Empire of Liberty: Rise of the Raj

Excerpt from Dr. Sadar Mohinder Singh’s “The Making of Modern India: 1499 to 1932”, University of Lahore Press, 2013.

The Portlandite Government frequently receives criticism for their failures in the War of the Fifth Coalition via the common refrain that the government could have maintained Pitt’s war against France and kept the pressure on Napoleon while he was on the rise. While we can only speculate what the world would look like had Britain remained an obstinate opponent of France, such counter factuals are pointless. Through a more rational lens, the Portland government did allow lapses in the European theater of the Napoleonic Wars but those lapses hardly equated to gross mismanagement. Portland expanded British naval bases in the Mediterranean, ensured the integrity of Hanover, maintained the ancient alliance with Portugal despite severe diplomatic strain, and assured a status quo in the Baltic Sea when Danish ascension seemed imminent. Yet, Portland’s lasting impact is taking the treaties and groundwork laid by Pitt in Asia and molding that rough clay into the initial form of what would become the Commonwealth.

When Portland organized his government at the turn of the 18th century to the 19th, the situation in India was favorable to the British, albeit tenuous. By the mid-18th century the British, acting via the British East India Company, gained the upper hand over the Dutch and French, their main competition for influence and trade. Pitt’s leadership during the French Revolutionary Wars neutered both countries’ ambitions in the region. Thanks to his 1784 appointment of William Hastings back to the lead role on the subcontinent, Pitt generally gets the credit for the conquest of the flagging Dutch Empire but he also gets credit for securing southern India. In 1799, a coalition of British and Indian troops (mostly from the Maratha Empire and Hyderabad) attacked Mysore from all directions.

As we have noted in previous chapters, the Kingdom of Mysore had long been a thorn in the side of British ambitions in southern India. As the Nizam of Hyderabad had become the great ally of the British in the region, the Kings of Mysore became the great allies of the French and thus decades of proxy war occurred in the region as part of the larger Hegemonic Wars of the 17th and 18th centuries. It took no less than four Anglo-Mysore Wars over nearly a half century for Britain to finally emerge victorious in the prolonged struggle. In the end, the ruler of Mysore, Tipu Sultan, was killed at the May 4, 1799 Siege of Srirangapatna and the kingdom partitioned between the victors. A rump state remained around Mysore City and its environs under the control of the Hindu Wodeyar Dynasty, the dynasty that had ruled Mysore a half-century prior before the rise of Hyder Ali, Mysore, and French ambition in the region.

Yet, even with the victory over Mysore, the French threat remained. Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt was predicated on the possibility that French control of the Red Sea and the Levant might allow French arms and reinforcements to work their way over the Arabian Sea and to French allies in India. The destruction of Mysore removed that threat but the final blow to practical French ambition in the region came not from the British or Indians but, surprisingly, the Americans when they seized the remaining French outposts in a bold attempt to bring Paris to the negotiating table and end their own conflict. The subsequent decade of unexpected peace between Paris and London removed the need for extravagant French ambitions to threaten India, instead allowing Napoleon to focus on continental matters. Interestingly, even with the prolonged Anglo-French peace, Napoleon always harbored hope for an impractical adventure in India. Historical documents reveal convoluted plans to unearth the ancient Canal of the Pharaohs allowing the French fleet to move from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and one ludicrous proposal included a joint venture with the Tsar to march a French army to Astrakhan, cross the Caspian Sea and invade India by way of Afghanistan [1].

The dominant British saw little threat in the far-flung outposts of the Portuguese, Americans and the handful of Dutch ports the British allowed Amsterdam to retain. Britain instead turned its focus towards consolidation. The adventures of Robert Clive in the 18th century and the final pacification of Mysore at the start of the 19th gave Britain the commanding position in east and southern India. Central India, however, remained the domain of the Maratha Empire while northern India remained a contested land between the remnants of the Mughal Empire, the ascendant Sikh Empire and the distant Durrani Empire of Afghanistan. On the fringes of the subcontinent stood ancient Persia, isolated Tibet and the jungles of Burma and southeast Asia. Britain enjoyed decent relations with all of these powers though just about everyone anticipated expansion and war at some future point.

However, in late 1800 the terms of the Treaties of Hanover arrived in Calcutta with word of peace between Britain, France and the Dutch. The treaties were devastating to the Dutch and finally codified the loss of their entire empire save for the India ports of Bharuch, Cannanore, Trincomalee, Sadras, Balasore, Syriam and the Japanese port at Dejima. Governor-General Hastings suddenly had more territory to consolidate than he knew what to do with.

