Page 75

Chapter 4 – The French and English East India Companies

The death of the Spanish king in 1702 had been the signal for a war that ended with a partition of the Spanish monarchy and a general political resettlement of Europe. So with the death of Aurangzib in 1707 began the disruption of the Moghul Empire, followed by a material disturbance of the political system of Asia. The commotion and territorial derangements that were now spreading through the central regions of Asia were evident premonitory tokens of the instability and approaching downfall of the two great dynasties that had ruled Persia and India from the middle of the sixteenth century; the long stationary period was drawing to its end; an era of great conquests was reappearing; and with the troubles fermenting in Central Asia we may undoubtedly connect the events about to follow on the coast of the Indian Peninsula.

There was nothing unusual in the civil war that broke out on the Moghul emperor’s death: for the title to a vacant Indian throne was ordinarily determined by the sword; every ruler of the imperial house had fought in turn for his heritage; and in fact the dynasty

Page 76

A corner of the Divan-i-Khas at Amber

had owed its strength to the severe competitive trials in which each successor had proved his capacity for kingship. But as Aurangzib died at an advanced age, the contest had long been foreseen and deliberately prepared for. He left his dominions in confusion, with a formidable revolt spreading among the Marathas; his empire was unwieldy and overgrown; and this time the struggle among his heirs brought out no successor capable of holding together the ill-joined provinces and discordant races.

The freebooting companies of the Maratha chiefs soon developed into roving armies that overran the central and western regions. The great viceroyalty of the southern provinces was converted into an independent principality under the Nizam. Bengal, the richest province of India, fell away under an Afghan adventurer; the Sikhs were rising in the Panjab; a powerful official was founding his dynasty in Oudh; and various usurpers were setting themselves up in the remoter districts.

The dominion which had been planted in the sixteenth century by the vigour and audacity of Babar

Page 77

and his freelances from the Oxus was now subsiding into emasculate debility. During the flourishing period of the Moghul Empire its outposts were at Kabul and Kandahar; but toward the end of Aurangzib’s reign his garrisons had been driven out of Afghanistan. As the maintenance of a strong north-west frontier has always been essential to the security of India, the divorce of Afghanistan from the rulership of the Indian plains was in those days sure to be followed by the recurrence of chronic invasions from Central Asia. Thirty years after Aurangzib’s decease, Nadir Shah, a Persian soldier of fortune who had overturned the ruling dynasty in Persia, came down through the Afghan passes with a great army. The Moghul emperor made but a show of resistance. Nadir Shah sacked Delhi in March, 1739, added one more massacre to the blood-stained annals of that ill-fated city, wrenched away from the imperial crown all its possessions west of the Indus, and departed home, leaving the Moghul government, which had received its death-blow, in a state of mortal collapse.

The barriers having been thus broken down, Ahmad Shah, of the Abdalli tribe of Afghans, followed two years later. When Nadir Shah had been assassinated by the Persians in his camp in Khorasan, Ahmad Shah, who commanded a large body of cavalry in Nadir Shah’s army, rode off eastward to conquer Afghanistan; and from that base he seized the whole Panjab between 1748 and 1751. Meanwhile the Marathas were spreading over Central India from the southwest like a devastating

Page 78

flood; and wherever the land had been levelled flat by the heavy roller of absolutism, wherever the minor rulerships and petty states had been crushed out by the empire, the whole country was now easily overrun and broken up into anarchy.

The different provinces and viceroyalties went their own natural way; they were parcelled out in a scuffle among revolted governors, rebellious chiefs, leaders of insurgent tribes or sects, religious revivalists, and captains of mercenary bands. 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 anyone 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 vanishing in complete disorganization.

It was during this period of tumultuary confusion that the French and English first appeared as rivals upon the political arena in India. For the purpose of throwing some additional light on the origin, character, and eventual results of the great transmarine contest between these two nations which stands in the forefront of their history during the eighteenth century, it may not be inappropriate, at this point, to sketch very briefly the earlier development of a commercial and colonial policy in France. This may at any rate lend

Page 79

readers some slight degree of aid toward substituting clear and well-founded conclusions for the complacent commonplaces that are so often repeated about the lack of national aptitudes. for that kind of enterprise. It may also serve to bring out and accentuate the wide contrasts of principle and practice exhibited by the annals of French and English adventure beyond sea.

