India: Peeps at History - Beatrice Home

Dupleix's Great Plot

But before we could catch a distant view of our final triumph we had to fight and conquer another great European rival who sought to sweep us from his path.

We have now reached the early years of the eighteenth century. The Portuguese and Dutch are no longer our competitors, and the French have taken their place. Pondicherry, which they founded in 1674, was now a flourishing city with seventy thousand inhabitants, and they had also occupied Chandanagore, which had become a settlement of first-rate importance. Both these places were in the neighbourhood of the English stations on the eastern shores of India.

Led by clever and energetic men, the progress of the French had been as astonishing as our own. Now they seemed likely to surpass us, and the reason was this. The English Company, organised and managed by merchants, cared for nothing but trade and profit. The French, however, under their new Director-General, Dupleix, a daring and far-sighted soldier and statesman, saw that not only might trade be increased, but that an empire might be won by taking advantage of the confusion and anarchy which were turning India upside down outside the European settlements.

England and France were then at peace, but Dupleix saw that war might come, and laid his plans carefully. Courteous, tactful, and firm, he won the friendship of the neighbouring Indian princes, fortified Pondicherry, and carefully trained his army. So when, in 1744, war was declared between France and England, it found him well prepared.

Dupleix, victorious by both land and sea—for a British fleet had to withdraw to Ceylon—took Madras after a short siege. He seized all the British Company's property and, carrying the governor with his officers to Pondicherry, marched them through the town as captives in a triumphal procession. He failed, however, to take Fort St. David, a few miles to the south of him, and the arrival of a powerful British fleet compelled his army to scamper behind the walls of Pondicherry. The tables were now turned. The fleet brought a strong force of English soldiers, and with our native troops we were strong enough to besiege Dupleix in his own town. But our attack was such a clumsy affair that Dupleix beat us off. This added greatly to his renown amongst the native princes and chiefs, to all of whom he sent letters boasting of his victory over the English fleet and army.

Thus, although Madras was returned to the British when a treaty of peace was arranged with France in 1749, Dupleix had been so successful that the native princes were more than ever inclined to take his side.

So ended the first round in the great struggle which had now begun for the mastery of India. The British forces both by land and sea, except at one or two places, had been used with the most ridiculous want of skill and energy. Everything thus seemed at this stage to point to the success of France. That victory, after all, went to England was due to two causes, neither of which Dupleix had thought of. The first was the chance which sent young Robert Clive to a clerkship at Madras, and the second was the great power of the British fleets upon the seas.