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CRITICAL Analysis of THE ANARCHY about Maratha Empire History in the 17 and 18 centuries Part 1

Pic shows English surrender at Wadgaon.
  • Respected author William Dalrymple attempts to show the British in good light in their interactions with the Marathas during the latter half of the 18th century. Author provides a reality check with references.

A couple of months ago one of my friends called to tell about a book he had read. It was the ‘The Anarchy’­ written by eminent historian William Dalrymple and published by Bloomsbury. My friend praised the book for its theme, detailed research on 17th& 18th century India and rise of British East India Company as a dominant power in the Indian sub-continent. Since the topics looked interesting I began reading the book the very next week. 

The book disappointed esp. w.r.t. Maratha History. The utter disregard for historical facts for e.g. dates of important events, time-span, names of places etc. is evident throughout the book. Further, the author looks at India through Mughal eyes, hence indigenous powers like the Maratha Empire is shown as an aggressor or snatching away the ‘divine empire’ of the Mughals. So also others like Rajputs and Sikhs are mentioned in passing or not mentioned at all. 

This goaded me to write two articles that critically analyse the book which claims to be a ‘Non-fiction historical.’ Part 1 deals with Anglo-Maratha Relations especially in the latter part of the 18th Century.  Kindly note that page numbers are taken as per online edition, hence in the paperback edition they may differ slightly.

Part 1 covers  Anglo-Maratha Relations in the 18th Century- A glimpse of what is buried/ distorted in the overall narrative of ‘The Anarchy’.

Chapter 6-Pg. 234  (what is in blue is extract from the book, copyright Bloomsbury) 

"It was near Pune, twelve years later, in 1779, that the Company received its first major defeat since the victory at Plassey. In February, without consulting Hastings in Calcutta, the Bombay Council got itself entangled with internal Maratha politics and signed an agreement with one of the Marathas’ ousted leaders, Raghunath Rao, offering to reinstate him on the throne of Pune as regent to the young Maratha Peshwa. On 24 November, this rogue expedition, unauthorised by Calcutta, left Bombay harbour and set off towards Pune with just 2,000 sepoys, a few hundred European cavalry and artillery, and a force of 7,000 of Raghunath Rao’s Maratha cavalry. Commanding the expedition was the elderly Colonel Egerton. The second-in-command was Shah Alam’s old adversary John Carnac, who had recently taken over a senior position in the Bombay Presidency.”

In this small passage on the ‘First Anglo-Maratha war’ the author has not only garbled up many things but also tried to obfuscate some crucial details. Documentary evidence shows that the Bombay Presidency started cultivating friendship with Raghunath Rao from 1767-68 through their envoys Thomas Mostyn and Charles Brome.1 So the assertion of author, that on one fine morning of 1778, EIC entered in internal Maratha politics is untrue.

According to the sources referred to for Anglo-Maratha relations then; the first treaty between Raghunath Rao and EIC was signed at Surat in March 1775.2 As per the terms of the treaty, EIC would provide military help to Raghunath Rao to get the position of Peshwa in exchange for Salsette island (this was an independent island near Mumbai- where now all suburbs of Mumbai are located-area between today’s Bandra to Mira-Bhayandar and Kurla to Ghodbundar) etc. For the next whole year battles raged in Gujarat including the famous ‘Battle of Adas’ where the combined forces of Raghunath Rao & Col. Keating of EIC were decisively beaten by forces under Maratha commander Haripant Phadake in May 1775.3

Since the treaty was signed by Gambier, who reported to William Hornby (Governor of Bombay Province), Hastings-whose authority as a Governor-general was defied earlier by Hornby; saw this as an opportunity to cut him down to size. Hence, he condemned the treaty of Surat and sent his own envoy Col. Upton to Pune for signing a new treaty, known as ‘Treaty of Purandar’ in 1775-76.4

The treaty was signed more to clip the wings of Hornby and not because Hastings valued friendship with the Maratha Empire. This was proved when the terms of the treaty like return of Salsette and Bharuch, which were captured by the EEIC without any formal declaration of war, to the Maratha’s and not giving any help to Raghunath Rao etc. were never observed by the EEIC. The breaking point came, when contrary to this treaty Hornby gave refuge to Raghunath Rao again in 1778 and signed a new treaty with him known as the ‘Treaty of Bombay’ dated November 24, 1778. This treaty nullified the Treaty of Purandar signed by Hastings’s envoy.5

So the charge of ‘Oh, the Hastings is so innocent, he didn’t start the fight with Maratha’s’ might be technically correct (as the treaty was signed by Gambier & later Hornby); but is fundamentally flawed. Since both were working under Hastings who did nothing to prevent the war with the Marathas. It was he who advised Hornby not to cede territory grabbed illegally like Salsette from the Marathas 6 and sent reinforcements to fight battles against the Maratha Empire. Hastings also sent his envoy named Elliot and tried to instigate Janoji Bhosale of Nagpur to capture the throne by deposing Maratha king Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaja II.7

Was it not Hastings-‘who was eager to compensate the ‘National Loss’ in America or ‘the Western world’ to the British Empire in the ‘East’ i.e. India? And how Hastings was supposed to ‘compensate this loss’ without taking a hostile stance against the Maratha Empire, the dominant power in India then and grabbing its territory? 8

Bust of Senapati Mahadji Shinde at Wadgaon.

