1759 - Dutch operations in Bengal

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The campaign took place from June to November 1759

Description

General Situation in Bengal

Notwithstanding the many advantages that Mir Jafar, the nawab of Bengal, had derived from his alliance with the British, he would gladly have thrown off the restraint which their protection imposed on his actions. He had been compelled to draw so heavily on his own resources, as well as on those of his friends, that the latter were being alienated from him; whilst the trade of his country was being seriously prejudiced by the superior advantages which he had been forced to grant to his Calcutta (today Kolkata) patrons; and his re-venues had been mortgaged to enable him to meet the claims constantly falling due under his treaties with the Council. Clive had forced Mir Jafar to feel that the patronage of the British was essential to his very existence; a state of thraldom from which the nawab would gladly have emancipated himself. But how was this to be effected? The French had been rendered powerless by the loss of their possessions at Chandernagore (today Chandannagar); the Dutch had not at any time been sufficiently powerful to render material assistance, and much of their trade, by reason of the many concessions compelled by the British, had passed out of their hands.

But the Dutch, though effete in Bengal, were powerful abroad; and their agent at Chinsurah (today Hugli-Chuchura) had applied to the Dutch governor of Batavia (today Jakarta in Indonesia) - the capital of the Dutch colonies in the East - to prepare a powerful armament, which, he represented, if landed in Bengal would enable them to wrest the paramount power from the British, and place it in their own hands.

This scheme had been secretly submitted to the nawab of Bengal, and as far back as November 1758, there had been an understanding that it should he carried into effect as soon as practicable. Then came the threatened invasion by prince Ali Gauhar (future Shah Alam II), when Mir Jafar was compelled to seek the assistance of the British to enable him to protect his menaced provinces; but now, this difficulty overcome, the nawab re-opened negotiations with the Dutch. Major-general Robert Clive had long suspected that Mir Jafar had entertained hostile propositions from the Dutch.

Preparations for the Campaign

In June 1759, the British received intelligence that the Dutch governor of Batavia had fitted out an armament and was sending this small squadron to the bay of Bengal to reinforce the Dutch garrisons. Vice-admiral George Pocock, who was cruising off Pondicherry in daily expectation of a French squadron, had already picked up transports with 5 companies of the 84th Coote's Foot and had received permission to keep these troops to man his ships pending the engagement, for which he waited, with the chef d'escadre Anne Antoine comte d'Aché. A sight of the Dutch fleet at Negapatam (today Nagapattinam), however, convinced Pocock that the troops would be needed ashore and he accordingly sent them to Madras (today Chennai), recommending to send part of them to Bengal.

In August a Dutch vessel with a number of Malay soldiers arrived in the river Hooghly. Clive at once informed the nawab and solicited instructions; when the latter prohibited the landing of the troops, and desired the Dutch governor at Chinsurah to cooperate with the British forces and prevent the landing of any foreign soldiers whatever.

To allay suspicion, the Dutch governor informed the nawab, that the vessel causing such needless alarm had been driven into the river by stress of weather whilst on her way to Negapatanam, and that she was merely taking on board supplies before proceeding on her voyage.

Notwithstanding these plausible assurances, Clive remained on the alert. He posted troops in the Fort on the river, with instructions to board all suspicious craft, and, if necessary, detain them. A few days after, a Dutch boat containing 18 Malay soldiers was captured at “Charnock's Battery.” Under Clive's orders the prisoners were returned to their ships which soon put to sea; but Clive was now fully convinced, not only that the Dutch intended to land troops, but that the nawab was playing into their hands.

Arrival of the Dutch Fleet

In October, Mir Jafar came to Calcutta, avowedly to pay his respects to Clive; but in reality to be near at hand, as the Dutch governor had informed him that he was now prepared to strike.

In October, on the arrival in the mouth of the Hooghly of the 2 first Dutch ships, each carrying 36 guns and loaded with troops, Clive informed the Dutch commodore that he could not allow him to land any force or to march to Chinsura, their settlement on the Hooghly, where there were 150 Dutch soldiers and native levies. However, the Dutch were authorised to refresh themselves ashore. During this time, 5 more Dutch vessels arrived in the river.

