The French Presence in India

The French had shown an interest in the East from the early years of the 16th century, but their individual efforts had been checked by the Portuguese. The first sustainable French company, the French East India Company, was launched by the French minister of finance, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, with the support of Louis XIV, in the year 1664. After some initially unsuccessful efforts, the French company acquired Pondicherry, 137 km south of Madras, from a local ruler in 1674 . It obtained Chandernagore, north of Calcutta, from the Mughal governor in 1690-1692. At first the French initiatives suffered because they mixed grand political and colonial schemes with those of trade, but, under François Martin from 1674, the French company scaled down its ambitions and turned increasingly to trade and began to prosper.

However the progress of the settlements was interrupted by events in Europe. The Dutch captured Pondicherry in 1693 in the course of the War of the Grand Alliance; when the French regained it under the Peace of Ryswick (1697), they gained the best fortifications in India but lost their trade. By 1706 the French enterprise seemed to be waning. The company’s privileges were contracted to a group of Saint-Malo merchants from 1708-1720. After 1720, however, there was a dramatic change in fortunes.

The company was reconstituted, and over the next 20 years its trade was expanded, and new stations were opened. The Indian Ocean island of Mauritius was finally acquired in 1721; Mahe in Malabar and Karaikal on the eastern coast were acquired in 1725 and 1739 , respectively. The Chandarnagar settlement was revived. The French company remained under the close supervision of the government, which nominated the directors and, from 1733, guaranteed fixed dividends. However, in spite of the company’s growth and its nurturing by government, its sales in Europe in 1740 were only about half those of England’s East India Company. Its trade was significant but not great enough to seriously rival that of the English.

Other enterprises in India operating in this period included a Danish East India Company, which operated intermittently from 1616 from Tranquebar near Nagapattinam in the Madras region, acquiring Serampore in Bengal in 1755, and the Ostend Company of Austrian Netherlands merchants from 1723, a serious rival until eliminated by diplomatic means in 1731 . Efforts by the Swedes and Prussians to establish a presence in India had also proved fruitless.

The First Phase of the Anglo-French Struggle for Supremacy

In the year 1740 India appeared to be in a relatively quiescent state. In the north Nadir Shah’s invasion (1739) had proved to be only a large-scale raid with no lasting impact. In the Deccan the Nizamal-Mulk provided a degree of stability. In the west the Marathas were dominant. However, there was competition between Marathas, Mughals, and local rulers for political supremacy in the Deccan. It was in this backdrop that events in Europe precipitated an Anglo-French struggle in India. The War of the Austrian Succession began in Europe with Frederick II of Prussia seizing Silesia (an area in Central Europe mainly located in today’s Poland) in 1740; France supported Prussia, and from 1742 England supported Austria. In reality, France and Britain jumped into the fray, less to help their respective allies, and more to fight each other for dominance in their American and Asian colonies. The North American campaign in this war, was called King George’s War while the Indo-Asian campaign in this war developed into the First Carnatic War.

This set the stage for an Indian conflict when the English decided that the French Indian trade was too powerful to be left alone, and abandoned their earlier neutrality. Both sides depended on sea power for success, but it was the French who moved first. With an improvised fleet from Mauritius, Bertrand-François Mahé, (titled as Comte de La Bourdonnais), drove the British out and captured Madras after a week’s siege in September 1746. However quarrels between La Bourdonnais and the governor of Pondicherry, Joseph-François Dupleix, meant that this unexpected success could not be followed up, although the French did succeed in repelling an English attack on Pondicherry. Then the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748), which ended the war, returned Madras to the British in exchange for Cape Breton Island in North America.

New Phase of Anglo French Rivalry in the Deccan

While in some ways this marked a return to the status quo there were major changes in the situation as a consequence of this conflict. Madras was now recognised as British by European treaty, and this was accepted by the rival Indian chiefs also. The French grew in prestige as skilful soldiers and their power was enhanced by the detachments of the French fleet left behind on La Bourdonnais’s departure. Most importantly, Dupleix perceived and acted on the opportunity offered for exploiting the new French reputation, in the confused politics of the Deccan region.

For some years there had been a disputed succession to the governorship of the Carnatic, which was itself a dependency of the Nizam al-Mulk of Hyderabad. The nizam had installed a new Carnatic nabob in 1743 , but the dispute raged on between the partisans of the two rival families, who sought help from Marathas, Mughals, and Europeans for settlement in their favour.

In 1748 , with the death of the Nizam al-Mulk a dispute arose over succession between his second son and a grandson, Muzaffar Jang. Dupleix, encouraged by his easy repulse of the Carnatic nawab from the premises of Madras, decided to support both Muzaffar and the claimant to the Carnatic nawabship, Chanda Sahib. If successful, this would become the means of ruining the British trade in southern India and gaining an indefinite influence over the affairs of the whole Deccan. At first fortune favoured him. The Carnatic nawab was killed in the Battle of Ambur (1749), which demonstrated convincingly the superiority of European arms and methods of warfare. The threatening invasion of the new nizam, Nasir Jang, ended with the nizam’s murder in December 1750. French troops conducted Muzaffar Jang toward Hyderabad; when Muzaffar in turn was murdered three months later, the French succeeded in placing the late nizam’s third son, Salabat Jang, on the Hyderabad throne. Thenceforward, in the person of the skilful Charles, Marquis de Bussy-Castelnau, Dupleix had a kingmaker at the centre of Muslim power in the Deccan.

The British response to these dramatic successes was to support for the Carnatic nawabship the late nawab’s son, Muhammad Ali, who had taken refuge in the rock fortress of Trichinopoly. They had already interfered in the affairs of Tanjore and were no strangers to Indian politics. The French supported Chanda Sahib for the nawabship. There thus developed what was really a private war between the two companies.

Failure of the French

Although they had early successes, from 1751 Dupleix’s star began to wane. Robert Clive, a discontented British factor who had left the counting house for the field, seized the fort of Arcot, political capital of the Carnatic, with only 210 men in August 1751. This daring stroke had the effect of diverting half of Chanda Sahib’s army to its recovery. Clive’s successful 50-day defence permitted Muhammad Ali to get the support of allies from Tanjore and the Marathas. The French were vanquished, and they were eventually forced to surrender in June 1752 . Dupleix never recovered from this blow; he was superseded in August 1754 by the director Charles-Robert Godeheu, who made a settlement with the British.

The French gained only a brief respite in their struggle with the British; the Seven Years’ War in Europe, in which Britain and France were once more on opposite sides, broke out in the year 1756. Both sides sent new armaments to the East. The first British force was diverted to Bengal, so that the French general Thomas-Arthur Lally had an advantage on his arrival in 1758. Lally was brave but headstrong and tactless; after taking Fort St. David, he delayed his march on Tanjore, where he also lost Indian sympathy by executing temple Brahmans. Then his attack on Madras (1758-1759) foundered, while Clive’s troops from Bengal defeated the French garrison of the Northern Sarkars. When Sir Eyre Coote arrived with reinforcements, the British defeated Lally decisively at the Battle of Wandiwash in January 1760. Bussy-Castelnau, who had been recalled from Hyderabad, was captured; and Lally retreated to Pondicherry, where, after an eight-month siege made tense by bitter recrimination, he surrendered in January 1761. The French threat to British power in India had come to a temporary close.

This defeat could be partly blamed on Lally, but there were also other causes.

  • An overriding factor was the British command of the sea
  • Lally could get no allies for lack of money and no money because of lack of supply from France.
  • The British could supply Madras from both Britain and Bengal.
  • The French company was under the control of the French government, and the company suffered from the vagaries of French domestic politics.

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