Europeans in India Part 10 Anglo-French Rivalry Section II: Robert Clive Arrives on the Scene

Canberra, 26 May 2023

With Salabat Jang on the throne, French primacy in the Deccan was assured. The English displayed a surprising apathy to the developments that were steadily pushing them out of the competition to an extent where their continued trading presence in India itself was starting to be in doubt. Muhammad Ali, nominal British ally, was holed up in Tiruchirappalli with no recourse to any action. On the advice of the Maratha king in Tanjore, Ali started to negotiate with Dupleix. He was willing to accept Chanda Sahib as the nawab of the Carnatic and hand over Tiruchirappalli, in return for being given another part of the Deccan that he could rule as a subordinate. Certain of the agreement being signed, Dupleix sent his minister de Bussy to Aurangabad with a sizeable contingent of French troops. Noticing the reduced French presence and the agreement still hanging in the air, Muhammad Ali delayed the compliance of the terms and demanded further concessions.

It was the French assumption of lofty airs that made the English take note of the danger they were in and realise that if the French became masters of South India, there would be no place for the English in the country. They took stock and understood that their only ally in a relatively strong position was Muhammad Ali, who still retained control of Tiruchirappalli. They sent a force under Captain Cope and a second one commanded by Captain Gingen to assist Ali. However, both the detachments were lackadaisical in their approach to helping Ali and did not conduct themselves well. They reached Tiruchirappalli and stayed in the fort.

In the interim, Dupleix could not agree to the extra demands of Muhammad Ali and banking on the support of the English, although limited, Ali defied the French. He declared that he would not surrender Tiruchirappalli. Dupleix, the consummate diplomat, had no option but to go to war against Ali, much against his better judgement. The English forces numbered only 600 and were besieged in the fort by Chanda Sahib with a much larger force. Tiruchirappalli, the last bastion of the English was on the verge of falling to the French and their allies. At this juncture Robert Clive, who went on to play a brilliant role for the English in the ensuing events arrived on the scene.

Second Carnatic War

Operations around Tiruchirappalli commenced around July 1751 and continued for nearly three years. The events flowed in a very complicated manner. Chanda Sahib besieged the fort with an army of around 8,000 to which the French added another 400 Europeans with some artillery. The entire force was commanded by D’Auteuil who had left Pondicherry in March 1751. The English under captain Cope were earlier unsuccessful in their attack on Madura, although Captain Gingen managed to capture Verdachalam, which was critical to maintaining communication between Tiruchirappalli and Fort St David. Gingen further moved forward to intercept Chanda Sahib advancing towards Volkondah, about 40 miles to the north-east of Tiruchirappalli.

The local governor of Volkondah was an opportunistic person and declared that he would acknowledge the victor in the on-coming contest as his master. Both sides attempted to influence the governor to side with them, but he remained adamantly neutral. Chanda Sahib was slow to advance with his army, which provided sufficient time for the English forces to position themselves to the south-west of the town. This move made it imperative for Chanda Sahib to drive the English from the neighbourhood if he was to take Volkondah. Irritated that his approach to the governor had been rejected, Gingen decided to act and attacked the fort on 19th July 1751. The English were initially successful but were later beaten back by the forces in the fort.

The precipitate English action had unforeseen repercussions. Angered by the attack, the governor formally sided with Chanda Sahib and asked for French assistance. D’Auteuil immediately responded and the English, who were subjected to artillery fire, withdrew in panic. As often happens in history, unrelated factors influence outcomes of great significance. D’Auteuil was laid up with gout at this juncture and he did not have any officer who he could trust to successfully pursue the fleeing English to deliver the coup de grace. The English were permitted to escape and recoup. One analysis states that had the French followed through this attack and pursued the retreating English to enforce the defeat, the contest for the Carnatic would have been over that day in favour of the French. A debatable conclusion.

There is also a report that Chanda Sahib was constrained from taking any action because one of his generals commanding a force of 4,000 troops defected to Muhammad Ali and the English. If such an occurrence did happen, it was unusual since the defection was from a victorious army to one that was beaten and in flight from the battle. The combination of the French being unable to follow up their victory and Chanda Sahib’s uncertainty regarding the loyalty of his forces ensured that they could not fully leverage the advantage that had been gained at Volkondah to drive the English out of the Carnatic. At this time in mid-July 1751, the entire English force in the Carnatic numbered less than 800 in total. It would have been easy to rout them and capture Tiruchirappalli. The French were unable to capitalise on one of the last chances they would get to deal a direct, and perhaps fatal, blow to the English.

