The Third Anglo Maratha war effectively ended Indian independence east of the Sutlej. The war was precipitated by Peshwa Baji Rao Raghunath, often called Baji Rao II, who first became the Peshwa in 1796. This seven-month long war was the Peshwa’s desperate struggle to free himself and the Maratha nation of British overlordship. In this he attempted to forge an all India coalition to take on the British power…
- Chhatrapati Pratap sinh – the Maratha king.
- Peshwa Bajirao II – Prime Minister.
- Bapu Gokhale – Maratha Commander in chief
- Trimbakji Dengle – the Peshwa’s loyal chief.
- Naro punt Apte – a Maratha chief loyal to the Peshwa.
- Mountstuart Elphinstone – British Resident at Pune.
- Brigadier Gen Lionel Smith – led English forces against the Peshwa.
- Captain FF Staunton – led the British force at Koregaon.
- Lieutenants Swanston, Pattinson, Connellan, Jones, Chisholm and surgeons Wingate and Wylie – officers under Captain FF Staunton.
- John Malcolm – British officer/soldier/diplomat and a friend of the Peshwa.
- Colonel Burr – in charge of Pune.
- Daulat rao Sindia – head of the Sindias.
- Rango Bapuji – officer in Satara who was opposed to the Peshwa.
- Mor Dixit – the Peshwa’s karbhari.
As we pass through the two hundredth anniversary of the third Anglo Maratha war, we cannot fail to realise the significance of this momentous event.
Beginning one afternoon on 5 November 1817, the war finally ended in the first week of June 1818 when the beleaguered Peshwa Baji Rao Raghunath surrendered to the English officer of his choice; John Malcolm. However, in the preceding seven months a huge war effort by the English and an equally prolonged and uncharacteristic resistance was carried on by the last Peshwa.
Peshwa Baji Rao II came to power in fortuitous circumstances. From a nominal prison in Junnar, he found himself transported to Pune wooed by parties that wished to control the Peshwa’s musnad (seat/throne). The precipitating factor for this change had been the sudden demise of the 21-year old Sawai Madhav Rao Peshwa in 1795 – who fell from the terrace of one of the tall buildings within the Shaniwarwada – and died three days later from a fractured thigh bone and possibly his jaw. The contest for appointing the new Peshwa raged for over a year before Baji Rao Raghunath was able to secure the musnad with the help of Daulat Rao Sindia as well as Nana Phadnis and Parshuram Bhau Patwardhan.
From the day he took over, Baji Rao had to placate powerful ministers and Daulat Rao Sindia, needing all the guile he possessed to survive. An ill-judged move to punish an errant son of Tukoji Holkar by killing him under the feet of an elephant led to his brother Yeshwant Rao approaching Pune with his army to seek justice in his quarrel with the Sindia. Propped up by Sindian forces, the Peshwa was in no position to evenly adjudicate between the two powerful Maratha chiefs. In the battle of Hadapsar, Holkar triumphed over the combined Peshwa-Sindia army, and the Peshwa had to flee to the coast, where he sought an English vessel to reach the Maratha fort of Vasai.
For some time now there were moves to make the Peshwa subject to the Subsidiary treaty, a brainchild of the ambitious Governor General Arthur Wellesley. In Vasai, the Peshwa was vulnerable to seeking help from any quarter to win back his seat in Pune. Eventually, on 31 December 1802, Baji Rao II signed the Subsidiary Treaty, putting his pen to paper to seek British forces paid by him to help regain his musnad. Once the treaty was signed, Holkar moved away from Pune and Wellesley escorted the Peshwa back to the seat of power.
However, Wellesley had to face opposition of the Sindia and Bhonsle of Nagpur who refused to recognise the treaty. The Peshwa himself, having secured his musnad tried to wriggle out of his commitments at Vasai. However, the British grip on Pune and the Peshwa was strong. The year 1803 saw the armies of Sindia and Bhonsle defeated in a series of battles; Aligurh, Delhi, Assaye, Gawilgurh, and soon the Maratha confederacy lay subdued by the armies raised by the East India Company. Undoubtedly, the defection of Sindia’s European captains made a difference, but more importantly, the English had captured the south Asian military economy by being better employers.
