Excerpt from Dr. Alisha Caffrey’s “The American Wars”, Texas Tech University Press, 2015.
VII. The Conquest of Guiana and the Mascarene Islands
A sizeable American squadron, 12 ships-of-the-line and five auxiliary vessels, risked operations at the end of hurricane season and left Barbados in Mid-August of 1798. They arrived off the seaside town of Cayenne, the colonial seat of French Guiana, in early September (the start of the dry season and thus safer from a disease perspective). Since the 17th century, the northeast corner of South America found itself caught in a cycle of colonization, failure and conquest. A French king sent out colonists with promises of riches and gold. Disease and hostile natives reduced their numbers to a few ragged dozen who then retreated to the “Salvation Islands” just offshore. A general war would break out in Europe and either the English, Dutch or Portuguese then, easily, conquered Guiana and in the resulting peace treaties, the French always regained the colony in negotiations. To reinforce the narrowly retained colony, the next French king would send new settlers, and the cycle renewed. By 1798, the only developments of note in Guiana’s history were the construction of a modern star fort to defend Cayenne in 1760 and the constant exile of political prisoners from France to a virtual death sentence .
The demoralized colony, like many French outposts, lacked in food, supplies and munitions when the Americans arrived. Like many other French Caribbean possessions, the revolution and the question of slavery dominated local politics. The political movements of Paris trickled back to Guiana and influenced the actions and events of local whites. In the midst of everything, slave revolts cropped up and the whites crushed these revolts with the brutality typical of the age. In their defense, the Directorie began making reforms to stabilize its regional outposts including making Guiana a full départment of France, but the efforts were too late. The U.S. flotilla traded shots with the Guianese defenses throughout the morning but by mid-afternoon, the garrison, running out of cannonballs, replaced the tricolour with a white flag. Commodore Thomas Truxtun, whom Adams gave considerable administrative leeway for his operations knowing full well this was a war of conquest as much as a war of naval rights, established a military government for the new “United States Military District of Guiana”. With an occupying force in place, Truxtun’s fleet departed south, following the Brazilian coast for weeks all the way to Rio de Janiero. Taking advantage of the winds and currents, the fleet resupplied in the great Brazilian port and crossed the Atlantic to Cape Town for one final resupply.
On October 17, the same day that the Second Battle of the Nile was taking place thousands of miles to the north, the fleet rounded the Cape of Good Hope and entered the Indian Ocean.
On October 23, the U.S. Squadron in the Indian Ocean arrived off Port Louis, the principal city on Isle de France and administrative capital of the French Empire in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. With its powerful forts, and three French warships and five merchant ships in its harbor, an assault had no guarantee of victory for the far-flung Americans. Nor did Commodore Thomas Truxtun have any desire to bombard and attack the prosperous city.
The former capital of the French East India Company before its dissolution, Port Louis and the tiny Indian island harbored immense riches and importance. Its slave economy, while smaller than anything seen in the Caribbean, netted generous profits in the trade of peppers and other exotic crops. Merchants from India, Arabia, East Africa and distant East Asia called at its port before continuing on to Europe or the Americas. By the time of the Revolution though, the riches of the island and the decayed state of French influence in India resulted in scandal and corruption by the royal leadership. When a packet ship arrived in 1790 with news of the revolution, the colonists fully embraced its spirit with zeal. Six years later when another packet arrived with commissioners from the Directorie, who also carried a decree that would free the slaves, their reception was so hostile the commissioners found themselves forced to retreat on the next ship back to France. For two years, Isle de France balanced between slave revolt and civil war and a tenuous peace. Nominally organized as a départment of France, its local assembly, led by Governor-General Anne Joseph Hippolyte de Maurès, Comte de Malartic, organized the island into eight cantons and began operating largely independent from the metropole. A haven for corsairs operating against the British East India Company, the island feared it would soon attract too much unwanted attention from the coalition against France. As in St. Domingue or Guadeloupe, some slave holding land owners found themselves prepared to renounce the new Tricolour in favor of the Union Jack if it meant preserving their way of life.
No one expected the Americans to beat the British to the negotiating table. Under a white flag of truce, Commodore Truxtun met with Malartic and struck a bargain. Isle de France, and the surrounding islands, would surrender and consent to annexation on the condition that the islands be admitted as a full-fledged state after the war with the institution of slavery guaranteed protection. The Commodore agreed and, without firing a shot, the United States gained the French Indian Ocean territories .
