Baiza Bai was an early 19th century Maratha Queen of Gwalior. She belonged to the Scindia branch of the Maratha Empire. She was one of the few powerful Maratha regents to have retained considerable territory and formidable power in wake of the third Anglo-Maratha war, which saw secession of most of the once-sizeable Maratha territory.
She was an adept horserider, masterful swordswoman, and adroit spear-wielder. She was one of the few warriors who could well handle a firearm.
Baiza Bai had previously gone two-to-two alongside her husband King Daulat Rao Scindia in the Battle of Assaye, a valiant losing effort against the English, demonstrating her activeness at the battlefront. She ascended to the throne following the death of Daulat Rao in 1827 and skilfully ruled, outwitting multiple foes using optimal mercenary and martial manoeuvring.
Baiza Bai was born in Kagal, Kolhapur in 1784. Her parents were members of the nobility (Deshmukhs) under the aegis of the Bhonsle sovereigns of Kolhapur. In February 1798, at the age of 14, she was married to Daulat Rao Scindia, the king of Gwalior, and became his favourite wife. Baiza Bai and Daulat Rao betrothed several children. Scindia sought Baiza Bai’s wisdom and principles for aiding administration and diplomatic matters. At times she overruled existant provisions and decisions, for the better.
She ascended to the throne following the death of Daulat Rao in 1827 and skilfully ruled, outwitting multiple foes using optimal mercenary and martial manoeuvring.
Friction and conflict with the British
Baiza had inherited her father’s (whom she had since secured to the position of Dewan of Gwalior) anti-British sentiment, and thus a friction with the rather Anglo-complaisant and conflict-averse king.
During the British campaign against the Pindaris, she had attempted to persuade and convince her spouse to support Peshwa Baji Rao II against the imperialists. But soon Daulat Rao conceded and acceeded to British demands, prompting her to as far as leave him temporarily, branding him meek and coward. She was also vehemently against and outraged at the Scindia cession of Ajmer to the British.
Following the Scindia defeat in the Second Anglo-Maratha War, a treaty signed with the East India Company explicitly excluded him from any governing role in Gwalior. Under the many provisions of the treaty, Baiza was granted a jagir of 200,000 rupees annually. However, it is said that her husband appropriated these funds.
The mercantile nature of the East India Company meant they consolidated political and monetary powet and thus adversely affected the once thriving native Indian merchant bankers. Native merchants established local trade links and their ground cronyism and intimate tie-ups with kingdoms and principalities, posed stiff resistance to monopolist aspirations of the Company regime.
Ujjain, the hub of central Indian commerce and finance was soundly under Baiza’s grip. Scindia financiers, with Mani Ram and Gokul Parakh standing out in particular, eked out enormous fortunes. She invested heavily in their respective firms. Soon, she herself turned into a massive financer in her own right. She was involved in money-lending, bills of exchange, and speculation, leading to her becoming immensely affluent.
The Banker Queen
In Ujjain, Baiza Bai was the head of two banking firms: Nathji Kishan Das and Nathji Bhagwan Das. The English seized her banking houses in Banaras.
she herself turned into a massive financer in her own right. She was involved in money-lending, bills of exchange, and speculation, leading to her becoming immensely affluent.
In return for a silent, passive agreement, an unwritten contract of sorts, the Company asked her a loan of 10,000,000 rupees. They reckoned that the Queen would read between the lines and understand the implict: that it was implied and understood that the loan was actually a payment against the British sparing her and letter her rule peacefully. It was a paid sanctuary grant disguised as a loan request, a transaction in lieu of not deposing her. However, the artful queen gradually, subtly yet persistently pressed them for loan repayment, timing the repayment request strategically to coincide with the expenditure-wise roughest patch the British would encounter. She also intimidated indigenous bankers who the British would’ve asked funds from, in turn, to repay her off. Eventually, they paid off the loan to her. Craftily, she managed to manipulate them into getting the sum deposited in her bank in Banaras.
Baiza has been labelled variously, including one as “(a) sophisticated and ruthless businesswoman”, she didn’t pay off her troops for prolonged periods, compelling them to resort to borrowing from a bank she owned. Other accounts deem her an able and efficacious administrator, who amongst others, paid her troops on time. She collaborated with the British to subdue Thuggee, and prohibited female infanticide in her kingdom. By all accounts, she was a woman of integrity, headstrong, steadfast and assertive.
Towards the mid 30s, her kingdom started destabilising, owing to her economic policies backfiring, in turn due to the company gaining unanticipated and unprecedented control, rather steeply.
As a stark and vehement opponent of the East India Company, she was eventually, both systematically and schemingly deposed, and replaced by her adopted son Jankoji Rao Scindia II as a puppet ruler in 1835. This eviction came in wake of several failed similar coup and instigation attempts. The enthronement and dethronement of Baiza Bai were both very difficult, involved multipartite struggle and stand in testimony to her acumen, conviction and gusto. Such was the efficiency of Baiza Bai, that amongst the British media and bureaucracy criticism of official decision of enacting her displacement was heavily criticised. Discrepancy and discontention spread and reached far and wide, as far as upto the British mainland.
An interesting anecdote pertaining to her post-retirement life is narrated in Nandini Semgupta’s ‘The British WomanTraveller in India’: 1835 found Baiza Bai in Fatihgarh, where she met Fanny Parkes, a Welsh travel-writer. The women bonded over horsemanship when the Bai mocked the English style of side-saddle riding. She challenged Parkes to ride in the usual way whereupon Parkes endeared herself to the Rani by riding in Mahratta style in Maratha costume.
In her post-eviction lifte too, Baiza lived heartily using tact, and keeping on amicable and (mostly unilaterally) beneficial terms with multiple parties. Baiza Bai kept receiving a handsome annual pension, and breathed her last in Gwalior in 1863.
- Madras Courier
- NY Times
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- Struth, Elissa Vann (2001). Splitting the Stereotype: Reading Women in Colonial Texts (M.A. thesis). University of British Columbia.
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