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Captain's Log Entry 3: The Carnatic Wars

Posted March 26th, 2017 at 10:52 AM by Junius

The Anglo-French struggle for mastery in India during the Seven Yearís War differed vastly from those in other theaters in one crucial respect- the British and French governments were not the primary belligerents. Those roles fell on their respective East India Companies, which were allied and somewhat dependent but quite separate entities.

While the Compagnie des Indes was from inception almost an offshoot of the government, its English counterpart was emphatically not. The Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies was established on New Year's Eve, 1600. This was a time when England's supply of the produce of the Far East (primarily but not limited to spices at this point in time) was cut off by the reigning Portuguese and Spanish monopoly of the existing trade routes (via the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn, respectively). The English were also lured by the wild successes of a score of Dutch syndicates, which also aimed to challenge the Iberians for Eastern trade. The English felt that, given the huge distances and overheads involved, one consolidated monopoly that mobilized a veritable army of fortunes was the best way to set about Eastern trade. However, over the next two centuries, this monopoly was to face a series of almost fanatical challenges from various vested interests- rival shipping magnates, British manufacturers, intriguing politicians, and often the Companyís own employees, who had very few ways to remit their Indian fortunes home until this monopoly was lifted.

This was not an unusual line of reasoning- several sixteenth century companies held sole rights to trade with a particular region, including the Levant Company, the Muscovy Company, and the Eastland Company (which traded in the Baltic Sea). However, none of these companies would ever come to enjoy the privileges or the prominence of the East India Company. The EIC became an entity legally permitted to collect taxes, dispense justice, rule territory, and even to declare war on Asian enemies. Given time and independence to run its operations as it saw fit, it soon became a powerful lobbying bloc in its own right. Given the chaos and factionalism that often emerged from Leadenhall Street, the location of India House (headquarters of the Company), this was quite an impressive feat.

However, even when the Company merged with a rival syndicate at the turn of the 18th century to form the United Company of Merchants of England Trading into the East Indies, its Directors remained focused on their true object- money. "More territory meant more revenue but not necessarily more trade," is how John Key puts it in his book, The Honourable Company. On top of this, administrative expenses would balloon with each new parcel of land, further diluting profits and dividends for its shareholders.

Of course, this intransigence could and would be taken to extremes, and for the most part the Company was content with a smattering of small trading posts across the Indian Ocean Region plus its three Indian enclaves- Bombay in the west, Madras in the southeast, and Calcutta in the east. As late as 1745, the Company's Indian establishments housed a garrison of about 800 European troops plus not more than 1200 Indians- who would later be called sepoys. Contrast this with the Company's army in 1782, which numbered about 115,000!

The Compagnie des Indes was a relative newcomer to the 17th and 18th centuries' equivalent of the Great Game. It was established in 1664, and was the brainchild of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV's genius Finance Minister. By 1740, it had been firmly established in two Indian enclaves- Pondicherry, a port which lay about 80 miles south of Madras, and Chandranagar, which was situated about 20 miles up the Hughli River from Calcutta. From these two settlements, the French fought a desperate series of wars to contest dominion of the Bay of Bengal area, not just trade, an important distinction.

The man most responsible for this hugely important change was Joseph FranÁois Dupleix, Governor of Pondicherry and hence the entire region under French control in the Indies. In 1742, news of the War of the Austrian Succession had reached India. The historical precedent was for the two companies to sign a nonaggression pact, since war was understandably terrible for business. While the Bengal establishments agreed to refrain from attacking each other, Nicholas Morse, Governor of Madras, prevaricated. A Royal Navy fleet under Commodore Curtis Barnett was in the offing, and Morse would have no control over its actions against French shipping- which included voyages returning to Pondicherry from the lucrative ports of Canton and Manila.

Alarmed, Dupleix wrote the Nawab of the Carnatic (the territory around Madras and Pondicherry) asking for his mediation. He also requested aid from the island of Mauritius (France's Indian Ocean base) to offset Barnettís fleet. During the course of events, the British squadron abandoned its station and retreated to Bengal, while the French squadron under Mahe de la Bourdonnais managed to land a sizeable force right next to Madras, which was captured with ease. Amid the chaos, a small number of Britons attempted to make their way to Fort St. David, a British port a few miles south of Pondicherry. Among them, disguised as a Muslim merchant, was Robert Clive, a hitherto bit player who would soon play a major role in this story.

