Sunday, April 7, 2024

ARP306 War in India

Last week we looked at the Spanish takeover of Menorca in the Mediterranean Sea.  While we, in America, think of the Revolutionary war in terms of the fighting in America, that fighting launched a larger war worldwide.  When European powers went to war, that meant open season on all of their colonies and outposts around the world.  By 1781, Britain was at war with France, Spain, and the Netherlands.

While Britain had lots of colonies and outposts to defend, it was not just fighting a defensive war.  The government was always looking for vulnerable enemy real estate that it could seize.  By the 1780’s the Indian subcontinent provided many such targets.

Indian Colonization

Hyder Ali
By this time, India had been a target of European colonization for nearly three centuries.  The Portuguese established their first trading posts there in 1498.  India, at the time, was made up of several kingdoms that were often at war with one another.  Europeans took advantage of these divisions to establish alliances and build a system of control.  By the early 1600’s both the Dutch and the English had established themselves on the subcontinent.  Within a few decades, the Danes and the French also established themselves.  Later, Sweden and Austria also carved out areas of control.  As they did in other parts of the word, these European powers battled both locals and each other for greater control.

Dutch power centered around Ceylon a large island near the southeast coast, as well as along the coast of the continent nearby.  The British East India Company held large areas of influence throughout India, but was particularly strong in the northeast area known as Bengal.

After France and Britain went to war in 1778, Britain attacked French colonies that were allied with the local kingdom of Mysore. Its first target was the French Indian capital of Pondicherry, which the British captured after a two month siege in 1778.  This was just north of the Dutch area of control. At that time, however, Britain was not at war with the Dutch, so it proceeded no further. Shortly afterward, the British also took Mahe on the west coast.

Second Anglo-Mysore War

The French were not able to put many resources into their defenses in India, but the local French ally the Kingdom of Mysore was not simply ready to submit to British rule.

Hyder Ali ruled Mysore at the time.  He had allied himself with the French after the British, in his view, had betrayed him in an earlier war.  Before the British took Mahé, Ali warned them that the area was under his protection and to stay out.  The British ignored the warning and took it anyway. This kicked off what is known as the Second Anglo-Mysore War. The first one had been fought a decade earlier when Ali also tangled with British forces.

Southern India
In July, 1780, Ali assembled an army of 80,000 and invaded the British-controlled Carnatic region of south India.  The Mysore Army burned villages and laid siege to several British forts in the area.  This led to a major battle in September of 1780 against a British army of about 5000 under the command of Colonel William Baillie.  The Mysore cavalry broke the British defensive lies and decimated the army.  At the time, it was one of the worst British defeats in India.  The British retreated to Madras, leaving the Mysore to take control of the Carnatic.  

In July, 1781, a British force of about 8000 attacked the coastal city of Porto Novo, where Ali defended the city with a force of about 40,000.  The British commander, General Eyre Coote had spent decades fighting in India and was an effective officer.  I haven’t been able to find much information on the battle itself, but the much smaller British force was able to capture Porto Novo, inflicting about 9000 enemy casualties while taking about 300 of their own.  My suspicion would be the use of British navy cannons and the lack of effective weapons by the Mysore army led to the rather lopsided British victory.  This was followed up by another British victory at Sholinghur in September, and several other battles.

In the summer of 1781, Lord George Macartney arrived as the new Governor of Madras.  You may recall that we discussed Macartney before when he was Governor of Grenada in the West Indies when the French captured the island in 1779.  Macartney had become a French prisoner of war, but was exchanged and sent back to London.  Two years later, he was on his way to his next post at Madras.

Macartney brought with him the news that Britain had declared war on the Netherlands six months earlier.  Apparently, no one among the Dutch or British leadership had received the news until Macarntey’s arrival in July 1781.  Governor Macartney ordered the capture of any Dutch controlled outposts in India.  

Siege of Negapatam

The first British target was the Dutch controlled city of Negapatam.  The Dutch Governor Reynier van Vlissingen had been unaware of the declared war with Britain until word arrived in late summer of 1781.  Up until that time, the Dutch had been fighting with the Mysore under Hyder Ali.  

