The Economic History of the Marathas Part III - The Revenue Differences of EIC and the Marathas

Maratha Empire in 1759 (wikimedia commons)

This is an overdue part perhaps for years on a stretch. However, it is time to write this part, precisely because it is important to understand why the Marathas eventually lost out to the British in maintaining their grip on their empire as a single federal entity and instead broke down into individual states under the East India Company (EIC) dominion that maintained tenuous relationship with the Maratha empire vestiges at best. The key to understanding precisely why the East India Company had the surplus revenue and not the Marathas, something that turned out to be a major influencing factor at the time in changing the power equation of the time. The story shall not necessarily be chronological, and I do not intend to tell dates, but I will tell the story as it emerges, and would request the three readers bold enough to read this blog post to bear with the story and figure out the dates and understand the chronology and convergence that together created the circumstances to make the Marathas fall out.

The British East India Company - a Naval Power in Indian Waters

When Shivaji was coronated, the British EIC had come to ask for trading rights at the ceremony among other purposes. Despite being ransacked multiple times in Surat, the EIC was able to make a profit for its shareholders to such volumes that it could set up its own militia. This was further emboldened by a major event that took place - the Battle of Buxar, perhaps the first major conflict where a smaller but efficient EIC militia defeated an army three to four times its size. What it resulted in was a major windfall besides changing the power equations by making the EIC a much vaunted militia for hire of sorts - it got them the Diwani rights for Bengal and Bihar, which were by far the most prosperous of the provinces of India thanks to their high agricultural outputs unlike the rest of India. One must remember that in those days there was hardly any investment being made by anyone into agriculture, as a result of which the perennial Ganga waters gave an advantage to whoever owned these regions.

To highlight the strength of the EIC navy, one must highlight how Aurangzeb's victory over the British in Bengal during his reign was signed off with a truce at best, driven by his recognition of their naval strength had they chosen to come upstream. The Mughal navy was a joke, and no Indian power managed to create a naval force potent enough to defeat any of the European East India Companies of the time. Successive wars amongst the British and French in particular saw the British emerge victorious. Interestingly, the Portuguese had already ceded space barring the enclave of Goa post the marital ties that occurred between the two royal families, though they had aleady begun to decline following their defeat at British hands in sea besides having weakened considerably within India.

Unlike the French, the British had already gotten a firm foot in India, which allowed their EIC to have bases which could be easily fortified, especially along the western coast that the Europeans would encounter and which had been the source of money flowing in and out of India. This control allowed them to put in money and effort to develop a militia that served their interests. The success of the militia can be gauged by the fact that the Carnatic Wars were won by the British and not the French despite their greater numbers and having enlisted more support. The British militia was certainly popular enough to be enrolled by several powers, even the Peshwas at one time, to defeat Tipu Sultan who had the French support as was seen in the second Anglo-Mysore conflict. Not only was their weaponry superior, they were the best paymasters, and this attracted better talent for them so to speak, giving their soldiers greater motivation to fight in a disciplined manner. 

Repeated Maratha Attempt at Creating a Navy Failed

In contrast, the Marathas had simply raided Bengal to collect money one time, and had chosen not to establish a hold for reasons perhaps of distance and their experiences with the Northern holdings that seemed more important, especially the Delhi obsession. The Cuttack to Attock control mostly included regions that had seen warfare for the longest time imaginable on a continued basis. Agriculture had been reduced to shambles in this entire stretch barring the Malwa region under the control of the Holkars - at that time, Delhi, Haryana, Panipat and Western Uttar Pradesh along with the eastern flanks of present day Rajasthan were nothing like the fabled 'sone ki chidiya' of the time. 

