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British-French Monopolistic Ambitions

The Carnatic Wars

The First Carnatic War (1744-48) was triggered by the War of the Austrian Succession, and saw the French win a series of victories over their English rivals in the south of India, although the pre-war situation was restored by the Treaty of Aix-le-Chapelle.

At this date the British and French were minor players on the Indian scene, and were represented by the British and French East India Companies.

Of the two European powers, the French had more prestige, and their governor also held the title of Nawab, giving him a place in the Mughal hierarchy. The main British possession in the area was Madras, the main French base was further south, at Pondicherry.

In general the British and French in India had ignored earlier Anglo-French wars in Europe, remaining at peace during the War of the Spanish Succession. During the War of the Austrian Succession the same happened in Bengal, but in the south the actions of British and French fleets triggered combat on land.

The fighting started in 1745 when a British squadron under Commodore Curtis Bennett arrived in the area and swept French shipping off the seas. The French fleet briefly appeared off Madras. The resulting siege of Madras was short. The British East India Company had neglected the fortifications, and the garrison was tiny. On 21 September the British surrendered, and the French took possession of Madras.

The Nawab sent 10000 men to besiege the French. This decision backfired dramatically and led to two battles that have been seen as a major turning point in Indian history. The battle of Madras (2 November 1745) saw a French force of only 400 men rout the Nawab’s cavalry, causing his son to abandon the siege. Two days later a slightly larger French army, moving to the relief of Madras, inflicted a second defeat. These two battles had the immediate effect of securing French control of Madras, while in the longer term British and French generals realised that their small armies could defeat much larger Indian forces.

The French were unable to take full advantage of their victory. The British regrouped at Fort St. David, to the south of Pondicherry. They allied with the Nawab, who provided them with a large cavalry force.

The resulting Battle of Cuddalore (27-28 June 1747) was another British victory, but was most noteworthy as the first direct clash between British and French troops in India.

Up until now the East India Company had borne the brunt of the British war effort in India, but in November 1747 a fleet of eight men-of-war, accompanied by 1,400 British regulars, left Britain. The British now had command of the seas, and enough troops to attempt to capture Pondicherry.

At about the same time the Treaty of Aix-le-Chapelle (18 October 1748) ended the War of the Austrian Succession, and with it the First Carnatic War. Madras was returned to the British in return for Louisbourg in Nova Scotia and the situation briefly returned to its pre-war state.

The peace in India would be short lived. In 1748 Nizam-ul-Mulk, the Mughal governor of the Deccan and semi-independent Nawab of Hyderabad died. The succession to his position was contested, and the British and French were soon dragged into the fighting between the candidates. The resulting Second Carnatic War lasted from 1749 until 1754, and saw the British strengthen their position in southern India.

The war was triggered by a succession struggle in Hyderabad. Here the Nizam was officially the viceroy of the Mughal Emperor, but he was increasingly able to act as a semi-independent Nizam of Hyderabad.

The incumbent, Nizam-al-Mulk, died in 1748, nominating his grandson Muzaffar Jang as his heir. This appointment was confirmed by the Emperor, but was contested by Nizam-al-Mulk’s second son Nasir Jang. Nasir Jang was able to take possession of Hyderabad, while Muzaffar Jang travelled in search of allies. In the upcoming struggle the British supported Nasir Jang, while the French supported Muzaffar Jang.

Anwar-ud-Din had only been appointed Nawab of the Carnatic in 1743, after Nizam-ul-Mulk had been forced to intervene to restore order in the province. Anwar-ud-Din was one of the Nizam’s officers, and so the death of his protector left the Nawab vulnerable.  Anwar-ud-Din would be killed early in the war, leaving his son Mohammed Ali to claim the Nawabship.

