Siege of Trichinopoly, 3 January 1753-August 1754

The siege of Trichinopoly (3 January 1753-August 1754) was the dominating action during the last two years of the Second Carnatic War, and saw the British win a series of battles that prevented the French from capturing the city, and eventually caused the fall from power of Governor Dupleix of Pondicherry, the driving force behind the French war effort.

Trichinopoly had been besieged before, from July 1751-April 1752. At this point it had been one of the few places still held by Mohammad Ali, the British supported candidate for the post of Nabob of the Carnatic. A British relief army forced the French to retreat onto the nearby island of Srirangam, where they were besieged and on 13 June forced to surrender.

Dupleix soon recovered from these setbacks and from a number of defeats later in the year. The earlier British successes had been won with the help of Mysorean and Maratha allies, but by the end of 1752 Dupleix had convinced them to change sides. Dalton, the British commander at Trichinopoly, soon found himself blockaded, and it was clear that his former allies could no longer be trusted.

Open hostilities began on 3 January 1753 when Dalton made a night attack on the Mysorean camp on Srirangam. This attack began well, fell apart in the dark and Dalton was forced to retreat. At first his position looked very weak. The Mysoreans and Marathas posted 8,000 men at Fakir's Tope, four miles to the south-west of the city, and Dalton only had three weeks supplies. The situation improved after Dalton managed to force the Indians away from Fakir's Tope, but by then he had sent a message to Major Stringer Lawrence, the senior British officer in the area, asking for help.

Lawrence received this message on 1 May, and immediately gathered a force of 650 Europeans and 1,500 Sepoys. As he approached Trichinopoly he was faced by a force of 5,000 cavalry and 3,000 infantry, led by Virana, the India leader who had been forced off Fakir's Tope. As Lawrence advanced, Virana retreated onto the island of Srirangam, and on 17 May Lawrence was able to enter the city unopposed. The French governor of Pondicherry, Dupleix, also sent reinforcements, adding 200 Europeans and 500 Sepoys to the 100 men present since the start of the siege. The fall of Tiruvadi in early May allowed Dupleix to raise that force to 450 Europeans and 1,500 Sepoys.

Lawrence's first instinct was to go onto the offensive, and on 21 May he made a second attempt to drive the French and their allies off Srirangam. Like the first attempt this also failed, and Lawrence went onto the defensive. He built his camp on Fakir's Tope, and focused on getting supplies into the city.

The French used their reinforcements to capture the Five Rocks, a key position a mile to the south of Lawrence's camp. On the day of the attack Lawrence was suffered from ill-health, and the Five Rocks were defended by a force of Sepoys who were quickly forced out. The French then fortified the Five Rocks, leaving Lawrence with only one supply route, via the Golden Rock. 

Over the next few months three significant battles were fought outside Trichinopoly. The first battle of Trichinopoly (or battle of the Golden Rock) of 7 July 1753 was triggered by Colonel Astruc, the commander of the French forces. He decided to capture the Golden Rock and force the British to retreat into the city. Astruc successfully captured the rock, but Lawrence counterattacked, retook the rock, and forced the French to retreat. After this defeat Astruc resigned and was replaced by M. Brennier.

After this victory Lawrence decided to move his main army into Tanjore, partly to join up with some reinforcements coming from Madras and partly in an attempt to win the King of Tanjore over to his side. He was successful in both efforts, and in mid-August returned to Trichinopoly. Brennier attempted to stop him, but Lawrence defeated him (second battle of Trichinopoly, 18 August 1753). The French prepared to defend Waikonda, to the south-west of the city, but withdrew after Lawrence threatened to attack on 4 September. They then took up a position on the south bank of the Cauvery, from where they could maintain contact with their base on the island of Srirangam.

This was only a temporary setback, for on 6 September Astruc returned at the head of reinforcements, and resumed command of the army. He then moved back to a position between the Golden Rock and Sugar Loaf Rock, while Lawrence camped at Fakir's Tope, to the north-west of the Golden Rock.

The two armies remained deadlocked until the start of October. At the end of September Lawrence received reinforcements that gave him the same number of European troops as Astruc (600). The French had more Sepoys and many more Indian allied troops, but Lawrence was running short of supplies and decided to risk an attack on the French camp. The resulting third battle of Trichinopoly or battle of Sugar Loaf Rock (2 October 1753) was another British victory. Astruc was captured, the French lost half of their European troops and were once again forced back to Srirangam. With the French apparently defeated, Lawrence moved most of his men into cantonments to see out the rainy season, leaving Lieutenant Harrison and 550 reinforcements at Trichinopoly.

These three defeats didn't end the siege. Dupleix was able to convince the King of Tanjore to end his alliance with the British, leaving them with very few Indian allies. He then planned a surprise attack on the city. He brought the number of European troops in his army back up to 600, and on the morning of 9 December attempted to storm the city. His six hundred French troops successfully reached the top of the walls, but failed to obey orders not to fire their muskets. The volley alerted the garrison, and Harrison was able to repulse the attack. The French force was almost destroyed - forty were killed and nearly 400 taken prisoners. In the aftermath the King of Tanjore resumed his alliance with the British, and at the start of 1754 Dupleix actually began peace negotiations with Governor Saunders.

These negotiations soon failed, and once again the French appeared to have the advantage at Trichinopoly. Lawrence could muster 600 Europeans and 1,800 Sepoys for service in the field, the rest of his troops being needed to guard the large number of French prisoners in the city and to provide a garrison. The French had a similar number of Europeans, nearly 4,000 Sepoys and large numbers of Mysorean and Maratha allies.

The first major action of 1754 was a French success. On 26 February Mainville, the new French commander at Trichinopoly, captured a large supply convoy heading into the city, and with it Lawrence's battalion of grenadiers, a key part of his force. A second attack on a convoy, on 23 May, ended in failure. Mainville then carried out a raid against British held territory to the east, before returning to the Five Rocks.

Despite all of his successes in India, Dupleix was not popular with the directors of the French East India Company, who were interested in trade, not conquest. At the end of 1753 they and their British equivalents decided to withdraw both Dupleix and Governor Saunders and send out new Commissions, with orders to end the fighting. Dupleix was to be replaced by M. Godeheu, a former colleague of Dupleix, while the British decided in the end to grant the required powers to Saunders. Godeheu arrived at Pondicherry on 1 August, with a letter officially recalling Dupleix to France. The exchange of power took place on the following day, and on 14 October Dupleix and his family set sail for France.

In the meantime Lawrence had returned to Trichinopoly with his main army. A lack of money had already caused a mutiny in the French army, while Mainville was replaced by Maissin, a less capable commander. Lawrence was able to get a convoy into the city, and a few days later Maissin abandoned his positions around the city and once again retreated onto Srirangam. This effectively ended the siege. In late October the British and French agreed to a truce, and in January 1755 this was turned into a conditional treaty. The successful defence of Trichinopoly prevented the French from securing their position in the Carnatic, and at the end of the war Mohammad Ali was accepted as Nabob of the Carnatic, although the French supported candidate retained the more important role of Nizam of Hyderabad.

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (28 December 2011), Siege of Trichinopoly, 3 January 1753-August 1754 ,

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