British Camp by Rock of Sholingarh
Earlier that year, Mysore soldiers had raided several villages under Dutch protection.  The governor sent emissaries to meet with Ali and demand damages for the attacks.  Instead, Ali took the emissaries hostage and demanded a ransom. The Mysore also threatened to take several other Dutch outposts.  

In response, the Dutch commander, Vlissingen, was in discussions with the British about forming an alliance with  Mysore.  When word arrived of war between Britain and the Netherlands, all that changed.  Despite having to pay a ransom to get the return of his emissaries, Vlissingen reached out to Ali once again, hoping to form an alliance with Mysore against Britain.  Ali was amenable to such an arrangement once he learned that the Dutch were at war with his main enemy, Britain. 

Initially Vlissingen sent 600 Dutch soldiers, along with gunpowder and ammunition, to Hyder’s camp in Tanjore.  When they learned that British forces were going to move against Negapatam, the Dutch soldiers returned to the city, along with about 2100 Mysore soldiers. There, the armies were supplemented by another 5500 local Indian militia.

Because the British were fighting with Mysore all over the region, they could not simply focus all their forces on the Dutch target.  In fact, the British commander, General Coote, did not want to make much of any of his army available for what he regarded as a sideshow to the main fight for Carnatas.

Hector Munro
After some effort, Governor Macartney convinced General Hector Munro to take command of the force to be called up against Negapatam.  Munro was an experienced officer.  He came from an aristocratic Scottish family.  He got his start in the military in the 1750’s capturing Jacobite rebels during the rising.  By 1760, he was a major in the 89th Regiment of Foot, which was deployed to India.  He spent nearly a decade there, fighting against Ali in the first Mysore war in the 1760’s. He returned home in 1768 and was elected to Parliament.  Munro made some big investments in a bank that failed in the financial crisis of 1772.  This may have been part of the reason that he decided to return to active duty in India in 1778.

By late 1781, Munro had spent nearly two years of his return in active combat against the Mysore Army.  Once again, he had had enough and was ready to return home.  That was when Governor Macartney tapped him to command the attack on Negapatam.  To support Monroe, Coote agreed to deploy an army under the command of Colonel John Braithwaite.  Although Braithwaite had been injured in a recent battle, his soldiers under the command of Colonel Eccles Nixon marched to Negapatam.

On October 20, the British under Colonel Nixon, who were marching overland, seized two Dutch outposts at Karaikal and Nagore. General Munro sailed with additional forces carried by the British Navy commanded by Admiral Edward Hughes.

The following week on October 27, the British forces attacked the outer redoubts of the main Dutch defense at Negapatam.  The defenders repulsed the British.  The following day, the British brought more reinforcements for a second attempt, and were repulsed again.  Munro then attempted to attack the redoubts on the other side of the city.  There, he was more successful, forcing a rout of the Mysorean cavalry. By the end of October, the Dutch retreated behind their city walls and prepared for a siege.

Edward Hughes
The total British force consisted of about 4000 soldiers, while the defenders had about 6500.  But the bulk of the defenders were local militia who were not considered to be as reliable in battle.  Munro had his men begin digging siege trenches around the city, and bringing up cannons to take down the city walls.  The Dutch attempted several sorties out of the city to prevent the setup of enemy artillery, but were unsuccessful.

Even before the British arrived at Negapatam, the Dutch commander van Vlissingen sent word to Ali to send more Mysore soldiers to help lift the siege.  A Mysorean relief army was near the town by November 8.  However, they were reluctant to launch an attack given the size of the British lines, and the presence of British warships within cannon range of any attack.  The Mysore leaders paused and called for even more reinforcements so that they could attack with an overwhelming force.

As they waited, the British attacked the Mysore camp and forced the relief column to retreat on November 10.  Inside Negapatam, the Dutch were out of food and were surrounded by the British army and navy.  After a failed counter attack on the British lines on November 10, Vlissingen called a council of war.  The council agreed the Dutch should surrender the following day.

