Europeans in India Part 10 Anglo-French Rivalry Section I: First Carnatic War – French Ascendancy

Canberra, 15 May 2023

The 18th century was one of enormous changes for the English East India Company—it was during the first half of this century that the Company started to evolve from being a global trader to becoming a State by itself. This period also witnessed increasing government oversight of its revenue and political policies and the shift in control to the British Government. Subsequently the Company went on to develop a complex, but unique style of colonial rule.

The English enterprise in India during the 18th century can be clearly divided into two parts—the first part, the early decades, saw the emergence and ensuing evolution of the early characteristics of colonial rule. The second part saw several decades during which the Company transitioned into what the British Government later defined as colonial rule and the development of colonialism, which according to Ian Barrow saw, ‘…the creation and use of racial hierarchies, the deliberate extraction of wealth and resources, and the articulation of a rationale for foreign rule based on paternalistic and evangelical notions of duty to and responsibility for supposedly inferior civilizations’. (Ian Barrow, The East India Company 1600–1858, p. 42) In the 1700s, the Company was one of the primary sources of wealth for Britain and critical to the economic health of the country, responsible for 13 percent of England’s imports, amounting to 5,01,501 pounds.       


During the first decades of the 1700s, the English Company had become more aggressively assertive. Previously, the English army was primarily designed to protect their fortifications and factories and normally numbered in the hundreds in any one location. However, from the early 1700s the Company started to build the structures of a State around its settlements, delegating to itself the right to put on trial anyone who lived in their settlements and the right to mint coins, although their writ was geographically limited in its influence.

Around the same time two broad and mostly unrelated trends—one in Europe and the other in India—forced the Company to embark on few high-risk military ventures in India. The success of these endeavours rapidly expanded English power in the mid-18th century and made them aspire to greater influence and political power in the sub-continent. The vicious cycle of ambition and achievement had been planted in the collective conscious of the Company stalwarts.

Two Trends

In Europe war broke out—the War of Austrian Succession (1740–48) and the Seven Years’ War (1756–63)—both of which saw England and France aligned with and fighting on opposing sides. In an indirect manner, these wars spilled over into South India where the English and French companies were engaged in trade and shared a less than courteous relationship. The result was wars that came to be called the Carnatic Wars (First 1744–48; Second 1751–54; Third 1756–63) described later in this and following chapters.

In India, the Company considered the increasing military engagements as a necessity to defend and further trade. Repeated victories, through the defeat of local militaries and at times even the French, brought about a change in the perspective of the English decision-makers in India. The Company very quickly realised the advantages of building a military State in India. Even though the Company Directors in London initially voiced their concerns over the excessive militarisation taking place in the sub-continent, by 1760, a self-perpetuating cycle had been established in India. The cycle started with a real or imaginary threat to trading activities that required a strong army to protect it; the growing army needed more resources for it to be equipped and paid, the additional demand could not be met with trade alone. The Company needed to take in land revenue, which could become an inexhaustible source for both commercial and military expenses and therefore needed to capture and own land. Obtaining territory involved going to war with local rulers that in turn needed an ever-larger army to ensure victory. The Company could not break this cycle for fear of failure, which could mean, in extremis, expulsion from the sub-continent itself.

In the span of a mere two decades, starting around 1740, the Company militarised itself and started to get directly involved in local politics—two trends that became entrenched in Company policy and intensified over the next few decades.             

Early Days of the Rivalry

In the early decades of the 18th century, a bitter conflict for control of India, considered the jewel of the East, ensued between the English and French companies trading in the East. This was a proxy war for their countries in Europe, which were also at war, on and off. The English had already fought the Portuguese and Dutch companies, mainly in the second half in the previous century, in small engagements. However, the Anglo–French rivalry was by far the most virulent between European powers in the East. There was a single reason for the muted rivalry of the earlier years.

In the early 17th century when the English were attempting to contain the Portuguese, the Mughal power in India was strong enough to make the European traders be circumspect in their rivalry and power struggle on Indian shores. They were forced to maintain the façade of being ‘peaceful traders’ and had to function within the ambit that the Mughal in Agra and his Viceroys in the Deccan and Gujarat laid down. Further, commercial success was dependent on their ability to obtain favours through flattery and presents. Any haughty behaviour would have met with immediate expulsion from Indian shores. The Anglo–Dutch struggle that spanned the late-17th and early-18th centuries was conducted under similar terms. Even though Mughal power had started to wane in the wake of Aurangzeb’s death in 1707, they were still powerful enough in the early decades of the 1700s to influence the behaviour of the foreigners—any impudence would have been dealt with immediately. No foreign power struggle could come out in the open and local rulers were unwilling to take sides or escalate a conflict. Relative peace prevailed in the Peninsula, where the foreign traders mostly interacted.

