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The British Conquest


THE BRITISH would often think of their conquests in India as fortuitous. It gratified a cherished conceit about the Englishman’s amateurish innocence and it obviated the need to confront awkward questions – like how such aggression could be justified. Clive himself, normally neither temperate nor cautious, would agonise long and hard over whether to assume what he called ‘the sovereignty of Bengal’. Twenty years later the polymath Sir William Jones would marvel at how Bengal had, like an over-ripe mango, ‘fallen into England’s lap while she was sleeping’. Even Warren Hastings, Jones’s patron and the first British Governor-General of India, would shy from the idea of the all-India dominion with whose foundation he is rightly credited; it was something ‘which I may not mention without adding that it is what I never wish to see’.1

Picking up on such breezy disclaimers, historians of the British Raj have generally explained its triumph less in terms of the push of conquest and more in terms of the pull of chaos. The Company was ‘sucked into’ the ‘power vacuum’ left by the declining Mughal empire. No native regime rose to fill this ‘black hole’, authority fragmented, and economic decline threatened. The ‘lawlessness’ of Afghans, Marathas and other ‘warlords’ brought cries for protection which necessitated an elaborate British-sponsored system of ‘ring-fencing’ based on subsidiary alliances which would embrace most of the subcontinent. Territorial acquisitions and local forms of resistance, as also administrative and fiscal anomalies, invited political, judicial and revenue ‘settlements’. Suggestive of a pillowed repose, these ‘settlements’ were supposedly designed to restore a traditional order which, while advantageous to the British regime, would bring security and prosperity to all.

Such views have since been revised. It is argued that the ‘chaos’ and the ‘vacuum’ were in part of the Company’s own making, in part an invention of its apologists, and in part the result of a misreading of India’s history. Economic decline before the late eighteenth century cannot be substantiated. The vitality of the market in revenue rights and commercial concessions already noticed is taken as evidence of dynamism rather than decay. Regional regimes were not inconsistent with India’s political and cultural traditions. And powerful successor states, like those of Bengal, Hyderabad (the Nizam), Pune (the Peshwa), Mysore (Haidar Ali) and Lahore (the Sikhs), were waxing impressively beneath the vault of Mughal authority until extinguished or suborned by the expansionist ambitions of the Company.

These expansionist ambitions, taken in the context of a global imperialism, are often explained simply in terms of greed. Much emphasis is laid on the fortunes acquired by individual Company men, the so-called ‘nabobs’, and on the exploitative character of the policies pursued by their employer. Testimony to personal fortunes is plentiful, especially amongst the condemnations of scandalised and jealous countrymen in England; systematic exploitation, although harder to quantify, is inferred from numerous examples of Indian protest and is linked with the great famine of 1770, which may have killed a quarter of Bengal’s population.

But in an India where revenue extraction was the main business of government and where personal fortunes were not readily distinguished from official receipts, British rapacity attracted much less attention than it did in England. Under the later Mughals as under their ‘Great’ predecessors, power and prestige depended on conquests and access to revenue. Conversely conquests and access to revenue depended on power and prestige. Greed was as much the essence of government as it was of commerce. Merchants who became rulers happily adjusted their sights without experiencing any great conflict of interests. And although it would be hard to prove that either the Company or its servants espoused loftier ideals, it would also be hard to prove that any of their Indian rivals were motivated otherwise.

What did distinguish the British was their sense of being outsiders. Race, creed, culture and colour set them glaringly apart; so did their well-developed consciousness of a national identity. They might, and would, quarrel sensationally. Additionally, British government policy would often be at variance with that of the Company’s London directors, London directives (if still relevant by the time they reached India) would often be ignored by the Company’s senior administration in Calcutta, and Calcutta’s interests were often flouted by the subsidiary administrations in Madras and Bombay. Coherent policies are hard to distinguish; it was the ad hoc and reactive nature of British expansion which convinced so many that dominion was fortuitous. But if coherence was lacking, cohesion was not. Despite the opportunities for personal enrichment and despite the Indophile interests of ‘brahmanised’ scholars like Sir William Jones, loyalties to regiment, service, Company, Crown and country would prove tenacious. British rule would be as impervious to India’s powers of assimilation and as unsusceptible to fragmentation as it was unchallenged by succession crises. Authority was continuous, allegiance consistent. Herein lay a source of strength which was arguably more decisive than either economic advantage or military discipline. No other contender for power in India could present such a united front; no other foreign invader could maintain such a prolonged challenge.

The recapture of Calcutta by Clive and Watson in late 1756, their storming of nearby French Chandernagore in early 1757, and Clive’s success at Plassey in June 1757, although later seen as milestones, would attract little contemporary comment in Mughal Delhi. Bengal had long since slipped from imperial control, and its quarrelsome European trading companies were still seen as peripheral and parasitic appendages in the great scheme of Mughal hierarchy. Moreover ‘the Famous Two Hundred Days’ so celebrated by the British happened to coincide with a winter of still greater infamy for the Mughal emperor, for in January the imperial capital was sacked by a more traditional predator in the shape of Ahmad Shah Abdali. An Afghan of the Durrani clan, Abdali was following in the hoofprints of earlier raiders from the skirts of the Hindu Kush like Mahmud of Ghazni and Muhammad of Ghor. The attack on Delhi was the climax of his fourth invasion of the Panjab, most of which province he had previously wrested from its Mughal governor and whence he had already conquered Kashmir.

Nor was his plunder of the capital itself unprecedented. Seventeen years earlier Abdali had served in the forces of Nadir Shah, a latterday Timur who, having usurped the throne of Persia and seized Kandahar and Kabul, had swept across the Panjab to rout an imperial army at Karnal. Thence, in 1739, Nadir had entered Delhi as the emperor’s voracious guest. This amicable fiction lasted barely forty-eight hours. For some casual spilling of Persian blood Delhi’s citizens paid a gruesome price as Nadir Shah ordered a general massacre. Twenty thousand may have been butchered in a single day, and further carnage followed as the Persians concentrated on the extortion of family heirlooms and hidden treasure. Muhammad Shah, the long-reigning emperor so celebrated for his inactivity, was ignominiously recrowned by his vanquisher. Then, following fifty-eight days of excess which would be remembered long after British ‘nabobs’ had become a bad joke, Nadir Shah departed Delhi with coin valued at eight or nine millions sterling plus a similar hoard in gold and silver objects. ‘And this does not include the jewels, which were inestimable.’2 Amongst them were Shah Jahan’s Peacock Throne and the Koh-i-Nur diamond, which gem thus again passed into Persian possession. (How, if it was the same as Humayun’s diamond, it had slipped from Persian possession in the first place is not certainly known. It may have been the stone reportedly gifted by Shah Tamasp of Persia to the Sultan of Golconda and then presented to Aurangzeb by Mir Jumla. Howsoever, it was soon on its way back towards India, having already passed from Nadir Shah’s grandson to Ahmad Shah Abdali.)

In 1756 Abdali found the imperial treasury somewhat bare, ‘but Delhi was plundered, and its unhappy people again subjected to pillage, and its daughters to pollution.’3 The city of Mathura shared a like fate and Agra only narrowly avoided it. Confirmed in the possession of Sind as well as Kashmir and the Panjab, Abdali retired to Afghanistan. He would be back for more in 1760–1 and on that occasion would inflict a crushing defeat on the Marathas at Panipat. But suffice it here to note that in the late 1750s the rapacity of the British in Bengal was not exceptional. By contemporary standards it might even be described as restrained. As Clive would notoriously aver to a parliamentary committee which would eventually investigate his conduct in India, the opportunities which awaited him after Plassey had been almost unimaginable.

