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Chapter 9 – The Marathas and Mysore


To return to the affairs of the East India Company. The Marathas, in spite of their overthrow at Panipat, were still the most active and dangerous of the native powers in India; but since they embodied the principles of insatiable aggression and of irreconcilable hostility to Mohammedan predominance, the universal dread of their predatory incursions united all other chiefs and princes, especially the Mussulmans, against them. The result was advantageous to the English, for it drew toward them those who drew away from the Marathas. The Vizir of Oudh, who had now become the leading Mohammedan prince in Upper India, and who had been again repulsed in a second attempt upon Bengal in 1765, now showed himself very willing to conclude an alliance with the Company.

Lord Clive, a statesman no less than a soldier, whose despatches show admirable foresight and solidity of

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judgment, had returned to India in 1765, vested with plenary authority to reform the internal administration and to make peace abroad. He found the springs of government clogged by indiscipline and corruption; he suppressed resolutely the most glaring abuses; he reconstructed the administration with remarkable ability; and by two cardinal acts of public policy he settled the English dominion on a sure foundation within their territory and regulated their foreign relations.

The first of these acts was his acceptance for the Company of the Diwani, which was readily granted by the emperor on the terms of payment to himself of twenty-six lakhs of rupees, equivalent to some £260,000, annually from the Bengal revenues, and the assignment to him of two districts beyond the Ganges. The Company, having thus acquired possession of the whole revenue of the provinces, were at once transformed from irresponsible chiefs of an armed trading association into responsible administrators, with a direct interest in abolishing the peculations, scandalous frauds, and embezzlements that were rife in the country. The measure also put an end to the incessant disputes between the nominal government of the titular Nawab of Bengal and the actual authority of the Company. “The time now approaches,” wrote Clive, “when we may be able to determine whether our remaining as merchants, subjected to the jurisdiction, encroachments, and insults of the country government, or the supporting your privileges and possessions by the sword, are likely to prove more beneficial to the

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Company,” – in other words, whether the Company should openly take up an attitude of independent authority. And he decided, rightly, that nothing else would give them a stable or legitimate position. They could not continue to maintain themselves by pulling the strings of native government, or by revolutionary methods whenever the machinery broke down; and as they could not abdicate power, they were bound to take charge of its direction.

The second of Clive’s measures was the conclusion of the alliance with Oudh. The war of 1764–1765 had been disastrous to the vizir, for his strong fortress of Allahabad had been taken by the English troops, who had also compelled him to withdraw from his capital Lucknow, whereupon he had taken refuge with the Marathas. It now lay with the Company to choose between annexing, by right of conquest, some of his important districts situated on their north-western frontier, or attaching the vizir to their interests by reinstating him in this tract of country, which he held by a very dubious title, and from which he might easily have been ousted.

Lord Clive adopted the latter alternative without hesitation; he restored the districts to Oudh upon the grounds that every motive of sound policy weighed against extending the territorial possessions of the Company. This decision, he found, “disappointed the expectations of many, who thought of nothing but a march with the emperor to Delhi. My resolution however was, and my hopes will be, to confine our assistance,

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The Residency at Lucknow

our conquest, and our possessions to Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa. To go further is in my opinion a scheme so extravagantly ambitious and absurd, that no governor and council in their senses can adopt it, unless the whole system of the Company’s interest be first entirely new re-modelled.” He therefore decided to maintain and strengthen Oudh as a friendly state inter-posed between Bengal and Northern India. And the barrier-treaty of August, 1765, framed upon this principle by Lord Clive, constituted the basis of British

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foreign policy upon that frontier up to the end of the century.

It should be understood that the prime object of those who directed the affairs of the English in India at this critical epoch was to place a limit upon the expansion of the Company’s possessions, to put a sharp curb upon schemes of conquest, and to avoid any connection with the native princes that might involve the British in foreign war. But this was not because, as some have thought, the Company did not see whither they were drifting; it was because the outcome and irresistible tendencies of their situation were so clearly foreseen. To those who surveyed the prospect now before the English, and who could perceive that all the scattered fragments of the Moghul Empire would be drawn by political gravitation toward any strong and coherent power, it was plain by this time that, if the Company were ready to drop commerce for conquest and to lay out another great dominion over the wide unoccupied spaces left by thy subsidence of the Moghul Empire, the site lay open for the builder, the task of those who could do it.

