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The Battle of Sadras

The French admiral watched the horizon from the deck of his ship, the Héros. Nine. Nine British ships between him and glory. A large wave broke at the hull and spattered his face with spray. He wiped his face with a silk napkin. He sent word to the captains of his fleet to meet him in his war-cabin.

It was 1782. The French supported the Americans in their struggle for Independence, much to the chagrin of the British. The Dutch also allied with the French inspite of British threats. The echoes of the dispute found their way to India where the British forces were capturing French and Dutch outposts along the Coromandel coast. The French dispatched Admiral Balli de Suffren, with his fleet to keep the British forces at bay.

French Admiral – Bailli de Suffren

The Admiral’s fleet had eleven ships of the line, seven transport ships filled with troops, and a corvette to escort the transports They set sail from Brest and had planned to siege the British stronghold at Madras. The Admiral had found the British fleet, under the command of Sir Edward Hughes anchored at Madras and had turned south. He wanted to land his troops at the Dutch colony at Sadras and attack the British troops from the land. The British raised their anchors and set sail after Suffren. Both the navies faced each other at Sadras.

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Suffren put his napkin away and peered at the map. The cannons in the sea fort at Sadras would prevent the British from landing. It seemed like the battle would be easy. The French had the wind on their side and had the numerical advantage. But he knew that the British Navy was force not to be taken lightly. They were the masters at sea-battles.

Suffren realized that he was hampered by the need to protect the transport ships containing the troops. He had to safely get them away from the conflict. He detached his corvette to protect the transport ships and decided to draw Hughes away from them. Suffren thought the British would chase his fleet while leaving the transport ships to land the troops safely. The troops would then wreck havoc from land.

The plan was going perfectly. The British fleet had turned their attention towards Suffren and his ships while the transport ships were making way towards the coast.  The wind was against the British and they were unable to engage in a battle with the French. The sun was setting across the Indian coast. The sea shimmered in orange. He made sure that the watch-outs were in their post and went to sleep in his cabin with a smile on his face.

The French Admiral woke up next day to chaos. His crew was running amok on the deck. The British fleet was nowhere to be seen. Under the cover of the night, they had changed direction and were now pursuing the transport ships. Suffren yelled in frustration. He gave the order to set sail and give the chase.

By late afternoon, he caught up with the British ships. The battle lines were drawn and the canons were readied. Suffern lead the charge in his ship, Héros. The tide was high and waves made manoeuvrability difficult. Héros caught up with a British ship. It rained cannonballs and hell on it. The British ship was no match for the French speed and could not outmanoeuvre. The sailors jumped off the deck as the burning ship sank to his watery grave.

Satisfied with his attack, Suffren looked around to see how the rest of the battle was going. His eyes widened with horror. He wiped the salt out of his eyes to see if his eyes were deceiving him. They were not.

Only five of his ships had followed him in the battle. The other six had moved back and were watching the battle from the sidelines. He made his messenger to signal the other ships to join the battle. Two out of the six ships reluctantly joined the battle. The other four disobeyed the order and remained at the sidelines. The French Admiral threw his sword down in fury. If he got out alive out of this, he would make them pay. Dearly.

The angry Admiral, turned his attention towards the battle. Sir Hughes ship, the Superb, was making way towards him. He yelled at his crew to charge at the British ship. If he was going down, he would go down all guns blazing.

The Admiral stood tall among the smoke, salt and screams. The two ships passed each other by with their canons tearing wood and flesh apart. Once the smoke cleared, Suffren surveyed the damage. He was surprised to see his ship still standing. The hull and the mast were still intact. A creaking noise caught his attention and he looked back. It was the mast of the British ship crashing. They were not so lucky. The canon-ridden British ship raised the white flag of surrender.

That night Suffren sat silently on the ramparts of the Sadras fort and looked across at the silent sea. There were no more canons and smoke. Only the sound of waves caressing the shore. The broken British fleet had set sail to Triconamalee for repairs. His fleet also had suffered damages and undergoing repairs at the Dutch port.

