The traffic roundabout across from Mumbai’s Regal Cinema in Colaba is one of those blind spots in public spaces; it’s been there so long, you stop noticing it. Yet the fountain in the center of the ‘invisible’ roundabout honours a British military general, who influenced the destiny of more than one great nation, including India, in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Called the ‘Wellington Fountain’, it was built in the memory of Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, who is credited with the defeat of the Tiger of Mysore, Tipu Sultan, and French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Each plaque on the fountain mentions his important victories, highlights of a spectacular career crafted by one of Britain’s greatest military commanders of all time.
Built in 1865, the Wellington Fountain is a tribute to Wellesley, who had
Arthur ‘Wellesley’ was born Arthur ‘Wesley’ in Ireland in 1769, into a family rooted in Anglo-Irish nobility. He joined the British Army as an ensign and was a Major by the age of 24. His Major commission was in the 33rd Regiment, whose owner was Lord Cornwallis, the British General against whom America had fought and won their War of Independence. Cornwallis also had a lot to prove in India, where he eventually became Governor-General for two terms, first as a predecessor to Richard Wesley, Arthur’s brother.
Arthur was an ambitious soldier and rose quickly, through sheer grit and professionalism. When he set sail for India in 1797, he made sure he was thoroughly prepared; he took with him over 200 books on the country. By 1798, both Arthur and his brother Richard changed their surname to ‘Wellesley’.
Cut to Arthur’s conquest of Tipu Sultan. The attack against Tipu had been ordered by his brother, Richard, then Governor-General of India. As part of the strategy, Arthur and his unit had been instructed to attack the village of Sultanpettah, to clear the path for the main event at Tipu’s capital Seringapatnam, nearby.
This night ambush at the Sultanpettah waterfront was a disaster for Arthur, who was caught off-guard on unfamiliar terrain. But it taught him an invaluable lesson, for he never failed to factor in the element of reconnaissance in future battles. Later, the armies of the Nizam of Hyderabad and Bombay joined him and the Srirangapatnam fortress was breached. The battle lasted a few intense hours, till the heroic death of Tipu Sultan in the afternoon.
Arthur Wellesley’s first non-military assignment was as Governor of Srirangapatnam, to settle its affairs. He ensured that the war booty was distributed according to rank and not plundered. He surprised the local nobility and general population by administering the capital firmly and respecting local law and customs.
He thus brought an end to endemic wars, and a return to normalcy was ensured by returning the throne of Mysore to the Wodeyars, the Hindu royal family from whom Tipu’s father Hyder Ali had seized it. Wellesley became Major-General and then General by 1802.
But he was destined for much more. Wellesley played a pivotal role in the Maratha Wars and left a decisive impact on Indian history. These victories also allowed the British to capture Delhi and Agra in the north and stretch the borders of the empire to Haryana.
But how did he get drawn into it?
The Maratha confederacy of five kingdoms was in the throes of an internal political crisis – Daulat Rao Scindia (Gwalior), collaborating with Jaswant Rao Holkar (Indore), attacked Peshwa Baji Rao II (Pune), who took refuge in Vasai (Bassein) and opened negotiations with the British, seeking their support to get the gaddi of Pune back.
The British spotted an opportunity and negotiated the Treaty of Bassein, by which the British would protect, transport and settle the Peshwa back on the gaddi on Pune, and in return the Governor-General would have the right to control his foreign affairs, thus enforcing a subsidiary alliance.
Wellesley successfully executed this risky assignment via a very quick move to Pune. Scindia’s strong army of 50000 was decisively routed by Wellesley’s strong army of 6000 at Assaye thanks to some quick thinking and astute strategic moves, making it turning point in British and Indian history.
With the Treaty of Deogaon with Raghoji Bhonsle of Berar, and Treaty of Anjangon with Daulat Rao Scindia, vast territories came into the possession of the British, gave concessions to the Nizam and bound the Marathas in subsidiary alliances. The exile of the Peshwa in 1818 effectively ended the Maratha threat.
