Joseph François Dupleix was born in 1697. He was the son of a wealthy Farmer-General of Taxes and Director-General of the Company of the Indies. His father’s influence worked in getting Dupleix a high post at Pondicherry in 1720. Here Dupleix made a great fortune by indulging in private trade then permitted to servants of the French Company in India. A drastic change in the constitution and personnel of the French Company at home caused great frictions and misunderstandings at Pondicherry about the activities of Dupleix and the Directors suspended him from service in December 1726. Dupleix remained in India and appealed to the Home Authorities, who reconsidered the entire case and to compensate Dupleix for the injustice he had suffered, appointed him Governor of Chandernagore in 1730.
In 1741 Dupleix was named as the Director-General of French Colonies in India in succession to Dumas, a position which he held till 1754. The same year the Mughal Emperor conferred on Dupleix the title of Nawab, and honour which greatly increased the prestige of Dupleix among the Indian princes. In 1750 Muzzaffar Jang, the Subahdar of Deccan invested Dupleix with the title of Nawab of all the territories between the river Krishna and Cape Comorin including Carnatic.
Dupleix was a great administrator, a skilful diplomat, a born leader of men and, above all, combined keen political insight with a broad vision.
As an Administrator
As the Governor of Chandernagore Dupleix gave ample proof of his qualities as an administrator. He understood the power of trade. He invested his personal fortune in trade, advanced loans to his compatriots, induced Indian merchants to settle in Chandernagore and opened trade communications with provinces in the interior of India. Further, he opened trade negotiations with countries in the Persian Gulf, with China and even Tibet. Soon the decaying and lifeless colony of Chandernagore was humming with activity. Its population multiplied and economic prosperity was marked. Chandernagore became the most flourishing European settlement in Bengal.
Dupleix’s unusual successes at Chandernagore attracted the notice of the Directors at home who nominated him as Governor-General of Pondicherry in succession to Dumas in 1741. Now Dupleix’s genius could find full play. Dupleix found Pondicherry suffering from the after-effects of the Maratha invasion; land there had not been cultivated while famine had decimated the population; rival candidates for the nawabship of Carnatic had created chaotic conditions in the Carnatic; there were strong rumours of an impending Anglo-French conflict while the fortifications of Pondicherry were in a hopeless condition. Above all, the Directors at home, very much alive to the importance of French colonies in North America, had in a despatch of 18 September 1743 pressed upon him the necessity of drastic economies in expenditure and ordered suspension of all outlay on account of buildings and fortifications. Dupleix rose equal to the occasion. He reduced public expenditure in teeth of opposition of his Council and balanced income and expenditure. He put a cut on salaries and suppressed corruption among the subordinate officers. However, that part of the Directors’ communication which had ordered suspension of all expenditure on fortifications, Dupleix decided to disobey. The man on the spot, Dupleix alone knew that to abandon the plans of fortification was to court ruin. He strengthened the defences of Pondicherry, spending a large amount from his personal funds. He also took all practicable steps to develop the trade of the colony and made it the emporium of commerce of Southern India.
As a Diplomat
The account of the first two Carnatic wars is replete with the skill of Dupleix as a diplomat. Dupleix excelled all his contemporaries in the game of politics. With an uncommon insight into the political situation of the Deccan, he visualised and sought to devise the methods by which ultimately the European conquest of India was to be carried out.
The events of the first Carnatic war indicate how Dupleix used the political situation in the Carnatic to his advantage. At the outbreak of the war, Dupleix feared a blockade of Pondicherry by the English Commander Barnett, who had been specially sent by the English Ministry to the Coromandel Coast.
As a defensive measure, Dupleix at once appealed to the Nawab of Carnatic to forbid the English into waging war in his territories. The Nawab saw a clear logic in his request and informed the English Governor Morse that he would not permit the English to attack the French settlements. It was a diplomatic victory for Dupleix.
