With Madras secure in French possession Dupleix now turned his attention to Fort St David. This was no surprise to its English garrison who, with barely eight miles of scrub and dune between their walls and those of Pondicherry, were wont to consider themselves in a more or less permanent state of siege. Just as the presence of French shipping in Pondicherry roads meant that Fort St David was blockaded, so even innocent foraging could look like an offensive move. Amidst such continual alarms, however, there appear to have been three serious attempts to take the place – in December 1746, March 1747, and June 1748. On all but the last occasion the French found Cuddalore – in effect the Black Town of Fort St David – undefended. Poorly fortified and of considerable extent, it was beyond the means of the English to hold it. But the fort itself, a mile to the north, was a very different proposition. Unlike Madras, it stood on rising ground, was of a regular shape, and had a clear field of fire. For all the disadvantages of proximity to the French capital, it was here that the English had resolved to make their last stand on The Coast.
Already Fort St David had been designated their senior settlement in the peninsula and the hub of what remained of their commercial operations there. Those, like the young Robert Clive, who had made good their escape from Madras and headed for Fort St David, found it on an altogether more warlike footing. Ever since La Bourdonnais’s first arrival on the Coast, the Fort’s factors had been readying themselves for action by calling in all merchandise, stockpiling provisions and military stores, and recruiting a force of peons which now numbered some 2000. Meanwhile desperate appeals for help, treasure and reinforcements had been sent to London, Bengal, Bombay and even places like Tellicherry and Benkulen. It could only be a matter of time before relief was at hand.
Even so Fort St David’s survival seems to have owed as much to Providence, whom its factors invoked with great frequency, as to valour. The failure of the first French assault looks like the result of over-confidence following those resounding routs of the Nawab’s forces outside Madras. After a short but hungry night march from Pondicherry, the French troops bivouacked outside the fort and fell to ‘dressing their victuals’ with true Gallic devotion. The Nawab’s hordes had been shadowing their advance and chose this moment to launch a surprise attack. Caught off their guard the French panicked, at which point the English peons issued forth to join in the fray. Clive, who took part, claims that the French ‘lost a great many men by the random shot of the Moorish infantry and our peons’. But there was no rout and the French reached Pondicherry in good order.
Having bought off the Nawab with a large cash indemnity, Dupleix should have succeeded at his second attempt. This time the French force was twice as strong and was commanded by the able Monsieur Paradis, the victor of one of those engagements with the Nawab outside Madras. Additionally, the English within the fort were now at their lowest ebb. Twice Company vessels had come within sight of the fort only to put hastily back to sea, without so much as landing their letters, when they heard of the proximity of French shipping. Worse still, it was more than four months since the fall of Madras and there was still no word from Bengal of the men, munitions, treasure and stores which had been repeatedly requested. Nor was there any word of the wretched Peyton and his squadron. ‘We endeavour to bear up under the melancholy circumstances’, wrote the Fort St David factors but added, not without feeling, that they thought it ‘somewhat unkind in our countrymen and fellow servants to have abandoned us.’
Luckily such black sentiments were soon dispelled. On 2 March 1747, after a day-long exchange of artillery fire, the English were forced back behind the walls of the fort. The siege, it seemed, had at last begun in earnest. But the very next day the garrison awoke to a welcome sight for which, of course, only Divine Providence could be responsible. There, riding beyond the Coromandel surf, was the long awaited squadron. Relief must have turned to euphoria when it was learnt that its command had passed from Peyton to Thomas Griffin, a man of considerable resolve if little initiative.
With the tables turned the French quickly returned to Pondicherry lest Griffin should elect to besiege it. In fact Griffin was in no position to take the offensive. His squadron was undermanned and Bengal had been able to spare only 100 European troops. The most he could do was stay put and deter a further attack on Fort St David.
Thus for a year (1747-8) Griffin presided over an uneasy stalemate during which reinforcements trickled in to both Fort St David and Pondicherry. Besides the Bengal troops, the English received nearly 400 topazes, peons and Europeans from Bombay and Tellicherry; there were also a few more recruits from England. There the news of the loss of Madras had prompted the directors to make an impassioned appeal to the Government, as a result of which a new squadron crammed with troops had reportedly sailed from home at the beginning of 1748. But pending its appearance on The Coast the most significant addition to the Fort St David garrison was the arrival there, at about the same time, of Major Stringer Lawrence.
