British Attack French and Spanish Territory in Asia 1740-62 Part II

Fort St George on the Coromandel Coast. Belonging to the East India Company of England 1754

Briefly then, the French took the field first. In September 1757 the first reinforcements to reach India since the outbreak of war had been landed at Pondicherry. Because of the imminent monsoon, the fleet which brought them immediately scurried back to Mauritius. Without a fleet, the French held their offensive. In February Pocock’s fleet arrived on The Coast from Bengal and in April a second French fleet under the Comte d’Ache made its way up to Pondicherry. Pocock managed to intercept and just about came off best in a very untidy encounter. He failed, though, to disable the French vessels which duly landed a second regiment, a train of artillery, and the Comte de Lally as Commander-in-Chief and President of all the French settlements.

With d’Ache remaining on The Coast to distract Pocock, de Lally immediately took the offensive. His now formidable army crossed the dunes to Fort St David, quickly drove the garrison from straggling Cuddalore, and began the laborious ritual of constructing breaching batteries to pound the Fort. The British held out for less than a month. It was a great disappointment considering the supposed strength of the place and, true to form, the directors blamed their servants; ‘the whole siege was one scene of disorder, confusion, mismanagement, and total inattention to every branch’.

Such bluster carries little conviction. Hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned, and quickly deserted by most of their native troops, the Fort St David councillors had little chance. They had counted on Pocock coming to their rescue but adverse winds prevented his approach. With four batteries trained on their walls and with insufficient troops to mount a foray, they wisely capitulated. De Lally razed the place, then took Devikottai, and finally staged a triumphal march through Pondicherry. Apart from some insignificant garrisons at places like Trichy and Arcot, all that now hindered a continuation of his triumphal progress north to Hyderabad, de Bussy and Bengal was Fort St George.

De Lally favoured an immediate advance and had this been possible, Madras might well have fallen. But no siege could be effective with Pocock’s squadron still in the offing. De Lally therefore ordered d’Ache to engage it. D’Ache refused, probably because he preferred to cruise in search of the year’s fleet of Indiamen. This meant a four-month delay until the October monsoon would oblige Pocock to desert his station. De Lally passed the time with an attack on the still independent ‘Tanjoreens’, a traditional expedient for raising funds; Madras readied itself for action.

Thus far the British had not been wholly passive observers of French progress. Trichy had seen yet more manoeuvres as a French force invested the fort and was then drawn off by a largely sepoy army under Captain John Caillaud of the Company. Meanwhile Fort St George itself was being ringed with the whole Vaubanesque vocabulary of ravelins and lunettes, glacis and bastions. The vulnerable west front was said now to be ‘pretty well secured’ (Ives) with more angles and faces than the much-cut Pitt diamond. Partly overgrown and partly over-built, they are yet visible in today’s Fort St George, the most impressive relic of the Company (as opposed to the Raj) in India. But as well as an acute shortage of troops thanks to Clive’s absence in Bengal, Madras was hamstrung by an incompetent commander in the bumbling person of Colonel John Aldercron of the 39th. This was the regiment brought to Madras by Watson in 1756, the first Royal regiment to serve in India. Its artillery had been siphoned off to Bengal by Clive and for the next three years the efforts of the Madras Council ‘were directed to getting the use of Aldercron’s troops without Aldercron’ (Biddulph). They succeeded when in 1758, as the entire regiment was recalled to England, half its members signed up in the Company’s forces. At about the same time the first detachments of a new regiment, His Majesty’s 64th under the able Colonel Draper, landed at Madras. With Stringer Lawrence still at the head of the Company’s troops and Draper leading the royal troops, Madras awaited de Lally’s army of 6000 with a garrison of 4000, ten times that of 1746.

Meanwhile Pocock had at last cornered the reluctant d’Ache. Off Negapatnam – where else? – the British won a victory which, if not exactly resounding, confirmed d’Ache’s anxieties. Taking this engagement with the previous one, he had suffered 900 dead and wounded to Pocock’s 300 while his ships, though still afloat, stood badly in need of repairs. Nothing would now stop him, not even a Council of War, from withdrawing to Mauritius. He limped away in September. In so far as Pocock was also obliged to withdraw ahead of the monsoon, it did not materially affect the balance of power.

But it did mean that de Lally, unlike La Bourdonnais, had to reach Madras overland. It was not Lawrence’s intention to contest this advance but with seventy miles between the French capital and the English, it was obvious that their supply line would be vulnerable. Accordingly a small British force was left to hold Chingleput, a strategic fort twenty miles south of Madras. De Lally debated whether to take it but decided that he could afford neither the men nor the time. The monsoon was slowing his progress and, even without fighting, it was 12 December 1758 before he finally entered Madras’s Black Town.

