After the Battle of Plassey in 1757, the British saw the Marathas as their number one rival in India. Between 1707 and 1759, the Marathas had established their hegemony in Central India, and their supremacy in North and South India. They had become the de facto rulers of Delhi. In his book Critical and Historical Essays, Volume I (published in 1843), Thomas Babbington Macaulay, wrote about the Marathas. Here’s an excerpt:
“The highlands which border on the western sea-coast of India poured forth a yet more formidable race, a race which was long the terror of every native power, and which, after many desperate and doubtful struggles, yielded only to the fortune and genius of England. It was under the reign of Aurungzebe that this wild clan of plunderers first descended from their mountains; and soon after his death, every corner of his wide empire learned to tremble at the mighty name of the Mahrattas. Many fertile viceroyalties were entirely subdued by them. Their dominions stretched across the peninsula from sea to sea. Mahratta captains reigned at Poonah, at Gualior, in Guzerat, in Berar, and in Tanjore. Nor did they, though they had become great sovereigns, therefore cease to be freebooters. They still retained the predatory habits of their forefathers. Every region which was not subject to their rule was wasted by their incursions. Wherever their kettle-drums were heard, the peasant threw his bag of rice on his shoulder, hid his small savings in his girdle, and fled with his wife and children to the mountains or the jungles, to the milder neighbourhood of the hyaena and the tiger. Many provinces redeemed their harvests by the payment of an annual ransom. Even the wretched phantom who still bore the imperial title stooped to pay this ignominious black-mail. The camp-fires of one rapacious leader were seen from the walls of the palace of Delhi. Another, at the head of his innumerable cavalry, descended year after year on the rice-fields of Bengal. Even the European factors trembled for their magazines. Less than a hundred years ago, it was thought necessary to fortify Calcutta against the horsemen of Berar, and the name of the Mahratta ditch still preserves the memory of the danger.”
It is ironic that Macaulay calls the Marathas “a terror,” accusing them of having “predatory habits," when the biggest terror and predators of that lawless age were the Islamic regimes and the British East India Company.
Most Maratha rulers were devout and nationalistic men. They were certainly very ambitious and ruthless—they wanted to be the rulers of India’s largest empire. But they also wanted to protect their country from foreign predators like Nadir Shah, who invaded India in 1737, and conducted a massacre of between 20,000 to 30,000 men, women, and children in Delhi. Shah took 10,000 women and children as slaves—many men in Delhi resorted to killing their women and themselves rather than submit to Shah’s soldiers. The wealth that Shah plundered from Delhi’s rulers and its people has been estimated to be roughly $120 billion in today’s purchasing power—it took 20,000 mules and 20,000 camels to carry the plunder from Delhi to Persia.
The Marathas had vowed that they would not allow another Nadir Shah type of plunder and genocide to happen in India. They got engaged in a series of conflicts—including the 1761 Battle of Panipat. While they lost the Battle of Panipat, by inflicting severe casualties on the forces of the Afghan invader Ahmad Khan Abdali, they ensured that the warlords of Persia, Transoxiana, and Afghanistan could no longer view India as a land that could be easily subjugated and plundered.
The British took advantage of the chaotic political situation—they developed alliances with regimes which were worried about the rising Maratha power. The Marathas won the first Anglo-Maratha war (1775–1782). But disunity had broken out in their ranks after the death of Peshwa Madhavrao I, who had played a pivotal role in Maratha resurrection (after the defeat in the Battle of Panipat). Due to factional infighting, the Marathas could not match the broad anti-Maratha coalition that the British had created. They were defeated in the second (1803–1805) and the third (1817–1819) Anglo-Maratha Wars, and the British became the major power in India.