A brief prelude to Wellesley’s upcoming exploits in Europe was his visit to Bombay in 1801, when he entered the dockyard through the clock tower gateway (near present-day Lion Gate), to inspect the British Expeditionary Force prior to its departure to Egypt.
Wellesley visited Bombay again in March 1804, on the Governor’s yacht from ‘Panvell’ (Panvel) and was received with a 15-gun salute. Now Governor-General, he was honoured by troops that lined the streets from the dockyard to Government House. Also, 124 British citizens welcomed him with a public address, extolling his achievements and virtues in ensuring peace and stability in the region. Bombay’s trade and industry could now access the resources of an extensive and populous country without interruption. He spent two months in Bombay to confer with government officials on matters of the southern Maratha states.
Back in Britain, there were greater things in store for Wellesley, who was soon pitted against the dynamic French Emperor Napoleon in a series of battles.
Napoleon had built an enormous militarily presence, replaced an unstable political situation in France with his decisive and charismatic leadership, and expanded the borders of the French empire across Europe. But he also had his eye on Egypt and eventually India, which was a threat to the British empire. Why, the safety of England itself was at stake.
Wellesley fought a series of pitched battles against Napoleon, starting in 1808. It was tough going but not impossible for a brilliant strategist like him. And his experience in India came in handy.
Napoleon abdicated in 1814 and was exiled to the island of Elba in modern-day Italy. But, in 1815, he made his epic escape on his own ship and landed on the French coast. His popularity was so strong that the people and the army celebrated his return. Without a single drop of blood being shed, Napoleon had got France back in style.
Wellesley re-entered the battle fray. As the opponents approached each other at Waterloo village, there were strategic movements of infantry, artillery and cavalry that both Wellesley and Napoleon executed through the day. It was an intense battle for both sides, with several turning points in the day. Eventually, Napoleon lost and exited the battlefield. He was exiled to the island of St Helena, a British protectorate in the South Atlantic, where he spent his last days.
Britain’s greatest threat was over and it now occupied an unprecedented political position globally, making Waterloo a critical turning point in world history.
With a spectacular military career behind him, Arthur Wellesley went on to become Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, Chancellor of Oxford University, Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, Ambassador to Bourbon France, Member of Parliament (at Westminster and in Ireland) and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
He was given higher titles till Dukedom, the highest a non-royal could hold. In 1842, he was once again made Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, at the age of 72, by Queen Victoria, a position he held until his death in Walmer Castle in 1852.
As a military and political strategist, Wellesley’s tactical moves are still studied – his ability to think on his feet, his defensive style of warfare, fast movement of troops with animal-drawn artillery, fording of rivers in battle, leading armies from diverse political and ethnic backgrounds, avoiding plunder of civil areas, restoring diplomatic relationships, and administrative stability within conquered territories. And he picked up much of this on his Indian stint.
Meanwhile, in India, the watershed years of 1865-70 under Sir Bartle Frere’s vision of Urbs Prima in Indis saw the demolition of the 180-year-old Bombay Fort and a great new city being planned. In South Bombay, this included the Esplanade vista comprising Victorian Gothic Revival buildings, most notably the monumental Bombay High Court, Mumbai University and State Secretariat; northwards, the new industrial area of mills, especially at Parel; southwards, the Elphinstone Circle business and financial district (now Horniman Circle), and several new dockyards.
In 1865, the Wellington Fountain was built by public subscription, posthumously honouring the Duke of Wellington. Over time, the Alfred Sailor’s Home, Regal Cinema, Sir Cowasji Jehangir Hall (now National Gallery of Modern Art) and many other important buildings came up around it. Even though located in a historic precinct in South Mumbai, its significance is now all but lost.
Cover Image Courtesy: Incredible India
R. Venkatesh holds a post-graduation in history from JNU and is an active heritage enthusiast who travels extensively to several heritage sites. He publicly shares his photographs and posts on his twitter handle @heritage_sites. Currently, he is a management executive in the banking and finance sector.