The governorship of Chandernagore was awarded to Jean-Baptiste Chevalier, an enterprising and patriotic Bengal veteran who in the 1750s had led a series of expeditions to establish trading links with the kingdom of Assam. Under Chevalier’s direction, signs of prosperity began to return to Chandernagore.

Trade picked up, with three or four ships arriving each year from Europe. Commercial links were re-established with South East Asia and the Persian Gulf. Chevalier played a leading role in the revival of private trade, organising voyages to export Bengali sugar and rice to the Isle de France and the Île Bourbon (Reunion Island).

The improvement of French fortunes on the Hooghly was viewed with some concern by Englishmen: Chevalier complained repeatedly to the English authorities in Calcutta about their attempts to disrupt his compatriots’ trade.

Nevertheless, the prosperity of Chandernagore continued to recover. In 1769, the French crown, prompted by growing domestic criticisms of the principle of monopoly, revoked the Compagnie’s right to exclusive trade between India and France, creating new opportunities for merchants with capital to invest.

Chevalier and other residents of Chandernagore responded by organising a succession of joint-stock voyages to Europe. The growing wealth of Chevalier and his administration at this juncture was exhibited by the conversion of the governor’s country residence at Goretty from a small house dating back to Dupleix’s governorship into a large and gracious columned chateau set in a forested estate on the Hooghly’s bank. With its elegant staircases, saloons, and painted ceilings, the chateau of Goretty was thought by some to rival the palace of Versailles in splendour.

Chevalier enjoyed warm personal relations with some Englishmen in Bengal, including the head of the Company’s council in Calcutta, Harry Verelst, and his successor Warren Hastings. High-ranking Englishmen enjoyed his hospitality at Goretty, a favourite weekend retreat from Calcutta.

As the prosperity of Chandernagore revived, however, the governor began to plan the overthrow of English power in Bengal.

Behind his “expressions of civilities and friendships” towards the English, Chevalier believed that the people of Bengal were oppressed and suffering under English rule. In his correspondence, he wrote determinedly about the need to “raise the standard of liberty” in the country and expressed a conviction that Bengalis were desperate for French assistance to set them free:

“There is not a soul in Bengal who would not contribute with all his heart to facilitate through our channel, the total expulsion of the English nation. All the people from the biggest to the smallest are tired of their yoke and can no longer bear it; they are only waiting for a favourable occasion to give vent to their sentiments, and it is in the French alone that they place all their confidence for their deliverance.”

To liberate Bengal, Chevalier thought, it would be necessary to form alliances with Indian sovereigns, the natural rulers of the land. “If ever we carry the war to this country,” he suggested, “we shall find here as many allies as there are Princes.” Chevalier was of course aware that overthrowing English power in Bengal would have advantages for the French, changing the European balance of power and allowing Frenchmen to profit more from Indian trade.

Once Bengal had been freed from English dominance, he suggested, the rest of India would follow.

Chevalier, however, stopped short of advocating the installing of France as a territorial power on the subcontinent in place of the English. Rather, the province’s legitimate Indian rulers would be put back on their thrones; France would resume its policy prior to the Carnatic Wars of peaceful and prosperous trade under the protection of sympathetic Indian rulers.

To put his grand plan into effect, Chevalier opened up diplomatic correspondence with key Indian princes in Bengal, Bihar, and northern India and dispatched secret embassies to their courts. His initial idea was to revive the Nasiri dynasty of Murshid Quli Khan. Since Alivardi Khan’s seizure of power from Quli Khan’s grandson, Sarfaraz Khan, in 1740, relatives of the deposed nawab had resided at Dacca.

Chevalier approached the family with a view to restoring it on the throne, drawing upon the history of dynastic rivalry in Bengal as a possible source of future regime change. Concurrently he approached Mir Qasim, a ruler without territory following his deposition by the English, and made overtures to Shuja al-Daulah at Lucknow. The joint ambitions of Shuja and Mir Qasim to wrestle Bengal from English control had been defeated by the Company’s armies at Buxar in 1764. Chevalier believed that with French support they could be convinced to have another go.

In 1772, after years of fighting for the recognition of his claim to the Mughal throne, Shah Alam II returned to Delhi and was installed as emperor with the backing of the Maratha ruler of Gwalior, Mahadaji Sindhia. Chevalier’s focus now shifted to the formation of an alliance with the emperor and his Maratha friends. If French support were offered to Shah Alam to help him consolidate his position, Chevalier reasoned, the protection of French interests in India would follow.

