India - Victor Surridge

Dupleix Plays at King-Making

One morning in the early autumn of the year 1739 the bells of London town rang out a merry chime. War—glorious war—had at last been declared against our old-time rivals and very worthy foes the Spaniards! And as from tower and steeple the gladsome news clashed and reverberated far and wide, the loyal townsfolk poured in their thousands into the squares and open places of the great city to take their part in the national rejoicing. From stately mansion and squalid hovel they came—jubilation writ large upon each countenance, while hand clasped hand in mutual congratulation. For never before, perhaps, had a declaration of war been so universally popular. Captain Jenkins and his famous ear had fired the people's patriotism to fever heat. His historic phrase, "I commended my soul to God and my cause to my country," became the catchword of the hour. The populace clamoured for revenge, and here was revenge ready to their hand.

The connection between these scenes of frantic enthusiasm in England's thronging capital and the peaceful traders plying their wares on the shores of distant land may seem rather remote. Nevertheless it exists. For the war with Spain rang up the curtain upon a great drama, whose scenes spread themselves over three continents, whose theme was mighty nations struggling in their death-grips. And the prize to the victor was Colonial Supremacy. In North America, as in Europe, many fierce battles were fought, many fields were rendered fertile with the blood of heroes who died for their country's cause; but not the least important phase of the great struggle for oversea power was waged upon the vast-stretching plains of the Orient under the blazing Indian sun.

But before attempting in any way to chronicle those great events which wrote so glorious a page upon our Empire story, let us see what was the actual position of the European traders in India at this time. Scattered up and down the coast, separated for the most part by hundreds of miles, were various small settlements, some fortified, others mere stations for barter and exchange. These were occupied by representatives of the various trading companies, chief of which were the British, the French, the Portuguese, and the Dutch. The two latter, however, had already fallen out of the fight; they played no part in the fierce struggle for supremacy. But between the British and the French a bitter rivalry existed, and although the latter were, comparatively speaking, recent arrivals in the field, they held every whit as good a position as ourselves. Moreover, their prestige was far higher, as the natives were accustomed to consider the French a much mightier nation than their British competitors.

The English Company's possessions were divided into three Presidencies, in Bengal, Madras, and Bombay. Each had its own Governor and Council, whilst its servants were graded as Senior and Junior Merchants and Writers. Look now, for a minute, at a map of India. In Bengal the British held the important town of Calcutta. Opposed to this was the French settlement of Chandranagar, also at the mouth of the Ganges. In the Carnatic the British had Madras, with the subsidiary fort of St. David some hundred miles to the south. Between the two lay Pondicherry, the headquarters of the French Company. Bombay, on the Malabar coast, was, of course, British, while some distance to the southwards lay the French town of Mahé.

Such, then, was the position of affairs when in 1739 the British set out to chastise the Spaniards. Five years later, when the war with Spain blossomed also into a contest with France and, in fine, into a general European conflagration, the French and English Companies in India pre fared to take up their country's quarrels. At first, success lay all on the side of our rivals. The British were slow, irresolute, and unready. Whilst they vaguely meditated action, their enemies were already at work. Thus it came about that when the Governor of Madras woke up to the fact that a sudden raid upon Pondicherry might be fraught with excellent results, he received a severe rebuff. Dupleix, the brilliant governor of the threatened town, had already been having a little confabulation with the Nabob of the Carnatic. So wisely and so well had he discoursed that when the British sallied out prepared to cover themselves with glory, they found their way barred by the troops of this powerful native prince.

"What!" he exclaimed, raising his bejewelled finger in pious horror, "can it be possible that you contemplate making war in my dominions and without my permission? Am I actually to believe that you intend attacking a peaceful nation who enjoy the inestimable privilege of my protection? Shame upon you! Sooner than countenance such an outrage I would sweep the English into the sea."

Governor Morse returned to Madras in a chastened frame of mind. It never occurred to him to defy the imperial edict. He sat down to think things out. But his reflections were soon interrupted by the appearance of a large fleet off the town. The white lilies of France fluttered from their mast-heads; La Bourdonnais, the great and gallant French admiral, was in command, and it looked as if Madras were in for a very bad time.

Post-haste messengers were despatched to the peace loving Nabob. "See," they exclaimed, "the French have had the audacity to attack us—peaceful traders—whose unspeakable felicity it is to reside within your dominions and under the shadow of your august protection! Arise, we pray your Highness, and help us chastise them for their insolence!"

But with incredible folly, the messengers had actually forgotten to bring with them the presents customary on such an occasion. Not unnaturally the Nabob's wells of compassion were found to be empty; he intimated that the English must look after themselves. So there was nothing to do but to prepare for the worst. Albeit the result of the siege was a foregone conclusion. Madras was very inefficiently protected. The actual fort, which was surrounded by a defective wall strengthened by four bastions, contained only three hundred Europeans. The rest of the town, inhabited by nearly a quarter of a million natives, was practically defenceless.