His thoughts were broken by the sounds of footsteps. He turned around. He saw the captains of the ships who had refused to join in the battle, brought in chains.

“Tie them to the canons and fire”, he said as he stood up and walked to his cabin.

 

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After the Battle of Sadras, the Frech troops who were escorted by Admiral Suffrens, joined forces with the Dutch and Hyder Ali against the British spawning the Second Anglo-Mysore war.

Sadras, once a busy Dutch sea-fort and a naval colony, is now a tiny fishing hamlet, a stones throw away from Kalpakkam nuclear power-plant. The ruins of the sea fort still stand towering high along the sea shore, though much of its glory lost. It is easy to lose track of time waking along the ramparts watching the tall grass that now covers the fort, bend and twist in the sea breeze.

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The entrance to the sea-fort at Sadras

 

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The ramparts and the sea beyond it.

 

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Remains of a staircase which now lead to nowhere.

 

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Posted by on September 7, 2014 in Tamil Nadu

 

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‘Aayi Mandapam’ – A tale of a King and a Prostitute

King Krishnadevaraya, the ruler of the prosperous Vijayanagara empire, ruled over the Deccan. His empire stretched from Karnataka to Kanyakumari. One day, the king set out from his capital at Hampi and went on a tour of his kingdom.

While traveling through Pondicherry, a trading city and a sea port on the eastern coast of his empire, a beautiful building caught the king’s eye. The king looked with amazement at the building’s architecture and it carvings. The religious king thought it was a temple. He knelt on the street and bowed down before it with folded hands.

The people around looked at the king with surprise. There was a stunned silence. The young men and women were hiding behind their elders and giggling. A wise old man walked up to the king and asked him, “Your Majesty, why are you bowing down in front of a brothel?”

The king looked up in horror. He caught the old man by his throat and demanded an explanation. The old man croaked, “Sire, this is a brothel. It is run by a prostitute called Aayi”. The king loosened his grip. The old man collapsed on the street.

The embarrassed king roared with anger. He ordered his soldiers to bring the prostitute to him and tear the building down from its roots. The soldiers got hammers and axes and started demolishing the brothel.

The prostitute, Aayi, was brought to the king in chains. She fell on the kings feet and asked for mercy. She begged the king to spare the house, but the king’s ego was deeply bruised. He did not listen to her. Aayi, in a desperate plea, asked the king, the permission to break down the house herself. The king agreed.

The prostitute broke down her beautiful house and in its place dug a water tank for the people around. The place was known as Aayi Kulam in her memory.

Years later, the French made Pondicherry their capital in India. The French town on the sea shore faced an acute water shortage. All the wells they dug had only salty water. The French King, Napolean III, sent an architect, Monsieur Lamairesse to sort out the problem. The architect built a 5 km long tunnel from Aayi Kulam to a park in the French part of the town. The French king heard about the story behind the water tank was was deeply impressed. He ordered the architect to build a monument for Aayi. The monument was built in French architectural style at the center of the park

The Governor of Pondicherry sent a letter to the French king thanking him for sending the architect, Mon. Lamairesse. The King told him to thank Aayi and wrote that she deserved a monument.

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Aayi’s monument is still present in Pondicherry. It is flanked by important buildings like the French consulate, the secretariat and the Governor’s bhavan. Built in Greco-Roman style, it is located at the center of a circular park. On top of the monument is a French fleur dde lis.

A stone plaque written in traditional Tamil and Latin, pays tribute to Aayi’s deed and thanks her for providing water for the people of the town.

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Posted by on February 11, 2013 in Pondicherry

 

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‘Arcot’ – The Reason We Speak English

The soldiers looked at their young captain with awe. They had not expected twenty-six year old Clive to capture the fortress of Arcot, but he had defied all odds and managed it. He was now standing on top of the ramparts, surveying the fort’s defenses.

