Plots And Counterplots
A.D. 1748 TO A.D. 1751
When the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle ended open warfare between the
French and the English, both naturally turned their eyes more keenly
What they saw there was stimulating to those who felt within
themselves the power of conquest. On all sides were petty wars and
rumours of wars. The horrors of Nadir-Shah's invasion were being
ten, but the country was not coming back to its pristine quiet.
There was a strange new factor in India now: the factor of a new
knowledge of alien races, by whom it was possible to be helped, or who
could in their turn give help.
But this, still, was only about and a little beyond the sea-board.
Up-country matters went on much as ever. Mahomed-Shah's majesty crept
out of its hiding-place again, and made shift with a pinchbeck peacock
throne, a pretence of power.
Baji-cum-Saho, the Mahratta, however, almost ere he recovered from his
alarm at the Persian hordes, had died, leaving his son, Bala-ji, as
Peishwa in his stead; leaving him also some very pretty quarrels to
settle. One with the semi-pirates of Angria, which, involving the
Portuguese, ended in the latter being ousted from India in 1739 by the
Mahrattas, who, however, admitted to the loss of five thousand men in
the siege of Bassein alone.
But Bala-ji was a strong man, fully equal to the position in which he
found himself; and after driving his most formidable private enemy and
claimant to the Prime Ministership, Raghu-ji, back to his task of
besieging Trichinopoly, he turned his attention to aggression. He
began by renewing the long-deferred claim on the court at Delhi, and
was granted it, on condition that he aided the Governor Ali-Verdi-Khan
to repulse the invasion of Raghu-ji; who, having succeeded in his
siege, had made an independent raid into Bengal. This opportunity of
killing two birds with one stone was naturally welcome to Bala-ji, who
drove out the intruders without difficulty, and received his reward.
But, so far as Bengal was concerned, it was merely a postponement of
an evil day, for Raghu-ji returned to his prey, and finally obtained
the cession of a large part of Orissa, and a tribute from Bengal
Thus in 1748 the only ascending power was that of the Mahrattas. On
all other sides France and England were spectators of a general
scramble for territory, a general assertion of independence on the
part of petty chiefs.
And the question naturally came swiftly--"Why should we remain
inactive? Why should we not extend our sphere of influence by giving,
perhaps even selling, our aid?"
The question had already been answered by France. Dupleix had dipped
deep into Indian politics, and, by so doing, had undoubtedly
strengthened the position of the French. The temptation to follow suit
was almost overwhelming, and so in 1749 England drew the sword which
was impatiently resting in its scabbard, and became a mercenary in the
pay of one Sahu-ji who claimed the Rajahship of Tanjore. The
ostensible bribe offered was an unimportant fort of Devi-kottah, and a
slip of country along the coast. The real cause of the coalition being
the fact that the large English army, brought eastward during the late
war, was eating its head off in idleness.
The whole affair of the Tanjore succession was absolutely trivial, yet
almost too complicated for abbreviated detail. It is sufficient to say
that one Pratap Singh had reigned for years, that England had
recognised him, negotiated with him, and courted his assistance
against the French.
Policy, however, changes with the times, and it was now thought
advisable, without any further provocation, to assist in dethroning
him! No doubt there were excellent reasons for this volte face, only
at the present they are not in evidence.
This first venture on mercenary lines was not a brilliant passage in
the history of British arms. In truth, England in the East did not at
that time possess any man fit to carry on similar work to that which
Dupleix was doing for France; for Lieutenant Clive, though he had
given proof of high courage during the pantomimic siege of
Pondicherry, had not yet raised his head above those of his compeers.
Indeed, but for a chance he might never have so raised it, since at
the taking of Devi-kottah he narrowly escaped death; being one of the
four survivors in a rash attempt to cross the river Kolarun on a raft.
So this Tanjore campaign, which began in a tempest that killed all
the baggage-animals and severely crippled the whole force, ended
ignominiously in another volte face. For, finding their protege,
Sahu-ji, had no local support for his claim, the English forces, on
condition of his receiving a pension of four thousand rupees,
re-transferred their friendship to the original King Pratap, who,
however, was made to ratify the bribes promised by the pretender, and
also to pay the cost of the war! The latter being certainly a seething
of the kid in its mother's milk.
[Footnote 4: It was in this storm that the admiral's ship, Namur,
went down, with seven hundred and fifty men.]
Meanwhile, France had been busy with more important matters.
To understand what was happening, it is necessary to go back to old
Asaf-Jah, who had begun his career under Aurungzebe, and who only died
in 1748 at the extraordinary age of one hundred and four.
A cunning old fox, brave to the death after the manner of foxes when
in a tight place, he had, under the title of Nizam-ul-mulk--a title
still held by the rulers of the Dekkan--kept his grip on that country
in almost absolute independence of Delhi.