The French went about their preparations with businesslike celerity. Twelve mortars were sent ashore to batter the town from the land side, whilst from the sea the anchored vessels continuously pounded the doomed fortress. For two days the British permitted themselves to be thus battered; then they decided to send a deputation to the foe.

The two deputies, Messrs. Monson and Haliburton, were nothing if not brilliant. They came out with the striking suggestion that as Madras was within the territory of the Moghul the attack on it should cease. The French admiral retorted that the fact had not altogether escaped his notice. Still, much as he regretted it, he was unable to fall in with their proposals. Then the British thought they might buy the enemy off. "What contribution," they asked, "will induce you to retire?"

"I do not traffic in honour," was La Bourdonnais' proud rejoinder. "The flag of France shall be planted on Madras, or I shall die before the walls."

Governor Morse decided humanely to spare La Bourdonnais this painful alternative. Three days later he hauled the British colours from his flagstaff and let the French take possession. But it was a bloodless victory; for while the British had only five killed—and those through the bursting of one of their own guns—the French had not lost a man.

Although Madras should never have been surrendered, the terms of the capitulation were honourable to the British. The town was to be occupied temporarily by the French, but ultimately to be restored for a moderate ransom. The garrison became prisoners on parole. So far all was well. But in Pondicherry a man sat dreaming big dreams, and in the dreams of Dupleix there was no room for the restoration of Madras to the English. When he heard of the conditions agreed to he was furious, and instantly repudiated them. La Bourdonnais, he declared, had exceeded his powers. The gallant admiral hastened southwards to remonstrate. Angry recriminations followed; Dupleix was inexorable. His will being absolute, La Bourdonnais shook the dust of India from his feet in disgust and sailed away for France.

On his way home, however, he was captured by a British man-o'-war and brought to England. But the Directors of the East India Company knew La Bourdonnais for a brave sailor and a valorous gentleman, and he was permitted to return to his own country. Better for him had he remained in England, for Dupleix's insidious influence had already been at work. On his arrival he was thrown into the Bastille and there allowed to pine for three long, weary years. When the tardy order for release at length reached him, he was a man broken both in body and spirit, and he died shortly afterwards. Such is the reward a nation bestows upon her heroes!

Meanwhile Dupleix was exercising arbitrary powers in India. In defiance of all laws, he publicly broke the treaty and confiscated the property of each inhabitant of Madras, British and native alike. Then the Governor and principal citizens were carried off to Pondicherry, there to be triumphantly exhibited before a mob of fifty thousand people.

One of the participators in this wretched procession was a young man called Robert Clive. A ne'er-do-well at home, he was at the age of eighteen shipped off as a writer in the East India Company's service "to make a fortune or to die of a fever at Madras." Clive was a boy of fierce passions and headstrong will. Many stories are told of his youthful exploits in the little Shropshire village of Market Drayton, where he was the hero of his playfellows and the terror of the local shopkeepers. There are also stories extant of his first miserable years in India, for clerkly duties sat heavily upon a youth of such virile spirit. The salaries paid by the Company were meagre in the extreme, and Clive was seldom out of difficulty or debt.

On one occasion a fellow-writer entered his room and found the future hero of Plassey seated at a table, a loaded pistol placed before him. "Fire that pistol out of the window!" he was commanded, and nothing loth he did so. The report rang out sharply on the still air. "Ha!" exclaimed Clive, leaping to his feet, "twice I have snapped that pistol at my head and it has failed to explode. Truly, I am reserved for something great!"

Under the cover of night, Clive slipped out of Pondicherry in the disguise of a native and fled to Fort St. David, fourteen miles away. There he laid down his writership to become an ensign in the army. It was not long before the French turned their attention to this stronghold, which had become the seat of the Presidency. A large force, far outnumbering the little garrison, gathered round the town. Things looked desperate indeed. But for three months the tiny company of defenders continued to hold out, repulsing with gallant determination the fierce attacks that were made on them. Then a squadron appeared in the bay with the Union Jack flying from their mastheads, and the French fled precipitately to Pondicherry. Fort St. David was saved!

And now the British deemed it high time to do something on their own account. So far the balance of success lay with the French, but that balance must be rectified. They had lost Madras: they must gain Pondicherry. And so the French stronghold was marked out for attack. It was besieged by sea; it was besieged by land; it was besieged for two long strenuous months; and yet the white lilies floated proudly from the city walls. If bravery alone ensured success, Pondicherry would have fallen long since. The attacks were characterised by an unflinching heroism worthy of England's best traditions. But the blunders of the British commanders were many and dire, while the defence was brilliantly conducted. And so after losing a thousand men and gaining nothing but derision the British retired gloomily to Fort St. David, leaving the French to sing a jubilant Te Deum over the success of their arms.