Robert Clive was a scribe, a writing clerk who kept records. He had been kicked out of the house for being ‘naughty’ as a child. He joined the East India Company and was sent to the British Fort St. George at Madras to copy texts and tally accounts. But then, destiny had other plans for him.

Muhammad Ali, the Nawab of Arcot and an English ally, was hiding in Trichy. His capital city, Arcot, was captured by Chand Sahib, a French ally. The French army marched out of Pondicherry, to lay seige to the Rock Fortress of Trichy and dispose off the Nawab for good. The Nawab begged the British governor at Madras for help. Trichy was far away. Help would not reach there in time to counter the French army.

Clive, the governor’s scribe, suggested that they attack Arcot and distract the French, instead of sending the British army to Trichy. The governor appointed the young scribe as a captain and sent him to Arcot, with a mere 100 soldiers, 120 sepoys and 3 guns.

The small troop and the lack of heavy artillery meant that Clive’s company could move quickly. He made his troops do forced marches. The garrison at Arcot scattered when the Clive made a surprise attack at night. Clive captured Arcot without losing a single man.

The Arcot fortress was weak. The walls were low, the towers crumbling and the moat dry at places. The mile long wall was too large to be defended by the feeble British force. The governor of Madras promised two artillary guns, but they would take time to arrive. Clive sent most of his force to escort the artillary guns.

Seeing the troop movement, Chand Sahib’s 2000 men attacked the fortress to claim it back. With a mere 70 men and darkness for cover, Clive managed to repulse the attack and hold on to the fort. Chand Sahib’s men fled the next day when the artillary guns arrived.

Clive’s ploy worked in distracting the French from Trichy. The French army turned towards Arcot. Chand Sahib’s men joined the advancing army. Chand Sahib’s son, Raza Sahib lead the army. Clive and his 300 men set to task, strengthening the Fort.

A 4000 men strong French-Indian army lay siege to the Fort. In the night, Clive made a daring move. He attacked the siege force and tried to steal their French guns. The plan almost backfired. Clive barely escaped with his life and lost 15 men in the misadventure.

Clive made no mistakes thereafter. Small British company successfully repulsed the siege for 50 days. A Maratha captain, Morari Rao, was impressed with the British bravery and promised to send them help in return for payment. The payment got delayed in the English bureaucracy. When Raza Sahib heard about the Maratha captain’s offer, he offered Clive terms and promised him a gift if he surrendered. Clive declined. The attackers fell upon the fortress with renewed frenzy, but the British held strong. Raza Sahib’s men fell by tens and dozens at the hands of the British. Chand Sahib’s elephants ran amok in the gunfire, trampling down his own men. The attackers gave up and retreated. They had lost hundreds of men while Clive lost only four. Cheer rang though the British contingent

The French defeat at Arcot signaled the decline of the French presence on India and the rise of the British. The British reinstated Muhammad Ali as the Nawab of Carnatic. The Treaty of Paris signed at the end of the Battle of Arcot gave the British right to most of the Indian territories.

The siege of Arcot made Clive famous throughout Europe. A British scribe with a handful of men had repulsed an attack by the French army. Clive was presented a sword by the British Prime Minister. His military career took off from that point.

Ten years later, Clive returned back to India and lead the British to victory in the battle of Plassey. That established the military supremacy of the East India company in India.

Arcot is now a small town on the Chennai-Banglore highway. Quiet and rustic, scattered with mosques and minarets. People stop over here on the highway for its famous Arcot biryani. The Fortress of Arcot is all but disappeared except for it gates.

(The Delhi Gate, Arcot)

Known as Delhi gate, the broad gate stands at the outskirts of the town. The dry bed of the river Palar lies across it. A forgotten stone plate mentions that it was once a part of Clive’s fortifications.The ground around it is scattered with fallen structures, paying tribute to the fact, that they were the reason we speak English today, and not French. Whether that is a good thing or not, I leave that for you to decide.

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Posted by on February 7, 2013 in Tamil Nadu

 

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