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Commentary for Volume 1, Chapter 8 : The Restoration of the Peshwa (1802–03)

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The Maratha background

Twenty years before the crisis that lead to the Maratha War, in 1782, the Treaty of Salbai left Madhaji Sindia the dominant figure in the Maratha Confederacy, although Nana Phadnavis, the Peshwa’s chief minister, worked hard to maintain a balance within the Confederacy.   Madhaji Sindia consolidated his power by raising a force of sepoys, trained and disciplined by European mercenaries, led by the famous Savoyard Benoit de Boigne.   He used these troops to assert his control over much of northern India while being careful not to challenge or threaten the British.   The Mughal Emperor, Shah Alam, came under Sindia’s protection, and in return appointed him vice-regent of the Empire.   However Sindia was less successful at Poona where his intrigues to undermine the position of Nana Phadnavis failed.

The creation of Madhaji Sindia’s new army led to much unrest in Hindustan where many jagirdars, or feudatory lords, were dispossessed.  The army was also expensive to maintain, causing incessant financial problems.  The increase in Sindia’s military power was therefore offset by increased instability and opposition.  This was contained during Madhaji’s lifetime, but it contributed to the chaos which engulfed the Maratha Confederacy in the decade after his death.   The increasing role of French officers in the army after de Boigne retired in 1795 also provoked British suspicion, and helped to justify Lord Wellesley’s policy of intervention. (Sen The French in India  p 542-5 cf  Randolf G. S. Cooper The Anglo-Maratha Campaigns and the Contest for India.  The Struggle for Control of the South Asian Military Economy  p 45-47 argues that the significance both of de Boigne and the regular brigades has been overstated).

The house of Holkar was the traditional rival of Sindia, and from 1766 to 1795 the Holkars were led by a woman, Ahalya Bai, the widow of Malhar Holkar.  Ahalya Bai became famous for her political shrewdness, her piety and her good government, ensuring that her lands flourished and that the people prospered.   Her armies were commanded by Tukoji Holkar who conducted a number of campaigns including a brief war with Sindia in which the Holkars were defeated at Lakhari in 1792.   Tukoji succeeded Ahalya Bai when she died in 1795, but only survived her by two years.

Madhaji Sindia had already died, in February 1794 at Poona, and was succeeded by his thirteen year old nephew Daulat Rao Sindia.   For a short time this enabled Nana Phadnavis, to guide the Confederacy, and in 1795 he organized the last campaign in which the Marathas were united – their war against Hyderabad which culminated in the victory of Kharda.   But a few months later, in October 1795, the Peshwa died, precipitating a protracted, intricate and often violent succession struggle, as Daulat Rao Sindia and Nana Phadnavis each sought to install their own nominee.   After some months and many vicissitudes Baji Rao II became recognized as the new Peshwa.   Nana’s power from this time was much reduced and his distrust of Baji Rao’s character proved well-founded.   On the last day of 1797 Nana was arrested, his leading supporters were seized and ill-treated, and Poona was subjected to a reign of terror designed to extort the money which Sindia needed to pay his troops. (Sardesai New History of the Marathas vol 3 p 333-7; Duff A History of the Marathas vol 2 p 273-4).   Madhaji Sindia’s widows had already taken up arms against his successor, and were joined by Amrit Rao, the adopted brother of Baji Rao.   Their revolt failed, but could not be completely suppressed and civil strife and insurrection became endemic throughout Sindia’s territories. (Duff A History of the Marathas vol 2  p 281-4, 295-300).

When Tukoji Holkar died in 1797 he left four sons, the eldest little more than a cipher, the others headstrong but able young men.   Sindia seized control of the eldest, Kashirao, intending to gain control of the Holkar lands through him.   The remaining brothers opposed him, but their leader, Malharrao was killed, and the other two fled and spent several years in obscurity.   Sindia’s pre-eminence appeared complete, but it was equally obvious that he lacked the ability or the underlying conditions to consolidate his power.   The wild instability of Maratha politics in these years were both a symptom and a cause of the growing crisis in the Confederacy.   Neither Daulat Rao Sindia nor Baji Rao were capable of providing the state with the leadership it needed, or to check the rising tide of anarchy which was engulfing their lands.

The account of Maratha politics given in this chapter is based on Sardesai’s New History of the Marathas vol 3 supplemented by Bhattacharyya’s British Residents at Poona and Gupta’s Baji Rao II and the East India Company and the general histories.

Most accounts agree on Ahalya Bai’s high achievements, including Stewart Gordon’s recent The Marathas  (p 160-2), but it is worth noting that Sardesai (p 211-14) is very much more critical.

There are several histories of Sindia’s new army and the adventurers of the European mercenaries who were employed as its officers.  Most rely largely on Herbert Compton’s A Particular Account of the European Military Adventurers in Hindustan from 1784 to 1803 (first published in 1892) for their material, although it is hard to use except as a quarry.   Bidwell’s Swords for Hire is much more accessible, and good in parts, but he devotes far too much space to George Thomas, and far too little to the last years of the brigades.

