The British in India - Beginnings of Empire
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
In 1740 the ambitious Frenchman who in India was at the head of the affairs of the French East India Company was eagerly awaiting the opportunity of a war between Great Britain and France to wipe out the rivalry of the British East India Company, Twenty years later the British East India Company had become no longer a mere body of traders but a territorial power, and French influence had received its coup de grace. The first stage of the conflict corresponds to the period of open war between Great Britain and France, which was brought to a close by the peace of Aix-la-Chapelie.
It is not very easy to disabuse our minds of the idea fixed therein by Macaulay that Clive with a handful of Englishmen overthrew the Mogul Empire and set up in its place a British dominion over India. What Clive did perform in actual fact was one of the most astonishing feats recorded in history, but it was an intelligible feat, not a miracle.
The Mogul empire
In the middle of the eighteenth century the Mogul Empire in India was very distinctly more wanting in the characteristics of a state than the Holy Roman Empire in Europe. During the reign of Henry VIII the great Babar, a prince of mixed Mongol or Mughal and Turkish race, had burst into India from Afghanistan and founded the Mogul dominion over Hindustan; that is, roughly speaking, the half of India which lies to the north of the river Nerbudda and the mouth of the Ganges. The empire was lost by his son Humayun and again almost recovered; the re-conquest was completed by Humayun's son Akbar, whose glorious rule very nearly synchronises with that of Queen Elizabeth.
The rule of Abkar's three successors covers the next hundred years; that is, in effect, the seventeenth century. Under the third, Aurangzib, the great kingdoms of the South which had not been subject to the Moguls were overthrown, and the whole Peninsula from the Himalayas to the sea owned the sovereignty of the "Padishah," who parcelled it out into great vice-royalties or satrapies. But when Aurangzib died in 1707 the control of the empire by the Moguls became merely nominal. The satraps professed allegiance, but acted practically as independent sovereigns. The seat of the Padishah, the Great Mogul, was at Delhi, the traditional capital of the successive Mohammedan dynasties which for centuries had dominated the mainly Hindu populations of Hindustan; but their phantom dominion was made yet more shadowy by the devastating invasion of the Persian conqueror, Nadir Shah, in 1739.
Now we may take India as falling into five division - the basin of the Indus and its tributaries forming the Punjab and Sindh; the basin of the Ganges forming the Delhi province, then Oudh, and then Behar and Bengal; Rajputana extending between the Delhi province and Sindh; Central India with the corresponding portion of the west coast; and the great southern division called the Deccan. The whole of the Deccan was under the sway of the viceroy called the Nizam, with his headquarters at Haidarabad. Subordinate to the Nizam was his lieutenant-governor, the Nawab of the Carnatic, the great province which stretches along the Eastern Sea and inland to the mountains of Mysore. Presently we shall find a Mohammedan adventurer setting up for himself an independent kingdom of Mysore; but not yet.
The great central district was dominated by the Hindu confederacy of the Marathas, having five centres, at Puna, Baroda, Indur, Gwalior, and Nagpur. Here and in Rajputana the ruling powers were Hindu; in the Deccan and in the Ganges basin the viceregal dynasties were Mohammedan; the Indus basin was as yet a debatable land where organised government hardly existed. All over India the Mohammedan was to the Hindu an alien conqueror, Turk or Afghan, who had laid his yoke upon the rightful lords of the Indian soli; and the Hindu was to the Mohammedan an infidel and an idolater. In race, In language, and in religion the peoples of India were less homogeneous than the peoples of Europe, although the hybrid Hindostani tongue had grown up in the camps as a common language of general intercourse.
Now, except in Rajputana, there was no single dynasty occupying a throne of importance which had been established for more than about half a century. There were minor Hindu rajahs, whose title may be translated prince or king, who traced their descent to a legendary past; but the Marathas had only sprung into prominence during the rule of Aurangzib, and the nawabs and wazirs, the proconsuls, the governors or lieutenant-governors of great provinces, were the sons or grandsons of Aurangzib's great officers; the aged Nizam had served Aurangzib himself. The Mogul empire was a great congeries of undefined states which had no sense either of a common or of an individual nationality, and no loyalty to a royal house with a traditional title to honour and obedience. Each ruler was watching for a chance of self-aggrandisement, though the will of the Mogul was technically law and every viceroy was technically the Mogul's officer.
