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30 April 2008

The Napoleonic Wars in India

When you think of the Napoleonic Wars, India isn’t usually the first place to come to mind. We all know about Napoleon’s Egypt expedition (who isn’t amused by the notion of Napoleon swanning around in a turban?), meant to threaten the British in India, but I had always assumed that that was pretty much that, and that India, five months from Europe by boat, had little else to do with the Franco-English struggle on the Continent—the other continent.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. The history of the Napoleonic Wars in India is a tangled combination of French and English partisans attempting to win the support of local rulers as part of pan-French or pan-British schemes, while local rulers played off one side against the other for their own ends, courting British or French military and diplomatic assistance as their own affairs and historical rivalries dictated. One of the most flamboyant examples is that of the kingdom of Mysore, where the ruler, Tippoo Sultan, long an enemy of the British, cultivated the revolutionary regime, loudly announced his support for Robespierre, donned a Cap of Liberty, and referred to himself as “Citizen Tippoo” (although one wonders what he would have done had any of his subjects had the nerve to refer to him so).

Tippoo wasn’t the only one hoisting the tricolore in India. Many of the independent rulers of India had hired European adventurers to lead corps of their personal armies. The foreign mercenaries were technically accountable to the local princes they served. But when war broke out in Europe, national loyalties were recalled and schemes were mooted throughout the cantonments of India for pressing the French revolutionary cause and beating out the British. In Hyderabad, the French corps (fourteen thousand men strong) fought under a flag bearing the revolutionary tricolore. Their captain, M. Raymond, had schemes for uniting all the French in India against the British and establishing France—revolutionary France—as the dominant power in the region. When Raymond died under mysterious circumstances in 1798, his work was picked up by his deputy, Jean-Pierre Piron, who made his own intentions clear when he sent a Cap of Liberty and a republican silver tree to fellow French commanders in the employ of other Indian rulers.

By 1799, Napoleon’s fleet in Egypt was destroyed at Aboukir, Tippoo Sultan was defeated by Colonel Arthur Wellesley, and the English Resident at Hyderabad staged a bloodless coup that neutralized the ambitions of Piron’s French forces. But the struggle between French and British in India, filtered through local battles and rivalries, still went on. In 1802, General Pierre Perron importuned Bonaparte for French troops for Daulut Rao Scindia’s army. The troops were sent. A boatload of French troops made the mistake of landing at the British capital of Calcutta and were sent packing. After the Mahratta War of 1803, one of the conditions in the treaties signed with the various defeated Mahratta chieftans was that they dismiss all French officers in their service. The Governor General of India, Marquess Wellesley (Arthur Wellesley's older brother) wasn't taking any chances.

In the end, the French threat in India was neutralized. But in the process, the nature of British involvement in India changed irremediably. Most of the works I've consulted agree that Marquess Wellesley's stint as Governor-General at this time was a formative period in British India, the definitive moment when the British in India laid the foundations for the Raj, where they went from being a foreign power, working through treaties and diplomacy with local rulers, to ruling outright. One has to wonder to what extent the British fear of French influence in India, during the long, drawn out struggle of the Napoleonic Wars, contributed to this monumental change.

So far, in doing my India research, I've been surprised right and left by all sorts of things (including the fact that Eli Yale was Governor of Madras-- who knew?). Have you come across any historical surprises recently?

14 Comments:

Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Absolutely fascinating post, Lauren! I know nothing about India during the Napoleonic era, so it's all a surprise to me, though I know a teeny bit about the Raj, but more from a cultural than a historical standpoint. Many years ago, my paternal grandmother told me that an ancestor of ours was the secretary to the Viceroy of India. "But which Viceroy, Gram?!" I asked her. She had a tendency to be somewhat fanciful, but then again there may be some truth to her dropping such nuggets from our family tree. At least I like to think so.

As far as historical surprises go, I was recently --well, surprised --to learn that Richard, son of Eleanor and Henry II, was as much of a womanizer as his father was, considering that so much of 20th c. history about him hints that he's gay, and we do know that he pretty much ignored his wife Berengaria, who spent most of their marriage living in Italy.

10:51 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Wonderful post Lauren, and congratulations on your most recent sale to Dutton. I think that most writers tend to either focus on early colonial history in India or late Victorian. However, I do remember that one of the last Sharpe movies takes place in India which I thought was interesting.

As for historical surprises, I think finding out that Lillie Langtry was sleeping with not just the Prince of Wales, but at least three other people during their affair. Oh, and that she once owned a winery in California.

11:41 AM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Leslie, how neat! Too bad she wasn't able to remember which Viceroy, since that makes such a good story. One of the many surprises I had during my research was how many Americans were running around India in the late 18th century. Loyalists who found the new U.S. too uncomfortable after 1781 went off to India to soldier-- as well as just plain opportunists.

