Europeans in India Part 9 The French Arrive in India Section IV: Governor-General Joseph Francois Dupleix

Canberra, 3 May 2023

Francis Dupleix’s tenure as Director in Chandannagar was a great success. Nominally functioning under the Governor–General of Pondicherry, he was practically independent, acting on his own responsibility. His promptness in action was such that at times they were construed as rash and precipitate by his superiors in India and France. Dupleix was oblivious of these feelings and continued to act for the good of the Company. When he left Chandannagar on being appointed Governor–General of Pondicherry, the settlement which was in ruins at his arrival, was the most prosperous and important European settlement in Bengal conducting extensive trade. In the process he had also made for himself an enormous fortune, through private trade that was officially permitted by the Company. He arrived in Pondicherry in October 1741 and immediately took the oath of office.

In early 1741, Dupleix had married Madame Vincens, the widow of one of his councillors. She was a lady born and brought up in India, had a brilliant intellect, and was proficient in various Indian languages. She made an admirable companion for Dupleix, the consummate politician. She was invaluable to him in dealing with local princes.

Early Tenure

When Dupleix took over as the Governor–General of all the French settlements in India, Pondicherry was still suffering from the ill-effects of the Maratha invasion and on the brink of starvation. Moreover, the Carnatic was in turmoil and anarchy—although Safdar Ali had managed to get rid of Chanda Sahib by colluding with the Marathas, he was being threatened by the Nizam-ul-Mulk, the Mughal Viceroy of the Deccan, with dire consequences for not having paid the arrears in tribute to Agra.

As he inspected his new domain, Dupleix realised that Pondicherry was not as formidably fortified as would seem at a first cursory glance and that it would not stand up to a determined European assault. He also became aware of the depleted state of the finances in the Company. The news from Europe indicated a high probability of an Anglo-French War brewing there. With his usual elan, Dupleix decided to demonstrate the power of France to the local minor chieftains so that they recognised French superiority. He also claimed the titles and position conferred on his predecessor, Dumas, by the Mughals: ‘nawab’ and the Mansabdar of 4500 horses.

Dupleix was, if anything, a man of action. While trying to impress the minor royalty in the neighbourhood, internally he started to check on the reasons for the increased expenditure in Pondicherry, cracked down on corruption and inspected the defences. He sent a report to the Company enumerating the short-falls, especially in defences, and stating the resource-requirements to remedy the situation. He then went to Bengal and got himself installed as the Nawab of Chandannagar. He then endeavoured to improve the relationship with the local Mughal governor who happened to be lower in Mughal rank to Dupleix’s position as Mansabdar of 4500 horses. Back in Pondicherry, Dupleix found it expedient to use his position as an official of the Mughal king, even though Mughal power was on a fast track to oblivion. Being far away from the seat of Mughal power and its bickering court, he was able to impress the local princes with his position as a ‘Nawab’ appointed by the Mughal king and leverage his status as an officer of the crown. He used the power of the empty title to the utmost to strengthen his position as the new Governor–General.

His report to the Company did not elicit the reaction that Dupleix had anticipated. He received instructions in a letter dated 18th September 1743 that was completely contrary to common sense. The letter instructed Dupleix that in view of the approaching prospect of war with the English, he was to stop construction of fortifications in Pondicherry and reduce expenditure by half. These instructions defy all logic—since a war was imminent, Dupleix was to stop building defences, even though the Company had been clearly appraised that Pondicherry’s fortifications needed to be built up.

True to form, Dupleix considered the defence of Pondicherry as his primary responsibility to his sovereign and ignored the Company’s orders. He covered the open space in the defences with a rampart, and had a ditch built in front of the fort walls. However, even with Dupleix’s concerted efforts, the project was completed only two years after war had broken out in Europe. Since the build-up of the defences were carried out with Dupleix’s private funds, the Company overlooked his having disregarded their orders.  

Prelude to War

Anglo–French War in Europe: Repercussions

The confrontation between England and France had been gathering impetus for some years. However, the death of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI precipitated inappropriate actions by France, Prussia and Bavaria. In March 1744, France declared war on England, an event that was long anticipated and considered to be only a matter of time.