The Dutch came out under a flag of truce asking for terms.  The two sides reached an agreement and the next day, November 12, the Dutch garrison surrendered.  A day later a larger Mysore army arrived, only to discover that it was too late to provide relief.  It retreated back inland without engaging the British.


Following the fall of Negapatam the Mysore pulled back from the coast where the British navy could provide the British with an advantage.  The main British fleet that was present at Negapatam moved on to the Dutch island of Ceylon.

Fort at Trincomalee, 1782
The British fleet carried several hundred volunteers, along with its marines to capture the Dutch colony at Trincomalee.  The fleet reached Trincomalee Bay on January 4, 1782. They landed an assault force several miles north of the Dutch Fort Frederick.  Marching at night, they managed to enter the fort before the enemy even knew of their presence, taking the small 43 man fort garrison prisoner.  

The larger Fort Ostenburg, however, controlled the harbor.  By January 8, the British took a hill above Fort Ostenburg.  Getting artillery onto the hill would prove difficult, so Admiral Hughes sent an emissary to call for the Dutch surrender of the fort.  

Dutch Governor Iman Willem Falck received the British officer, Major Geils, who demanded the fort’s surrender.  Falck refused the demand and sent Geils back to inform his commander.  Geils was also an engineer.  He used his time in the fort to observe its defenses and believed that the British could storm the fort instead of a siege.

The following morning, a force of 450, made primarily of British marines and seamen stormed the fort with scaling ladders.  After a brief battle Fort Ostenberg fell to the British. Admiral Hughes left a garrison, made up primarily of Indian soldiers, to retain control of Trincomalee while his fleet returned to Madras. 

The Dutch forces on the island were taken prisoner, Dutch Governor Falk was granted parole to travel to the Dutch East Indies and report the loss of Trincomalee.


The British success in India meant that both sides would soon be sending more resources there.  Hughes had taken Trincomalee with six ships of the line.  When he returned to Madras, he found three more ships had arrived, bringing his fleet to nine. 

Admiral Suffren
About the same time Hughes was returning to Madras a new French fleet was on its way.  France had established its naval headquarters for the Indian Ocean at Isle de France, an island just off Mozambique, known today as Mauritius.  In late 1781, a French fleet left Isle de France headed for India. Initially, the French targeted Trincomalee, but then decided to head straight at the British fleet at Madras.

Admiral Thomas d'Estienne d'Orves commanded the French fleet. However, he became very ill during the voyage and turned over command of the fleet to Admiral Pierre André de Suffren.  The fleet included 11 ships of the line and six smaller fighting ships.  Along the way, the fleet captured a British ship of the line, the 50 gun Hannibal, which they also pressed into French service.

In early February, the French fleet reached Madras, and began raiding coastal towns and villages.  Shortly after their arrival Admiral d’Orves succumbed to his illness and died.  Admiral Suffren continued on with the campaign.

After discovering the British fleet at Madras, Suffren sailed further south.  He planned to land at Porto Novo, then march back up the coast and capture enemy villages along the way.  Near the landing point, Suffren discovered that the British fleet under Hughes had followed them down the coast and were prepared to do battle.  The British fleet was smaller, but managed to catch the French fleet out of position.

Initially the British took on five French ships of the line, eventually joined by two more.  The others inexplicably remained out of the battle, just watching.  Several of the British ships were badly damaged and close to sinking.  Again, inexplicably, the French ship ended their attack before sinking several enemy ships. 

Although the British were able to inflict considerable damage, Admiral Hughes realized he was outgunned and sailed away that night under cover of darkness.  His fleet sailed from Trincomalee to make repairs.

The battle losses, in what became known as the Battle of Sadras, were pretty even.  Both fleets lost about 130 killed and wounded.

Suffren did not immediately give chase.  He met with his ship commanders to scold those who failed to enter the battle, then went ashore to meet with Hyder Ali and to land his armies on the coast.  French soldiers joined with Ali’s Mysorean soldiers to begin a siege against Cuddalore


After both fleets had time to make repairs, they both set out in search of another battle.  The fleets spotted each other on April 8th.  Many of Hughes’ crew were sick with scurvy at the time, and hoped to avoid battle. But Suffren gave chase.  

