Europeans in India Part 9 The French Arrive in India Section III: Benoit Dumas

Canberra, 14 April 2023

On 19th September 1735, Lenoir was succeeded as Governor–General by Benoit Dumas (1668–1745). So far, the French had maintained very cordial relations with the local rulers; Lenoir had furthered the associations and contacts that Martin had established. However, the prevailing tranquillity was about to be shattered by emerging events in South India. The turmoil that ensued was in no way the result of any failings on the part of Dumas, who acquitted himself honourably at all times through his tenure.

Dumas had entered the service of the French company when he was 17 years old and had gone to Pondicherry in 1713. He was very capable and had been promoted to be a member of the Supreme Council within about five years of his joining. In June 1721, he was made the Attorney General and then moved to the Isles of France and Bourbon, where he rose to be the Governor of those islands. From that position he was appointed the Governor–General of all French Possessions in India in 1735.

‘The new Governor [Benoit Dumas] was a shrewd, calculating, prudent man—one not given to risk much without having in view a very tangible result; brave, resolute, jealous of the honour of France, thoroughly acquainted with native ways, holding fast by the traditions of Francis Martin, a lover of peace, and anxious, above all, to extend the French territories in India by smooth means.’

— Colonel G. B. Malleson,

History of the French in India, p. 72.

Dumas believed in not creating ripples and adhering to the passive policy of ‘steady as she goes’ for the governance of his territories—he was content to continue practising the established mild and peaceful policies. From the beginning, after the establishment of Pondicherry and Martin’s benign administration, the French had maintained cordial and close bonds with the most powerful kingdom in the region, the Carnatic Sultanate, in 1735 ruled by Nawab Dost Ali. The Carnatic Sultanate, although practically an independent State, was formally under the legal control of the Nizam ul-Mulk of Hyderabad, himself the nominal viceroy of the Mughal king in Delhi. The independence of the Carnatic Sultanate can be seen from the fact that when Dost Ali came to power in 1732, at the death of his uncle the nawab, he did not seek the permission of the Mughal Viceroy to the Deccan to ascend the throne. Dumas had formed a close relationship with Dost Ali, and through this friendship had obtained permission to mint French coins in Pondicherry, in gold and silver, with the Mughal stamp on the obverse.

Dumas gradually managed to accrue large profits for the French in India. However, the politics of South India had started to influence the fortunes of the French settlement. Dumas, cautious as always, had assessed the situation and emerging circumstances, managing to turn emerging events to the advantage of the French.

Turmoil in Tiruchirappalli

Dost Ali had two sons, the elder being Safdar Ali, and several daughters. One of his daughters was married to Murtaza Ali, Dost Ali’s nephew, and another to Chanda Sahib, a distant relative of the nawab. Chanda Sahib had vaulting ambition, was highly capable, and possessed unbounded energy. Unfortunately, he was devoid of wealth. The disadvantage was further exacerbated since both his brothers-in-law, and many of his relatives, were wealthy and harboured their own ambitions. Chanda Sahib had realised early that he had to look outside the family for support to realise his limitless ambition. He had studied the French carefully and understood the foreigners better than any other prince of the regime, having detected their latent desire to expand and capture more territory. Starting with Martin, the French had managed to keep this longing for territory hidden from the understanding of local rulers by being obsequiously cordial to them and extremely discreet in their dealings. Chanda Sahib decided to cultivate the French for his own benefit, looking upon them as natural allies in his schemes. He visited Pondicherry often and made friends with all the high officials based there, including Governor Dumas.

