The Napoleonic Wars in India

This introduction to the political situation in India during the time period surrounding our beloved series comes from author Lauren Willig, who blogs at History Hoydens. As for India, well… I think we all know what kind of trouble Stephen could get into in such a (political) climate!

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.

Courtesy of Lauren Willig and History Hoydens.
Image: The Last Effort and Fall of Tippoo Sultan by Henry Singleton (c. 1800)

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