Negapatem, 1782
On the morning of April 12, realizing he could not avoid a fight, Hughes formed his ships into a line of battle.  It took hours for both fleets to get into position.  The two lines joined in battle by around 1:30 in the afternoon.  Both lines blasted each other with broadsides, inflicting considerable damage.  The British took the heaviest casualties, suffering nearly 600 killed and wounded.  French casualties have conflicting reports, ranging from about 350-550 killed and wounded.

A rainstorm at about 5:30 PM finally forced the two lines to separate and withdraw.  For the next week, both fleets remained within a few miles of each other, but both were too badly damaged to renew the battle.  The French considered renewing the fight on April 19th, but after reviewing the condition of the enemy fleet, decided to sail away.

The British fleet might have looked formidable, but it was a bluff. Several British ships of the line were barely afloat and were maintained by skeleton crews because so many sick and wounded had been pulled off to hospital ships.

The French retreated to the Dutch port at Batacalo, in modern day Sri Lanka.


Once again, the two fleets separated for a time to make repairs and then set sail again in search of one another.  The French fleet departed Batacalo for Cuddalore, which had fallen to France’s Mysorean allies.  There, Ali asked the French Admiral Suffren to attack Negapatam, which was the same town that the British had captured eight months earlier, and which I discussed at the beginning of this episode. Suffren would not participate in a land attack, but agreed to engage the British Navy off the coast there.

Suffren meeting with Ali, 1782
On July 11, 1782, Hughes was anchored near Negapatam with his 11 ships of the line, when Suffren arrived with his 12 ships. Hughes had received intelligence that the French fleet was on its way and was prepared for battle.

The following day the two lines fought yet another destructive yet largely indecisive battle.  The British fleet was more aggressive this time

There was some dispute after the battle.  The British claimed that the Sévère had struck her colors during the battle, meaning she was a British prize.  The captain of the Sévère disputed this, claiming that the British had simply shot away the halyards, causing the colors to fall, and then be raised again.

The British left without their prize.  A court martial of the events later held in Paris determined that the captain had struck his colors, but that his subordinate officers refused to surrender and had the colors raised again.  Suffren actually sent three of his captains home for court martial. The other two avoided censure. The captain of the Sévère, however, was cashiered from the navy.

The war in India would continue, on land and at sea, for even a year after the American Revolution ended.  We’ll have to return for some further adventures in India in a later episode.  Next week, however, we return to America, as General Washington makes plans to kidnap a future king of England.

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Next Episode 307 Congress After Yorktown (Available April 14, 2024)

Previous Episode 305 Siege of Menorca

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Further Reading


Plan of Action at Porto Novo:

Battle of Sadras – 17 February 1782

Battle of Providien – 12 April 1782

Battle of Negapatam, 6 July 1782

Battle of Negapatam – 6 July 1782

Capture of Fort Trincomalee by surprise

The Battle of Trincomale – 3 September 1782

General Eyre Coote

Sir Edward Hughes

Singh, Kumar Badri Narain. “THE WAR OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE AND INDIA.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, vol. 38, 1977, pp. 591–94. JSTOR,

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Malleson, G.B. Final French Struggles in India and on the Indian Seas, London: W.H. Allen, 1884. 

Mill, James The History of British India, Vol. 4, London: J. Madden, 1840. 

Mohammed, Gholam, The History Of Hyder Shah Aiias Hyder Ali Khan Bahadur And Of Son, Tippoo Sultaun, Delhi: Cosmo Publications, first published 1855. 

Sinha, Narendra Krishna Haidar Ali, vol.1,1721-1779, Calcutta Oriental Press, 1941. 

Wylly, H.C. Sir Eyre Coote, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Cavaliero Roderick Admiral Satan: The Life & Campaigns of Suffren, I.B. Tauris, 1994. 

Haroon, Anwar Kingdom of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan: Sultanat E Khudadad, Xlibris, 2013. 

Van Lohuizen, Jan The Dutch East India Company and Mysore, 1762-1790, Brill, 1961. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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