Causes of the downfall of the Marathas or breakup of the Maratha confederacy

Sansar LochanModernLeave a Comment

In fact, the English captured the empire of India not from the Mughals but from the Marathas. After the death of Aurangzeb, the Mughal empire degenerated very quickly. It was broken into pieces and among the regional powers, the Marathas became the most powerful in India. Of course, there were independent kingdoms in several parts of India but they were all dominated by the Marathas. The Marathas made the Mughal emperor their pensioner. They ruled over the provinces of Gujarat, Malwa, Maharashtra and Bundelkhand and claimed Chauth and Sardeshmukhi from the rulers of Rajasthan, Avadh, Bengal, Hyderabad Karnataka, Mysore etc. From Punjab in the North to the Cape Comorin in the South and from Gujarat in the West to Bengal in the East, the Marathas enjoyed supremacy. Yet, the Maratha power shook to its foundations in its very first confrontation with the English. In their first war against the English, they did not fare well ; in the second war they were defeated ; and, in the third war they were destroyed. 

Causes of the downfall of the Marathas

Several factors have been assigned for the defeat of the Marathas against the English. Some of them were as follows :-

Internal Weakness of the Marathas

The empire of the Marathas was not a well-knit empire under one chief. It was a confederacy of five Maratha chiefs who, quite often, were in conflict with one another.  The nominal unity of the Marathas remained only up to the period of the rule of Peshwa Madhav Rao I. After him, the Peshwa could not control his subordinate chiefs. The Sindhia, the Holkar, the Bhonsle and the Gaekwad pursued self-interested policies, which many times, were pursued against the interests of one another resulting in fighting among themselves. The British took complete advantage of it. The Maratha chiefs themselves gave them the opportunity of interfering in their internal affairs and fighting against them one by one. Therefore, the absence of unity among the Marathas remained their weakness vis-a-vis the English from the beginning till the end.

The Marathas never attempted to create an organised, orderly and well-governed empire. They never took the responsibility of improving the economic, cultural and moral conditions of their subjects. Their primary aim remained plunder, particularly in the territories beyond their effective control. Therefore they failed to secure the loyalty of their subjects and the Indians in general even when they came into conflict with a foreign power. By the time the Marathas were locked in conflict with the English they had lost their human virtues. The Marathas had succeeded against every other native power because of certain qualities of their character, viz., simplicity, hard labour, determination to fight against all odds. But, gradually they lost them all. By losing their morals – and thereby, their vitality, they remained no better than the rest of the native rulers and therefore, met the same fate at the hands of the English. _

Lack of Political Foresight

The  Marathas lacked political wisdom and farsightedness. When they had become the strongest power in India, the only wise course for them was to remove the last semblance of the Mughal Empire and assume the authority and responsibility of the Imperial power. Instead like many other groups at the court and outside, they simply desired to control the Mughal emperor and use his name and dignity for achieving their narrow objectives. They therefore, failed to achieve political unity of India and, thereby, failed to utilize the resources of the country either for the benefit of its people or for meeting the challenge of a foreign foe.

Incapable Leadership

 All capable Maratha chiefs died by the end of the eighteenth century. After that the leadership of the Marathas was taken over by Baji Rao II, Daulat Rao Sindhia, Jaswant Rao Holkar and Nana Phadnavis. Among them Baji Rao was completely incompetent, Daulat Rao Sindhia and Jaswant Rao Holkar were selfish and the role of Nana Phadnavis is a matter of controversy. Thus, the Marathas lacked capable leadership. On the other hand, the English produced remarkable leaders like Lord Wellesley, Lord Hastings, Arthur Wellesley, General Lake and Civil Officers like Elphinstone, Malcolm etc. This was certainly one of the major causes of the failure of the Marathas against the English.

Weakness in the Social Organisation of the Marathas

The Marathas had grown to power because of the spirit of Maratha nationality which Shivaji had created among them. It was this spirit which had broken the backbone of Aurangzeb. But the spirit was lost afterwards. The caste-system raised its ugly head. In many Cases, the Peshwas were challenged by other Maratha chiefs, simply because they were Brahmanas. Feudal organisation of the army and the system of collecting revenue by hereditary chiefs further divided the Maratha society. The division of society into varied and sometimes conflicting groups certainly weakened the Marathas.

Jagirdari System

The Jagirdari system grew among the Marathas during the period of war of Independence against Aurangzeb when every Maratha commander was allowed to keep as his own jagir the territory captured by his own efforts. Peshwa Baji Rao attempted to remove this evil and desired that a jagir should be jointly held at least by two persons. He fought against the Senapati on this very issue and was successful. But, his efforts were given up after his death and different Maratha chiefs kept their independent jagirs. That finally resulted in the formation of Maratha confederacy and the Maratha empire no more remained one entity. Besides, Maratha chiefs distributed jagirs to their officers for facilitating collection of Chauth and Sardeshmukhi which led to the growth of jagirdari system. The system did not permit Maratha chiefs to centralize their economic and thereby their military resources as well. It weakened Maratha chiefs in all respects.

