British Power Mid-Eighteenth Century


Dominic Serres (British, 1722-1793)

Vessels of the East India Company and Other Ships off St. Helena


The British were acting as a major power; mid-eighteenth century. In India, Caillaud successfully besieged Vellore in 1762, and Madurai fell in 1764 as the result of another successful siege. It had been under the control of Yusuf Khan, an outstanding sepoy officer in the Madras army in the 1750s and 1760s. He had been given a gold medal in 1755 and appointed commandant of sepoys. Yusuf Khan had then become ambitious and become a renter for the Nawab in Madurai, before quarrelling with the Nawab’s son and breaking away. As the sponsor of the Nawab, the East India Company had to suppress Yusuf Khan. Indicating one of the disadvantages of mobility and interdependence, Call blamed his defiance on the dispatch of much of the Madras army on the Manila expedition. In 1763 Call described the difficulties of campaigning against Madurai:

We should not be the least uneasy about the certainty of defeating him were it not for the difficulty of penetrating through the woods to get at him. The narrow roads are at all times difficult to an army, but retrenched and secured as they are at present we are well assured it is impracticable to penetrate by any route but that of marching by the sea side. Another grand obstacle is the want of water, as well as rice, in spite of all we should have marched against him and could have drawn together a body of 600 Europeans, but such was our weakened state that we could not send half that number into the field.

The campaign demonstrated the increased military commitments that stemmed from the spread of British political interests. Yusuf Khan was betrayed to the British by one of his French officers and hanged. In 1766 the East India Company gained the Northern Circars as the price of their alliance with the Nizam of Hyderabad. Caillaud, now a Brigadier-General, occupied the area with little resistance. Benares, acquired from Oudh, followed in 1775.

In 1767-9, however, the British fought a rising ruler, Haidar Ali of Mysore, an effective general whose forces were particularly strong in light cavalry and who was seen as a threat by the Madras Council. A British officer recorded in 1768 “a large body of the enemy’s horse constantly hovering about us, and often carrying away numbers of our bullocks, baggage etc”. Short of cavalry, the Company’s forces could not respond effectively.

Despite this, Mysore was invaded and the British were able to use their artillery to reduce opposing forts in 1768. Nevertheless, the resources and determination to sustain an invasion were absent, and Haidar’s cavalry, described in 1791 as “the most diligent and enterprising light troops in the world”, hit the Company’s ability to raise taxes. In 1769 this cavalry ravaged the Carnatic, advanced as far as Madras and dictated peace to the Council, whose army was far smaller. Haidar Ali respected and feared Major-General Joseph Smith, the commander of the Madras army, but Smith had insufficient means and it was difficult to respond successfully to the Mysore cavalry. The failure to defeat Haidar Ali, like the earlier blows in the initial stages of Pontiac’s War, indicate the danger of reading too much from Britain’s success in the latter stages of the Seven Years’ War. War on land against non-European opponents, who not only fought in a different fashion but were also products of contrasting socio-political systems, was more difficult than conflict with other European powers.

In the 1770s the British were not as powerful in southern India as in the lower Ganges valley, although Vellore was stormed in 1771 and Tanjore successfully besieged in 1775. Further north, Bengal forces under Lieutenant- Colonel Thomas Goddard moved into Oudh in 1772-3 in order to retain influence there. In 1774 the British helped Shuja-ud-dowla of Oudh conquer Rohilkhand. The following year, the Company’s troops helped suppress a mutiny amongst those of Oudh against its new ruler, although this entailed heavy casualties.

British power was increasingly apparent at their coastal centres. The consolidation of the British position was noted by George Paterson when he visited Bombay in 1770. He thought the original square fort which the British had sheltered in against Mughal attack in 1686 “by no means fit to sustain a modern attack”, but noted more modern fortifications including those on a hill overlooking the town. The speed of the work greatly impressed Paterson:

it must be fortified. Well this being agreed to, the fortifications were well planned and immediately carried into execution, and all the time they were employed about this, there were several thousands also constantly at work to take away the hill and blowing it up like fire and smoke. They both come on apace and very soon there will be no hill; but there will be fine fortifications. All these works put together may be very well defended by 10,000 men, an army sufficient to meet any power in the field that can attack this place; but one may as well fight under cover as not.