The siege now began in earnest – but with a British offensive. Learning that the French troops had discovered Black Town’s main distillery, Draper deemed the moment ripe for action. Six hundred men with a couple of guns charged out of one of the fort’s gates and, having terrorized the township with a militarily pointless but psychologically useful manoeuvre, charged back through another. They lost both their guns and sustained heavy losses; but so did the French.

In the event this puzzling action proved to be the only serious engagement of the entire siege. De Lally’s batteries opened fire in January but the new defences stood up well to the heavy bombardment. Even when a breach was made, so properly contrived and so hotly defended were those ravelins and lunettes that no escalade was deemed possible. Siege warfare, like the art of fortification, depended heavily on convention. Each side knew what to expect of the other and, as the shot and shell whistled overhead, each was busy underground digging mines and counter-mines. Certain actions were, however, taboo. In the midst of hostilities de Lally had occasion to complain to Pigot, the Fort St George President, that someone had presumed to fire on his headquarters. It was, of course, a terrible mistake. Pigot had been under the impression that de Lally had based himself in the Capuchin church. Obviously he was wrong. ‘If you will do the honour to inform me at which pagoda [place of worship] you fix your headquarters, all due respect will be paid them.’ After all, ‘in war mutual civilities and mutual severities may be expected’.

De Lally, a stickler for the civilities if not the severities, had convinced himself that under the rules of engagement the British ought to have handed over Chingleput. In fact they had reinforced it. By February Caillaud (a Company officer in spite of his name) and the sepoys from Trichy had joined the Chingleput garrison and had advanced almost to San Thomé on the outskirts of Madras. A determined French assault failed to dislodge them; equally Caillaud was incapable of breaking through the French cordon. But once again the besiegers were beginning to feel like the besieged.

This impression was reinforced by news from further afield. Although Clive still declined to desert Bengal’s rich political and commercial pickings, he had at last dispatched a considerable force by sea to the Northern Circars. These were the coastal districts of Hyderabad north of Masulipatnam which had been ceded to de Bussy by the Nizam. The expedition, under Colonel Francis Forde, was intended as a diversionary tactic to prevent French troops being moved down to the Carnatic.

In the event Forde quickly exceeded these modest expectations. De Lally had obligingly recalled de Bussy to assist in operations against Madras. The ablest of French generals thus became a disenchanted and obstructive subordinate while his conquests were squandered by the less experienced Marquis de Conflans. In early December, as de Lally came in sight of Madras, a pitched battle was being fought near Rajahmundry in which the British and their local ally won a decisive victory. Three months later Forde would take Masulipatnam and sign a treaty with the Nizam for the expulsion of all French troops and the cession of the Northern Circars to the Company.

For the hard-pressed garrison of Fort St George still more cheering news arrived from Anjengo in late January. Pocock, who had been in Bombay, had met up with the fleet of Indiamen conveying the rest of Draper’s regiment from England and was now rounding Sri Lanka. Within a week the first vessel arrived off Madras with ammunition and treasure; and on the evening of 6 February six more ships were ‘descried in the north-east standing towards the road’. They anchored off the fort that night. Next day the garrison woke to the sight of de Lally’s entire army decamping towards the west.

‘Joy and curiosity carried out everyone to view and contemplate the works from which they had received so much molestation for…42 days,’ writes Orme. With that remorseless concern for detail that distinguishes his work, Orme claims that the fort had fired 26,554 rounds from its cannon and 7,502 shells from its mortars. 1,990 hand grenades had been heaved from the battlements, 200,000 cartridges fired from the muskets. His casualty count gives 934 as the dead and wounded amongst the British but ‘the loss of men sustained by the French army is no where acquired’. ‘Thus ended this siege, without doubt the most strenuous and regular that had ever been carried on in India.’ Orme, who had devoted seventy strenuous and regular pages to it, heaved a sigh of satisfaction. ‘We have detailed it, in the hopes that it may remain an example and incitement.’

Although the tide had turned, the British were slow to take advantage. Before moving against Pondicherry they needed more troops – the new arrivals barely offset those lost during the siege – and undisputed command of the sea. In September d’Ache and his fleet reappeared on The Coast. Pocock, for the third and last time, moved to attack. The result was much as before only more so. D’Ache limped into Pondicherry and two weeks later sailed back to Mauritius never to visit The Coast again. In the following month Eyre Coote, Clive’s second in command at Plassey, arrived with a new battalion from home.

