How the British captured Delhi

marathas, british, delhi, Laswari
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It is generally assumed that India went from the Mughals to the British in the nineteenth century. Nothing could be farther than the truth. For it was the Maratha empire that governed much of the land and the Mughal emperor had been reduced to a mere figurehead. In fact, hardly any battle was fought between the British and the Mughals, save perhaps for Buxar in 1765. It was the Marathas that the East India Company fought – at Adas, at Assaye, at Laswari and at Delhi – to name a few out of the dozens of battles fought between the two. Hundreds of soldiers belonging to Daulatrao Scindia, Yashwantrao Holkar, Bajirao Peshwa (II) were martyred on the battlefield before the British could claim supremacy.

We turn first to the conquest of Delhi by General Gerard Lake, a city at the time under the grasp of the Scindias of Gwalior. But before we come to the EIC and the Battle of Delhi which was fought in 1803 at Patparganj, a quick recap of how Mahadji Scindia made the Marathas all-supreme in the Mughal capital.

After the defeat at Panipat, the Afghans once again became the dominant force in Delhi’s politics. So much so that the Mughal emperor Shah Alam had to escape to Allahabad. He was brought from there back to Delhi by Mahadji Scindia and reinstalled on the throne! Sixteen years later, Mahadji Scindia once again rescued the Mughal emperor from Ghulam Qadir and this time, the green and gold Mughal banner on the Red Fort was brought down. In its place Mahadji Scindia unfurled the bhagva dhwaj of the Marathas. The supremacy of Mahadji Scindia in north India’s politics was complete. The Mughal emperor was now a mere puppet, with little if not any say in the country’s politics. Having become a complete puppet under Scindia, the emperor granted the Peshwa Madhavrao the title of Vakil e Mutaliq.  One thing to be noted here, is that the Scindias had saved the Mughal emperor from certain death or imprisonment at the hands of the Afghans. It was in this situation, with the saffron flag flying from its ramparts, that the Red Fort existed for the next fifteen years.  In fact, one theory says that the uprising of 1857 was precisely about going back to this arrangement. Coming to 1857, much has been written about how Bahadur Shah Zafar tried his level best to wrest Delhi from the British. What is not known, is how another Mughal – Shah Alam – gave General Gerard Lake a red carpet welcome into the city and willingly accepted a British pension! Not a single bullet was fired from a Mughal gun when the British attacked Delhi, and the exalted throne once occupied by Babur and Akbar willingly gave itself into the protection of the EIC.

But that is not to say that Delhi was lost without a fight. Far from that,  thousands of soldiers of Daulatrao Scindia, the incumbent at Gwalior, fought and died at a place called Patparganj in September 1803 – some three thousand dead and injured by one account –  before General Gerard Lake could claim supremacy.

General Gerard Lake and the Battle of Patparganj :

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the differences between the EIC and the Scindias of Gwalior had reached a point of no return. Arthur Wellesley had openly declared war on Daulatrao Scindia. The Treaty of Bassein signed by Bajirao II opened the gates for the British to declare war on the Scindias of Gwalior and the Bhosales of Nagpur. Both these pillars of the Maratha Empire went on to fight a series of battles with the East India Company in what was the Second Anglo Maratha War. Of these, the battles of Assaye, Laswari and Delhi formed a part. The battle to control Delhi was fought in its eastern parts.

Battle at Patparganj :

Patparganj is today in east Delhi, but back in 1803 only the village of Patparganj existed at this place surrounded by open plains and some forests. General Gerard Lake proceeded towards the city after capturing the fort of Aligarh, also from the Scindias of Gwalior. The Mughal emperor wanted to get rid of Maratha control over the Red Fort, and hence sent envoys to Lake! It was possible also because of a French artilleryman named Burquion, who had his sights on the gold in the Red Fort. Burquion served the Scindias of Gwalior. But instead of settling the matter between himself, Scindia and Burquion, Shah Alam reached out to the British! A familiar story followed..