In India, Dupleix had been preparing for the inevitable, although he earnestly wanted to avoid open war with the English in the sub-continent. He attempted to ward of direct confrontation with great energy. The Company Directors in France while informing Dupleix of the declaration of war, instructed him to seek a treaty of neutrality with the English governor of Madras to ensure that trade could continue unhampered. This was in line with Dupleix’s own thinking and therefore he pursued this line of action. The Company also hedged its bets by ordering a squadron of ships from the Isles of France and Bourbon to sail to Pondicherry to provide assistance.

Dupleix knew even before the outbreak of war in Europe that English warships were spread across the Indian Ocean and were ready to devastate French commercial interests. He also received information that an English squadron under Commodore Curtis Barnet was sailing to besiege and destroy the French settlement at Pondicherry. Weighing the seriousness of the situation and the overwhelming power of the English, Dupleix made an earnest, even beseeching, appeal to Nicholas Morse, the English governor of Madras, requesting peace. However, the same reasons that made Dupleix wanting to avoid war, made Morse want to go to war with the French—the English squadron was already in the Eastern waters and intercepting French merchant vessels from China going to Europe. This squadron was to arrive in Madras shortly.

Presuming that he had the upper hand in case direct confrontation developed, Morse refused Dupleix’s request, pleading orders from Company headquarters in London. He sensed that an opportunity to destroy French commerce in India was at hand. Dupleix was in further trouble when the promised French squadron of ships were diverted and would not come to his aid. He was effectively left to his own devises to save Pondicherry, and understandably felt abandoned. At this stage Pondicherry had only 436 Europeans and a small ship of war at its disposal. With the English fleet approaching Indian shores, Dupleix’s capacity to defend French possessions was to be soon put to the test.

Dupleix now turned to his local friends, assiduously cultivated by Martin and Dumas, for assistance. The long practised French policy of treating local chiefs and princes with respect as equals, a policy that had been continuing for the brief time that Dupleix was the governor, now bore fruit in this hour of calamity for the French. Dupleix directly appealed to the successors of Sher Khan Lodi and Dost Ali. Anwar ud-Din Khan, the representative of the Carnatic Nawab responded with loyalty and fidelity, qualities not often seen in Europe. Here in the Carnatic, friendship was not a transient or fair-weather sentiment. The rallying of the local friends saved Pondicherry for the French.

The Carnatic

In 1741, Nawab Safdar Ali, was in strife, unable to pay the Mughal viceroy the arrears in tribute that he owed. His territory was suffering the combined effects of the Maratha invasion and a famine—the people were starving. Safdar Ali’s treasure and wealth were in Pondicherry and well-guarded but the nawab decided not to pay the Mughal viceroy whose demand had been verbal with no threat of the use of force being made. On the advice of his Prime Minster Mir Asad, who suspected the French of being in collusion with Chanda Sahib, Safdar Ali moved his treasure from French protection to the English in Madras. He then moved into the well-fortified town of Vellore.

Safdar Ali was also in trouble domestically. He had earlier compelled his nobles to give him their wealth to make the payment that he had promised to the Marathas, in return for their assistance in installing him as the Nawab. Since his personal wealth had not been touched in this effort, this action had made Safdar unpopular among his own nobles. His disobedience of the Mughal viceroy made some of the nobles believe that his overthrow would be viewed favourably by the Mughals and their representative in the Carnatic.

The rebel nobles, led by Safdar Ali’s other brother-in-law, Murtiza Ali, poisoned Safdar on 2nd September 1742 and then stabbed to death. Murtiza was well known as a coward and his personal cruelty was almost legendary. Murtiza Ali declared himself Nawab, installed at Arcot; and then won over the army located at Vellore through bribes and other inducements. Murtiza’s act was detested by a majority of the nobles, who collectively appealed to Murari Rao, the Maratha governor of Tiruchirappalli, to redeem the situation. Murari Rao declared war on Murtiza.

