A (Sub)Continent Shaped by War
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
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, 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
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
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.
"We have effectively crippled our enemy,"
Cornwallis noted, "without making our friends too
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
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 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.
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
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.
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
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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.