An Indian ethnic group that resisted the British occupation of India. The homeland of the Marathas, another of the martial races of India, is the Deccan, the plateau of central India south of the Narbudda River stretching to the west coast. This region was one of the final acquisitions of the Aryans in prehistoric times, and the inhabitants are descendants of both those invaders and the aboriginal tribes that lived there prior to conquest. The Marathas first displayed their warlike tendencies with the arrival of the Muslims in India. As Hindus, the Marathas fiercely resisted the imposition of Islam, especially under the Mogul dynasty. Their leader was Sivaji, called “the mountain rat,” and his successes against the Moguls, including the kidnapping of an emperor, laid the groundwork for what became the Mahratta Confederacy. Prior to the arrival of the British in the 1700s, the only serious military opponents the Marathas had faced were the Afghans, who had defeated them along the border at Panipat in 1761. That defeat laid the foundation for internal disputes that brought about the two Maratha wars.
As long as Sivaji lived, the Marathas were united, but after his death the population broke into factions under rival princes who swore only nominal fealty to a central government under the rajah of Satara. The chief minister of the rajah was the peshwa, a hereditary position that exercised great influence. The princes collectively formed the Maratha Confederation, and for all their independent stances stood together when faced with outside threats. The confederation consisted of the princes Scindia, Holkar, and Bhonsla, along with the peshwa, and the European military advisors they employed at the opening of the nineteenth century, who were predominantly French refugees from the court of the recently deposed Tipoo Sultan of Mysore.
The Marathas staged two campaigns against the British. The first started in 1804 as the British were embroiled in European problems with Napoleon. Always on the alert to find some way to divert the British, Napoleon sent agents to India (where the French presence was coming to an end) to stir up trouble. Indian princes had long hired Europeans to train and command their armies, and the Marathas accepted the offer of French assistance against the growing power of Britain along the western coast of India. The forces comprising the Maratha army were neither citizen-soldiers nor patriots, but mercenaries and outlaws fighting for pay and to practice their chosen profession. Long a haven for raiders and bandits, British possessions around Bombay had suffered from decades-long harassment. As it was the British East India Company’s view that law and order promoted profits, conflict between them and the Marathas would certainly have broken out even without French aid.
It was the British defeat of Tipoo Sultan in 1798 that precipitated the conflict. The British had viewed Tipoo Sultan as a particularly despicable character who needed deposing, so they replaced him with a more cooperative ruler, who became the Nizam of Mysore. Upon disbanding the French forces, the Nizam was urged to accept a garrison of East India Company soldiers: four battalions from Madras and some artillery to defend the capital city of Hyderabad. These troops were necessary to defend Mysore from the bandit raids emanating from Maratha territory, while the British at the same time opened negotiations with the Marathas to end the banditry and cooperate against the threat of Afghan pressure. These negotiations, coupled with the death of Peshwa Madho Rao, led to internecine fighting among the Marathas. The new peshwa, Bajee Rao, broke ranks and allied himself with the British in return for East India Company troops and artillery. The Marathas responded by naming Bajee’s brother, Amrut, to be peshwa, which led to an inevitable conflict between the confederacy on one side and the British, forces loyal to Bajee Rao, and the forces of the Nizam of Mysore on the other.
The army that took the field against the Maratha Confederacy was led by Arthur Wellesley in his first major combat command. In total, some 50,000 men were under his command, operating in a number of smaller columns. He quickly captured the supposedly impregnable fortress at Ahmadnagar, then found himself facing a huge challenge at the village of Assaye at the Jua and Kelna Rivers. On September 23, 1803, with only 4,500 men, Wellesley charged a force of 55,000 led by a number of French officers. In a few hours Wellesley drove them from the field at a cost of almost half the British force killed or wounded. He followed these successes with victories at Argaon in November and Gawilarh in December, while one of his subordinates captured the fort at Aseergurh.
While Wellesley consolidated his hold in the southern region of Maratha territory, a second army under General Lord Lake operated farther north in the vicinity of Delhi, where he rescued the Mogul emperor, Shah Alam, from his Mahratta captors. Lake’s army operated against Holkar, one of the Maratha princes, while Wellesley had fought against princes ScIndia and Bhonsla. Lake soon captured Agra and sent forces in pursuit of fleeing Marathas, but was obliged to defend Delhi from a major counterattack. Throughout 1805, Lake campaigned in the Punjab, ferreting out Holkar’s forces and those of his allies. Lake’s ultimate defeat of Holkar at Armritsar led to the war’s end in 1806. Lake remained in India, but Wellesley was transferred to Europe to lead British forces in Spain against Napoleon’s army there, for which he was ultimately given the title of Duke of Wellington.
Peace between the British and Marathas was kept for more than a decade, but in 1817 the confederacy started hostilities again, owing to the activity of mercenary outlaws called Pindaris. The Pindaris, remnants of old Mogul armies, were raiding and pillaging so extensively that the British had to respond. They called on the Marathas for aid under the terms of the 1806 agreement, but received little assistance. The British forces thus had to campaign against the Pindaris while keeping an eye on the always restless Marathas. The erstwhile British ally Bajee Rao now chafed under British control and, under the guise of raising troops to aid the British, actually organized an army totaling 86,500 cavalry and 66,000 infantry to add to the 16,500 cavalry and infantry of the Pindaris. The combined number never operated together, but threatened the British from a variety of directions.
The opening of the conflict came in November 1817 when Mahratta troops attacked the British garrison stationed at Bajee Rao’s capital of Poona. British forces under Sir Thomas Hyslop and Lord General Francis Rawdon-Hastings made fairly short work of the Second Maratha War. The Pindaris were successful only against defenseless villages, while the Marathas, though numerous, had lost most of their quality soldiers in the previous war. When Bajee Rao surrendered in early June 1818, Maratha power was broken for good, and the East India Company attained dominance in the subcontinent. The British were obliged to interfere in a succession dispute in 1825–1826 but, as was their practice, the British began to incorporate the best Maratha soldiers into the Indian Army. The wars against the Marathas were the most difficult that the East India Company fought prior to the Sikh War of the 1840s and 1850s. When the Sepoy Rebellion broke out in 1857 the Maratha troops remained loyal to the British in spite of the fact that some of the Rebel- lion’s leaders claimed to be fighting to restore Maratha power. Marathas also proved themselves to be quality troops when they fought alongside British forces in Mesopotamia in World War I.
References: MacMunn, G.F., The Armies of India (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1911); Ma- son, Philip, A Matter of Honour (London: Jonathan Cape, 1974); Roberts, P.E., History of British India (London: Oxford University Press, 1952).