The first attempt at a naval development with the Marathas can be seen in the feats of Kanhoji Angre, who had become a figure of fear for the European ships during Shivaji's era. That was one of the reasons why the British EIC wanted to ensure his assurances at the time of his coronation. However, soon after Shivaji's death, Kanhoji put his weight behind Maharani Tarabai, who wanted to retain control. However, eventually he made up with Chhatrapati Shahu I and made peace with the Peshwa Balaji Vishwanath Bhat. However, by the time anything could happen, he passed away, and having no capable successor, his naval feats started to fade away

When Peshwa Baji Rao I had come to power after some time of Angre's death, one of his prime focuses was to create a naval power as well. To that end, Chimaji Appa, his brother, experimented to form a naval force which accompanying the land forces of the Peshwa were successful in eroding the Portuguese power along the western coast. Especially famous feat of Chimaji was the Battle of Vasai, which saw his naval battery inflict significant losses on the Portuguese. However, with his death there was frankly no interest in reviving the Navy.

In the middle of all this, the Siddis, who were essentially a sea-coast power, arising from the African slaves of the Sultanate of Bijapur, had managed to survive. Having made peace with the Peshwas under Bajirao I, they continued to remain influential enough and had essentially made peace with the British EIC naval force who continued to retain their influence on controlling sea routes. It must be noted that the key ports on the western coast that witnessed maximum trade - Surat and Goa - were both under British or Portuguese rule. Bombay, which could have been a major port for the Marathas due to its natural geography, was in British control. With the Siddis also leaning towards the British to avoid constant Maratha harassment, the Maratha empire had no significant ports or harbours under their control. 

These factors combined to keep the Maratha powers impoverished. The land revenue kept leaking due to corrupt officials and the shares retained by the various subedars who were kings unto themselves. There was no naval revenue to compete with the British EIC forces, who had all the money they needed to invest in the forces for upgradation and payment of forces on time to keep them motivated. Maratha forces, especially Peshwai forces were infamous for late payments, and pindaris would be of no use as their raids on the general populace made the Maratha forces extremely unpopular across their dominion. 

What if - Several Possibilities and Questions Needing Answers

What is extremely intriguing is the absence of the eastern harbours of Odisha's regions under Maratha control. Puri being a natural choice still never developed as a major trading centre for the Marathas unlike Kolkata and Madras that were made as sea forts to begin with by the British EIC and started to come up as major ports. This perhaps is also indicative of the lack of importance seen to the economic development by the Maratha power, who had been dependent on chauth and sardeshmukhi as well as taxes within their domains. Except for the Holkars and to a limited extent the Scindias, there was frankly little attempt during the Peshwai to create any new economic revenue generation activities, despite India having great advantages. Pune was a capital for sure, but it never became a centre to attract money and capital into the city the same way that the British townships started to emerge. Dealings with India's top money bags of the time of the Marathas was not a desirable trait, given the delays. Could increased emphasis on controlling sea trade routes have helped? Moreover, the British control on Surat never really changed. Could a seizure of its control have changed matters? Perhaps the obsession with creating a Hindu Pad Padshahi, as Savarkar had noted with respect to the Peshwai period, had put administrative capacity on the backburner compared to the military capacity. This would not be entirely anyone's fault - the military flux of the time and the continued fighting was making it difficult to focus perhaps on administration. However, that is where the federacy should have risen to the occasion, which clearly it could not. Also, only the Peshwai could have actually secured the naval strength; however, the obsession with land invasions perhaps meant that the Peshwai was unable to focus on the seas, and had little bandwidth. 

Panipat perhaps also had a role to play. The impact of the Panipat defeat on the Maratha psyche has been documented well. What it certainly did from a military perspective was to shift focus onto land warfare and close the Peshwai mindset especially to the modernization of military to an extent, which also included neglect of naval strength, a couple of lessons possibly drawn that were completely incorrect. 

Thus, I conclude this series after years. Hope people will like it.

P.S. - a point shared by a twitter handle leads to a correction - The Peshwas were partly responsible for the destruction of the Maratha navy, which eventually proved to be a costly mistake. I am sharing the link here for those who would want to know more on that specifically.


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