sultan of Deogarh died and the Gond State was usurped by his illegitimate son Vali Shah. The mother of the legitimate heir, Ratan Kunwar, requested Raghuji’s help to reclaim the throne and the kingdom. Pursuing a concerted two-year campaign, Raghuji defeated Vali Shah, placed the legitimate son on the throne and as payment for his services, annexed a third of the Gond State to his own holdings. Even though the legitimate Gond prince was on the throne, the Maratha influence and interference in the administration were overbearing. In 1748, the Diwan, Raghunath Singh, rebelled to get out of the Maratha yoke. Raghuji acted with alacrity and put down the revolt; brought Chand Sultan’s two sons, Akbar Shah and Burhan Shah, to Nagpur as unofficial hostages under house arrest; and took over the administration of the entire Deogarh State in the name of the Gond king. This arrangement continued for the entire duration of the Bhonsle rule in Nagpur—although successive Rajas carefully maintained the façade of ruling Deogarh ‘on behalf’ of the Gond king.

Southern Expedition

In the late 1730s, the Maratha Raja of Thanjavur, Pratap Singh, troubled by the Nawab of Karnataka Dost Ali threatening to invade, requested Raja Shahu for assistance. Shahu dispatched an army of 50,000 nominally under the command of Fateh Singh Bhonsle but with Raghuji appointed the all-powerful chief-of-staff to actually run the campaign. The Maratha forces encountered Nawab Dost Ali’s forces at Damalcherry Pass on 19th May 1740—in the ensuing battle, the Nawab was killed and his forces routed. After this victory, Raghuji temporarily moved to Satara to directly support Babuji Naik’s claim to becoming the Peshwa, a failed enterprise from the very beginning. Realising his mistake at backing the wrong party, Raghuji returned hastily to Karnataka and his Maratha command.

He stormed Trichinopoly and imprisoned the fort commander Chand Sahib as a precursor to overrunning the entire Karnataka region, collecting tribute from petty rajas and polygars as he went along. He then sent a force of 15,000 to Pondicherry, demanding compensation from the French for their support to the enemies of the Maratha kingdom. The French Governor Pierre Dumas prepared for a siege and sent a spirited reply declining to pay any reparation or tribute. However, he accompanied the refusal with a dozen bottles of French liquor as an act of subtle diplomacy. Raghuji, already aware of the military preparations being undertaken by the French, pretended to be impressed with the valour being displayed and said to be won over by the liquor, ‘the golden produce of France’s vineyards’—returned with enhanced prestige.

Power Struggle in the East

Ali Vardi Khan, the Governor of Bihar, rebelled against his master Nawab Sarfaraz Khan and had him murdered on 10th April 1740. He then usurped the ‘subahdari’, the viceroyalty, of Bengal, which in those times encompassed the whole of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. The murdered Nawab’s followers and some relatives, led by Mir Habib a senior official from Orissa, would not accept this usurpation. They started a resistance to the new administration and invited assistance from Raghuji Bhonsle. Ali Vardi Khan had moved personally to Orissa, where the rebellion was most virulent, when a Bhonsle army under the command of Raghuji’s minister Bhaskar Ram Kolhatkar, entered Bihar through Patchet in April 1742 and reached Burdwan.

Ali Vardi cut short his Orissa campaign and came back to Bihar behind the Bhonsle army. Kolhatkar invested the new Nawab’s army camp and cut off his supply lines. At the same time one part of the Bhonsle army wandered the countryside, plundering villages and denying food supplies to the Nawab’s camp. Ali Vardi then planned to fight his way out of the situation and reach the relative safety of Katwa. The plan was discovered, and the Bhonsle army surrounded the Nawab’s army moving towards Katwa and cut down the rear guard and stragglers. Even so Ali Vardi managed to reach Katwa with a small contingent.

By now the monsoon season was fast approaching, which would have made troop movements in the riverine Bengal impossible. Aware of the challenges of being stuck in such a quagmire, Bhaskar Ram was keen to return to Nagpur. Mir Habib persuaded him to stay back, enticing him with the fact that Murshidabad, the rich capital of Bengal was defenceless and could be picked by an ambitious and adventurous commander for himself. Bhaskar Ram was tempted, heeded the advice and stayed on at Katwa while his large army spread across the entire western Bengal—the Nawab’s rule ceased to exist in the parts where the Bhonsle army established themselves. There are multiple reports and accusations of the occupying army committing atrocities against the local population. The hardships endured by the local people, on account of the ‘Maratha’ collection of Chauth and sardeshmukhi in this region for a long period, have been entrenched in their folklore, ditties, and even lullabies.

