As the Europeans arrive on the Coromandel Coast…


“Imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism.”

The proximity of the ports on the Eastern parts of India, to Southeast Asia and China, made them very attractive for the Europeans. The first Europeans to set foot on the shores were the Portuguese in the 16th Century; in all probability they were linked to Jesuit missions, as well as the spice trade which started to dominate the scene right across Indian coastline then. Details of their travels to South India can be traced in the accounts of Jesuit Antonio Rubino, written in early 17th century.

The Danes were next in line, setting up a trading base close by in Tranquebar (Tharangambadi) in the year 1620. The Dutch East India Company built the magnificent Sadras fort as a commercial outpost at Sadhurangapattinam in the early 17th century.

The British East India company, noticing the profits achieved in Surat, established a trading hub in Madras in 1639. In 1664, the French East India company was established by Jean Baptiste Colbert, under King Louis XIV. After numerous false starts, on February 4th 1673, Louis Auguste Bellanger Lespinay arrived at Pondicherry in South India after the authorization was granted to the French East India company by Sher Khan Lodi, Governor of the Province, to open a trading outpost. This finally turned into the French settlement of Pondicherry.

Pic 1

Trading Posts of the European Powers in Tamil Nadu: Madras/ Cuddalore (British), Sadhurangapattinam/ Sadras (Dutch), Puducherry/ Karaikal (French) and Tranquebar/ Tharangambadi (Danish)


The pursuit of trade led to numerous wars between the Dutch, British and French. Pondicherry was not left behind in this conquest for expansion within India, which ultimately meant bragging rights to Europeans. The Dutch captured Pondicherry in 1693 but it was returned to the French in 1699 after the French agreed to pay 16,000 pagodas and return of other territories to the allied forces of Britain, Spain, Rome and United provinces as per Treaty of Ryswick.


Consolidating their power, the French acquired the territories of Mahe in 1720, Yanam in 1731 and Karaikal in 1738. By now, the two strong European powers on the Eastern coast were the British and French. The two corporations in India maintained cordial relations even though the situation was entirely different back home.

The war of Austrian succession would have a drastic impact on these relations though. The territories often changed hands during the Anglo-French wars of India, or better known as the Carnatic Wars (1742-1763).

The chief instigator of these wars in India was an ambitious Frenchman Joseph Francois Dupleix. After his arrival in 1715, he rose to the position of Governor of the French East India company in 1742. Dupleix sought to expand the French influence on the Coromandel coast by entering into treaties with the local chieftains and engaging Indian soldiers in the French army; this worried the British. Back home in Europe, the French and British had opposing views on the war of Austrian Succession. The British entered the war in 1744. In India, although the French were informed to stay clear of war, the British fleet captured French merchant ships, which led to an escalation in naval forces.

After an indecisive war at Nagapattinam, the French captured Madras in the first Carnatic war in 1746. La Bourdannais, the French commander decided to return the territory to British which was overruled by Dupleix. The French made several attempts to capture Fort St. David, Cuddalore, but were thwarted by the arrival of  British reinforcements. This led to the siege of Pondicherry in 1748 by the British, under Admiral Edward Boscawen. Madras was returned to the British as per the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748. The war was notable for the rise of Robert Clive from a prisoner of war to an officer who thwarted the attack on Cuddalore and played a key role in the siege of Pondicherry.

Though the French and English did not embark on a war in Europe, hostilities continued in India. The second Carnatic War between 1749 and 1754 pitted the Nizam supported by the British against Chanda Sahib and Muzzaffur Jung aided by the French, for the territory of Arcot. The Robert Clive led forces captured Arcot and successfully defended it. The treaty of Pondicherry was signed in 1754 and the favoured British candidate Mohamad Ali Khan Walajah ascended the throne as the Nawab of Carnatic.

After the second Carnatic War, the French-who were keen to maintain peace-sent the commissioner, Charles Godeheu, to replace Dupleix. Sadly, having spent his fortune and with the absence of government support, Dupleix died a pauper back in France in 1754.

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Statue of Joseph Francios Dupleix in Puducherry

In 1756, the outbreak of seven years war led to a third Carnatic war. The battleground shifted to Bengal where the Robert Clive-led British forces captured the French settlement, Chandanagar, in 1757. The British then successfully defended Madras and captured Pondicherry in 1761. A major casualty during the war was the Alamparai Fort (50Kms from Mahabalipuram) originally a gift to Dupleix; the British destroyed it in 1760. The war concluded with the signing of Treaty of Paris in 1763 which returned Pondicherry and Chandanagar to the French. However the treaty ended any French ambitions of expanding further in India. The British East India company had just become the dominant European power in India and was no longer just a corporation.

The status quo was maintained till 1793. The start of the French Revolutionary wars would have severe ramifications on Pondicherry. The British Army and Navy forces led by Col. John Braithwaite and Admiral William Cornwallis besieged Pondicherry. The French made no effort to reclaim their lost territories. However the British returned them to the French as per the Treaty of Paris 1814. The French would continue to hold on to their settlements as commercial centres but not as administrative hubs. However they would have to contend with a new threat – India’s quest to be a free nation.

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