Background to the Battle of ASSAYE

  • By Uday S. Kulkarni
  • November 5 2018
  • @MulaMutha
  • In 1802, events occurred in rapid succession that precipitated the second Anglo Maratha war. The battle of Assaye was a key engagement of the war. In this article we discuss the events that lead to Assaye...

Just a few months after a decisive victory over the Nizam at the battle of Kharda, tragedy struck at Pune, the capital of the Marathas. The death of twenty-one-year-old Sawai Madhav rao Peshwa on 27 October 1795 by a fall from the terrace of Shaniwar wada, threw the Maratha Empire into its greatest political crisis, reminding one of the period after Panipat, and again after Narayan rao Peshwa’s assassination. It was as if the cornerstone of the arch had been removed and the entire edifice began to dismantle and crumble. Eminent chiefs such as Mahadji Sindia, Tukoji Holkar, Hari punt Phadke, Ahilya bai had passed away and the only notable left was Nana Phadnis. His power was sourced from the Peshwa, and his sudden death created a constitutional crisis of leadership.

In the years that followed, the Maratha polity witnessed the worst kind of purges, extreme rivalry between Holkar and Sindia, assumption of the Peshwa’s musnad after a long fourteen-month void by Baji rao Raghunath, backed by Nana as well as Daulat rao Sindia. However, there was no real meeting of minds. It was not long before Sindia tricked Nana to come for a conference and imprisoned him. With this, the city of Pune witnessed a surge of lawlessness and collapse of civic order. Nana was released and restored to his former posts a few months later, however, it was no longer the same helmsman who had held the Empire together for two decades.

In 1800, Nana Phadnis died, and with him as one commentator noted ‘departed all the wisdom of the Maratha court’. Tipu Sultan had fallen the previous year, the Nizam had been forced to expel the French and accept the Subsidiary Treaty of the East India Company and a new aggressive policy to ‘pacify’ India was put in place by Governor General Lord Mornington. The Marathas still held the north including Delhi, Agra and Aligarh, as well as Malwa, Bundelkhand, Gujarat and Rajputana - but the British had assumed an aura of invincibility. With both the eastern and western coasts under their control, the Maratha power in the country were well-nigh encircled.

At this critical time, the leadership of the Marathas devolved on young inexperienced men, who had neither the wits nor the ability to tackle the aggressive policy of the Wellesley brothers and the drilled Anglo-Indian infantry which had strengthened itself from the closing months of 1802. The Maratha military structure appeared weak with the Sindia-Holkar enmity, and Sindia’s infantry brigades being led by Europeans and indeed the Commander in Chief himself being a Frenchman named M. Perron. The situation was ripe for a confrontation earlier than later. 

The fall of Srirangapatnam had led to a massing of British troops along the borders of the Maratha state with the Nizam as their ally. The Bengal British army controlled Awadh and looked to take Delhi from the Marathas. All that was needed was a spark. The cue eventually came when the Maratha civil war reached the Peshwa’s door. 

Peshwa Bajirao Raghunath, called Bajirao II, had little more than his wits to survive the power game in Pune. He was dependant on Daulat rao Sindia for his survival and looked at Nana Phadnis – who had once imprisoned him with his brothers - as his adversary. Holkar became an enemy as he was also Sindia’s enemy. So, when Vithoji, a Holkar scion, indulged in plunder in the holy town of Pandharpur, Bajirao had no hesitation in sentencing him to death by the then accepted method of being chained to the feet of an elephant. Yashwant rao Holkar, his brother, wrote to the Peshwa accepting his brother’s fate but seeking to be placed on the same footing as Sindia and given an opportunity to serve. The letter may not have been taken at face value by Baji rao, especially since Holkar defeated a Sindian army in Khandesh as he moved towards Pune.

