Maritime Trade, Seapower, and the Anglo-Mysore Wars, 1767-1799

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ON 5 APRIL 1794, Charles, Earl Cornwallis, Knight of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, Governor General and Commander in Chief India, was bestowed the freedom of the city of London by its Lord Mayor. This was only the start of a day of tumultuous celebration, during which Cornwallis would be hailed by cheering crowds of Londoners as he made his way to Mansion House to receive yet more accolades and an official banquet in his honor. (1) As P. J. Marshall notes, "Celebrations of this order would in the past have been deemed appropriate to commemorate the victories of admirals; Wellington and some later military commanders were also to be granted public triumphs on this scale. But such unstinted rejoicing over a military victory in India, gained at the expense of an Indian enemy, not a European one, had no precedent." (2) He goes on to add this public reception of the Anglo-Mysore war "suggests that pride in British rule in India as well as pride in British military successes there had become widely accepted as elements of British nationalism." (3)

The Anglo-Mysore Wars were fought over a period of more than a quarter of a century (1767-99). They are undoubtedly one of the most important catalysts in launching the British East India Company (EIC) decisively on the road to the total conquest of the Indian sub-continent. In the course of this more than thirty-year conflict the British military, trade, and political system in India grew and matured substantially. Researchers have paid much attention to the land campaigns in these wars, but virtually nothing has been done to explore the crucial role played by seapower. This is especially puzzling since all three principal participants, the British, the French, and the Mysoreans, made or planned to make extensive use of seapower to influence the war's outcome. Despite the fact that the second Anglo-Mysore War was fought in the midst of another great Anglo-French War (the American War of Independence), the French deployed 20 percent of their overstretched naval resources earmarked for the American War of Independence in the Indian Ocean in an attempt to destroy the British naval squadron. (4) The ruler of Mysore, Tipu Sultan, also initiated plans for a massive naval shipbuilding program, which, had it been completed, would have created the most powerful indigenous navy in Asia. While the American Revolutionary War's naval conflicts have attracted a great amount of attention, a similar and longer lasting naval conflict also based on naval blockade tactics in India has received virtually no scholarly attention. (5) This forgotten naval campaign's outcome, however, is equally important in strategic terms. If the naval action off Yorktown contributed to the end of Britain's colonies in North America, the campaign in the Indian Ocean represented a major step toward Britain obtaining a vast and vital colonial empire in India. (6) Although extensive research has been published on Indian-Ocean trade and trade within India in the eighteenth century. However this research makes little attempt to place this economic discussion in eighteenth-century India within the context of the struggle for naval supremacy in the Indian Ocean. (7)

The most widely read version of the Indian Ocean naval campaigns is Alfred Thayer Mahan's chapter-length account of the French Admiral Suffren (1729-88)'s expedition to Indian waters (1781-83) in his landmark work The Influence of Sea Power upon History, first published in 1890. (8) Relying mainly on secondary sources, Mahan created the most informed picture yet of the Anglo-Mysore War's naval engagements. He framed this chapter within his central argument that distant naval bases and colonies were the key to safeguarding a nation's maritime interests. More than forty years later, Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond's The Navy in India, 1763-1783, made use of archival material to develop a detailed study of the Royal Navy's East India Squadron. (9) Especially useful is Richmond's painstaking recreation of the naval engagements between the British and French fleets from early 1782 to mid-1783. …