When Dupleix supported by the naval squadron led by Madras, he, in turn, informed the Nawab that he would hand over Madras to him after its reduction. After the capture of Madras Dupleix hesitated surrender of the town on the plea that the fortifications must first be demolished. The Nawab, however, grew impatient and threatened action against the French but was defeated at St. Thomé (1746). The victory of St. Thomé gave to Dupleix an approximation of his strength and the general supremacy of disciplined European troops over Indian forces, a realisation from which Dupleix fully profited.
Again, when Dupleix learnt that Admiral La Bourdonnais had decided to ransom Madras to the English, he implored him against that course of action in a language that establishes him a diplomat par excellence. After citing examples from history that promises made under certain circumstances had never been considered binding, he added, “In the name of God, in the name of your children, of your wife, I conjure you to be persuaded of what I tell you. Finish as you have begun, and do not treat with an enemy who has no object but to reduce us to the direst extremity… Let us than profit by our opportunity, for the glory of our monarch and for the general interests of a nation which will regard you as its restorer”. The Home Authorities had also given their ruling that the position of the Governor-General was superior to that of La Bourdonnais, the Commander of the Navy. As such Dupleix was perfectly justified in not recognising the compact entered into between La Bourdonnais and the English hostages, for it was contrary to his directions and therefore ultra vires.
Bourdonnais decided to besiege The events of the first Carnatic War had greatly raised the prestige of Dupleix and established him as a shrewd diplomat, conclusions which the course of the second Carnatic war amply confirmed. Dupleix’s main purpose was enhancement of political influence. It was he who indicated by his example of how Europeans could profit by espousing the claims of rival claimants. Taking advantage of disputed succession both at Hyderabad and Carnatic (1748) Dupleix decided to support the cause of Muzzaffar Jang for Hyderabad and Chanda Sahib for Carnatic and secured many great concessions from both. His candidates emerged successfully. In 1751 Dupleix’s power reached its zenith. After Muzzaffar Jang’s death, the new Subahdar Salabat Jang owed his position to the French and was virtually their nominee. In fact, the entire country between the Vindhyas and the Krishna came under the control of the French General Bussy. A French army was permanently stationed at Hyderabad at the expense of the Subahdar. South of the river Krishna, Dupleix was personally proclaimed the Nawab of Carnatic, a title conferred by the Subahdar of the Deccan and confirmed by the Mughal Emperor.
One may be intrigued at the fact that with all his skill in diplomacy, Dupleix’s plans ended in smoke. The chief flaw in the machine was that Dupleix himself was not a man of action. He was not a soldier. He could plan a campaign, could direct his lieutenants what to do but could not lead an army in the battlefield. In this sphere, Dupleix was inferior to Lawrence or Clive or Dalton. The repeated attempts to capture Trichnopoly (during 1752-1753) failed because Dupleix’s commanders like Monsieur Law and Maniville failed to translate his schemes into action.
As a Leader
Dupleix was a born leader of men. By his commanding personality be inspired confidence in his subordinates who put faith in his superior judgement. When orders came for the recall of Dupleix, many senior officers decided to tender their resignations in protest. When Bussy decided to resign his service and retire to France, Dupleix exhorted him to stay at the post of duty. Pussy wrote in reply, “Your departure to Europe is a thunderbolt which has confounded and alarmed me. You, who are leaving export me to continue to serve the nation and to support a work which as on the brink of destruction. Do you sincerely believe I shall not be enveloped in the same disgrace as yourself? The blow is perhaps deferred, or suspended only to be struck with greater force. But however that maybe, I have ever considered it my duty to defer to your counsels and to follow your reasoning”.
Recall of Dupleix
Modern British historians hold the view that the English had no hand in the recall of Dupleix in 1754. However, Dodwell supports the view of Colonel Malleson that the English ambassador at Paris was instructed to inform the Foreign Minister of France that the policy of Dupleix was injurious to the trading interests of both the Companies. The failure of Dupleix’s plans to capture Trichnopoly drove the French Directors to the same conclusion. Dupleix was made the scapegoat for all French failures and held responsible for the prolonged war between the two nations in India. One, however, wonders how the English Governor Saunders was anyway less responsible for the war. The propaganda of the English viewpoint that the continuance of Dupleix in office was the main obstacle in the relations between the two Companies, at last, carried conviction with the French Directors and they recalled Dupleix.
