The story of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon on January 1, 1818 has come to be mediated by competing narratives of Dalit assertion against Brahminical oppression, and Indian ‘nationalism’ standing up to the colonial army of the East India Company. Dr B R Ambedkar visited the Jaystambh repeatedly, and said in a speech in Sinnar in 1941 that the Mahars had defeated the Peshwas at Koregaon. Despite British claims of having achieved “one of its proudest triumphs”, the outcome of the battle remains contested, and some Maratha histories have claimed it was the Peshwa army that was, in fact, victorious.
One of the earliest accounts of the battle was published in 1885 in the three-volume The Poona District Gazetteer, edited by James M Campbell, ICS, as part of the series of Gazetteers of the Bombay Presidency. This is what the Gazette recorded.
THE BATTLE took place at the village of Koregaon (population 960) 16 miles northeast of Pune, where 800 British troops faced 30,000 Marathas on January 1, 1818. Six months earlier, on June 13, 1817, Peshwa Bajirao II had been forced to cede large swathes of territory to the Company, officially ending the Maratha Confederacy. In November, the Peshwa’s army revolted against the British Resident at Pune, but was defeated in the Battle of Khadki. Pune was placed under Colonel Charles Barton Burr. At the end of December, Burr received intelligence that Bajirao intended to attack Poona, and requested help. The second battalion of the first regiment Bombay Native Infantry of 500 rank and file under Captain Francis Staunton, accompanied by 300 irregular horse and two six-pounder guns manned by 24 European Madras artillerymen, left Sirur for Poona at 8 pm on December 31, 1817. After marching 25 miles, about 10 the following morning, they came across the Bhima river the Peshwa’s army of 25,000 Maratha horse. The Gazette does not mention the caste of Indian soldiers in Staunton’s army, but later accounts say a sizeable number were Mahars.
THE MARATHAS recalled a body of 5,000 infantry that had proceeded some distance ahead, the Gazette records. Three parties of 600 each — Arabs, Gosavis and regular infantry — supported by two guns, then besieged the British troops. Cut off from water and food, and after losing one of their artillery guns, some British troops were keen to surrender. However, the six-foot, seven-inch Lieutenant Pattinson led a counterattack to take back the artillery gun from the Peshwa’s Arab soldiers. Fierce fighting followed and, “as night fell”, the Gazette records, “the attack lightened and they (the British) got water. By 9 the firing ceased and the Marathas left”. Of the 834 British troops, 275 were killed, wounded, or missing. The Marathas lost between 500 and 600 killed and wounded. Subsequently, as Maratha strongholds started falling, Bajirao II went on the run, finally surrendering in 1823. The British kept him in Bithur until his death in 1851. His successor, Nanasaheb Peshwa, was the last of the titular heads of the Peshwai system.