A great prince was dependent on my pleasure; an opulent city lay at my mercy; its richest bankers bid against one another for my smiles; I walked through vaults which were thrown open to me alone, piled on either side with gold and jewels. Mr Chairman, at this moment I stand astonished at my own moderation!4

Nor, by contemporary standards, was there anything particularly novel or outrageous about the means by which Clive and his men engineered their so-called ‘revolution’. It has been argued that at the time Bengal, although ‘not an oasis in a war torn India’, remained more stable and prosperous than other provinces of the Mughal empire. ‘For most of the [eighteenth] century the Nawabs and the British were able to maintain some kind of unity over an area extending hundreds of miles up the Ganges valley, at least as far as Patna. Beneath their umbrella the zamindars enforced a tolerably stable order.’5 This was what made the region so attractive to foreign adventurers, and it was not something which they wanted to disturb. Clive’s ‘revolution’ was designed simply to replace an unsuitable nawab. It was not meant to subvert the existing order, rather to stabilise it.

Bengal’s comparative prosperity, as also its autonomy, dated from the turn of the century and the appointment, a decade after Child’s ‘Mughal War’, of a man later known as Murshid Quli Khan. Born a brahman in the Deccan, the much-renamed Murshid Quli Khan had been purchased, converted, adopted, and then inducted into Mughal service by one of Aurangzeb’s Persian amirs in the Deccan. Exceptional ability won him the diwani, or chancellorship, of Hyderabad and from there in 1701 he had been sent to boost the revenues of Bengal. Like Sher Shah and Todar Mal before him, he compiled new revenue rolls, established an efficient system of collection run largely by Hindus (or farmed out to them), and ruthlessly enforced it. He also transferred most existing jagirsfrom the richer parts of Bengal to less-easily-taxed regions in Orissa. What are now West Bengal and Bangladesh thus became predominantly khalsa, their land revenues in other words being due directly to the emperor via the person of his brilliant diwan.

Receipts had immediately increased. Remitted to Aurangzeb in the Deccan, they helped to finance his vendetta against the Marathas. Indeed the emperor was so impressed that he now renamed his diwan as ‘Murshid Quli Khan’ after a revered official who had organised the revenues of the Deccan province following its conquest by Shah Jahan. Aurangzeb also upheld his diwan’s authority in the face of a challenge from the subahdar, or governor, of Bengal. In effect, Murshid Quli Khan thus came to exercise the rights of both offices. He removed from Dacca to found a new capital at ‘Murshidabad’ and for twenty years after Aurangzeb’s death, as emperors rose and fell in Delhi, he continued to remit some ten million rupees a year to the imperial treasury. Farrukhsiyar, the emperor responsible for the Company’s cherished farman, acknowledged him as governor, and Muhammad Shah confirmed his (Murshid Quli Khan’s) son-in-law as his successor. In all but name, of which he had enough, Murshid Quli Khan was the first Nawab of Bengal and the founder of an autonomous kingdom.

His son-in-law ‘reigned’ from 1727 until 1739, ‘an aera [sic] of good order and good government’ according to a Company official.6 The good government continued under Nawab Alivardi Khan (1740–56). But following Nadir Shah’s humbling of the Mughal emperor, Bengal’s revenues ceased to be sent to Delhi as matter of course. Moreover, since Alivardi Khan was a usurper, he faced other challenges, most notably from the Marathas. In the 1740s the Bhonsles of Nagpur mounted almost annual raids into Bengal’s territories, ravaging to the gates of Murshidabad and persuading the British in Calcutta to dig a ‘Maratha Ditch’ round their settlement. In the event, the Marathas never crossed the Hughli river, let alone the Ditch, and in 1751 they were bought off by the nawab’s cession of Orissa. But a taste of ‘fiscal terrorism’, first from the Marathas and then from the hard-pressed nawab as he mobilised against them, occasioned much hardship. This dislocation, plus the security supposedly afforded by Calcutta’s defences and the concessionary tariffs and other favourable trading terms conferred by the farman, prompted rapid and unplanned growth within the Company’s Calcutta enclave. The anchorage and settlement of 1690 had by 1750 become the busiest portcity in Bengal with a population of 120,000. Contemporary engravings show stately riverside mansions, town terraces and public buildings with pillars and pediments. Not shown are the less salubrious suburbs, known in Madras as ‘Black Town’, where the bulk of the population worked and lived.

To Alivardi Khan as Nawab of Bengal Calcutta’s success was both irritating and tempting. But wisely preferring the golden eggs to the big white geese which laid them, he dealt as fairly with the British as with his other nesting colonies of French and Dutch merchants; he merely demanded of them additional, but always negotiable, subsidies. His successor and grandson, Siraj-ud-daula, proved less of a conservationist, indeed ‘imprudent to the highest degree’. Within a year he had alienated his grandfather’s officials, his greatest zamindars, his major bankers and all the European trading companies. ‘His ultimate achievement was perhaps to make Frenchmen in Bengal hope that the English would defeat him.’7 Considering that the Seven Years’ War was about to pitch the European rivals into global confrontation, this was no mean feat. Siraj enjoys the distinction of having challenged not just one bumptious merchant community but seemingly the entire mercantilist presumption.

This should make him an obvious candidate for nationalist rehabilitation. But Siraj has found few champions amongst even Bengal’s rabid revisionists, perhaps because his ejection of the British was not obviously intended. His demands – concerning the surrender of certain dissidents who had taken refuge in Calcutta, the demolition of unauthorised fortifications like the ‘Maratha Ditch’, and the withdrawal of trading concessions not clearly specified in the farman – were neither unreasonable nor original. A willingness to resolve them, or a cash offer to that effect, might well have satisfied him. But channels of communication between the new nawab and the European Companies had barely been opened, and Calcutta’s governing council was exceptionally supine. It was also dangerously complacent. ‘Such was the levity of the times,’ recalled the city’s adjutant-general, ‘that severe measures were not deemed necessary.’8 The city itself had long since engulfed the walls of Fort William and was probably indefensible. When Siraj appeared on the other side of the Maratha Ditch with a large army, British confusion positively invited attack.


Although the fighting lasted five days, no serious attempt was made to open the negotiations which might still have saved Calcutta. Successive British withdrawals culminated in a panic-stricken dash to the ships, and Siraj suddenly found himself master of the city. He also found himself responsible for an assortment of European men, women and children who had failed to get away. Unharmed, they were lodged overnight in the fort’s detention cell, otherwise ‘the Black Hole’. How many went in is not certainly known; but next morning only twenty-three staggered out. Dehydration and suffocation had accounted for possibly fifty lives.

The tragedy seems to have been quite unintentional. Nevertheless, Siraj was held responsible. Dramatised and magnified by the survivors, the Black Hole greatly reduced the nawab’s chances of restoring relations with the British and lent to Clive’s retaliation a self-righteous venom. When seven months later Clive and Admiral Watson fought their way back up the Hughli river and easily retook the city, it was Clive who, against strong resistance from his colleagues, insisted on continuing the war. Peace on demeaning terms was offered to Siraj only for as long as it took the British to defeat the French at Chandernagore, a move for which the timely news of the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War provided justification. With the risk of a French attack removed, Clive resumed hostilities against the nawab and proceeded upriver towards Murshidabad. Meanwhile Siraj’s army took up a defensive position at Plassey.

Had the supposed battle of Plassey actually been fought, it is far from certain that Siraj would have lost it. The numerical odds, at perhaps fifty thousand to three thousand, were heavily in his favour; so was the disposition of his troops; and despite the superiority of the Company’s guns, the initial artillery exchanges proved indecisive. Clive himself seems quickly to have despaired of a straight victory and to have rested his hopes entirely on the treachery of Mir Jafar and other dignitaries amongst the nawab’s commanders with whom he had already signed a secret pact. When, after some delay, Mir Jafar opted to honour this pledge and duly made his hostile sentiments clear to Siraj, the nawab had little choice but to flee. Deserted by well over half his army, he was indeed as much the victim of a revolution as a rout.

Mir Jafar was related to Siraj as well as being his commander-in-chief. He had as good a claim to succeed him as anyone. It was in fact a standard palace revolution not unlike that which had resulted in Alivardi Khan’s installation. Arrangements were swiftly made to have Mir Jafar’s accession recognised by the emperor in Delhi, while Clive publicly insisted that the Company would not interfere in his government.