The Anglo–French rivalry came to a head in 1740, although it had been simmering for a while. Mughal power that had so far kept a tight leash on the activities of foreign trading companies, was in decline for the preceding decades, a fact that was visible to even a casual observer. The contest was serious, for it was being waged for achieving real control over the commerce flowing from India. This objective was superimposed by the ulterior motive of subduing local Indian rulers and usurping their political power as a first step towards territorial domination. Both the English and the French harboured this ambition while continuing to keep it hidden. Both the Companies wanted to become ‘controlling entities’ from purely ‘commercial enterprises’—ambition always knows no bounds. The failing Mughal State provided an ideal situation for one power to take control. Although the hostilities started with a spectacular French success in capturing Madras in 1746 (returned in 1748 when war ended in Europe) it ended with the destruction of French power in India.

The Anglo–French contest was openly vicious with the victor’s ultimate objective being the benefit of the merchant capital that underwrote the Companies; and to usurp political power over India with the sole purpose of total economic exploitation. Both the English and the French, now without the constraints of an overriding Mughal power, adopted the shrewd policy of taking advantage of local politics, conflicts and their fault lines—not always honestly or fairly—and leveraging the inherent disunity among the Indian ruling elite. This period could be considered the second phase of the Company, gradually but consciously evolving and morphing from a ‘trading enterprise’ into a ‘politically active organisation’.

The French suffered from two inherent disadvantages in the tussle with the English Company. Even though they had started attempts to trade with the East around 1520, during the reign of Francis I (r. 1515–47), they managed to establish trade with India only in 1664. This was more than six decades after the English had started to make their presence felt in the Eastern trade and commercial activities. Therefore, they had far lesser experience in dealing with the peculiar circumstances that cropped up in conducting trade in India. Second, there was a fundamental difference in the organisation of the two companies—the English Company was a chartered company of merchant capital, essentially a private enterprise, whereas the French company was a State-controlled entity. The State ownership had a significant effect on the trajectory of the French company in India: French government policies impinged on Company activities, curtailing flexibility and initiative of its officials in India.

English on the Backfoot

From the time that the French arrived in India, in the second half of the 17th century, the English looked on them as rivals, subconsciously they knew that the biggest threat to their ambitions would emanate from these newcomers. However, they were constrained in their opposition by the strict instructions from the Directors in London to avoid any dispute with the French. The first French factory was established in Surat in 1668 where the principal station of the English was located. The French were not commercially very astute, at least to start with, and did not adhere to the fundamental tenet of the employment of merchant capital—‘to buy cheap and sell dear’. The English Company therefore, concluded that the French enterprise would fail and they would withdraw.

Around this time the English committed a cardinal mistake, which permitted the French to spread their influence in the sub-continent. The English, always masking their ambition to exert political influence among the local rulers, acted prematurely and intervened militarily in a local dispute as a prelude to realising their political ambitions, albeit in a limited manner. This interference enraged the Mughal Aurangzeb since it was not in line with the permission for pure trade that he had granted. He issued orders to ‘expel the English from his domains’, which was almost the entire sub-continent at that time. The Mughals were at this time strong enough to bring the Company to its knees—the factory at Surat was seized; Bombay was attacked, and the greater part of the island captured while the governor was under siege; similarly, factories at Masulipatam and Vishakhapatnam were seized and some of the English agents slain.

The English Company was reduced to abject submission and appealed to the Mughal for a settlement and restoration of their property. Aurangzeb, conscious of the substantial reduction in revenue with the stoppage of English trade agreed to reconcile and English properties were restored. In the interim, the situation was conducive for the French, who were already making inroads into local trade, to further spread their wings. They built a factory at Masulipatam in 1669, a modest town in Pondicherry in 1673, received a site from the nawab of Bengal (1674) and built their factory at Chandannagar in 1690–92, and then fortified Pondicherry. Even with these developments, the French remained in the background throughout the 17th century, held back by their struggle with the Dutch. They were in decline by the beginning of the 18th century, having to abandon Bantam, Surat and Masulipatam. The French suffered from a lack of resources for the first two decades, till fresh capital was inducted from France in the early 1720s.

