JOSEPH FRANÇOIS DUPLEIX

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A decade after his lucrative dealings in India came to an end, Dupleix died a broken man, his wealth spent and honor impugned.

(1697–1763), influential governor-general (1742–1754) of the French East India Company. During his three decades in India, the Marquis Joseph François Dupleix expanded the commercial, political, and military operations of the French East India Company (La Compagnie perpétuelle des Indes), and his administration marked the apex of French colonial ambitions in India. His accumulation of an enormous personal fortune led to suspicions about his integrity and, eventually, his recall to France. Nonetheless, Dupleix successfully protected French interests from threats from local authorities such as the Marathas, the nawābs of Arcot, and nizams of Hyderabad. His lifestyle and methods defined the paradigm of the “Nabob Game.” He also led the French in a war with the British East India Company and prevailed on the ground at first. The high point occurred in 1746, when French forces captured nearby Madras (Chennai) and held it until the Treaty of Aix-la- Chapelle restored it in 1748. Many of Dupleix’s practices were imitated by the British East India Company, most notably by Robert Clive.

As did many of those who went to India, Dupleix came from the merchant class; he was the second son of an ambitious tax farmer and capitalist who aspired to the minor nobility. His father, a director of the French East India Company in 1721, arranged an appointment for Dupleix to the Superior Council of Pondicherry, the governing council of the nexus of the company’s Asian trade. Dupleix soon caught his stride as a merchant, rapidly proving his worth to the company while simultaneously engaging in the lucrative “private” or “country trade,” that is, trading between ports east of the coast of Africa.

In 1730 Dupleix became the company’s governor of Chandarnagar, a remote and rough trading post near Calcutta. Its trade was small, competition stiff, disease rampant, and security tenuous: a perfect opportunity for energy and ambition if tempered with good judgment. Over the next dozen years, Dupleix turned Chandarnagar into a profitable and habitable trading colony by linking the Ganges country trade with the rest of Asia and Europe. He made a considerable fortune participating in country trade. He found new goods and markets and increased the volume of established items such as cottage industry silks and cottons from Bengal and saltpeter from Patna. Because of his improvements to the trading and living facilities, he was able to attract and retain good agents.

To improve security, he developed diplomatic relations with Mughal authorities. Contact with the Mughal seat of power in Delhi allowed Dupleix to play an instrumental role in obtaining the Mughal rank of mānsabdār for Governor-General Pierre-Benoist Dumas. The title bestowed upon the company official stature, land revenues, and the legal right to maintain armed forces, greatly increasing the impact of the French in India and greatly changing the rules of the Nabob Game.

In 1739, already in his early forties, Dupleix married Jeanne Vincens, a Creole of Tamil and Portuguese extraction and the widow of his best friend. For the rest of his life, Jeanne provided invaluable insight and advice and reputedly drafted much of his most sensitive correspondence in Persian and Tamil. Dupleix was also enormously aided in Pondicherry by his dubash (interpreter and agent), Ananda Ranga Pillai, whose diaries provide invaluable insights into Dupleix’s commercial and political affairs.

The following year, the directors in Paris appointed Dupleix governor-general in Pondicherry. When he finally arrived in 1742, he was faced immediately with several perils that characterize his tenure. Dupleix was facing potential threats from Indian forces, especially the Marathas, and was soon presented with a potential threat from the English. Unfortunately, the company was passing through one of its periodic crises in cash flow, and both the directors and the king opposed spending on Pondicherry’s defenses. Dupleix therefore drew funds from his own considerable fortune to strengthen the bulwarks. This act was praised at the time but later became the basis for his lawsuit against the company.

Threatened depredations from Indian armies were only part of his security concerns, however. More dangerous perhaps was news of the outbreak of the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748). When the news of war between France and England arrived in 1744, Dupleix proposed that the French and British East India Companies remain neutral, but he was rebuffed. When the news arrived that the British Royal Navy had taken French East India men as prizes, war with the English was inevitable. In league with a French fleet commanded by Mahé de la Bourdonnais, Dupleix’s forces and captured Fort St. George (Chennai) in 1746.

The fighting provoked the nawāb of Arcot, Anwārud- din, who had forbidden both sides to fight, to issue an ultimatum demanding the French withdraw. When Dupleix refused, Anwār-ud-din dispatched an army to take it. A thousand soldiers under French command dispersed the enemy host, and the already intimidating reputation of European military might was reinforced; henceforth European armies were rarely challenged.

Dupleix then engineered the overthrow of Anwār-uddin by backing a rival for the throne of Arcot, Chanda Sahib. Two years later, Nizām al-Mulk, the nizam of Hyderabad, died, and Dupleix cultivated the successors on the throne, propping them up with French soldiers and installing French political agents in the court. With French puppets now on the thrones of two of the most powerful states in South India, Dupleix was at the top of the Nabob Game.

The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748) returned India to the status quo ante. The English quickly emerged as implacable competitors for power and trade. They challenged the installation of Chanda Sahib as nawāb of Arcot by backing Muhammad Ali, Anwār-ud-din’s son. When Chanda Sahib laid siege to Muhammad Ali in Trichinapoly (Tiruchchirappalli), English forces under Robert Clive boldly counterattacked Arcot. Eventually, Marāthas decided the succession by killing Chanda Sahib, but the struggle between the French and the English in India was now for complete control.

Meanwhile, the directors in Paris had become deeply concerned with the mounting expenses of war even while trying to recover from trading losses suffered during the War of the Austrian Succession. Dupleix was dramatically recalled to Paris in 1754, his successor handing him the letter as he stepped off the ship. Thenceforth, French influence in India vis à vis the English declined ceaselessly throughout the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763). Pondicherry was captured in 1761 and although returned with the peace never again posed a threat to British interests.

Dupleix had returned amid hints that his wealth had been obtained by abusing his position and privileges. A scandal erupted when Dupleix submitted a demand to be repaid for the vast out-of-pocket expenditures he had incurred building defenses for Pondicherry and purchasing cargoes during the years of conflict with the English. His lawsuit alienated many friends and allies and dragged on until his death in 1763. He died a broken man, his wealth spent and his honor impugned.

Dupleix’s role in the colonization of French India is cloudy even today. Clearly, as the governor-general in dynamic times, he rose heroically to the challenges posed to him. It is not as clear, however, whether Dupleix was a grand visionary of empire, designer of the Nabob Game, brilliant military commander, and shrewd businessman, who redesigned the paradigm between European and Indian powers, or merely an opportunist reacting to events. Dupleix’s legacy is an ironic one: to be the intellectual founder of Britain’s Indian empire.

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