The siege of Srirangam (12 April-13 June 1752) saw the British turn the tables on a French army that had been besieging Trichinopoly, eventually forcing them to surrender.
In the summer of 1751 the French had been triumphant in southern India, with their candidate in power in Hyderabad, and Chanda Sahib, their candidate for the post of Nawab of the Carnatic, in almost as strong a position. His main rival, the British supported Mohammed Ali, was besieged in Trichinopoly (July 1751-10 April 1752) and it looked to only be a matter of time before the beleaguered garrison would be forced to surrender.
Chanda Sahib was rather let down by the French commanders at Trichinopoly. For much of the siege the French contingent was commanded by Colonel Jacques Law, and he was content to try and starve the garrison into surrendering. Elsewhere the British were more active. Robert Clive seized and then defended Chanda Sahib’s capital at Arcot, diverting 4,000 troops from the siege. An attempt to recapture Arcot early in 1752 backfired when Chanda Sahib’s son Raju Sahib was defeated at Kaveripak (28 February 1752). This victory allowed the British to concentrate on lifting the siege of Trichinopoly, and on 8 April an army commanded by Stringer Lawrence, with Robert Clive as second in command, linked up with the garrison, effectively breaking Law’s blockade.
Law’s position was still quite strong. Chanda Sahib’s troops lined the Cauvery River, north of Trichinopoly. Law’s right rested on the river, where he joined up with Chanda Sahib. The French line then ran south and west around the city, taking advantage of various strong positions, ending with a fort on a rocky outcrop at Elmiseram.
Unfortunately for the French Law wasn’t able to take advantage of his strong position. On 12 April the British attempted to raid Chanda Sahib’s lines, but in the dark ended up in front of the French. Law interpreted this as a preparation for an attack on his position, and decided to retreat to the island of Srirangam, a long strip of land between the Rivers Cauvery to the south and Coleroon to the north (the Cauvery really being a branch of the Coleroon). This was a most peculiar decision - as Governor Dupleix quickly realised, if Law was going to abandon the siege then he should have retreated towards the main French base at Pondicherry, instead of deliberately isolating himself on an island. Chanda Sahib was also against the idea, but when Law officially announced his decision, Chanda Sahib decided to accompany him.
For some reason Law left the garrison of Elmiseram in place, now totally isolated, and on 13 April it surrendered to Captain Dalton. Clive then suggesting splitting the British force in two, with half moving north of the Coleroon and half remaining south of the Cauvery. Lawrence agreed to this proposal. Clive was given command of the northern force, which consisted of 400 British troops, 700 Sepoys, 3,000 Maratha and 1,000 Tajore cavalry. Clive crossed the rivers on 17 April and took up a position at the village of Samiaveram, nine miles north of Srirangam and on the road connecting Law with Dupleix at Pondicherry.
Dupleix had not been idle while this disaster was befalling his forces at Trichinopoly. On 10 April a force of 120 Europeans and 400 Sepoys under d’Auteuil left Pondicherry, initially with the idea of d’Auteuil replacing Law. By the time he reached the area on 25 April Law had already retreated onto the island, and Clive was at Samiaveram.
D’Auteuil decided to try and march around Clive and reach Law. He sent messengers to Law to let him know what was about to happen, but unfortunately one of these messengers was captured by Clive’s men. D’Auteuil set off on his march on the evening of 25 April. Clive also left his camp, and moved to intercept the French. When d’Auteuil discovered this he returned to his starting point at Utatur, and Clive returned to his camp where he settled down for the night.
That evening Law came closest to success. He decided to try and capture Clive’s camp while he was occupied with d’Auteuil. However instead of dispatching his entire force, Law decided to send 80 Europeans (including 40 British deserters) and 700 Sepoys. This small force came close to a remarkable success. Clive and his men weren’t expecting any such daring from Law, and their guard was lax. Clive’s camp was spread around two pagodas a quarter of a mile apart, with the European troops in the pagodas and the Indians camped around. Clive was sleeping in his palanquin under an open shed.
Law’s men bluffed their way into the camp, claiming to be reinforcements sent by Lawrence. They were challenged again close to the small pagoda and Clive’s sleeping quarters, and this time opened fire. One bullet only narrowly missed Clive, waking him up.
Clive’s initial assumption was the firing was a false alarm of some sort, and so he moved to the greater pagoda, collected the 200 European troops camped there, and returned to try and sort things out. When he returned to the small pagoda the French Sepoys were firing towards the south. Clive still assumed that they were his men, and tried to restore discipline. One of the French Sepoys was first to realise what was going on. He attacked Clive and wounded him twice, before fleeing towards the great Pagoda with an irate Clive close behind, still convinced he was dealing with his own mutinous sepoys.
Clive finally realised the truth when he ran into six French troops outside the greater pagoda. Now Clive knew he was facing the French he took command of the situation, bluffing three of the French soldiers into surrendering to him. The other three took his terms to their colleagues, who had occupied the empty greater pagoda. They refused to surrender, and resisted strongly all night.
In the morning the wounded Clive attempted to parley with the French troops and deserters in the pagoda, but one of the deserters shot and killed the two sergeants who were holding him up. In order to avoid being blamed for this, the French troops surrendered leaving the deserters with no choice but to follow suit. Meanwhile the French Sepoys had attempted to escape, but were cut down by Clive’s Maratha allies.
The British now began to close in around Law. On 7 May Lawrence captured the fort of Coilday/ Koiladi, at the eastern end of the island. On 9 May Lawrence sent a force under Captain Dalton to attack d’Auteuil. Despite successfully forcing Dalton to retreat, d’Auteuil pulled back to Volconda (or Colconda). Late in May Clive captured the pagoda of Pachandah, a French position on the north bank of the Coleroon. Law was now entirely cut off from communication with Pondicherry.
The final blow came on 8 June when d’Auteuil moved south in a final attempt to help Law. Clive blocked his route, and d’Auteuil retreated. This time Clive pursued, caught up with the French at Volconda and forced them to surrender.
It was now clear that Law would have to surrender. Chanda Sahib was now in a very difficult position. In an attempt to save himself he surrendered to the commander of the contingent from Tanjore on 11 June. This attempt failed, and Chanda Sahib was murdered and his head sent to Mohammed Ali. By this point Law had surrendered. He was able to negotiate reasonable terms – his officers were paroled and the British deserters were pardoned, although the French troops were taken as prisoners of war. On 13 June Law and his remaining 810 Europeans and 2,000 Sepoys surrendered.
Law’s surrender, the death of Chanda Sahib and the end of the first siege of Trichinopoly gave the British the dominant position in southern India, at least for the second half of 1752, but this was not to last. By the start of 1753 Dupleix had recovered much of the lost ground, had successfully split the British from their Indian allies, and was able to go back onto the offensive. The last two years of the war would be dominated by a second, much longer siege of Trichinopoly, which lasted from 3 January 1753 until August 1754.