Lawrence’s appointment as commander of the Company’s forces was a belated response to the death of Major Knipe back in 1743. Like Knipe, he was a veteran of the regular army. He had fought at Fontenoy and Culloden and, though now into his portly and crabbed fifties, he combined military flair with a Churchillian bullishness that endeared him to his troops. While the stalemate lasted, Lawrence concentrated on transforming Fort St David’s motley collection of Europeans, topazes and peons into an effective fighting force. The Europeans and topazes became a single battalion, the peons (or now more commonly ‘sepoys’) were formed into regular companies, and an amply officered command structure was established. It included Robert Clive who, having shown himself to be ‘of a martial disposition’, had just been commissioned an ensign. Of necessity these new arrangements were perfunctory, but the authority of Lawrence and the charisma of Clive would ensure for them posterity’s reverence. According to the former’s biographer, ‘it was in such humble beginnings that the Anglo-Indian army had its origin’; according to the best of the latter’s many biographers this little force ‘was the germ of an army that won an empire for England’.
Winning an empire was not, however, the immediate priority. When Griffin and his squadron were at last lured away by a French fleet, Dupleix saw his chance. Again the French troops marched out of Pondicherry under cover of darkness. This time they skirted Fort St David and arrived before Cuddalore which Lawrence, with his augmented garrison, was now holding. Long and low, the walls of Cuddalore positively invited attack and French ladders were soon in position; with surprise on their side, French arms should have triumphed. But somehow word of the plan had already reached the English. Lawrence’s men were waiting and the French were thrown back with considerable losses.
Six weeks later Admiral Boscawen’s long expected fleet from home anchored off Fort St David. When united with Griffin’s squadron Boscawen’s fleet formed the largest concourse of European shipping ever seen in the East – thirty-nine vessels including thirteen ships of the line. Additionally he brought munitions, guns, treasure and 1200 troops. Raised by officers of the regular army and formed into twelve companies, these were the first Royal (as opposed to Company) troops to serve in India since that ill-fated garrison sent out by Charles I to occupy Bombay. They were also the first British (as opposed to English) troops, having been largely recruited in Scotland and Ireland. It was forty years since the Act of Union, but only after Culloden and the ‘45 had Scots begun to play their major role in the affairs of India and of the Company.
Scarcely had the new arrivals found their land legs than they were marching off to the siege of Pondicherry. The tables were turned and it was the British who now took the offensive. With 4000 Europeans (including marines and seamen provided by the fleet) plus 2000 sepoys, the British greatly outnumbered the French. With a force ten times the size of that which had surrendered Madras even Lawrence expected a quick victory. But Dupleix had long been preparing for this eventuality and had greatly improved Pondicherry’s defences. Boscawen in over-all command had no experience of siege warfare. And Lawrence was taken prisoner before the siege proper got under way. As a result, the English made a series of disastrous errors, squandered their forces, and inflicted negligible damage. After two months and over 1000 fatalities (mostly due to sickness) the siege was lifted. As with the Company’s first trial of strength with a European rival – that with the Dutch in the archipelago more than a hundred years before – the whole affair was as unnecessary as it was ignominious. For in Europe preliminary terms for the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle had already been agreed in the previous April. They contained a stipulation whereby the hostilities in India were supposed to have already ended.
The Peace of Aix also provided for the exchange of all prisoners (Lawrence had already been freed) and the restitution of Madras. Accordingly, in August 1749 the French garrison hauled down its flag and marched out by the sea gate while the Company’s troops marched in by one of the landward gates. They found the fabric of both town and fort ‘in extreamly bad condition’. But at least the Indian merchants and middlemen were relieved to see them back; from The Coast’s other trading settlements they flocked to the city, trade was resumed, and Black Town again began to expand. It was a sign of the times, and of priorities, that Robert Clive now relinquished his commission and resumed civilian employ as Fort St George’s Steward (in charge of purchasing provisions) and as an ambitious private trader. With Lawrence as Acting Governor the Fort’s Council resumed its ‘Diary and Consultations Book’ in November 1749.
The appearance of normality was, however, illusory; both Clive and Lawrence would soon be back in the field. Peace had neither reconciled the two rival Companies, nor dispersed the concentration of troops which each now commanded; nor had it removed the ambitious Dupleix. Indirect hostilities had already broken out before the restitution of Madras. They would continue for six years, their results would far outweigh anything that had been achieved during the previous five years of outright war, and they would be quickly followed by another period of full-blooded confrontation sanctioned by the Seven Years War in Europe. The Peace of Aix had merely concluded the first phase of the struggle.
It would probably be tedious and certainly, given the many published accounts, superfluous to chronicle the military details of this protracted struggle. Similar power games were in progress all over the subcontinent as the fragile confection which was once the mighty Moghul empire crumbled like a crushed papadom. Sometimes large sections would break off more or less intact as was the case with Bengal and Hyderabad. Nominally the Carnatic – the province immediately inland from the French and British settlements – was still subordinate to the Nizam of Hyderabad; but here, at the most friable extremity of the Empire, a combination of Balkanization and Byzantine intrigue had so compounded the confusion that, as the Nizam himself had remarked, every landed poligar (feudal chief) considered himself a Nawab and for every so-called Nawabship there were several claimants.
