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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.

Principal Characters

  • 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, also known as Baji rao II 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. The precipitating factor for this change had been the sudden demise of the twenty-one-year old Sawai Madhav rao Peshwa in 1795 – who fell from the terrace of one of the tall buildings within the Shaniwar wada – 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 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 Arthur 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 important, 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 1716, 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,

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