The next few years saw the defeat of Holkar, and the domination of the English over India was complete. Each chief was closely watched by the Resident who reported every conversation and move so that Sindia, Bhonsle, Holkar and the Peshwa were unable to muster any resistance or alliance. The Peshwa, who tried to bring his jagirdars under his own control was frustrated by the British who refused the use of the Subsidiary force for this purpose. In fact, British policy was to support Gaekwad and the southern jagirdars so that the Peshwa remains weak and within their control.
Years passed. The Peshwa chafed under the controls he had to face as the one-time head of the Maratha confederacy. Gradually, he collected a large sum of money from his annual revenues. His quibbles with the Gaekwad of Gujarat over payment of long standing dues went out of hand when the Gaekwad envoy Gangadhar Shastri Patwardhan was murdered at Pandharpur in 1815 and the British Resident Mountstuart Elphinstone placed the blame on the Peshwa’s chief aide Trimbakji Dengle. Elphinstone pressed the Peshwa hard so that he had to hand over Trimbakji, who was imprisoned in an English prison at Thane. Relations between the Peshwa and Elphinstone plumbed new depths.
The year 1816 went with Peshwa-English relations deteriorating rapidly. The Peshwa sent emissaries to Sindia and further to Nepal, Ranjit Singh of Punjab, Bharatpur, Jodhpur, Macheri, Kashmir as well as Pindari leaders like Meer Khan. Threatened, the English monitored these diplomatic moves and increased the pressure on the Peshwa. He was coerced into handing over his territories as well as severing all contacts with his one-time subordinates, thereby isolating him. On his part, the Peshwa used all his guile and reserves to gradually build a huge army that was paid their salary well in advance. The purported reason for this was to help the English fight the Pindaries of Central India. Meanwhile, letters were being sent to every ruler worth his salt and calls were made to join in a general insurrection to throw the English out. The English were not found wanting. Remaining alert, they intercepted many of these messages and prepared their own counter strategies.
In the midst of this, in September 1816, Trimbakji escaped from the prison at Thane. The romantic escape was a shock to the British in Pune. Bishop Heber describes his rescuers singing a Marathi ballad as a sign to Trimbakji to enable him to escape…the English translation being:
‘Behind the bush, the bowmen hide, the horse beneath the tree,
Where shall I find a knight will ride the jungle paths with me?
There are five and fifty coursers there, and four and fifty men;
When the fifty fifth shall mount, the Deccan thrives again!’
Trimbakji began gathering an army of Bhils, Ramoshis and other tribes in the hills of Junnar north of Pune while Bapu Gokhale, the Peshwa’s able commander-in-chief – and perhaps the last Maratha General of note – began to plan a war against the English. The Peshwa himself began to think of ways to escape his gilded cage under the watchful Elphinstone. Elphinstone built an elaborate intelligence network so that the Peshwa complained that even the dishes cooked for him were being reported to the Resident. Many chiefs of the Peshwa’s own realm conspired against him to secure favours from the English. A large collection of such intelligence jottings gathered by Elphinstone are available with the author.
Finally, in May 1817, the Resident demanded of the Peshwa that Trimbakji be apprehended and the three forts of Sinhagad, Purandar and Raigad be handed over to the English until then as surety. The Peshwa at this time had a numerous cavalry and seven thousand paid Arabs for his protection in Pune. Elphinstone ordered General Lionel Smith to surround Pune. Eventually, not ready to fight at this time Peshwa was forced to declare Trimbakji an absconder and declare a prize for his release. The Peshwa however worded the proclamation in a manner that it appeared to be from the British rather than himself. The forts were transferred to British custody for a short while. The Peshwa was also forced to sign a fresh treaty giving up all claims to be the head of the Maratha confederacy. Large chunks of the Peshwa’s territories in Karnataka and Bundelkhand were also sought by the company. The British also raised new troops. Raising the Poona Auxiliary Horse in July 1817 it was advertised that,
‘Themen to be Sunnis, Sheikhs, Moguls, Pathans, Scindeans (Sind), Baloochis, Shias,Hindustanis, Brahmins, Rajputs and Mahratta spearsmen – men of low caste not to be admitted – Mussulmans specially Syeds, Sheikhs and Hindustanees to be preferred..’