The Carnatic Wars, in which the French and British now became eager participants, mirrored this chaos. In fickle alliances the numerous contenders marched and counter-marched their forces across a rich and champaign land of large horizons and lofty palmyras. Single rocks of Cyclopean size suggested tactical advantage and provided a focus for manoeuvres. The few solitary boulder-strewn hills were invariably fortified – ready-made redoubts for a series of interminable sieges in which besiegers and besieged easily changed places. Like Flanders or Picardy, the Carnatic dictated a diffuse and wearisome species of warfare in which victory contained little promise of peace and defeat was rarely fatal.
Bound over by the European peace, and further constrained by their subordinate status within the old Moghul hierarchy, the French and English Companies could neither oppose one another directly nor make conquests in their own name. Instead they operated by proxy, adopting the causes of rival Nawabs. These dignitaries had a claim on the active support of their European feudatories and thus, in taking the field on their behalf, the French and British could claim to be discharging a legitimate obligation. It was, though, an obligation with strings. For such was now the reputation of European arms that a heavy price could be demanded in return. The territories and revenues which would accrue to the two Companies were acquired not by right of conquest and at the expense of their enemies but by right of cession and at the expense of their allies.
A pattern of sorts was quickly established. Although history usually credits Dupleix with taking the initiative, it was in fact the British who first evinced a taste for mischief. In early 1749, while the peace arrangements were still under negotiation, a force of 1400 British and Indian troops marched south out of Fort St David in support of an adventurer with a doubtful claim to the throne of neighbouring Tanjore (Thanjavur). It seems that Boscawen and Floyer, the Company’s new President, had hatched the scheme. The former anticipated restoring the reputation of British arms after the failure to take Pondicherry and the latter welcomed any ploy that would remove from the Company’s shoulders the burden of housing and feeding a temporarily redundant army.
There were, though, other considerations of a more traditional and commercial nature. As well as defraying the cost of the expedition, the ‘Tanjorine’ pretender had undertaken to reward the Company with the grant of Devikottai, a coastal fort fifteen miles south of Fort St David at the mouth of the Coleroon river. Ten years earlier the French had acquired the nearby port of Karikal. It was important for commercial reasons to establish an emporium on the rich Tanjore littoral where, besides the French, both the Dutch (at Negapatnam) and the Danes (at Tranquebar) were already established.
When the first Tanjore expedition failed and a second, commanded by Lawrence and twice as strong, sailed direct for Devikottai, it became clear that this acquisition was the real objective. The ‘Tanjorine’ in whose name the British were supposedly fighting was simply pensioned off as soon as the fort was taken. In return for a title to the place from the existing Raja of Tanjore, the British agreed to a cessation of hostilities. Mission accomplished. According to Robert Orme, whose usual informant, Clive, had played a conspicuous part in the attack, Devikottai was not only well situated to tap the local production of ‘linnen’ but also commanded the mouth of the Coleroon river which, with a bit of dredging, could become the only harbour on the entire Coast ‘capable of receiving a ship of over 300 tons burden’. In other words, Devikottai was just another of those obscure anchorages – like Divi, Chittagong, Pulo Condore – in which over-enthusiastic factors detected a second Bombay. Like them, it too failed to live up to expectations, but the whole affair serves to emphasize the continuity of Company thinking. A secure commerce, and not territorial expansion, was still the priority.
It remained so until Dupleix’s altogether more imaginative intrigues began to bear fruit. While the British were double-dealing in insignificant Tanjore, the French had found a worthier assignment for their footloose soldiery in promoting the claims to the Nawabship of the Carnatic of the energetic Chanda Sahib (‘the only leader capable’, in Orme’s quaint phrasing, ‘of exciting intestine commotions’) and those of Chanda Sahib’s ally, Muzaffar Jang, to the Nizamate of Hyderabad. Again French arms carried all before them and in July 1749 the confederates duly defeated and killed the incumbent Nawab. Chanda Sahib succeeded. By way of appreciation the French received various territories including Masulipatnam (the port of Hyderabad) and a cluster of villages in the vicinity of Pondicherry. The latter could be seen as a reasonable provision, like the Trivitore grant in the case of Madras, for the future defence and expansion of Pondicherry. But to the British it looked much more sinister. For as a result of the grant, nearby Fort St David was now ringed by French territory and effectually cut off from the inland weaving centres on which its trade depended.