A Lullaby from Bengal

Lullabies, across cultures, are songs sung in the most intimate spaces—as the day comes to a close—and tend to echo the histories of those who sing them. Around the world they are songs that coax children to sleep, and are often windows to the parents’ hopes, fears and even dreams of the future. Lullabies are inherited and passed on from one generation to the next, containing traces of those who came before and therefore carrying traces of the present, even long after the present is the past.

The lullabies are meant for children—they hold fears about the unforgiving wider world, while emphasising that there is always hope at the end of all calamities. In some cases, and across many cultures, they also convey a cautious tale to the child—sleep, or else …

The occupation of a large part of Bengal by the Bhonsle army in the 1740s, generated a lullaby that perhaps conveys all the troubles and tribulations that the local, common people went through during those very harsh times. The lullaby, which continues to be sung even today, in its original Bengali version and its translation into English are given below.

The Traditional Lullaby

Khokha ghumalo, para juralo (The baby is sleeping, and the streets are quiet)

Borgi aelo Deshe, Bulbulite dhan kheyeche (Borgi (Maratha light cavalryman) has come to the country, the Bulbul bird has eaten the paddy)

Khajne debo kishe? (How are we to pay the tax?)

Pan phuralo, dhan phuralo, Khajna upay ki? (Beetle leaves are finished and so is the rice, how will we pay the tax?)

Aar kota din shobur karo, Rasoon bunechi! (Wait for a few more days, the harvested garlic will be ready!)   

There is no reason to dispute the reports that common people were harassed and ill-treated, especially considering the creation of a lullaby referring to the Maratha light cavalry and the inability of the local person to pay the necessary tax. The ill-treatment meted out to the civilian population by the Bhonsle forces leaves an unsavoury aftertaste to the entire episode.

Gangaram, the primary author of Maharashtra Purana, mentions the atrocities committed by the Bhonsle troops. However, he also justifies the presence of Bhaskar Ram and his forces in Bengal, quoting a letter from the Badshah [the Mughal emperor] to Raja Shahu in which the Mughal states, ‘he [Ali Vardi] who was a servant has killed the governor; he has become very powerful and does not pay me the tax. I have no army. Therefore, you should send men there to take the Chauth.’

—the translation of the Mughal letter is taken from V. G. Dighe, ‘Maratha Provincial Dynasties, Part I’, in The Maratha Supremacy: History and Culture of the Indian People, Volume VIII, p. 242.

At this juncture, the perennial challenge that the Maratha polity faced through the centuries surfaced once again to thwart the concerted progress of the Maratha Empire.

While Bhaskar Ram was leisurely camped at Katwa, Ali Vardi collected troops and mounted a surprise attack on the Bhonsle camp, managing to disperse the unprepared forces. He also foiled Raghuji’s attempt to collect Chauth in Bengal and in 1743, with the assistance of Peshwa’s forces, managed to drive out the Bhonsles from the province. The Peshwa’s support to Ali Vardi Khan against his own feudatory power is unfathomable and inexplicable, irrespective of the viewpoint from which the analysis is conducted. Here was a winning ticket that would have enhanced Maratha prestige and extended their territorial control beyond Bengal—scuttled by the petty jealousy of a Peshwa. The rivalries of ‘small men elevated to high positions’, which they did not deserve, was to be the bane of Maratha politics for all times after the demise of the great king Shivaji.

Raghuji Bhonsle Wins a Kingdom

Raghuji complained to Raja Shahu regarding the Peshwa’s unwarranted interference. In August 1743, the Raja demarcated the territories and spheres of influence of both his chiefs by an agreement, which left Raghuji free to pursue his conquests to the east. Bhaskar Ram was sent back to Bengal. This time Ali Vardi resorted to a base deception to defeat the Bhonsle army. He invited Bhaskar Ram to discuss the terms under which he would collect the Chauth, promising him safe conduct to the Nawab’s camp. However, on Bhaskar Ram and a small entourage reaching the designated meeting place, on 30th March 1744, on Ali Vardi’s personal orders, his soldiers attacked and murdered them.