Citing the continued presence of the French in the Levant and the new presence of Americans in India and the Mascarene Islands, Hastings successfully petitioned London for an administrative reorganization of the British East India Company to incorporate the newly acquired Dutch territories. The 17th century Madras, Bombay and Bengal Presidencies had their boundaries clarified with Madras dominating the south, Bengal dominating the northeast and Bombay (the smallest presidency) administering territory in the west [2]. London created two new presidencies outside of the subcontinent. The Java Presidency now encompassed directly owned company land in the now British East Indies while the Cape Presidency did the same for the Cape Colony. The Cape Presidency was, initially, a largely self-sufficient entity but soon became an administrative center for much of British Africa during the War of the Fifth Coalition. Confusingly, the British gains after the War of the Three Sultans would be administered from Bombay even if one of those gains happened to be in Africa.

The suddenly wide scope of Company possessions quickly created numerous challenges.

At home, attempts to organize and pacify the edges of the widespread empire led to distraction from continental affairs. The Admiralty ensured that the home islands had enough ships to defend the channel in the event Napoleon opted to make an attempt on England (to their credit Napoleon harbored ambitions to invade Britain, even in a surprise attack, from the moment he gained the consulship). Beyond the channel, British ships were stretched thin as more vessels diverted to handle the crisis in the Persian Gulf, patrol the waters in India and the cape, support operations in the East Indies and fight piracy. The realities of rebuilding the empire are the chief reason for the Portlandite government’s decision to stay neutral for so long in the Napoleonic Wars.


Excerpt from “The Atlas of Historical Entities”, Random House Publishing, 2018.

Maratha Empire: A powerful Indian empire founded in 1674 with the coronation of Chhatrapati Shivaji, the Maratha Empire (sometimes referred to as the Maratha Confederacy) spanned across much of central and northern India at its peak. The Marathas were a Marathi warrior group from the western Deccan Plateau that rose to prominence by espousing proto-concepts of Hindu nationalism and Baharataism. The Marathas became prominent in the seventeenth century under the leadership of Shivaji who revolted against the Adil Shahi dynasty and the Mughal Empire and carved out a kingdom with Raigad as his capital. In 1761, the Maratha Army lost the Third Battle of Panipat to Ahmad Shah Abdali of the Afghan Durrani Empire, which halted their imperial expansion into Afghanistan thus confining the empire to the subcontinent. The Maratha Empire largely supplanted the Mughals (often viewed as foreigners from Persia and Central Asia) and then clashed with European powers, namely Britain in the late 18th century and early 19th century. In a bid to effectively manage the large empire, Madhavrao I gave semi-autonomy to the strongest of the knights, which created a confederacy of Maratha states. They became known as the Gaekwads of Baroda, the Holkars of Indore and Malwa, the Scindias of Gwalior and Ujjain, the Bhonsales of Nagpur and the Puars of Dhar and Dewas. In 1775, the East India Company intervened in a Peshwa (essentially the Maratha version of a prime minister) family succession struggle in Pune, which led to the First Anglo-Maratha War, resulting in a Maratha victory.


Excerpt from Dr. Sadar Mohinder Singh’s “The Making of Modern India: 1499 to 1932”, University of Lahore Press, 2013.

In central India, the power vacuum left behind in the wake of the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War, combined with the unstable system of the Maratha chieftains, led to aggression by the Maratha Peshwa, Baji Rao II. The Peshwa was deeply unpopular amongst the Maratha chiefs and owed his position (and really his life) to British protection. Eventually the Peshwa succeeded in thoroughly angering the powerful Holkar clan of Indore and sparking conflict. In October 1802, the combined armies of the Peshwa and the Scindia clan of Gwalior were defeated by the great Holkar general, Yashwantrao at the Battle of Poona. That December, the Peshwa fled to British protection and concluded the Treaty of Bassein, effectively making him a client of the Company. To save his neck, Baji Rao agreed to:

  1. A British force of around 6,000 troops to be permanently stationed with the Peshwa.
  2. Any territorial districts yielding 2.6 million rupees were to be paid to the East India Company.
  3. The Peshwa could not enter into any other treaty without first consulting the Company.
  4. The Peshwa could not declare war without first consulting the Company.
  5. Any territorial claims made by the Peshwa would be subject to the arbitration of the Company (i.e. Nizam and Gaekwar).
  6. The Peshwa must renounce his claim over Surat and Vadodara.
  7. The Peshwa must exclude all Europeans from his service.
  8. To conduct his foreign relations in consultation with the British.

