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1664-1763 - French Colonies in India

The French did not meet with much success in their attempts to establish themselves in the East Indies. In 1664, Colbert founded an East India company, the first French Company that traded with India proper. While in England the merchants wrested their privileges step by step from the Crown, in France the monarch spurred on an unwilling people. The Company was started under the direct superintendence of Colbert, and received all that was possible in the way of royal patronage and state support. The first expeditions of the Company were frittered away in the attempt to revive the colonising projects of Richelieu in Madagascar an island that has always possessed a peculiar fascination for the French. In 1668 Caron, a renegade Dutchman, founded a factory in Surat; and another was established at Masulipatam in 1669.

After fruitless attempts to form a colony in Madagascar, Pondicherry was founded on the coast of Coromandel in 1670, and soon became the chief seat of the French East Indies. Francois Martin laid the foundations of Pondicherry in 1674; and two years later a factory was established at Chandernagore in Bengal. But the East India company fell into decay.

In 1672 Leibniz, in his curious treatise, the Consilium Aegyptiacum, anticipating a scheme of Napoleon, urged Louis XIV to win an eastern empire by occupying Egypt. He assumes as an incontrovertible fact that no European nation can hope to oust the Dutch by ordinary means; and the burden of the whole pamphlet is, "Hollandia in Aegypto debellabitur." Leibnitz endeavored to turn Louis XIV's attention to the conquest of Egypt, in order lo deliver Germany and Holland from his attacks. Under Louis XV, this project was again discussed, at the time when all the French possessions in America were in danger; and it was again renewed, when the alliance of Joseph II and Catharine II threatened the partition of Prussia.

Over time the power of the Dutch had begun sensibly to decline. The Dutch were at war with France except for short intervals from 1672 till 1713, and, though they were allied with England during part of that time, the bulk of the fighting in India fell to their share. They drove the French admiral, de La Haye, from Trincomali in 1673, and captured St Thome by storm two years later. In 1693 they captured Pondicherry after a twelve days' siege. But the drain on their resources from the long wars in Europe was tremendous, and signs of exhaustion made their appearance.

Captured by the Dutch in 1693, Pondicherry was restored to France with greatly strengthened fortifications in 1697 by the Peace of Ryswyk, and under the fostering care of its founder who lived till 1706 rapidly grew into a flourishing town. In 1719, the French East India Company was united with the Mississippi company, but still remained feeble. On the other hand, the French took possession of Isle de France and Bourbon, in 1720, which had been abandoned by the Dutch, and which attained a flourishing condition under the administration of Labourdonnaye (commencing in 1736), by the cultivation of coffee.

The ruin of the Mogul empire in India, which commenced in internal disturbances after the death of Aureng-Zeb (1707), and was completed by the incursions of Nadir Shah (1739), afforded the opportunity for the growth of British power, as the English and French interfered in the contentions of the native princes and governors. By 1740, "the Indian people were becoming a masterless multitude swaying to and fro in the political storm and clinging to any power, natural or supernatural, that seemed likely to protect them. They were prepared to acquiesce in the assumption of authority by any one who could show himself able to discharge the most elementary functions of government in the preservation of life and property. In short, the people were scattered without a leader or protector; while the political system under which they had long lived was disappearing in complete disorganization.

By 1720 it was already predetermined that the future struggle for pre-eminence in India lay between the English and the French. France, in Charles Davenant's striking words, had long stood by, "subtle, insinuating and liberal, ready either to court or to force a favour"; but as yet she was no match for her great rival, whose history in the East had been altogether longer and more continuous. With all its vicissitudes the English Company had never since 1657 sunk to the position of the French in 1700-20. It had at least paid its way and been self-righting even in the disastrous days of internecine strife; it had enjoyed long epochs of undoubted prosperity. On the other hand the French Company had to make many fresh starts; its cycles of disaster were dismally long, its periods of good fortune, spasmodic, fitful and brief.

