MADRAS AND DUPLEIX II

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Soldiers of the East India Company.

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Writing to Calcutta a year later, the directors in London would place the blame for what followed squarely on the shoulders of Morse and his Council. ‘We hope,’ they warned, ‘that all our Governors who have not the resolution to defend our settlements, as we think was the case at Madras, will resign to such who have.’ Ever since a threatened attack by Marathas in 1740 the defence of Madras – and of Calcutta – had figured prominently in the official correspondence. Right liberally had the directors contributed, sanctioning additional fortifications for Madras in 1741, ‘an encrease to 600 Europeans’ in the garrison in 1742, and the highly rated services of Major Charles Knipe (at the princely salary of £250 per annum) to command the troops and advise on further defences. In 1743 Knipe, an able officer of thirty years’ service in the regular army, surveyed the vital west front of Madras. ‘Tis no fortification at all’, he reported, ‘but rather an offensive than defensive wall to your garrison’; but for the support of the numerous Indian homes that had been built against it, ‘it could not stand’; ‘nor was it more than sufficient for a garden wall when first erected.’ The Major proposed a new wall and, in spite of the cost, again the directors assented. So how could the place possibly be described as unprotected?

The answer was simple. Most of these measures had never been realized. Knipe had died less than four months after his arrival and it was over a year before a replacement engineer, one Bombardier Smith, could be borrowed from Bombay. Smith’s new design for the west front was still on the drawing board when La Bourdonnais sallied forth from Pondicherry. Meanwhile command of the Madras garrison had devolved by seniority to Lieutenant Peter Eckman, described as ‘an ignorant superannuated Swede’ whose boast of ‘having carried arms above 56 years’ must have made him one of the oldest lieutenants ever. Perhaps if he had had those 600 European troops at his command, things would have been different. But in fact there seem never to have been more than 400 on the muster roll and they were not disposed to take much notice of their septuagenarian commander. Of the 400 a quarter were either in hospital, in prison, fictitious, ‘deserted’, or simply ‘men who ought to have been there’ (but, presumably were not). The rest are said to have been mainly topazes, ‘a black, degenerate, wretched race of the ancient Portuguese’, according to a contemporary, ‘as proud and bigoted as their ancestors, lazy, idle, and vicious withal, and for the most part as weak and feeble in body as base in mind.’

Others would disagree with this verdict on the topazes, among them young Robert Clive who had arrived in Madras two years previously as a writer (salary £5 per annum), the most junior and menial rank in the Company’s commercial hierarchy. He was now, in 1746, twenty-one years old, still homesick for his family and his beloved Manchester (‘the centre of all my wishes’), still a writer and not a little impatient of his prospects of wealth and promotion. The popular portrait suggests a broody and hot-tempered youth anxiously awaiting the call to arms and glory; but during the assault on Madras there is no record of posterity’s ‘heaven-born general’ so much as hefting a matchlock.

Not that there was much time for heroics. La Bourdonnais’s fleet complete with transports arrived off Madras on 4 September 1746. Some 2000 troops were landed to the south of the city and by the 6th they had worked their way round to the west where they set up batteries and began pounding that suspect western wall. The English replied with a sally by the ‘Extraordinary Peons’ who were repulsed (and then fled back to their villages) plus a rather ill-directed fire from the fort’s bastions. No further sallies were attempted. The garrison had been liberally primed with arrack and rum, alcohol being supposed to put fire in the men’s bellies. But in this case, it just put ideas in their heads. They insulted their officers, rampaged through the town, and made it quite dear that against such superior forces nothing would persuade them to venture outside the walls. No doubt the alcohol was also partly responsible for the erratic cannonade. But there was an additional problem. All the gun carriages collapsed under their cannon ‘upon the second or third firing’. The efforts of Mrs Morse and the Fort’s other ladies, who were valiantly sewing up cloth cartridges, were wasted.

Meanwhile the Black Town, though less affected by the French bombardment, was rapidly emptying. On the first day most of the civilian population decamped; next night 500 ‘Black soldiers’ slipped over the walls, closely followed by the White Town’s large contingent of domestics ‘insomuch that the gentlemen and ladies could not get servants to kill and dress their victuals or bring them water to drink’. Nor did the continual bombardment enable the gentlemen and ladies to get any sleep, for which after two days ‘they were ready to die’ according to one of them. Not surprisingly, the ancient Eckman was among the first to withdraw from circulation ‘unable to bear the fatigue’; Morse seems to have gone down with chronic melancholia; and Smith, the Bombay bombardier, actually died from exhaustion – or possibly, according to the records, from the discovery that he was ‘ill-used by his wife’.

Whether he is to be included in the casualty figure is not clear. By the third day of the bombardment, the English losses stood at six, two of them European. It was not exactly mass carnage but evidently quite unacceptable, for the English now attempted to buy off their opponents. This was standard procedure in Indian warfare; additionally an exchange of pagodas was seen as the only reasonable way for two commercial organizations to compose their differences; with the French Compagnie, unlike the English, invariably strapped for cash, it was thought likely to have particular appeal.