The nawab assumed an air of injured dignity, declaring his intention of driving the whole of the Dutch from the country, and for this avowed purpose proceeding with his camp in the direction of the Dutch settlement of Chinsurah; but halting on his road at a place called Kojah Wuzeed's Garden, he summoned the Dutch agents to wait upon him and receive his orders. The conference does not appear to have been of a hostile nature, for on the agents going through the form of promising that the ships of war should be sent away as soon as the season permitted, the nawab granted them some coveted privileges previously denied, thus clearly proving that he bore no enmity towards them. But the Dutch ships, in place of taking their departure, moved further up the river, and landed some of their troops; whilst at the same time reliable information reached Calcutta that the Dutch agents were enlisting Sepoys at Chinsurah, Cossimbazar (aka Kasimbazar), and Patna with the connivance of the nawab.

It was now evident that Mir Jafar was in league with the invaders, whose schemes to overthrow the power of the British in Bengal were transparent to the far-sighted Clive, who at once correctly surmised that the Dutch with their powerful squadron would attempt to force a passage up the river Hooghly, land their troops, and march towards Chinsurah.

Indeed, the Dutch commodore ordered his land forces to march to Chinsurah and his vessels to capture any British vessels sailing on the river. The Dutch force accompanying this fleet consisted of 700 Europeans and 800 trained Malays without any field-gun. To compensate for their lack of artillery, they arranged with their countrymen at Chinsurah (150 men, some artillery and a number of Sepoys) to attempt to make a junction with their main corps at a given point en route. It was not anticipated that any serious opposition could be offered by the British; for the Dutch Europeans far out-numbered the British Europeans, and the Malay soldiers, who formed an important part of the Dutch expedition, were believed to be vastly superior in courage and physique to the Bengal Sepoys.

To meet this danger, major-general Robert Clive, who was commander-in-chief of the British forces in India, could raise in and about Calcutta but 330 men of the Bengal European Regiment and 1,200 Sepoys. He summoned to him every man that could be spared from outlying stations, called out the militia (300 men mostly Eurasians) for the defence of Calcutta, organised two tiny bodies of volunteers (50 men altogether), both horse and foot, and ordered the available British ships to sail up the Hooghly, and strengthened the batteries that commanded the river. In addition to these precautions, a fast-sailing vessel was dispatched to inform admiral Cornish, cruising on the Arracan coast, of the state of affairs in Bengal; and urging him to sail up the river Hooghly with all dispatch.

Clive's next move was to prevent a junction between the Dutch troops on board ships and those at Chinsurah, for, until their forces should meet, their main army was without field-guns. But here a difficulty presented itself; Great Britain was not at war with the Dutch in Europe, so that, until the invaders should make some hostile demonstration, Clive was not in a position to act offensively.

British Advance on Chinsurah

In the second week of November, this difficulty was, however, removed by the Dutch themselves; who not only defiantly advanced towards Calcutta but addressed a long letter of remonstrance and complaint to the Council, demanding that the British should forego their claim to the right of search, and that Dutch vessels should at all times be allowed free progress up the Hooghly river. To this communication the Council replied:

“That the British, in retaining the right of search, were acting under the orders of the emperor, and the instructions received from the viceroy, Mir Jafar; they, therefore, had no power to grant the requests of the Dutch, but proffered their services as mediators between the Dutch and the emperor and viceroy.”

The skilled effrontery of this reply was worthy of Clive, and it appears to have had the effect which he most desired; for the Dutch commander, irritated to a degree, without deigning a reply, immediately attacked and captured several small British vessels lying off the port of Fulta, burning the British agent's house in the same town, and, tearing down the British colours, transferred the guns and stores to the Dutch ships. The Dutch then weighed anchor and stood up the river. Clive now reported the circumstances of the outrage to the nawab, requesting that the insult might he avenged without any native interference whatever.

Just about this time, colonel Francis Forde and captain Knox arrived in Bengal fresh from the triumph of Masulipatam. Colonel Forde was at once appointed by Clive to command all the company's forces in the presidency, and captain Knox to command the Fort of Tannah and " Charncok's Battery," both on the river Hooghly. Forde, on assuming command, immediately possessed himself of the Dutch position at Barnagore (probably Baranagar), and rapidly crossing the river with a small body of troops, marched, under orders from Clive, direct to Chandernagore, to prevent a junction between the Dutch troops on board their ships and those at Chinsurah.