In 1735, the Raja of Tiruchirappalli died without issue and immediately a contest for the throne erupted between the widowed Rani and another relative of the king. The Rani appealed to Dost Ali, as the most powerful South Indian ruler, for assistance. Dost Ali sent a force under his son Safdar Ali as the nominal commander with Chanda Sahib as his assistant and the real commander of the force to assist the Rani gain the throne. The force overran the small kingdom and on 26th April 1736, Chanda Sahib captured the capital, Tiruchirappalli. It is believed that he took an oath to protect the Rani and her kingdom on a brick covered with cloth to resemble a Quran. As soon as Tiruchirappalli came under his control, he broke the oath without any compunctions since it was false. Another story is that the Rani fell in love with Chanda Sahib and therefore handed over the kingdom to him—a fanciful, but improbable tale. In any case, as soon as he was in control of Tiruchirappalli, Chanda Sahib imprisoned the Queen. When Safdar Ali returned to Arcot, Chanda Sahib assumed the governance of Tiruchirappalli on behalf of his father-in-law, the nawab of the Carnatic. He continued to assiduously cultivate the French.

Kingdom of Tanjore (Thanjavur)

Between Trichinapally and the Coromandel coast lay the kingdom of Tanjore. The kingdom was conquered by Shivaji’s father Shahji Bhonsle and bestowed by Shivaji to his brother Venkaji. Tukaji, Venkaji’s successor, died in February 1738 leaving behind two legitimate sons and one illegitimate son. The eldest son Baba Sahib took over the throne but died the same year. After a short tussle with the Muslim military commander, Said Khan, the second legitimate son Sahuji came to the throne. However, Said Khan in collaboration with a pretender to the throne called Siduji, organised a palace coup. Sahuji managed to escape in the nick of time and took refuge in Chelambram, about 24 miles from Pondicherry.

Sahuji opened negotiations with the French for assistance. He promised Dumas the town of Karikal and the fort at Kirkangarhi along with the lands around these two extending to about 10 miles into Tanjore kingdom in return for French assistance to regain his throne. The French had for long been trying to get a territorial foothold in the Tanjore kingdom but had continuously been thwarted by the Dutch ensconced in Nagapatam. Dumas could not let this golden opportunity go without taking advantage of it. Dumas agreed to give Sahuji one lakh rupees in silver, arms and ammunition and other stores—in fact other than for French soldiers he promised to provide the wherewithal to fight the battle to reclaim his throne. A grateful Sahuji surrendered Karikal, the fort and ten villages to the French.

Unfortunately, the march of events did not follow the script, as often happens in history. Through bribes and other inducements, Sahuji won over the Tanjore nobility and then the powerful Said Khan who seized and imprisoned Siduji, his one-time co-conspirator. Sahuji hurriedly returned to Tanjore and his throne. In August 1738, two French warships arrived before Karikal, ostensibly to provide assistance to Raja, in reality to take over the town. However, Sahuji informed the French that their assistance was no longer required, made excuses of a possible invasion by Chanda Sahib and refused to hand over Karikal. Dumas’ inherent prudence and character now came into prominence. He knew that the two French warships could storm Karikal and take over the township, but he decided to wait for another opportunity. He was careful not to sully the French reputation of non-interference in local matters. Dumas recalled his warships.

Into this great display of sensible reticence stepped the ambitious and conniving Chanda Sahib. On receiving information of Raja Sahu’s refusal to honour his commitments to the French and of Dumas withdrawing his ships, Chanda Sahib perceived an opportunity to cement his relations with the French. He wrote to Dumas that he was already at war with Sahuji and offered to capture Karikal with his troops and then hand it over to the French—he emphasised that he did not want anything in return but only wanted to put right a wrong that had been done to his friends, the French.

The offer contained no risk for the French and did not even demonstrate any French avarice for territory. This was a middle rung Indian ruler compelling a weaker ruler to adhere to commitments that had been made with a third party. Dumas considered the offer and decided that he would not be violating any French principles in accepting Chanda Sahib’s generous offer. Therefore, he accepted the offer. Chanda Sahib’s forces under the command of a Spaniard named Francisco Pereira captured Karikal without a fight on 6th February 1739, then stormed and took the fort of Kirkangarhi. As promised, Chanda Sahib’s commander handed over both to the French on 14th February.