But in a significant move it was Clive who personally handed Mir Jafar to the throne. British arms had placed him there and British palms now awaited his greasing. The compensation promised to the Company for its recent losses and expenses, plus the massive cash ‘presents’ promised by Mir Jafar to Clive and his associates personally, left the new nawab heavily indebted to his British benefactors. ‘Over £1,250,000 were eventually distributed to individuals’9 from the Bengal treasury, of which Clive’s share from this and subsequent pay-offs, and from an infamous jagir which he later secured, would come to over £400,000. Despite the ‘moderation’ at which he stood so amazed, it was ‘much the greatest fortune ever made by a [British] individual in India’.10

Moneys due to the Company itself could be defrayed by the nawab’s cession of revenue rights over convenient territories. A cluster of two dozen districts (parganas) south of Calcutta which now passed to the Company are still today officially known as the ‘24 Parganas’. Clive saw revenue rights as much more remunerative than the profits of trade, and had promised his employers that revenue receipts would quickly eliminate the need to finance imports from India by the export of bullion from Britain. This forecast proved over-optimistic, largely because of the Company’s escalating military expenses and its commitments elsewhere in India. But in Bengal as around Madras, relieving a neighbouring nawab of revenue rights now became a standard procedure whenever debts remained unserviced or indemnities unpaid. No less important were the purely commercial concessions extracted from the nawab. In the wake of Plassey, Company men fanned out into Bengal, Bihar and beyond to acquire a virtual monopoly over choice export commodities like saltpetre, indigo and opium and over the lucrative internal trade in sea-salt. More private fortunes were made; more revenue was lost to the nawab.

The nawab’s plight became critical when Company troops were employed at his expense in repelling intruders. In 1759 and again in 1760–1 Bihar, still part of Bengal, was invaded by Shah Alam, the Mughal crown-prince, supported by troops of the autonomous Nawab of Awadh (Oudh). To defray the military costs, the Company demanded more revenue rights from Mir Jafar; when he refused, the British simply replaced him in a bloodless, but rewarding, coup. Mir Qasim (Kasim), the son-in-law of Mir Jafar, had agreed to transfer to the British most of lower Bengal and was duly installed as nawab.

This was in 1760, and during the next three years Mir Qasim made a valiant effort to re-establish the viability of his truncated state. But whereas the ageing Mir Jafar had been deemed ineffective, the young Mir Qasim was soon deemed too effective. He dismissed officials suspected of collaboration with the British, greatly increased revenue demands, and began reorganising and rearming his forces along European lines. In this he anticipated the reforms which would be so successfully introduced in the armies of Mysore, the Marathas and the Sikhs. Initially, however, they proved of little avail and, following a dispute over the commercial liberties being taken by private British traders in Bengal, Mir Qasim was defeated and fled to Awadh. Plucked from a comfortable retirement in Calcutta, Mir Jafar, now into his dotage, was again placed on the throne.

In 1764 the deposed Mir Qasim was back in Bihar, this time in a hostile alliance with the now-emperor Shah Alam and his formidable ally, the Nawab of Awadh. The war which ensued, and in particular the battle of Baksar (Buxar), marked more convincingly than Plassey the true beginning of British dominion in India. Despite five thousand veteran Afghan cavalry from Abdali’s army, despite Mir Qasim’s disciplined forces, the Mughals’ prestige and the Awadh army of perhaps thirty thousand, it was Major Hector Munro’s force of 7500 largely Indian sepoys which gained a hard-fought but decisive victory. All that separated Indian-led troops from British-led troops was ‘regular discipline and strict obedience to orders’, according to Munro. Just before the battle he had made his point by punishing twenty-four mutineers; they were fired from guns in front of their quaking colleagues. The enemy, on the other hand, was nearly as divided as at Plassey, with Mir Qasim’s troops unpaid and Shah Alam sidelined by his allies and already engaged in overtures to the British.

‘At Buxar all that still remained of Mogul power in northern India was shattered;’11 it was ‘perhaps the most important battle the British ever fought in south Asia’.12 Mir Qasim fled into obscurity, the emperor transferred his vestigial prestige to the British, and next year (1765) he awarded to Clive and the Company the diwani of Bengal. Meanwhile Awadh had been largely overrun as Varanasi, Chunar and Allahabad all fell to the British. The Nawab of Awadh, although restored to his kingdom, then found himself saddled with the same combination of a crippling indemnity, a one-sided political alliance and a reduced revenue (the British detached the valuable territories of Varanasi and Allahabad) which had brought about the downfall of Bengal’s nawabs.

Seven years later, armed with instructions to ‘stand forth as diwan’, Warren Hastings took full advantage of the changed situation. Until 1774 the Company’s establishments in India were still administered as three separate ‘presidencies’ – Calcutta, Madras and Bombay – each under its own ‘president’ or ‘governor’. As governor of Calcutta and now of all Bengal, Hastings assumed such residual powers, largely judicial, as remained to Mir Jafar’s successor and thereby effectually terminated the nawabship. He also moved the Bengal treasury from Murshidabad to Calcutta and endeavoured to increase revenue receipts during a time of financial anxiety for the Company. First Company ‘supervisors’, then Indian agents and finally British ‘collectors’ were designated to oversee and enforce the demands of individual zamindars. Although the intention was to uphold the Mughal revenue system, the effect was to redistribute zamindari rights amongst a larger class of tax-farmers and, through the courts and police, to superimpose British ideas of enforcement. From such interventionist experiments, often disastrous and always oppressive, in late-eighteenth-century Bengal would emerge the administrative structures of the British Raj.

In 1773 the Company’s directors, recognising the territorial responsibilities that had resulted from the conquest of Bengal, ordained that their Madras and Bombay administrations be subordinate to Calcutta, whose governor now became governor-general of all the Company’s Indian establishments. Assuming this role in 1774, Hastings stayed on in Calcutta for another decade during which he would anticipate the spread of British rule throughout the subcontinent. On behalf of the now puppet-cum-buffer state of Awadh, Company troops penetrated to within two hundred kilometres of Delhi when in 1774 they invaded Rohilkand (now the Bareilly district). Its rulers, Afghan Rohillas, were defeated and their country attached to Awadh. Although the fiction of Awadh’s independence would long be maintained, in effect the British were now supreme throughout the Gangetic plain. Between them and the Mughal capital there lay only the shifting sands of an encroaching Maratha hegemony. This obstacle would also be explored during Hastings’ term of office. Meantime in the south a more direct and more obvious challenge to British supremacy demanded immediate attention.


Madras had paid a heavy price for Clive’s ‘Famous Two Hundred Days’ in Bengal. When the Seven Years’ War broke out in 1756, the city most vulnerable to French attack because of its proximity to Pondicherry had found itself without its most inspirational commander, without his troops and, worst of all, without his artillery. All the British possessions on the Coromandel coast were at risk and Fort St David (or Cuddalore), second only to Madras in importance, quickly fell. Madras itself was only saved thanks to visits by the Royal Navy.

But by 1759 the tide of French success was turning, most notably in neighbouring Hyderabad. It will be recalled that, following French support in the earlier Carnatic Wars, the Nizam of Hyderabad had been placed in much the same relationship to Pondicherry as Mir Jafar to Calcutta. Dupleix had installed him and de Bussy, in several brilliant campaigns, kept him there. But Dupleix had since returned to France and, with the outbreak of the war, de Bussy was recalled to Pondicherry. French troops still served in the nizam’s army and more were based in the Northern Circars, the coastal regions of the Hyderabad state which had been earlier ceded to France by the nizam. In 1758–9 these Northern Circars were invaded by a small force sent by Clive from Bengal. It was meant to draw off French troops from Madras but resulted in an unexpected French defeat. Suddenly the nizam began to feel decidedly exposed. He now promised part of the Northern Circars to the British and began courting British support. From 1759 may be dated the brittle but long-lasting relationship between Hyderabad and Calcutta. To the British it would secure the collaboration of another of the Mughal successor states so that, just as Awadh ‘ring-fenced’ Bengal from Maratha attack, so Hyderabad would partially shield Madras.

Meanwhile Madras, besieged by the French in 1759, had been relieved. The arrival of more British troops also resulted in a hefty French defeat at Wandiwash, and in 1761 Pondicherry itself fell to the British. Although the city was later restored to French rule, the 1763 Treaty of Paris which ended the Seven Years’ War also looked to have ended French ambitions in India.

