First Maratha War, (1775–82)
From 1776 forward up to the end of the century, the battle-fields were all in the west and south of India. In Bengal, the subsidiary alliance with Oudh remained the corner-stone of the British defensive system; nor was that province ever invaded, though often threatened, by the Maratha armies.
But in Bombay, the President and Council being anxious to distinguish themselves by the acquisition of territory, especially of Salsette, which is close to Bombay, entered into a covenant with a Maratha chief named Raghunath Rao, who had been ejected from power at Poona, to replace him at the head of the Maratha government, stipulating for the cession of certain districts to the Company in return. The object of the Bombay President was to obtain political ascendency at Poona and to make his presidency pay its way by an increase of land revenue.
But the plan was very badly laid, and the means adopted proved quite inadequate for the ends in view. When the Calcutta government received from Bombay a copy of the treaty with Raghunath Rao, they at once totally condemned the measures that had been taken, declaring the war "impolitic, dangerous, unauthorized, and unjust," and protesting that the Bombay Presidency had imposed upon itself "the charge of conquering the whole Maratha empire for a man who appeared incapable of affording effectual assistance in the undertaking." They foretold, rightly, that the enterprise would only embark them upon an indefinite sea of troubles; and they peremptorily ordered the Company's forces to be withdrawn, if it could be done without danger.
But before this letter could reach Bombay, the expedition had started; Salsette and Bassein, two very important points, had been forcibly occupied; and the English were committed to the war. At Arras was fought the first of that long series of battles between the English and the Marathas, almost all of which have been well and honourably contested. The Bombay troops were obliged to fall back in disorder, losing many English officers, who sacrificed themselves with their usual devotion in the attempt to rally their sepoys. It now seemed to Hastings impossible to make peace immediately and honourably, so he insisted that his countrymen must stand their ground and face their reverses; reinforcements were sent across India; and attempts were made at negotiation with the Marathas, who were justly incensed by these proceedings.
In this manner England became entangled in a long, costly, and unprofitable war, which may be taken to have been the original source of the interminable hostilities which occupied Hastings for the next seven years, straining his finances, damaging his reputation, distracting his administration, and bringing both Bombay and Madras at different moments into serious jeopardy.
Any attempt to give a brief and also intelligible narrative of the straggling inconclusive fighting that went on must inevitably fail. The essence of the whole matter is that the Marathas were at this period far too strong and too well united to be shaken or overawed by such forces as the English could despatch against them. They held a position in the center of India which enabled them to threaten all the three divided English Presidencies, to intrigue successfully against the British at Haidarabad and Mysore, and to communicate with the French by their ports on the western seacoast.
The two minor Presidencies of Bombay and Madras were governed by rash, incompetent persons who were exceedingly jealous of the Governor-General's superior authority, who disregarded his advice or orders, and thwarted his policy; while Hastings himself was hampered by opposition in his own Council and by enemies at headquarters in London. If he had been able to withdraw from the war at once, and to insist on making peace with the Marathas, he might have escaped the graver complications that followed upon the original blunder of attacking them.
But the English still held, and were determined to retain, Salsette and Bassein, and although Hastings sent an envoy to Poona, the refusal of the Marathas to cede these two valuable points protracted negotiations up to the end of 1776, when a turn of European politics materially affected, as usual, the situation in India. By this time the United States had declared their independence, and England had now become so deeply involved in the attempt to put down rebellion in North America that the French determined to use such an apparently excellent opportunity of revenge for the injuries suffered during the Seven Years' War.
A French agent reached India in 1777 to propose alliance with the Marathas on conditions including the cession of a seaport on the west coast. His overtures, which were naturally encouraged by the Peshwa at Poona, filled with alarm and indignation the English, to whom the actual state of affairs in Europe, India, and America rendered the prospect of such a combination exceedingly disagreeable.
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