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The Battle of Assaye - A George III Twin Handled Tray, London 1805
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The Battle of Assaye - A George III Twin Handled Tray, London 1805

Measurements: 81cm (32in) x 54cm (21.5in)



Silver. Of oval form with gadrooned rim, Greek key decoration, leaf-capped reeded handles; the field centered on the engraved inscription, ‘Bequeathed as a Memorial / Of / Gratitude and Affection / To / Aenas Mackay Esqr. / By / Captain Hugh Mackay / Of The / Madras Native Cavalry / Killed in the Battle of Assaye / 23rd September 1803.’ Maker’s mark of Robert Hennell I & Samuel Hennell. Hallmarked London 1805.

The Duke of Wellington said late in life that his victory at Assaye was his proudest achievement, and as a battle ‘the bloodiest for the numbers that I ever saw’. It was fought against the Mahratta Confederacy, a formidable alliance of Hindu warriors and marauders who dominated much of Central India. Captain MacKay of the 4th Madras Cavalry, who was was killed at the muzzle of the Mahratta guns in a desperate charge that decided the battle, had been placed in charge of the army’s draught animals by Wellington, or Wellesley as he then was. Mackay asked to be allowed to serve with his regiment, in the expected battle. Wellesley refused through Captain Barclay, the Adjutant General. Mackay then tried to resign and this was refused. So he announced that even if it meant being court-martialled and losing his commission he would not stand by while his regiment went into action without him.

On receipt of Mackay’s hasty and arguably ill-advised demand, Wellesley is said to have exclaimed, “What can we do with such a fellow Barclay? I believe we must let him go;” and go Mackay did, heading the charge of his own Madras cavalry, and in a line with the leading squadron of  the British 19th Light Dragoons, he fell, man and horse, close to one of the enemy’s guns, pierced through by grape shot. When in the very heat of the action, news was brought to the Wellesley that Captain Mackay was killed, ‘his countenance changed and the tear which fell upon his cheek was nature’s involuntary homage to the memory of a kindred spirit.’ (Welsh., Col. J. (1830) ‘Military Reminiscences’, Vol. 1, p.179-80).

The present tray was bequested to Captain Hugh's kinsman Captain Aeneas Mackay, a veteran of the Second Mysore War (1780-84). He raised a company of Lord MacLeod’s 73rd Highland Regiment of Foot (McLeod’s Highlanders) and transferred to an East India Company cavalry regiment. He was wounded at Conjeveram (now Kanchipuram) during the Battle of Pollilur (1780) and was subsequently imprisoned by Hyder Ali, and later Tipu Sultan, in Seringapatam where he remained until 1784. After his release from captivity under the terms of the Treaty of Mangalore he returned to Scotland with a sword said to have presented to him by Tipu Sultan.

Captain Hugh Mackay (1763-1803), the son of the Rev. Thomas Mackay, minister of Lairg Kirk, Sutherland, entered the East India Company Service in 1784. He was promoted Captain in April 1802 and in October that year the East India Company saw an opportunity to curb the Mahratta menace. The Peshwa of Poona was ousted by one of the other Mahratta princes and forced to flee his capital. The Peshwa appealed to the Company, and agreed to accept its authority if he was restored to Poona. Wellesley realised that the key to successful march on Poona, some 600-miles distant and at the hottest time of the year, was the ability to keep his forces well supplied. To this end he devoted his immense energy to meticulous preparation, much of which was focussed on the procurement of suitable draught animals. It was into this sphere of work that Captain Mackay was summoned from regimental duty.

Mackay reached Poona with Wellesley’s force of 9,500 men and 17 guns in April 1803 and the Peshwa was restored.  Daulut Rao Scindia of Gwalior, lurking to the north, was sent orders to submit to the Peshwa’s authority. Complicated discussions ensued while Wellesley advanced on to Scindia’s stronghold at Ahmednuggur. At the end of July the negotiations collapsed. Wellesley took Ahmednuggur and moved on again. On 23 September word came of substantial enemy forces at the village of Assaye.

Wellesley rode ahead and saw the army of Scindia nd his ally the Rajah of Berar drawn up on the far side Kaitna river, with the Juah river, which joined the Kaitna downstream, at their backs. The enemy numbered upwards of 10,000 irregular infantry, 30,000 irregular cavalry, over 100 guns, and 10,800 European trained Indian infantry under French, German, Portuguese, American and even British mercenaries.

As a frontal assault across the Kaitna would have been suicidal, Wellesley saw two small villages opposite each other downstream towards the confluence of the Kaitna and Juah and correctly guessed there must be a crossing point. Harassed by Mahratta cavalry and artillery, Wellesley’s force crossed by a ford so that they were now on the narrow spit of land between the two rivers, and on the flank of the Mahratta army’s original position on the Kaitna. At this point Scindia and Berar absented themselves from the field, leaving Anthony Pohlman, a Hanoverian formerly in East India Company service, to change the Mahratta front. It was a difficult manouevre in the crowded space, yet it was accomplised with unexpected efficiency, so that the Mahratta infantry interspersed with guns faced Wellesley with the left flank resting on the heavily fortified Assaye.

In response Wellesley enacted his famous ‘hammer plan’ - deploying piquets only from 1st/8th Madras Infantry and 1st/10th Madras Infantry on the right of his line to act as the handle of the hammer, (intending to leave Assaye well alone), and deploying the 1st/10th Madras Infantry and the 78th Highlanders on his left to act as the hammer-head. As the historian Philip Mason wrote ‘Unfortunately, things did not go exactly as planned. The line of piquets diverged to the right, going too near Assaye; the 2nd/12th and 74th [Foot] followed them, moving directly on the village. The fire from the village was so hot that the advance was stopped on the right and there was a dangerous gap in the centre. The British guns were silenced and could no longer move because the draught-animals had been shot down. Of the fifty men  in one piquet 21 were killed and 24 wounded. The 74th were reduced from a battalion to a company, losing 17 officers and 400 men … It was now that the Marathas loosed a charge of cavalry at the already decimated infantry in front of Assaye village. On the left, the advance of the hammer head was going as planned; the 78th and 1st/10th had charged with the bayonet at the Mahratta line and driven from their guns. But the handle of the hammer was threatened with complete destruction.  Wellesley must have made up his mind instantaneously. He ordered H.M. 19th Light Dragoons and the 4th Native Cavalry to charge straight at the oncoming Mahratta  horse. In the frightful shock that followed, discipline told against the immense superiority of numbers crowded in too narrow a space. Now the infantry could move again; the whole advance went on; a second cavalry charge was thrown in on the left and the whole Mahratta line was driven back on the Juah.’

It was an astonishing victory. Wellesley captured 98 of the enemy’s guns and of his force close to 1,600 were killed or wounded. Scindia and Berar were broken and by the end of the year had surrendered to the Company. Thereafter the British domination of India was greatly aided by the result and decisiveness of Assaye, which served to scare many local states into submission.