But if the French Compagnie had lost its most important ally and surrogate in Hyderabad, the British soon credited it with another. During the siege of Pondicherry French hopes had briefly soared when a detachment of cavalry under the little-known Haidar Ali Khan had swept past the British to come to the aid of the hard-pressed defence. They departed a month later, dissatisfied; but it was a sign of things to come. From the Mysore region of the southern Deccan two formidable and ferociously anti-British dynasts in the persons of Haidar Ali and his son, Tipu Sultan, were about to pose a direct challenge to British hegemony in the Carnatic. Compared to these new challengers, the over-extended and seldom united Marathas were more an irritation than a threat; they could be ‘ring-fenced’ and then picked off as occasion offered. But in British eyes Mysore was a serious contender, a peninsular rival with the political and military credentials of genuine statehood. Whether or not Mysore was championed by France, it must be defeated.

The so-called ‘kingdom’ of Mysore had been one of the several dependent chieftancies and nayak-ships to survive from the ruins of the Vijayanagar empire. Although vulnerable to the expansionist ambitions of the Deccan sultanates in the seventeenth century and of the Marathas in the eighteenth century, its relations with the Mughal empire had been inconspicuous. Exceptionally, therefore, it was not a legatee of Mughal authority. Unlike, say, Hyderabad or Awadh, it did not correspond to a Mughal province; unlike the rajput and Maratha ruling families, its Wodeyar rulers had not been top-ranking mansabdars ; and unlike the Nawab-Nizam of Hyderabad, the Nawab of Awadh or the Nawab of Bengal, the Mysore Wodeyars and their successors lacked the stature and legitimacy of high imperial office. If precedents be sought for the relationships on which their kingdom was based and for the economic and geographical factors which determined its expansion, they lurk in the history of earlier Hindu dynasties in southern Karnataka like the Hoysalas of Belur/Halebid or even the Chalukyas of Badami/Aihole.

Yet the Mysore which confronted the British was not a born-again Hindu kingdom like that which was so self-consciously reconstituted by Shivaji in Maharashtra. For in the 1730s the incumbent Wodeyar raja had been relieved of authority by two brothers, and it was in their service that Haidar Ali Khan, a devout Muslim whose ancestors had fought in the armies of the sultans of Bijapur, rose to prominence. In 1749, while participating in the succession struggle which followed the death of Nizam-ul-Mulk of Hyderabad (the first nizam), Haidar Ali had obtained both considerable wealth and the services of some French deserters. The first enabled him to increase his forces and the second helped train them in European techniques. During the Carnatic Wars he learned more about European tactics and acquired both artillery and French gunners. Thus in 1758, when Mysore was attacked by the Marathas, Haidar Ali was the obvious choice for commander of the Mysore forces. He acquitted himself well and, following a brief trial of strength with the incumbent brothers, had by 1761 become the undisputed ruler of Mysore.13

Meanwhile in Hyderabad the French-installed nizam had been deposed by his brother, Nizam Ali. The latter proposed an assault on Mysore to which the British in Madras, fearful that recent Mysore conquests in Kerala might be repeated in the Carnatic, readily agreed. Unconsciously treading the ancient trail of countless Pallava and Chola armies, an Anglo-Hyderabad expedition duly toiled up to the Deccan plateau and, with this piece of gratuitous and unashamed aggression, the First Mysore War got underway in 1767.

It was the first of four. No one could seriously maintain that the British conquest of India partook of the premeditated. The four Mysore wars, the three Maratha wars and the two Sikh wars, not to mention a host of lesser campaigns, hint at piecemeal policies and uncoordinated direction. They also suggest a willingness on the part of Company officials to disown or disguise aggressive designs and on the part of subsequent British scholarship to diminish the scale of resistance. Where no long-term rationale for conquest was available, the exigencies of the moment provided a compelling logic for only limited mischief. Moreover, many short wars attracted less attention than a few long ones; ideally they were fought and won before London’s usually negative response could reach India. In retrospect they would seem so chronologically jumbled together as to throw all but the more dogged historians off the scent. Premeditation may indeed be discounted; yet a pattern of conquest, a progression of arms, does emerge. The conquest of Bengal by the Company in Calcutta fuelled the ambitions of its Madras establishment in Mysore; Mysore’s conquest opened the way to intervention in the Maratha territories; and the conquest of the Marathas brought the British up against the Sikhs.

The First Mysore War was chiefly notable as a demonstration of Haidar Ali’s diplomatic and military skills. Having persuaded the nizam to defect, he drove the British back down to the Carnatic, sent his seventeen-year old son Tipu on a flying raid through the stately thoroughfares of Madras itself, and repeated this feat in person in the following year. Most unusually, when peace was concluded in 1769, no territories changed hands and no indemnity was mentioned. For the first time since Child’s ‘Mughal War’ the British had been militarily checked by an Indian regime.

Included in the peace terms of 1769 was a defensive alliance which promised unequivocal British support in the event of an attack on Mysore by a third party. Haidar Ali set great store by this provision and soon had cause to invoke it. When Maratha forces swooped into southern Karnataka and laid siege to his great fort of Srirangapatnam (Seringapatam) near Mysore, he immediately turned to his British allies. They turned away. Haidar repeatedly invoked the defensive alliance, and Madras repeatedly prevaricated. Albion’s perfidy, of which Haidar had no doubt heard from his French employees, was amply demonstrated. He damned the British as ‘the most faithless and usurping of all mankind’ and, if not already rabidly Anglophobe, both father and son now became so.

During the 1770s Haidar’s reputation soared. The Marathas were pushed back and, excluding the nizam’s territories and those of the British and their puppet Nawabs of Arcot and Tanjore, Mysore’s sway came to embrace most of the peninsula south of the Kistna-Tungabhadra rivers. A revival of Anglo–French hostilities in the context of the American War of Independence distracted Madras’s attention and brought Haidar more French arms and recruits. Meanwhile Governor-General Warren Hastings in Calcutta was preoccupied with Anglo–Maratha relations. It was a good moment to strike. Not without ample provocation, Haidar Ali launched the Second Mysore War with a pre-emptive assault on the Carnatic in 1780.

In a distinct escalation, this war involved far more troops, lasted twice as long (1780–4), and was fought on two fronts; while Haidar Ali engaged the Madras forces in the Carnatic, his son Tipu was detached to the Malabar coast in 1782 to oppose an expedition from Bombay. Again the Mysore army impressed, most notably at Polilur (near Kanchipuram) where in 1780 a British relieving force of about four thousand was practically annihilated. Only sixteen of its eighty-six European officers emerged unscathed; even Hector Munro, the victor of Baksar, had to make an undignified dash for the safety of Madras, abandoning his artillery and baggage in the process. Polilur was the greatest defeat hitherto inflicted on the British by an Indian power. In his new summer palace beside the rushing Kaveri at Srirangapatnam, Tipu celebrated victory by commissioning a wall-to-wall painting of the engagement. It displays a tactical awareness more reminiscent of European battle-scenes than anything in Mughal art.

With Arcot captured and Haidar triumphant throughout the Carnatic, it was now Calcutta’s turn to come to the rescue of Madras. A Company army of five thousand began the long march down the east coast from Bengal to Madras while a smaller force was sent by sea. There followed what Penderel Moon, author of the hefty The British Conquest and Dominion of India (1989), rightly calls ‘three and a half years of profitless and uninteresting war’.14 The British made gains on the west coast and then lost them. On the east coast, British victories were negated by the greater manoeuvrability of the Mysore forces. In 1782 Haidar Ali died, in 1783 Tipu was enthroned, and in 1784 the Peace of Mangalore again did little more than restore the situation as at the beginning of hostilities.

Tipu blamed his French allies for his failure to win a more convincing victory. Their support in the war had been negligible and their separate peace had been an act of treachery. To further overtures from Pondicherry he therefore replied by insisting on direct dealings with Versailles. In a refreshing reversal of roles, an Indian ruler was about to take the diplomatic game to the court of a European sovereign.