The French, under Labourdonnaye and Dupleix, appeared, at first, to maintain the superiority; but the English succeeded, after driving both of them from India, in acquiring the ascendency in the Carnatic, and, in the middle of the century, extended their dominion, under the command of Laurence and Clive. Dupleix, who arrived towards the end of 1741 as governor-general of Pondicherry, had the direction of affairs in the East Indies. Vain, ostentatious, and perfectly unprincipled, Dupleix was yet admirably adapted to build up a great Oriental empire. Dupleix's ambition was boundless. He was eminently skilful both in intrigue and in organisation, and he discovered with the eye of a true statesman the real conditions, weaknesses, and tendencies of Indian politics. Dupleix was the first European statesman who understood the possibility of giving to native soldiers the discipline and the efficiency of a European army, who clearly realised the immense superiority in war of a small disciplined force over the great native armies of India, and who engaged on a large scale and with real knowledge in native contests.

In the absence of any strong central authority the country was torn by repeated rebellions, invasions, and disputed successions. Under circumstances so favorable for a policy of aggrandisement, Dupleix adopted with great skill the course of selecting his own candidate in cases of disputed succession, deciding the conflict by French aims and obtaining as his reward immense concessions of territory or power. At length the Nawab of the Carnatic and the Nizam of Hyderabad were gathered to their fathers, and rival sons and kinsmen were fighting for the vacant thrones, regardless of the Suzerainty of the Great Moghul. The English at Madras and the French at Pondicherry took opposite sides, and fought against each other in the native armies, regardless of the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. The French got the better of the English, for Dupleix, the governor of Pondicherry, was a brilliant Frenchman, very different from the plodding traders at Fort St. George; and the Nawab of the Frenchman's choice was enthroned at Arcot, and his Nizam was enthroned at Hyderabad, while the English had no Nizam at all, and the Nawab of their choice was closely besieged by the French and Muhammadan armies in the remote town of Trichinopoly.

The arms of the French had been successful since 1751. Dupleix thus, after a few years of able and audacious policy, succeeded in establishing an almost complete ascendency over the Carnatic, and indeed over the whole of the Deccan, and became by far the greatest potentate in India. The English watched his progress with great jealousy and alarm, but for a considerable period they were unable to arrest it, and they feared with much reason that the consolidation of French power in the Carnatic would be followed in the next war by the subjugation of Madras.

By the military skill of Lawrence, and especially of Clive, who was then a young captain in the service of the Company, the whole aspect of affairs was gradually changed. In 1752 and 1753, while there was still peace between England and France, war was raging in the Carnatic, and after several brilliant English victories, the French power in that province was almost shattered. The exploits of Clive and Lawrence are forgotten now, but they ended in the triumph of the English in the Carnatic and the enthronement of their Nawab at Arcot.

Great Britain and France were soon weary of Indian wars. No one cared what Nawab reigned at Arcot, or what Nizam reigned at Hyderabad. The rival East India Companies were emptying their treasuries, whilst their servants in India were fighting one another in the armies of native princes, and all trade was at a standstill. The directors of the French Company had long been dissatisfied with their governor-general Dupleix, whose imperial projects they did not understand, and whose indifference to trading interests enraged them. They now entered into negotiations with the English Company and determined to recall Dupleix. Godeheu, his successor, reached Pondicherry in August, 1754. Dupleix, the arch spirit of the war, was removed from the governorship of Pondicherry, and returned to France a ruined man. In 1755 a peace was signed at Pondicherry. The English Nawab was to reign at Arcot, and the French Nizam was to reign at Hyderabad; whilst The victory was completed by the French Government itself, who having recalled and disgraced Dupleix, left the English candidate undisputed nabob of the Carnatic, and giving India a short interval of peace.

With the destruction of Pondicherry, the British secured their superiority on the coast of Coromandel; and the victory of Clive at Plassey, June 26, 1756, laid the foundation of their exclusive sovereignty in India. By the treaty of Allahabad, Aug. 12, 1765, Bengal was surrendered to the English by the titular great Mogul, and the nabob of the country retained but a shadow of dominion. The fall of the empire of Mysore (the dominions of Hyder Ali and Tippoo Saib) may be considered as completely establishing the exclusive sovereignty of the British in India. The peace of the 1763 Treaty of Paris deprived the French of their conquests. The French East India company was dissolved in 1769. The French then possessed only Karical and the demolished town of Pondicherry. By the possession of the island of Bourbon alone, they maintained a doubtful influence upon the commerce of the East Indies.

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Page last modified: 03-04-2012 19:45:14 ZULU