Practically, however, Truxtun only gained Isle de France. Ile de Bourbon, Rodrigues, the distant Séchelles and the even more distant French outposts in India (all administered from Port Louis) all remained oblivious of the surrender and agreement made in their name . Truxtun and Malartic dispatched U.S and French envoys to the nearby islands to establish control. With permanent settlement only occurring in 1735, Rodrigues had few defenses and even fewer dissenters. Ile de Bourbon featured the second largest population but, similar to the populace on Isle de France, they wanted stability and the maintenance of slavery. Only in the distant Séchelles did Truxtun find, not dissent, but an interesting situation.
Initially populated in the 1770’s by a few dozen white settlers and a handful of slaves from Madagascar, the administration in Port Louis hoped that the Séchelles could turn into a sort of “west indies for the Indian Ocean and for spices”. Colonists made some progress, hastened by the discovery of a faster oceanic route to India from the cape, but the distances and the disruption by the revolution threatened two decades of work. During the War of the First Coalition, French corsairs used the reefs and cays of the archipelago as a base to prey on British shipping. While not yet bold enough to attack Port Louis, the Royal Navy did arrive in the Séchelles and order the surrender of the populace. Finding the islands too desolate to justify leaving an occupation force, they required the few dozen settlers to swear an oath of neutrality. From 1794 until the American arrival, the Séchelles, led by Jean-Baptiste Queau de Quincy, offered what little support they could to all comers. When Truxtun and his fleet arrived, Quincy couldn’t help but feel like the prospect of American annexation might offer the Séchelles a “third option” between the Royal Navy and the political turbulence of Paris. Weary of stepping on Britain’s toes, Truxtun found himself reluctant to make too many deals with Quincy but the temptation of sweeping up the whole of France’s Indian Ocean empire proved too tempting. On December 10, 1798, Malartic lowered the tricolour, raised the stars and stripes, and announced the formation of a military government for the “United States Military District of the Mascarene Islands”. Truxtun became the Governor-General but, needing to get underway to other targets, commissioned Malartic as an officer and left him in charge of local governance.
On January 19, 1799 Truxtun’s fleet arrived off of the French port city of Mahé. The Americans had arrived in India.
VIII. The United States Enters India
The history of Inde française begins as far back as the 16th century when a number of early French trading missions either failed before they began or departed to never be heard from again. The first successful return of a ship from France occurred in 1615, nearly a century after the first feeble attempts to imitate the successful Portuguese and Spanish. Cardinal Richelieu started the French East India Company in 1642 to imitate the now successful Dutch and English models but the efforts never got off the ground. Even revitalization efforts by Louis XIV’s great minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert in the 1660’s failed to achieve the results one would think for a company with the complete backing of Europe’s leading state, its leading monarch, and arguably Europe’s leading navy.
While Colbert’s efforts did not achieve the results he hoped they would, that is not to say the French had no success. In 1668, the Company established a “factory” in Surat . They established a factory the following year at Masulipatam. From those nascent acquisitions, the French quickly expanded their influence in the south of the subcontinent and around the area of Bengal. The French acquired the great ports of Chandernagore and Pondichéry in 1692 and 1673 respectively. The French never achieved the military success abroad as their Dutch and English counterparts but successes in Europe always resulted in negotiators re-acquiring lost territory in India.
In 1741, French goals changed from pursuing commercial interests to more a more imperial bent under the great governor Joseph François Dupleix. Dupleix, working with the Marquis de Bussy-Castelnau, hampered English efforts and made Paris, not London or Amsterdam, the charge of much of southern India. Then, in 1744, Robert Clive arrived in India and shifted momentum from France to Britain. France recalled Duplex in 1754 just as Franco-Bengali intrigues began to clash with British ambitions. In 1757, the British defeated Bengal, and their French allies, at the Battle of Plassey making Britain the new dominant power in Bengal. In 1760, the French lost to the British at the Battle of Wandiwash and at Pondichéry to lose their dominant hold on southern India as well. These defeats and a host of other issues led to the 1769 dissolution of the French East India Company and the crown assumed responsibility of those possessions.
