First Marāthā War

The First Marāthā War was the first of three major conflicts between the British East India Company and the Marāthās in India, wars that were fought intermittently until 1818. Final victory came to the British and led to the disbandment of the Marāthā army, the abolition of the peshwaship, and the incorporation of the Marāthās into the British subsidiary alliance system.

Summary of Event

The First Marāthā War, the beginning of the Anglo-Marāthā Wars, was part of the expansion of the British in South Asia between the Battle of Plassey Plassey, Battle of (1757) (1757) and the capture of Punjab (1849). The Marāthās Mar{amacr}th{amacr}s were Hindu inhabitants of the state of Maharashtra who had been unified and made into a great power under Shivaji Bhonsle and his son and grandson. These rulers forged the Marāthās into a powerful confederation based on Pune, Gwalior, Indore, Berar, and Baroda, and headed by a peshwa, a title first used for the chief of Shivaji’s eight ministers. By 1749, the peshwaship had become a hereditary office. United and under good leadership, the Marāthās were a powerful force, but their weaknesses were personal petty jealousy and personal rivalries that often led to civil war. These weaknesses would eventually lead to their defeat by the British. However, in 1775 they remained a powerful enemy, and the wars would be characterized by the capture and loss of territory, its return by treaty, and its subsequent recapture. [kw]First Mar{amacr}th{amacr} War (Dec., 1774-Feb. 24, 1783)
[kw]War, First Mar{amacr}th{amacr} (Dec., 1774-Feb. 24, 1783)
[kw]Mar{amacr}th{amacr} War, First (Dec., 1774-Feb. 24, 1783)
British East India Company;and Mar{amacr}th{amacr}s[Marathas]
First Mar{amacr}th{amacr} War (1774-1783)
[g]India;Dec., 1774-Feb. 24, 1783: First Mar{amacr}th{amacr} War[2120]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Dec., 1774-Feb. 24, 1783: First Mar{amacr}th{amacr} War[2120]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;Dec., 1774-Feb. 24, 1783: First Mar{amacr}th{amacr} War[2120]
[c]Colonization;Dec., 1774-Feb. 24, 1783: First Mar{amacr}th{amacr} War[2120]
Raghunath R{amacr}o
Hastings, Warren

As a naval power, the members of the British East India Company were eager to wrest control of the coastline near Bombay, which was a British territory, from the Marāthās. Control of the coast would increase British security and trade opportunities, and it was for this reason that they had already attacked states in the Carnatic and Mysore. The company had also seized islands near Bombay to secure supplies of teakwood for their ships. Their chance to challenge the Marāthās came when Peshwa Madhav Rāo died in 1773, and his younger brother, Narayan Rāo, became the peshwa. He was murdered nine months later by his uncle, Raghunath Rāo, who declared himself peshwa and attacked Hyderabad.

Raghunath Rāo’s campaign against Hyderabad was militarily successful, but it generated no wealth and led to opposition by other Marāthā leaders. They went to the city of Pune to the widow of Narayan Rāo to await the birth of her son, whom they supported as the rightful peshwa. After the birth of this child, they established a regency in his name and controlled Pune and the administration. Raghunath Rāo’s principal enemies were Mahādāji of Gwalior, Tukoji Holkar and Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore, Gaikwad of Baroda, and Bhonsle of Nagpur, who all controlled large, valuable, and mostly independent states. In addition, Nana Phadnavis was an able administrator who controlled the revenue administration and became a very powerful figure. Finding himself increasingly isolated and losing the support of one faction after another, Raghunath Rāo fled Pune and turned to the British in Bombay for support in a gathering civil war.

Raghunath Rāo’s appeal perfectly suited the British, who throughout India had maintained a successful policy of supporting a candidate in a succession struggle in the hope of acquiring more territory if their candidate won the throne. They agreed to support Raghunath Rāo, and it was this intervention by the British in Marāthā affairs that led to the First Marāthā War. The war consisted of a series of major battles and minor frays spread over a wide area in the states of Maharashtra, Gujerat, and Malwa. In December, 1774, the war began with the British attack on the fort of Salsette, and the war was fought in three phases: December, 1774, until the March, 1776, Treaty of Purandar; Purandar to the February, 1779, convention of Wadgaon; and Wadgaon to the February, 1783, Treaty of Salbai.

