Nana Saheb Peshwa II- Last Peshwa of Maratha During 1857

by Sep 25, 2021

Hello everyone, today I am sharing the biography of 13th & last Peshwa of Maratha Empire. He was none other than Nana Saheb Peshwa II. Nana Sabeb Peshwa played the key role in the first independence war of 1857.


Nana Saheb Peshwa II was born on 19 May 1824 and named Dhondu Pant. As an adopted son of the exiled Marathi Brahmin King, Peshwa Baji Rao II was an Indian Peshwa of the Maratha empire.

He was also an aristocrat and fighter, who led the rebellion in Kanpur during the great Indian Rebellion of 1857. Unhappy with the East India Company due to their refusal of paying him a pension, he joined the rebellion.

He made the British garrison in Kanpur surrender and eliminated the survivors. After regaining control of Kanpur, he disappeared when they suffered defeat at the hands of the British forces that recaptured Kanpur. It was believed he went to the Nepal Hills in 1859, where he spent his remaining days.

Childhood and Early Life

Nana Saheb Peshwa II was born to Narayan Bhat and Ganga Bai. Maratha defeat caused the Peshwa Bajirao II to be expelled from Pune.

The father of Nana was well-versed in Deccan Brahmin, and he had travelled with his family from the Western Ghats to become a court official of the former Peshwa at Bithoor.

As Baji Rao did not have any sons, he adopted Nana Saheb and his younger brother. Their mother was a sister of one of the Peshwa’s wives. When Baji Rao II went into exile at Bithoor, his friend Pandurang Rao and his family also shifted there.

Although he left his childhood friend, Tatya Tope as the fencing master to Nana Saheb. After the death of Baji Rao II in 1851, Azimullah Khan joined Nana Saheb’s court as secretary and later the dewan.

How Did The Doctrine of Lapse Affect Nana Saheb Peshwa II’s Inheritance?

Lord Dalhousie, the Governor-General of India during 1848 and 1856, had devised a document of annexation called the Doctrine of lapse.

Under its terms, any princely state or territory under the direct influence of the British East India Company is a vassal state under the British Subsidiary System that can automatically be annexed if the ruler was either incompetent or died without a direct heir. 

This document gave immense power to the East India Company. They not only had the authority to choose potential rulers’ competency, but also had the power to supplant a ruler of their choice.

Although most Indian rulers regarded this doctrine as illegitimate, they were helpless as the company had absolute jurisdiction over many regions spread over the Indian subcontinent. 

Under this doctrine, the company had annexed the princely states of Satara, Jaitpur, Sambalpur, Baghat, Nagpur, and Jhansi. They even annexed Awadh under the pretext of the ruler being unfit to rule.

To add salt to the wound, they added four million pounds to the annual revenue. This led to discontent amongst several sections of Indian society. A rebellion was soon to follow.

Under the Peshwa’s will, Nana Saheb was the next heir to the Maratha’s throne and eligible for the annual pension of £80,000 as promised from the East India Company.

However, after the death of Baji Rao II, the company used the doctrine to stop their pension. This deeply affected Nana Saheb, as he had lost all his titles and the pensions. 

Nana Saheb reached out to the British government by sending Azimullah Khan in 1853. He negotiated and pleaded his case to no avail. Unsuccessful, Azimullah Khan returned to India in 1855.

The Great Switch And Role in the 1857 Uprising

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After winning the confidence of Charles Hillersdon, the Collector of Kanpur, Nana Saheb planned on assembling a force of 1,500 soldiers to support the British, if the rebellion spread to Kanpur.

The East India Company took refuge on 6 June 1857 in the northern part of Kanpur. Amidst the chaos prevailing in Kanpur, Nana Saheb and his forces entered the British magazine. The soldiers of the 53rd Native Infantry guarding the magazine were not prepared for Nana’s sudden attack. 

After taking possession of the Company treasury, Nana went ahead of the Grand Trunk Road with the aim of restoring the Maratha confederacy under the Peshwa tradition.

On his way, Nana met the rebel soldiers at Kalyanpur. The soldiers were on their way to Delhi, to meet Bahadur Shah II. 

Nana urged them to go back to Kanpur and help him defeat the British. Although reluctant at first, later they decided to join Nana when he promised them fancy rewards.

Attack on the Entrenchment of Wheeler

On 5 June 1857, Nana Saheb sent a letter to General Wheeler about his preempted attack the next morning. On 6 June, his forces and the rebel soldiers attacked the company entrenchment.