Soon after, the Calcutta Indiaman under captain Wilson went down the river on his way to Great Britain. The Dutch threatened to sink the Indiaman if ever he attempted to pass. The Calcutta returned to Calcutta where 2 other Indiamen were lying. On his arrival, captain Wilson informed Clive about the blockade of the river. Clive immediately ordered the 3 Indiamen to prepare for action and to engage any Dutch vessel they would encounter.

Clive thereupon ordered Forde to move forward by Serampore upon Chinsurah. Forde started accordingly with 100 of the Bengal European Regiment, 400 Sepoys and 4 guns.

The Dutch squadron, for want of pilots, moved but slowly up the river.

On November 22, the Dutch squadron anchored just below the British batteries and landed the troops on the western bank, with orders to march to Chinsurah. This done, the Dutch ships dropped down the stream again to Melancholy Point (unidentified location). Knox was at this time ordered to join Forde, who had with him the main body of the British force, and Clive at once turned his attention to the destruction of the Dutch fleet.

On November 23, Forde encamped in the suburbs of Chandernagore, 5 km distant from Chinsurah. The Dutch on the same evening sent 120 Europeans and 300 Sepoys from Chinsurah to take up a position in the ruins of Chandernagore and bar his further advance without waiting for the cooperation of the troops on the river to catch Forde between two fires.

Combat of Melancholy Point

On November 24, Clive's 3 armed East Indiamen (Duke of Dorset, captain Forrester; Calcutta, captain Wilson; Hardwicke, captain Sampson), totalling about 90 guns, under captain Wilson attacked the Dutch squadron (3 26-guns and 1 16-guns) who drew up into line. This squadron consisted of:

  • Vlissingen (36)
  • Bleiswyk (36)
  • Welgeleegen (36)
  • Prince of Orange (36)
  • Elizabeth Dorothea (26)
  • Waereld (26)
  • Mossel (16)

Captain Forrester led the British attack, bringing his ship, the Duke of Dorset alongside the Vlissingen. The engagement began. It was commodore Wilson's intention to have brought up his other 2 ships to assist the Duke of Dorset, but, the wind having suddenly veered round, they were unable to reach him. Nevertheless, Forrester engaged the Vlissingen with vigour, pouring on her a furious cannonade, which after a couple of hour compelled the Dutch commodore aboard the Vlissingen to strike. Just at this time, the Hardwicke and the Calcutta managed to come up, attacking 2 of the Dutch vessels; but they, declining the challenge, cut their cables and ran; whilst a third, in her hurry to escape, went ashore. Soon afterwards the remaining Dutch ships weighed anchor and retired from the fight. The Duke of Dorset had 90 shots in her hull, but her loss in killed and wounded was considerably less than that of the Dutch.

The prisoners were carried to Clive. The Bleiswyk, the only remaining Dutch vessel, got as far as Kalpi. when she was captured by the British men-of-war Royal George (100) and Oxford (54) which opportunely arrived and secured their prize whilst they were hastening to the protection of Calcutta.

This splendid little action cut off the Dutch troops from their base and ensured that any reverse must be fatal to them. On the same evening, Forde learned that the Dutch army would come up with him on the morrow, and wrote to Clive for instructions. Clive ordered him to fight them immediately.

The very same day (November 24) in the morning, Forde attacked the Dutch detachment sent against him at Chandernagore. The numbers engaged at Chandernagore were about equal; but Forde had the great advantage of fighting on his own ground, and moreover his soldiers were used to hard knocks, whereas very few of the Chinsurah troops had been previously engaged. The Dutch were quickly driven out of Chandernagore with the loss of those guns which would have been of such vital importance to their main army and thrust back into their own territory, crippled and disheartened. The same evening captain Knox arrived with 220 men of the Bengal European Regiment, bringing Forde's force up to 320 European Infantry; 80 European artillerymen, with 4 field-pieces; 50 volunteer cavalry; and 800 Sepoys.

There were close at hand 150 of the nawab's cavalry, sent from Murshidabad avowedly to assist Forde, but in reality they were merely spies, with orders to allow the belligerents to decide the battle unaided, and then unite with the victors.

Forde now learnt that the Dutch main army, under a French officer, colonel Roussel, was expected to reach Chinsurah early the next morning, so he sent off an express to Clive telling him that if he were empowered to attack the Dutch main army whilst en route he believed he could utterly destroy them. This note was delivered to Clive late at night as he was playing cards with his friends. Without leaving the table he wrote on the back of Forde's letter, “Dear Forde. Fight them immediately, I will send you the order of Council tomorrow.”