In the event, the French did follow the English and intercepted them about 20 miles north of Tiruchirappalli. Three days of skirmishes ensued with the English suffering relatively more casualties and being forced to withdraw to the banks of the River Kolrun. Chanda Sahib now arrived with his forces, rather late to create any material advantage, since the English had crossed the river and taken refuge under the walls of the Tiruchirappalli fort. The French continued to follow, drove the English from the fort at Koiladi, and took possession of Srirangam, the island situated at the confluence of the Rivers Kolrun and Kaveri. Then they crossed the River Kaveri, encamped on the plain to the east of Tiruchirappalli and started to bombard the town.

Tiruchirappalli – 1751

During the Carnatic Wars, Tiruchirappalli town was an oblong rectangle, with the longest sides on the east and west and the River Kaveri flowing less than a mile from the fort. The town was about four miles in circumference, encircled by a double wall that had round towers in it at equal distances. A ditch, about 30 feet wide and 15 feet deep, had been dug around the walls.

The outer wall was constructed of grey stone, stood about 18 feet tall and was broadly five feet thick, with no parapets of ramparts. The inner, and main, wall stood about 25 feet behind the outer wall, was 30 feet high, 30 feet wide at the bottom, tapering to 10 feet at the top and could be ascended through built-in stairs. In the middle of the town was a 300-feet high rock with a pagoda, a tower on top of it used for observation by the defenders.

By the standards of the time that it was built, the fortified town proved a formidable defensive bulwark. When well stocked, Tiruchirappalli could withstand a siege almost interminably.  

While the French were entrenched outside the town and continuing the bombardment without interruption, D’Aeteuil was removed from command at his own request, on being incapacitated by gout. He was succeeded by Captain Law, a nephew of the financier mentioned in an earlier chapter. Captain Law turned out to be the classic case of an incompetent person being foisted on an unsuspecting organisation by influential relatives to the embarrassment of the individual and the greater detriment of the organisation itself. Such instances are commonplace even today in most State services. Law decided to blockade Tiruchirappalli, since almost the entire English forces were locked up inside the fort. Only Vedachalam that connected to Fort St David remained under English control in the entire Carnatic region.

Arrive Robert Clive … and History is Made

The English were in desperate circumstances. As has happened repeatedly in history, desperate circumstances often bring out men of daring genius and power of original conception in the embattled side. At this critical juncture, when the future of the entire English enterprise in India was hanging by a slender thread, such a man emerged—Robert Clive.

Clive had entered service of the East India Company in 1744. He was stationed in Madras when it was captured by the French and escaped to Fort St David. Although initially he was a civilian, during the period of military strife, Clive obtained the rank of an ensign and joined the Company army. He went on to distinguish himself in the failed siege of Pondicherry and was then appointed ‘commissariat’ officer to the forces meant to intercept Chanda Sahib. When the English forces retreated to Tiruchirappalli, Clive returned to Fort St David.

Around the same time 400 reinforcements had arrived from England. Clive, newly promoted captain, led a detachment to Tiruchirappalli to buttress the failing garrison. While at the town, Clive noticed the visible apathy setting in on the besieged English and realised that only concerted action initiated at the Presidency in Madras would be able to relieve Tiruchirappalli. Clive subsequently returned to Madras.

Diversionary Attack on Arcot

In Madras, Clive proposed a diversionary attack on Arcot, the capital of the new Carnatic nawab, Chanda Sahib. The concept was essentially to carry the fight to the enemy’s country, which if successful, had the potential to create disproportionate effects on the morale of the adversary. These effects were almost always startling and decisive. Clive was given a force of 200 Europeans that included some volunteers from the civil services and 300 locals, called ‘sipahis’, recruited to serve in the Company’s army, to mount a punitive expedition on Arcot. The allocation of these forces to Clive reduced the garrisons in Madras and Fort St David to their lowest ever levels. The clear mention of the ‘sipahis’ in the records, provides the first indication of the formation of the Company army of recruited locals officered by Europeans, a force that grew formidable over the decades into an invincible ‘British Indian Army’.

Clive moved out on the expedition on 26th August 1751—history was about to be made; and an English legend, who would cost the Indians enormously, was about to be born.