So I was curious to know why the author has mentioned words like ‘rogue expedition-unauthorized by Calcutta’ at all in the book. Looks like ‘the author’ has taken what Hastings wrote at face value after the crushing defeat by Maratha forces. The defeat at Talegaon and siege at Wadgaon; which was followed by ‘Surrender & Treaty of Wadgaon’ on January 16, 1779 was very humiliating for the EEIC; especially when the company was high on victories at Plassey and Buxar. 

British historians had compared the surrender at Wadgaon by Col. Egerton with the ‘Battle of Saratoga’ of the American Revolution; which resulted in defeat of the British army, under John Burgoyne, by the Continental army of Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold. This was a key turning point of the American Revolutionary war of 1777. 9

William Farmer, who went for preliminary negotiations with Maratha Empire at Wadgaon, to William Hornby and Hastings at the top tried their very best to quickly dump the treaty of Wadgoan with the Marathas, a treaty they found extremely humiliating. Hence, they tried to cloak their humiliation under bureaucratic jargon like ‘rogue expedition-unauthorized by Council or who has power to negotiate on behalf of EEIC etc’. Nevertheless they resumed hostilities with Marathas in 1780.  

The Curious Case of Salsette and Karanja islands 

The islands of Salsette, Karanja and forts like Versova & Thane were captured in November-December 1774 by EIC from the Marathas even before signing the ‘Treaty of Surat’ and without any formal declaration of war.10 Was this expedition in 1774 also ‘rogue’ and ‘unauthorized’? If so, why were these areas never returned to the Maratha Empire either during the ‘Treaty of Purandar’ or by ‘Treaty of Wadgaon’ which was signed in 1779? 

The treaty of Wadgaon has a formal article by which, all the area captured by EIC after 1772, was to be returned to Marathas, but this never happened.

The letters which were never discussed 

If as per the author the expedition of 1778 from Bombay (now Mumbai) was ‘Rogue’ & ‘Unauthorized’ by Hastings, then why did Hastings write these 2 letters from Fort William-Calcutta (Kolkata) to William Hornby (Governor of Bombay); the 1st was dated March 18, 1778. 11

On the 23rd of last month orders were issued for forming the detachment intended for your assistance. It will consist of six of our best battalions with their guns, and a company of native artillery with 4 twelve-pounders and two howitzers. I do not know whether any cavalry will be added to it : this I propose to leave to the option of the Commanding Officer, who, I hope, will not want it : the party will form at or near Kalpi. Colonel Leslie will command it, and I hope he will be in readiness to march early in the next month. His route will be through Bundelkhand and Berar, or near the confines of that province, for the greater convenience of receiving supplies of provisions and other assistance,

According to this letter, in the near future Bombay presidency was expecting war so Hastings was planning to despatch a detachment under the command of Col. Leslie for assistance. Assistance against whom? If there is any doubt left in the mind of readers how these forces were going to be used the second letter, dated August 17, 1778, shall remove your doubts. Find below letter by Warren Hastings which expressly ‘Authorizes’ Bombay council to wage war against Maratha Empire.12

That no time may be lost in conveying our sentiments to you, we send this by different routes to acquaint you that we approve your resolution of the 21st July, and authorize you to assist Raghoba with a military force to conduct him to Poona, and to establish him in the Regency there.”

So the defence of Hastings by the author that the expedition was ‘unauthorized by Calcutta’ is, in view of the above letter, untrue. Also even if the expedition was ‘rogue’, if EIC has won the field against Marathas in 1779 itself would Hastings have shown his magnanimity and not exploited the situation and milked Maratha Empire for territorial & financial gains? After-all even the attack on Patna by the EIC forces of Ellis in 1763 was ‘unauthorized’ by Calcutta council; as the formal declaration of war came a week later i.e. on 4th July 1763. But that did not prevent the EIC from extracting the harshest terms when the combined­ armies of Mir Qasim-Shuja & Shah Alam were defeated in Battle of Buxar (1764) as mentioned at the end of Chapter 4 and start of Chapter 5 of ‘The Anarchy’. 13

So whether the expedition was ‘authorized’ or ‘unauthorized’ is immaterial as far as larger issues are concerned. 