In 1745, there was a mutiny in the Nawab’s army. Raghuji took advantage of the confusion and invaded Bihar after capturing Orissa and on 21st December 1745 attempted to march on the Bengal capital but was beaten back. A nagging question that comes up when this sequence of events is analysed is the distinct lack of reaction from Raghuji that can be observed to the treacherous murder by the Nawab of his senior minster and commander-in-chief in Bengal. No reason can be found for this unexplained pacifism from a normally aggressive chief—the inaction remains an enigma.

Desultory skirmishes continued for two years till it flared up into severe fighting in Burdwan and Midnapur in 1747. The Bhonsle army now adopted classic guerrilla tactics, keeping Ali Vardi under constant pressure and gradually but continuously sniping away at his strength. Ali Vardi, by now a 75-year-old weary man, finally accepted a treaty in 1751 to put an end to the interminable conflict. Major terms of the treaty included:

  • Mir Habib was to be appointed naib-nazim, chief minister?, who would pay the surplus revenue of the province to Raghuji’s forces for their upkeep;
  • 12 lakh rupees from the Bengal revenue were to be paid, per annum, to Raghuji as Chauth;
  • the Bhonsle forces (or other Maratha armies) would not invade Ali Vardi Khan’s domains; and
  • the frontier of Bengal was fixed to include the River Suvarnarekha, which meant that Midnapore district that the Bhonsles held would be returned to Bengal.

With the enactment of this treaty, Raghuji Bhonsle had won himself a kingdom that extended from Berar in the west to Orissa in the east, and Garha-Mandla in the north to Chandrapur in the south. The revenue of Berar was to be shared with the Nizam but Raghuji ruled all other parts of this vast kingdom as the supreme independent authority. Raghuji Bhonsle died on 14th February 1755, aged 60 years.

Jealousies and Succession Struggles

The large but compact kingdom that Raghuji had carved out and the great treasure that he had accumulated and carefully husbanded evoked the jealousy of all other feudatories, but especially made the Peshwa resent the power and status that it was affording the Raja of Nagpur. The death of Raghuji came as an opportunity for the Peshwa to reduce Bhonsle power and to enforce his writ by making them accept the Peshwa’s primacy in the Maratha polity.

At his death, Raghuji left behind four sons—Janoji, Mudhoji, Bimbaji and Sabaji. Janoji was the eldest, but Mudhoji claimed patrimony as the son of the senior wife. The dispute was referred to the Peshwa for arbitration, who immediately seized the opportunity to meddle in Bhonsle affairs. The wily Peshwa first demanded a large nazr for confirming the succession irrespective of who was being conferred as the next chief, claiming the position of the chief lawgiver of the Maratha Empire. Then he divided the Bhonsle kingdom into three parts, fully knowing that such a move would lead to feuds between the brothers. He permitted Janoji to retain the titles and the administration of all Bhonsle territories except Chandrapur and Chhattisgarh districts, which would be governed by Mudhoji and Bimbaji respectively. The decision was given in 1757 but the sanads were signed and issued only in 1761, a full six years after Raghuji’s death. During these years of uncertainty, the kingdom drifted rudderless, sinking deeper into internecine intrigue and conflict, edging towards anarchy. The delay in issuing the sanad by the Peshwa it is felt was intentional with the ulterior intent to push the Bhonsle kingdom into a state of instability from which it would be difficult to recover.

The strong central administration created by Raghuji was the core of the strength of the Bhonsle kingdom. The Peshwa’s decision to divide the kingdom was aimed squarely at breaking this unity and weakening the kingdom, which otherwise had the potential to become a counterweight to the Maratha Empire itself. The Peshwa knew that the division would lead to the brothers entering into endless disputes, finally leading to civil strife that would make the once vibrant kingdom lose its vitality. With one calculated decision of a jealous Peshwa, a kingdom that would have been an asset to the Maratha confederacy was laid low.