Randolf Cooper The Anglo-Maratha Campaigns and the Conquest of India, which came out after these chapters were first drafted, contains a great deal of valuable material on the defection of Sindia’s mercenary European officers and the effect this had on the war.   It is a scholarly work based on very substantial research, although I do not find all its arguments convincing, and his remarks on AW are almost invariably condescending and partisan – this may be provoked by the folly of some of AW’s admirers (e.g. Weller), but it weakens the work.

The struggle for power following the death (by accident or suicide) of Peshwa Madhav Rao II is detailed in Sardesai  New History of the Marathas vol 3 p 313-24.

Holkar takes Ahmednuggar

Many British accounts claim that Arthur Wellesley’s capture of Ahmednuggar was unprecedented, but Sardesai (New History of the Marathas vol 3 p 371) says: ‘Yashvantrao [Jaswant Rao] descended upon Ahmednuggar, now a possession of Sindia, with the greatest fury.  He plundered the city and the fort…’  I cannot see this confirmed anywhere, but then no other source gives a detailed account of Holkar’s campaign.   The two statements can be reconciled by assuming that Ahmednuggar was not defended against Holkar’s attack, but it is more likely that the British accounts exaggerated their achievement – at any rate, the defences of the fort do not appear to have been especially formidable.

Holkar fails to capture the Peshwa:

Some sources say Holkar chose not to capture Baji Rao, and even sent him supplies, hoping to win his trust; while others say that he made every effort to capture him, but failed.   The latter seems more plausible.  (Sardesai New History of the Marathas vol 3 p 379 takes the former view; Bhattacharyya British Residents at Poona p 182 and Bennell Making of Arthur Wellesley  p 10, 18 the latter).

AW’s staff

According to Welsh Military Reminiscences (vol 1 p 149-50), Wellesley’s staff consisted of:

Captain R. Barclay, Deputy Adjutant-General

Captain Cunningham, Deputy Quartermaster-General

Captains West and Bellingham, Aides-de-Camp.

AW discussed some other appointments with Stuart in a letter of 4 March 1803 (WD I p 341), and it seems likely that some were made, but it is hard to discover any further information on the point.

AW’s appointment and Clive’s instructions to Stuart:

I have not been able to locate a copy of Clive’s instructions to Stuart of 27 February 1803; his official reply, dated 3 March 1803, is in WD I p 340; he may also have written privately.

See also Clive to Stuart 7 March 1803, in WD  I p 342

Stuart clearly was annoyed, and when he told AW that he intended to resign as CinC, Madras, he hinted that he thought AW might be after that job too (Maratha War Papers  p 39-40).

Stuart, Campbell and AW

On 8 August Stuart wrote to the Governor-General that he was breaking up the reserve army – had already sent two battalions forward to join AW, part of the rest was needed back in the Carnatic to guard against the threat posed by the French, and he would accompany this part, while leaving Major-General Campbell at Moodgul with 5 companies of European infantry (i.e. the half of the 33rd which had taken part in the advance to the frontier), 3 battalions of sepoys and five brigades of 6 pounders.   Campbell had been given strict orders not to accompany the force if it advanced, so that he did not superseded AW.   Stuart continued:

I have chosen to relinquish the gratification which I should derive from the command of an army, probably destined to undertake very distinguished services, in order to continue that very important charge in the hands of the officer best qualified, in my judgement, to exercise it with advantage to the public.  (WD I  p 629-30n)

 Weller (Wellington in India p 151) accepts this at face value, describing it as ‘one of the outstanding examples of unselfishness in military history’.   However, given that Stuart had been ordered to make way for AW by Lord Clive only a few months before, and that there is no sign that this order had been rescinded, it seems unlikely that Stuart really had any choice to make.   In other words, he was making the best of a fait accompli in a formal letter.

Stuart returned to England in 1805.  He should not be confused with John Stuart, the victor of Maida.

AW’s General Order and the implied contrast to Napoleon’s style

In fact, Napoleon’s famous proclamation to his troops of the Army of Italy was a St Helena forgery (J. E. Howard Letters and Documents of Napoleon I vol 1 p 86n).   Yet the underlying point remains valid, for it is clear that many of Napoleon’s orders of the day were written for an audience beyond the army – hence ‘to lie like a bulletin’.

The Advance on Poona

Welsh Military Reminiscences has some good material on preparations at Seringapatam (training, inspections etc) before the advance began.

Stuart asked AW to inspect the troops as they came forward: Stuart to AW, 1 Dec 1802, WP 1/131.

AW sent an agent, Govind Rao, forward to make contact with the southern jagirdars (AW to the Governor-General, 9 March 1804, WD II p 1087-90, also many references in AW’s letters of late 1802/early 1803 to Stuart, though not much detail).

7 April 1803  AW acknowledges Close’s point that the use of slaughter cattle to feed the troops risked offending the Hindu Marathas (the Peshwa was surprisingly religious) and agreed to stop killing bullocks immediately, but said that sheep were no substitute in the rains, (WD I p 383-5)

15 April 1803  AW admits to suffering considerably from desertion – gives details (WD  I p 395).   (The same thing had happened in 1800: AW to Braithwaite, 28 Sept 1800, WD II  p 1623-4).