The dockyards at Calcutta were improved in the late 1760s and the construction of ships to British design using naval shipwrights began. The East India Company’s yard at Bombay contained docks that could be used for proper ship maintenance, avoiding the need to send warships home with all the attendant consequences for naval strength. Further east, however, the Company’s settlement of Balambangan off Borneo was wiped out in a local rising in 1775.

The Falklands

Britain’s maritime strength and preparedness was put to the test in 1770. Port Egmont, the British base on the Falkland Islands, was seized by Spain, which claimed the islands. The government responded with a substantial armament that demonstrated the effectiveness of the navy. A fleet of 55 ships was prepared and by May 1771 it was three-quarters manned. Spain and its French ally could not match these preparations and this accentuated political tensions within the Bourbon camp. The more bellicose French foreign minister, Choiseul, was dismissed on 24 December 1770, and Louis XV pressed Charles III of Spain to make concessions. The matter was settled by compromise on 22 January 1771. Spain promised to restore Port Egmont while declaring that this concession did not affect its claim to sovereignty, and the British gave a secret, verbal assurance that they would evacuate Port Egmont. The British, however, did not withdraw their troops until 1775, and then only on the grounds of economy. The crisis ended for a while French planning for an invasion of England.

This was not the sole example of British naval mobilization and saber-rattling in this period. In 1771 four ships of the line were sent to the Indian Ocean to deter a possible French threat to British interests in India. The French indeed sent military advisors to Haidar Ali that year. In 1772 the threat of action led the Danes to release into exile Caroline Matilda, George III’s sister and their adulterous Queen.

The world power challenged

Yet, these were also years in which Britain lost the edge in naval strength to the Bourbons. Due, especially, to French and Spanish launchings in the late 1760s, that were each greater than those of Britain, and also to greater Spanish launchings in the early 1770s, the Bourbons had a quantitative superiority in tonnage of about 20 per cent by 1775. This loss of naval superiority was to cost Britain dear during the War of American Independence, but the situation was more complex than one of peacetime failure leading to wartime problems. The British navy in 1765 was in terms of tonnage the largest of any navy hitherto. Given the problems of manning the fleet and maintaining ships, the advisability of further construction was limited. The Seven Years’ War and the Falkland Islands crisis both indicated the weakness of Bourbon cooperation. A full-scale rebellion in the American colonies, especially in cooperation with France, seemed unlikely.

Such a rebellion was to break out in 1775. The crisis in imperial relations was part of a more general collapse in European control in the New World in the century from 1775. Yet, rather than suggesting any inevitable clash, it is necessary to explain why the process of reaching and endlessly redefining a consensus that underlay and often constituted government in this period broke down. In northern India, for example, the British initially successfully adapted themselves to the social system as they found it, conciliating the local elites of Muslim service gentry and Hindu merchants and benefiting from their power.

In the American colonies, however, especially those of Britain, constitutional ideas and political practices derived from Europe led to increasing disagreements over the nature of the colonial bond. These directly touched on the nature of the British Empire, helping to create a steadily more volatile atmosphere as British ministries responded with wavering acts of firmness. The policing of North America was a difficult task for the British army and navy. Between 1763 and 1775 nearly 4 per cent of the entire British national budget was spent on maintaining the army in North America. The landing of troops in Boston in 1768 helped to increase tension. Policing involved the use of military force. The “Boston Massacre” of 5 March 1770, in which five Bostonians were killed, was seen by many Americans as demonstrating the militarization of British authority. Disorder, indeed, encouraged governmental reliance on the army. The Boston Tea Party of December 1773 led to tough action against Massachusetts, including the dispatch of more troops. General Thomas Gage, the Commander-in-Chief in America, was appointed Governor of the colony. Gage was ordered to use force to restore royal authority and this led to the outbreak of war.


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