As expected, the Bhonsles became engrossed in squabbling over trivial matters, showing no interest in external affairs and gradually became ineffective in the broader political developments of the Maratha Empire. The domestic feuds consumed all their energies, so much so that none of the brothers even attempted to collect the traditional Chauth from Bengal. The alienation of the Bhonsle family from mainstream Maratha politics was the desired outcome that the Peshwa had sought and achieved. However, all such petty political manoeuvrings normally also create unanticipated repercussions and the decision to divide the Nagpur kingdom was no exception. The Bhonsle brothers were irate with the decision given by the Peshwa and gradually started to support anti-Maratha State intrigue plotted by the State’s entrenched enemies, to the detriment of their own as well as the overall wellbeing of the Martha Empire.

Towards Rebellion

Janoji had promised to pay the Peshwa a nazr of 10 lakh rupees on accession and deposit part of the revenue of the State to the Maratha administration—commitments that were never honoured. In 1762, Janoji joined Raghunath Rao’s rebellion to replace the Peshwa on the promise of being made the Raja of Satara. Nothing came of it other than to further alienate Janoji from the Peshwa and to increase the discord within Martha politics. Still harbouring strong anti-Peshwa sentiments, Janoji next joined hands with the Nizam—their combined army reaching the heart of Martha territory, desecrating many temples and laying waste the countryside on the way. The shrewd Peshwa used diplomacy and coercion to divide the alliance and decisively defeated the Nizam’s forces in the Battle of Rakshasbhuvan in August 1763. He had persuaded Janoji to abandon his newfound ally for being granted territory worth 32 lakh rupees.

Janoji’s rule was full of about-faces and broken promises that eroded his status and trustworthiness among his peers; both would be allies and potential adversaries. He had promised the Peshwa that he would send a contingent to operate in Karnataka in the campaign against Haidar Ali but reneged on it. In Berar, he refused permission for the Nizam’s officers to collect revenue—despite a cordial arrangement for the sharing of the revenue of the province having been in place since the time of Parsoji. This short-sighted action backfired and brought him to the brink of ruin.

The Nizam was now a partner in an offensive-defensive alliance with the Peshwa and evoked the terms of the treaty to chastise Janoji. The Peshwa was also keen to punish Janoji for repeated failures to keep his promises and took to the field at the head of a large army. In October 1765, he entered Berar through Khandesh and was joined by a contingent of 8,000 from the Nizam’s forces. The Bhonsle brothers left the capital and moved with their families to the fort at Amner and further sent their families away to Chandrapur. Janoji sued for peace, abjectly pleading to the Peshwa that he was not responsible for the earlier attack on the Maratha capital. He came to know that the Peshwa was contemplating cancelling his saranjam and humbly requested that this action not be initiated. The Peshwa reluctantly agreed, purely to keep Janoji within the Maratha confederacy, rather than throw him out, which could make him a full-fledged rebel. This was a minor display of far-sighted diplomacy that the Peshwa was capable of, but seldom resorted to in dealing with the feudatories. His decisions regarding the feudatories were always tinged with jealousy and selfishness.

A treaty was concluded in January 1766, at Daryapur near Kolhapur, according to which the 32-lakh-rupees jagir that had earlier been granted to Janoji was divided between the Peshwa, Nizam and Janoji, with Bhonsle receiving the smallest share. According to the treaty, Janoji also promised to send a military contingent to join the Maratha army moving north to campaign in Hindustan, North India. Characteristically, he again reneged on this promise. Immediately thereafter Janoji reverted to type, confirming his reputation as an unreliable feudatory—both as a friend or foe—and leaving the Peshwa incensed.

Declining Power

In 1768, the irreconcilable differences between the Peshwa and his uncle Raghunath Rao came out in the open—Raghunath Rao initially claiming the post of Peshwa; then demanding the division of the empire; and finally resorting to revolt, seeking assistance from all traditional enemies of the Maratha State and asking feudatories for assistance. Janoji supported the rebellion. In June 1768, the Peshwa defeated Raghunath Rao and then marched into Bhonsle territory to punish Janoji, who attempted reconciliation through mediation. The Peshwa ignored the overtures and continued his march. He had fielded the great army that had been readied for the Hindustan campaign and occupied the Bhonsle capital and all territories west of the River Wardha. Janoji fled the scene.

