The Capture of Pondicherry – 23 August 1793
Having been furnished on 2 June with news of the outbreak of war against France from George Baldwin, the consul-general at Alexandria, the British authorities at Madras under the governor, Sir Charles Oakely, immediately took steps to take possession of the French settlements and shipping on the Indian sub-continent, and to begin preparations for the blockade and investment of the major French base at Pondicherry, some ninety miles to the south.
On 19 June Rear-Admiral Hon. William Cornwallis, the naval commander-in-chief of the East Indian station, learned of the outbreak of hostilities whilst visiting the Dutch post of Trincomale on Ceylon. As a result of the return home earlier in the year of the frigates Perseverance 36, Captain Isaac Smith, and Phoenix 36, Captain Sir Richard Strachan, his force at this time included just one post-ship, his flagship the frigate Minerva 38, Captain John Whitby. Yet the French were in an even weaker position, for although they had two frigates in the East Indies, the Cyb le 40, Captain Pierre Julien Tr houart, and Prudente 36, Captain Charles Ren Magon de M dine, an officer who would fight with great bravery but lose his life at the Battle of Trafalgar twelve years later, both vessels were based over two thousand five hundred miles to the south-west at the Isle de France. This lack of an immediate French presence, coupled with an intimate knowledge of the sub-continent that had been acquired during his five year command of the station, allowed Cornwallis to approach the forthcoming campaign with some confidence.
An early success for the rear-admiral was the capture of a storeship carrying ammunition for the French garrison at Pondicherry, and on 3 July the Minerva took the small privateer brig Concorde after a two day chase, with Cornwallis commissioning this vessel into the navy as the Bien Aim and giving the command to his senior lieutenant, Robert Manning. Meanwhile, with a view to enforcing a blockade of the coast around Pondicherry, Cornwallis was able to obtain reinforcements in the shape of three East Indiamen, the Warley, Triton and Royal Charlotte, which vessels sailed out of Madras to join him on 6 July. A week later, on 13 July, the French frigate Cyb le and three consorts appeared off Pondicherry, the latter vessels having been sent out from Europe to the Isle of France with reinforcements and stores for the garrison, but upon being closed by the Minerva the Cyb le surprisingly fled, never to be seen again. As he was wary of a separation from his consorts, the East Indiamen, Cornwallis did not maintain a pursuit of the Cyb le but instead returned to cruise off Pondicherry.
Whilst the blockade continued to strangle supplies entering Pondicherry, an army of two thousand men including twelve hundred Europeans under the command of Colonel John Braithwaite reached the outskirts of the town on 28 July. Proclaiming his confidence in defending Pondicherry, the French governor, Colonel Prosper de Clermont, had already despatched many of his citizens to the Danish colony of Tranquebar, and had sequestered all the cattle and supplies for forty miles around the town. However, in rejecting the polite summons presented to him on 2 August, he nevertheless found it necessary for he and his subordinate to send portraits of themselves to Braithwaite for onward delivery to their wives at Tranquebar, and this precaution suggested that he well knew he had an insufficient force to man Pondicherry s formidable defences.
By now the governor-general of India and Cornwallis elder brother, Charles, the Marquis Cornwallis, had announced his intention of joining the expedition against Pondicherry. On 14 August he set off from Calcutta aboard a pilot schooner for Kedgeree, the modern day Khejuri, where he planned to embark upon a larger vessel for the voyage to Madras. By the 22nd he was aboard the Bien Aime, which had recently arrived in the roads under the promoted Commander Manning, and they set sail in company with the East Indiamen Triton, which had also been sent north by the admiral, together with another East Indiaman, the Woodcote, and three other vessels carrying reinforcements for the siege.
Back at Pondicherry heavy rain had caused havoc in setting up the British batteries, and as the work dragged on the besiegers began to incur severe casualties under the garrison s fire, including Braithwaite s chief engineer, who was one of eighty-eight men killed in addition to another one hundred and thirty-one men wounded. Eventually, by the morning of 22 August, a battery of heavy cannon had been put in place, and the fire from these guns had such an immediate effect that by 5 p.m. that afternoon flags of truce were appearing on the ramparts as the French soldiers, brimming with revolutionary ardour, rebelled against their officers, got drunk, and threatened the governor. Braithwaite then demanded prompt terms of surrender and there were quickly agreed to.
French losses in the siege were not recorded but they were evidently far less than those incurred by the British. Six hundred and forty-five French soldiers and over one thousand Indian sepoys were taken prisoner.
A victorious Rear-Admiral Cornwallis was able to sail north and make a juncture with his brother whose assistance and reinforcements had not after all proved necessary. With the French ports of Chandernagore, Carical, Yanam, Mah and others surrendering to British arms, Rear-Admiral Cornwallis set off for Europe, to arrive at Portsmouth aboard the Minerva in April 1794. Behind him a solitary sloop was left in Indian waters.