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

Randolf Cooper’s study of the Anglo-Maratha conflict of 1803 makes a valuable contribution to the new military history that examines not simply the development of warfare, but its complex interaction with wider technological, political, socio-economic and cultural factors. At one level, Cooper rescues this ‘colonial war’ from the hoarier categories of textbook military history. Using rigorous techniques of cross-cultural analysis, he interweaves the ebb and flow of battle narrative with balanced assessment from both Western and indigenous perspectives. By locating the conflict firmly within the military cultural context of the Indian subcontinent, the author does much to rectify deficiencies or distortions arising from a Western-oriented bias in the historiography. Rather than being viewed merely as an extension of the Anglo-French duel for empire in the Napoleonic period, or as a passing episode in the inexorable process that culminated in a uniquely British Raj, the war emerges as part of a much more fundamental bid for power in late Mughal India. In an age of war, flux and opportunity, both the English East India Company and the Marathas competed in the all-India military bazaar to acquire and ‘recycle’ resources as diverse as mercenaries, muskets, cannon, horses and elephants.What resulted was a genuine contest, not only for control of the South Asian military economy but, ultimately, the command of India itself. Cooper also redresses imbalances in the historical record. He dismantles the hagiography enshrining some of the old war heroes and reassesses their position in their respective military cultures. The Maratha warlords Shivaji and Mahadji Sindia are demythologized from the works of the Indian Nationalists, Hindu separatists and Maharashtrian patriots.


On the British side, Arthur Wellesley’s contributions are evaluated as they stood in 1803, before Waterloo and Wellington’s Premiership added layers of revisionist veneer. The northern campaign under General Lake is given more comprehensive coverage, and his performance reappraised more favourably than was the verdict of contemporaries.


At another level, Cooper challenges long-held assumptions and stereotypes about the Anglo-Maratha campaigns as well as colonial warfare in general. Foremost among these is the notion that Western technological innovation and military superiority, backed up by the engines of Britain’s industrial might, proved decisive against the comparatively backward military capabilities and organization of the non- Europeans. In fact, as the author demonstrates, the deployment of pontoon bridges, siege ladders and other hardware originating from Europe was severely circumscribed by conditions on the ground. The guns that burst on fire were often not of Maratha but European manufacture; and, as at the siege of Agra, British officers were forced to acknowledge the lethal impact of Maratha artillery. At the battle of Assaye, the reality of British victory owed less to any firepower advantage than it did to opportunistic bayonet and cavalry charges. In terms of military organization and performance, the Marathas were more than just a ‘nation of freebooters’ and ‘predatory horsemen’: their sepoys often proved to be better soldiers than those of the Company, while their cavalry lived up to its fearsome reputation.


In the author’s view, the chief benefit of incorporating European technology, drill and discipline into indigenous armies was not that it established outright superiority, but that it ensured interchangeability between European and indigenous forces. In the struggle for South Asia, the Europeans sought indigenous allies that were better adapted to the subcontinent’s extreme climate, whereas Indian rulers sought European allies who might help tip the balance of power in local crises. Both attempted to exploit the other in a joint quest for military advantage. In the end, notwithstanding the information gaps and intelligence failures, what proved to be ultimately decisive for the British were the clandestine operations of the war: espionage, bribery, and arranged defections from the Maratha military leadership.


As is evident throughout, this book has benefited from extensive archival research as well as investigative trips to the Indian battlefields. Published exactly two hundred years after the war of 1803, it is a crisply written, solid work that will be read with profit by students of military history as well as wider imperial and international studies. They will find contemporary resonances, too, in the vexed issues of ‘friendly fire,’ unconventional military challenges and terrorist attacks that surface during the course of cross-cultural conflict.


Dr Emrys Chew

University of Cambridge

Cambridge University Press 0521824443

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