The history of French colonization is ordinarily divided, we are told, into three periods: the period of the great discoveries, which is carried up to the death of Henry IV in 1609; the era of grand colonial expansion in the seventeenth century; and the period of decline during the hundred years that intervene between the Peace of Utrecht in 1713 and the end of the great French wars in 1815. We have seen that the rivalry among the maritime nations began in earnest at the end of the sixteenth century, when the splendid achievements and conquests of Spain and Portugal had fired the imagination of the whole Western world. The spreading curiosity in France about outlandish peoples, distant voyages, and the fabulous wealth of Asia is illustrated by the writings of that age, and by constant allusions to the subject in such authors as Rabelais and Montaigne.

Nevertheless, although at the opening of the seventeenth century commercial and colonizing projects had already been entertained by that active and far-sighted ruler Henry IV, who projected a French East India Company, it was in England and Holland, not in France, that the first important step was taken by

Page 80

founding the two East India Companies that were destined to a long and memorable career. In 1624, however, began the long ministry of Richelieu, in whose powerful mind the conception of endowing France with a great dominion beyond sea reached its maturity, and had issue in successive decrees for the foundation and multiplication of colonizing companies in various parts of the world, from Canada in the West to Madagascar and the East Indies.

It is worth observation that in the charters of these companies may be found the earliest promulgations of principles that were consistently maintained throughout the entire course of French colonization under the old monarchy, but which would be looked for in vain in the commercial records of England or Holland. The Roman Catholic faith was established, to the rigid exclusion of all other religions; but on the other hand converted pagans were to be admitted to the full civil rights of Frenchmen. The propagation of Christianity was placed upon a level with the plantation of colonies, as a direct object of these expeditions. Nevertheless, their real motive was, after all, not so much economic or propagandist, as political; the companies were organized by the great cardinal to counteract the accumulation of vast transmarine possessions by Spain, then France’s most dangerous rival, and in order that Spain might not claim for herself the whole non-Christian world.

In this policy, indeed, Richelieu was only imitating the tactics of England and Holland. Both these nations

Page 81

Arms of the new East India Company

From the original grant of arms, dated Oct. 13, 1698.

Page 82

Blank page

Page 83

were already striking at the extremities of the unwieldy Spanish empire, cutting off its gold convoys, harrying its coasts and islands, sweeping the narrow seas by privateers, and generally pursuing that irregular buccaneering warfare of which the memory long lived among mariners in the romantic traditions of the Spanish Main. In these wild adventures the French took little share; but they had borrowed from their neighbours the system of chartered associations; and under Mazarin as under Richelieu, the peopling of new lands beyond the ocean by French Catholics, in the interests of God and as a balance against Spain, was the essential principle of colonial action in France during the first half of the seventeenth century.

At this moment the religious idea was dominant in France. The court and all the fashionable society interested themselves warmly in collecting subscriptions for propagating the true faith among the heathen; missions were sent out, bishops were appointed, and the Jesuits began gradually to acquire great power in all the new colonies of North America. Nor was officialism less active than ecclesiasticism in the direction and superintendence of these projects for the extension of the faith and dominion of France. The system of companies under Church and State patronage was not popular among the men of business, who demanded of their government no more than freedom of trade for themselves and protection from foreign enemies. But official predilections were then, as they have always been in France, adverse to the English practice of chartering

Page 84

The Great Temple at Rangoon

Buddhism prevails in Burma, and the great temple of Shwe Dagon is one of the most sacred places of worship in Indo-China. Relics of Buddha and of three of his predecessors lend a peculiar sanctity to this pagoda and the group of shrines connected with it.

a body of pioneers or merchant adventurers and leaving them to plant settlements or factories by their own resources. The expeditions were not only authorized, but energetically promoted by the government, with the result that the governing classes insisted on sharing the investment or taking their part in the speculations, with an eye to the benefits promised in this world and the next. All the administrative and military commands were distributed among the noblesse; and among the hundred associates of the Company of New France we find thirty seigneurs de la cour, besides a certain number of ecclesiastic and even princely dignitaries, who were represented on the board by their secretaries.

