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War and the Military Economy

been crippled by policy, intrigue and War and the Military opportunism your victory becomes easier.
Economy Historiographical Questions The Anglo-Maratha Campaigns and the Contest for India: The Struggle for Control of the South Asian Military Economy by Randolf G S Cooper; Cambridge University Press (published in South Asia by Foundation Books, New Delhi); Cambridge, 2005;

War and the Military


The Anglo-Maratha Campaigns and the Contest for India: The Struggle for Control of the South Asian Military Economy

by Randolf G S Cooper; Cambridge University Press (published in South Asia by Foundation Books, New Delhi); Cambridge, 2005; pp 437, Rs 695.


his lucid and fact-revealing volume is based on a combination of passion, painstaking research and meticulous fieldwork. It has far-reaching epistemological implications for debates on maratha history going back to the colonial period. Therefore it deserves a substantial review. The book has been written with the conscious intention to demolish the colonial myths associated with the Anglo-Maratha wars and a careful reading revealed only a minor blemish.1 The monograph ends up rescuing an important chapter of Indian history from the clutches of Eurocentrism and technological determinism – the two traps into which unfortunately most of Indian military history seems to have fallen. On the whole this rewriting of the touch and go battles of 1803 manages to score a magnificent victory over the combination of a colonial discourse and the “military revolution” almost 200 years after the Wellington myth began. Cooper’s narrative will make Indians feel simultaneously proud and critical of the military achievements of their ancestors in the late 18th century. It will also alert the modernisers among us to the dangers of excessive military reliance on foreign expertise. This book drives home the regularly forgotten lesson that warfare in 18th century India, beyond individual battles and personal valour, ultimately boiled down to a matter of negotiation and military finance. Playing the military market and sourcing the military economy in India were very different from fighting and possibly dying for your king, country and flag. Hence, judging the marathas by the standards set by the British nation state means barking up the wrong tree. They lost to the British for reasons which often escape our emotional scrutiny of the past.

Military Revolution

Cooper has deconstructed the Anglo-Maratha war of 1803 by deftly using the concepts of India’s culture specific military labour market and military economy as they have been applied to the 18th century. Since “one’s own culture influences the perception of armed conflict among others” the importance of crosscultural analyses, he asserts, must be understood by military historians. The failure to do so produces typical myths laden western discourses of war, victories and defeats. However, upon a closer examination of facts these myths fall apart.

The rise and fall of maratha power from the ‘rajyabhishek’ of Chhatrapati Shivaji to the defeat of Holkar (1674 -1805) has always been integral to the nationalist imagination of Indians. It was equally important to the making of an imperialist history of India during the British period. The legend and legacy of Shivaji, romantic notions of maratha light horse, the defeats at Panipat, Assaye and Laswari, endless assertions of the inferiority of the Indian way of warfare, including attitudes towards firearms, the glorification of British commanders like Arthur Wellesley and obsessive praise of the western way of warfare and methods of discipline and drill have constructed a mixed discourse which most of us are conditioned to accept uncritically from our childhood. Cooper unpacks these myths systematically and convincingly. Reading this book was both an intense academic and personal experience for this reviewer who has periodically looked at the problematic of Indian military history from various angles. Upon finishing the book I was convinced more than ever that war, military victory and defeat are above all political and economic affairs to which military historians and strategists do not devote adequate attention. In sum what often happens on the battlefield is decided several weeks or months in advance. Personal valour and leadership matters but if your enemy has been crippled by policy, intrigue and opportunism your victory becomes easier.