Viewed from a particular perspective, Chanda Sahib’s action remains inexplicable. However, this view does not take into account two conjoined factors—Chanda Sahib harboured great ambitions; neither did he have any support within the ruling family to further his agenda and nor did he have the resources to make an attempt to capture power on his own. He had calculated that the only way he could move forward his agenda of self-aggrandisement, of eventually becoming the nawab of the Carnatic, was to entrench himself in favour with the French. The capture of Karikal for the French was his way of achieving this ultimate aim. Sahuji was subsequently overthrown by his half-brother Pratap Singh, who made up with the French. Karikal and surrounding areas became integral parts of French possessions in India.

The Maratha Invasion

The Marathas, by this time ascendant in the Deccan (see the previous volume in this series of books From Indus to Independence: A Trek through Indian History Volume IX: Har Har Mahadev – The Maratha Dominance) turned their attention towards the Muslim kingdom of the Carnatic. Aware of the approaching invasion and the extreme vigour of the Maratha forces, Dost Ali moved to protect his kingdom. He set up defences at the Damalcheri Pass and asked son Safdar Ali and son-in-law Chanda Sahib to hurry to his assistance with their forces. Both these princes confirmed their intention to assist Dost Ali, but they were purposely slow, and it would seem to an outside observer, somewhat unwilling to come to the aid of their nawab—father and father-in-law.

The Maratha forces under Raghuji Bhonsle, defeated the Carnatic army on 19th May 1740—Dost Ali and his younger son Hasan Ali were both killed in the battle. The rout of the Carnatic army, with heavy loss of life, is considered one of the worst to have been inflicted at that time. Safdar Ali, who had started to march to his father’s assistance retired to the fort at Vellore on hearing the news of the defeat and his father’s death. Chanda Sahib who had not moved out till then, continued to be battened down at Tiruchirappalli.

Both these stalwarts, who had baulked at assisting the nawab against a formidable enemy, now sent their families and their movable wealth to safety under the French in Pondicherry. They considered Pondicherry to be by far the safest place in the Carnatic against possible Maratha attacks. Dumas was again placed in a similar position to the then-Governor when the great Shivaji had surrounded Pondicherry years earlier. Even though the defences of Pondicherry were much better this time, Dumas acted with his customary prudence. As soon as the Maratha invasion had become imminent, Dumas had personally supervised the expanding of the defences and stockpiling of supplies and provisions.

When Dost Ali’s widow and retinue arrived at Pondicherry seeking shelter and protection, Dumas in characteristic fashion weighed the pros and cons. He decided to run the risk of annoying the Marathas and a possible attack by them rather than sully the good name of France by refusing protection to a woman in distress. The other, unsaid but, obvious consideration was that Safdar Ali, the prince regent and heir apparent, was still unsubdued and would not take kindly to his mother being dishonoured by either the French or for that matter the Marathas. Dumas permitted the widowed queen to shelter at Pondicherry.

Meanwhile the Marathas had occupied Arcot and were marauding the neighbouring countryside, although the plunder was limited. In August 1740, Safdar Ali signed a treaty with the Marathas with some conditions. Safdar Ali would be recognised as the ‘nawab’ to succeed his dead father; Safdar Ali would pay the Marathas Rupees 10 million; further, he would join forces with the Marathas to drive Chanda Sahib out of Trichinapally; and all Hindu princes who had been dispossessed of their kingdoms in the Coromandel coast would be reinstated.

The Marathas turned their attention to Pondicherry and the foreigners. Raghuji Bhonsle threatened the French, asking them to surrender the wealth that the Ali family had brought with them to Pondicherry as well as hand over the senior family members to the Marathas or face dire consequences. Dumas had refused to comply, stating that every single Frenchman in India would die first before they surrendered the women of the Dost Ali family, and prepared for the defence of Pondicherry. At this juncture, the newly minted nawab, Safdar Ali, intervened on behalf of the French. He promised the Marathas, his allies now, that he would deal with the French harshly and then visited Pondicherry. Chanda Sahib accompanied the nawab. Safdar Ali conferred some land on Dumas personally for his assistance and then returned to Arcot with his family and treasure. Since he had already established peace with the Marathas, there was no danger to him anymore.