With de Lally’s unpopularity and Pondicherry’s insolvency provoking open mutiny amongst the French troops, Coote moved rapidly to the kill. In January 1760 he routed the enemy at the battle of Wandiwash, half way to Pondicherry, and by May had reduced all the outlying French garrisons and had begun the blockade of Pondicherry. In desperation de Lally looked for allies among the native powers. His best hope, a formidable army under the adventurer Hyder Ali from Mysore, abandoned him in August. In the same month Coote also received reinforcements but of a more reliable nature. Among the new batch of recruits sent from home was ‘part of a Highland regiment supplied by the government’. Evidently excited by these first Highlanders ever to serve in India, Orme was moved to record the event in a sentence of such puzzling obscurity that only unedited quotation can do it justice.

These mighty aids [the Highlanders] witnessed in this quarter of the globe, as equal efforts, wheresoever necessary, in every other, the superior energy of that mind, who possessing equally the confidence of his sovereign and the nation, conducted the arduous and extensive war in which they were engaged against their great and only rival.

The Highlanders had little opportunity to exercise ‘the superior energy of mind’ because Pondicherry, unlike Madras, was to succumb more to starvation than bombardment. The blockade depended heavily on the British fleet which made only the briefest of monsoon excursions to Trinconomalee and was back off the city by December. There, like La Bourdonnais before Madras, it was overtaken by a cyclone; several ships were sunk, many more dismasted. De Lally hailed the event as his deliverance and, had d’Ache reappeared, the blockade must have collapsed. But d’Ache was still in Mauritius and, as Pocock’s scattered men-of-war returned to their station, French hopes evaporated. On 16 January 1761 the emaciated garrison finally surrendered. Not a cat, not a rat, not a crow had survived the ravenous attentions of the besieged. They marched out from a ghost town and the British engineers moved in to destroy its fortifications once and for all. Although peace in Europe would eventually restore both Pondicherry and Chandernagar to their rightful owners, they would never again constitute a threat to British supremacy.

Begun with a pre-emptive snip in Burma, the process of clearing France’s exuberant growth in Indian waters had continued with a lop in Bengal and a veritable felling programme in the Circars and the Carnatic. It ended with a cosmetic flourish when Mahé, the only French establishment on the Malabar Coast, was overwhelmed by an expedition from neighbouring Tellicherry.

But the British were not to have it all their own way. Britannia, in the words of the song written by Thomas Arne a few years earlier and now lustily sung by every Tilbury tar, ‘ruled the waves’ but only around India; elsewhere Britons were all too easily ‘made slaves’. In 1760 Benkulen and its satellite trading posts on Sumatra’s west coast were ‘shamelessly’ surrendered to a French flotilla; and in the same year the Company’s men were driven from their unhappy home at Gombroon in the Persian Gulf.

Even the trade with China was at risk to French warships lurking in the Straits of Malacca. Taken along with the withdrawal from Burma, the temporary loss of Benkulen highlighted the Company’s weakness east of India. Henceforth the protection of the immensely valuable China trade would become something of an obsession occasioning a significant reawakening of interest in almost every shoreline in south-east Asia. Many and often bizarre would be the solutions propounded. But few were quite as improbable and sensational as the first, a major offensive against the Philippines in 1762. It was launched, like so many of the later eastern initiatives, from Madras.

British naval squadron in the 1760s: Capture of Manila 6th October 1762 in the Seven Years War: picture by Dominic Serres

The Philippines Expedition

The Philippines still belonged to Spain, her consolation prize for losing out to Portugal in the spice race, and Spain had thus far stood neutral in the Seven Years War. But when, in 1761, after the breakdown of Anglo-French peace talks, the Bourbons renewed their Family Compact, Whitehall detected a hostile alliance and formally declared war on Madrid. Indeed, plans for an offensive had been hatched well ahead of the actual declaration and predictably they were directed at Madrid’s colonial empire. In a two-pronged attack Pocock, lately returned to England from his tussles with d’Ache, was to storm Havana while on the other side of the world Draper, who had left Madras immediately after the siege, was to lead an assault on Manila.

The Philippines expedition seems to have been the brainchild of Lord Anson, now First Lord of the Admiralty. Twenty years previously, in the War of Jenkins’s Ear, Anson had rounded Cape Horn, attacked Spanish possessions in Peru, and then crossing the Pacific had taken a Spanish galleon laden with Mexican silver off the coast of Luzon (the Philippines). One or two such galleons reached Manila every year giving the mother country an access to the trade of China, India, and the archipelago which, though small by comparison with the turnover of the English Company, was nevertheless immensely profitable. Anson’s idea was to close this Spanish trapdoor into ‘the eastern treasure house’ by occupying Manila.

To that extent the whole scheme was a product of Whitehall’s global strategy and not of the Company’s ambitions – a distinction that becomes increasingly relevant in the late eighteenth century. The first that the directors heard of it was when Anson divulged the plan to Sulivan, the Company’s chairman, in December 1761. The declaration of war came a week later and just seven weeks after that Draper and the British contingent sailed from Plymouth. If the idea was to take Manila by surprise, the effect was also to take the Company by surprise. The Philippines undoubtedly lay within the area covered by the Company’s trading monopoly and since the Company had come to rely on the British government for military assistance in India, the government argued that it had a right to reciprocal assistance for any national schemes within that monopoly area. Thus Draper was not only to find ships and troops from among the Royal forces in India but also to enlist Company troops, artillery and transports.