In 1721, France occupied Mauritius, enhancing their naval presence in the East, and gradually started to build up their strength, starting the process of becoming a serious opponent to the English in the Indian Ocean region. In another decade it became apparent that the European powers, both the English and the French, had altered their objectives from mere trade and commerce for profit to bringing the governments and peoples that they ‘traded’ with into political submission.

The power of the European countries in India was even then directly proportional to the maritime power they could bring to bear at will. To have exclusive, or even primary control over Indian trade, naval superiority was a fundamental requirement. The French occupation of Mauritius, therefore, was of greater significance in further developments in the sub-continent as the tensions between the English and the French continued to increase. As explained in an earlier chapter, in 1725, the French took over Mahe on the Malabar coast and in 1739, acquired Karikal.

Increasing Tensions

The rivalry in India lapsed into a full-scale armed conflict when the two wars of Fredrick II, which lasted for nearly 20 years (1744–63), started to percolate into the battlefields of America and Asia. From this point forward both the companies started to make open alliances with Indian rulers, while besieging each other’s factories and settlements when the opportunity presented itself. In 1744, England and France mutually declared war on each other, and the Companies in India technically came to be in a state of war.

The French, as yet uncertain of their power and influence, requested the English to maintain strict neutrality in India, essentially wanting to avoid escalation. The English also professed to want to avoid hostilities but did not formally acknowledge the proposal, obviously wanting to use the conflict for their own benefit, as far as possible. Hostilities erupted when the English captured few French merchant ships off the south-east coast of the Peninsula. At that time the French had no warships in India, but a squadron arrived from Mauritius, starting the war between the two companies.

First Carnatic War (1744–48)

The French squadron was under the command of La Bourdonnais—after whom Mahe was named and who had already served as governor of the Isles of France and Bourbon—and consisted of nine ships of war and nearly 3,500 embarked soldiers, arriving off Mahe in end-June 1746. Subsequently, they sailed into the Coromandel and encountered the English fleet of six ships. The English, initially under Commodore Barnett, and on his death under the command of Commodore Peyton, was anchored off Madras. An indecisive skirmish ensued, but the English, as yet unused to being masters of the sea, sailed away to the south, leaving Madras open from the seaward side.

The French besieged Madras, by land and sea. The English surrendered within a week and appealed to the nawab of the Carnatic, Anwar ud-Din, who asked Dupleix—governor of Pondicherry and the commanding French official in India—to raise the siege. Dupleix artfully ignored the nawab’s instructions, as the English had done previously in capturing the French merchant ships, which had caused the initial outbreak of hostilities. This refusal was the start of the foreigners asserting themselves against the orders of the local rulers and could be seen as the pivotal point in the changing relationship between the foreign ‘traders’ and the ruling elite of the sub-continent. The absence of an overarching Indian power, who could impose its will on the foreigners, was obvious.

The other reason for the open disobedience to the nawab’s orders was that the nawab and other Indian rulers could not intervene in the maritime regime since none of them possessed any naval capability of note. This is a surprising situation, considering that the Peninsula had such a long coastline and maritime trade, the mainstay of the economy, was booming. After the great Chola Empire of medieval times (with some dating it to the third century C.E.) there had not been any significant maritime power in India. Was this lopsided development of military capacity the result of a lack of ambition in the Peninsular kingdoms? Or as is more likely, was this the result of a change in perception brought about by the Muslim occupation of the Deccan and South India? The Muslim invaders had originated in the land-locked countries of Central Asia and had no concept of maritime trade and the naval power necessary to enforce maritime will. By overrunning the Peninsula and imposing their own concepts of military power in the region, the Muslim rulers effectively ended the maritime traditions that had been prevalent during the time of the Cholas.

The Nawab, peeved by the French disobedience and wanting to establish sovereignty over the foreign merchants who were fighting each other in his backyard, sent an army against the French occupying Madras. Although numerically far superior, the Nawab’s army suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the relatively small French force, who resorted to the innovative use of artillery and disciplined responses to the Carnatic army’s initiatives. This was obviously a portent of things to come—a trading company’s militia had defeated the army of the mighty nawab with minimal difficulty—unfortunately the event was not noted as of any importance within the Indian ruling elite. There was a great deal to learn from this minor action.