Neglect of Economic Affairs by the Marathas

Maharashtra does not have fertile land. The Marathas neglected to develop its economic resources. Therefore, it lacked the necessary means to feed an empire. When the Marathas captured extensive territories both in the North and the South, they could make up this deficiency by a sound system of administration. But they neglected it. Their primary source of income continued to be Chauth, Sardeshmukhi and plunder which they got from the territories of other native rulers. But, income by such means was irregular and insufficient. The Maratha empire, therefore, never achieved economic stability. The Marathas by neglecting the economy of the territories under their direct rule and plundering the territories of other native rulers brought misfortunes not only to their empire but also to the people of India in general.

Military Weakness of the Marathas

The Marathas were certainly weaker than the English militarily. Different scholars have assigned different reasons for it. Dr. S. N. Sen expressed the view that “When the Marathas adopted European means of warfare they recruited people of different races in their army. Therefore, their army no more remained a national army and lost that strength which a national army usually possesses. That constituted their primary weakness.” This view is not acceptable to many other historians. It has also been very emphatically observed by some other historians that the Marathas lost their battles against the English because the Marathas left their traditional method of guerilla warfare and adopted the European methods.  The view, however, contains only partial truth. The guerilla method of warfare could be certainly effective in the plateau of the Deccan but it is doubtful if it could be very effective in the plains of north India. The majority of the historians, therefore, say that the primary cause of the military weakness of the Marathas was that they adopted European means of warfare but failed to perfect them. The factories established by the Peshwa and the Sindhia for manufacturing guns and arsenals did not produce sufficient material of a good quality. The same way, the Maratha soldiers trained by the French in European methods did not achieve perfection in their training. The dependence of the Marathas on the French for training and command of their armies also proved to be their weakness because the French mostly left them in their hour of crisis. _

The Superior Diplomatic Skill and Spy-system of the English

The English were more diplomatic than the Marathas. The quarrels among the Marathas always provided them useful opportunities. Besides, the English had their eyes on the politics of entire India. That is why they could isolate each of the Maratha chiefs and defeat them one by one. The Marathas, on the other hand, could not even realise that their strongest enemy were the English.

The English had organised a superior system of espionage. Apart from the regular system, every Englishman was interested in probing the strength, organisation and the movements of the Maratha army and the mutual relations between the Maratha chiefs. This certainly placed the English always in an advantageous position.

The Marathas were not inspired by any ideal in fighting the English while the latter were inspired by the spirit of nationalism and imperialist aims. Besides, by the time the English power grew in strength in India the Marathas had already lost their vitality and therefore, they could not face the onslaught of the English and were defeated and disgraced.

The Jagirdari system grew during the course of Maratha war of independence

The attempt of Peshwa Baji Rao to eliminate this system remained successful only during his life-time. The system developed after his death. It resulted in the formation of Maratha confederacy and thus, broke their unity. Besides, it grew further under different Maratha chiefs and did not allow them to centralize their economic and military resources and, thus, weakened them all.

Points to remember

  1. In fact, the English captured the empire of India not from the Mughals but from the Marathas.
  2. The absence of unity among the Marathas remained their weakness a vis-a-vis the English from the beginning till the end.
  3. The Marathas never attempted to create an organized, orderly and well-governed empire and, therefore, failed to get the loyalty of the Indians when they came in conflict with the English.
  4. The Marathas had no foresight to create a powerful empire which could be formidable against the English.
  5. The Marathas had lost their past character.
  6. By the end of the 18th century, the Marathas had lost all their capable leaders.
  7. The Marthas had lost their social cohesion.
  8. The Maratha empire never achieved economic stability.
  9. The view of Dr. S. N. Sen that the Maratha army no more remained a national army and the view of some other historians that the giving up of the guerilla warfare was responsible for the military weakness of the Marathas, are only partial truths.
  10. The majority of the scholars say that the failure in perfecting the European methods of warfare, absence of required number of guns and arsenals and dependence of the Marathas on the French for training and command proved to be primary weaknesses.
  11. The superior diplomacy, system of espionage and ideals of nationalism and imperialism of the English were also responsible for the defeat of the Marathas.

Source used : NCERT, Tamil Nadu Board, IGNOU Modern History, NIOS textbooks. Wikipedia notes for UPSC exam.

Tags : PDF for UPSC exam short notes on downfall of Maratha empire. Causes of the downfall of the Marathas or breakup of the Maratha confederacy. Why Maratha power failed? Maratha empire failure. Decline of Marathas.

Questions for UPSC mains :

Describe and discuss the causes of the downfall of the Marathas or breakup of the Maratha confederacy.

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