The cash-rich British tried to buy off the French, offering a hefty sum for the restitution of Madras. Although la Bourdonnais favored this course of action (doubtless sweetened by his own share of the ransom), Dupleix was not, and the firebrand Governor prevailed when the Admiral's ships were battered by a typhoon off the coast of Madras, forcing him to repair back to Mauritius.

Simultaneously, the local Nawab, Anwaruddin, resolved to stop the French himself, marching at the head of 10,000 men in relief of Madras, which was garrisoned by just 1,200 French marines left behind. The French commander sent a third of these to meet the enemy just west of the city. The Nawab was amused by this last gasp effort and charged into this small band with his cavalry. However, Indian military science had not evolved since the time of Akbar, while its European counterpart was influenced by the theories of men like Benjamin Robbins (whose calculations on gunnery led to the practice of rifling barrels to make them move faster and straighter in the air) and the strategy of Gustavus Adolphus, among others. As a result, the French made short work of both this force and a second army. The entire strategic calculus in India was upended- the guests were now the masters.

This was the beginning of the First Carnatic War, which lasted until news of the signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle made its way to India. During this war, the French unsuccessfully besieged Fort St. David on three separate occassions, and came within an ace of taking the place. They went on to successfully hold off a siege of Pondicherry after a catalogue of British errors.

However, the enmity between the two Companies was so strong and the stakes- the territories of the Carnatic, Bengal, the Northern Circars (a coastal strip in between the former two provinces), and indirect control over the province of Hyderabad (which extended over most of the interior of Peninsular India)- so high that both sides continued the conflict by proxy in the Second Carnatic War. Initially, Dupleix enjoyed a sizeable advantage. His allies seized the thrones of Hyderabad and the Carnatic, and by 1751 he had hemmed in the British nominee to rule the Carnatic (Mohammad Ali) in his headquarters at Trichinopoly (hereafter Trichy), on the cusp of total victory.

Enter Robert Clive- the most celebrated general in the annals of Britainís martial history, let alone that of a company of merchants. Setting out from Madras with a small force to relieve Mohammad Ali, he besieged his enemy's capital at Arcot, forcing him to lift the siege of Trichy to win back his capital. Against odds of nearly 50 to 1, Clive held firm until a second force relieved him, firmly establishing his legend and celebrity status in Britain. The on-and-off struggle continued in this vein for three more years, when the British government stepped in to negotiate a ceasefire in return for, among other things, recalling Dupleix, France's ace in the hole.

This French error became catastrophic when war broke out again between the British and French governments in 1756, just two years later. With their best men in Hyderabad, they were completely leaderless in the Carnatic, while both Robert Clive and Stringer Lawrence (the hero of the first war) were stationed at Madras, poised to strike against the vulnerable French. However, in a dramatic twist of the tale, it was the British who were to now face an existential threat.

Although European troops had made their presence felt in Hyderabad and the Carnatic, their impact in Bengal was still minimal as late as 1756. The reigning Nawab, Alivardi Khan, got along well enough with the Europeans despite his unease and horror at their conquest of the Carnatic and Hyderabad (the latter of which was adjacent to Bengal).

When he died, Alivardi passed on these fears to his grandson, Siraj-ud-Daula, who has not received any praise even from the scores of Indian writers on this subject. Siraj represented the worst of Oriental despotism, since he was extremely cruel, indecisive, and dependent on his advisers. The one initiative where he showed any energy was the one that was to be his ruin. Siraj decided to do something about the Europeans, and chose as his first target the most powerful Company, that of the British.

Calcuttaís defenses were pitiful and largely incomplete, a consequence of the murderous climate killing off military engineers before they could implement their plans. Fort William, the city's citadel, did not contain most of the Europeans' houses and its ramparts did not dominate the landscape, allowing a besieging army to pour fire from the surrounding buildings. As a result, when the attack came, nothing but a hasty evacuation was possible, with about 170 defenders forced to hold the place as long as their gunpoweder reserves allowed them to against thousands of Indian troops.