The rebel nobles requested the English to protect their families and treasures, while the army under Murtiza, rebelled demanding their arrears of pay. True to his character, Murtiza Ali abandoned his position in Arcot and fled to Vellore. The nobles opposing Murtiza immediately proclaimed Safdar Ali’s infant son, Said Muhammad Khan, as the nawab, a move that was calamitous for the kingdom. Every nobleman now declared himself a nawab and anarchy prevailed in the kingdom.

At this juncture when the Carnatic kingdom was on the verge of disintegration, the Mughal viceroy, the Nizam-ul-Mulk, stepped in to restore stability. He controlled the noblemen who were running amuck by threatening death to anyone who proclaimed himself nawab or even tried to claim the title. He appointed Khoja Abdullah Khan to administer the province and then moved to Tiruchirappalli. There the Marathas moved out without a fight for some unfathomable reason—perhaps they felt that the enclave was too far from their main base to be viable as ready support was not available. Having consolidated the Carnatic region, Nizam-ul-Mulk returned to Golconda. Khoja died soon after and Anwar ud-Din Khan was appointed the governor of the province and the guardian of the infant nawab.

A few months later the infant nawab-to-be was murdered and fearing that he would be blamed, Murtiza retreated to the fort at Vellore. Whether Murtiza was involved in the murder is a moot point since his reputation for nefarious activities preceded him. Anwar ud-Din Khan declared himself the nawab of the Carnatic. Although he was in no way related to the Ali family, he responded positively to Dupleix’s urgent request for assistance.

Dupleix’ Appeal

‘… the Governor of Pondicherry made his appeal: He reminded him [Anwar ud-Din Khan] of the longstanding friendship between his predecessors and the French nation; of the moral support and protection to the families of those predecessors given [by the French] at the time of the Maratha invasion; he alluded to the conciliatory disposition always shown by the French; to their desire to be at peace with all around them; and he urged upon the Nawab to prevent, by his authority, the aggression of the other European nation occupying a portion of the seaboard of the Karnatik [sic], upon those who had always been friends to his predecessors, and whose Governor was himself a high officer of the Mughal.’

— Colonel G. B. Malleson,

History of the French in India, p. 106. 

Anwar ud-Din wanted to maintain peace in his territories and sent a message to the English Governor of Madras emphasising that he would not tolerate any tussle between the two European powers in his territory on the Coromandel coast. There would be no attack on the French settlement at Pondicherry. He softened the severity of the order by informing Morse that he would instruct the French also to adhere by his orders and to desist from initiating any action in case they became the preponderant power. Governor Morse had no other recourse but to comply with the Nawab’s orders and lost his decisive advantage in the rivalry.

The French were temporarily saved from immediate attack but remained in difficult circumstances. The English naval squadron had by now reached the Coromandel coast and had been reinforced. However, their attempts to intercept any French ships bore no result since the Company of the Indies had stopped sending ships to India, even before the outbreak of war in Europe. Dupleix outwardly maintained a bold and resolute bearing showing a composure that was shaken on the inside with anxiety.

The Tide Turns

Hostilities erupted at sea when the English captured few French merchant ships off the south-east coast of the Peninsula. Initially the French were unable to retaliate since they had no ships in Indian waters. The situation changed with the arrival of a French squadron from Mauritius and the maritime conflict took off in earnest. The French fleet under La Bourdonnais was able to beat back the English ships who sailed away, leaving Madras open to attack from the sea. (The encounter between the two fleets is elaborated in the next chapter dealing with the Anglo-French rivalry in India.)

Abandoned by their fleet, the English were beleaguered in their fort at Madras. Now, the French were victorious in a delicate way, even though constrained from taking any offensive action by the Carnatic Nawab’s earlier injunctions. At the same time an internal challenge came up for the French—they now had two leaders, Dupleix in Pondicherry and La Bourdonnais commanding the French fleet, both in the same place. Both were brilliant men of ambition and energy, and both were forceful leaders, accustomed to being obeyed. A clash of wills was inevitable, which would obviously be to the detriment of French interests.