By the way, I had totally bought into the modern insistance that Richard was gay. Fascinating to hear that there's evidence to the contrary....

12:20 PM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Hi, Elizabeth! You hit the nail on the head with our tendency to focus on Victorian India. I grew up on the M.M. Kaye books (and Valerie Fitzgerald's "Zemindar"), which paint a very vivid picture of mid-19th century India. I had expected, when I started researching, to encounter something very like that world, with a distinct British community already bent on administering India as their own. But what I found was that early 19th century India was a very different kettle of fish, with the British community far less cohesive than it was to become later, and still, in many cases, dependant on the good will of local rulers. It's the very period my book is going to be set in (the period around the 2nd Mahratta War of 1803-5) that's regarded as the crucial turning point, and a lot of that is attributed to Marquess Wellesley himself. I had no idea of that when I started this project-- I had simply picked 1804 because that's when the last book in my series ended!

12:25 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Have you read White Mughals? It's a wonderful book about the British in18th century India. I found it very interesting that Anglo-Indians who returned to England were able to marry into the upper class and aristocracy quite easily and with little (or none of) the stigma that would attach to such a marriage in the later 19th century. It was a real eye-opener to see the list of people who were of mixed descent.

12:39 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Lauren, my grandmother's family and ancestors were British -- she was the only one of the 8 or 10 kids born to my British great-grands to be born in America. But it was definitely the Raj she was referring to; not to an earlier era.

I totally bought into the possibly gay crusader thing, too, until a few days ago. So many historians credit it, but Richard left enough bastard kids around that the womanizing reputation doesn't appear to be a cover-up for the truth. Besides, the contemporary chroniclers of Edward II went on and on about his being gay and how he behaved with his lovers, so I suppose if Richard really had been gay that someone would have referred to it long before The Lion in Winter was written!

12:44 PM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Kalen, I love "White Mughals"! It's the reason I'm basing my novel in Hyderabad. Dalrymple draws such brilliant pictures of the various historical personages that I could resist coopting them for my novel-- especially the anti-English Prime Minister, Mir Alum, whose mind and body are slowly rotting away with leprosy.

1:07 PM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

p.s. particularly interesting that the Anglo-Indians had a better time of it in England than in India, where laws were instituted under Cornwallis to prevent their having any place in the army or administration. My hero is going to have a half-Indian brother who is in the service of a native ruler, Begum Sumroo, since is not able, by virtue of his Anglo-Indian birth, to enter the Company's army.

I definitely agree about being surprised by the list of Anglo-Indians in Britain, one of whom was Lord Liverpool! His grandmother was a fixture on the Calcutta social scene.

1:12 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

The only Anglo-Indian of the period I've ever thought about (until now) was poor Jos Sedley from Vanity Fair -- too bad Mira Nair didn't know what to do with the Indian connection when she directed the movie.

While as for extent of the British fear of French influence in India during the... Napoleonic Wars, contribut[ing] to the monumental change from diplomacy to outright colonialism -- we can see that story and its variants, played out time and again, and almost always with bad consequences.

Fascinating post, Lauren. So much to think about.

2:29 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Was Jos Sedley mixed race? I don't remember that . . .

2:49 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

What a marvelous post, Lauren! I've done a bit of research into India in the Regency for my own books. My mom and I wrote a book that dealt with the renewal of the East India Company's charter in 1813 (though the charter was renewed, the terms basically broke their monopoly). And we did another book with a hero who was the son of an English officer and an Indian woman. I too was surprised in researching the book that people of English-Indian birth had much less difficultly than they would a few generations later. Adam, the hero of our book, was a British diplomat, a bit of an outsider (largely because he also wasn't particularly well born). There's one scene in the book where someone comments about him being of "mixed blood," which prompts the heroine's five-year-old daughter to whisper to her mother "how did Adam's blood get mixed?"

Can't wait to read your India-set book, Lauren! There's so much fascinating history to explore!

4:22 PM  
Blogger Megan Frampton said...

I read a few of the Sharpe books set in India--he's there at the beginning of his career, and he deals with Mr. Tippoo. So I knew about that stuff, but only 'cause Cornwell is so brilliant (and Sharpe is so freaking hot).

4:42 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

re Jos Sedley, I was thinking of the other meaning of the word, Kalen (now outdated, the OED tells me): A person of British birth resident, or once resident, in India. But more of Mira Nair's effort (close, but no cigar) to point out the Indian styles and influences in the Napoleonic War era of Vanity Fair.

5:32 PM  
Blogger Jessica said...

Historical surprises...hmmm. I'm sure there have been a few that I have read recently but I can't think of any (this is a side effect of dissertating!) I can't wait to read this book set in India, Lauren!!!

9:41 AM  

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