This article throws light upon the eight causes for the failure of French in India.
The causes are: 1. French Government 2. French Company 3. Seats of Power in India 4. Naval Strength 5. Policy of Conquest in Place of Commerce 6. Lack of Enthusiasm and Enterprise 7. Lack of Financial Support 8. Personal Incompetence.
Cause # 1. French Government:
The French Government in the 17th century and for the major part of the eighteenth (till we reach the French Revolution in 1789) was a personal despotism.
The policy of the Government was determined by the whims of the monarch.
The French Government did not realise the importance of the colonial empires in India and America, and got her involved in the Continental War near her home which precluded her from sending adequate help to her colonies abroad.
Alfred Lyall rightly points out: “India was not lost by the French because Dupleix was recalled, or because La Bourdonnais and D’ Ache both left the coast at critical moments or because Lally was head-strong and intractable. Still less was the loss due to any national inaptitude for distant and perilous enterprises in which the French have displayed high qualities. It was through the short-sighted, ill-managed European policy of Louis XV, misguided by his mistresses and by incompetent ministers, that France lost her Indian Settlements in the Seven Years’ War”.
Martineou’s remarks that “no policy was more in opportune” not to retain in Europe all the French land and naval forces “and it is perhaps because we dispersed them to Canada and India, particularly to Canada, that we lost the Seven Years’ War. At that time … the primary interests of France required her to confine her attention to Europe. When the house is on fire, one does not think of the stable”. But France had made the initial mistake by reversing her traditional alliance against Austria by the Diplomatic Revolution which brought her erstwhile enemy Austria to her side which was a liability rather than any accession to strength to her.
Thus was her Continental Policy responsible for her failure both in America and England in the Seven Years’ War. England had an advantage over France. She fought the war in the Continent with the help of Prussia, a rising military power very near to France and employed much of her strength and energy to fight the French in America, India and on the Seas.
Cause # 2. French Company:
There was an inherent weakness in the very nature of the organisation of the French Company. It was a Government sponsored enterprise financed by the King in major part. Naturally, the Company did not enjoy autonomy, nor did it represent the interest of the French nation.
The fortune or misfortune of the Company was unrelated to the fortune or misfortune of the French nation. During Louis XIV’s life time, his finance minister Colbert had created a great enthusiasm in trade, commerce and industry and the French Company profited by the general enthusiasm.
But from the latter part of Louis XIV’s rule this enthusiasm was on the wane, enthusiasm was replaced by general neglect. Naturally, the success or failure of the Company was of no concern to the French nation. But the English East India Company was a joint-stock company in whose fortune or misfortune a large section of the English nation was directly interested.
The British Government interfered in the affairs of the Company only when it was necessary to secure the interest of its shareholders. Thus while the English Company moved with its own initiative and with the moral support of the Government at home which interfered only to help it, the French Company was a Government enterprise which could only move under government’s directives and assistance.
The moment the assistance was lacking, the French Company was incapable of standing on its own. While the English East India Company was an asset to the British Government, for the Government even received loans from it, the French East India Company was a liability to the home government.
Cause # 3. Seats of Power in India:
Although the French strength in respect of their seats of power was substantial it was by no means equal to that of their prospective rivals, the English. The English had three well-established seats of power in India, namely, Bombay, Madras and Calcutta, and had in their possession one dockyard and an excellent harbour.
The French had only one seat of power, Pondicherry, and a harbour and sea base at Mauritius, but it was distant and ill-equipped. Both for commercial purposes and for purposes of war the French seat of power was less advantageous compared to that of the English.
Enhancement of the English authority in Bengal, particularly after the Plassey, placed vast resources in men and money at the disposal of the English and the Bengal Council sent financial assistance as well as supplies to the Carnatic strengthening the English position there.
But Lally was not even in a position to pay his troops. Strategically and financially English position in Bengal meant inordinate accession to strength to the English Company while the French position in the Carnatic was far too inferior. Smith rightly remarks that “it is futile to lay stress upon the personal frailties of Dupleix, Lally or lesser men in order to explain the French failure. Neither Alexander the Great nor Napoleon could have won the empire of India by starting from Pondicherry as a base and contending with the power which held Bengal and the command of the Sea”. I. A. R. Marriot also speaks in the same strain when he remarks “Dupleix made a cardinal blunder in looking for the Key of India in Madras; Clive sought and found it in Bengal”.