Confusion – but Madras is Captured

On 8th July 1746, the French fleet anchored off Pondicherry. The first meeting between the Governor–General and the Admiral commanding the fleet is reported to have been cordial. However, the chain of command was such that rivalry and clashes were bound to eventuate. Although La Bourdonnais held independent command of the fleet, in ‘Indian waters’ he was subordinate to Dupleix. It is unclear how this would have played out if the French admiral had stayed outside territorial waters. The cordiality lasted for some more time since both men realised that they were working towards the same goal—achieving French paramountcy in India. There was no reason for the men to clash.

Reality is often different to ‘what should be’ or ‘what could have been’; here too the situation was no different. As seen before and after in history, men of action and command find it difficult to submit to superior authority, even if the superior is equally brilliant. La Bourdonnais was in a difficult situation but was reluctant to submit to Dupleix’s authority, considering him a mere ‘merchant and trader’. He had to choose between the option of going after the English fleet or capturing Madras. After a bit of dithering, he wrote to Dupleix that destroying the English fleet would automatically result in the capitulation of Madras, which was always viewed as the natural end-state of a decisive victory at sea. He required his fleet to be resupplied so that the English fleet could be chased down and a maritime expedition mounted on Madras.

Amenable to all actions that would enhance French status, Dupleix agreed to this demand and provided all the guns, ammunition and provisions that had been requested. It is reported that La Bourdonnais was sick at this juncture and his determination to initiate action started to waver. He resisted taking any precipitate action for fear of a reinforced English fleet appearing at his back when he was involved in a maritime effort to capture Madras. He planned a diversionary attack on Gudalur to determine the actual position and operational status of the English fleet. Dupleix, the diplomat, insisted that this diversionary attack was to be cancelled since such an attack would be on the Nawab’s territory and the Nawab would decide in favour of the English. He wanted the fleet to attack Madras, a purely English fort, and capture it.

After obtaining information regarding the English fleet, now positioned near the east coast of Ceylon, La Bourdonnais decided to proceed with the capture of Madras. Even so, to begin with, he attempted to engage the English fleet near Ceylon, who fled further from the far superior French fleet. La Bourdonnais seemed to be suffering an uncharacteristic bout of indecision. Later analysts have put the blame of his dithering on his being unused to having a superior commander dictate his course of action, arguably an issue faced by many other self-confident and independent minded military commanders. These brilliant people tend to baulk at interference and do not accept orders easily, turning them either into indecisive people or into mavericks who turn ‘rogue’. La Bourdonnais fell in the former category and became an indecisive commander, a situation exacerbated by his illness. However, there is no detailed information available regarding his ill-health.

After chasing the English fleet, La Bourdonnais brought his fleet back to Pondicherry on 25th August 1746. There he declared that his squadron was insufficient to take on what he termed as a double task—defeating the English fleet and capturing Madras. The admiral’s indecision was unexpected. The Pondicherry Council was constrained to advise him that he should either capture Madras or go chasing after the English fleet and destroy them—sitting idly in Pondicherry was not an option. La Bourdonnais had lost his drive, the well-known man of action sat idle even after the prodding by the Council. His later-day supporters quote the unusual command chain of the time as the reason for his inaction, although their argument rings hollow, considering the long period during which he did not initiate any action. La Bourdonnais blamed the Council for his inaction.

At this juncture Dupleix took decisive action—he reconvened the Council, ordered La Bourdonnais to act immediately and named an alternate commander for the fleet in case the admiral was too sick to sail out. Dupleix was giving the renowned fleet commander an easy way out to save face and retire. However, the prodding had the desired effect and La Bourdonnais, by now claiming to be sufficiently recovered, attacked Madras. The English Governor Morse appealed to the Nawab for protection under the orders that the latter had earlier issued. The Nawab however, dithered, neither asking the French to stop their invasion nor overtly supporting them by maintaining a diplomatic silence.

Madras came under siege: with no external support and their fleet unable to come to their aid, the English ceded Fort St George and the town of Madras to the French on 21st September 1746. 

[Sanu Kainikara] [2023]
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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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