The European presence
On the skirts of this vast country, approximately the size of Europe without Russia and Turkey, were seated a few small communities of European traders. At no great distance from the two British posts, Ports William and St. George, better known afterwards as Calcutta and Madras, were the two main French naval stations of Chandernagur and Pondichery, each with some fortifications, and with a garrison of some scores of white troops; small communities, but each in a sort representative of the might of a great European nation; rivals and competitors in trade, each eager to procure for itself from the native powers privileges to be withheld from the other. To the Frenchman, Dupleix, who became governor of Pondichery in 1741, the idea presented itself of acquiring a controlling influence at the courts of the great native potentates, with the corollary that the British rivalry was to be suppressed altogether. The two aims went hand in hand. Neither could be accomplished without the other, each was a means to the other.
The British in India were not indisposed for a duel; but the controlling authorities of the two trading companies at home saw only a loss of trade in any possible hostilities; and neither Dupleix nor his rivals could look for much outside support. Dupleix secured the favour of Anwar-ud-Din, the Nawab of the Carnatic, from whom both the companies held their " factories" as tenants. Anwar-ud-Din (Macaulay's Anaverdy Khan) forbade the British to attack the French when a British squadron appeared in Indian waters. The British squadron went away, but Dupleix concerted his plans with La Bourdonnais, the commandant at the French naval station of Mauritius. In 1746 La Bourdonnais appeared with a squadron and compelled Madras to surrender on terms. Anwar-ud-Din was deaf to the British appeal for protection, because he expected the town when captured to be placed in his own hands. But Dupleix now declared that there was no authority for the terms which La Bourdonnais had granted. He took possession on his own account; though La Bourdonnais retired in anger, feeling that his honour was compromised by the repudiation of his promise.
Then came the critical moment for Dupleix. He refused to resign to Anwar-ud-Din. The Nawab, in wrath, despatched an army of ten thousand men to give the insolent Frenchman a lesson. But Dupleix had mastered the vital truth that a handful of disciplined white troops were a match for ten times their number of half disciplined oriental levies; and further that natives, when drilled, disciplined, and led by European officers, and stiffened by a core of European soldiers, were not much less efficient than European troops in a contest with native armies. Anwar-ud-Din's great force was put to ignominious rout by a small band of Dupleix's sepoys with a few Frenchmen. This startling success at once gave the French a new and tremendous prestige. Anwar-ud-Din, without condescending to be afraid of the French, thought he might make them useful, and came to terms, agreeing to the retention of Madras by Dupleix.
The Seige of Pondichery
A hundred miles to the south of Madras, beyond Pondichery, the British occupied the fortified post of Fort St. David. The French were in possession of Madras and of numerous British prisoners of war, taken when that town surrendered. The capture of Fort St. David would clear the Carnatic; but the garrison repelled every attack in 1747. In the following summer the attacks were renewed, and were again repulsed by Major Stringer Lawrence, the very capable soldier who had been placed in command. By this time the British naval authorities had awakened to the benefits that might accrue from a more vigorous employment of naval supremacy. Admiral Boscawen appeared with a squadron in August, and now Pondichery was besieged instead of Fort St. David. After seven weeks, however, during which the defence was brilliantly conducted, and the siege operations were not, Boscawen had to withdraw his fleet because the season of the gales called the monsoon was at hand. During that season the squadron could neither keep the seas nor find adequate harbourage on the coast of the Carnatic. Pondichery escaped. It can hardly be doubted that its fate would have been sealed in the following year by the presence of Boscawen's squadron; but before hostilities were renewed came the news of the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle and the order that Madras should be restored to the British.
So closed the first phase of the contest. All the honours had fallen to Dupleix. The only success achieved by the British had been their stubborn defence of Fort St David. The French, supported by a squadron, had captured Madras. The British, supported by a squadron, had failed to capture Pondichery. Dupleix's small forces had routed the great army of the Nawab of the Carnatic. Madras was restored to the British but only in consequence of orders from home, not from any military necessity apparent on the spot.