The wily Dupleix lost no time in spreading the news of his triumph far and wide. He despatched notes to all the Indian courts, even to the Great Moghul himself, extolling the glories of the French nation and the inferiority of their rivals. To these addresses the oriental potentates returned effusively flattering replies, and the prestige of the French lilies ascended yet a step higher in the eyes of the swarthy inhabitants of the land of the Eastern sun.

But the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in the November of 1748 put a temporary period to Dupleix's far-reaching ambitions. To his great chagrin Madras had to be given back to the British. Their respective nations being no longer at war, the two companies had to keep the peace. But they found themselves occupying a very different position from that with which they had started. From harmless traders they had sprung at a bound into great military powers. The war had brought to India large numbers of superior European troops, and it had been conclusively shown that a few hundreds of these were more than a match for ten times that number of the ill-armed, ill-disciplined, and ill-organised native forces. Here was a wide field of possibilities opened up, and Dupleix was not slow to take advantage of it. He resolved to play a colossal game of king-making, with India as his chess-board and its rulers as his puppets.

But while Dupleix was monopolising the lime-light and striking heroic attitudes in the centre of the stage, the British strove to encourage themselves by executing a pas seul  in the wings. The Rajah of Tanjore, who had been dethroned on account of his imbecility, sought the English Company's aid to recover his lost crown. Their reward was to be the port of Deva-Cotta, about fifty miles south of Fort St. David, together with the surrounding district. Fired by the bribe, the Company promised assistance. But the people of Tanjore were by no means disposed to have an imbecile Rajah foisted upon them, and their protests were vigorous and forcible.

Having once put their hand to the plough, however, the British dared not look back, and continued the campaign to the bitter end. The result was a qualified success. The Company got Deva-Cotta—they took good care of that—but the Rajah had to do without his throne; he got a pension instead. But this expedition is noteworthy in that it gave Clive his first chance to display his martial genius. He accompanied Major Stringer Lawrence—"the first of that long train of heroes who have rendered the British name illustrious on the plains of Hindostan" —as his lieutenant, and, leading the "forlorn hope," distinguished himself with great gallantry.

By this time Dupleix's artful schemes began to be made manifest. Two mighty Indian thrones were trembling in the balance, and the Frenchman aspired to fill them with his own creatures. The Viceroy of the Deccan—that great district comprising the whole of southern India—had died in 1748. For the vacant throne there were two claimants, Muzaffar Jang and Nasir Jang. Then again, the Carnatic, the largest and richest province of the Deccan, was ruled by an ancient Nabob, whose high office many aspired to fill. Chief of these pretenders was Chanda Sáhib, a valorous and exceedingly popular native prince.

Between Muzaffar Jang, Chanda Sáhib, and Dupleix a gigantic conspiracy was formed, which to the Frenchman offered decided advantages. For, if successful, Muzaffar Jang would wear the crown of the Deccan, Chanda Sáhib would become Nabob of the Carnatic, while Dupleix would be the power behind the throne in whose hands all authority would really rest.

From the French point of view the scheme worked well. The Nabob of the Carnatic was defeated and killed. His son, Muhammad Ali, fled to Trichinopoli, clamouring to the English for assistance. They sent him a beggarly contingent of one hundred and twenty men. This was all they could do in the way of checking Dupleix's fast rising power! Nasir Jang was next disposed of — not, however, before several bloody battles had been fought—and Muzaffar Jang became nominal master of the Deccan.

Dupleix was jubilant over this triumph of French arms. In Pondicherry the church bells rang out gladly exultant, while the dull booming of the guns helped to swell the joyful chorus. Hither came the Viceroy to be solemnly installed in his new office. Dupleix and he fell on each other's necks and mingled happy tears.

The ambitious Frenchman cut a fine figure in the festivities which followed. Decked out in resplendent oriental robes, he was declared Governor of India from the Kistna to Cape Comorin. Treasure and jewels were poured at his sandalled feet. Verily, his triumph was now complete. Muzaffar Jang swayed the Deccan, Chanda Sáhib lorded it over the Carnatic, and Dupleix ruled both!

Moreover, a new city had arisen in India. On the spot where Nasir Jang had gasped out his fast-fleeting life a lofty column towered proudly skywards. Pompous inscriptions proclaimed in four languages this glorious achievement of French arms. Around it, mushroom-like, there spread a newly-born town. And its name was Dupleix Fatihabad—the City of the Victory of Dupleix!

With what feelings of dismay and consternation did the British regard this sudden ascendancy of their rivals! What was to happen to them? Who was to lead them forth to victory? Yet, though they knew it not, they had in their midst a giant destined to topple Dupleix's vainglorious monument in the dust, to sweep his countrymen terror-stricken from the land, and to raise up a mighty empire from the ashes of the old. And his name was Robert Clive.