Even the chain of command describedas ‘Commanding the expedition was the elderly Colonel Egerton. The second-in-command was Shah Alam’s old adversary John Carnac, is factually incorrect in the passage. As per records, the decision making body was known as Poona committee; which was comprised of John Carnac as senior-most civil officer (as he was now retired from EIC army of Bengal Presidency & joined Bombay Presidency in bureaucracy), Col. Egerton as military C-in-C and Thomas Mostyn- the long-time British resident at Pune as committee members. 14 All the decisions were supposed to be taken by this ‘Poona committee’.   

The disappointment heightens when phase 2 of the First Anglo-Maratha war, which is worthy of an entire book; is not even mentioned even in the passing in The Anarchy. This phase started after Hastings refused to honour the Treaty of Wadgaon and again gave refuge to Raghunath Rao in June 1779.  

Neither the military campaigns like Goddard in Gujarat against Mahadaji Shinde-Tukoji Holkar, nor Malwa campaign of Popham, Camac, Muir against Mahadaji Shinde, as well as failed second Borghat expedition of Goddard & Hartley against Haripant Phadake, Parshurambhau Patwardhan & Tukoji Holkar; nor political intrigues of Hastings, Hornby, & countermoves by Nana Fadanvis and Mahadaji Shinde finds its place in this book.15

The book is about the ‘relentless rise’ of the East India Company. So why would author shows defeats suffered by EIC at the hands of the Marathas, twice in the span of just 3 years. This delayed the formation of British Indian Empire at least by 40 years.

It seems that since Warren Hastings was cleared from his impeachment trial, he became ‘innocent’. Thus, in his wisdom it seems the author has weaved his entire narrative and twisted facts to justify this innocence, instead of focusing on what happened then.

Part 2    covers purported atrocities by Maratha Army mentioned in book ‘The Anarchy’ and their exposure with relevant sources.

I do not claim to know it all. In case you have a different view point please mail me with source documents. I am happy to stand corrected. Pictures by author. 

To read all articles by author

To read all articles on Indian History


1.  Letters, Despatches and Other state papers preserved in the Bombay Secretariat. Maratha Series Vol-I Part-I- Edited by George Forrest (Pub:-Government Central Press-1885)-Ref:Charles Bromes report to Thomas Mostyn dated 15th Jan 1768.-Pg. 166

2.  Marathi Riyasat 1774-1783 by G S Sardesai  (Pub: G M Mahadev& Co-1929)– Pg. 37-38; & Anglo-Maratha Relations during administration of Warren Hastings-1772-1785 by S N Sen (Firma K L Mukhopadhyay, Calcutta-1961) Pg. 38 

3.  Marathi Riyasat 1774-1783 by G S Sardesai (Pub:G M Mahadev_& Co-1929) -Pg. 41

4.  Ibid, Page 56

5.  Letters, Despatches and Other state papers preserved in the Bombay Secretariat. Maratha SeriesVol-I, PartII. Edited by George Forrest (Pub:-Government Central Press-1885). Detailed articles of Treaty of Bombay dated 24th Nov 1778-Pg. 334-338.

6.  Ibid, Ref:Letter of Warren Hastings to Wiliam Hornby dated 31May 1775-Pg. 239.

7.  Memoirs of the late war in Asia (By an officer of Col. Baillie’s detachment-Vol-1 (Printed & Sold by J Murray, Fleet Street) Pg. 27-28 

8.  Commerce & Conquest- The story of Honourable East India Company- by C Lestock Reid. (Publisher: C & J Temple Ltd. London- 947)Pg. 125.

9.   Ibid, Page 125

10. Letters, Despatches and Other state papers preserved in the Bombay Secretariat. Maratha SeriesVol-I Part-I- Edited by George Forrest (Pub: Government Central Press-1885) Ref: Letter of Bombay Council to Calcutta Council dated 31Dec 1774-Pg. 205.

 11. Ibid, Ref:-Letter of Warren Hastings to Wiliam Hornby dated 18 March 1778-Page 327

12. Ibid, Ref-Letter of Warren Hastings to William Hornby dated 17 August 1778-Pg. 328.

13. The Anarchy: Relentless Rise of East India Company- By William Darlymple (Pub: Bloomsbury)- Refer Chapter 4 & 5.

14. Letters, Despatches and Other state papers preserved in the Bombay Secretariat. Maratha SeriesVol-I Part-II- Edited by George Forrest (Pub: Government Central Press-1885) Ref:-Order of Bombay Council Select Committee for formation of Poona Committee to conduct the war against_Maratha Empire -Page 346.

15 Battles of the Honourable East India Company (Making of the Raj)- By Maj. M S Naravane (Pub:APH Publishing, 2006)

About AuthorSaurabh is an avid reader and keen researcher, especially in the history of Maratha Empire. After meticulous research of over two years, he has written his first non-fiction historical, which will be launched by end-2021. 

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