The Carnatic wars proved beyond doubt that success or failure depended on the strength of the parties on the seas. The French success in 1746 was due to her naval superiority in the Coromandel Coast. But this superiority could not be maintained by the French beyond 1748 because during the War of Austrian Succession the French naval strength was so greatly reduced that she had, as Voltaire says, hardly any battle ship left with her in the Seven Years’ War. On two occasions the French committed the serious mistake of allowing the French navy to withdraw from the Indian seas, once when La Bourdonnais left with his ships and again when D’Ache left.
The naval superiority of the English in the Seven Years’ War enabled the English to keep their communication with India undisturbed, to keep their settlements at Bombay and Calcutta supplied with necessary reinforcements and to isolate the French force in the Carnatic.
The lack of naval strength of the French compared to that of the English was one of the decisive factors for the failure of the French in India. Dupleix did not appreciate the greater importance of the navy in the colonial expansion in India, on the contrary, he relied more on the land forces. Deficiency in naval strength was the major cause of the French failure in face of English naval superiority.
Cause # 5. Policy of Conquest in Place of Commerce:
In their bid for territorial expansion in India the French forgot that they were primarily merchants. All through the Anglo-French hostilities the English busily transacted their ordinary commercial activities and in fact, the value of the export, as records of their trade and shipping show. Dupleix, on the other hand, deliberately came to the conclusion that for France, at any rate, the Indian Trade was a failure and that military conquest opened up a more attractive prospect. The English, however, never forgot that they were primarily a trading body.
Cause #6. Lack of Enthusiasm and Enterprise:
The Industrial Revolution which was taking place in England in the eighteenth century created a great enthusiasm among the English merchants to collect raw materials for the latter. This created a great enthusiasm among the English to exploit the Indian markets for purchase of raw materials and marketing of finished goods. But the French did not demonstrate that kind of enthusiasm in trade and naturally they did not find trading profitable, which realisation in its turn made them more indolent and less enterprising in matters of trade.
Cause # 7. Lack of Financial Support:
The English Company by its trade could not only pay its way in India, loan out funds to the British Treasury but could also meet the military expenses of war. The French did not, rather could make the trade pay their expenses. Success in conquests or in administration largely depends on the financial backing.
The French Government at home or the Company, was not in a position to come out with the necessary financial help even at a time when Dupleix had succeeded in acquiring territories in India. Dupleix spent his own fortunes to meet financial needs of the French Government in India, but this was too small in comparison to the task he had undertaken. Poverty dogged the French in India even when they were at the zenith of their power in India.
Cause # 8. Personal Incompetence:
It cannot be denied that the failure of the French was largely determined by personalities than by circumstances. Hopeless incompetence of the French general such as Law, D’Ache, Lally etc. sealed the fate of the French in India. “Had Dupleix had at his disposal a military genius of the type of Clive, the history of India might have been altogether different.”
The French had not on their side with the solitary exception of Dupleix any general who might be compared with the English generals like Saunders, Clive, Eyre Coote, Forde etc. Rightly remarks Malleson: “The daring of Lawrence, the dogged pertinacity of Saunders and his Council, the vigour and ability of Calliaud, of Forde, of Joseph Smith, of Dalton and of many others stand out in striking contrast to the feebleness, the incapacity, the indecision of the Laws, the D’Anteuits, the Brenniers, the Maissins and others whom Dupleix was forced to employ. Lally’s recall of Bussy from the Deccan and substituting him there by an incompetent Officer, Law’s lack of military acumen, Dupleix’s intolerance of equals and his quarrel with La Bourdonnais—each of these made its contribution to the eventual failure of the French. Dupleix’s plan and undertakings were so risky “where success elevates a man to the rank of a hero but failure denounces him as an obstinate and perverse adventurer”. All the same, Dupleix cannot escape some measure of responsibility for the failure of the French. He kept the Company uninformed of the actual state of affairs in India, giving them only the news of his success but not of failures.
All this was responsible for his supersession but months after when his plans and activities became known to the home authorities they cancelled the supersession and when orders reached India Dupleix had already started for home. Had he kept the authorities at home informed and had he been left in his charge it is doubtful whether the English would have so easy walk-over.