Chanda Sahib also returned to Trichinapally but without collecting his wealth and leaving his family in Pondicherry. He had already paid homage to Safdar Ali as the new nawab and sworn allegiance to him. It is highly probable that Dumas advised Chanda that the threat from the Marathas was not yet over, which would have influenced his decision to leave his family and treasure in Pondicherry. However, on his return to Trichinapally, he behaved in an uncharacteristic manner—he sold all the grain that had earlier been stored to withstand a siege and did not make any defensive preparations. If he heeded the French advise in leaving his family behind, he did not take it account when making arrangements to govern his province. After dispersing the grain, he sent a contingent of his army, under the command of his brother Bara Sahib, to annex Madura, thus dividing his forces.

The Marathas were still camped in the Carnatic, at Sivaganga, only 80 miles from Trichinapally. On receiving the news of the expedition to Madura and the division of Chanda Sahib’s forces, Raghuji Bhonsle force-marched and laid siege to Trichinapally. Chanda Sahib had not replenished his empty stores. Bara Sahib turned round on being informed of the siege of Trichinapally and hurried back to assist his brother. He was intercepted by the Maratha forces and killed in the ensuing battle. No reinforcements reached Trichinapally. Chanda Sahib fought brilliantly. However, after three months his resources, stores and money were all exhausted and he surrendered on 21st March 1741. Chanda Sahib was taken prisoner and sent under escort to Satara where he was imprisoned. The Marathas annexed Trichinapally.

Pondicherry is Threatened … Again

The Marathas had not eased up on their threat to Pondicherry even after Safdar Ali’s intervention. They now raised the ransom demand to Rupees six million, handing over of the wealth and family of Chanda Sahib, and an unspecified amount as annual subsidy. Dumas continued to refuse the demands and secretly sent for reinforcements from the Isles of France and Bourbon. The Maratha forces pillaged the countryside around Pondicherry and sacked Gudalur, about 12 miles from the French settlement. They also organised an expedition to attack the French at Mahe on the West coast.

The Marathas sent a senior officer to Pondicherry to demand tribute from Dumas. Dumas on his part showed him around the settlement, emphasising the defensive preparations that had been made. The officer returned to the Maratha camp, suitably impressed with the French preparedness and more so with the resoluteness of Dumas to defend his territory. The report goes that Dumas gave some bottles of French liqueurs to the officer, who gave most of it to his general, Raghuji Bhonsle, who passed it on to his wife. The story goes that she liked the drinks so much that she demanded more be obtained at whatever cost. This demand led to negotiations wherein the Maratha leader ‘forgave’ the French, stopped the pillaging, cancelled all the ransom demands and then withdrew to the west coast region, in return for an unlimited supply of the liqueurs. How much of the tale regarding the liqueurs is true is pure speculation but the fact remains that Pondicherry was not attacked and Raghuji went back to the western part of the Carnatic sultanate, leaving the French settlement in peace.

Dumas’ loyalty to the Ali family and his steadfast refusal to hand over either the families or the treasures to the Marathas, along with his calm demeanour in dealing with the feared Maratha general, made him a celebrity in South India. He was felicitated with letters and gifts by all Muslim rulers in the Deccan and South India, since they were under attack by the, decidedly Hindu, Maratha conglomerate. The Muslim kingdoms of the region were fast fading into oblivion at the hands of the Maratha army.

While these events were taking place, Dumas had requested the government to be relieved of his position and permission to return to France. Accordingly, Dupleix from Chandannagar had been appointed as the next Governor–General and Dumas handed over his duties in October 1741. Dumas was a great administrator who understood the local people and respected their culture and religion. He carried forward the policies of Francis Martin with astute tact, prudence and cool courage. Even when all his allies in the Carnatic had been defeated by the Marathas, he managed to keep French honour intact and its flag flying high. The French settlement in the Coromandel increased greatly by the cautiously daring acquisition policies pursued by Dumas.  

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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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