India: Peeps at History - Beatrice Home

Hyder Ali and the Mahrattas

We now come to a time when the government of our growing possessions in India fell into much weaker hands than Clive's. It is the only period in our Anglo-Indian history which throws gross discredit on the English name. Clive had gone home, and men, no longer restrained by his strong hand, no longer behaved with honour and honesty. Prosperity declined, quarrels with native rulers grew fiercer, while they in turn fought and quarrelled with one another.

Clive returned for a short time, and his stern rule once more restored order and good government. But after his final departure confusion returned, until the British Government interfered and appointed Warren Hastings the first Governor-General of the Indian possessions belonging to the East India Company. He was an able man and in many ways resembled Clive, but he was now called upon to face the attack of far more formidable enemies than any who had yet opposed us.

Ever since the days of Sivaji the power of the Mahrattas had been growing. It is true that their attempt to conquer the whole of north India had ended in the terrible disaster of Panipat, where the Mohammedan armies of the north, aided by the Afghan king, had defeated and slaughtered 200,000 of them. But in west and central India they were in great strength. With these restless warriors Hyder Ali, the ruler of Mysore, a man of fierce and determined energy, made an alliance, dragging into it the wretched Nizam of Hyderabad, our own ally, whom we had been helping against him.

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


Our authorities at Madras, a band of incompetent men, of whom Sir Thomas Rumbold, the Governor, was the worst, disregarded all warnings of the coming storm, when suddenly Hyder Ali, with an immense army, poured down the mountain-sides and burst into the plains of the Carnatic like a thunderstorm. Slaughter and destruction filled the country far and wide, and the smoke of burning towns and villages darkened the sky right down to the walls of Madras. The English troops sent against him were routed, and if Hyder had only assailed Madras with his full strength the place must have fallen.

Hastings, at Calcutta, lost no time in sending to the rescue a force under Sir Eyre Coote, and this splendid soldier—one of those who had voted for the advance on Plassey—drove Hyder off and saved the town. But we still had to fight the Mahrattas, and their power was not finally destroyed until 1803.

We managed, however, to quiet them for a time by the capture of their great fortress of Gwalior. This wonderful feat of arms was achieved by Captain Popham, one of our forgotten heroes. The fortress, perched upon the top of lofty and apparently inaccessible rocks, was thought so impossible to capture that even Eyre Coote had said it would be insanity to attack it. But the history of our fighting in India is full of wondrous deeds of daring, and this is one of the most remarkable.

For two months Popham watched the fortress high above him on its steep, rocky pinnacles—watched it day and night, while he schemed and devised plans for its capture. First he managed to get native spies into the place, and then one night—it was August 3, 1780—two hundred men, under an English captain and four lieutenants, supported by two native battalions, crept to the foot of the fortress with their feet encased in cotton-wool.

By means of ladders they scaled the first wall of rock. Above this was a wall of smooth rock 16 ft. high. This, also, was slowly and quietly ascended. From this point a steep ascent of 120 ft. towered above them. All reached the top of this in safety, although only a handful of the enemy might have hurled them to destruction at the bottom; but so certain were the Mahrattas that only monkeys could climb such walls that all were carelessly asleep, and the cotton-wool prevented any noise from the feet of their determined assailants.

The last rock-wall to be scaled was 30 ft. high, and from the top of this ropes were let down by the spies. A few sepoys went up and assisted the rest of the attacking party to follow. Once all had reached the top they formed up and rushed upon the quarters of the slumbering garrison. In a few minutes the mighty fortress of Gwalior was in our hands. So marvellous did its capture seem to the Mahrattas that their great chief, Scindia, thought it best to make peace without delay.

How dangerous was this period for England will be understood if we realise that we were at war with France, Spain, and Holland in Europe, and with our American Colonies as well. While the French, by means of their fleet, enabled our colonies to shake off our grip in America, they sent a squadron under their famous Admiral Suffren to assist Hyder Ali and the Mahrattas to expel us from India. But the end of a long and exhausting struggle, when Hyder Ali died, found our flag not only flying still but planted more firmly than ever, nor had the strength and fighting power of our enemies, aided by France, been able to tear a single acre of British territory from the determined grasp of Warren Hastings.

Warren Hastings


Indeed, these constant attacks by the native rulers, when they were not slaughtering one another's armies, were the real cause of our empire's growth in India. For as we defeated each attempt to destroy us, we were constantly brought into touch with fresh States who either wanted us to help them conquer their neighbours or formed plots for our destruction. So, although we long tried to avoid the bother and trouble of governing and controlling new parts of India, the Indian States themselves, by their ceaseless wars amongst themselves and attacks upon us or upon those whom we protected, drove us on the road to empire and compelled us to fight our way, after many years of warfare, from the southern sea-coast to the mountains of the north. It is worth noticing that, although in all the long ages of Indian warfare the invader had always come through these northern passes, the final conquest of India and union into one empire was to come from the south and the sea.