No chartered association for the single purpose of trade, like the English or Dutch East India Companies, was founded by Richelieu, nor could any such company have been launched upon the system that has just been described. The French mercantile community demurred to conditions which placed all these corporations so completely under the paternal supervision of priests, nobles, and high officials; they also betrayed a perverse mistrust of the religious and propagandist element. They cautiously suggested that in commercial transactions spiritual directorship and ministerial supervision were not altogether desirable. The Chambers of Rouen and Marseilles recommended that at no price, and on no pretext, should the captains of their vessels be nominated by the king; they complained of French consuls abroad and revenue officers at home as equally dictatorial.

Page 85

They asked that religious interests should not rule trading operations, but that their traffic should be protected at sea by the royal navy and that trading factories should be allowed to manage their own affairs. It does not appear, in short, that Richelieu’s colonial policy produced any notable results, beyond some remarkable voyages of discovery which gave a considerable impulse to all future colonization, and a great diffusion of missionary literature reporting the successful propagation of the faith in those countries that had been made over to the new companies.

We may thus register, even at this early stage, observations of a distinct and remarkable contrast in origin, character, and practical methods between the colonial systems of France and England. The first French colonies derived their initiative from the Crown; they were formed under strict official regulations; and the note of high orthodoxy was predominant in their constitution. The first English colonies owed their foundation either to men who had left their fatherland to escape the rule of kings and bishops, or to “gentleman adventurers” with a taste for the roving life and freedom of a new country, which they were quite willing to hold as national property so long as they were permitted to use their own ways and means of acquiring it. And at a time when the great commercial companies of England and Holland were already wresting from Spain and Portugal the invaluable prize of the seaborne trade with Asia, the French merchants were deterred from entering into competition with them

Page 86

mainly by the misguided solicitude of their own government.

For the commerce of France, however, better times were coming. The period of greatest colonial expansion, as it is styled by French writers, was inaugurated when Colbert, the famous minister of Louis XIV, launched his two Companies of the East and West Indies in 1664. It has already been explained that in those days the term “Indies” bore an exceedingly wide geographical significance in both hemispheres. Under the general denomination of the East Indies were included all the coasts of Southern Asia, from the Persian Gulf to China, Malacca, Borneo, Java, and all the rich Spice Islands of the China Sea. By the West Indies were meant not only the islands now known under that name, but the whole eastern littoral, and even the interior of Northern and Central America as far as it had been explored. No ship could double the Cape of Good Hope without coming within the trading sphere of the East India Companies; while to cross the Atlantic was to trespass on some West Indian monopoly. In 1600, the charter of the Dutch Company conferred upon them the exclusive privilege of navigation in all Eastern waters, with power to seize and confiscate any vessel that intruded on their domain. The charter of Colbert’s East India Company granted a similar monopoly of trade for fifty years in all lands and seas beyond the Cape of Good Hope.

It is not too much to say that the great Companies of the seventeenth century were the champions and

Page 87

A water scene near Garrett, Java

delegated agents of their respective nations in the competition for commerce and territory throughout the whole non-Christian world, and from this point of view the importance of a good colonial policy can hardly be overestimated. The French West Indian Company was an association of the type invented by Richelieu, with authority to conquer and convert the heathen; but

Page 88

the foundation of the East India Company by Colbert on different lines marks a distinct step in advance. This Company, fitted out on the Dutch and English models as a chartered body with exclusive privileges and a large capital, was destined to acquire for France a substantial share of that rich commerce in Asiatic commodities that has made the fortune of so many maritime States.

In those days of corruption and intolerance, official tutelage was everywhere a sore burden; but the French Companies had something even heavier to bear. The king, the royal princes, and the principal courtiers took an active part in floating the concern, and they were good enough to subscribe largely to the investment. High ecclesiastic dignitaries condescended to patronize the East India Company; the prospectus was advertised in the churches and recommended from the pulpits; while royal proclamations exhorted all true Frenchmen to seize this opportunity of making their own fortunes and contributing to their country’s prosperity.

Strange to say, however, not even these appeals to patriotism and piety roused any widespread enthusiasm among mercantile men. The capital expected from public subscription came in very slowly, in spite of heavy official pressure upon the great towns; for the traders, who had no guarantee for the good faith or consistency of a despotic government, vainly implored the bureaucracy to reduce the crushing tariffs on foreign imports and to leave the management of the business

Page 89

in private hands. As for the West India Company, it seems to have broken down by 1674, when its charter was revoked. Colbert determined to abandon henceforward, for the purpose of colonization, the agency of Companies, and to substitute direct administration by a minister of the Crown.