Now, at his death, innumerable points cropped up for settlement. The
Carnatic was a fief of the Dekkan, and in the Carnatic were two
semi-independent kingdoms, Tanjore and Trichinopoly. The successions
of all these were disputed, especially that of the Carnatic, which was
held by that very Nawab of Arcot who had bandied about his allegiance
between the French and English. A most immoral proceeding, no doubt,
but at a time when civilised and Christian men were palpably only
playing for their own hand, it is not to be wondered at if less
cultivated, more pagan peoples followed suit. There seems, anyhow, no
reason--except the advantage to be gained from having a real
creature--why Dupleix should have thrown him over and supported the
claims of Chanda-Sahib. But he did; chiefly because Chanda-Sahib, the
only member of a former ruler's family who had sufficient talent for
the rise in fortune, had been brought up in the refuge of Pondicherry,
and promised important concessions should he succeed. This decision on
the part of Dupleix put the English in a quandary. They could not sit
still and see France succeed, and yet the chances of success on the
other side were small. So they temporised by sending one hundred and
twenty Europeans to help Trichinopoly, by which, of course, they
committed themselves as much as if they had sent twelve hundred.
They themselves, however, did not seem to think so, for in spite of
this absolute challenge to France they refused the English admiral's
offer to remain in Eastern waters. So suicidal did this appear to
Dupleix that for some time he treated the departure as a mere feint.
So both parties settled down with their "legitimate heir," neither
caring one straw for the justice of the claim, since both were equally
Whatever else may be said, this much is certain, that the protege of
the French was a better puppet than the protege of the English.
Furthermore, he drew into the French net no less a person than
Muzaffar-Jung, a grandson of old Asaf-Jah, who was a claimant for the
Dekkan. Truly, therefore, with a Nizam of the Dekkan, and a Nawab of
the Carnatic, both owing their thrones to French interference, Dupleix
had a right to expect much for his country.
Their interference, also, was successful. There was a pitched battle
close to Arcot, at which the Nawab was killed (at the most unusual age
of one hundred and seven), and only one of his sons escaped with the
wreck of his army to Trichinopoly.
Dupleix, it is said, urged the allies to press on after him, but the
Oriental mind, as a rule, is satisfied with the present. Chanda-Sahib
and Muzaffar-Jung amused themselves with playing the parts of Nizam
and Nawab to their hearts' content, and spending themselves and their
resources in luxurious pleasures, until the rightful claimant of the
former role appeared on the horizon with an army composed largely of
mercenary Mahrattas. A big army, a good army; Dupleix saw victory in
it, and he instantly began with his usual unscrupulous diplomacy to
In this, however, for once, the English were beforehand with him. They
had, as we know, moved by vague fear of the growing French ascendency,
sent a few men to support Trichinopoly against possible attacks from
Chanda-Sahib-cum-Muzaffar-Jung, and now, taking heart of grace, Major
Lawrence and four hundred troops joined the camp of the rightful
The two armies, that of Nasir-Jung backed--in truth but feebly--by the
English, and that of Chanda-Sahib-cum-Muzaffar-Jung backed by the
cunning of a man versed in all the tortuosities of Indian policy, were
now in touch with each other, but they did not come into action.
Thirteen of the French officers resigned their commissions the day
before the battle; the disaffection--due to some failure to divide
spoils--spread to the men, and their commander, Monsieur d'Auteuil,
feeling it unwise in the circumstances to venture anything, took
veritable French leave during the night, followed by Chanda-Sahib.
Muzaffar-Jung, thus left in despair, seized the bull by the horns and
surrendered himself to the rightful heir, who was in truth his uncle.
There is an element of the comic opera in all these incidents which
almost preclude their being taken seriously.
But here we have an impasse. At Pondicherry all was confusion, and
Dupleix driven to despair because his cock would not fight. At Arcot,
Major Lawrence trying through an interpreter to warn his cock, the
triumphant Nizam, against froggy Frenchmen, and seeking to get the
reward promised for the loan of the now useless British soldiery.
In both of which attempts he failed. In the first, because the
politeness of Oriental manners refused bald translation of the
Englishman's home truths. In the second, because wily Oriental
astuteness suggested that services having been bought must be given
before being paid for, and that Major Lawrence had better serve out
his time--if as nothing else--as a boon companion!
This suggestion was refused, and "after speaking his mind freely"
(through the polite interpreter!), the English commander and his
troops went back in dudgeon to Fort St David.
It took the French less time than it did the English to recover from
this fiasco. Dupleix, indeed, was once more deep in diplomacy ere
Major Lawrence had made up his mind whether to intrigue or fight.
His decision came too late for success, his indecision too early; for
having offered English support for the retaking of the Pagoda of
Trivadi, a strongly fortified place but 15 miles west of Fort St
David, he withdrew it when an advance of pay was refused. Whereupon
the French stepped in--the misunderstanding was in all probability the
result of their machinations--and added to their acquisitions by
taking the celebrated fort of Jingi, which, situated on a vast
isolated mountain of a rock, had been considered impregnable.
It was an exploit of which to be proud, and it is said that after
fully realising its natural strength the French force was lost in
wonder as to how it had managed to take it!
It was an exploit, also, which roused the Nizam Nasir-Jung from his
dream of luxurious pleasures. A nation which could take Jingi was
evidently the nation with whom to make terms. He therefore offered to
negotiate. Dupleix made extravagant demands, and so lured the Nizam to
take the field, for the wily diplomatist was aware that conspiracy was
rife amongst the Nizam's supporters, and hoped by getting in touch
with them to rid himself more effectually of a troublesome opponent
than by entering into terms with him.