In Pune, the city was defended by Sindia’s army, although Daulat rao was not personally present, having moved northwards to Burhanpur. The Holkar and Sindia armies stood facing each other at Hadapsar on Diwali day of 1802, and in the action that followed, Yashwant rao triumphed. This was the cue for the Peshwa to leave Pune for the Konkan, he wended his way from Mahad to the Vasai fort in a British ship. The British Resident Barry Close followed and continued his efforts to have the Peshwa sign the Subsidiary Treaty, in exchange of which he would be reinstated to his musnad.

Bajirao, to his credit, had long resisted the British offer. In Pune, the Peshwa saw Holkar place Bajirao’s brother Amrut rao in charge and seek the robes of office of the Peshwa for his son Vinayak rao. The prospects of a return to power diminished, even as Pune was plundered for concealed wealth by its present rulers. Barry Close pressed on and remained optimistic that the Peshwa would seek their help, and on the last day of December 1802, Baji rao signed the restrictive treaty that literally made him subordinate to British power.

The next three hundred and sixty-four days were to prove extremely turbulent.

The Peshwa restored

The British mobilised Major General Arthur Wellesley from Mysore and Colonel Stevenson from Hyderabad to move into the Maratha territory. Wellesley was entrusted with bringing the Peshwa to Pune. As the British moved in, Holkar – who had no interest in Pune – left the city, making it easier for them to bring Bajirao back, and in May 1803, Baji rao was put back on his musnad. Meanwhile, Lt. Colonel Collins, the British resident in Sindia’s camp was instructed to obtain an answer from Daulatrao whether he supported the treaty signed at Vasai. Daulat rao did not answer and sought time to confer with Bhonsle of Nagpur. Collins was then directed to quit Sindia’s camp, effectively beginning the preparation for war against Sindia.

In the Deccan, Arthur Wellesley had begun moving on 4 June 1803 for Ahmednagar, which had a well-stocked fort and peth belonging to Sindia. The peth was defended by a garrison comprising about 1500 Arabs. Wellesley had some of the Peshwa’s troops with him but he noted that they hardly co-operated in the operations. The fort of Ahmednagar was difficult to take by escalade, as was the walled peth next to it. The walls were too thick for British artillery to make any impact. Wellesley tried to approach the fort on 20 June but was warned not to get too close, and when he did, the garrison fired on his position.

By early August the English Resident Collins left Sindia’s camp. Maratha chiefs loyal to Bajirao, such as Bapu Gokhale, had finally reached Ahmednagar.  On 8 August 1803, Wellesley began an attack on the peth, using smoke bombs to hide his own forces from the Arab sharp shooters which helped his troops to scale the walls. Many British officers were killed in the first attempt. A stiff contest ended with the capture of the peth between 11 and 13 August after nearly a hundred Arabs had been killed. The British began a steady fire on the fort. Maratha fire from the fort was not effective, possibly, as one source says, because European officers with Sindia were not keen to fight. Eventually the English officers in Sindia’s paltans decided to surrender the fort. Seeing this the Maratha killedar sought a safe passage. He was escorted to Mumbai by Wellesley. The fort was taken over and the saffron zari patka was hoisted on it to signify the Peshwa’s rule. Looting of Sindia’s palace was stopped by the hanging of two sepoys from the gate. The cannons in the fort were taken over along with a large quantity of military supplies. The fort now served as a base for Wellesley’s future operations. He moved on towards the Godavari and camped at Toka.

War in the North

In the north, after extensive preparations by the British forces near Kannauj, war broke out on 31 August 1803. The Governor General Richard Wellesley had issued a Proclamation that warned all those with British ancestry to ‘come in’ and join them, and if they did not, they would be considered as traitors. Many English commanders of Sindia opted to leave his service with Perron’s recommendation. In fact, Perron himself along with other Europeans were concerned that the war with the Company would jeopardise their estates and their wealth and were thinking of leaving Sindia.

Koel, the town near the fort of Aligarh, that was the first British target, was vacated by Perron. The Maratha army spread out before the Aligarh fort on the first day of war but were pushed back into the fort. Colonel Pedron, the French officer in charge, had decided to surrender Aligarh. On hearing this, the Marathas locked him up in the fort and took on the defence of the fort. On 1st September, the second day of war, Perron wrote to the British Commander in Chief Gerard Lake that he would like to take advantage of the Proclamation and ‘come in’. With Sindia’s Commander in Chief defecting to the British with information on the army, stores and deployment, the Marathas were in trouble.