Robert Clive was not trained as a soldier, much less an officer. However, he instinctively knew that in the irregular war into which he was plunging headlong, speed was of the essence, for 500 men could never hope to storm a well-defended town. Arcot was 64 miles south-south-west of Madras, a town of some 100,000 inhabitants with a fort inside, which some reports suggest was in a state of disrepair. To retain the element of surprise, Clive force-marched his contingent in the South Indian summer heat, covering 40 miles in the first two days to reach Kanchipuram. Here information reached him that the town was defended by more than 1000 soldiers. Since he only had three small calibre field guns, Clive immediately sent a request for larger guns to Madras.

Without waiting for the heavy guns to arrive, Clive pushed on towards Arcot. On 31st August the monsoon rains broke but Clive kept his contingent moving forward through the rain, thunder and lightning, reaching ten miles from Arcot in the night. The next morning, he force-marched into town with no opposition since the fort had been abandoned at night. The local forces had become superstitiously scared of the combined white-brown force of daredevils who marched through a dark night of stormy thunder and lightning.

Clive claimed the town for Muhammad Ali, the legitimate nawab of the Carnatic and proclaimed that the people had nothing to fear from the English. Governor Saunders had strictly enforced a policy of no looting or of accepting ‘forced’ gifts: a sound policy even if it did not buy fleeting friendships, it ensured the perception of neutrality to the dealings of the English. The diversionary attack on Arcot was a resounding success, a major contributory factor being the steadfast support that Clive received from Governor Saunders who let him take and enact field decisions without interference. The question facing both the Governor and Captain Clive was, what to do next to improve the English position?

Dupleix Reacts

The English had calculated that the attack on Arcot would force the French to reassign some forces and thereby at least partially relieve the siege of Tiruchirappalli. They had not catered for the long-sightedness of the adroit Dupleix, who realised that Arcot was a minor side-show and that the capture of Tiruchirappalli would drive both Muhammad Ali and the English to submission. He provided further reinforcements to Law and emphasised to him and Chanda Sahib the necessity to capture Tiruchirappalli at the earliest.

Unfortunately for Dupleix, and the French, Law was not the man for the job. He was unable to progress with the siege or hold command over Chanda Sahib’s forces. Chagrined at the loss of Arcot, Chanda Sahib divided his forces, sending 4000 of his best troops to recapture his capital. The English had achieved their aim in a very limited manner. Dupleix was unhappy with the developments but still reinforced the detachment with another 100 European soldiers and 10,000 local levies, he needed a victory of some sort. This augmented force under the command of Raza Sahib, Chanda Sahib’s son, laid siege to Arcot.

The Siege of Arcot

As the French laid plans for their siege of Arcot, Governor Saunders appreciated the political, and propaganda value of holding on to Arcot, the de facto capital of the Carnatic. By not losing, the English could claim a morale lifting victory. He asked Clive to hold on to the town if Clive felt it was possible. The defence of Arcot that followed was a triumph in the narrative of English history in India. It was a pivotal turning point in the forward march of English enterprise in the sub-continent.

Clive surveyed the scenario—he was outnumbered and besieged in a fort that was in disrepair. He decided once again that an offensive against the enemy, which could reduce the odds, was the only option, since there were no defences that he could effectively man. Further, Chanda Sahib’s forces camped outside the town were not in awe of the English forces, having dealt earlier with the motley force in Tiruchirappalli. They were regularly intercepting English efforts to collect supplies. Clive led a foray outside the town to reverse this trend, but Raza Sahib withdrew his forces to the hills, refusing to engage with the English. A skirmish ensued during a second foray and the English lost some men, having to withdraw when the enemy cavalry threatened their flank. A third night attack managed to create some confusion in the enemy camp but achieved little else. Clive realised that he could not afford a battle of attrition and stopped the external forays.

On 16th September 1751, Clive received news that two 18-pounder guns and some supplies had been despatched from Madras. He sent out troops to escort the guns, but as soon as the detachment left town, the enemy attacked the town with great numerical superiority, and the forced had to be recalled. The attack, however, was unfocussed and unsuccessful. The reinforcement column under Lieutenant Innis was intercepted by Raza Sahib at Tirupatur and forced to retreat.

On 23rd September, Raza Sahib occupied the town, and the English became confined to the fort. However, they continued to have a tenuous line of communication with Madras although Clive’s position in Arcot was becoming increasingly precarious and untenable. The French artillery was devastatingly effective and breaking down the meagre defences and morale of the forces in the fort. In a daring raid, Clive managed to put them out of action, almost losing his life in the process. The English lost a further 15 men in this action, a loss that they could not afford or sustain. By now the English garrison was reduced to 120 Europeans and 200 sipahis.