In 1785 an embassy had left Mysore for Constantinople. It was to alert the Islamic world to British designs on India’s Muslim powers, to effect a political and commercial alliance, and to elicit from the Ottoman sultan, as the successor of the caliphs, recognition of Tipu’s status as a legitimate Islamic sovereign, or padshah. This same mission was now ordered to proceed on to Paris. But, delayed in Iraq, it was superseded by a separate embassy sent direct to France in 1787.

All expenses were now to be paid by the French, who also provided a ship. Flying the flag of Mysore, this vessel eventually docked at Toulon in June 1788. Thence, after fireworks, receptions and visits to the theatre, Tipu’s forty-five-man mission proceeded to Paris overland. The metropole turned out to greet its visitors in style, and the ambassadors were deluged with carriages, apartments and suitable clothes.

On the 10th of August, Louis XVI received the envoys with great pomp. The principal apartments of the Versailles palace were filled with spectators, and the salon d’Hercules, where the audience was to take place, was occupied by persons of rank of both sexes. The Dauphin, being unwell, could not come. But the Queen, Marie Antoinette, was seated in a private box at the side of the throne, the envoys being required neither to look at her nor salute her.15

Whether Tipu’s emissaries had any inkling that all was not well with the Bourbons is unrecorded. But with the storming of the Bastille only a year away and with London watching his every move, Louis XVI was in no position to gratify his visitors with political and military support. In fact France’s domestic crisis meant that her ambitions in India were about to be abandoned and all troops withdrawn. However, Tipu’s less contentious request for ‘seeds of flowers and plants of various kinds, and for technicians, workers and doctors’ was entertained. When the mission left for home at the end of the year it was accompanied by a veritable atelier of munitions experts, gunsmiths, porcelain-workers, glass-makers, watchmakers, tapestry-makers and linen-weavers, plus ‘two printers of oriental languages, one physician, one surgeon, two engineers and two gardeners’.

Haidar Ali had turned Mysore’s forces into a professional army, trained, equipped and paid along European lines. Tipu was determined similarly to modernise his state’s economy. Where Haidar had been illiterate, Tipu benefited from a good education and an extremely inquisitive mind. Alone amongst his reigning contemporaries, he identified something of the dynamic which lay behind the uniformed efficiency of the European regimes and set about duplicating it. Trade was obviously important. To this end he established a state trading company, encouraged investors to buy shares in it, and organised a network of overseas ‘factories’ located around the Arabian Sea and in the Persian Gulf. Modelled on those of the European trading companies, they included both a commercial staff and a military establishment. There is no mention of Louis XVI being petitioned for a ‘factory’ in France, but Tipu certainly urged the idea on the Ottoman emperor and also approached the ruler of Pegu in Burma.

Command of the Malabar ports gave Mysore a ready outlet to the sea plus control of their outward trade in pepper and timbers and of their inward trade in mainly horses from the Gulf states; it was no coincidence that the most effective cavalry in India belonged to the Marathas and to Mysore, both of whom had ready access to the west coast ports. To increase the variety of Mysore’s exports Tipu sought new crops by experimenting with seeds and plants from all over Asia as well as from France. Around his summer palace at Srirangapatnam the ground was laid out in parterres for botanical acclimatisation and propagation. The eighteenth century being the age of ‘improvement’, he took as close an interest in these schemes as any European ‘improver’, and was personally responsible for introducing sericulture into Mysore. The silkworms were obtained from Persia, mulberry-planting received official encouragement, and a factory for silk-processing and -weaving was set up. Other factories turned out sugar, paper, gunpowder, knives and scissors. ‘The ammunition factories at Bednur produced twenty thousand muskets and guns every year.’16 As Tipu boasted to a French correspondent, Mysore was self-sufficient in arms.

Testimony to the prosperity of his country and to the comparative leniency of his revenue demands comes mainly from the wide-eyed British officials and surveyors who would soon be swarming across Mysore to conduct its post-mortem; in victory the British prided themselves on magnanimity. But from the infrequency of protest and the failure of intrigues during his lifetime it would seem that Tipu’s rule was indeed acceptable to most of his subjects, both Muslim and Hindu. ‘Citoyen Tipu’, as his revolutionary French contacts would soon call him, was no man of the people. A vindictive and sometimes cruel autocrat, he readily antagonised his enemies, both Indian and British, and was easily demonised by them. Yet, in his passion for reform and modernity some have seen parallels with the radicalism of the Paris revolutionaries. Thomas Munro, perhaps the most respected of all the British officials who later served in Mysore and a genuine admirer of Tipu’s achievements, noted mainly his ‘restless spirit and a wish to have everything originate from himself ‘.17 The highly personalised nature of his rule was both its strength and its weakness. So long as he lived, there was little chance of the British reaching an accommodation with Mysore along the lines of those with Hyderabad or Awadh. Taming Tipu, ‘the tiger of Mysore’, meant destroying his entire habitat.

It was not a pretty story. If the conquest of Bengal had been partly dictated by a lust for personal gain, that of Mysore would owe much to a lust for personal glory. The Third Mysore War (1790–2) was declared and largely conducted by Lord Cornwallis, the general who had surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown during the American War of Independence. Upright and avowedly pacific, Cornwallis would wait three years before tackling Tipu. Once committed, however, he would pursue his quarry with a regard for his own dented military reputation that made anything less than Tipu’s abject surrender unthinkable. By way of contrast Richard Wellesley, Earl of Mornington, the governor-general responsible for the Fourth Mysore War (1799), had barely touched Indian soil before he was preparing for battle. An uncompromising empire-builder whose annexations were anything but fortuitous, Wellesley immediately embarked on a veritable digvijaya in which a debilitated Mysore would offer easy pickings for a host of ardent officers including his brother Arthur, the future Duke of Wellington.

Tipu himself was no innocent. Far from avoiding contentious policies liable to unite and provoke his neighbours, he defiantly espoused them. The Third War was provoked by what Cornwallis regarded as an ‘attack’ on Travancore, the southernmost of the Malabar principalities. Tipu disclaimed responsibility but, instead of backing off, maintained his doubtful interests in the area and duly fuelled British paranoia with a full-scale invasion of Travancore. A tripartite alliance forged by Cornwallis with the Marathas and the Nizam of Hyderabad, which should have deterred him, merely antagonised him. The British then laboriously mobilised a force of twenty thousand for an invasion of Mysore. Initially they were outmanoeuvred by Tipu, who brought the war to the Carnatic. But Cornwallis eventually gained the Deccan, stormed Bangalore and advanced on Srirangapatnam. Meanwhile another British army had swept up from the Malabar coast, and Cornwallis had been joined by his Maratha and Hyderabad allies. Tipu, heavily outnumbered and outgunned, yet held out for the best part of a year before accepting terms which could hardly have been more humiliating. They included an eight-figure indemnity, the surrender of half his territories, and British custody of his two sons, one aged eight, the other ten, as surety.

Unexpectedly the indemnity was paid, the sons were reunited with their doting father, and Tipu’s truncated kingdom was restored to an enviable prosperity. In that the Fourth War was so soon in progress, Cornwallis’s boast of having ‘deprived him [Tipu] of the power, and perhaps the inclination, to distract us for many years to come’ would attract ridicule. In fact it was an understatement. Cornwallis’s victory ‘paved the way for British supremacy throughout India’.18 Moreover it did indeed deprive Tipu of the power to challenge the British; the decision to reopen hostilities for a fourth and last time came entirely from Governor-General Wellesley.

In extenuation much was made of the fact that Napoleon had just landed in Egypt and made no secret of his designs on the British in India. When, therefore, Tipu was discovered to be in correspondence with the French commander at the Île de Bourbon in the Indian Ocean and to have recently received from there a few Jacobin recruits, Wellesley had the pretext he needed. Under cover of an exchange of letters protesting mutual amity between Calcutta and Mysore, he mobilised some forty thousand troops, who were joined by double that number of camp-followers plus the 100,000 bullocks required for the largest ox-drawn baggage and munitions train ever organised.



