Carnatic Wars (1744-1754)

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In the middle decades of the eighteenth century, the Carnatic, encompassing the southeastern extremity of India, was ripe for conflict among a variety of interests. In 1638, the English East India Company had founded a trading “factory” at Madras. A century later, France established its own factory less than 200 kilometers to the south, at Pondicherry. Yet, while the First Carnatic War (1744-1748) paralleled the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748), the conflict on the subcontinent did not represent the expansion of the European struggle into a global war. Indeed, when word arrived of the outbreak of war in Europe, Joseph Dupleix, Governor of Pondicherry, sought to maintain peace between the French and British traders. Conflict proved inevitable, however, when Commodore Curtis Barnett’s squadron arrived to prey on French shipping in 1745, a move countered by the French in June 1746. In the battle of Negapatam, 25 July 1746, Count de la Bourdonnais’s squadron successfully drove the British naval forces from the Indian coast, and, together with land forces under the command of Dupleix, captured Madras in September 1746.

In the meantime, the conflict had not been limited to European combatants. Indeed, as primarily trading interests, the French and the British companies needed Indian military assistance. Both Madras and Pondicherry lay within the province of Anwar-ud-din, the Nabob of Arcot, and with the outbreak of hostilities between the Europeans the nabob allied himself to the British. In the event, this was unfortunate for the nabob and of little assistance to the citizens of Madras. On 21 September 1746, 11 days after the fall of Madras, the nabob’s relieving army of 10,000 cavalry was defeated by a force of little more than 500 Frenchmen. Despite the capture of Madras and the defeat of Britain’s indigenous allies, the laurels of victory were not to be France’s alone. In November 1746, Dupleix commenced the siege of Fort St. David, south of Pondicherry at Cuddalore. Eighteen months later, in April 1748, the French were forced to raise their siege with the arrival of a British squadron under the command of Admiral Edward Boscawen. Boscawen, with land forces under the command of Major Stringer Lawrence, moved against Pondicherry in August 1748. However, the able defense of Dupleix and the onset of the monsoon season forced the British to raise their siege in October. At the end of 1748 word of peace between Britain and France arrived and, with unforeseen implications for the empires of both countries, the exchange of the French fortress of Louisbourg, captured by American provincials in 1745, for Madras.

If the First Carnatic War had seen indigenous forces coming to the aid of Europeans, however ineffectively, the Second witnessed the renewal of European conflict in India through the vehicle of indigenous power struggles. It is both fitting and ironic, therefore, that the dates of the Second Carnatic War (1749-1754) lie between those of the War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years’War (1755-1763). The death in 1748 of Nizam ul-Mulk, the nabob of Hyderabad, precipitated the Second Carnatic War. Taking advantage of the confused political situation, Chanda Sahib moved against the pro-British Nabob of Arcot, and with the aid of French forces under the Marquis Charles de Bussy, easily overthrew him. Chanda was then challenged by Mohammed Ali, the slain nabob’s son, who was in turn supported by the British. Through 1749 and 1750, Ali was supported by Nasir Jang, who had succeeded his father as nabob of Hyderabad. For his part, Chanda received the aid of Muzaffar Jang, Nasir’s son, who in 1750 succeeded as Nizam after the murder of his father.

As the bloodshed within the palaces seemed to settle, matters came to a climax on the battlefield. In September 1751, Chanda laid siege to Ali at Trichinopoly, supported by 1800 Frenchmen under de Bussy. It was clear that if Ali fell, British interest in the region went with him. Yet it was equally clear that the British lacked the resources to break the siege. Ali therefore urged that what forces were available be used to attack Chanda’s capital at Arcot, thus forcing him to lift the siege on Trichinopoly. On 22 August 1751, 200 Europeans, 300 sepoys, and three cannon, under the command of Robert Clive, set out from Madras. Arriving on 1 September, they found Arcot deserted by its garrison. It was not until 22 September that Chanda’s son, Raza Sahib, arrived with 4,000 men, plus 150 Frenchmen, and opened a 50-day siege that failed to drive Clive from the citadel.

The loss of his capital inflicted great damage to the prestige of Chanda and his French allies. It likewise encouraged the British to go on the offensive. On 3 December, Clive, commanding a force of European and native troops, defeated superior numbers under Raza at the hard-fought battle of Arni. Chanda’s forces were not entirely broken, however, and in February 1752 Raza besieged Madras. Though the British succeeded in holding the city, at Kaveripak (28 February) Clive only narrowly averted annihilation when his forces were ambushed by Raza. Despite this, it was only a matter of time before Chanda’s forces were forced to withdraw from Trichinopoly, and his French allies were forced to surrender to the British at Srirangam (4 June 1752).

Defeat at Srirangam meant the end for Chanda Sahib. Captured shortly after the battle, Chanda was summarily strangled and beheaded. Though fighting would continue intermittently for the next year, with the recall of Dupleix to France in August 1754 both companies quickly agreed to end the war. Although with the end of the Carnatic Wars the British had secured their candidate as nabob of Arcot, and thus secured their position within the region, death for their protégé did not mean defeat for French interests in India. Thanks largely to the efforts of de Bussy, the French had secured their candidate (Muzaffar Jang) for the superior nabob of Hyderabad. While both European powers thus profited greatly from the conclusion of the Carnatic Wars, given the stakes involved, future conflict between them was inevitable.

References and further reading: Harvey, Robert Clive. The Life and Death of a British Emperor. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1998. Keay, John. India: A History. London: HarperCollins, 2000. Mehra, Parshotam. A Dictionary of Modern Indian History. Madras: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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