Raza Sahib received further reinforcements, increasing his strength to more than 10,000 soldiers. All roads into the fort were blocked and the water supply cut off. Fortunately for the English, a reservoir of brackish water in the fort could not be drained and they felt holding out for reinforcements was still a possibility. The military situation in the fort had rapidly deteriorated. For some unfathomable reason, despite his overwhelming numerical and firepower superiority, Raza Sahib still did not storm the fort, whose defensive perimeters had ceased to exist. Continuous heavy musket fire assailed the besieged forces and by mid-October, heavy artillery that arrived from Pondicherry reduced what little defences had so far survived. After 40 days of relentless siege, the English were suffering from extreme exhaustion. Assistance from Madras seemed unlikely and the end seemed near. Then relief appeared from an unexpected quarter.

Arcot is Relieved

During the entire imbroglio in the Carnatic, a 6,000-strong body of Marathas, under the command of Murari Rao had been camped at Dalmacherri Pass: the Marathas were there on the invitation of the Raja of Mysore to assist Muhammad Ali but had baulked at entering on the side of the battle that already seemed a lost cause. There are three versions that give different reasons for the decision of the Maratha commander to intervene at this critical point in support of the English. One, Governor Saunders managed to induce Murari Rao to intervene, convincing him that the English were not a lost cause; two, the gallant Marathas were impressed by Clive’s steadfast defence of Arcot and Murari recognised soldiers worthy of support in the conduct of the English forces and cast his lot with the English; and three, although impressed with the sturdy defence of Arcot, Murari Rao waited till financial settlements were completed with the Raja of Mysore and Muhammad Ali before physically intervening. The reality, in all probabilities, would be a combination of all three factors with the financial aspect being the foremost.

The presence of the Marathas at Dalmacherri Pass was not a secret, they had been at the border for a long time. But their impending move into the Carnatic and possible intervention made Raza Sahib make an offer to Clive—surrender the fort and be awarded a ‘large prize’, failing which the fort would be attacked immediately and no quarter given to anyone. Characteristically, Clive rejected both the offers, of surrender and bribe. He was aided in this decision-making by the information received that fresh reinforcements under Captain Kilpatrick was on the way and that Murari Rao was now resolutely moving forward, Maratha scouts had already been seen in the neighbourhood.

Raza Sahib was faced with stark choices: move to intercept Murari Rao and risk a double-front war or immediately assault the fort, before the Marathas could arrive to reinforce the English. Raza took the correct decision and decided to attack the fort on 14th November, the last day of the Muslim festival of Muharram.

Muharram celebrates the martyrdom of the grandsons of the Prophet Muhammad. Primarily Shia Muslims, the majority of Raza sahib’s forces, believe that if they died fighting the infidels on such an auspicious day, they would go directly to Paradise ‘without enduring delays and pain of intermediate purgatory’.

Raza believed that by launching the attack on the last day of Muharram, he would automatically provide a fillip to the bravery and ferociousness of his forces—a debatable point in many aspects.

Clive had been informed by a spy in Raza’s camp of the impending attack and prepared the small garrison as best as he could with cannons pointing at the breach in the walls, muskets loaded and kept ready, and the available personnel deployed to maximise the effect of their firepower. Raza mounted the attack just before dawn with scaling ladders and elephants sent to break down barriers and doors. Although the defenders produced steady fire, the attacking waves continued to advance. The French contingent, part of Raza’s army, stayed aloof from the fighting for some unfathomable reason, weakening the overall impact of the attack.

Raza advanced through a broken door into the fort and his advance guard charged ahead. Unfortunately, this rush was stopped momentarily, and their commander shot dead. As was common at that time, the loss of the commander almost always put the unit into disorder. In this instance, the advance guard recoiled without realising that the set back was temporary, if at all. In that pivotal moment Raza Sahib was unable to take advantage of the emerging tactical situation and the attack failed.

A numerically vastly superior and well-equipped force had been stopped by a 200-strong mixed force of Europeans and sipahis who were disciplined and well-led. Raza retired for the day and the next morning, raised the siege and retreated to Vellore. The same afternoon Captain Kilpatrick arrived with the relief column.

