In 1779 , a series of battles was fought between the British and the Marathas . Pune fought for its very survival and the battle marked the high point of the Nana – Mahadji combination. Mahadji Shinde’s marshalling of resources , his strategising and the bravery shown by the average Maratha mavla make the finale at Wadgaon memorable and something to be very proud of .
Background : As of 1779 , the primary aim of the British was to secure their port of Bombay . This meant being in control of the routes that led to it from Vasai in the north and from Pune in the east . All were in Maratha hands .Secondly , the Marathas had opened negotiations with a Frenchman named St Lubin , sending alarm bells ringing at both Bombay and Calcutta . Fortunately for the British , Raghunathrao had decided to wholeheartedly support them against Nana Phadnis . The British planned to attack Pune directly , remove Nana Phadnis and govern through Raghunathrao , who would be placed at Shaniwarwada as a puppet ruler . In return ofcourse the British would get whatever they wanted .
British in the Bor Ghat : The campaign began in November 1778 , when British forces under Capt James Stewart and Col Egerton , among others proceeded from Mumbai towards Pune via the Bor Ghat . ( this ghat was also used by Shivaji on his return from Surat and currently is part of Mumbai – Pune railway ) . Col Egerton captured the fort of Belapur and established a base at Panvel , while Capt Stewart proceeded to Khandala . ( 22 Nov 1778 ) . The British forces number nearly 4000 , inclusive of artillery and gun lashkars. Small contingents of infantry and cavalry were also with Raghoba . The British were counting on Nana Phadnis to resist at Pune with a force of 7 to 8 thousand . Moreover , the British resident at Pune – Mostyn – was convinced that Shinde and Holkar would desert Pune and join Raghoba as soon as the British were in sight ! . Both proved to be fatal errors for the British .
From Panvel , Col Egerton reached Khopoli and established a second British base in the valley in the winter of 1778 . Capt James Stewart had by then reached the village of Khandala and established a camp at the top of the ghat . Col Egerton followed suit and by middle of December , a large British force had assembled over there . Col Egerton then divided his forces between Lt Col Cay and Lt Col Cockburn . Throughout the march from the fort at Mumbai , they had faced nil resistance from the Marathas and morale was thus sky high in the British camp.
Governor General Warren Hastings , Calcutta – This campaign had the full backing of Warren Hastings . He deputed a large army under Col Leslie and Col Goddard from the barracks in Bengal.6 battallions of sepoys , artillery and cavalry divisions and a reinforcement of around 500 Pathan horsemen slowly made their way through Central India . They were harassed all along by Maratha forces , but never stopped entirely . Leslie died in Oct 1778 , and Col Goddard took charge . By Dec 1778 , he too was nearing Pune . At this point , with the ghat under their command , if the British had stayed put at Khandala , it would have become impossible for Nana Phadnis to guard against a pincer attack . But the complete absence of Maratha resistance and canards spread by the Marathas that Shinde and Holkar were willing to join Capt Stewart lulled them into sense of complacency .
Maratha counterattack – Nana Phadnis deputed Bhimrao Panse to counter and harass the British forces as they proceeded towards Pune . With 7 pieces of artillery and around 5000 men waited in the narrow defiles , jungles and ravines on the way from Khandala to Pune . Around 16th December 1778 , the British left their high ground at Khandala , and almost immediately came under heavy fire from Bhimrao Panse .The sepoys replied with fire of their own , but the guerilla tactics , reminiscent of the past century decimated the British forces . Lt Col Kay fell after being hit by artillery fire on the route to Karla . The British made laborous progress to the small village famous for its ruins . On the 4th of January , Capt James Stewart was killed while fighting at Karla , giving the Marathas the upper hand . He had covered a mere 8 miles in 11 days . On the 6th of Jan 1779 , Col Egerton returned to Bombay on account of illness and the Lt Col Cockburn took charge of the British force , by this time joined by Capt Gordon and Raghoba who had managed to ascend the ghat . Bhimrao Panse also retired towards Pune .
Scorched earth –
The hallmark of this entire campaign is the trap the British were led into at Talegaon and Wadgaon near Pune . Thinking the worst to be over , Lt Col Cockburn and Capt Gordon advanced by 9th Jan 1779 on the village of Talegaon . But Nana Phadnis and Mahadji Shinde had foreseen this and had burnt the village granary and stores . Similar fate had been planned for the villages of Pimpri and Chinchwad . Desperate for supplies after exiting the mountains , the British were in for a shock . Shaniwarwada was still 18 miles away , and Col Cockburn had provisions to last for a maximum of 15 days ! . Nana Phadnis had placed most of the Maratha forces at the disposal of Mahadji Shinde . He himself , alongwith Tukoji Holkar and Mahadji occupied the village of Wadgaon , cutting off the British . The British retreat began on the 11th of Jan 1779 and came under heavy fire from Mahadji Shinde . Capt Hartley and Lt Col Cockburn were attacked on both the front and rear at Wadgaon by the combined forces of Shinde and Holkar . Large numbers deserted the British and the Marathas decimated whatever remained of the large force sent under Capt James Stewart . In the meanwhile , Babaji Phatak had ascended from the Konkan and captured Khopoli , making any retreat now impossible . On the 16th of Jan 1779 , the British sued for peace with the Marathas . This meant giving up their possessions near Bombay and of Bharuch and Surat to the Marathas . The forces under Col Goddard were to halt their march and most importantly Raghoba was to be handed over to Mahadji . Thus what had started as a campaign to unseat Nana Phadnis , ended up being a battle of survival for the British in the all important port of Bombay.
Conclusion : This event prevented a quick takeover of Pune by the British . It would be a long and ardous process .. fort by fort , battle by battle which would finally grant them the prize in 1818 . Moreover , it was sheer luck which led to the absence of a leadership which gave the British their victories over the Marathas from 1802 onwards .The victory at Wadgaon raised Mahadji’s stature and allowed him a glorious decade in the 1780s . A major Maratha victory over the Nizam also followed in 1795 . On the flipside , the victory could have been capitilised on . With most of the British forces under their control , an attack on Mumbai was not a far fetched idea . Col Goddard was still only in Surat . In the end , Hastings refused to recognise the treaty , saying it had been signed by officers not senior enough and things were quickly back to square one .
© Aneesh Gokhale