Indian Ocean Adventures
By James Stear
Editor’s Note: Potential conflicts in the Indian Ocean involved many would-be participants. Here Jim Stear, designer of Great War at Sea: Bay of Bengal, begins a survey of the players and their goals.
The earliest known contacts between Europe and the Indian Subcontinent took place when the armies of the young Macedonian prince Alexander (the “Great”) arrived at the Indus River in 326 BC after his conquest of Persia. After several short campaigns and ally-making agreements, the young prince returned to Persia, leaving memory of his farthest eastern marches to fade. Several hundred years later, Roman merchants opened seaborne coastal trade with some of the cities and towns in western India; however such contacts were sporadic, and organized contact ended in following the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 400’s. A millennium would pass before formal trade between Europeans and the inhabitants of India resumed in force and became a mainstay of ocean-going commerce.
Merchants of the Dutch East India Company first arrived on the subcontinent in the early 1600’s, around the same time as the English. Their first major trading post was established at Pulicat in 1609 on the east coast of India, once they’d booted the Portuguese from the area. This became known as the capital of the Dutch “Coromandel Coast,” that area controlled by the trading houses of Holland stretching between the headlands of False Divi Point at Pulicat and Cape Comorin, the southern tip of the subcontinent, and eventually included the island of Ceylon, from which the Dutch evicted the Portuguese in 1658. Conflict between the Dutch and Portuguese continued to periodically rage between the East Indies and the Indian subcontinent (after the capture of Pulicat, the Portuguese attempted to retake the city three times over the next 30 years); the conflict weakened both sides as the Dutch settled down into control of distant Java and the surrounding islands while still supporting the Coromandel Coast holdings in eastern India, and the Portuguese kept a firm hold on Goa and nearby locales on the western side.
Ultimately, the British and French would dictate which European power was to hold what Far East colonies, as the 17th Century gave way to the 18th. Dutch influence in India was gradually extinguished as a consequence of the wars between Britain and France and fallout from the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War (peripherally tied to the American War of Independence). The Treaty of Amiens ceded the Dutch part of the island of Ceylon, their last possession near the subcontinent, to Britain in 1802 while the remaining trading enclaves along the east coast were gradually subsumed under British control by 1825.
France was a late-comer to the game of empire in India, not establishing her first major settlement until 1674, in Pondicherry, nominally within the Dutch-controlled Coromandel Coast. Later settlements were placed along the east and northeast coasts over the next sixty years, in the face of periodic conflict with the Dutch and English East Indies companies. Between 1744 and 1761, the French and British repeatedly attacked, captured, ransomed and exchanged each other’s holdings in the subcontinent. Two major battles involving both native allies, company and national forces, Plassey in 1757 and Wandiwash in 1761, broke French colonial power in India and the British became the masters of southern India and the northeast province of Bengal.
When news of France’s involvement in the American Revolution reached India in 1778, the British East India Company once again moved quickly against French outposts, capturing Pondicherry (returned to France in 1765) after a two-month siege. Actions by the company against the French led to the Second Anglo-Mysore War some two years later, as the Kingdom of Mysore was a long-time French ally; after bitter fighting, that war ended essentially in status quo with the 1784 signing of the Treaty of Mangalore. Over 1782-1783, the French fleet in the Indian Ocean, led by Admiral Comte Pierre André de Suffren de Saint Tropez, recaptured Trincomalee from the British and fought numerous celebrated but largely inconclusive naval engagements against the Royal Navy under Admiral Sir Edward Hughes.
Most of France’s Indian settlements were restored after the conclusion of the war, then taken away again during the Napoleonic period, only to be granted back once more after the little Corsican had been dealt with. Over the following years, a few select French outposts were allowed to exist within the British sphere until the decline of the British Empire some 150 years later, after which all French holdings were integrated into the Republic of India in 1954.
From 1620 to 1848, little Denmark maintained a series of trading outposts in southern India, Bengal and the Nicobar Islands, operated by the Danish East India Company. The capital was at Fort Dansborg, established in Tranquebar along the Coromandel Coast. Caught up in the Napoleonic Wars, the Danish colonies were roughly treated by the British and went into decline, especially with Danish commerce in the Far East being devastated by the British. Over the early decades of the 19th Century, what holdings the Danes still had were sold off to the British.
As with the (eventually Dutch) East Indies archipelago of Sumatra and Java and surrounding isles, it was the Portuguese that re-opened formal contact between the Indian Subcontinent and mainland Europe. On May 20 1498, Vasco de Gama, later known as “The Navigator,” reached Calicut on the west coast of India after a slow crawl around the perimeter of Africa. The Portuguese, over a series of trade deals and defeats of local rulers (including that of a combined Mameluk Egyptian and Gajarat Sultanate fleet in 1509, one backed by the Ottomans and, notoriously, select Venice and Dubrovnik trading concerns aligned with the Muslim forces), gradually expanded their influence down the west coast of India and onto the island of Ceylon.
garrison of Goa surrenders to Indian paratroopers.
Under pressure from Dutch and English trading companies, over the next 200 years, the Portuguese were gradually forced back to their west coast original holdings (or like Bombay going to Britain in 1661 as part of the dowry from Catherine de Braganza to Charles II, gave them up via European royal alliances), until by the mid-19th century just a few enclaves were left, with the British Raj firmly in control of Indian politics. These were tolerated by the British masters of India, however with the British withdrawal in 1947, local agitation and rebellion gradually forced the Portuguese out. On December 19, 1961, Portuguese rule in India came to an end after 450 years, when Indian forces rolled into Goa in the face of mostly ineffective resistance (an emergency airlift of ammunition instead brought loads of sausages to the beleaguered garrison).
The Spanish Empire was briefly given territorial rights to India by Pope Alexander VI on 25 September 1493 by the bull Dudum siquidem, before these rights were removed by the Treaty of Tordesillas less than one year later. Needless to say, this did not result in a mad rush for Spanish lands in India; as yet, none had been reached by European explorers. Portugal, not Spain, would carry the opening of the Far East, while Spain would discover the fascinating realm of the New World (new, at least from the European perspective).
Like Spain, the Ottoman Empire never had formal holdings in and around India, however the Caliphate did send military assistance to local Muslim rulers who were having difficulties with infidels such as the Portuguese. Over the years 1538-1553, Suleiman the Magnificent dispatched four fleets against the Portuguese holdings in western India via bases in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, in support of local Indian Muslim rulers. While in the course of fighting they strengthened the Empire’s position in Arabia and the east coast of Africa, they did not achieve the primary goal of driving the Portuguese from their stronghold in Goa.
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