For the East Indies, however, Colbert maintained the organization of a chartered Company, although under the close superintendence of the Crown. Yet the legitimate commercial undertakings of this Company had been hampered at the outset by combining them with an expedition for the colonization of Madagascar, which failed disastrously. The first attempts of the French to gain a footing on the Indian coast were also defeated by the Dutch, so that in six years after its foundation this Company was entangled in very serious embarrassment. Nevertheless, if the most liberal support and encouragement from Louis XIV and his great minister could have secured success to the Company – and if a sharp turn of general policy, adverse to Colbert and his commercial views, had not speedily supervened – it is possible that the French might have made good their position in India before the close of the seventeenth century. Their initial difficulty was that the ground had been preoccupied by Holland, against whom Louis XIV declared war in 1674, partly, it is said, on account of the violent opposition of the Dutch to French interference with their Indian trade. But a few years later, when Louvois had plunged his master into interminable continental wars,

Page 90

the light and guidance of Colbert’s pacific influence suffered total eclipse, and projects of colonial or commercial expansion were set aside for plans of campaign.

At the opening of the eighteenth century, therefore, the Portuguese, who had started first by priority of discovery, were at a standstill far in the rear. The Dutch, who followed, had wrested from the Portuguese most of their trade and territory, but the strength of Holland had already been broken by the incessant attacks of France, who had been good enough thus to relieve England of her most capable maritime rival. From the beginning of the eighteenth century the grasp of the Dutch upon points along the Indian coast became gradually relaxed; they relinquished the contest for predominance in that region; and their principal trading stations were shifted south-eastward to Ceylon, Java, Borneo, and the Spice Islands. The Danish East India Company was extinguished in 1728. In 1722 the Emperor of Austria had granted to the merchants of the Austrian Netherlands a charter authorizing the Ostend East India Company to trade, fit out armed vessels, build forts, and make treaties with Indian princes; but this interference with their trade alarmed the maritime powers. England, France, and Holland united in diplomatic protests and threats of armed resistance to its establishment in the East Indies, until the emperor finally agreed by treaty to suppress the Ostend Company totally. The French, on the other hand, were gradually gaining ground and strengthening their position in India; for although they had been

Page 91

much enfeebled by the disastrous European wars that ended in 1713, their resources and their enterprising spirit revived during the tranquil interval of the next thirty years.

Under the pacific ministries of Fleury and Walpole trade and navigation now began to gather strength on both sides of the Channel; although the speculative mania that supervened in France at the beginning of this long peace had involved her East India Company in some dangerous vicissitudes. They had first been absorbed in 1719 into a gigantic Company of the Indies with exclusive right of trade on the African coast as well as on the shores of the Indian and the Pacific Oceans. The next step was to place this Company, already laden with privileges and monopolies, in charge of the famous Land Bank, with Law as Inspector-General over all their business, commercial and financial. The inevitable result was an enormous inflation of the shares and operations, followed by a sharp and ruinous collapse; nor did the Company right themselves until a royal decree had autocratically cut away all their liabilities, after which they again confined themselves to the East India trade.

Their situation in the Indian waters now began rapidly to improve. In 1715, they had occupied the important island of Mauritius (abandoned by the Dutch), and were steadily taking up their ground side by side with the English on the south-eastern or Coromandel coast of India, where Pondicherri, the seat of the governor-general of all the French settlements, was developing

Page 92

A pagoda at Pondicherri

into a fine town of seventy thousand inhabitants. This settlement had been established in 1674 by Francois Martin, who built the town, acquired the lands adjoining, and brought Pondicherri to such a high degree of solid prosperity during twenty-five years of wise and courageous administration from 1681 to 1706 – though from 1693 to 1697 the place was in the possession of the Dutch – that he is regarded by some French writers as the true founder of French India.