The relations between the Peshwa and Elphinstone were heading for an irrevocable split. In order to strengthen his own position, the Peshwa moved to Mahuli near Satara and distributed money to many chiefs to raise troops. Here, he took the important step of appeasing the Chhatrapati. Elphinstone through his agents had been in contact with the king’s aides Rango Bapuji and Balwant Rao Chitnis who were aggrieved as the Peshwa had reduced their jagir and vatan for some misdeed in the past. These two approached Elphinstone for aid to unseat the Peshwa. The Peshwa therefore called on the king and paid obeisance to him. He also respectfully invited him to Mahuli, entertained him and discussed many affairs of state with him.
The month of November 1817 emerged with a grand spectacle of arms on the Dassera day for the Peshwa. The English moved fresh troops from their base in Shirur 70 kilometres away to Khadki and Dapodi. The Peshwa brusquely asked Elphinstone to send them away. However, the Resident refused. A large number of Maratha soldiers began to pour into the city. War was not far.
The Resident at Pune kept a close watch on the Peshwa’s moves and kept a count of the troops collected by the Peshwa under his banner in Pune. On 24 October 1817, Elphinstone writes in his intelligence notes of the ‘Peshwa’s plan’:
The Peshwa’s plan is to go on with his plan of undermining us by intriguing with the troops. His preparations are to be carried out by every possible means, Trimbuckjee is to collect a large body of men in the hills and when the war breaks out the Peshwa is to attack us on all sides.
On 25 October, Elphinstone had intelligence that the Peshwa had 29,500 horses and a 4,000-strong infantry with him. On 1 November 1817, Elphinstone found the Peshwa had purchased 4,000 bullocks. These were used to tow the big guns and baggage. It is recorded that to tow the Mahakali cannon from the armoury to the later battle at Yerawada, 90 bullocks were needed.
On 2 November, Elphinstone had intelligence that
Gokhala and Govindrao Kale (are) absolute in H’H’s (His Highness – the Peshwa) counsels, and they persuade him to go to war – The Peishwa thinks of remaining in Pune, but in the event of war, he will be off and Gokhala will fight...
On 5 November 1817, large bodies of Maratha troops began moving towards the English Residency. Elphinstone coolly moved out, crossing the river to reach the English camp at Dapodi. From here the English moved into the curve of the river at Khadki. The Maratha troops burnt the English Residency, moved towards the Ganesh Khind (near the University) and about 15,000 horsemen faced a disciplined British army of 3,000. Among these were Col Burr and the Subsidiary force paid by the Peshwa. By three in the afternoon, the battle was joined with Bapu Gokhale pre-empting a possible withdrawal order by the Peshwa and going on the offensive.
A cannonade began followed by an enveloping action to get some men behind British lines. Gokhale made the first attack in a solid column. Another attack was made by more troops. In the first British salvo, Mor Dixit, the Peshwa’s karbhari was killed by a musket ball. The English formed in a Square as the Maratha cavalry charged, and fired accurately at the rapidly approaching foe. Just before the Maratha van reached the English line, a small depression in the ground unseen until then, caused the first line of horsemen to fall and the fury of the attack was checked. Soon the English infantry had the upper hand and by sunset, the Marathas moved off from the battlefield having lost far more men than the English. The Peshwa, watching the battle from the Parvati hill was aghast at this loss and castigated his generals.
The matter came to a slow boil in the next 12 days. A letter from an aide of the Chhatrapati who was making preparations to leave Satara for the strong fort of Wassota said, “the Chhatrapati says a calamity on the Raya is a calamity on me. Write to the Raya to be at ease, God will give success”. The Maratha king’s support to the Peshwa at this stage is thus apparent. The Peshwa attempted to dissimulate with the English through intermediaries, however, the English remained on guard and did not accept any overtures for peace.
However, the situation at Pune was tense. More English armies began to approach Pune from Shirur. Marathi letters speak of these having set fire to villages like Dhanori near Pune before they reached the ford at Yerawada. From 15 to 17 November 1817, at Yerawada another face to face battle was fought with General Smith’s forces that the Marathas lost. The total killed on the English side at the battle of Khadki was 16 ‘privates’ and at Yerawada the number of killed was 15. The inability to face European armies in an open battle and inflict damage on them was not new and even the strong Sindia army had lost in 1803 at Aligarh, Delhi and Assaye. It was decided that Pune, an open city, could not be defended. The Peshwa and his army therefore moved south, the eventual aim being a union with forces of the Sindia, Holkar and Bhonsle somewhere on the Godavari and taking on the English.
