The Game Of French And English
A.D. 1742 TO A.D. 1748
The eye of France had been on India for a century and a half, for it
was in 1601 that a fleet of French merchant ships set out from St Malo
for Hindustan, but failed of their destination.
The first French East India Company was formed in 1604, the second in
1611, a third in 1615; a fourth was founded by Cardinal Richelieu in
1642, yet a fifth in 1664, and
finally a sixth, made up by the
co-ordination of various older ventures, began in 1719 to trade under
the name of "Compagnies des Indes."
There was thus no lack of organisation; of action, there had been, up
to 1742, comparatively little. They had secured a factory at Surat,
they captured Trincomalee from the Dutch, and they had occupied
Pondicherry, which they still hold. Aurungzebe had ceded Chandanagore
to them, and they had also obtained Mahe and Karikal, which they
bought from the Rajah of Tanjore.
This, then, was the position of France in India when, in the year
1742, the office of Governor was bestowed on one Joseph Dupleix. He
had spent his life in India, had amassed a huge private fortune by
private trade, but at the same time had done his duty by the company
of which his father had been a director.
He was thus saturated, as it were, with the methods and manners of the
East, and in addition he had the advantage of a clever wife, who,
though European by birth, had been born and bred in India.
Incited, it is believed, by her, he evolved a plan by which he hoped
to gain supremacy for France. Competition in fair trade with both the
English and the Dutch had failed, but he hoped to gain that by
diplomacy which had been denied by commerce. The Moghul dynasty was
tottering to its fall. On all sides the petty governors of provinces
were aspiring to feeble power, and the balance of parties was often so
nearly equal, that a very little support thrown into the scale would
determine failure or success. Here Dupleix saw his opportunity, and he
set deliberately to work, using Madame Dupleix as his go-between, to
make friends for France in this welter of conflicting interests. The
work was going on secretly and surely, when in 1744 the war of the
Austrian Succession broke out in Europe between England and France.
Dupleix was evidently unwilling that this secret work of his should be
interrupted by any outbreak of hostilities in the East, and some
little time previous to the open declaration of war, both the French
and English Companies had taken steps to provide for peace at any
price. But a new factor had arisen on the French side in the person of
Admiral Labourdonnais, the Governor of the Isle of France and the Isle
His had been an adventurous life, and he had often been in and out of
favour with those who had employed him. His government of the two
contiguous islands was a case in point. He had found a plentiful crop
of abuses, he had rooted them out, and in consequence of this, when he
returned on private affairs to France, was pursued with unscrupulous
enmity and bitter detraction.
In endeavouring to right himself he gave to the Ministers of State and
the directors of his Company a full exposition of his views on the
Eastern question. It commended itself to the authorities, and he found
himself setting sail for the Isle of France in April 1741, backed by a
fleet which, with care and training, should be able to secure to his
country supremacy in the Eastern seas.
But disappointment awaited him. Long before the declaration of war
which he expected, the French Company, who thought it had been made to
bear more than its fair share of the cost of fitting out the fleet,
sent for their ships, and Labourdonnais was left at a disadvantage. A
British squadron was now cruising about the Bay of Bengal, taking the
place which he had hoped to fill, and making many French prizes. But
he was not a man of discouragements, and the situation having been
saved on the Coromandel Coast by the diplomacy of Dupleix, who induced
the Nawab of Arcot to claim Pondicherry as his territory and so save
it from occupation by the English, he managed somehow to scrape
together sufficient ships and men to try conclusions.
Fortune played a stroke in his favour by the inopportune death of the
English captain, by which the command devolved on one who erred on the
side of prudence, and who, after the two squadrons had been engaged at
long distances until nightfall off the coast, thought it wiser to cut
and run under cover of darkness, in consequence of a leak springing in
one of his largest vessels.
Labourdonnais, who had suffered far more, and who, in truth, had been
anxiously cogitating his best move during the night, thus found
himself, as the grey dawn showed an empty sea, a complete victor, and
full of relief and pride set sail for Pondicherry. But here a cool
reception awaited him, for Dupleix had no notion of having his aims
achieved by any one but himself. So the commander by land and the
commander by sea were mutually obstructive, and continued to be so; a
course which eventually ruined both, destroyed French hopes in India,
and for the present saved those of England from almost certain
For the British squadron was nowhere. After a month of shelter in the
harbour of Trincomalee, it reappeared, only to disappear once more.
Labourdonnais therefore put back to Pondicherry, and prepared
seriously to take Madras; which he did, without the least trouble, in
September 1746. It was, in truth, incapable of defence.
The French admiral brought eleven ships, two thousand nine hundred
European soldiery, eight hundred natives, and adequate artillery
against a small fort manned by two hundred men. For the Black Town and
the White Town, together with the contiguous five miles of sea-coast,
in which were gathered over two hundred and fifty thousand souls, lay
absolutely unprotected, at the mercy of all and sundry.