Twenty-four hours later, 146 prisoners marched into what became known to history as the Black Hole of Calcutta, a cramped (even for two men), airless prison where 123 prisoners died during their night-long captivity. They were eventually released and followed the evacuees to Fulta, a Dutch pilot station downstream of Calcutta along the Hughli River.

Madras was shocked to hear of the news that had befallen Calcutta. To compound the severity of the situation, there were rumors of an impending European war with France, which would necessitate most of Madras' military forces. However, Bengal already accounted for a huge share of the Company's trade- to neglect it was to neglect the Company's finances. With heavy heart, therefore, the Madras Council bade farewell to around 2000 troops under Clive and a powerful Royal Navy squadron under Admiral Charles Watson. The following four years were to be the culmination of the maneuvering of the previous fourteen, a final act in the struggle for India.

By the time Clive and Watson arrived at Fulta nearly seven months after Calcutta's fall, the Nawab had already retreated to his capital at Murshidabad, about 50 miles upstream from Calcutta. The only real obstacle to its recapture, a fort named Baj-Baj, was accidentally captured after a drunk sailor lead his comrades into one of the breaches formed by that day's cannonade. While Clive was infuriated at being piqued by a common sailor, Watson could scarcely conceal his delight at this singeing of the mighty Clive's beard, and protected the man from any real punishment. As a result of that sailorís actions, Calcutta was recaptured as easily as it fell, and a preliminary peace was signed.

However, Clive now had a dilemma. Drawn to Bengal by dreams of fame and fortune, he was not content to simply restore Calcutta to the Company- the conquest of Bengal beckoned him. Although his English employers would undoubtedly begrudge him the extra expense, the venal factors (the administrators of Company settlements) would quickly fall in line behind him. The main complication would be Watson, who was reluctant to order the King's Navy to attack a neutral Asiatic ruler (an alliance that Clive sought to preempt). However, rumors of the French marching on Bengal forced the hands of the British. As soon as they received confirmation that war had been declared, they attacked Chandranagar, France's equivalent of Calcutta.

The Siege of Chandranagar was to be the most heated and evenly-fought battle ever fought during Clive's time in India, with far wider implications than the more famous action at Plassey. The French had similar technological capabilities to the British and nearly sunk the two ships-of-the-line deployed along the riverfront. However, they were eventually forced to surrender, which terminated any French dreams of domination in Bengal. This victory allowed Clive to safely intrigue with Siraj's opportunistic advisers to remove the panicking Nawab and install Mir Jafar, his relative, in his place. Plassey was the product of Clive's maneuvers, not a prerequisite for them. Siraj fled in terror before he was quickly murdered, leaving his treasure, which he had publically valued at 85 million pounds, over to the British.

There was only one problem- the Nawab didn't have 85 million pounds. Although the British were not so foolish as to take the figure at face value, their agents had estimated his treasure at 40 million pounds. However, later valuations arrived at 1.5 million pounds, a catastrophically low figure. The conspirators had already divided up the treasure as fees for their services, and Clive's share alone (under various heads- commander of the Army, member of the Select Committee which unified civil, army, and navy command structures, and others) amounted to about 234,000 pounds. Nevertheless, Mir Jafar tirelessly labored to make these payments, and from here on Bengal was a sideshow to the Anglo-French struggle. We return to Madras.


As mentioned before, the British at Madras dispatched Clive and Watson to Bengal despite the impending French buildup in the Carnatic. Fortunately for them, nothing of importance was accomplished until the Duc d'DíLally landed at Pondicherry to command the French establishment, including over 3000 European troops (comfortably outnumbering the British). This was the beginning of the Third Carnatic War.

DíLally opened with an attack on Fort St. David, which had resisted Dupleix successfully a decade ago. This time, however, the outcome was never in doubt, since the British were too understaffed to man the fort's extensive outworks. DíLally won an easy victory, but here again disaster struck.