Meanwhile Wellesley smugly recorded his satisfaction at having ‘drawn the Beast of the jungle [i.e. Tipu] into the toils’. The ‘toils’ barely amounted to a campaign. Compared to the logistical problem of supplying such an invasion, the fighting was something of a formality. It was all over in three months. Srirangapatnam was stormed, then sacked with an ardour that would not have disgraced Attila. Amongst the perhaps nine thousand Mysore dead was found the body of Tipu Sultan. He had been cut about with bayonets, shot twice, and then robbed of his jewelled sword-belt. British casualties totalled fewer than four hundred, mostly just wounded.

The ‘settlement’ which followed left the British unchallenged throughout the peninsula. Mysore was pared down to something not much bigger than the statelet it had been before Haidar Ali’s conquests. This was then awarded to a child of the old Wodeyar dynasty, assisted by a sufficient British presence, and burdened by sufficient British safeguards, to ensure subordination. The British helped themselves to more territory, including the coastline of Karnataka; and in 1800 the other beneficiary, the nizam, helped them to still more. In lieu of the subsidy he was expected to pay for the presence of British troops in his existing territories, he handed over to the Company all those lands awarded to him in Mysore. Thanks to this arrangement, the nizams would enjoy British protection at no expense, plus great personal affluence if rather less power, for the next 150 years.


India thus entered the nineteenth century with an unusual political configuration. Regions which had normally enjoyed immunity from outside interference, like the south and east, were directly or indirectly under foreign rule, while the usually more vulnerable west and north remained under indigenous regimes. These latter regimes were numerous. In another reversal of roles it was the playing fields of empire in the north which were now subdivided into a patchwork of political lots. They included the numerous rajput states in Rajasthan and elsewhere, various Indo-Afghan enclaves like Rohilkand, Muslim amirates and chieftaincies in Sind and on the frontier, and some newer caste-based hegemonies of uncertain extent like that established by Jat cultivators in the Agra region, plus a closely related tangle of Jat-Sikh and non-Sikh states in the Panjab.

Then there were the Marathas. Collectively they controlled much the most territory, the most revenue and the most forces. For a time in the early decades of the eighteenth century they had also acted collectively. But by 1740 the big Maratha families had begun to peel away. In a decentralising process similar to that which had overtaken the Mughal empire, the Holkars of Indore, Scindias of Gwalior, Gaikwads of Baroda and Bhonsles of Nagpur continued to recognise the authority of the peshwa-ship in Pune while treating individual peshwas as fellow leaders whose sanction, though desirable, was not an essential asset.

Given the loosely confederate nature of Maratha power and the spread of Maratha operations to practically the entire subcontinent, it was perhaps inevitable that each would in time respond more to local opportunities and challenges. The Maratha incursions into Orissa and Bengal which had so tested Nawab Alivardi Khan in the 1740s and had prompted construction of Calcutta’s ‘Maratha Ditch’ were the work of the Bhonsles of Nagpur. The peshwa objected and even sent his own troops to Bengal to oppose the Bhonsle incursions. Thereafter Nagpur would often defy Pune and, much preoccupied with extorting revenue in Orissa and along its common frontier with the nizam, would play a marginal role in joint Maratha operations.

In the following decade other Marathas, particularly Malhar Rao Holkar of Indore and Jayappa Scindia soon of Gwalior, took advantage of succession disputes amongst the rajputs to extend their revenue claims in Rajasthan. In 1752–3 they again intervened in the chaotic affairs of Delhi and were a party to the blinding and removal of the then emperor. Further Maratha expansion saw Raghunath Rao, the brother of the peshwa Balaji Baji Rao (son of Baji Rao I), pushing into the Panjab in the wake of the Afghan withdrawal after Ahmed Shah Abdali’s plunder of Delhi in 1756. In Lahore as in Delhi, the Marathas were now major players, while far away in the Deccan a defeat of the nizam in 1760 left the peshwas at Pune secure in possession of their Maharashtrian homeland.

Indeed 1760 is taken to mark ‘the zenith of Mahratta power’. Freezing the moment for all its glory, James Grant Duff, author of the classic nineteenth-century History of the Mahrattas, seems to pay unintentional homage to the imagery of those fulsome dynastic inscriptions of an earlier age.

The pre-eminence to which the Mahrattas had attained was animating and glorious; their right to tribute was acknowledged on the banks of the Coleroon [the lower Kaveri in Tamil Nadu], and the Deccan horse had quenched their thirst from the waters of the Indus. The Mahratta people felt a pride in the conquests of their countrymen …19

The moment was short-lived. Before the year was out the peshwa’s general, fresh from his victory over the nizam, led the main Maratha army north to meet the threat posed by the reinvading Abdali. Abdali could count on the support of fellow Afghans, like the Rohillas, and had also won over the powerful (and then still independent) Nawab of Awadh. On the other hand Holkar, the Scindia family and other Maratha chiefs dutifully joined the swelling army of the peshwa. Well equipped with artillery, and with Duff’s ‘Deccan horse’ looking especially splendid, this was the largest and most magnificent force ever assembled by the Marathas. In an age when sectarian loyalties rarely transcended political advantage, it might even have passed for a Hindu host had the hoped-for support of coreligionists like the rajputs and Jats materialised.

Notwithstanding, Delhi was retaken and the Marathas moved on up the Jamuna. On 14 January 1761 at Panipat, a hundred kilometres north of the capital and the scene, like nearby Karnal, Tarain and Kurukshetra, of so many decisive battles, they finally engaged the main Afghan army. For a few hours the Marathas seemed to prevail. Then in time-honoured fashion Abdali introduced his ten thousand reserve cavalry. As he told it in a letter to Raja Madho Singh of Jaipur, ‘Suddenly the breeze of victory began to blow and, as willed by the Divine Lord, the wretched Deccanis suffered utter defeat … Forty to fifty thousand troopers and infantrymen of the enemy became as grass before our pitiless swords.’20

As was his wont, Abdali soon withdrew again; as was their wont, bands of Sikh irregulars preyed on his treasure-laden convoys as they lumbered home across the Panjab. Such tactics had traditionally been those of the Marathas; had they preferred them to formal confrontation on the pitch of Panipat, they might have fared better. The Maratha leaders would quickly recoup their losses, reassert their authority in regions previously under their control, and reclaim their revenue rights in others, like the rajput states. But the prestige of the peshwa was seriously damaged by Panipat. The incumbent Balaji Baji Rao collapsed a few weeks later, supposedly of a broken heart. Although his young successor, Madhava Rao, briefly restored some authority, when he died prematurely in 1772 there began a succession crisis of mind-boggling complexity which lasted for a generation and would drain the office of much power. The Mughal emperor, his own office long since drained of power, had fared no better; Panipat left him a dependant of the Nawab of Awadh. And as for the nawab himself, the only Indian prince to emerge from the battle a winner, he was humbled five years later by the British at Baksar.

‘Never was a defeat so complete and never was there a calamity which diffused so much consternation,’ wrote Mountstuart Elphinstone of Panipat. It formed a fitting conclusion to his 1839 History of India ; ‘for the history of the Moghul empire here closes of itself.’ The Maratha attempt to revive it had failed. Delhi was deserted, the emperor an exile. ‘Meanwhile,’ wrote Elphinstone in his grand finale, ‘a new race of conquerors has already commenced its career which may again unite the empire under better auspices than before.’

In retrospect it is often asserted that the British were the real winners from the great tourney of Panipat. But this was not obvious at the time, and throughout the next two decades the Company’s policy remained that of ‘ring-fencing’ Bengal and their other settlements with amenable buffer states capable of absorbing the still formidable impact of Maratha muscle. The Company’s London directors had been deeply critical of the military expenditure incurred by the likes of Clive and Munro in Bengal and Awadh. Financial retrenchment was ordered, and to Warren Hastings in the 1770s the avoidance of Maratha attentions was crucial.

