Gateway to the Classics: Our Empire Story by H. E. Marshall
Our Empire Story by  H. E. Marshall

Warrior Chieftains

When Seringapatam was taken, letters from the Nawab of the Carnatic were found in Tippoo's palace. These letters showed that the Nawab had been plotting with Tippoo against the British. The Nawab was by this time very ill, almost dying indeed. So Lord Wellesley let him die in peace, then he told his family that their treachery had been found out, and that they could no longer be allowed to reign. He then took possession of the Carnatic and added it to the Madras Presidency. Thus all the coast of India, from Bengal to Cape Comorin (except Pondicherry), was now under British rule, and instead of stretching only a mile inland, in the south of the peninsula, British possessions stretched from sea to sea.

When Wellesley wrote home to tell of these triumphs, he said, remembering what had befallen Clive and Hastings, "I expect either to be hanged or rewarded. In either case I shall be satisfied, for an English gallows seems better than an Indian throne."

Wellesley, however, was not hanged. He was thanked and rewarded as the conqueror of the tyrant Tippoo. He was given a large sum of money and was made an Irish marquess. But, far from thinking this honour great, he called it his "gilt potato." Such was the pride of "the glorious little man" as his friends loved to call him.

The Maráthás were now the only great danger to British power in India. But they were a great danger. In the north, indeed, Oudh lay between British India and the land of the Maráthás. But the rule of the Nawab of Oudh had grown weak, and his native army became hardly more than a rabble of wild, mutinous soldiers, which cost him a great deal, and were of little use.

It was plain to Lord Wellesley, that in case of war, Oudh would be no defence. Besides the Maráthás, he feared the Afghans. He knew that often before they had descended from their mountains in conquering hordes. Now, he was afraid that once again they might attack Oudh, and from there sweep over Bengal.

So Lord Wellesley made the Nawab disband his soldiers, and in return for part of Oudh, he promised the Nawab to protect and fight for him. This was called the treaty of Lucknow, and by it, still more of India was added to the possessions of the Company.

But now the Maráthás began to quarrel among themselves, and at last their over-lord, who was called the Peshwá, fled to the British for protection.

Wellesley consented to help and protect him, but he demanded a great deal in return. The Peshwá was a weak young man, he was mad with fear, and was ready to consent to anything. And by the treaty of Bassein, signed on the 31st of December 1802, he became little else than the vassal of the Company.

The Peshwá gave up part of his land to the British; he promised not to go to war without British consent, to make no treaties whatsoever, and to take no Frenchmen or any other European into his service.

Lord Wellesley made much the same kind of treaty with several of the native princes. These treaties were called Subsidiary Alliances. A Subsidiary Alliance means a union for help. It generally means the union of a lesser or weaker power with a greater. The Indian princes paid a "subsidy" or sum of money, in return for which, the British promised them soldiers, help, and protection in time of war.

By making these treaties with native rulers, Wellesley hoped to force them to keep peace with each other, so that there might not only be peace within British India itself, but around its borders. But when the other Maráthá chiefs heard of the treaty of Bassein, they were very angry. They would by no means suffer the overlordship of the Company, and they prepared to fight. One of their chief leaders was called Sindhia. He was young, vain, and proud. He had hoped one day to make himself Peshwá, but now his treaty had "taken the turban off his head," he said.

So Sindhia gathered an army and war began. This is called the second Maráthás war, as the first was fought in the time of Hastings.

At first the Maráthás did not seem sure of what to do. They marched back and forth with restless haste, now here, now there. But at last British and Indian forces met in a great battle at Assaye.

On the British side the leader was General Arthur Wellesley. He had only a small army, but, as so often before, the small British force beat a huge Indian army. Yet the fight was fierce, and when the battle was over, many of the British lay dead. But the Maráthás were fleeing from the field and the power of Sindhia was broken. Assaye was fought on the 23rd of September 1803, and is one of the greatest of Indian battles.

Other battles, other victories followed. In the north, in Hindustan, a British army fought against the French sepoy troops. There, too, they gained victory after victory, and at last, in a battle called Láswári the French sepoys, "who fought like demons rather than like heroes," were scattered forever.

The war had begun in September. It was over in December. On the 30th of that month, proud, vain Sindhia signed a treaty by which he owned the Company as over-lord.

Of all the Maráthá chieftains, only one now refused to bend to British power. His name was Jeswant Rao Holkar. He had no dreams of Empire, but was a wild, free, raiding horseman like his forefathers, who had been a terror to India. From his capital of Indore he swept out with his robber horsemen, plundering and wasting at will.

Like the freebooting Scots of old, he and his men rode with a bottle of water and a bag of grain at their saddle-bow, caring not through what desolate country they passed. They lurked in the hills, they dashed upon the enemy unawares, slaughtering stragglers, but never meeting them face to face in open battle.

While the Maráthá war lasted, Holkar robbed and plundered at will. Now he was warned to keep within his own land, and cease from hurting the friends of the British.

But Holkar was proud and haughty. The length and breadth of India was his if he chose to claim it, and he threatened to burn towns and villages and slaughter the people by hundreds and thousands, if he were not allowed to take what he thought was his due, and rob and plunder where he pleased.

This was not to be endured, so a campaign against this haughty chieftain began.

At first, things went well. Then came disaster. A small British force under Colonel Monson found itself face to face with the whole of Holkar's army. Monson had food for only two days, and suddenly struck with fear he turned his back upon the enemy, and marched away.

Now came the wild chieftain's chance. His light horsemen followed and harrassed the retreating British, dashing upon them unawares, swooping down upon stragglers, surrounding and slaying those who went in search of food. Hungry and weary the British toiled on. The rains began and the rivers became swollen and impassable torrents. The roads were churned to seas of mud in which the wheels of the gun carriages sank axle deep, so they had to be left behind, and the ammunition destroyed. Wet and weary, covered with mud, stricken with sickness and famine, the men lost heart. The retreat became a rout, and after weeks of toil and suffering, a battered few reached Agra. "I have lost the flower of the army," writes the commander, "and how they are to be replaced at this hour, heaven only knows. I have to lament the loss of some of the finest young men and most promising of the army."

Holkar was now insolently triumphant and he began to besiege Delhi. But although he and his barbarous hosts swarmed around the ten miles of shattered wall and fallen rampart, they were bravely held at bay by the mere handful of determined men within. Then hearing that another British army was coming, he marched away, plundering and destroying as he went, the fires of burning villages and the blood of the slain marking the road by which he passed.

But Holkar's triumph was not for long. He, too, was beaten at last, and was sadly forced to bow the knee before the might of the British.

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