Indian Ocean Adventures
By James Stear
Editor’s Note: Jim Stear, designer of Great War at Sea: Bay of Bengal, began a survey of the countries vying for dominance in the Indian Ocean here. This concludes his look at the powers who fought or could have fought in the warm waters off the Subcontinent.
Unlike the other powers mentioned, Russia never made oceanic moves against British holdings on the subcontinent (although the passage of Rozhdestvensky’s fleet through the Indian Ocean in 1905 was watched with some trepidation). However for many years Russia was a prime source of British fears concerning their jewel. However to some degree, these fears were somewhat contrived, as Russian moves into Central Asia were driven by other factors as opposed to direct designs on British holdings in India. Along with British countermoves, the “Great Game” played out from the early 1800’s until the time of the Entente Cordiale some 100 years later.
One fanciful scheme from 1800 aimed at India came from Emperor Paul I’s frustrations with British perfidy regarding Malta, which led him to tilt towards Napoleon. The plan, crafted by Napoleon, had a joint French-Russian expedition team up at the Volga, traveling across the Caspian Sea, then marching through Persia and Afghanistan before finally descending upon India from the north. In January 1801, a Cossack army set out towards India, but returned following the assassination of Paul in March.
Subsequent Russian moves in the area over the following decades resulted in the British adventures into Afghanistan, pre-emptive moves to block any Russian attempts to upset the British position. Benjamin Disraeli, Prime Minister of Great Britain briefly in 1868 and then again from 1874-1880 took a singular interest in Russian moves in the area. Disraeli was also responsible for bestowing upon Queen Victoria the additional title Empress of India, borne by subsequent British monarchs until abandoned by George VI in 1948.
The British began to establish trading settlements in India at the start of the 1600’s, but perpetual squabbles with the Portuguese and Dutch contributed to a slow rate of growth. The first large post was established at Surat in 1613, on the east coast. Over the next 100 years, as the British shifted from an interest in the spice trade to textiles, they switched their main hub to Madras on the west coast, a move aided by settling trade differences with the Dutch via the ascension of William of Orange to the throne of England in 1688. Shifting royal alliances also help, as with the marriage between Charles II and Catherine Braganza of Portugal, control of Bombay passed to England in 1661.
Mir Jafar's betrayal would put India under British domination for 190 years.
The year 1757 marks a change in the relationship between Britain and India. As part of the globe-spanning Seven Years’ War, the British East India Company intervened militarily alongside one of the local princes, winning British supremacy over the northeast regions including Calcutta while defeating French-backed rivals in the Battle of Plassey. That victory allowed the British company army in conjunction with the Royal Navy to conquer several additional French holdings along the eastern coast as well. This victory was followed by that of Wandiwash in 1761, resulting in the surrender of the major French outpost at Pondicherry (it was temporarily returned to the French several years later, before being seized again with the onset of French involvement in the American Revolution, then returned again). Aided by military alliances with local rulers, the British gradually eliminated French and Dutch holdings from India and neighboring Ceylon beyond a few trading enclaves over the next 50 years, leaving themselves as the supreme European colonial power on the subcontinent, and the arbiter of its local politics and lucrative trades. This situation would persist until 1947, the year of Indian independence.
The United States
The United States of America never held colonies or possessions around the Indian subcontinent, however it did even from early days recognize the value of British commerce trading in the area. In late 1814, during the (longer than indicated) War of 1812, the American frigate President and sloops Peacock and Hornet along with the schooner Tom Bowline were instructed to make for the South Atlantic, round the Cape of Good Hope, and make war on British trade in the Indian Ocean. All four ships had gathered in New York Harbor, however President, having sortied on January 15, 1815, fell in with a British squadron and was captured. The remaining three departed under the cover of bad weather on 22 January, and slipped past the British, making for Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic. The ships became separated on the voyage, and when Hornet arrived, she found not her consorts but the British sloop Penguin, which she engaged in battle. Badly damaged, she finally made contact with her two squadron mates, whereupon Tom Bowline took the captive British crew from Penguin to Rio de Janiero, Hornet made her way back home, and Peacock continued the raid into the Indian Ocean.
Over the next few months, Peacock took three prizes in the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal, before encountering the 16-gun brig HMS Nautilus in the Sunda Strait on June 30. When the British captain, Charles Boyce, tried to inform the American that the war had ended, the Yankee skipper, Lewis Warrington, suspected a trick and ordered the British vessel to surrender. Boyce refused, and Warrington opened fire, forcing the Nautilus to strike her colors. Much to his embarrassment, Warrington released this final prize when Boyce showed him documents proving the Treaty of Ghent had been ratified, officially ending the war on 18 February 1815, approximately one month after Peacock and her companions had sailed from New York.
The German states, unified after their victory over France in 1871, arrived too late on the colonial scene to do little more than pick up undesirable scraps like Pacific islands and difficult-to-develop territories like East and West Africa and the northern coast of New Guinea (although given time, the value of these properties would become quite apparent in terms of petroleum and industrial metals). As such, German involvement in India consisted of attempts to gain access to the region, like the Kaiser’s grand plan for a Berlin to Bagdad railway with a terminus in the Arabian Sea, and barring that, either intrigues to topple the British Raj or means to strike at British trade routes across the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal.
At the start of the Great War, German agents did in fact provide financial support for the independence-seeking Ghadar movement, which was headed up by Indian nationals in the United States. However, excellent undercover work by the British foiled plots such as a coordinated mainland India uprising in 1915. An attempt to transport weapons from the United States to India in the marginally-seaworthy schooner Annie Larsen featured prominently in the Hindu-German Conspiracy Trial that took place in the United States in 1917, which resulted in the dramatic courtroom deaths of two defendants (Ram Singh drawing a pistol and shooting the supposed chief conspirator Ram Chandra, and then Singh himself being killed by a US marshal). Despite a British request, the six surviving defendants were not deported to India (where they would have faced British justice for treason.
During the Great War and Second World War, the Germans dispatched raiders to make war on British commerce in the region. The story of several of these vessels is described in Bay of Bengal, while those of the second round will eventually be told within the Second World War at Sea series.
The Empire of Japan never had formal holdings on the subcontinent proper (given it didn’t come into existence with global reach until the late 19th Century). During the early 20th Century Japan began to show sympathy to Indian independence movements in various government circles, and provided refuge to members of the Ghadar movement like Rash Behari Bose, much to the consternation of the British. Over the course of World War II, Japan would seize the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in March 1942 to cover their spoils in the East Indies, and make plans for an invasion of Ceylon and an advance into India from Burma as shown in the Second World War Series game Eastern Fleet.
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