In 1748, a squadron arrived from England to assist the Company and while starting to recapture Madras also laid siege to Pondicherry. However, before any decisive outcomes could be achieved, the war in Europe was concluded by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748, according to which Madras was formally repatriated to the English. At the end of the First Carnatic War, the English and French were in the same situation as before the outbreak of hostilities, both territorially and politically.

Two basic lessons emerged from the First Carnatic War. One, supremacy in the maritime regime was the deciding factor in the on-going Anglo–French rivalry. Further, the Indian rulers in whose territory the battles were being fought had no say in the conflict, since they lacked even basic maritime capabilities. Two, though numerically much smaller, the European military forces out-classed the much larger forces of Indian rulers. The European forces were not fully European in composition and were normally almost half made up of local recruits trained and officered by Europeans. The European forces almost always had up-to-date equipment, was better disciplined on the battlefield, and had focused leadership—all three factors dissipated in the local Indian forces with the disintegrating power of the Mughals who would in earlier times sent central forces to aid a local ruler striving to win battles. The fall-back option of assistance from the well-disciplined Mughal force was no more an available option.

More than the French, the English keenly monitored and analysed these two cardinal lessons to come out of the first, and inconclusive, confrontation with their major European rival. They would use the findings later when they embarked upon their successful efforts to politically subjugate Indian princes. One ruse they would use repeatedly was to ask for impossible to grant ‘concessions’ from the local rulers and on refusal by the prince, since he had no option, usurp political power with the threat of or actual use of their superior military force.

The French Make Their Move

When the First Carnatic War ended in a stalemate, Anwar ud-Din was still the Nawab of the Carnatic. However, the region was about to enter a period of turmoil and turbulence. In 1748, as the Anglo–French conflict was coming to an end, the Marathas released Chanda Sahib after seven years of imprisonment in Satara and he returned to the Carnatic. At the same, the Nizam-ul-Mulk Asaf Jah, who had so far controlled the affairs of the Deccan and South India, died. He was succeeded by his son Nasir Jang. The succession was contested by one of Asaf Jah’s grandsons, Muzaffar Jang, who claimed the position of Nizam-ul-Mulk by virtue of the fact that the Mughal king in Delhi had appointed him ‘Subahdar’, Viceroy, of the Deccan.

On arrival in the Carnatic, Chanda Sahib, always looking for an opportunity to better his own circumstances, aligned with Muzaffar Jang. They decided to fight jointly, one to become the Nizam-ul-Mulk and the other to become the Nawab of the Carnatic. They raised an army of 40,000 and Chanda Sahib approached Dupleix, his old and trusted friend, for assistance. Dupleix immediately realised the opportunity being offered to him and decided to act, especially since his plans for French ascendancy had been cut short earlier by the treaty in Europe. He conceived that he could now fill both the high thrones of the Peninsula—those of the Deccan and the Carnatic—with his ‘friends’. Thus, he could ensure that the French would become the undisputed masters of the region. He entered into a treaty with the rebel group and sent a force of 2,300 soldiers, of whom 400 were Europeans, commanded by D’Auteuil to assist Chanda Sahib and his friend.

The combined forces attacked Anwar ud-Din at Amboor. The French forces attacked independent of the other forces and were repulsed twice. Stung to the core, D’Auteuil personally led the third attack, which broke through enemy defences and carried the fortifications. Anwar was shot dead in the battle from his commanding position on his elephant. At his death, as was usual in Indian military forces of the day, his forces dispersed and fled the battlefield. His son Muhammad Ali fled to the safety of Tiruchirapalli.

After this partial victory, Dupleix pressed Chanda Sahib and Muzaffar Jang to immediately attack Tiruchirapalli, since the defences of the city and fort would be minimal. However, the two would-be rulers decided to march to Arcot, the seat of Carnatic power, and after proclaiming themselves Nawab and Nizam-ul-Mulk respectively they went to Pondicherry to celebrate their success. At this stage, certainly Chanda Sahib, and possibly also Muzaffar Jang, were short of finances to continue their campaign to capture Tiruchirapalli. Therefore, they decided to move against the kingdom of Tanjore, ruled by a Hindu Maratha king, demanding some arrears of payment due to the Mughals. The Raja paid a token amount and then parlayed for time.