From 1735 to 1740, the capital and dividends of the

Page 93

Company showed a substantial increase; they held five chief stations in India and they were trading with China, although it does not appear that they ever established themselves in the Spice Islands or the Malay Archipelago. The earlier governors, Lenoir and Dumas, managed their affairs with prudence and sagacity. Dupleix, who followed them, was a man of larger calibre, full of energy and ambition, who had distinguished himself as chief of the French factory at Chandarnagar on the Hugli River. When he was appointed to succeed Dumas in the governorship of Pondicherri in 1741, with supreme civil and military authority in the settlement, he lost no time in developing his bold and high-reaching projects for the promotion of his Company’s interests.

In this manner it came to pass that, not long after the great settlement of Europe which was accomplished at the Peace of Utrecht, France and England alone faced each other as serious competitors for the prize of Indian commerce, having distanced or disabled all other candidates. Not only in the West, but in the East, the commercial and colonial rivalry between the foremost maritime states of Europe had reached its climax toward the middle of the eighteenth century. A high spring tide of maritime enterprise, setting strongly and decisively from Europe toward the unguarded coasts of India, was bearing on its rising wave the ships of these two jealous and powerful nations. So early as 1740 when war between England and France was imminently threatening, though not declared, the

Page 94

French government had been entertaining the plans of Labourdonnais for destroying the English factories in the East Indies. A few years later, Dupleix was actively encouraged in his grand project of expelling the British from the Coromandel coast. At the same time, the French were making substantial progress in North America, having already formed the design of pushing down the Ohio, in order to appropriate what would now be called the Hinterland in the rear of the English colonies on the seacoast.

Toward the middle of the century, therefore, the territorial position and prospects of France in America and Asia had decidedly improved; and the growing dissensions caused by discordant political interests in Europe were exasperated by quarrels over trade and colonies beyond the sea. The colonial quarrel was fought out, as we know, in North America; the field on which the two nations met to contend for what was at that time the most valuable seaborne trade in the world was India. And from this time forward the really potent element in Asiatic politics, which has since transformed and may again dominate the whole situation, is the political rivalry and rapidly increasing ascendency of the European Powers.

The contest had begun in a spirit of keen but pacific commercial rivalry. Each nation was represented in India by a substantial and well-equipped Company, which kept to its business, established factories and agencies, and concerned itself very slightly about the internal affairs of the state or province within whose

Page 95

jurisdiction it was settled. But at home the circumstances and constitution of the two bodies reflected the differences of national character and political conditions then prevailing between the two mother countries. It is exceedingly instructive to examine the financial transactions of the French and English Companies, respectively, with their governments at this period, and to observe the remarkable contrast of situation, system, and administrative principles which the comparison brings out.

In France, the East India Company was closely connected with the government; it farmed monopolies, received treasury grants and subsidies, dealt largely in loans and lotteries, and being usually deep in the state’s debt, was at the mercy of the Crown. From the year 1723 its directors had been appointed by the king, whose officers exercised such constant control over the management that, as the Company afterward declared, the interference of the government was the cause of all its misfortunes. After 1747 it was constantly borrowing large sums on the security of its privileges or revenue farms; it was from such revenues as these that their dividends were paid and their stock artificially maintained. Under an able minister paying serious attention to Indian affairs, it is quite possible that the administration of the French Company might have been directed on larger political principles and pursued with more force and consistency of aim than could be expected from a private mercantile association. But as the government of Louis XV

Page 96

soon began to sink under the embarrassments, vices, and misfortunes of incapable rulership, official patronage gradually proved fatal to the Company that depended on it.

The English Company, on the other hand, was so far from being in debt to the government that it had aided the public treasury with large loans and contributions that amounted to £4,200,000 in 1750. It was an independent and powerful corporation, trusting not to official favour but to parliamentary influence in transacting business with the Crown; and as it was left to manage its own affairs, the greater responsibility thrown upon its chiefs produced in the long run a body of sound and experienced administrators, guided by long tradition, well versed in foreign trade, and backed by the overflowing capital of a great mercantile community.