Being inadequately prepared for the attack, they suffered heavy losses. They managed to defend themselves for three weeks with little water and food supplies. However, they lost many lives due to sunstroke and lack of water.

When the news of the attack spread, more rebels joined Nana Saheb. By 10 June, he had an army of twelve thousand to fifteen thousand Indian soldiers. 

During the first week of the revolt, Nana Saheb’s forces encircled the company’s attachment. They fought using everything they had. Captain John Moore retaliated and did not give up the fight. 

The fight continued until June 1857, marking 100 years of the Battle of Plassey, which took place on 23 June 1757.

Most revolters were united by the belief in a prophecy that predicted the downfall of the East India Company a hundred years after this battle. However, the rebels were unable to gain entry into the entrenchment by the end of the day.

While the entrenchment suffered heavy human losses, General Wheeler’s morale kept dropping further. It became worse after his son Lieutenant Gordon Wheeler was killed in an assault on the barracks.

Nana Saheb came up with a plan to end the agitation. He sent a European prisoner each on two consecutive days with the message of a safe return in exchange for complete surrender.

Although the inhabitants of the siege were divided, they ultimately decided to surrender and embark from the Satichaura Ghat. 

The Massacre at Satichaura Ghat

On 27 June 1857, the people from the entrenchment emerged under Wheeler. Nana Saheb had made the arrangements to transport the women and children to the river banks. The British officers were allowed to take their arms and ammunition with them. 

There were 40 boats awaiting their departure to Allahabad. While the Europeans were preparing to leave, an unusual event brought their journey to a grinding halt. There was a large crowd of people present at the ghat.

Soldiers from Allahbad’s 6th Native Infantry and 37th from Benares were present. Angered and driven away, they were witnesses to the horrific murders committed by Neills column. 

At first, they were ordered to lay down their arms. However, soon afterwards, the British troops fired upon them mercilessly. Many of the soldiers died, and those lucky to escape returned to their villages but heard about how the Neills column massacred the villages that lay on their path. 

These soldiers were assembled at the ghats and were watching the proceedings at the Satichaura ghat. While Wheeler and his party are leaving, a shot gets fired. Everybody thought it was from the high banks.

This leads to a series of events and complete chaos ensues. However, the departing Europeans were attacked by the rebel sepoys, and most of them were either killed or captured.

Though there was controversy surrounding this event, many British officers claimed that Nana had placed the boats high on purpose to cause delay. They also claimed that Nana placed the rebels and supplied them with arms.

However, they had no evidence to prove their claims, many historians believe the massacre was caused by confusion rather than a plan.

The aftermath of the massacre led to the death and capture of several Europeans. Since Nana Saheb was against the killing of women and children, many were captured rather than killed.

The Massacre at Bibighar

The remaining women and children from Satichaura Ghat were moved to the Savada House, and later to Bibighar, a villa for women in Kanpur. Their group became larger when more survivors came from other regions and were confined in Bibighar. In total, there were about 200 women and children.

Nana Saheb left Hussaini Khanum to look after the survivors. He decided to use these prisoners as a bargaining chip with the East India Company.

The Company forces include 1,000 British men, 150 Sikh soldiers and 30 cavalries under the command of General Henry Havelock. Havelock’s forces were joined by the forces under the command of Major Renaud and James Neil. 

Using his bargaining chip, Nana demanded that the East India Company forces under Havelock and Neil retreat to Allahabad. However, the company forces paid no heed and advanced towards Cawnpore. 

Nana sent an army that fought the British regiment at Fattehpore on 12 July. Here, General Havelock’s forces defeated Nana Saheb and recaptured the town. Nana then sent another force under his brother’s command.

But during the Battle of Aong on 15th July, Havelock fought against the rebel soldiers where both sides suffered heavy losses.

However, the company forces were approaching Kanpur and Nana could not bargain with them. While the British army was ransacking Indian villagers, Nana and his associates were left to decide the fate of the captives at Bibighar. 

Apart from taking revenge, many of the associates were enraged by the captives of Bibighar who helped the British troops by sending them maps and other important documents and helping them murder innocent villagers on their way to Kanpur.

Finally, on 15 July, Nana Saheb ordered the captives of Bibighar to be killed. Their bodies were thrown in the well, although some of them were still alive.

British Recapture Kanpur

After the company forces reached Kanpur on 16 July 1857, news about Saheb taking a position at Ahirwa village spreads to General Havelock. He attacked Nana’s forces and emerged victoriously. 

In retaliation, Nana blew up the Kanpur magazine and retreated to Bithoor. When the British soldiers learnt about the Bibighar massacre, they started looting and burning houses to exact revenge.