Raghunath Rāo agreed to cede to the British large tracts of land in Gujarat and some islands near Bombay and to pay the British East India Company 150,000 rupees per month in order to pay for twenty-five hundred troops and some artillery. In spite of this support, Raghunath Rāo’s army had been defeated in March, 1775, by his Marāthā enemies in Gujarat, and he fled to his only ally, the British, at their trading post at Surat. The British East India Company assembled an army from Madras India and Bombay Bombay, India and won a number of skirmishes against the Marāthās in Gujarat. However, Warren Hastings, the first British governor general to control all of British India, opposed this independent action by Bombay and stopped the attack. The troops retreated to their barracks, and Hastings’s agent negotiated the Treaty of Purandar Purandar, Treaty of (1776) in March, 1776, which returned cessions in Gujarat and gave the British Salsette, Bassein, the revenues of Broach, and some money in cash. The company agreed to withdraw its support of Raghunath Rāo and to provide him with a pension.

Neither Bengal Bengal, India nor Bombay approved the Treaty of Purandar, so the British authorized war again in 1777 and sent additional forces from Bengal. They were faced, however, by a Marāthā force strenghtened by Holkar’s ten-thousand-man army. The last of Raghunath’s supporters in Pune were thrown in prison. At the end of 1778, the British, not yet supported by the forces from Bengal, marched out from Bombay with more than three thousand troops and nineteen thousand bullocks pulling the guns and supplies. They climbed the Ghats Mountains but ran out of supplies en route and decided to retreat. The Marāthā army surrounded the British at Telegaon and, in the convention of Wadgaon Wadgaon, Convention of (1779) (February 12, 1779), the British were forced to sign a treaty promising to give up Raghunath Rāo, to cede all the territory they had acquired since 1773, to pay forty-one thousand rupees, and to leave two hostages behind before they were allowed to return to Bombay.

Hastings repudiated the convention of Wadgaon and renewed hostilities to wipe out the disgrace of defeat. The army from Bengal finally arrived, deliberately attacked the territories of Mahādāji, captured Ahmedabad, and received most of the revenues from south Gujarat. By 1781, the Marāthās had established a grand alliance against the British, but on May 17, 1782, the British and the Marāthās signed the Treaty of Salbai, Salbai, Treaty of (1783) which was formally ratified on February 24, 1783. The treaty committed the British and Marāthās to friendship. It brought the First Marāthā War to an end with neither side clearly victorious. The treaty contained seventeen articles. The Marāthās received back Bassein and the Gaekwad territories on Gujarat, while the British were allowed to keep the island of Salsette and to aquire the islands of Elephanta, Carranja, and Hog, as well as the city of Broach. The British also had—once again—to cease supporting Raghunath Rāo, but their trade privileges were recognized.


The First Marāthā War was of major importance to the history of central India. It was important for the British East India Company, as it established a peace with the Marāthās that lasted for twenty years and enabled the company to expand considerably from its base in Bombay. It also entrenched the British in India, establishing them as the controlling factor in Indian politics. The centrality of the British to Indian politics was demonstrated in their dealings with Mahādāji, who gained control of the Marāthā forces. In the following years, Mahādāji adopted European military training and tactics, then turned on his fellow Marāthās to extend his power, knowing that the British would give him a free hand. Other Marāthās copied him, ending the advantage of their traditional cavalry and enabling the British to meet Marāthā armies who now utilized European methods of warfare. Familiar with these methods and how to counter them, the British were able to establish their military superiority. Thus, it was ironically British lessons in warfare that ensured the ultimate British victory over their pupils. The British alliance with the Marāthās also allowed them to crush Mysore in 1799.

Further Reading

  • Fernandes, Praxy. The Tigers of Mysore: A Biography of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan. New Delhi, India: Viking, 1991. A detailed history of the four Anglo-Mysore Wars that often involved the Marāthās.
  • Gordon, Stewart. The Marāthās, 1600-1818. Part 2, Vol. 4 in The New Cambridge History of India. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Offers a comprehensive but short introduction to Marāthā history, administrative practice, and especially Marāthā geopolitics.
  • Kantak, M. R. The First Anglo-Marāthā War, 1774-1783: A Military Study of Major Battles. Bombay, India: Popular Prakashan, 1993. Five of the major battles and sieges are examined in this study.
  • _______, ed. The First Anglo-Marāthā War: The Last Phase, 1780-1783 A.D. Pune, India: Deccan College Post-Graduate and Research Institute, 1989. The first twenty-five pages offer a useful inroduction to various aspects of Marāthā polity and warfare.

Carnatic Wars

Seven Years’ War

Battle of Plassey

Anglo-Mysore Wars

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