From 1770 through the War of the Second Coalition, the French position in India reduced to a few ports and trading lodges that Britain could easily take in the event of a war. The situation became dire. To the frustration of many, Versailles chose to hold off on further colonial adventures while it ordered its own house. The financial fallout of the American Revolution further exacerbated this problem abroad as it clearly did at home. With France unable to support their allies, the English operated in India with impunity. In 1792, the great French ally, Tipu Sultan of Mysore, invaded (with nominal French support) the British ally of Travancore and met defeat at the hands of an overwhelming British alliance. The British East India Company partitioned half of Sultan’s kingdom and the defeat humiliated the French who could not support their closest friend. It became clear that all France wanted in India was to hold on for dear life and maintain an increasingly disrupted status quo. Eugѐne Gabriel de La Croix, Marquis de Castries and Secretary of the French Navy wrote in 1787:
“[The King’s intention was] to try to preserve peace among [Indian] princes until we are able to help them, and up to the time we are able to join the forces of Holland. We must wait before the right disposition arises, so we could ask this power for a few bases”
Even before the revolution, the French in India found themselves reliant upon the Dutch to counter the sheer might of the English in the region. Little known today, there were even plans in Pondichéry to evacuate the French population to the Dutch Ceylon base of Trincomalee in the event of another war with Britain. Unfortunately, for the French, their next war came against the United States and by then the British were in the process of absorbing the Dutch Empire. Yet, the fact that the plan existed at all should say everything one needs to know about the precarious state of French affairs in India before the revolution. The 1785 administrative reforms that removed the French Indian capital from Pondichéry to Port Louis cemented the reality that France had abandoned her ambitions for empire on the subcontinent. Even then, the hopes of streamlining administration fell short. The various provinces and factories of French India answered to Pondichéry who then answered to Isle de France but Chandernagore received an exemption and its commandant answered directly to the Isle de France. This undercut both the authority of the governor-general in Port Louis and the governor in Pondichéry. In 1788 a new version of the French East India Company formed to recapture old glory but it was too little too late and highly dependent on agreements with the dominant British East India Company and Scottish investors. Furthermore, the administrative reforms left French India exposed from a military standpoint and angered the populace in Pondichéry from an economic standpoint.
The revolution threw colonial administration into turmoil. Indian residents fumed under the tax burden and the ever-present threat of British conquest in the event of a war kept morale low. As more and more military equipment and forces moved from Pondichéry to Port Louis, the locals in Pondichéry grew more dissatisfied. Whites in Pondichéry petitioned the governor with grievances about taxes and military protection but all the governor could answer with was a sympathetic ear. Colonial assemblies replaced petitions and Pondichéry’s Catholic Tamil population joined in with the white population. To his credit, the local governor did sympathize; he simply lacked the authority or resources to do more than that. His sympathies and the isolation of Pondichéry probably did help to avoid excesses seen in France or the West Indies.
The Revolution in French India was a strange event. In Pondichéry, it lacked the excesses of Paris or Port-au-Prince but it did incorporate many elements. Numerous citizens committees formed to aid in governance, though they were mostly limited to French whites. In March 1790, the merchant ship Caesar brought a cargo of tricolour cockades which citizens, both white and Indian, began wearing in Pondichéry. Local assemblies even dispatched two delegates to Paris to advocate on behalf of French India in all things from trade relations and representation to military resources.
To the north, the situation was quite different. In September of 1790, citizens captured the Commandant of Chandernagore and formed the “General Assembly of Citizens and the National Committee”. They claimed to act as a check on the commandant’s job “as the long stay at the Court of Marathas has taught him a lesson in all manners of rude politics [and] who believed he could act like when administrating Chandernagore”. Dutch and British forces in the area immediately began to monitor the situation, including boarding and seizing ships, while the citizen’s assemblies in Pondichéry condemned the actions in Chandernagore. Attempts by Pondichéry to coordinate with Isle de France failed as even that island saw incoherent governance, and the resignation of a governor, from its own citizen’s assembly.
The last major events of the revolution in French India would be the peaceful resolution of the actions in Chandernagore (eventually pressure from Pondichéry, combined with Dutch and British pressure, led to moderation in the isolated town) and the securing of rights by “Topasses”, the children of whites and Indians not dissimilar from the mullatoes of America (their smaller population made them less threatening to leadership in Pondichéry and Paris) . In 1794, the British took over the mainland Indian ports and ended the assemblies. Soon, the nominal capital of French possessions east of the cape, Isle de France, went silent as it rejected the Directorie and its abolitionist efforts. In 1797, Britain restored the ports to France. It was in this situation that Gouverneur Général de l’Inde française Leroux de Touffreville tried to maintain control.
To his credit, the French in India were not defenseless. Several powerful forts kept watch over the various ports and a small naval squadron worked hard to guarantee the protection of French merchants. When Commodore Truxtun’s fleet sailed into Mahé harbor on January 19, 1799 he found a much more bellicose situation than he had stumbled on in Port Louis. Governor Touffreville organized French India’s defenses and for the first time the United States fought a major naval battle in the Old World.