It is said that the English relied for security on the Nawab of Arcot,
who had promised to claim Madras as he had claimed Pondicherry; but,
doubtless, Dupleix had been beforehand with them.
This much it is pleasant to record, that the siege, which lasted no
less than seven days, was the most bloodless on record. The death-roll
was only one Frenchman and five English.
The terms of capitulation were severe. All goods, stores, merchandise,
etc., passed to France; all English were prisoners-of-war. A ransom
was suggested, but Labourdonnais, while intimating that he was
prepared to receive the proposal reasonably, stipulated for previous
surrender. Indeed, throughout the whole affair he appears to have
behaved honourably and liberally. Not so Dupleix, who, when the
subsequent negotiations had commenced, roughly interfered, denied the
power of Labourdonnais to dictate terms, claimed Madras as standing in
his territory, and generally brought about a dead-lock, during which
three more French ships-of-war, with over one thousand three hundred
men on board, arrived at Pondicherry.
With this addition to his fleet Labourdonnais could have swept the
seas, and Calcutta and Bombay must have shared the fate of Madras;
but--alas, for France!--her sons were quarrelling amongst themselves.
And before they could settle their differences the weather intervened.
Truly, Great Britain scores something of tenderness from the breezes
that blow, by being "set in the steely seas," in the path of the north
and the west and the east and the south winds! They saved her once
from the Spanish Armada, and now the monsoon rolled up along the coast
of Coromandel, and broke in the Madras roads, foundered a French ship
of the line, and drove five others dismasted, disabled, out to sea.
It was a crushing blow, one from which France never recovered, and by
which poor Labourdonnais, who had consented to be tied by the leg
simply from a sense of honour, a determination to stand by his word at
all hazards, met with early and disappointed death; for the French
Government, filled up with the able lies of Dupleix, sent him to the
Bastille, where he lingered for three years, dying soon after his
contemptuous and unsympathetic release of poverty and a broken heart.
Dupleix, however, flourished like the proverbial green bay tree. He
repudiated ransoms and restorations alike, and seemed likely to remain
in possession, when the Nawab of Arcot intervened, asserting--and no
doubt with truth--that the French governor, in order to prevent aid
being sent to the English, had promised to make over Madras to him as
a reward for quiescence. The intervention was followed by an
undisciplined army of ten thousand men. And here, however much the
character of Dupleix may arouse dislike, credit must be given to him
for showing indubitably the inherent strength of his claim, that
European methods should be the weightiest factor in Eastern politics.
He met this horde of ten thousand with a body of four hundred
half-disciplined native troops--barely half-disciplined--and he
literally wiped his enemy out. Henceforward a new element entered into
the Eastern problem, for it was abundantly demonstrated that to
conquer India it was not necessary to import a whole army. There was
that of valour, that of sheer soldiership, amongst the natives
themselves, to make them, when properly led, the finest troops in the
world. It is hardly too much to say that India practically changed
rulers in 1746, when the Nawab of Arcot was repulsed from Madras.
Out of this repulse (necessary in order to enable Dupleix--despite the
promise without which Labourdonnais had refused to budge--to carry
through his treacherous intention of repudiating the negotiations,
refusing ransom, and holding Madras for the French) arose much. The
Nawab, disgusted, broke with Dupleix and assisted the English at Fort
St David, a smaller factory some miles further down the coast. Here
the appearance of the undisciplined troops just as the French,
imagining themselves secure of victory, were refreshing themselves in
a garden, produced such a scare that the victors were across the river
again, and on their way back to Pondicherry before they could be
Dupleix, greatly enraged at his failure, and knowing to a nicety how
to deal with natives, now commenced to make the Nawab of Arcot's life
a burden to him by reason of petty raids, until, wearied out, he once
more threw the weight of his support into the French scale.
It cannot have been a clean business; it certainly was not an edifying
spectacle to see two civilised European communities vieing with one
another in their efforts to secure an Oriental potentate, but this
much may be said in English extenuation--the French began it.
The case of the English along the Coast of Coromandel now seemed quite
desperate. They had lost their only ally, and though an attack by boat
on Cuddalore had been repulsed--once more by the aid of Neptune, who
always seems favourable to Britain, and who on this occasion swamped
half the enemy in the Coromandel Coast, and sent them dripping,
half-drowned, with wet powder and soaked magazines, back to sea--they
could not hope to avert the renewed assault on Fort St David, which
took place in 1747.
But this game of French and English was a series of surprises, a
perfect melodrama of dramatic coincidences; for no sooner were the
French once more comfortably ensconced in the old garden than--Hey
presto!--sails appeared to sea-ward, and in less than no time--hardly
long enough for Monsieur's hurried escape--there was a British fleet
at anchor in the roads!
