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The capture of the position of Chandernagore in 1757 by the Royal Navy.

If nothing else the Carnatic war marks the emergence of the European trading companies as territorial powers. As with the grant of Trivitore to Thomas Pitt at the beginning of the century, it was not always clear whether a particular piece of real estate had been made over to one of the Companies in perpetuity or to one of their servants as a life rent, a practice frowned on by both Companies. Dupleix had been in some difficulty on this score. As the Nizam’s deputy he was entitled to enjoy the revenues of extensive territories but as a servant of the Compagnie he was heavily censured for doing so. It was also true that in the Carnatic several of the estates and townships made over to the French, or their President, were never actually secured. But in Hyderabad it was a different story. There de Bussy and his troops, unopposed by the British, had made themselves indispensable to the Nizam, harrying his Maratha foes from one side of the Deccan to the other and repeatedly shoring up his tottering regime. As a result they had been rewarded with a long slice of coastline and hinterland north of Masulipatnam and known as the Northern Circars. It was now the largest piece of European territory in India.

By contrast the English gains – notably San Thomé and Poonamallee – were modest and mainly designed to constitute a defensive enclave round Madras. They nevertheless had a dramatic effect on Madras’s revenue statements. Before the Carnatic Wars the settlements’ annual income was about 70,000 pagodas (£30,000), most of it deriving from customs duty on private trade. By 1754 the total had trebled, although ‘sea customs’ had in fact declined. Instead revenue from dependent territories now made up the bulk. Poonamalee alone contributed 40,000 pagodas (some thirty times what the Trivitore grant yielded) and there was a further figure of 64,000 pagodas from ‘countries mortgaged by Nabob [Nawab] Mohammed Ali to the Company towards the discharge of his debt to them’.

Territory was good business – or it could become so as soon as these sums were no longer being swallowed up by the war. To justify his adventurism and its heavy cost to his sceptical employers, Dupleix had gone so far as to declare that the revenues to be derived from the French acquisitions would soon be sufficient to cover the annual investment for French trade; never again need the Compagnie send good bullion to India. Although no such claims were made by the English, the thought no doubt crossed their mind. But more to the point, it was plain that with political and territorial control of the main cotton production and finishing centres, the Carnatic trade might be freed from the constant stoppages and impositions which had occasioned a gradual decline in its value ever since the halcyon days of Thomas Pitt.

The motivation for territorial expansion was thus wholly commercial and provoked no great debate amongst the Company’s men either in London or the East. Nor was it seen as posing any kind of moral dilemma. Those who imagine that after 150 years of fairly peaceful trade the Company suddenly elected – or was obliged – to embark on a policy of conquest and subjugation completely misunderstand the political situation in India. Imperial conceit would demand a glorious pedigree for ‘our Indian Empire’ but the plight of India’s indigenous peoples in the eighteenth century scarcely affords it.

For in the Carnatic, as in Bengal, the local people – Tamil-speaking Hindus – were already in a state of abject subjugation. No ruler, from the Nawab down to the pettiest poligar (feudal chief) seems to have been of Tamil birth. Nor were any of his troops. While the Tamil ryot (peasant) took cover amongst the palmyras, the armies, including those of the English and French, which trampled his paddy and commandeered his buffalo were composed of Panjabis, Afghans, Rajputs, Pathans, and Marathas. All were outsiders, adventurers, mercenaries who when not fighting one another were employed in exacting tribute in the guise of revenue. Government was simply a euphemism for oppression under the imperial sanction of Moghul authority.

In acquiring territory accustomed to such rank exploitation it was not obvious to either the French or the British that they thereby incurred some obligation for its better government or that they need propound some justification for their rule. But in so far as their forebears had been a feature on The Coast for a generation or two longer than the Moghul’s cohorts, they appeared if anything less foreign and certainly less grasping. In the Company’s records Tamil names appear only in relation to agriculture, manufacturing and trade. As growers, weavers, dyers, and merchants, Tamil-speaking Hindus were responsible for the Company’s investment and so shared with it a common interest. Given a choice, it could well be, as the Company’s men maintained, that the native population preferred the rule of Christian foreigners to that of Muslim foreigners, that of European factors to that of Asian imperialists, and that of a mercantile bourgeoisie to that of a militaristic aristocracy.

