Indian Empires:
A (Sub)Continent Shaped by War

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
October 2017

Britain conquered India thanks to a series of wars in the 18th and 19th century, helped by conflicts between the Indian states. Our game Indian Empires covers these wars using the same game system as Soldier Emperor. It can be played together with Soldier Emperor, but the centerpiece of the game is its set of seven stand-alone scenarios described below.

First Anglo-Mysore War, 1767-1770

Britain emerged from the Seven Years’ War with the dominant position in India among the European powers. Made arrogant by this success, the East India Company then turned its attention to suppressing or subverting the powerful Indian kingdoms.

The Nizam of Hyderabad sought out an English alliance for his upcoming war with Hyder Ali of Mysore, and the English eagerly agreed in exchange for some choice territories. The Maratha peshwa Madhav Rao also joined the alliance, seeing an opportunity to bring low his rival Hyder Ali.

Hyder Ali

Hyder, one of the century’s most brilliant military and political minds, performed a balancing act on par with that of Frederick of Prussia a few years before. He bribed Madhav to stay out of the war and secretly induced the Nizam to switch sides. Believing they would be joining two Indian kingdoms in an opportunistic attack on a third, the British now found themselves the target of two of them.

Hyder’s armies crushed the British, inflicting several defeats and heavy losses on them. Greatly dismayed, the East India Company sued for peace and restored all territories seized from Hyder. They also swore to defend Mysore from enemy attack as long as Hyder lived.

First Maratha War, 1775-1782

For many decades, the British East India Company avoided conflict with the powerful Maratha Confederacy. But in 1772, the energetic and capable Peshwa Madhav Rao died unexpectedly. His successor, Narayan Rao, was in turn murdered by Madhav’s brother Raghoba. The Maratha chieftains refused to accept the killer as their ruler, and instead named Narayan’s son Madhav Rao as their leader.

Exiled, Raghoba turned to the English for aid. Seeing the Confederacy’s disarray as an opportunity to seize key positions around Bombay, the East India Company agreed to provide the troops for a coup in exchange for cessions of territory once Raghoba had deposed his great-nephew.

Fighting began slowly at first, as Maratha generals suspected each other of secretly being in Raghoba’s pay. But rallying around Madhav Rao, they inflicted a serious defeat on the British at Talegon and forced the British to return all captured territory.

Things began to heat up in other parts of the world as well, as France, the Netherlands and Spain intervened in the American Revolution and took the war to all parts of the British Empire. Reneging on their treaty, the British treacherously attacked the Marathas again in hopes of inflicting a severe defeat before the French could join them. The British defeated a Maratha army under Scindia’s command at Sipri in February, 1781, eventually leading to a peace treaty in May, 1782. The treaty restored both sides’ conquests, but most importantly for the British included a 20-year truce just as Suffren’s French fleet began to make its presence felt.

Second Anglo-Mysore War, 1780-1785

When France intervened on the rebel side in the so-called American War, hostilities between Britain on one side and France, Spain and the Netherlands quickly spilled around the globe. Britain had dishonored her 1769 treaty to aid Mysore against attack the first time it came into effect, and so Hyder prepared to return the favor. When the British asked permission to attack French trading posts within Mysore’s territory, Hyder refused. Declaring themselves gravely affronted, the British responded by declaring war. Already thinking several steps ahead of them, Hyder had pre-arranged alliances with the French plus both the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Marathas.

The brilliant British political general Eyre Coote managed to bribe the other two Indian kingdoms back into neutrality and won a battlefield victory at Porto Novo in January, 1781. But Hyder won almost all of the other major battles, putting the British on their heels until his untimely death in December, 1782. His son, Tippoo, continued the string of Mysore victories but could not finish off British India. In 1784, with both sides exhausted and the American War having come to an end (and with it French military aid), both sides agreed to a status quo peace, restoring all captured lands and prisoners.

Third Anglo-Mysore War, 1789-1794

Both Mysore and the British considered the Treaty of Mangalore to be nothing more than a temporary truce. While Tippoo was forced to spend the years following the Second Anglo-Mysore War consolidating his own position in Mysore, the British intrigued to prepare for a new round of warfare. Though now forbidden by parliamentary decree from using war as a means to expand British holdings in the sub-continent, both the East India Company and the regular army commanders planned to subvert this restriction at the first opportunity.

The excuse came when Tippoo became embroiled in a territorial controversy with the Raja of Travancore and invaded the smaller kingdom. The British promptly came to the Raja’s aid, bringing Hyderabad and the Marathas along with them.

Tippoo held off the Triple Alliance with a brilliant military performance, striking at his enemies’ supply lines and avoiding pitched battle against superior forces. But the British commander-in-chief, Lord Charles Cornwallis (of Yorktown fame), took personal control of the campaign and organized a drive on Tippoo’s capital that the Mysoreans could not stop. Facing siege, Tippoo sued for peace in March, 1792. Mysore handed over a payment of 3 million pounds and almost half of her territory, plus two of Tippoo’s sons as hostages.

Cornwallis and Tippoo

"We have effectively crippled our enemy," Cornwallis noted, "without making our friends too formidable."