Floyer and his Council responded by seizing San Thome, the erstwhile Portuguese settlement on the outskirts of Madras, and by having their acquisition confirmed by Mohammed Ali, the son of the Nawab slain by Chanda Sahib and his confederates. Among pretenders to the Nawabship legitimacy was scarcely a relevant consideration given that in both Hyderabad and Delhi the only sanctioning authority was now also up for grabs. But Mohammed Ali had as good a claim as anyone to the Carnatic throne and had shown himself a loyal friend during the late war with France. Henceforth he would be the British candidate. In late 1749 a first trickle of Company troops was put at his disposal. Like his rival, he acknowledged the help by awarding those same villages round Fort St David to the Company. Six months later he added the large district and fort of Poonamallee near Madras, ‘the key to all this country’ according to the optimistic Madras Council.
But still the British were merely responding to French pressures. It was not until the end of 1750, when the second part of Dupleix’s master plan fell into place, that it dawned on them that they were involved in more than a tussle for commercial advantage. First Mohammed Ali, the British candidate for the Nawabship, was roundly defeated; then, two months later in December 1750, the incumbent Nizam of mighty Hyderabad was murdered and Muzaffar Jang, the French contender, took his place. Both the Carnatic and Hyderabad were now ruled by French puppets. Dupleix was heaped with honours and presents, rewarded with further territory said to yield an annual revenue of over 350,000 rupees, and co-opted into the Moghul hierarchy as ‘Zafar Jang Bahadur’ and the new Nizam’s Viceroy for the Carnatic. And all this was only the tip of the iceberg. For with French arms apparently invincible and with the rulers of both the Carnatic and Hyderabad (whose territories stretched west almost to Bombay and north to Bengal) dependent on them, Dupleix was master of half the peninsula.
It would be hard to over-estimate the impact on the Company’s men of what the Madras Council called ‘this extraordinary revolution’. They now recognized that Dupleix had changed the rules of European involvement in India. For 150 years the Company had been endeavouring to appease the existing political hierarchy; in three years Dupleix had simply usurped it. The English must either follow suit or leave the table.
In the person of Thomas Saunders, who had just succeeded Floyer as President of Madras, they accepted the challenge. In the summer of 1751 all available troops were rushed to Trichy (Trichinopoly, Tiruchirappalli) where Mohammed Ali was making what looked like his last stand; and to relieve the pressure still further by diverting some of the besieging forces, Robert Clive was re-commissioned as a captain and authorized to march on Arcot. ‘It is conceived that this officer may be of some service’, opined the Fort St David Council. With 800 recruits and three guns Clive left Madras in September 1751 to launch a campaign that would redeem the Company’s supremacy; or, in the words of his biographer, that would ‘lay the first stone of the foundation of our Indian Empire’.
In the mightily confused struggle that followed, none of the European settlements was directly affected and only Company troops were involved. France and Britain were, after all, at peace. Instead of Madras and Pondicherry, it was Arcot, Chanda Sahib’s capital, and Trichy, Mohammed Ali’s headquarters, which bore the brunt of the fighting. There were no less than three sieges of Trichy plus countless skirmishes in its vicinity. In all these, as in the few really decisive engagements, European troops again demonstrated their superior firepower. But their numbers were always small. Although some of Boscawen’s Royal troops had taken service with the Company, and in spite of an erratic supply of recruits from Bengal, such was the mortality (more from the climate than the fighting) that the Company could rarely deploy over 1000 Europeans; at most engagements there were only a couple of hundred. The same was true of the French, many of whose best troops had marched with Muzaffar Jang to Hyderabad.
Charles Joseph Patissier de Bussy.
In this situation battles were won by opportunism, mobility, surprise, individual acts of bravery, and sheer good luck. A single officer with a taste for improvisation and a reputation for victory could tip the balance. In the Marquis de Bussy the French had just such a man but he was now regulating the affairs of Hyderabad. In Clive and Lawrence the British had two and they were on the spot.
After nine months of fighting their endeavours were rewarded with the surrender of the French at Srirangam and the murder of Chanda Sahib. Peace negotiations were opened but quickly broken off when Dupleix opportunely took delivery of 500 new recruits. The fighting flared up again. It dragged on throughout 1753 with neither party gaining a distinct advantage. More peace negotiations followed in January 1754 with Saunders offering an equal division of the spoils in the Carnatic; but Dupleix declined. By fighting on in the Carnatic, he was drawing the British fire and leaving de Bussy with a free hand in the greater affair of Hyderabad. Only when Dupleix was recalled to France in August 1754 was the way at last clear for a truce and a provisional treaty.