One part of the great Maratha army laid siege to Chand, while another major part pursued Janoji who kept up a running fight while suffering repeated defeats. The Maratha forces captured Bhandara near Nagpur and on 10th January 1769 a senior Bhonsle commander was defeated at Panchgaon. After another month of fighting, Janoji Bhonsle was cornered at Kanakpur at the southern frontier of his kingdom. Yet another treaty was concluded on 23rd March 1769, this time the terms and conditions being laid out as demands by the Peshwa and acceptance of them by Janoji. The terms implicitly stated that Janoji and his house would thereafter obey the Peshwa; acknowledged him as the head of the Maratha confederacy; Janoji would serve the Peshwa whenever called upon to do so; and so on—long list of 19 dos and don’ts for the recalcitrant Bhonsle.

‘This short war marks the signal triumph of the Peshwa’s policy. An attempt was for the first time made to define clearly the relations between the central power and its feudatory member.’

—Sardesai G. S., New History of the Marathas, Volume II, p. 530.

Janoji Bhonsle died three years later, on 16 May 1772 after a disastrous rule of 17 years.

Janoji – A Retrospective

Through his 17-year rule, Janoji had not been able to govern the principality well nor been able to establish good relations with the Peshwa or even his own brothers. His life as the ‘king’ was littered with the litany of broken promises made to allies and friends and a distinct lack of steadfastness of purpose as a ruler, bringing to its knees what had been a kingdom in robust health at his inheritance. The four brothers could never function in unison, and they made no attempt to ensure the sovereignty of the State. With the internal divisions between the brothers spilling over into the public arena, the army too was divided and several times on the verge of mutiny.

The Bhonsle brothers were inefficient rulers, individually and collectively, which led to the rapid and steep decline in the administration of the kingdom. It did not take long for the kingdom to become economically poor and an ineffective military power. The English were the first to recognise the loss of power of the Bhonsle kingdom and refused Janoji his right to collect Chauth from Bengal—the Bhonsle chief could not do anything to enforce his writ. This was perhaps a fitting epitaph for an unfit successor to the great Raghuji Bhonsle, undoubtedly the greatest of the house of Nagpur.

Renewed Succession Struggle

Janoji died without having children and the succession struggle took on increased complexity. Before his death he had wanted to adopt his brother Mudhoji’s son, also named Raghuji, born in 1757, and had obtained the Peshwa’s permission to do so. However, since the formal adoption process had not been completed, on his death three more claimants to the throne surfaced—Mudhoji himself, Janoji’s favourite wife Bakabai and the fourth brother Sabaji. With the multiple claims coming to the open, the Peshwa went back on his commitment to Janoji. He suspected Mudhoji, who would act as the Regent if the boy-king was endorsed, of supporting Raghunath Rao and therefore sent the robes of investiture to Sabaji—obviously this act led to open hostilities between the brothers.

The Pune court was also divided with only Raghunath Rao supporting Mudhoji and the rest of the nobles siding with Sabaji. The succession struggle and civil strife continued with intermittent fighting for two years till Sabaji was killed in a battle fought at Panchgaon on 26th January 1775. Mudhoji was now left with no rivals for the position of chief. He gave an undertaking to the Peshwa on 24th June that he would not support Raghunath Rao and was confirmed to the Bhonsle saranjam.

Mudhoji’s Follies

Mudhoji was a man without a vision, no strong loyalties and devoid of any patriotism, intent on following a narrow path of self-expediency for short-term gains. In 1777, the English persuaded him to make a claim on the throne of Satara, and in return for their ‘support’ to this scheme he permitted the English forces to transit his territories to Surat, where they were to be employed against the Maratha forces, a fact known to Mudhoji from the beginning. During Janoji’s tenure the English had made an offer to let him collect Chauth in Bengal in return for the transfer of Orissa to the English East India Company. Despite all his flaws, Janoji had seem through this ploy and wisely refused the offer.

There is no doubt that Janoji had been deficient in diplomatic skills and strategic foresight, however Mudhoji was a much lesser man even in this comparison. He was now pulled into a four-cornered alliance against the English by Nana Phadnavis, the Regent, consisting of the Peshwa, Haidar Ali, and the Nizam. According to this alliance, the fourth corner Mudhoji, was to invade Bengal at the same time when the other three attacked English facilities in the south and west. Mudhoji betrayed the alliance immediately—not only did he inform the English of the plans but also assured them that he would only feign compliance and had no plans to attack the English in Bengal. Further, his forces would not hinder English troop movements but on the other hand facilitate their transport as much as possible. This betrayal of the cause was done for the consideration of a mere two million rupees.