It took fifteen days for the unwieldly army, 300,000 strong--60,000
foot, 45,000 cavalry, 700 elephants, 360 pieces of artillery, the rest
being camp followers--to march 30 miles.
Then it was stopped by the bursting of the monsoon. And so, with his
enemy blocked hopelessly within 15 miles of him, treachery became
possible to the Frenchman. And black treachery it was! To be brief,
Dupleix negotiated with the conspirators, and also with the Nizam; so,
finding himself finally in a dilemma as to which side to choose, took
the opportunity of a delay in sending back a ratified treaty with the
latter, to order the whole French force to attack.
The miserable Nizam at first refused to believe it possible that those
with whom but the day before he had signed a treaty of peace should
take arms against him; refused to believe it possible that disloyalty
was the cause of half his camp standing sullen spectators of the fray.
He mounted his elephant and rode straight to rouse them. It being
early dawn, he feared lest he might not be recognised, and rose in his
howdah in order to give a clearer view of his person.
Too clear, for he fell in an instant, pierced through the heart by two
bullets fired by one of his favourites.
Muzaffar-Jung, thus set free once more, resumed the Nizamship of the
Dekkan, and all went merry as a marriage bell. Both he, the Pathan
nobles who had formed the bulk of the conspirators, and Dupleix, had
their share of the two and a half millions of treasure said to have
been taken from Nasir-Jung; and much of it was spent in various
elaborate festivities, notably in the official installation of
Muzaffar; he, in his turn, nominating Dupleix as official Governor for
the Great Moghul in all countries south of the Kistna. All the
revenues of these countries were to pass through him, and no coins
save those minted by the French at Pondicherry were to be current coin
of the realm.
It was a tremendous victory for France. The English, who had hitherto
been fairly content to exist in India on sufferance, heard their
enemy's boast, that ere long the Moghul himself would tremble at the
name of Dupleix, with absolute stupefaction. So stunned were they that
they did not even object to the commander of their forces choosing
this most inopportune moment to return on leave to England.
Fortunately, however, for them, thieves are apt to fall out. The
Pathan nobles, discontented with their share of the plunder, once more
became conspirators, with the result that Muzaffar-Jung, the creature
of the French, was killed.
Fortunately, also, for the honour of England, a man called Robert
Clive had been born in Shropshire six-and-twenty years before, and
after several years of uncongenial employment as a clerk, had in 1747
received an ensign's commission, from which he had risen in 1751 to
the rank of Captain.
And now, when the power of the French was in its zenith, he appeared,
young, arrogant, determined to try a sword's conclusions with that
past-master of diplomacy, Dupleix.
But before we pass on to the most honourable, the most exciting
chapter in the history of British India, a look round must be given to
see what had been going on in the far-away north, which lay almost out
of touch with Trichinopoly, Arcot, Pondicherry, Madras, the Carnatic,
Jingi, Masulipatam, all those places on which the fingers of France
and England had been laid more or less tentatively.
Mahomed-Shah had died after having successfully resisted the
invasion of the Durrani or Afghan prince, Ahmed-Khan, who, fired by
Nadir-Shah's example, tried in 1748 to imitate his exploit. He was
badly beaten at Sirhind, close to the old battlefield of Panipat.
Before this Ali-Verdi-Khan, Governor of Bengal, had revolted, and
become independent; but in his turn had suffered reverse at the hands
of the Mahrattas, and had to yield up the province of Orissa.
The latter race had been much exercised over the succession to the
throne, for the puppet Saho, who, combined first with Baji-rao and
afterwards with Bala-ji, had exercised sovereignty for so long, had no
children. The right of adoption, therefore, was his, and, his wife's
influence being paramount on personal points, he was inclined to
choose the Rajah of Kolapur. This, however, did not suit Bala-ji. He
therefore induced the old queen, Tara-Bhal, to trump up a tale of a
posthumous son of her son, whose birth had been concealed from fear of
danger to the child. Saho, almost imbecile by this time, was deluded
into believing the tale of a collateral heir, and ere dying, secretly
signed an instrument giving the regency to Bala-ji, on condition of
his supporting the claims of Tara-Bhai's supposed grandson.
But the ghost of a grandmother thus raised proved a curse to the
Peishwa, for Tara-Bhai, old as she was, did not lack energy or
ambition, and at the time of Muzaffar-Jung's death in 1751, she had
taken the opportunity of Bala-ji's absence in the south to meet and
crush the combined advance of the French under General Bussy and the
puppet they had instantly set up in Muzaffar's place, to proclaim her
own story a pure fiction, put the pretended heir into chains, and
assert herself Queen of the Mahrattas.
Truly the impossibility at this time of putting reliance on any one's
word, the fluctuations of faith, the unforeseen, unexpected
complications arising from the general fluidity of morals, makes
history read like undigested melodrama.
Such, then, was India when England, all too tardily, found a champion
in Robert Clive.