In 1762, before the victory at Baxar, the Calcutta Council had sent home a project of despatching an army with the emperor to replace him on his throne at Delhi and to extend the political influence of the English throughout upper India. And after 1764, when the British success against the Vizir of Oudh carried the arms of England beyond Bengal, it was clearly seen by Clive that the next step forward would commit his

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countrymen to an enterprise from which there would be no further possibility of drawing back. “We have at last arrived,” he wrote in 1765, “at that critical period which I have long foreseen, that period which renders it necessary to determine whether we can or shall take the whole to ourselves. Jafir Ali Khan (the Nawab of Bengal) is dead, and his natural son is a minor; Sujah Daulah (Vizir of Oudh) is beat from his dominions; we are in possession of it; and it is scarcely hyperbole to say that to-morrow the whole Moghul Empire is in our power. The inhabitants of the country have no attachment to any obligation; their forces are neither disciplined, commanded, nor paid as ours are. Can it then be doubted that a large army of Europeans would effectually preserve us sovereigns, not only holding in awe the attempts of any country prince, but rendering us so truly formidable that no French, Dutch, or other enemy will presume to molest us?”

With this remarkable forecast of the possibilities which Clive earnestly counselled his employers to avoid, may be compared an extract from the concluding pages of Dow’s history of Hindustan, written in 1770, to show how accurately the possibilities of expansion had been calculated by cool and intelligent observers:–

“Thus we have in a few words endeavoured to give a general idea of the present state of Hindustan. It is apparent, from what has been said, that these immense regions might all be reduced by a handful of regular troops. Ten thousand European infantry, together with the sepoys in the Company’s service, are

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not only sufficient to conquer all India, but, with proper policy, to maintain it for ages as an appendage to the British Crown. This position may at first sight appear a paradox to people unacquainted with the genius and disposition of the inhabitants of Hindustan; but to those who have considered both with attention, the thing seems not only practicable but easy.”

And so, indeed, the thing turned out to be; for Dow’s political speculations have been literally verified by the result, although his estimates of the military strength required, being founded only on experience of warfare in South India and Bengal, are undoubtedly low. We see, therefore, that in the deliberate opinion of the best judges of the political situation, the English in India were already so strong that no opposition from the native powers could prevent their acquiring complete ascendency. The enterprise was within their capacity, provided that no foreign rival again interfered; the only serious impediment lay in the possible reappearance on the scene of some other European nation, or in the arrival of some powerful invader from Central Asia, who might establish himself securely in Upper India while the English were still near the coasts.

But all risk of transmarine intrusion had ceased for the time with the dislodgment of the French; and the well-trodden path of invasion through Afghanistan, which had been used for two thousand years by conquerors from Alexander the Great to Ahmad Shah Abdali, was at last rapidly closing. Ahmad Shah had

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Mountain tribes of the Afghan border

now founded the dynasty of the Amirs, who, for nearly one hundred and fifty years, have been the chiefs of a group of tribes firmly planted in the mountains and valleys of Afghanistan. This rugged highland country blocks all the roads from the Oxus and North-eastern Persia into India,; it is a country of free and martial races, strong enough to make a great civilized state think twice before attacking them, too weak and poor

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to give more than occasional annoyance to well-guarded frontiers.

It may be added that the north-western gates of India were soon to be double-locked against outside invasion. For while this independent Afghan kingdom formed an excellent barrier against all attempts to break into India from Central Asia by the only land routes through which an army can enter, the Afghans themselves were barred off from the Panjab about this time by the Sikhs. The rapid expansion of the power of the Sikhs, who are Hindu sectaries, illustrates the almost invariable process by which every great proselytizing movement in Asia tends to acquire a political and militant character. The two tendencies, of course, interact on each other, for while a religious revival is sure to rally under its flag a good deal of political discontent, civil commotions, on the other hand, usually set up the standard and appeal to the sanction of religious enthusiasm.

Toward the end of the last century, the votaries of the Sikh faith, fanatically hostile to Islam and in open revolt against their Mohammedan rulers, were gathering into a close association, whose stubborn fighting qualities and rapid political development under military chiefs were extending their power across upper India from the Sutlaj to the Indus. They were thus erecting a second and inner barricade against inroads from Central Asia, which cut off the communications between Islam in India and the rest of the Mohammedan world.