Time did not permit of an exploration of this novel argument but, by way of sugaring the pill, it was emphasized that Manila, once taken, would be handed over to the Company. The capture of Pondicherry, like the recapture of Calcutta, had occasioned an unseemly row between Royal and Company officers. It was important to reassure the Company on this score and, lest Manila should be handed back to Spain at the end of the war, there was also mention of a second base, ideally on the southern island of Mindanao, as an alternative settlement.

The directors, though, remained distinctly cool. As will appear, they had reason to believe that they already had an option on a settlement in the vicinity of the Philippines. But informed that their co-operation would be an ‘acceptable testimony of their due sense of the King’s most gracious attention to their interests’ during the struggle with de Lally, they could hardly refuse. They did voice serious doubts, particularly about depleting either their forces or their shipping in India; and they also made it clear that, whatever the commercial compensations Manila might or might not afford, they expected their assistance to be paid for.

General William Draper, British army commander at the Capture of Manila 6th October 1762 in the Seven Years War

These reservations were shared by President Pigot and Colonel Lawrence when Draper reached Madras in July 1762. Although such worries were genuine enough, a further concern that weighed heavily with the Madras Council was the likely effect of the expedition on Madras’s private trade with Manila. As with Burma so with the Philippines; English trade in a variety of guises had been reaching Manila ever since the middle of the seventeenth century. By Governor Pitt’s time one or two private vessels had been sailing for the Philippines every year with Indian piece goods and returning to Madras with Mexican silver. This invaluable source of silver must dry up if the Spanish were ousted from Manila. It was not obvious that the indigenous produce of the Philippines would ever sustain a like trade, nor that whatever security a British Manila might afford to the China trade would offset this loss.

Even now, as Draper frantically assembled his armada in Madras, most of the local councillors, his erstwhile comrades-in-arms from the days of the siege, were more concerned for a vessel that had just left for Manila. On board her was £70,000 worth of their private trade and, according to Draper, ‘they were afraid that the venture would suffer by the loss of Manila and took any method in their power to discourage the attempt’.

Faced with what he chose to construe as wilful sabotage, Draper was able to obtain from the Company only three small transports, 600 sepoys, and 300 European troops most of whom were deserters from the ranks of de Lally’s army. ‘Such banditti had never been seen since the time of Spartacus’, he observed. The Company did, however, provide him with a sufficient complement of civilians to form a Manila council and take over the administration and commerce of the place. They included Henry Brooke, lately of Negrais, presumably because of his experience of pioneering. Draper preferred to rely on the officers of his own (Royal) regiment, which seems now to have included some of those recently tamed Highlanders. They would be the backbone of the expedition and when he sailed from Madras at the end of July, he was still quietly optimistic. ‘Tho’ we cannot do all we wish,’ he wrote by way of valedictory, ‘we are determined to do all we can and try we will.’

Six months later he was back, en route to England, with news of a wholly satisfactory outcome. Word of the war having been slow to reach the extremities of the Hispanic world, the fleet had sailed into Manila Bay unopposed. Unopposed the British troops had been landed at Ermita, just a mile from the fort (and today the heart of Manila’s nightlife), and against only token resistance the first battery had been set up. A week later the first breach was successfully stormed. British and Indian losses had been ‘trifling’ – barely thirty fatalities – and under the terms of surrender the Spanish were to pay an indemnity of £1 million. In addition, one of the Acapulco galleons, a gigantic vessel of some 2000 tons, had been taken. And finally Manila had reluctantly been handed over to the Company. ‘In short’, announced the jubilant Draper, ‘it is a lucky business.’

Unfortunately the luck ran out with Draper’s early departure. The Company would hold Manila and claim sovereignty over the Philippines for only eighteen months. But that was long enough for some of the troops to mutiny, long enough for the Governor to fall out with his own council, with the military and the navy, and long enough for a Spanish-Filipino resistance so to harry the British that they scarcely dared venture outside the fort. It was with a sense of relief that in April 1764 the place was finally handed back to Spain in accordance with the terms of the Treaty of Paris. All along the Company had been developing its own ideas about how best to support the China trade and re-establish its interests in the south-east Asian archipelago. They did not include the occupation of Manila and it was entirely appropriate that the man who eventually stepped in, when the Company’s governor had resigned in disgust, to hand back Manila was also the moving spirit behind these other initiatives. His name was Alexander Dalrymple.

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