On 4th September, a grim battle was waged to take Aligarh. Bala rao, a Maratha chief, refused to submit and fought to the last. British casualties were high but of the Marathas were higher, as Lake spared no defender and executed all prisoners. Huge stocks of war materials fell into British hands. Two days later, Perron resigned his post and the Sindia military machine began to unravel.

A week after Aligarh, on 11 September, the battle for Delhi began from Patparganj. Once again it was fiercely contested battle and at least five to six hundred British casualties are reported. Maratha casualties, including women and non-combatants who were offered no mercy, reached four to five thousand. On 16 September 1803, Lake entered the city and met the blind king Shah Alam II who welcomed him as his ‘friend’. Delhi had fallen to the British.

The Deccan

After June 1803, the Peshwa had not co-operated with Wellesley, and this had come as a rude shock for the General. Bajirao’s intention had been to recover his musnad, and he seemed unconcerned with the British war with Sindia. As an advisor told the Peshwa, whatever the outcome, he would be forced to accept the Sindia or the British as his keepers. In an interesting development, Sindia sent back an imprisoned brother of Yashwant rao Holkar to him in order to resolve some of their differences. The principal chiefs; Sindia, Holkar and Bhonsle then met near the Ajanta ghat, decided to put aside their differences and fight unitedly. However, this unity did not last and Holkar crossed the Narmada and went to Maheshwar. He did not return although emissaries from his camp visited Sindia. The decision of Holkar not to join Sindia after having met him is not explained by existing sources. Although Arthur Wellesley did later implicate Amrut rao Peshwa as the reason Holkar stayed away, no contemporary evidence supports this statement.

During Wellesley’s moves north of Ahmednagar, several thousand pindaries harassed his supply train and created severe shortages in his camp. Wellesley and Colonel Stevenson who had brought along some of the Nizam’s forces reached Budnapur around the middle of September 1803. Sindia and Bhonsle’s forces were spread out over an extensive area north from the Ajanta pass to Bhokerdan and eastward towards Jaffrabad. From Budnapur, the British armies of Stevenson and Wellesley decided to separate and Stevenson went towards the west while Wellesley went eastward. At Nalni, Wellesley heard that the Maratha army was not far and he decided to leave his baggage under a strong guard there and move north with a more mobile force. He had with him several of the Mysore cavalry regiments that had served in Srirangapatnam and the 74th and 78th Highlanders. The two armies were thus closing in and a major battle seemed imminent.

Daulat rao Sindia had to divide his armies in Hindustan and Deccan to combat the two British armies under Lake and Wellesley. Defections had already plagued his army with Perron himself leaving his post. Before he quit, he had authorised the release of many subordinate officers who abandoned their posts and went over to the British. Aligarh and Delhi had fallen and Lake had begun his march on Agra.

Daulat rao had his own regular infantry with some of Samroo’s battalions and a large number of second rate Pindari horsemen that swelled his numbers. Some of his forces held the pass at Ajanta. He was present in his army at this time and had appointed the Hanoverian Colonel Pohlmann as the chief. He also had many French officers commanding his regular infantry, which was also his main strength. With some of Bhonsle’s forces with him, he looked forward to a battle with both Wellesley and Stevenson at the same time, which he was confident of winning. He then intended to move south to the Nizam’s territory and Pune.

The two armies were thus poised for a battle that would decide the future course of Indian history.

To read Part 2 on Battle of Assaye. 

To read all articles by Author


 The Anglo-Maratha Campaigns and the Contest for India - Randolf G.S. Cooper.

2. Aitihasik Lekh Sangraha - Vol 10 to 13. 

Also read

1 The Third Anglo-Maratha War – end of Maratha Raj

2 Madhav Rao Peshwa The Great

3 Maratha Supremacy in the 18th century  

Receive Site Updates