Whatever the reasons and circumstances for the recall of Dupleix, it cannot be denied that his recall proved ruinous for the cause of the French in India. Writes Malleson, “We cannot but marvel at the blindness, the infatuation, the madness that recalled Dupleix”. The replacement of Dupleix by Godeheu did not mean a complete reversal of his policy, but his successor was hardly a worthy custodian of French interests against mounting odds. At a time when Dupleix had detached from the English side all their allies, i.e., the Marathas, the Raja of Tanjore and even the ruler of Mysore, orders came from home for his recall. Whether Dupleix could have utilised his diplomatic genius to full advantage remains a big “if” of history. Malleson certainly overstates the case when he says that “if Dupleix had been able to continue in India for another two years, the rich heritage of Bengal would have fallen to France instead of his rivals”.
Political Ideas of Dupleix
There is a divergence of opinion among historians as to the exact nature of the political ideas of Dupleix. Some scholars led by Major Malleson and Henri Martin believe that Dupleix was a pioneer among Empire builders and credit him with a well-thought-out plan for the conquest of India, which failed because the French Government did not give him full support and let him down. Major Malleson gives credit to Dupleix of having been “the first to grasp the necessity of establishing European predominance in Hindustan… to show practically how that predominance could be established and maintained”. Martin in his book Histoire de France writes that “Dupleix had seen Asia, like America and the whole world, destined to submit to the law of the European races… Dupleix was determined to give India to France… His plan was as much prudent in respect of means as audacious in respect of the final objective”. On the other hand, Alfred Martineau, another biographer of Dupleix, believes that Dupleix had no plans for empire-building in Asia until 1749 or perhaps before 1750. It was the unexpected successes of 1750 that opened a new vista of political ambition before him and his political ideas took a definite shape. According to Martineau the chief motive that led Dupleix to formulate the plan for a French colonial empire in India was a financial necessity. He writes, “Constantly embarrassed in his trading operations by the delay or insufficiency of funds coming from France, he came slowly to the idea that the only means to get rid of such embarrassments was to find money in India, without waiting for funds from Europe and without having to seek the assistance of bankers. That made it necessary to have fixed territorial revenue, the collection of which could be assured only by the exercise of political power. This was first conceived and later developed in the mind of Dupleix the idea of creating for our advantage a sort of colonial empire in India”. Prof. Dodwell and P. E. Roberts find much truth in this viewpoint. Martineau believes that the wrong judgement and blind obstinacy of Dupleix were mainly responsible for his fall. Prof. Dodwell maintains that Dupleix had dissipated his resources and flung his nets too wide and therefore his policy lacked the elements of permanent success. He did not keep the French Government fully informed of his political plans, while the resources of the French Company in India were inadequate. “Like the Deccan,” writes Dodwell, “Carnatic was too poor. It was ruinous to dispute it against another European power. His schemes and policy demanded a wealthier province than either Carnatic or the Deccan for their realisation.” Above all, the superior naval power of England proved a deciding factor.
Place in History
Dupleix stands as a very striking figure in Indian history. His claims to greatness and honour cannot be denied. P.E. Roberts writes, “Dupleix raised the prestige of France in the East for some years to an amazing height; he won a reputation among Indian princes and leaders that has never been surpassed and he aroused a dread in his English contemporaries which are at once a tribute to his personal power, a testimony to his sagacity”. Above all, Dupleix deserves to be remembered in Anglo-Indian history for he was the first who worked at methods which proved a guide to the English in the conquest of India. It was Dupleix who first made extensive use of disciplined troops, who first discovered the illusions of Mughal military greatness, who first thought of the plan of permanently stationing European troops at native courts at Indian expense, who first dabbled in Indian politics to European advantage and first, above all, who built the rudiment of a European Empire in India.
Given the resources of an affluent Company like the English East India Company and the backing of a progressive nation like the English nation, Dupleix would certainly have done better than any of his contemporaries in India. The drive, the resourcefulness and political imagination displayed by Dupleix might have been equalled but never surpassed in the annals of Western colonisation of the East.