On 19 July, General Havelock turned to Bithoor. However, Nana Saheb had escaped. British forces went on a rampage killing and murdering innocent villagers. They killed men and women, children and old adults. 

Nana’s palace got easily attacked without resistance. The British troops took guns, elephants and camels, and left the palace after setting it ablaze. 

Although Nana Saheb escaped in the nick of time, he left this precious sword on the table. Later Major Templer of the 7th Bengal Infantry brought the sword home. In the 1920s the family loaned it to the Exeter Museum. In 1992 it was sold at auction. Nobody knows where the sword is to date.

Mysterious Disappearance of Nana Saheb 

Nana disappeared under mysterious circumstances after the company recaptured Kanpur. Tatya Tope, his general, tried to recapture Kanpur after gathering a large army, mostly rebel men from the Gwalior contingent.

He took major control of all the routes west and northwest of Kanpur but was later defeated in the Second Battle of Kanpur.

In September 1857, it was rumoured that Nana Saheb had a malarious fever. However, this seemed to be a false rumour. Rani Laxmi Bai, Tatya Tope and Rao Saheb proclaimed Nana Saheb to be their Peshwa in June 1858 at Gwalior. However, his whereabouts still remained a mystery to many.

Connection in Nepal 

Many people believed Nana Saheb to have fled to Nepal. Perceval Landon claimed that Nana Sahib lived his last days in Thapa Teli, near Ririthang in Nepal under the patronage of Sir Jang Bahadur Rana, the Prime Minister of Nepal. In exchange for precious stones, his family also received protection in eastern Nepal. 

Although many reports revealed that Nana’s wives were living in Nepal and their houses were close to Thapathali, Nana was believed to be living in the interior of Nepal. 

Though some government records maintained that he died in Nepal due to a tiger attack in 1859, another record has a different account altogether. No accurate record could indeed convey Nana’s fate, which remained unknown.

A Brahmin named Venkateshwar who was interrogated by the British stated that he met Nana Saheb in Nepal in 1861. Till 1888, several rumours were surrounding Nana Saheb. Some said that he had been captured, while others claimed to have met a man called Nana. 

However, most of these reports turned out to be nothing more than false rumours. The real outcome of Nana Saheb remains a secret shrouded in mystery. Nobody knows what happened to date.

Letters From Sihor 

As the mystery around the disappearance of Nana Saheb Peshwa remained alive, it was thickened by countless claims made by people who claimed to have known him.

One such claim was made by two letters and a diary retrieved in the 1970s. This accounts that Nana lived as an ascetic, Yogindra Dayanand Maharaj, in Sihor in coastal Gujarat until he died in 1903. 

Nana Saheb’s Sanskrit teacher, Harshram Mehta, was addressed in the letters. He had probably written them in old Marathi and in black ink that dated 1856. The letter was signed by Baloo Nana. 

The third document is the diary of Harshram’s brother, Kalyanji Mehta. Written in old Gujarati, the diary records the arrival of Nana Saheb to Sihor with his colleagues after the failure of the rebellion.

Kalyanji had raised Nana Saheb’s son, Shridhar, and changed his name to Giridhar. He called him his son and married him off in a Sihori Brahmin family. 

This diary records the death of Nana Saheb in 1903 in Dave Sheri, which is Kalyanji’s home in Sihor. The place still displays some articles about him. The son of Giridhar, Keshavlal Mehta, recovered these documents in the 1970s and his descendants still live in town.

N. Pant, the former director of the National Museum accepted the authenticity of documents in 1992 but never gave it official recognition.

The Account of Belsare

The book of V. Belsare on the Maharashtrian saint Brahmachaitanya Gondavlekar Maharaj states that after facing defeat, Nana Saheb went to Naimisharanya, the Naimisha Forest near Sitapur, Uttar Pradesh. 

Here, he met Brahmachaitanya Maharaj, who offered him refuge. He lived there from 1860 until 1906 when he died. According to the book, he died between 30 October to 1 November 1906 and Shri Brahmachaitanya Maharaj performed his last rites. However, the authenticity of the claims was not established.

After the independence of India, Nana was one of the popular freedom fighters who contributed to India. In honor to the efforts of the Nana Saheb Peshwa and his brother Bala Rao the people built Nana Rao Park in Kanpur.

Although many historians and rulers were contemplating the life and disappearance of Nana Saheb Peshwa, he had left an indelible mark on the history of the Indian freedom struggle.

Although his motives were inspired by a personal loss, he played a valiant hand against disarming the East India Company. For that, he will always be remembered.


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