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Then below the Sutlaj River, further to the southeast, there was a belt of Mohammedan principalities extending from Delhi to beyond Lucknow, holding all the rich central districts along the Jumna and Ganges, but threatened on the north and west by the Sikhs and Marathas. By far the most considerable of these principalities was Oudh, whose territory covered the whole north-western flank of the Company’s possessions in Bengal. We have seen that a treaty of alliance was concluded with Oudh by Lord Clive in 1765; and as at the same time he contented the impoverished Moghul emperor by an ample allotment of revenue, the English had nothing to fear from that quarter for the time being. Thus the jealousies and religious animosities of all these states, Hindu and Mohammedan, in North-western India constituted a kind of balance of power, which, in addition to the politic alliances made by Lord Clive, explains the almost entire immunity from disturbance on their Bengal frontier enjoyed by the English for the next forty years.

The year 1765, therefore, when the English thus became firmly settled in Bengal, marks a halting-place in the onward movement of British territorial expansion. Lord Clive so far succeeded in his intention, expressed in a letter to the Directors of the Company, written in this same year, “absolutely to bind our possessions and conquests to Bengal,” that the English frontiers, as then fixed by him, did not materially advance until the end of the century, when the irruptions of the Marathas into the plains of Northern India

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upset the equipoise that had preserved the British from molestation. But the intervening period was by no means one of peace and tranquillity for the English in India. On the contrary, it was a time of constant war that severely strained our resources and occasionally placed our dominion in some jeopardy. After 1765, the scene shifts again; the stress of the English contest with the native powers falls backward toward Madras and Bombay; the centres of urgent political pressure move for a time southward to the peninsula and toward the western seaboard; the conflicts that check and retard British expansion are against the Marathas in the centre of India and the Mohammedan rulers of Mysore.

The character and constitution of these two powers rendered them much more substantial antagonists than those whom the English had hitherto encountered in the Indian field. The incessant warfare prevailing throughout India during the past thirty years, and the great prizes that might be won by the sword, had brought a stronger class of combatants into the arena than most of the men who had found themselves by birth or accident in the front rank at the beginning of -the empire’s dissolution. Of this stronger class was Hyder Ali of Mysore, a man of great natural genius, who had raised himself entirely by superior daring, military instincts, and a faculty of managing the mercenary bands that were always attracted to the standard of a famous and fortunate leader. Of the same class were the chiefs or leaders of tribes, communities,

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The old palace at Bhartpur

or military associations – like the Marathas, the Jats of Bhartpur, the Sikhs of the Panjab, or the Rohillas united by the tie, real or assumed, of common race, religion, or country, and drawn together for defence or attack into compact organizations upon a kind of national or territorial basis.

Such groups were liable to be weakened by internal feuds and dissensions. But as they had some genuine root in the soil and a true bond of popular union, they have always possessed a higher vitality and much stronger resisting capacity than the forces of even such an able military despot as Hyder Ali of Mysore, with whom we began our new series of wars in the south. A skilful commander of mercenary troops may often be hard to beat in a single battle; but it will be found,

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generally speaking, that all the really hard fighting done by the Anglo-Indian army has been against tribal or quasi-national associations, – against Marathas, Sikhs, Jats, or Afghans.

It was with the greatest reluctance that the English East India Company, after its acquisition of Bengal, again set out upon the road of political adventure and military expeditions. In a letter of 1767 to their President at Calcutta the London Directors say: “The Diwani of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa, are the utmost limits of our view on that side of India. On the coast the protection of the Karnatic and the possession of the Circars ... and on the Bombay side the dependencies thereon, with Salsette, Bassein, and the Castle of Surat. If we pass these bounds, we shall be led from one acquisition to another, till we shall find no security but in the subjection of the whole, which, by dividing your force, would lose us the whole, and end in our extirpation from Hindustan.”

This letter had been written on receipt of intelligence that had alarmed and displeased the Honourable Court. Although the French had been dislodged, the situation of the English on the southeast coast was still far from secure. In Bengal, the English were recognized masters of a rich inland province, free from any fear of attack by sea, and with their land frontier sheltered on its open side behind the allied kingdom of Oudh. But in Madras their territory ran along the seacoast, and was only covered landward by an indefinite kind of protectorate over the Karnatic principality,

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then under the rulership of a not very trustworthy Nawab. Two warlike and restless neighbours, Hyder AR and the Marathas, hovered ominously about our borders; while our only ally, the Nizam of Haidarabad, was embarrassed and wavering politically.