In a rare display of unanimity both the governor-general and his council therefore denounced the local alliance of 1775 which precipitated the First Anglo–Maratha War as ‘unreasonable, impolitic, unjust and unauthorised’. It was unauthorised because the government of Bombay had concluded it without consulting its superior in Calcutta, unjust because it was no business of the British to blunder into the labyrinthine succession dispute over the peshwa-ship, impolitic because it flew in the face of Hastings’ hands-off policy, and unreasonable because Bombay lacked the means to fulfil its share in the venture. The First Maratha War was not, then, a sequel to Panipat nor another assault on Maratha hegemony. An untidy affair with as many treaties as battles, it was more a piece of Bombay mischief.

Although of growing commercial importance, Bombay was still politically and territorially insignificant compared to Calcutta or Madras. Partly to redress this situation, successive governors had long coveted the two neighbouring enclaves of Salsette island and Bassein port, both once Portuguese but subsequently resumed by the Marathas (and nowadays absorbed within the sprawl of greater Bombay). An offer of the cession of these two places in return for the Bombay government assisting Raghunath Rao, now one of the contenders for the peshwa-ship, with a force of 2500 men, was too good to miss. After a treaty to this effect had been signed at Surat in 1775, a combined Anglo-Maratha force moved into Gujarat and enjoyed some success before being halted in its tracks by Calcutta’s censure.

The Bombay troops were ordered back to camp and a British envoy was sent to negotiate with the Regency Council of the peshwa-ship in Pune. He agreed to abandon support of Raghunath in return for an indemnity and the cession of Salsette. But neither party honoured this treaty and in 1778 Bombay again rushed to Raghunath’s aid. This time it mobilised a force of four thousand which marched inland from Bombay and was heavily defeated while climbing up the Western Ghats towards Pune.

The Convention of Wadgaon (1779), signed on the spot in the wake of this defeat, was about as near to a surrender as the British had come since Bombay’s previous capitulation to Aurangzeb during the Childs’ ‘Mughal War’. In Pune the Regency Council, dominated by the redoubtable Nana Phadnavis (Farnavis), made much of this success and, on the strength of it, briefly enjoyed the support of Holkar, Scindia and the Gaikwad. By 1780 there was even talk of the grand alliance, so dreaded by the British, of the Marathas, the nizam, and Haidar Ali of Mysore. Against the background of the Second Mysore War and of the ongoing Anglo–French hostilities, Warren Hastings therefore repudiated the Wadgaon Convention and reopened direct negotiations with Pune. There was little chance of an accommodation with Phadnavis, but the possibility of detaching the other Maratha confederates had improved greatly thanks to the appearance on the west coast of a British force sent overland from Bengal.

By virtue of his office as governor-general for all the British possessions in India, Hastings was being drawn, not unwillingly, into all-India adventures. Bombay’s plight, though richly deserved, could not be ignored; accordingly, in 1778 he had ordered six largely sepoy battalions to march right across the subcontinent to Gujarat. Starting from the Company’s Bengal salient in Awadh, they had taken the best part of a year to reach the west coast but, as with the Bengal troops who were about to be sent overland to Madras following Haidar Ali’s triumph at Polilur, their arrival changed the balance of power dramatically.

When the negotiations with Pune broke down, the Gaikwad, whose Gujarat base was particularly vulnerable, threw in his lot with the British. Meanwhile Mahadji Scindia received a rude shock when his core territories, hundreds of kilometres away to the north of Malwa, were threatened by another expedition from Bengal. Cragsmen from the latter even scaled the cliffs of Gwalior and captured what was still regarded as northern India’s greatest stronghold. Nearer home, the Marathas fared better and, though defeated at Ahmadabad in early 1780, successfully repelled another British attempt to force a way up through the Ghats to Pune in 1781.

By now Scindia was trying to act as a peacemaker while Hastings, thoroughly alarmed by Haidar Ali’s successes in the Carnatic, was also anxious to disengage. Hostilities therefore ceased in 1781 and a final treaty, that of Salbai, was ratified in 1782–3. Like the first two Mysore Wars, the First Maratha War had brought no significant territorial gains to either side. The Marathas, however, had retained their freedom of action and had obliged the British to relinquish their championship of Raghunath Rao. Hastings, on the other hand, could congratulate himself on having extricated Bombay, on having demonstrated the British potential to strike practically anywhere in India, and of having achieved what, since the treaty also regulated British and Maratha relations with the nizam, Mysore and the French, he took to be a general and lasting arrangement.

In that the peace lasted for a quarter of a century, Hastings’ hopes were fulfilled. But this was mainly thanks to the survival into the mid-1790s of a remarkable generation of Maratha leaders. Nana Phadnavis, a brahman whom even the British acknowledged as the most astute political leader of his day, continued to control Pune until 1796. When the young peshwa in whose name he ruled came of age, his guardians simply became his gaolers and Phadnavis remained in command. He fought much with Tipu, including that half-hearted support of Cornwallis during the Third Mysore War, and he registered some territorial gains in northern Karnataka. More significantly, he managed to stave off the challenge of the other Maratha leaders.

These included the Holkars of Indore, whose core territory in Malwa now enjoyed something of a golden age under the regency of Ahalyabhai, daughter-in-law of Malhar Rao Holkar. Judging by their correspondence, Malhar Rao had relied heavily on the sage young Ahalyabhai during his lifetime. His death in 1766 was preceded by that of his useless son, who was Ahalyabhai’s husband, and was followed by that of his equally useless grandson. Ahalyabhai was thus left with no obvious rivals. Her sex would still have disqualified her, had she not shown an extraordinary ability which won the regard of her subjects and of the other Maratha confederates, including Phadnavis. For some thirty years her firm and compassionate direction brought to southern Malwa a peace and prosperity which utterly belies the notion of Maratha administration as little better than legitimised extortion. ‘Moderate assessment and an almost sacred respect for the native rights of village officers and proprietors’ characterised her rule. Collecting oral memories of her in the 1820s, Sir John Malcolm, the British official most directly concerned with the ‘settlement’ of central India, seems to have become deeply enamoured of her.

With the natives of Malwa … her name is sainted and she is styled an avatar or Incarnation of the Divinity. In the most sober view that can be taken of her character, she certainly appears, within her limited sphere, to have been one of the purest and most exemplary rulers that ever existed.21

Her latest biographers call her ‘the Philosopher Queen’, a reference perhaps to the ‘philosopher-king’ Bhoj whose capital of Dhar lay just a short ride from Ahalyabhai’s preferred residence beside the Narmada at the sacred site of Maheshwar. Her forts and roads brought a new security to Malwa and her patronage of temples and other religious establishments as far away as Varanasi and Dwarka (Gujarat) extended her fame throughout India. It has lasted. ‘Her reputation in Malwa today is that of a saint,’ reports a recent writer; ‘such are the results of a good, honest administration.’22

By way of contrast Mahadji Scindia, Ahalyabhai’s exact contemporary and her neighbour to the north, was rarely out of the saddle. Lamed by a wound at Panipat, he too reigned for over thirty years, during which he overran more of northern India than any other Maratha. Not without setbacks, he finally established Gwalior as the Scindia stronghold, retook Delhi and Agra, made the incumbent emperor a Maratha protégé, and stood as guarantor of the Treaty of Salbai on behalf of all the Marathas. Later he inflicted heavy defeats on the Rohilla Afghans, and in 1790 practically eliminated the rajputs of Jaipur and Jodhpur; indeed their territories were still reeling from his devastations when in the 1820s Colonel James Tod, pursuing the same sort of ‘settlement’ in Rajasthan as Thomas Munro had effected in Mysore and John Malcolm in central India, first encountered his beloved rajputs.

Mahadji’s extraordinary success stemmed from his creation of a professional army. Under Count Benoît de Boigne, a Frenchman but a veteran of the English Company, he recruited several brigades of infantry and artillery officered by Europeans and composed of the largely Muslim and rajput mercenaries favoured by the Company. These proved immensely successful; but they were expensive and, when in arrears, unresponsive to appeals to their loyalty. Mahadji’s supremacy in the north, as also amongst his fellow Marathas, was thus achieved at a price which his successors could scarcely afford and with an instrument that they could scarcely control.