In the event, no attack on Bengal took place and the English were able to send a strong force through Bhonsle territory to assist their Madras government in withstanding the Maratha assault. Mudhoji essentially scuttled what could have developed into the most significant challenge to the beginning of English domination in the sub-continent, even before the anti-English movement could gain minimum traction. Mudhoji died in 1788—a man driven only by personal ambition and incapable of viewing the developing political landscape beyond the here and now.

Raghuji II – The Downfall

Raghuji II succeeded his father with no challengers and uncontrolled power vested in him. He used his unquestioned power in questionable ways and squandered the authority he held, which for the first time in more than four decades was not being challenged internally. He had limited battlefield experience, having led the Bhonsle forces against the Nizam in 1795 at the Battle of Kharda, although he could not be considered a battle-hardened general. In 1800, immediately after he came to power, the kingdom was extensive and yielded more than a crore rupees per annum—at that time revenue that was more than being generated by the Maratha State itself.

Unfortunately for the Nagpur kingdom, Raghuji II was not a good administrator, and certainly without the drive or the talent to reform the governance of the kingdom that was suffering the ravages of more than three decades of indifferent and self-serving rulers. Neither was he equipped to concentrate power and consolidate a vast, but somewhat fraying, territory. Under his reign, the vast resources of the kingdom were frittered away by a second-rate administrative machinery led by an indifferent king not well-schooled in either royal duties or diplomacy, on a second-rate military and a sycophantic court that propped up their king.

To his credit it must be acknowledged that Raghuji was the first of the major feudatories to realise the full implications of the Peshwa’s acceptance of the Treaty of Bassein. He realised that the treaty, signed in 1802, was the de facto acquiescence of English paramountcy and that it was a death blow to the concept of an independent Maratha Empire and its supremacy. He tried his best to bring about a reconciliation between the Scindias and Holkars, his forces fighting alongside Scindia troops at the Battle of Assaye. However, his efforts made no headway.

Raghuji’s military forces were nowhere near the top rung and were officered indifferently. They suffered a severe defeat at the hands of the English at the Battle of Argaon and on 17th December 1803, Raghuji was forced to accept the Treaty of Deogaon. According to this treaty, the Bhonsles were stripped of Orissa, the territories west of River Wardha, south of River Narnalla and the Gawilgarh Hills. The revenue immediately fell to less than half of the original. Further, the standard English terms of having to obtain their permission to start any military or diplomatic initiatives were also imposed. A permanent English Resident was stationed in Raghuji’s court.

An Inglorious End

Raghuji died in 1816 and was succeeded by his nephew Appa Saheb, who was coerced into accepting a subsidiary alliance with the English. A large English-led military contingent was stationed permanently in Nagpur territory with the Bhonsle having to maintain them. The Nagpur kingdom had entered its death throes. Appa Saheb made a desperate but vain attempt at getting out of this web of control and the ensuing gradual loss of control over the kingdom. For his efforts he was exiled, to be replaced by a puppet till 1853, when the entire kingdom was annexed to the English Company holdings, for want of a ‘legitimate male heir’ to the throne. The fact that a trading company could determine who succeeded to the throne of a local kingdom speaks volumes regarding the loss of status and power of these dynasties and States. Thus ended the independent existence of what was once the largest feudatory, which rivalled the Maratha kingdom itself.


English officials of the time have painted a picture of an extremely corrupt and greedy ruling elite who were concerned only with their profits, even at the cost of the basic welfare of their subjects. These reports, especially one by Richard Jenkins, the acting Regent, written in 1827, is overly accusatory and exaggerated, clearly demonstrating the nuanced effort at justifying and smoothing over the unjustifiable actions of the English East India Company. There is no doubt that a certain amount of self-serving went on among the Maratha nobles. However, such actions did not warrant the intrusive interference of a trading company operating for profit at the mercy of the very same rulers who they were grinding down into the dust. No amount of ‘white-washing’ or justifications—subtle or otherwise—can obscure the harsh reality of the English avarice and duplicitous dealings being the root cause of the failure and collapse of a once thriving kingdom of great power and potential.  

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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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