Historiographical Questions

How did the English East India Company (EIC) overcome Indian military resistance between 1757 and 1849 is a question which historians of modern south Asia have tried answering at each turn of Indian historiography with varied degrees of success. Answers to this question are invariably coloured by a Eurocentrism which itself is based on notions of modernity and progress. This bias runs through the colonial and Indian nationalist positions on the subject and continues to guide much of textbook understanding of Indian military history. Since the 1980s the military revolution thesis has reinforced the ethnocentric assumptions contained in the great majority of works on Indian military history. The lingering influence of Eurocentrism and ethnocentrism has thus reduced the history of south Asian military defeats to a series of well-entrenched popular myths. While explaining the British victories of 1803, historians have traditionally resorted to the following myths:

  • (a) “momentum of British victory” in the context of Britain’s war against France in the Napoleonic period; (b) superior training and discipline of the EIC troops; and
  • (c) superior British artillery. This volume’s “anatomy of victory” dispels these myths while giving due credit to the marathas and the British at the same time. The EIC prevailed in 1803 but the fact remains that Sindia’s infantry, regular cavalry and artillery were better appointed and superior.
  • Cooper’s detailed description and analysis of Wellesley’s Deccan campaign and Lake’s Hindustan campaign of 1803 tells us how ignorant we all have been of these “decisive” encounters. This reviewer ranks these day to day, movement by movement and at times gory battle descriptions among the best he has ever read. They remind of Paul Carell’s classic Hitler’s War On Russia. While the analysis of the Deccan battles of Assaye and Argaum (pp 100-31) and the siege of Gawilgarh (pp 131-36) is excellent, the story of Lake’s crucial, though vastly under-reported, battles in the north – Patparganj and Laswari is exceptional to say the least. Assaye is better known simply because it became enmeshed in the Wellesley-Waterloo-Wellington legend but it was the veteran Lake who delivered the revenue rich doab,

    Economic and Political Weekly January 28, 2006

    Aligarh, Delhi and Agra to the British. This compelled Daulat Rao Sindia to become part of the subsidiary alliance treaty system. Conquering the doab, with the objective of depriving Daulat Rao Sindia of his economic and military base, was an important aim of Richard Wellesley. Overcoming the marathas was essential to growing EIC domination of India’s military economy and expanding British imperialism. Largely due to the defeat of Sindia and Bhonsale in 1803 the EIC became the dominant player in the military economy of Hindustan and gained the revenues and manpower required to ultimately extend its rule up to Peshawar.

    Military Ways of Marathas

    But this is not all. Cooper’s understanding of the rise of a syncretic maratha military culture and their heterogeneous armies from the 16th century onwards tells us that infantry units, both matchlocks and flintlocks and a variety of artillery were integral to the maratha way of warfare. Their expertise in the use of firearms was evident at the little known showdown battle of Dabhoi (1731) fought between Baji Rao I and his young senapati Trimbuk Rao Dabhade. The generation of a large volume of enveloping fire at this battle suggests that the marathas had mastered the use of battlefield artillery and massed musketry during the days of Baji Rao. Indeed evidence from the earliest times “does not sit comfortably with” the description of the marathas as primarily guerrillas or the equation of marathas with light horse. There was obviously much more to maratha military practices than ‘bargirgiri’ or light horse ‘pindari’ tactics which, Cooper asserts, were never a maratha monopoly. Indeed the Afghans and Europeans employed pindari horsemen on a large scale. Most of these professional pindaris were employed not as fighters but as scouts and mopping up units by all armies operating in India during the period being examined. The marathas often used them to set up devastating ambushes. They were indispensable to plunder which normally followed battles in India in the 18th and much of 19th centuries.

    More than 30 years later, after the carnage at Panipat wiped out significant numbers of clan elders, the dominant maratha sardars turned to the military labour market of north India to raise sepoy armies trained and officered by Europeans. These armies were their instruments of dominating north and central India and on occasion intimidating Pune. Cooper’s descriptions of the battles of Assaye, Patparganj and Laswari and the personal records and correspondence of Arthur Wellesley and Lake highlights the proven superiority of maratha artillery over the British. At Assaye and Patparganj maratha volume and variety of firepower created virtual killing fields for the EIC armies with the result that the former was won by Wellesley at a cost of 33 per cent casualties. The number of wounded, seriously wounded and amputees produced by these battles among the EIC ranks was extraordinarily large and called for special medical arrangements.