That morning saw Truxtun’s 12 ships-of-the-line engage 17 French ships-of-the-line in conjunction with coastal defenses. Outmatched and having sailed straight into a battle, the Battle of Mahé proved to be the U.S. Navy’s toughest test to date. Initially, and to the American’s benefit, light and variable winds frustrated the two fleets. Truxtun slowly organized his fleet and formed a cohesive northeast line, tacking starboard, that allowed his ships to fire on the French while keeping them away from coastal artillery. The French, believing their numerical superiority would give them an advantage regardless of fortification support, aligned to meet the Americans. Southwesterly winds allowed the U.S. fleet to organize, and engage, while the French sailed into the wind, attempting to create their own line. The action lasted about four hours and resulted in a resounding American victory. Truxtun’s fleet saw one ship crippled and three other suffer severe damage, but the remaining eight escaped largely unscathed. The French suffered two sunken and three crippled vessels, their powder magazines exploding as a result of stereotypically excellent American gunnery . An additional four vessels received serious damage that forced them to retreat under the cover of Mahé’s coastal guns. The USS Pennsylvania captured the 74-gun Révolution as a prize near the end of the battle.
With the French fleet out of the way, Truxtun landed marines just outside of the town and laid siege to the port. With the Americans blockading the sea, their marines at the gates and morale lost, Touffreville ordered surrender.
America’s victory at the Battle of Mahé marks the end of the ancien regieme in India and the start of American India. A broken man, Touffreville could not prevent American demands to all of French India. The next weeks saw the Americans establish control over the region and travel to the ports of Yanaon, Karikal, Pondichéry and Chandernagore to strike the tricolour and raise the stars and stripes. To their surprise, the local populations actually met the Americans with enthusiasm. The arrival of Americans signaled an end to the constant Anglo-French rivalry that always traded the towns back and forth. The popularity of the local assemblies, formed in 1790 and 1791 during the revolution, returned, this time under the guidance of the American system. Citizens of Pondichéry were especially thrilled at the prospect of seeing their traditional administrative importance returned. Commodore Truxtun, to assuage fears and maintain order, actually kept the administration of the military district based out of Port Louis. Unsubstantiated reports indicate that he might have promised local leaders that American territories could be split between the Mascarene Islands and India with Port Louis being the capital of the island territories and Pondichéry becoming the capital of the Indian territories.
Of course in Paris, the American conquest of French India expedited the downfall of the Directorie, resulting in Napoleon’s coup. The expansive (and relatively easy) conquest of so much French territory by the Americans profoundly impacted Napoleon’s geopolitical thinking and deeply influenced the structure and terms of the coming treaties he would negotiate at the start of his Consulship.
And of course, while the American conquest marked the end of the ancien regieme in India, it did not mark the end of French imperialism on the subcontinent.
————– Author’s Notes —————-
: The infamous “Devil’s Island” prison didn’t begin until the mid-19th century but Guiana had been utilized as a convenient place to exile political prisoners for decades. So while it didn’t become a true penal colony until later, the precedent was set by the time of the French revolution.
: Something to note, in 1798 many of the French territories around the world were poorly defended and in poor defensive condition. The excesses of the revolution at home really hurt these colonies for about a decade and a half when Napoleon’s rise and the establishment of the Empire allowed France to make coherent military decisions. In our timeline, some of the toughest battles fought overseas during the Napoleonic Wars occurred at Mauritius because Napoleon was able to reinforce the island’s defenses, dispatch a capable naval squadron and the population was enthused with his administration. Here, because the Americans arrive at the right time the situation is much easier.
: The islands that we know today as the Seychelles were originally called the Séchelles as they were named in honor of one of Louis XV’s ministers. The British established control in the 1790’s and the name was anglicized into what we know it to be today. That doesn’t happen in this timeline. Also at this point in history, Mauritius is known as Isle de France and Reunion is known as Ile de Bourbon.
: At this point in history a “factory” is the equivalent of “trading post”.
: Topasses, in our timeline, refer to Luso-Indians (those Indians with mixed local and Portuguese ancestry. A few sources I’ve been working with make it seem that the French whites in India utilized the term to refer to Franco-Indians. Until I find more sources to clarify this issue I’m running with the term as the subcontinental go-to for someone of mixed white and Indian ancestry.
: If you’ve noticed a pattern of convenient powder magazine explosions amongst enemy ships in important naval battles there is a reason for that, the Order is engaging in sabotage to fix the results in favor of the United States. Naturally, historians notice the pattern too but can only chalk it up to “excellent American gunnery”.
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