On the 1st of January 1818, a fierce battle was waged near the banks of the Bhima river (a tributary of the Godavari) in what is today the Shirur Taluka of Pune District, in the southern state of Maharashtra. One one side were the troops of the British East India Company. On the other, the troops of Peshwa Baji Rao II (the Brahmin ruler of Pune, one of the principal cities of the native Maratha confederation). Despite being heavily outnumbered, the Company’s troops (made up of 500 soldiers of the Bombay Native Infantry, 300 mounted auxiliaries and 24 European officers) beat off the Peshwa’s force (2,000 strong). A simple calculation would show that they were outnumbered 1:2.
The Battle of Koregaon (as it would become famous in the future) was the last major engagement between the British and the (rapidly disintegrating) Peshwa state. It brought the Third Anglo-Maratha War (1817-1818) to its conclusion. It was Baji Rao II’s final attempt to revive his fortunes, having lost the Battle of Khadki (5th of November, 1817) and been forced south to Satara. His capital, Pune, was in British hands. Managing to escape the Company’s dragnet he made a dash to his erstwhile domain. When the British heard of his approach, they marched 40 kilometres overnight, from Shirur to the village of Koregaon Bhima.
Baji Rao II was camped south of the Bhima, with a force of 20,000 infantry and 8,000 cavalry (British estimates). With the British almost upon him, the Peshwa sent a detachment of 2,000 men to attack the Company’s troops that had taken up positions inside the village (surrounded by a mud wall). Under the leadership of Captain Francis Staunton, they proved to be more than a match. Despite the exertions of the overnight march, and the lack of food and water, they held on. The Peshwa’s soldiers managed to cross the river (which was running dry around this time of the year) but came a cropper when they attempted breaching the village’s (rudimentary) defenses.
The Company’s six-pounder guns and tenacious soldiers drove the Peshwa’s men back. The attack had come from three different points along the banks of the Bhima. But collapsed by evening. The houses were reduced to ash and the streets were lined with the dead. The attackers lost as many as 500 of their men to the company’s 275. Baji Rao II, stationed at Phulgaon, had to flee again. But fate was catching up with him. He would be forced to surrender to the Company, accept a pension and retire to Bithoor, a small town on the banks of the Ganga (present day Kanpur District, Uttar Pradesh) in the far North. The Peshwas had commanded one of the most powerful kingdoms in the Deccan. Koregaon brought the curtains down on the last of their sovereigns.
The Battle of Koregaon would be celebrated by the Company as “one of the most heroic and brilliant achievements ever recorded on the annals of the army” (in the words of General Thomas Hislop). But the British were not alone. A sizable population of Indians (including one of the nation’s founding fathers, Dr. B R Ambedkar) would (and continue to) celebrate the memory of Koregaon Bhima. The site of the battle and the bravery of the British troops is marked by an obelisk. This victory pillar carries the names of the native soldiers who overcame the might of the Peshwa. Why do some Indians celebrate the victory of a British force? This question cannot be answered by the logic of nationalism. More about it later.
Image Attribution: The image above is sourced from Wikimedia Commons and credited to the British Library.