General Gerard Lake was himself no new comer to the battlefield. He had earned his spurs under General Cornwallis, while fighting in the American War of Independence. Serving there as a young officer had brought him valuable experience which he had honed over the next twenty odd years before coming to India. As such, General Gerard Lake was one of the best soldiers the EIC had.

Lake decided to take the Marathas by surprise by launching a quick cavalry attack on them at Patparganj. Keeping his infantry, guns and a part of his cavalry behind, he left with his troops to attack the Maratha infantry. The Marathas were well positioned though for this move. They occupied a high ridge, and tall grass screened their  guns. Moreover there were swamps on either side. They were also aided by a Sikh contingent. So, what was supposed to be a brilliant move soon turned into a horror story as Lake’s troops began to get shot with stunning regularity. Many of his officers also died under fire from Maraths guns. Gerard Lke’s own horse was shot dead. It was a very lucky miss, one that the Marathas would rue. For it was sheer individual brilliance of Lake that saved the day for the British later on in that battle.

And so the morning ended with the British cavalry in retreat, their leader thanking the heavens that he was still alive and the Maratha forces advancing rapidly on the British. The battle had now entered a phase which no one had foreseen or planned. Scindia’s troops, led by the Frenchman Bourquin charged the retreating cavalry, and entered the open fields. The advantage they had of the ridge had been lost.  General Lake though, ensured that the retreat was slow, which enabled his reserves to move without coming under fire. He then  divided his army into two parts which swerved left and right and began attacking the Maratha flanks. One contingent was sent to attack the Sikhs supporting the Marathas.  With superior guns and tactics, Gerard Lake was able to get the upper hand. He had converted the retreat into an advantage. This retreat has been, in later day British accounts, called a stroke of genius, a brilliant feint etc. But General Lake himself makes no such mention. It was a retreat and a narrow escape for the EIC, which the Marathas could not capitalize on effectively. General Call and General Smith, both of whom wrote accounts of this battle do not brag about this retreat. What’s more, many soldiers were caught completely unawares when they saw the British cavalry return!

A few days later, General  Lake entered Delhi. The Mughal emperor sent his own son to receive the British luminary. A procession was taken out to welcome the British general to the royal palace ! The blind and aged king, with little of the authority enjoyed by Akbar and Aurangzeb nevertheless granted high sounding titles to General Gerard Lake – Shamshad ud Daulah, Ashgar ul Mulk and General Gerard Lake Bahadur Fateh Jung! The British appointed Ochterlony as Resident. The pathetic old emperor settled for a British pension of ninety thousand.

Thus, in September 1803, Delhi passed into the hands of the British – after fighting a bloody battle with the Marathas and being accorded red carpet welcome by the Mughal ! Half a century later, the dynasty ceased to exist. One might say it was the most practical decision in the circumstances, still the fact remains that the Red Fort was gifted to the EIC!

Causes for the Maratha loss:

The foremost reason was the undue importance given by the Scindias to the French under them. DeBoigne, Du Perron and Burquion were some men who were given very important positions by the Scindias of Gwalior. Even the killedars of Aligarh, Agra and Delhi were French. Unfortunately, in the face of British attacks, they promptly deserted their Indian masters. The reason being that these were foreign mercenaries, with little regard to values of swarajya and swadharma being espoused by the likes of the men in charge. With the leadership gone, Maratha soldiers suffered greatly.

General Gerard Lake’s armies were technically far more superior and disciplined. The battle of Delhi had been won against odds of three to one.  Their tactics were better and in Lake they had a first rate commander.

To be continued :

But the battle for controlling north India was still two months in the future. It would be fought at Laswari, near Agra. A battle in which the British and the Marathas were evenly matched numerically at around ten thousand each. Lake himself called it the toughest battle of his life, and commended the Marathas as heroes on the battlefield! The Battle of Laswari follows in a later article.

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Aneesh Gokhale

Historian. Author of Brahmaputra - The story of Lachit Barphukan
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