Hyder Ali was the son of a soldier who had risen out of the crowd of common mercenaries to a petty command; and he himself had pushed his own fortunes much further by the ordinary method of employing his troops first in the service of a native state and afterwards in the prosecution of his own independent ambition. He had thus gained notoriety as a military leader, and having secured a great treasure at the sack of Bednor, he had made himself master of Mysore, an ancient Hindu principality lying due west of Madras. From Mysore he had pushed his conquest still further westward to the seacoast of Malabar; and he was now seizing land in South India wherever he could lay hands on it.

The superior craft and courage that he displayed began to alarm his neighbours, most of whom were engaged in similar proceedings. His principal enemies were the Marathas, with whom he had some sharp conflicts, and the Nizam of Haidarabad, from whose state he was tearing off large strips of territory; while from Mysore he was threatening the Karnatic, which the Madras government were seriously concerned to protect.

It was just about this time that Lord Clive, in settling the affairs of Bengal with the emperor Shah Alam,

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obtained from him a formal grant of the districts to the north of Madras called the Five Circars, which had been assigned by the Nizam to the French, and out of which the English had driven Bussy’s garrisons in 1759. The grant cost nothing to an emperor whose sovereignty had become purely nominal; but these districts, though under British occupation since they had been taken from the French, had never been formally ceded to the English by the Nizam, who, not unreasonably, had taken offence at the transaction. However, being in straits for money and in fear of Hyder Ali, the Nizam was soon pacified by a treaty under which the Madras government pledged themselves rather vaguely to support him in case of war. They also entered into a friendly arrangement with a marauding Maratha chief, who had hired out ten thousand horsemen to the Nizam.

Scarcely had the treaty been signed, when Hyder Ali poured a large force into the Haidarabad territory; whereupon the Nizam, acting upon the agreement, at once demanded and obtained from Madras a contingent of troops. Meanwhile, the Maratha chief plundered the Mysore districts on his own account until Hyder Ali bought him off, whereupon he departed home with his booty to evade the Nizam’s claim for a share in it. The Nizam next marched, attended by the Madras contingent, toward Mysore; but instead of fighting, he came to a private understanding with Hyder Ali, ac-cording to which both turned upon the Company. Some sharp skirmishing followed, in which the Nizam

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A temple near Tinnevelli in the Madras Presidency

was so roughly handled by the English that he was glad to make terms separately; and the war was pressed against Hyder Ali alone, who soon proved himself an antagonist much more adroit and active than the ordinary Indian princes of whom the Company had military experience.

The campaign was very ill managed from Madras; the commanding officer was hampered by “field deputies” to superintend his movements, and by roguish contractors; while the Marathas took the opportunity of making a plundering tour in the Karnatic. Nor was it until the country had been overrun by the Mysore cavalry close up to the outskirts of Madras, and the finances of the Company considerably deranged, that a protracted and inglorious war was ended in 1769 by a treaty with Hyder Ali, who had taken up his quarters at St. Thomas’ Mount, five miles from the

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English capital. The revenues of Madras would have been completely exhausted, if they had not been supplemented liberally, during the campaign, from Bengal; and the London Directors were exceedingly displeased at discovering that the money on which they relied for commercial investments in India, and for accommodating his Majesty’s ministers with treasury loans at home, had been dissipated in these barren operations, with no other profit than a practical lesson in the ways of Oriental statecraft and the value of Eastern allies

Moreover, if the beginning of the war was a political blunder, another and worse one was made in ending it. The treaty described all the contracting parties, of whom the principal were the English, Hyder Ali, and the Marathas, as reciprocally friends and allies of each other, provided that they did not become aggressors against one another; so that each party incurred a loose and vaguely worded obligation of assisting the others in the event of future hostilities. And as a similar compact had been made with the Nizam, the position of the Madras government was that they had become liable to be called upon to assist any of three turbulent princes whenever the next quarrel should break out among them. Accordingly, when the Marathas and the Mysore ruler came to blows in the following year, each of these two treaty-parties demanded aid from the English, and each of them proved indisputably that his enemy was the aggressor. The Madras government, having been sharply censured by the Directors for the last war, and being in no way anxious

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to strengthen either of these two very formidable neighbours at the expense of the other, were compelled to offend both of them by refusing to interfere in any manner whatever. The result was that the Marathas inflicted upon Hyder Ali some humiliating defeats, which he attributed to the faithless desertion of him by the English, and that he became thenceforward a vindictive enemy, watching for an occasion, which he soon found, of gratifying his resentment.

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