As the Peshwa moved towards Satara he ordered Bapu Gokhale to revert to traditional desultory warfare by cutting off supplies and harassing the English armies. Brigadier General Smith who followed the Peshwa was thus exposed to Bapu Gokhale’s attacks plaguing his army with shortages. The Peshwa sent his wife and considerable treasure to the strong fort of Raigad. He then halted at Sangam Mahuli near Satara and sent his Naro punt Apte to Wassotta to ask the Chhatrapati, his mother and brothers to join him lest they fall in English hands. Apte left the Peshwa on 27 November 1817 and joined him on 12 December 1817 with the Chhatrapati and his family. From here onwards the Maratha king and Peshwa were together in camp. Tragically, while the Peshwa and Bhonsle of Nagpur began their battles with the English, Sindia was prevented from joining the war by the English armies. Malhar Rao Holkar II sustained a defeat in Malwa.
The British began mobilising armies from the south and ordered General Pritzler to stop the Peshwa’s progress towards Nipani south of the Krishna. The Peshwa then turned towards Pandharpur. On 12 December he reached the town of Siddhatek known for the Ganapati temple. General Smith had been pursuing the Peshwa for almost three weeks. Seeing the Peshwa was heading for the region north of Pune, he changed direction once again to the north.
Making a full circuit around Pune with two or three English armies chasing him, the largely cavalry borne Maratha army began their approach to Pune from the north. The British strategy decided by Elphinstone was not the capture of territory but the person of the Peshwa. Once this was achieved, Elphinstone considered the war would be over. On 27 December 1817, the Peshwa was at Brahmanwada near Nashik. Here Bapu Gokhale’s son Govind rao died of a fever and his young wife, against the wishes of the Peshwa and his ministers, decided to commit sati. The event cast a shadow on the Maratha camp and decidedly affected Bapu Gokhale. Trimbakji Dengle joined the Peshwa here with tribals comprising Bhils, Ramoshis, Arabs and some more men. At the fort of Chakan, the Peshwa took a few English prisoners.
With the Peshwa barely 18 miles from Pune, the residual English force at Pune had reason to be alarmed. Under Colonel Burr a garrison of a few thousand with just two hundred English were in the capital city. Alarmed by the proximity of the Peshwa, at midnight of 30 December, Burr sent an urgent messenger to the English camp at Shirur nearly 70 km away asking for reinforcements. On 31 December 1817, at about eight in the evening, Captain FF Staunton left Shirur with 600 men of the 2nd Battalion of the 1st Regiment of the Bombay Native infantry, a Madras Artillery detachment with two six pounders and 26 European gunners led by Lieutenant Chisholm and 300 auxiliary horse commanded by Lieutenant Swanston. Lieutenants Pattinson, Jones and two surgeons Wingate and Wylie were the other officers in this army.
At Chakan, the Peshwa found General Smith turning south from Sangamner towards him. His passage with his heavy luggage through the ghats was delayed by Maratha attacks on his baggage train. He was still a hundred miles away from the Peshwa. The Peshwa himself bypassed Pune and headed for Phulshahar, a new city he had built on the river Bhima. At Phulshahar, his army refreshed itself and ‘wore newly washed clothes’ before moving ahead. Here, he also received intelligence that troops were heading from Shirur to Pune for the defence of that city. The Maratha army, with the Chhatrapati and the Peshwa in their camp, and with Bapu Gokhale and Trimbakji Dengle leading their armies, headed towards Koregaon Bhima on 31 December 1817 with a view to intercept the English detachment. It was the fifteenth anniversary of the signing of the treaty of Vasai.
The stage was thus set for a confrontation with the English on New-Year’s day of 1818 on the river Bhima on the high road to Pune and near the village of Koregaon.
Continued in Koregaon: 1 January 1818
A former surgeon with the Indian Navy, Dr Uday Kulkarni is the author of Solstice At Panipat.
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