Fourth Mysore War 1799-1800

Seeing the new British governor-general, Richard Marquess Wellesley, energetically undermining Indian princes, Tippoo of Mysore sought alliances for the renewed war he felt inevitable. Taking these steps as cause for war, the British attacked Mysore.

Though Tippoo and his troops fought with suicidal bravery, the British also fought hard and had solid generalship on their side including the Marquess’ brother, Arthur. The British took Tippoo’s capital, Seringapatam, by storm and Tippoo fell fighting in its defense. Wellesley dictated a Roman-style peace, annexing half of Mysore’s territory outright and assigning the remainder to his ally, the Nizam of Hyderabad.

The Maratha chieftains stayed aloof from the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War despite desperate attempts by both sides to bring them into the conflict. Maratha intelligence had detected a movement they considered far more dangerous: Zaman Shah, king of Afghanistan, had finally united the northwestern peoples under his banner. The Afghan king planned to re-create the Muslim conquest of India, setting himself on the throne of the Mughals in Delhi.

The Marathas took this development very seriously, setting aside factional strife to unite their forces under the French mercenary general Pierre Cullier, better known under his nom de guerre, Perron. Over 100,000 Maratha soldiers gathered, and the chiefs authorized Perron to recuit as many Europeans as he could to expand the cadre of Western-style infantry that formed the core of the Maratha armies.

Maratha reports appear to have been rather accurate; Zaman Shah did indeed have the alliances he sought and he began his march on Delhi. But soon after his armies left Kabul, an attempted palace coup broke out and he returned quickly to deal with this threat. By the time he had his own house in order, the moment had passed and the grand Muslim alliance could not be re-created.

The Death of Tippoo

The only meaningful result of this adventure would be the death of Tippoo and total destruction of Mysore. With the Maratha Confederacy distracted and unable to maintain the balance of power, the delicate three-handed structure unravelled. Though a puppet ruler remained in Seringapatam, Mysore had ceased to exist as an independent state. Britain now controlled South India and with Mysore gone, the Marathas would be next.

Second Anglo-Maratha War, 1803-1804

With Mysore out of the way and Hyderabad doing their bidding, the British turned their attention to India’s last independent power, the Maratha Confederacy. The Peshwa (titular ruler of the Confederacy) Baji Rao II, son of Raghoba, maintained an anti-British stance through the infuence of his chief minister Nana Phadnavis. But when Nana died in March, 1800 under suspicious circumstances, the British saw their opportunity. “With him,” noted the British resident minister at Poona, the Maratha capital, “departed all the wisdom and moderation of the Maratha government.”

Without Nana’s counsel, the possibly insane Baji Rao ordered the murder of Vithuji Holkar, brother of the powerful Maratha warlord Jaswant Rao Holkar. Holkar rose in revolt, and at Poona inflicted a devastating defeat on the combined armies of the Peshwa and the warlord Doulut Rao Scindia. Holkar installed his own puppet Peshwa, while Baji Rao fled to Bombay and threw himself at the mercy of the East India Company.

East India sepoys led by Arthur Wellesley marched to Poona to re-install Baji Rao, who repaid the Company’s kindness by handing over vast stretches of territory and promising to pay for Company troops to occupy his lands. This proved intolerable to Scindia and the other leading Maratha chieftain, Ragogee Bhonsia, Raja of Berar. They mobilized 85,000 men and called on Holkar to join them. But Holkar, still smarting over Scindia’s support of his brother’s killer, refused to join them and suspected that Scindia’s resistance to his former puppet Baji Rao might actually be a ploy of some sort.

On 22 September 1803 Wellesley met the combined armies of Scindia and Bhonsia at Assaye. With 7,000 men the sepoy general attacked an enemy estimated at 50,000 and won an astounding victory. The future Duke of Wellington always counted Assaye as his finest moment.

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Bhonsia pulled back slowly, and on 29 November turned to give battle again, aided by a host of Scindia cavalry. Wellesley’s 12,000 put Bhonsia’s 30,000 to flight, and the Raja sued for peace. Scindia followed suit a few weeks later.

But the war did not end. “Our enemies are much disgusted, and complain loudly of our conduct and want of faith,” Wellesley wrote to his brother Richard, India’s Governor-General, “and in truth I consider the peace to be by no means secured.”

Realizing his error in standing aloof, Holkar now entered the war. Despite facing British power alone, he inflicted a defeat on them at Kotah in April 1804. After the traditional summer pause, however, the British led by Lake routed his army. With the Wellesley brothers on their way back to England, the British concluded a hasty peace with Holkar. They would deal with the Confederacy later at their leisure.

Third Anglo-Maratha War, 1817-1820

Once the power of Mysore and the Maratha Confederacy had been checked and French influence in the subcontinent reduced, the British followed a more careful policy in India. By1813, now confident of victory, they returned to their aggressive ways. The new British governor general, Lord Hastings, forced a series of humiliating treaties on the Maratha princes. These had the desired effect, and in 1817 the Marathas went to war.

The East India Company assembled the largest force in its history for the campaign, 91,000 regulars plus 24,000 Indian auxiliaries. The Marathas also put a large force into the field, but made the mistake of meeting the British in open, pitched battles. By late 1818 the war was over as the last Maratha field army was smashed. The Company destroyed the Maratha states, placing much of their lands under Company rule and the rest under small, pliable client kingdoms.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.