Subsequent English Actions

Clive now pursued the retreating Carnatic army and arrived at Fort St George. Raza’s army had started to ravage the countryside, technically belonging to his own father the nawab, strange behaviour for the home army. In February 1752, Clive was on the move again and won a minor skirmish with Raza’s forces at Kaveripauk. He was then deputed to lead a body of troops being sent to relieve Tiruchirappalli under the overall command of Major Lawrence, reaching the garrison in March. Muhammad Ali was in a much better position now, having the support of the Rajas of Mysore and Tanjore, and the Maratha commander Murari Rao.

Dupleix, anxious now to retain the superiority that had been achieved over the English, instructed Law the French commander at Tiruchirappalli to intercept the advancing column under Lawrence. Law lacked the initiative and military acumen to achieve any decisive outcomes and the English detachment was able to easily bypass his efforts at stopping them. Law then retreated to the island of Srirangam, an inexplicable move considering numerical, capacity and capability superiority that the French enjoyed at that time. Dupleix was an astute strategist and even a good tactical leader, but he was ill-served by less than mediocre leaders at the middle ranks of the French military establishment. The move to Srirangam was Law’s biggest blunder: the island was within cannon-shot of Tiruchirappalli and could be isolated; and the move had been vehemently opposed by Chanda Sahib, to no avail. A single tactical blunder, committed by a below average officer holding a position only because of higher connections put paid to the lofty ambitions of a capable and patriotic officer in the persona of Dupleix. The journey was downhill from here for the French.

Clive established himself north of Srirangam to intercept any reinforcements from Pondicherry. A contingent under D’Auteuil did make an attempt at reaching Srirangam, but was forced to retreat leaving behind their stores and ammunition. Srirangam’s isolation was complete, and the French ceased to be a power to be reckoned with in Tiruchirappalli. Chanda Sahib’s troops started to desert and he himself was sick. Seeing no escape route, he surrendered and was imprisoned by Muhammad Ali. The English requested that he be handed over to them, which was denied by Ali. However, Chanda Sahib was killed in June 1752, presumably on the orders of Muhammad Ali.

The inability to recapture Arcot and the failure of the siege of Tiruchirappalli, both eminently winnable situations, was a great blow to the prestige of the French enterprise in India. Further, their greatest ally Chanda Sahib was dead and the new nawab of the Carnatic was aligned with the English. The English had triumphed and their ‘representative’, Muhammad Ali was the undisputed master of Tiruchirappalli and the Carnatic. Pondicherry now stood—denuded of forces and exposed.

Significance of Victory at Arcot

The battle for, and the defence of the siege of Arcot, was the foundation of Clive’s reputation. True, that he was not faced with any military genius opposing him, rather he was pitted against a greenhorn in Raza Sahib. His only disadvantages were numerical inferiority and to defend against a siege within dilapidated fortifications. Further, the deciding factor in the entire episode was the imminent arrival of the Maratha forces, whose capability and reputation were untouchable and far greater than that of the English and their commander, Robert Clive. Therefore, it was luck that played a hand. However, throughout military history luck has proven to be one of the best attributes of a successful commander. Paradoxically, it was the French emperor Napoleon who is purported to have said, ‘Give me lucky generals’.

On the other hand, in the broader narrative of English history in India, victory at Arcot does not receive the importance that it deserves. Without doubt it was one of the foundation stones to the English achieving predominance in the sub-continent and was a decisive turning point in the progress of the English East India Company.

It was at Arcot that the lasting bond of mutual trust between English officers and Indian sipahis was established based on professional skills and an untiring effort from both sides to hold their end of the balance. It was here that it was established that numbers necessarily did not matter in Indian (Asiatic?) warfare and that numerical superiority was only a secondary consideration in achieving victory—a concept that was repeatedly proven over the next century in the sub-continent. It was here at Arcot that it was established that discipline, and the self-confidence born of it, was far more important than superiority in numbers or equipment, and that an inspiring commander was worth his weight in gold, especially in adverse conditions. A blueprint for future battles was being written at Arcot and for the English, a legend was being born.

Victory at Arcot was the first conspicuous victory for the English in their struggle for supremacy against the French in India—a sort of baptism by victory for the English. However, they were also acutely aware that one victory was not sufficient to establish their credentials in the on-going rivalry; repetition was the most convincing argument.    

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2023]
All Rights Reserved
No part of this website/Blog or any of its contents may be reproduced, copied, modified or adapted, without the prior written consent of the author. You may quote extracts from the website or forward the link to the website with attribution to For any other mode of sharing, please contact the author @ (

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)

No comments yet... Be the first to leave a reply!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: