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

of Bourbon.

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

headlong flight.

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,

palpably, Pondicherry.

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.