India: Peeps at History - Beatrice Home

How We Cleared the Road to Empire

In the year 1786, when Lord Cornwallis reached India as the second Governor-General, we were faced by the Mahratta power in the west and north-west, and by Tippoo, Sultan of Mysore, the son of Hyder Ali. These were our only really dangerous enemies at that time. The British Government, represented by its Governor-General, had now openly taken its place as one of the first powers in India.

Tippoo, who hated us as much as his father, tried hard to stir up both the French and Afghans against us, and at last we were compelled to unite with the Mahrattas and our untrustworthy ally, the Nizam of Hyderabad, against him. In 1792, therefore, we took his capital and deprived him of some territory on the Malabar coast to prevent the French landing to help him. This, however, only filled him with wilder thoughts of revenge, and, although we offered him many advantages if he would become friendly and cease from plotting with the French against us, we at last had to fight him once more. He was besieged by Colonel Arthur Wellesley, afterwards the famous Duke of Wellington, in his capital, Seringapatam, which we took by storm. Tippoo was killed in a hand-to-hand fight at one of the gates, and his kingdom came to an end. It was then given back to the old Hindu family whom Hyder Ali had driven out, and who rule it well and quietly at the present day.

Tippoo Sahib


This left the Mahrattas the only native power of importance in India who were independent of our protection. They possessed large and well-trained armies led by considerable numbers of French officers, who, of course, did their best to increase the influence of France in India, which Bonaparte, our enemy in Europe, had talked of invading.

The Marquis of Wellesley, who was now Governor-General, was a determined and far-seeing statesman. He saw clearly, as no one had done before, that Great Britain would one day have to bring all India under its government. It was certain, of course, that we should have to fight the Mahrattas, but our army was now much stronger than in Clive's days, and besides some fine British battalions we had two splendid generals in Sir Arthur Wellesley and General Lake.

Soon a couple of the Mahratta leaders, Holkar and Scindia, began to fight furiously against one another, and a third chief, the Peishwar, fearing he would be attacked next, placed himself under British protection. The other Mahratta leaders were enraged at this, and determined to fight us. General Wellesley, who led our army against them, sent a message to Scindia saying ,that if he withdrew his forces from our frontier all would be well. But Scindia replied, "You go first." Whereupon Sir Arthur Wellesley said, "I have offered you peace; you have chosen war, and war you shall have."

In four days Wellesley had captured two of Scindia's strong places, and shortly after came up with the enemy at Assaye. Scindia's army was 50,000 strong, a large number being well trained and led by French officers. He also had a powerful artillery of 100 guns. Wellesley had only 4200 men, including the 78th Highlanders, the 74th Regiment, and the 19th Light Dragoons, but hearing that the enemy intended to move off, he determined to attack them at once without waiting for another force under General Stevenson to come up.

Duke of Wellington


The battle was a desperate one. Our artillery was overpowered by the enemy's numerous and well-served guns. Our advance was stopped and the Mahratta horsemen charged. But before they could reach our infantry the 19th Dragoons crashed into them. It was the first time they had met British cavalry, and they broke and fled in wild disorder. Once more our infantry pressed forward with glittering lines of bayonets, while the cavalry broke the Mahratta infantry at the village of Assaye.

As we swept through their line of guns the Mahratta gunners flung themselves on the ground as though dead, but as soon as we had passed over them they were up and at their guns again, firing them into our backs. It was a very critical moment, but nothing could shake the British infantry, and the 78th, turning about, charged back and saved the day. The battle was won, but we lost more than one-third of our whole force.

General Lake's victories in the north-west were equally important. The Mahrattas, under their French general Perron, fought well, but the most desperate battle of all was at Laswaree at the end of 1803, which we only won with great difficulty.

[Illustration] from Peeps at History - India by Beatrice Home


There is one strange scene upon which we cannot help dwelling for a moment. It was just after Lake had scattered Scindia's forces in a hard set-to outside Delhi. At sunset, after the fight, Lake and the officers of his staff rode into the ancient capital of the Moghuls. It was the first time that an Englishman ever entered the old imperial city as a conqueror.

With eyes wide with eager curiosity, wonder, and perhaps fear, the poor people of Delhi, who had suffered so much from the horrors of war, gathered in their thousands to watch these strange new warriors. What was going to happen to them now? Would Delhi be sacked and plundered again? It was natural that they should ask such questions, for they could not know that these fresh conquerors were bringing a new time—though very slowly, perhaps—of peace, justice, and fair treatment for all men, as good as and even better than Akbar's time.

In the beautiful palace, which Shah Jehan had built in his pride and glory, Lake found an old, old man seated under a ragged canopy, blind—for the last invaders had struck out his eyes—poverty-stricken, and miserable. It was the successor of the great Moghuls, still holding the empty title, a poor puppet emperor without an empire. When Lake and his officers strode away through the great ghostly palace at night and left the old man to his dreams of the past, he had been told that in future he and his people would be under the care and protection of Great Britain, and that the Mahrattas would trouble him no more.

[Illustration] from Peeps at History - India by Beatrice Home


After the defeat and submission of Scindia, Holkar, the other Mahratta leader, held out in Rajputana, and by the extreme rapidity of his movements proved, like the Boers in South Africa, a very active and troublesome enemy. He even inflicted a severe defeat upon a British force. But Lake pursued him with restless determination, until at last his forces were surprised and broken up. Holkar himself escaped, but was afterwards glad to return and make peace as Scindia had done before him.