While these events were playing out in the Carnatic, Nazir Jung was on his way north, having been summoned by the Mughal king. His elder brother Ghiaz ud-Din was a courtier in the service of the Mughals. Nazir Jag was at the River Narmada when news of the conspiracy and death of Anwar ud-Din reached him. He immediately assembled an army, enlisted 30,000 Maratha light horsemen for assistance and marched to the Carnatic border.

In the meantime, Dupleix having realised the financial difficulties of his allies advanced a loan of 50,000 pounds to them and increased the French forces by another 2,000 men. The English had been jealous of Dupleix’s diplomatic and military success but had so far dithered in taking any action, although they had supported Muhammad Ali by sending a small force to assist him. When Nazir Jang reached Carnatic border with a large force, the English sent a force of 600 under Major Laurence to join him. This small force was superfluous and added nothing to Nazir’s forces considering its size; they were a token presence for the English to establish their support for Nazir Jang.

While the battle lines were being drawn, the French forces rebelled for some unknown reason. D’Auteuil was forced to detach his forces and retreat to Pondicherry, leaving the rebel forces in a desperate situation. They had relied heavily on the French contingent for success in the forthcoming battle. Chanda Sahib sought refuge in Pondicherry, while Muzaffar surrendered to Nazir Jang and was immediately imprisoned.

Dupleix Takes Action

These developments did not make Dupleix lose heart, first he attempted to negotiate with Nazir, which did not make any headway. Then he came to know of a plot against Nazir Jang by his military commanders and approached the leaders of the rebels and offered his assistance. Dupleix then deputed D’Auteuil to attack Nazir’s camp at night and a successful night raid was carried out. Further, another French detachment sent by sea was able to reduce Masulipatam and occupy the settlement. Throughout these actions, Nazir Jang’s army was almost comatose although the English commander Major Laurence had been advising Nazir to take appropriate action. Since no action was initiated to oppose the French initiatives, Laurence withdrew his small force in disgust at the inaction.

The French now had a free hand once again. They went on to defeat Nazir Jang who fled to Arcot and then sent an army to the interior where Jinji was attacked at night and captured. Nazir Jang was now stung into action, and he took to the field with a 100,000-strong army, a much-reduced force compared to earlier times. However, no decisive engagements took place. At this juncture Dupleix’s duplicitous diplomacy came into play. He entered into negotiations with Nazir, while continuing to keep communication channels with the rebel commanders open. The new French commander Latouche was also in touch with the rebels. When Dupleix signed a treaty with Nazir, the fact was not communicated to Latouche, who continued to believe that the French were still at war with the forces of Nazir Jang.

When the rebel commanders asked for assistance to attack Nazir’s camp, Latouche agreed. The French army along with the rebel faction attacked Nazir’s camp and a sharp fight took place. In the melee, Nazir Jang was killed by one of his own commanders who had defected to the rebels, Muzaffar Jang was released from imprisonment and made the Nizam-ul-Mulk of the Deccan. Dupleix had played an absolute diplomatic masterpiece: he was now the undisputed king-maker of the Deccan, a region larger in size than France or any other European kingdom.

Muzaffar Jang visited Pondicherry, where he was felicitated with great pomp. In return for all the ‘help’ that Dupleix had provided, Muzaffar made him a governor of the Mughal kingdom, granted the French control over Pondicherry, Masulipatam and Karikal in perpetuity, and gave permission for Dupleix to collect tax and other revenue from the districts around these three places. The rebel military commanders, mainly Afghans, who had put him on the throne now demanded compensation for their efforts from Muzaffar. Dupleix intervened and whittled down their exorbitant claims, since acquiescing to the demands would have bankrupted the new Nizam.  

Muzaffar now moved to the interior of his domain, the Deccan, a region that was still not under his actual control and housed the strongholds of the rebel Afghan military commanders. He was accosted at every turn by the same rebels who felt cheated at having their demands watered down with the backing of the French. Many skirmishes ensued and in one of them Muzaffar was killed in combat. The French minister Bussy placed Muzaffar’s brother Salabat Jang on the throne rather than the infant son of the dead Nizam, to avoid a fratricidal civil war from developing. Once again French ascendancy as king-makers was visible to the entire Deccan and South India. With Major Laurence having withdrawn from Nazir Jang’s camp, English influence in the Carnatic was at its nadir.

© [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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