The East India Company had by 1772 become an important Indian power and its directors in England and its officials in India set out to consolidate their control over Bengal before beginning a new round of conquests. However, their habit of interfering in the internal affairs of the Indian states and their lust for territory and money soon involved them in a series of wars.
In 1766 they joined the Nizam of Hyderabad in attacking Haidar Ali of Mysore. But Haidar Ali forced the Madras Council to sign a peace-treaty on his terms. Then, in 1775, the English clashed with the Marathas. An intense struggle for power was taking place at that time among the Marathas between the supporters of the infant Peshwa Madhav Rao II, led by Nana Phadnis, and Raghunath Rao.
The British officials in Bombay decided to intervene on behalf of Raghunath Rao. They hoped thus to repeat the exploits of their countrymen in Madras and Bengal and reap the consequent monetary advantages. This involved them in a long war with the Marathas which lasted from 1775 to 1782.
This was a dark hour indeed for British power in India. All the Maratha chiefs were united behind the Peshwa and his chief minister, Nana Phadnis. The southern Indian powers had long been resenting the presence of the British among them, and Haidar Ali and the Nizam chose this moment to declare war against the Company.
Thus the British were faced with the powerful combination of the Marathas, Mysore and Hyderabad. Abroad, they were waging a losing war in their colonies in America where the people had rebelled in 1776. They also had to counter the determined design of the French to exploit the difficulties of their old rival.
The British in India were, however, led at this time by the energetic, and experienced Governor-General Warren Hastings. He acted with firm resolve and determination. Neither side won victory and the war came to a standstill. Peace was concluded in 1782 with the Treaty of Salbai by which the status quo was maintained.
It saved the British from the combined opposition of Indian powers. This war, known in history as the First Anglo-Maratha war, did not end in victory for either side. But it did give the British 20 years of peace with the Marathas, the strongest Indian power of the day.
The British utilised this period to consolidate their rule over the Bengal Presidency, while the Maratha chiefs frittered away their energy in bitter mutual squabbles. Moreover, the Treaty of Salbai enabled the British to exert pressure on Mysore, as the Marathas promised to help them in recovering their territories from Haidar Ali. Once again, the British had succeeded in dividing the Indian powers.
In the meanwhile, war with Haidar Ali had again started in 1780. Repeating his earlier exploits, Haidar Ali inflicted one defeat after another on the British armies in the Carnatic and forced them to surrender in large numbers.
He soon occupied almost the whole of the Carnatic. But once again British arms and diplomacy saved the day. Warren Hastings bribed the Nizam with the cession of Guntur district and gained his withdrawal from the anti-British alliance.
During 1781-82 he made peace with the Marathas and thus freed a large part of his army for use against Mysore. In July 1781 the British army under Eyre Coote defeated Haidar Ali at Porto Novo and saved Madras. After Haidar Ali’s death in December 1782, the war was carried on by his son, Tipu Sultan.
Since neither side was capable of overpowering the other, peace was signed by them in March 1784 and both sides restored all conquests. Thus, though the British had been shown to be too weak to defeat either the Marathas or Mysore, they had certainly proved their ability to hold their own in India.
The third British encounter with Mysore was more fruitful from the British point of view. The peace of 1784 had not removed the grounds for struggle between Tipu and the British; it had merely postponed the struggle.
The authorities of the East India Company were acutely hostile to Tipu. They looked upon him as their most formidable rival in the south and as the chief obstacle standing between them and complete domination over South India.
Tipu, on his part, thoroughly disliked the English, saw them as the chief danger to his own independence and nursed the ambition to expel them from India. War between the two began again in 1789 and ended in Tipu’s defeat in 1792. By the treaty of Seringapatam, Tipu ceded half of his territories to the English and their allies and paid 330 lakhs of rupees as indemnity.