When Mahadji died in 1794, he was at Pune negotiating with Phadnavis for the peshwa’s recognition of his achievements and a contribution to the upkeep of his forces. It was the beginning of a rapid decline in Maratha fortunes. Ahalyabhai died in the following year, whereupon her Holkar successor would openly challenge Scindia’s primacy. Then in 1796 the powerless but still pivotal peshwa committed suicide. He was without issue and the way was thus opened for a revival of the claim of Raghunath Rao’s line as now represented by his sons. During four years of utter confusion at Pune, Nana Phadnavis arbitrated as best he could with the result that Baji Rao II, Raghunath’s eldest son, was installed as peshwa with support from Mahadji’s successor, Daulat Rao Scindia. But in 1800, when Phadnavis himself died, there ‘departed all the wisdom and moderation of the [Pune] government’. War between Yaswant Rao Holkar and Daulat Rao Scindia for control of the new peshwa soon spread to Pune itself, and in a pitched battle Holkar came out the winner. Desperate to retain his independence, the new peshwa, Baji Rao II, fled across the Ghats, down to the coast, and into the open arms of the British.

Bombay had encouraged Baji Rao’s hopes of British assistance and, with the bellicose Richard Wellesley as governor-general, the exiled peshwa was unlikely to be disappointed. By the Treaty of Bassein (1803) the British undertook to reinstate Baji Rao in return for his accepting, and paying for, the presence of British troops in his territories, a British resident in his capital, and all the other restrictions associated with the now familiar role of a ‘subsidiary ally’. Arthur Wellesley, fresh from the triumphs in Mysore, was sent north to prosecute this next phase of his brother’s digvijaya and duly restored the peshwa to Pune. ‘This act represented the end of the Maratha polity as an independent power. The rest of the story is one of British conquest, largely with funds from conquered territories.’23



The Second Maratha War was waged by the British, supposedly on behalf of the peshwa, to silence Maratha opposition to their appropriation of the peshwa’s authority. Such, however, was the extent of Maratha power, especially Scindia’s, that the war would, in the words of the governor-general, lay ‘the foundations of our Empire in Asia’. Richard Wellesley, be it noted, now foresaw an empire, rather than ‘dominions’ or ‘possessions’, in an Asian as opposed to a purely Indian context; as the British pushed ever further west and north it seemed that there was no telling where destiny might take them. In the wake of the Second Maratha War others less bullish, like Thomas Munro, would concede simply that ‘we are now complete masters of India.’

Although the war lasted less than a year (1803–4) it destroyed Maratha power and left the British victorious throughout northern and central India. In the Deccan south of the Narmada, Arthur Wellesley triumphed over one of Scindia’s armies at Assaye in what the future duke always regarded as a stiffer contest than his victory at Waterloo. Then he repeated the feat over the Bhonsle forces at Argaon. More sensationally, an army from Bengal under General Gerard Lake engaged Scindia’s forces in the north. Deserted by most of their European officers, Scindia’s men yet gave a good account of themselves in the final showdown at Laswari. But by then Lake had taken Delhi, stormed Agra, and commandeered the Mughal emperor (it was still Shah Alam, now a woebegone and sightless octogenarian dressed in rags and unrecognisable as the dashing prince who had once made Clive his diwan). Elsewhere the British relieved the Nagpur Bhonsles of Orissa, and Scindia of his remaining territories in Gujarat. By way of a postscript Holkar, and then the Jat Raja of Bharatpur (near Agra), were provoked into further defiance and severely embarrassed General Lake’s forces before being brought to heel.

It was not quite the end of the Marathas. Richard Wellesley’s expensive campaigning had greatly embarrassed his masters in London. His gratuitous swipe at Holkar was the last straw. He was recalled from India in disgrace and his planned ‘settlement’ of central and western India never materialised. Nevertheless Delhi, Agra and the Ganga-Jamuna Doab were retained as a new salient of British territory in the north-west.

The new British frontier supposedly ran north along the Jamuna, although some chiefs from the slice of territory between the Jamuna and the Satlej (‘the Cis-Satlej states’) had also tendered their allegiance to General Lake. This brought the British into potential conflict with Ranjit Singh, a young Sikh leader who had been prominent in repulsing Afghan attacks by Ahmed Shah Abdali’s successors and who, since occupying Lahore in 1799, had been pursuing a policy of conquest and alliance that mirrored that of the British. By 1805 he had secured the Sikh centre of Amritsar together with its potential for converting religious patronage into political authority. He had also impressed his personal authority on much of the Panjab, including some of those ‘Cis-Satlej chiefs’ as the British called them. But whilst Ranjit’s kingdom, like Tipu’s, would incorporate some European features and represent a serious challenge to the British, Ranjit himself was too much of a realist to invite the risks of war. By the Treaty of Amritsar in 1809 he backed down over the Cis-Satlej chiefs and thus the Satlej, rather than the Jamuna, became the Anglo–Sikh frontier. In return Ranjit secured British recognition of his independent authority as ‘Raja of Lahore’. Platitudes about friendship and non-interference would, for once, be respected and over the next thirty years the Raja of Lahore, comparatively free of British interference, would blossom into the Maharaja of the Panjab, creator of the most formidable non-colonial state in India.

Elsewhere the outcome of the Second Maratha War was less creditable. The British acquisition of the Ganga-Jamuna Doab was retained, mainly at the expense of Scindia whose ambitions were further constrained by a subsidiary alliance. But from central India and Rajasthan the British withdrew and disclaimed all authority, perhaps aghast at their own conquests and certainly alarmed by the high expenditure involved. The result was a predictable chaos. The Maratha leaders, impoverished, discredited and deeply resentful of the tightening British cordon, turned to indiscriminate plunder while many of their troops, despairing of payment, broke away to join bands of marauding adventurers, the so-called Pindaris. From Malwa, from the Bhonsles’ Berar, and from Rajasthan the chronic lawlessness spilled into the Deccan, Hyderabad, and the now-British Doab. Here was a clear case of British policy, or the lack of it, having created an anarchy which did indeed cry out for further intervention.

It came in 1817 in the form of an ambitious military sweep designed to wipe out these Pindari bands. The Maratha leaders were pressured into supporting this operation. But as they observed the political preparations for it, and noted the massive mobilisation, they became convinced that they were as much the target as the Pindaris. Suspicions deepened when the terms of a new British treaty recently forced upon the peshwa became known. Much harsher than that of Bassein, it included a clause by which the peshwa renounced any claim to supremacy over the other Maratha leaders. Although traduced in practice, the authority of the peshwa as a focus of loyalty was precious to all the Maratha leaders, and especially so to Peshwa Baji Rao II himself. Ostensibly assembling forces to co-operate in the action against the Pindaris, Baji Rao suddenly turned on the British contingent in Pune. The British Residency was razed and the British Resident – it was the future historian Mountstuart Elphinstone – barely escaped. Then the peshwa’s army marched against the British barracks nearby. It was repulsed and, when British reinforcements arrived, the peshwa fled. He remained at large until mid-1818, during which time his territories were systematically conquered.


A similar rising at Nagpur by the Bhonsle incumbent resulted in a similar conquest. In a now clichéd procedure, a minor was installed as maharaja of the much-reduced Nagpur state and was then shackled with all the paraphernalia of British clientage. For the peshwa, already lumbered with the status of a subsidiary British ally, there could be no such soft landing. His lands were annexed and, when eventually he was captured, he was deposed and banished into a long but comfortable retirement in the British Doab. The place chosen was near Kanpur (Cawnpore). There he died in 1851, and thence his adopted son, known as Nana Sahib, would be plucked from obscurity to raise again the flag of the peshwas during the great conflagration of 1857.

The Pindari War and this Third Maratha War ended the long defiance of the Marathas. In Maharashtra only the small states of Kolhapur and Satara, where ruled the tamed descendants of Shivaji himself, were left with any vestige of autonomy. To the rajputs of Rajasthan, as to the Maratha survivors in central India, the status of subordinate allies or ‘princely states’ was extended. ‘Except in Assam, Sind and the Panjab, British political supremacy was recognised throughout the whole subcontinent,’ writes Penderel Moon. ‘The Pax Britannica had begun.’24

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