The GOs printed in WD are a rich source of detail on the practicalities of the march.

See also accounts of the advance by Blakiston Twelve Years’ Miliatary Adventure, Harness Trusty & Well Beloved which are full of good material.

The supply depot at Panwell

There is a great deal of correspondence about this, from AW’s first proposal, through the assurances from Bombay, to the evidence of all the problems which occurred.   Also the related issued of AW’s request for pontoons, and Bombay’s failure to supply them.   See Maratha War Papers  p 78, 81-2;  WSD  vol 4 p 75-9.

The 33rd are left behind:

Elliot to AW, 12 Nov 1802, WP 1/128

Stuart to AW, 19 Nov 1802, WP 1/129

Essentially they had suffered too much from sickness and were too weak.

Lord Wellesley does not come to Madras:

There was much correspondence about whether he should or not: AW was in favour, but it did not happen.

AW’s irritation with Kirkpatrick

AW to Close, 16 April 1803, WD  I  p 399

AW to Gov Gen,  21 April 1803, WD  I p 404-6

AW to Stevenson, 23 April 1803, WD  I  p 407-8

cf Kirkpatrick’s letter quoted in Maratha War Papers  p 429

Welsh’s description of Poona:

Captain James Welsh of the 3rd Madras Native Infantry, a lively and intelligent observer, gives a good description of Poona in his reminiscences:

       Washed on the north by the Mootah river, is about three miles in length, and two in breadth, and was said to contain one hundred and forty thousand houses, which, by a moderate calculation, would give six hundred thousand inhabitants; but this seemed an exaggeration.   It was, however, extremely crowded with both habitations and people, of all descriptions; and the apparent confidence with which articles of merchandise were every where exposed, even on our arrival, seemed to give a flat contradiction to the reports, which had induced the General to make a forced march: since Amrut Row not only left the place, without doing any mischief, but had treated the Peishwa’s family, left in his custody by Holkar, with great kindness and delicacy, and placed them all safely in Purbutty, a celebrated Pagoda on a hill in the town.   The streets, as in most native towns, are extremely narrow, and full of bazars, which contain an innumerable quantity of articles of merchandise, the produce not only of India, but of China and Europe; of which the Parsees have the most extensive and richest assortments, and the Borahs next.   The houses are some three or four stories high, but built without much regard to taste or symmetry; though, being diversified in size, shape, and colour, they have a pretty appearance from a distance.   The view from the opposite side of the river is the most imposing; as that part of the town which is washed by the stream, being faced with stone, descending, in many parts, by regular steps to the water’s edge, and having trees intermingled with the houses, presents an appearance very far from despicable; though a stranger, set down at once in any of the streets, could hardly credit the assertion.   The fruit bazars are well supplied with musk, and water melons, plantains, figs, dates, raisins, mangos, pomegranates, wood-apples, almonds, and a great variety of country vegetable; in short, it appeared to us a place of great wealth, and to concentrate all the trade of the empire. (Welsh Military Reminiscences vol 1 p 152-55).

The Peshwa’s entry into Poona

see Blakiston’s description:  Twelve Years’ Military Adventure vol 1  p 112

AW’s irritation with Baji Rao

see esp AW to Close 26 April 1803, WD  I  p 413

On his neglect of business:  Sardesai New History of the Marathas vol 3 p 393-4

His hatred of Amrit Rao:  Sardesai New History of the Marathas vol 3 p 387  and Gupta Baji Rao II and the East India Company  p 75.

and Holkar:  Sardesai New History of the Marathas vol 3 p 394.

Edmonstone’s letter and relations with the Peshwa

See also Lord Wellesley to AW, 27 June 1803 quoted in Bennell Making of Arthur Wellesley  p 95:  ‘We must establish an efficient government at Pune and I am inclined to think that it may be necessary to employ Amrit Rao in some mode. ….  The Peshwa must not be suffered to escape, and the government must be conducted in his name.’

The Path to War

Bennell argues that AW and Close failed to push hard enough for serious negotiations with Sindia, at the same time as advancing on Poona.   But it is not clear that it was their place to do so, and in any case, Collins had no hope of success as early as 7 May  Maratha War Papers p 82-3.

Enid Fuhr ‘Strategy and Diplomacy in British India’ p 61 and elsewhere claims repeatedly that Lord Wellesley actually wanted war with Marathas and that Bennell is misled by Wellesley’s dispatches home: ‘Bennell assumes that Wellesley’s aim was to negotiate a pacific settlement.  There is what Wellesley wanted the Home officials to believe.’ (p 61)  But she produces no evidence to support this view, while the confidential correspondence between Webbe, AW, Close, Malcolm &c, including letters from Benjamin Sydenham and other figures in Lord Wellesley’s inner circle, makes clear that the desire to avoid war genuine.

It is true, as Fuhr maintains, that a negotiated settlement could not have brought the territorial gains which Lord Wellesley wanted in late 1803/early 1804; but those demands arose from the war, and were not its cause.  In late 1802/early 1803 he did not look beyond gaining a dominant position in the Maratha confederacy – war, and its cost, created the need for additional gains to justify his policy.



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© Rory Muir