La Bourdonnais welcomed the approach. He too had no idea of the whereabouts of Peyton’s squadron and was worried lest his own fleet, with its guns now trained on Fort St George, should be surprised in Madras’s open roads. But he rejected the English offer. National honour, not to mention the fiery Dupleix, demanded that there must be a victory; Madras must actually surrender and the French must be seen as other than The Coast’s underdogs. A reasonable and honourable man, La Bourdonnais had no desire to destroy the place nor indeed to hold on to it. He just wanted the best possible deal for France – and for La Bourdonnais. Under the terms of the final surrender, agreed on 10 September, Madras was to be handed over and then speedily ransomed back by the English Company for 1.1 million pagodas plus another 100,000 for La Bourdonnais himself.

And there, but for the machinations of Dupleix and a change in the weather, matters might have ended. Ten days later the victors made their ceremonial entry. The Company’s flag was lowered; a Te Deum was sung in the Catholic church. There was no looting, the ransom terms were agreed, the city was to be evacuated by the French at the beginning of October. But as word of these arrangements reached Dupleix in Pondicherry he evinced a growing mistrust of La Bourdonnais and of the perfidious English – fed, no doubt, by anxiety over his own share in the proceeds of victory – plus an ominous disregard for the conventional status of European trading companies within the Moghul empire.

Insisting that only he and his Council had the authority to negotiate a ransom, he reprimanded La Bourdonnais and advised that anyway Madras could not be returned to the English since he had promised it to the Nawab in return for the latter’s neutrality. But either this was a fabrication or else the ploy had miscarried; for in fact the Nawab, after earnest entreaties from the English, was already assembling his troops for an attack on Pondicherry and another on the French in Madras. Far from neutralizing his Moghul overlord, Dupleix’s behaviour had provoked the first major trial of strength between European and Indian arms in the peninsula.

Meanwhile La Bourdonnais was proposing a compromise whereby the French should extend their occupation of Madras till January. Dupleix seems to have agreed and, less surprisingly, so did the English who had no choice in the matter and who rightly saw La Bourdonnais’s presence as their only guarantee of the ransom being effected. These hopes, though, were dashed by the south-east monsoon which broke with dramatic effect one Sunday night in early October. A cyclone swept on to the harbourless Coast scattering all before it including La Bourdonnais’s fleet which was still lying off Madras. Four ships disappeared completely, four more were dismasted. To the English factors at Fort St David, anxiously awaiting their turn as the French squadron’s next prey, it was a wondrous example of divine retribution; ‘it pleased God to disappoint their views by a gale of wind’. But for their less fortunate colleagues in Madras the gale of wind meant the end of French forbearance. Within a matter of days La Bourdonnais, the guarantor of the ransom arrangement, had gathered up the remnants of his fleet and departed the country.

He left Dupleix’s nominee in charge of Madras where the Compagnie’s men now addressed themelves to the serious business of mulcting the English metropolis for all it was worth. The ransom arrangements were disavowed; but realizing that an eventual peace in Europe would probably mean the restitution of Madras, the French factors took such measures as would combine instant pickings with an undermining of the city’s long-term prosperity. Thus the White Town was ransacked while the Black Town was partially demolished. Wholesale confiscations took place and the Indian merchants and middlemen on whom trade depended were ordered to remove to Pondicherry. Some obeyed; others paid handsomely for the privilege of exemption. Meanwhile the English were given the choice of taking an oath to the French king or being made prisoner. Many, like Robert Clive, simply contrived to escape; either way they were all dispossessed and dispersed.

La Bourdonnais’s other legacy to the Compagnie was the 1200 troops he had brought to India and who now, marooned there by the destruction of his fleet, were at Dupleix’s disposal. Disciplined, well-officered, and equipped with the latest in musketry and field artillery, these troops were soon put to the test. Four days after La Bourdonnais’s departure, the Nawab’s army approached Madras and, imitating the French a month before, took up positions to the west of the city. Like the English, the French made an early sally; 400 men with a couple of guns issued forth to confront an army said to have been 10,000 strong. It looked like a suicide gesture and contemptuously did the Nawab’s cavalry sweep down towards their prey. The French troopers drew aside to clear a field for the guns; the cavalry kept on coming. At unmissable range the first salvo halted the charge without dispersing the horsemen. Confident in the knowledge that no gun could be fired more than once every three minutes, the Nawab’s cavalry wheeled aside and reformed to move in for the kill. But long before this manoeuvre could be completed, more men and horses were piling up in front of them. The French boasted a fire rate of twenty rounds a minute and were certainly capable of half that; their infantry were no less adroit with their muskets. In effect every French gun had the firepower of thirty Indian guns and every French trooper could comfortably account for ten ill-armed Moghul mercenaries.

This victory was not enough to end the siege; but when a relieving force sent from Pondicherry arrived on the scene two days later, it was precisely the same story. Again the Nawab’s troops were routed by an infinitely smaller French contingent. Quite suddenly the French had set a new pattern for European participation in Indian affairs.

The superiority of European arms came as a revelation comparable with the first discovery of a sea route to the East. While in India ideas of drill, arms, and tactics had scarcely progressed since Akbar, in Europe they had undergone steady refinement and development in a host of campaigns. There was now no comparison. Warfare in India was still a sport; in Europe it had become a science. Officers read Vauban’s Mémoires and studied the Regulations of the Prussian Infantry. Discipline made esprit a corporate responsibility; drill imparted to tactics the irresistible precision of a well-oiled machine. What Robert Orme, the English Company’s military historian, and his eighteenth-century contemporaries now recognized as the myth of Moghul superiority in battle had been ruthlessly exposed. Outside the walls of Fort St George ‘the French at once broke through the charm of this timorous opinion by defeating a whole army with a single battalion’.

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