But all this was incidental. To the Europeans on The Coast, as to their Asian allies and enemies, territory meant primarily revenue and was worth accumulating so long as the cost was not disproportionate. A similar climate of pragmatic commercialism prevailed in Paris and London. At first the French Company had indulged Dupleix’s dreams (in so far as he divulged them) of a puppet Nawab showering trading privileges and revenue possibilities on Pondicherry. But when it became apparent that this could only be achieved – if at all – at the price of a life-and-death struggle with the English Company, and when these fears were swiftly confirmed by Lawrence’s victory at Srirangam and the death of Chanda Sahib, they panicked. A director of the Compagnie visited London. He proposed a cessation of hostilities in the Carnatic on terms which the English Company would happily have accepted had they also included the surrender of de Bussy’s acquisition of the Northern Circars. They did not; but even so the Leadenhall Street gentlemen might have come round, for in addition the Compagnie was proposing another of those non-aggression pacts. In effect this would have made India and the Indian Ocean a zone of peace and neutrality; military expenses could be reduced; trade would be unaffected by another European war. The directors warmed to the prospect.

But at this point the British cabinet stepped in and vetoed the idea. Although the Company might still be free to make peace and war with Indian rulers, in this case its main adversary was a European power. Establishing an ominous precedent, the Government felt entitled to intervene and in fact negotiations were already in progress. In the course of them the French seem to have bowed to the demand that Dupleix be recalled. To the Newcastle ministry this seemed a much better solution than having their hands tied by a non-aggression pact which could only favour the French in that it gave them a free hand in Hyderabad and immunity from the attentions of the usually superior British navy.

This logic, with its implication of continued conflict, the Company was reluctant to accept. Nonetheless, in the words of Professor Dodwell, ‘it was forced against its will into participating in the political action of the state’. It was not the first time, nor would it by any means be the last. For its commercial monopoly and its numerous privileges (of establishing settlements, raising taxes, administering justice, employing troops, etc) the Company had always had to pay in concessions as well as cash. Now, in an age of war, its growing dependence on Royal squadrons, regular troops, and political backing meant that the price was climbing steeply.

As if to emphasize the Company’s dependent status, another squadron under Admiral Watson together with a further regiment of His Majesty’s Foot was readying to sail even as the negotiations dragged on. It got under way in January 1754, somewhat after the French fleet whose reinforcements it was designed to offset. Godeheu, the French commander, therefore reached India first and, knowing of Watson’s approach, it was he who swiftly relieved Dupleix of his office and reopened negotiations with Saunders and the Madras Council. Again the Northern Circars of Hyderabad constituted the main stumbling block to an agreement. Godeheu eventually gave way and accepted a situation of territorial parity in the Carnatic in return for relinquishing some of the Circars. But the treaty was purely provisional and no cessions of territory were to take place until London and Paris had approved.

Overtaken by events, this approval was never forthcoming. In the winter of 1755 Watson took his squadron up to Bombay for refitting and then commanded the attack on Gheriah. In this he was joined by Clive on his way back from leave in England and accompanied by more Royal troops. The idea had been that from Bombay Clive would lead an Anglo-Maratha assault on de Bussy’s position in Hyderabad; but this was called off partly because of the provisional treaty agreed by Godeheu and Saunders and partly because of Bombay’s reluctance to co-operate. After the successful storming of Gheriah in February 1756 both Clive and Watson therefore returned to The Coast, the former as Deputy Governor of Fort St David. They were still there, preparing to meet further French reinforcements which were supposedly on the high seas when, in July, ‘a most disagreeable report’ reached Madras from quite another quarter. It came from Fort William. Apparently the new Nawab of Bengal had taken it into his head to assault the English factory at Kasimbazar.

Scarcely were the first transports of our chagrin abated [writes Ives, Watson’s personal surgeon] before another dispatch arrived with the news of his having taken Calcutta, and of the dreadful tragedy which happened in the Black-hole prison. This was such a blow as filled us all with inexpressible consternation; and was enough indeed to shake the credit of our East India Company to its very foundations; for hereby they lost their principal settlement in Bengal and a fort which secured to them the most valuable part of their commerce.

Both the Madras Council and Admiral Watson’s commanders immediately went into emergency session. If help were to be sent to Bengal, plans for an attack on the French position in the Northern Circars would have to be abandoned and the whole Coast left at the mercy of the new French reinforcements. Although news of the outbreak of the Seven Years War would not reach India till the end of the year, it was already plain that another Anglo-French trial of strength was in prospect. On the other side of the world fighting had already broken out along the Ohio river, in Nova Scotia, and in the West Indies. The French would strike wherever the British were weakest and, if the expedition were sent to Bengal, that would assuredly mean Madras and the Carnatic.

Nevertheless, Ives was right. The loss of Bengal was tantamount to the destruction of the Company’s commercial foundations. With reluctance but great courage, the Madras Council bade good luck and Godspeed to Clive, Watson, his squadron, his regiment, and 1000 Madras sepoys.

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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