    Central to this book under review is the assertion that the Anglo-Maratha wars should be examined in a historical context to which dominant western notions of military history cannot be applied. We can make proper sense of the rise of British power in India in the 18th and 19th centuries only by researching the specificity of warfare in those centuries and not falling back on the master narratives of history. It is not as if EIC victories were always ordained. In favour of this book I submit that the record of British defeats against Hyder Ali and the combined marathas during the first phase of the Anglo-Maratha War of 1775-82 does not allow us to get carried away by the “military revolution” thesis. The dissection of victory offered by this volume clearly states the following:

    The documentation and evidence clearly

    demonstrate this was not a “walk over”.

    Furthermore, victory had more to do with

    espionage and growing British domination

    of the south Asian military economy than

    with superior technology, discipline or drill.

    Western explanations for victory were

    constructed for political as well as cultural

    reasons and they have been used to under

    pin a cultural domination model for the

    “rise of the west”. Consciously or not,

    westerners have distorted south Asian

    military history and in getting the analysis

    wrong we have prolonged the process of

    cultural imperialism (pp 284-85).

    Victory and Defeat in 1803

    So all said and done, what were the causes of victory and defeat in 1803 ? Two causes of maratha defeat, beside the resolve of governor-general Richard Wellesley and his commanders, stand above all else. The defection of Sindia’s corps of European officers including the vast majority of the French and superior credit of the EIC which made it easier for the British to pursue war compared with the maratha leadership. Two chapters of this volume ‘Coming In’ and ‘The Anatomy of Victory’ make this clear. The former highlights an old weakness of the essentially feudal maratha military organisation. The European and Eurasian mercenaries comprising the bulk of Sindia’s officers with offensive combat capabilities, including the celebrated de Boigne, were never in favour of going to war with the British. Many influential Sindia officers were in fact British. All of them wanted to live long enough to enjoy their fortunes and knew that their route to a peaceful retirement lay through EIC held territory. Most of them mingled freely with British visitors to north India in the so called cosmopolitan “Agra system”. To begin with, the legendary de Boigne had advised his corps against fighting the British. His successor, Sindia commander-in-chief Perron, was negotiating a defection with Lake even as war clouds gathered. Many senior men of fortune, and not to speak of scores of younger European officers, had invested heavily in EIC paper and trade. They had no intention of being buried in Hindustan. How could such men be trusted in a war with the British? As it turned out they were useful to Daulat Rao only against rival centres of power in his court and the refractory zamindars resisting maratha revenue drives.

    The astute Richard Wellesley exploited this weakness of the Europeans in Sindia’s army with the help of his agents well before the campaign of 1803 began. Liberal incentives and terms of employment were offered to them as the EIC went about absorbing additional resources of the Indian military economy. Consequently Sindia’s command structure was shattered even before Wellesley’s proclamation of August, 1803 which primarily addressed the British nationals serving the maratha armies. The wholesale defection of Europeans and Eurasians like James Skinner, often with extremely well appointed infantry battalions and ‘risalahs’, deprived the loyal maratha battalions of crucial intelligence cover and combat leadership. This explains why the marathas tried to blow the British and EIC units out of the battle with their numerous and superior artillery at Assaye, Patparganj and Laswari and also why no Europeans were found dead or seriously wounded on the maratha side of the battlefield. It also explains why the

    Economic and Political Weekly January 28, 2006 marathas failed to take the offensive and finish off the battles after having seriously depleted the EIC ranks. They were not led from the front but the side, by their mounted maratha officers as witnessed by the British at Patparganj. As to the matter of superior credit and willingness to shoulder an increased financial burden of war, the EIC proved its “overall financial stability” over its Indian rivals in 1803. Taxes collected in India and and trade revenues in India and from the India-China trade as well as bullion shipments from London and donations and “subsidies” from the native Indian states gave the EIC the money necessary to outbid the marathas in the Indian military market.




    1 The glossary translates ‘gajnal’ to mean camel gun. The word gajnal comes from ‘gaj’ which means elephant whereas the term for camel gun was ‘shaturnal’.

    Economic and Political Weekly January 28, 2006

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