The outbreak in 1756 of the Seven Years’ War in Europe resulted in renewed conflict between French and British forces in India. The Third Carnatic War spread beyond southern India and into Bengal where British forces captured the French settlement of Chandernagore (now Chandannagar) in 1757. However, the war was decided in the south, as British commander Sir Eyre Coote decisively defeated the French under the Comte de Lally at the Battle of Wandiwash in 1760. After Wandiwash, the French capital of Pondicherry fell to the British in 1761. The war concluded with the signing of the 1763 Treaty of Paris, which returned Chandernagore and Pondichéry to France, and allowed the French to have “factories” (trading posts) in India but forbade French traders from administering them. The French agreed to support British client governments, thus ending French ambitions of an Indian empire and making the British the dominant foreign power in India.

Causes for the Failure of the French

The French Government did not realise the importance of the colo­nial empires in India and America, and got her involved in the Continental War near her home which precluded her from sending adequate help to her colonies abroad. There was an inherent weakness in the very nature of the organisation of the French Company. It was a Government sponsored enterprise financed by the King in major part. Naturally, the Company did not enjoy autonomy, nor did it re­present the interest of the French nation.

Although the French strength in respect of their seats of power was substantial it was by no means equal to that of their prospective rivals, the English. The English had three well-established seats of power in India, namely, Bombay, Madras and Calcutta, and had in their possession one dockyard and an excellent harbour. The French had only one seat of power, Pondicherry, and a harbour and sea base at Mauritius, but it was distant and ill-equipped. Both for commercial purposes and for purposes of war the French seat of power was less advantageous compared to that of the English.

The Carnatic wars proved beyond doubt that success or failure depended on the strength of the parties on the seas. The French success in 1746 was due to her naval superiority in the Coromandel Coast. But this superiority could not be main­tained by the French beyond 1748 because during the War of Austrian Succession the French naval strength was so greatly reduced that she had, as Voltaire says, hardly any battle ship left with her in the Seven Years’ War. On two occasions the French committed the serious mistake of allowing the French navy to withdraw from the Indian seas. The naval superiority of the English in the Seven Years’ War enabled the English to keep their communication with India undis­turbed, to keep their settlements at Bombay and Calcutta supplied with necessary reinforcements and to isolate the French force in the Carnatic.

In their bid for territorial expansion in India the French forgot that they were primarily merchants. All through the Anglo-French hostilities the English busily transacted their ordinary commercial activities and in fact, the value of the export, as records of their trade and ship­ping show. Dupleix, on the other hand, deliberately came to the conclusion that for France, at any rate, the Indian Trade was a failure and that military conquest opened up a more attractive prospect. The English, however, never forgot that they were pri­marily a trading body.

The Industrial Revolu­tion which was taking place in England in the eighteenth century created a great enthusiasm among the English merchants to collect raw materials for the latter. This created a great enthusiasm among the English to exploit the Indian markets for purchase of raw mate­rials and marketing of finished goods. But the French did not demonstrate that kind of enthusiasm in trade and naturally they did not find trading profitable, which in its turn made them more indolent and less enterprising in matters of trade.

The English Company by its trade could not only pay its way in India, loan out funds to the British Treasury but could also meet the military expenses of war. The French did not, rather could make the trade pay their expenses. Success in conquests or in administration largely depended on financial backing.

The French Government at home or the Com­pan, was not in a position to come out with the necessary financial help even at a time when Dupleix had succeeded in acquiring territories in India. Dupleix spent his own fortunes to meet financial needs of the French Government in India, but this was too small in comparison to the task he had undertaken. Poverty dogged the French in India even when they were at the zenith of their power in India.

Establishment of British power in Bengal

On June 23rd, 1757 at Plassey, between Calcutta and Murshidabad, the forces of the East India Company under Robert Clive met the army of Siraj-ud-Doula, the Nawab of Bengal.

Clive had 800 Europeans and 2200 Indians whereas Siraj-ud-doula in his entrenched camp at Plassey was said to have about 50,000 men with a train of heavy artillery.

The aspirant to the Nawab’s throne, Mir Jafar, was induced to throw in his lot with Clive, and by far the greater number of the Nawab’s soldiers were bribed to throw away their weapons, surrender prematurely, and even turn their arms against their own army. Siraj-ud-Doula was defeated. Battle of Plassey marked the first major military success for British East India Company.

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