Needless to say, the remaining Maratha chiefs were less than pleased by the treaty and thus began the Second Anglo-Maratha War. The chiefs united against their former ally and against their nominal leader. Of course, the British anticipated the response but it turned out that Hastings had overplayed his hand. Most of his experienced sepoys and veteran English troops found themselves deployed to the East Indies to secure the Company’s new possessions [3]. In all, the Company could spare 30,000 troops for the war [4].

To their credit, the British experienced initial success against the disunited chiefs and the ill prepared Scindia clan. Lt. Gen. James Stevenson defeated a much larger Scindia force on September 11, 1803 to take the great city of Delhi [5]. Several days later, disaster struck the British under Lord Gerard Lake who was campaigning across the Deccan. As Lake’s 6,000 men worked across central India, they clashed with an army of Scindia troops and won a minor victory, forcing the Scindia to retreat. Unfortunately for Lake, the Scindia retreated into the open arms of a larger, fresh, Bhonsale army. The two forces bore down on the British and at the September 25, 1803 Battle of Assaye in which nearly 60,000 Maratha troops and cavalry, including 10,000 professionalized troops under the command of a German officer, took on Lake’s already exhausted force. Lake inflicted heavy casualties on the Maratha but was forced to retreat to Pune, having lost half of his fighting force.

With Lake bottled up in Pune, Stevenson attempted to quickly bring his forces south and captured the great fortress of Asirgarh in October of 1803. The fort commanded a key trading pass through the Satpura Range that divides northern India from the Deccan Plateau.

On November 9, 1803 the Bhonsale and Scindia army that emerged victorious at Assaye descended on Pune and laid siege to the garrison. This time, entrenched British defenses combined with the urban warfare to negate the effectiveness of the Maratha’s numbers, and certainly their cavalry, to defeat the Marathas. Licking their wounds, the Maratha army retreated towards Ahmednagar only to encounter Stevenson’s forces. The heroic effort by Stevenson to hold his positions at the November 18 Battle of Shirur cost him his leg (victim to a Bhonsale cannonball) but allowed his forces the time necessary to send a call to Pune for reinforcements, and Lake the time to rally his exhausted forces and catch the Scindia-Bhonsale army from behind.

The decisive Battle of Shirur effectively eliminated the Scindia and Bhonsale clans from the war. This was good news for the exhausted British forces that had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. However, the bad news was that the British victory emboldened the Holkar clan to join the war. Throughout the summer of 1804, Yashwantrao Holkar expelled the British from their isolated positions north of the Satpuras, even retaking Delhi in October 1804. The January 3, 1805 Battle of Pandhana proved to be the decisive battle of the war. Reinforced since their desperate situation in 1803, 10,000 British troops took on Holkars’ powerful army and forced the Holkars to retreat to Indore. The British, now in control of the Satpuras, lacked the capacity to attack the Holkars’ home city but Yashwantrao did not know that, nor did other rivals in India. In February, ongoing diplomatic posturing between the Holkars and the British for the support of the Sikhs of the Punjab resulted in the Sikhs siding with Britain. Yashwantrao sued for peace. Ultimately, the peace was far easier on the Holkars than the Scindias and Bhonsales. The former clan ceded its most northern territories while the latter were forced to cede much of the Ganges River plain and those regions in eastern India still under Maratha control.

The end of the Second Anglo-Maratha War in 1805 gave some territorial adjustments to the British but was hardly the decisive showing Hastings had hoped. The British escaped the war intact more due to Maratha disunity than anything else, and the war established the Sikhs as a major player in northwest India, even if they never fired a shot. The most important result of the war lie in fracturing the Maratha and securing the Peshwa’s territories as a client state. Immediately, this appeared to be a great success for the British as it left only northwest India outside of Company control or influence. As we know, however, that void of control would be key in coming events. For as peace settled cross the Deccan for the time being, Alexander Hamilton was rounding the Cape of Good Hope towards India.

———————- Author’s Notes ————————

[1]: Fun fact, these schemes were all true in our timeline as well.

[2]: “Presidency” was the British term for land the company administered as a sovereign.

[3]: Sepoy is term that refers to those Indian soldiers in the service of European armies.

[4]: In our timeline, they sent 60,000 troops so the pacification of the indies has effectively cut British troop strength in half.

[5]: In our timeline, Lord Gerard Lake took Delhi while Stevenson stood as a colonel in his forces. The deployment of Arthur Wellesley to the East Indies means that Stevenson is now in charge of the northern theater while Lake is the chief commander in the war.

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