Pondicherry was more or less broke. That, combined with the continued presence of Admiral George Pocock (who had replaced the dead Watson and gamely contested díLally's landing inspite of adverse winds) made it impossible to march on Madras. The simple solution to the latter problem was to request (for díLally held no true authority over the Navy) the Comte d'Ache to engage Pocock with his numerically superior squadron. However, the latter merely strung díLally along, either concerned for the fate of his ships or (more likely) terrified of crossing swords with the Royal Navy, which had by now firmly established itself as the most powerful and fearsome navy on Earth. As a result, DíLally decided to attack the kingdom of Tanjore, which lay to the south (away from Madras) to force its Raja to force the payment of an amount he had promised to pay some years earlier (albeit under duress).

However, in a startling display of incompetence, the French were routed outside the gates of Tanjore after running out of food and ammunition. Far from resolving Pondicherry's finances, this move actually damaged it further and allowed the outnumbered British time to prepare their defenses. DíLally could only press northward when the monsoon forced Pocock and d'Ache to retire to safe harbors, the former to Bombay and the latter to Mauritius. This forced him to march overland, dependent on flimsy supply lines. Aware of the opportunities this presented, the British pulled back all their garrisons from their outlying posts with the singular exception of Chingleput, a small fort 20 miles south of Madras, where the fate of the Carnatic was to be decided once and for all.

On reaching Chingleput, díLally dithered. The place was obviously important strategically, but it was too strong to be stormed- a siege was required. Unfortunately, he didn't have the time to sit down outside its walls, forcing him to blockade Chingleput and push on with the rest of his men to Madras. When the siege began in earnest in the closing days of 1758, the French heavily outnumbered the British. However, Stringer Lawrence, our old friend from the First Carnatic War, was in command of the defense. His gunners harried the French with precise artillery fire, and his infantry repaired any breach in his defenses. Morale was kept high by the promise of a bounty if Madras was saved, and he awaited only the return of Pocock (still sheltering from the monsoon in Bombay) to force díLally's retreat.

By contrast, the French performance could not have been more inept. To be fair, some factors were beyond díLally's control. Despite nearly blowing apart Madras' "Black Town", where most of the Indians lived, the French gunners could destroy neither the crucial battlements of Fort St. George nor the enemy guns. This was hardly díLally's fault, but singlehandedly contriving to lose France's position in Hyderabad was. In order to better prosecute the siege, he recalled the Marquis de Bussy, the man who had held France's position in Hyderabad since the days of Dupleix, forcing an inexperienced young man to take over. Furthermore, he berated de Bussy for his slowness to respond to a British sortie, making an enemy of a man who had been in India for almost 20 years and who held much sway over many Indian princes. De Bussyís fall from power and Pondicherry's bankruptcy lead to France's native allies quickly abandoning her, much as they were doing in the Canadian theater at about the same time.

Once díLally lost at Madras after Pocock's return, he knew the end was near. D'Ache reappeared, but still refused to engage the Royal Navy, eventually abandoning Pondicherry for Mauritius, this time for good. Clive dispatched a force from Bengal to Hyderabad, quickly wresting the fruits of de Bussy's labor away from his countrymen. DíLally later lost the Battle of Wandiwash in 1760, allowing the British to blockade Pondicherry. The noose tightened gradually around the Frenchmen's throats until Providence (to whom the movers and shakers of the era were accustomed to ascribe remarkable events) provided one last twist in the tale.

The blockade was, of course, highly dependent on Pocock's squadron. Unlike d'Ache, Pocock retired very briefly to Trincomalee (in modern-day Sri Lanka) for the monsoon and was back off the coast of Pondicherry in a month or so. The result was not unsurprising- the fleet was nearly wrecked by a typhoon much like the one that overtook La Bourdonnais 15 years ago. D'Ache only had to appear to lift the blockade, but unbeknownst to either Pocock or díLally, he had no intention of doing so. Thus, the blockade continued until the French finally surrendered in January 1761. The struggle for mastery of India was over, for although Britain returned Pondicherry and Chandranagar after the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1763, the French would not pose a serious threat to British hegemony except for a brief moment more than 20 years later, when Britain was beset on all sides by hostile forces.
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