Combat of Badara

Clive's reply reached Forde early on the morning of November 25. He immediately occupied a position selected with great care on the previous day, midway between Chandernagore and Chinsura and astride of the road that connects them. In front of this position was a deep, broad, irregular ravine, forming a natural strong defence; an arid plain stretching out in front, across which the Dutch army must pass. On the British right was the village of Badera (aka Biderra), which Forde at once occupied; his left resting on a mango-grove of trees in which he concealed his 4 guns, supported by the Volunteer Cavalry, who had been instructed to take advantage of any confusion occasioned by the British artillery fire. The Dutch had no cavalry, and had found it impossible to move their heavy ship guns across country. In European infantry the Dutch vastly outnumbered the British; but they were deficient in every other branch. About 10:00 AM, the Dutch force was seen approaching over the plain. As soon as it was within range Forde's artillery opened fire. The Dutch advanced nonetheless with great firmness until to their dismay they found themselves stopped by the ravine, of which they knew nothing. The leading files perforce halted abruptly, while the rear, not understanding the cause, pushed on and threw the whole body into confusion. Forde took advantage of this confusion by pouring a murderous shower of grape from the grove of trees. The Dutch stood their ground manfully for a time; then, seeking cover but finding none, they were mowed down by sections. During the hesitation the British infantry charged down on them, struggling in the ravine, and, aided by the small body of Volunteer Cavalry, put them to flight; the nawab's cavalry finally joining in the pursuit. The rout soon became so complete that only 14 of the enemy succeeded in reaching their destination. The battle, which is described as having been “short, bloody, and decisive,” did not last an hour, the Dutch leaving 100 Europeans and 200 Malays killed, and 300 wounded, whilst colonel Roussel, 14 officers, 350 Europeans and 200 Malays were made prisoners. Only The position of the British had been so judiciously selected that their loss was trifling; whereas the Dutch, in an unknown country, fell an easy prey to the victors. Immediately after the battle, Forde occupied Chinsurah, meeting with only slight resistance.

Outcome

The nawab, discovering that his schemes to be rid of the British yoke had failed, turned upon his crushed accomplices with vindictive hate, threatening them, now that they were smarting and prostrate, with utter annihilation; and doubtless he would have carried his threats into effect, had not Clive interceded in their favour.

Miran, Mir Jafar's son, who must have been close at hand watching the course of events, now appeared on the scene with 6,000 horse, to drive the remnants of the Dutch from their possessions in Bengal. The Dutch settlements sued not only for mercy but for protection. Clive, on learning this, proceeded at once to Chinsurah, and seeing he had nothing to gain by the extinction of the Dutch, whereas their presence in Bengal, as dependants on the British, might in the future be turned to account, arranged a peace for them with the nawab, restored to them their factory at Chinsurah, and engaged that they should retain all their former privileges; at the same time taking care that their wings should be clipped, so that there should be no fear of their appearing in the field as our rivals. They were to be allowed to retain in their service only 125 European soldiers; and they agreed to pay £100,000 to the British as an indemnity for the expenses of the war. The captured Dutch vessels were afterwards returned to their owners.

Surprisingly, the British court declined to confirm Forde's appointment in Bengal and he returned to Great Britain a disappointed and ill-used man. Major Caillaud of the Madras service was nominated to the command of the Bengal army.

The Dutch in Europe, being in alliance with Great Britain, disavowed the action of their fleet and paid compensation for the damage that it had done. Thus, far from diverting British troops from the principal conflict, the Dutch expedition served only to strengthen the foundations of British ascendancy by the ruin of a still older rival than the French.

References

This article is essentially a compilation of texts from the following books which are now in the public domain:

  • Anonymous, A Complete History of the Present War, from its Commencement in 1756, to the End of the Campaign, 1760, London, 1761, pp. 505-507
  • Clowes, Wm. Laird, The Royal Navy – A History from the Earliest Time to the Present, Vol. III, Sampson Low, Marston and Company, London: 1898, p. 201
  • Fortescue, J. W., A History of the British Army, Vol. II, MacMillan, London, 1899, pp. 456, 459-461
  • Innes, P. R.; The History of the Bengal European Regiment, now the Royal Munster Fusiliers and how it helped to win India, 2nd ed., London: Simpkin, Marshall & Co., 1885, pp. 97-109