In India, the means and resources of the two Companies were fairly equal at the outset. The settlements on the Coromandel coast were not only important as points of attraction for the inland commerce; they were also valuable as entrepôts for the general traffic on both sides of the Bay of Bengal and as naval stations for the protection of the thriving trade with the Malacca Straits and Eastern Asia, Ceylon being then held by the Dutch. Moreover, since the decay at the heart of the Moghul empire was soonest felt at its extremities, the distant provinces had already begun to fall away into confusion. The settlements in the far south of India were thus becoming more independent of the

Page 97

Mandhata Island in the Narbada River

Page 98

Blank page

Page 99

imperial authorities than the factories in Bengal, which were up the estuary of a river with forts below them toward the sea, and in a land where the province was still under effective government. On the west side of India, the Marathas, who held most of the districts along the seashore, were by this time strong enough to keep foreign traders within bounds.

But on the southeast or Coromandel coast, Madras and Pondicherri, the headquarters of the French and English Companies, were fortified and fairly armed places upon open roadsteads, lying within the governorship of the Karnatic, which was the name for a large province attached to the viceroyalty of the Deccan, that is, of South India. This viceroyalty had been conferred by the emperor upon Asaf Jah, with the title of Nizam-al-mulk, who soon made himself so powerful as to excite alarm and jealousy at the Imperial Court. When, however, an attempt was made to remove him, the Nizam, who had been summoned to Delhi, marched back into the Deccan with an army, defeated the officer sent to replace him, established his authority in the south, and became the most powerful feudatory of the empire. A few years later, he took advantage of the disorganization caused by Nadir Shah’s irruption into North India to consolidate his great possessions south of the Narbada, including the Karnatic, into a hereditary rulership, owning a nominal allegiance to Delhi, but in fact entirely independent.

In the Karnatic, which had been a governorship under the Deccan viceroyalty, a kind of subordinate

Page 100

principality had been established by one Saadat-Allah; but on his death the succession was disputed, and though the disorders that ensued were temporarily suppressed by the Nizam, they necessarily weakened local authority in the country round the English and French settlements. It was here that the French and English came to blows in 1745, as soon as the news of a declaration of war between France and England reached India. And from this outbreak of hostilities is to be dated the first, crossing of swords on Indian soil in a national duel which lasted, with short intervals, for eighteen years, until one of the combatants was disarmed and virtually driven off the field.

When, in 1741, Dupleix was appointed Director-General of the affairs of the French East India Company, he succeeded to an office that had been held by two predecessors of character and capacity, who had shown great tact and judgment in their dealings with the native powers. Mahé and Karikal had been quietly acquired for France; and during the confusion into which the whole Karnatic was thrown by the Maratha invasion in 1740, the Mohammedan princes had found shelter for their families and treasure behind the walls of Pondicherri. But the plans and aims of the French had not travelled beyond the security and extension of their commerce until the stirring and ambitious spirit of Dupleix, who made no secret of his opinion that the French temperament was better suited for conquest than for commerce, led the Company into a more adventurous field of action. He foresaw that in the event

Page 101

of war with England the rising jealousy between the two Companies would kindle hostilities in India; and he accordingly began to negotiate with the neighbouring chiefs, to assume titles granted under the imperial patent, and to imitate the solemn ostentation of Indian grandees, with the object of preparing the way toward a place for his Company in the political system of the country. He spared no pains to reform his military establishments and to fortify Pondicherri against the contingency of an attack from the sea; nor did he desist when the Directors at Paris ordered him to suspend all expenditure on defensive works, to pay the Company’s debts, and attend to their trade.

The declaration of war in Europe in 1744 gave the signal for beginning the first act of a dramatic contest that was to determine the issue whether France or England should win a great dominion in South Asia. We have to bear in mind that this issue did not depend, as some writers have imagined, upon the petty fighting that ensued along the Coromandel coast, or on the success or failure of their rival alliances and intrigues with Oriental princes. The issue was determined, in reality, by the result of the struggle between these two nations for superiority on all the seas. Maritime supremacy had laid the cornerstone of the whole fabric of Asiatic commerce upon the Indian mainland, where alone it could find a solid foundation; and while the security of this commerce depended on naval power, that power was also sure to expand with the development of trade. Although, therefore, the story of the Indian contest is

Page 102

but an episode of that great international drama which was played out in the next fifty years with many changes of scene and character, it is interesting, instructive, and of the highest importance for a proper understanding of the events and causes which threw open before the English the way to ascendency in India, and which lie at the base of their success.

This collection transcribed by Chris Gage
hosted by ibiblio Support Wikipedia