It reads like some tale of adventure in which a "God-out-of-a-machine"
always appears in the nick of time to save the hero. But so it was,
though it must be confessed that beyond a display of force majeure
the British fleet did nothing. In truth a more incapable fleet never
floated. It seems to have spent a whole year in sailing about the Bay
of Bengal looking for the French fleet, and when it caught a glimpse
of the enemy, promptly changing its role from hound to hare, and
running away itself.
Meanwhile, on land one Major Lawrence--this is the first time that
this honoured name appears over the horizon of Indian history--a
distinguished King's officer, had come out to take over charge of the
Company's forces. At first he certainly distinguished himself, for he
began by discovering a deep-laid plot, in which Madame Dupleix was
prime mover, to tamper with the fidelity of the few hundred sepoys
which the English, following the example of the French, were bringing
into discipline. Banishment and death having disposed of this
conspiracy, Admiral Griffin and the British fleet were given a chance
of more honourable warfare; but, unfortunately, at the time the French
vessels showed close in to the coast the admiral and all his officers
happened to be ashore enjoying themselves, and so once more honest
battle degenerated into the looking for a needle in a bundle of hay;
in the midst of which the French vessels achieved their object of
landing L200,000 in specie, and four hundred soldiers at Pondicherry.
Major Lawrence, however, almost neutralised this failure by a clever
repulse of the French at Cuddalore, which lay but 3 miles north of
Fort St David. Hearing that a large force was advancing, he ordered
all the guns and stores from Cuddalore to be dismantled and taken in
to the former fort. Native spies, naturally, brought the news of this
to the enemy, who consequently advanced carelessly, applied their
scaling ladders to the walls, and were surprised by perfect platoons
of musketry and a shower of grape. The guns removed by day had been
restored by night, and the garrison largely reinforced. The result was
Once again it reads like a shilling shocker; one is tempted, almost,
to take the whole story as the figment of a super-excited brain.
All this time neither France nor England had--and small wonder--taken
this game of French and English on the Coromandel Coast at all
seriously; but at long last, in 1748, both the Government and the
Company of the latter woke up to the necessity for doing something.
The result being such a fleet as no Western nation had hitherto put
into Eastern waters. Thirty ships in all, thirteen of them being ships
of the line, and none of them less than 500 tons burden.
With these, close on four thousand European troops, three hundred
Africans, two thousand half-disciplined sepoys, and the support of the
Nawab of Arcot (who had once more changed sides), Fort St David
rightly felt itself strong enough, not only to recover Madras, but
also to take Pondicherry.
But here, alas! begins one of the most fateful tales of sheer
ineptitude to be found in the whole history of English warfare. Delay,
crass ignorance, useless persistence, and exaggerated importance,
marked the preliminary siege of Arrian-aupan, a small fort which might
with ease have been left alone. For the season was already far
advanced, and the object at which it was all-important to strike was,
September, however, had well begun ere the attacking force found
itself within 1,500 yards of the town, and instantly started, with
unheard-of caution, to throw up parallels. Wherefore, save from
ignorance, God knows, since in those days 880 yards was the limit for
such diggings. On they laboured with praiseworthy persistence until,
after a month's work, they reached the point at which they ought to
have begun, and found that their toil was useless! Between them and
the city lay an impassable morass.
The British fleet, meanwhile, getting as near to their range as strong
flanking batteries manned with over a hundred guns would allow, had
been pounding away quite uselessly at fair Pondicherry, which lay
smiling and peaceful, immaculate as any virgin town behind the white
line of surf.
What was now to be done? To begin again was hopeless, to persist
useless, so after losing over one-third of its European force from
sickness, and expending Heaven only knows how many rounds of
ammunition, England retired, having inflicted on France the loss by
the fire of her ships of one old Mahomedan woman, who was killed by a
spent shot in the street, and by sickness and other casualties some
two hundred soldiers.
No wonder Dupleix sang "Te Deums" until he was hoarse! No wonder he
wrote bombastic, boastful, letters round to every Nawab and Rajah,
including the Great Moghul, proclaiming that the French were the
fighters, and that those who were wise would side with them.
There can be no doubt whatever that this pantomimic siege of
Pondicherry lost the English prestige, which it took many years of
subsequent victories to regain.
For by the irony of fate, no immediate opportunity of revenge for
reparation of their honour was given them.
The Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle terminated the long war between France
and England, and one of the provisions of that treaty was the
restoration to each power of all possessions taken during the
Madras, therefore, was formally receded to England, and the combatants
on the Coromandel Coast were left eyeing one another, looking for some
new cause of conflict.
But the game of French and English was over.