Chevalier wrote to the government at Versailles, requesting the dispatch of 5000 troops from France to Delhi to support the new sovereign. His plea was turned down by Louis XV’s court, which rightly thought England would interpret the committing of forces as an act of aggression.

This refusal highlighted a problem with Chevalier’s plans. In spite of his rhetoric about offering French assistance to liberate Bengal from English rule, the governor of Chandernagore had no significant military or financial resources at his disposal, while requests for assistance from Pondicherry, the French government on the Isle de France, and Versailles were routinely rejected or ignored.

One resource that he could potentially mobilise was the French generals and soldiers in the service of various Indian rulers. After the defeat of France in India during the SevenYears’ War, a large number of Frenchmen for whom there was no possibility of returning home and no French power to serve had taken employment in Indian courts, where their knowledge of European military techniques made them valuable. They included the Comte de Modave, who served under Shuja al-Daulah and Shah Alam; Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Gentil, who was hired by Mir Kasim and Shuja; and René Madec, who also found employment at Awadh.

Chevalier maintained contact with these military adventurers, believing that through their influence the rulers they served could be persuaded to rise up against the English. His efforts increasingly focused on Madec, who entered into the service of the Rohillas and the Jats after the English victory at Buxar.

Chevalier convinced Madec, with his band of 200 European and 3000 Indian troops, to abandon the Jats and attach himself to Shah Alam’s court at Delhi. He then came up with his most ambitious scheme yet to counter English power: to convince the emperor, through Madec, to cede to France the province of Tatta, on the coast of Sindh near present-day Karachi.

The intention was to use this for the maintenance of a large French army that, if called upon, would come to his support and, when the time was right, unite with Mughal forces to retake Bengal. Chevalier thought this plan less likely to antagonise the English than the direct dispatch of French troops to Delhi and begged Versailles to support it.

The English council in Calcutta received regular intelligence about Chevalier’s plans.

Many of them were dismissed as fanciful: the governor’s scheme to encourage Shuja al-Daulah to re-invade Bengal, for example, was regarded as the “wild project of a visionary and ambitious man that did not carry for the present any probability of success, nor could we persuade ourselves that the Court of France at this time meant to adopt it.”

Some of Chevalier’s actions did, however, cause the English alarm. In spring 1769, at a time of heightened Anglo- French tensions in Europe and the build-up of French naval forces on the Isle de France, Chevalier ordered the construction of a large ditch, 50 feet wide and 12 feet deep, around Chandernagore. The governor claimed that the ditch was needed for drainage.

To the English, how- ever, it looked suspiciously like an attempt to fortify Chandernagore, in contravention of the Treaty of Paris.The Calcutta council demanded that the ditch be filled up. When Chevalier refused, they sent troops and engineers and did it themselves. Aware of Chevalier’s plotting, the English policy was to remain vigilant and “at all times upon guard against a surprise”.

The possibility that the English most feared was an alliance between the French and the Marathas.

By the early 1770s, the Maratha Empire stretched through a confederacy of relatively autonomous rulers across much of the Indian subcontinent. In the south, the Marathas had inflicted major defeats on Hyder Ali of Mysore and Nizam Ali of Hyderabad. Expeditions in the north had forced the surrender of Rajput and Jat governors and resulted in Shah Alam being taken under Maratha protection.

From his station at Pondicherry, Jean Law surmised that “this Maratha nation is unquestionably the most powerful in India; the only one in which there is a very steady government and the only one whom the English respect.” Chevalier agreed, recording that the Marathas were the “most powerful and most warlike” of Indian powers and those with the greatest resources.

As the ditch controversy unfolded at Chandernagore, Chevalier initiated communication with Janoji Bhonsle, the Maratha leader of Nagpur, about a possible invasion of Bengal.

Soon after, he dispatched an agent to the Maratha capital of Poona to request a loan to fund the transport of troops from France to India. Maratha successes in northern India in late 1769 made an alliance even more crucial to the governor of Chandernagore: only through Maratha influence could an effective partnership with Shah Alam be secured.

Chevalier sent an emissary from Chandernagore to Delhi disguised as a Muslim merchant to seal a deal with Mahadaji Sindhia of Gwalior. Under the terms of the agreement reached, the Marathas would side with the French if war commenced between France and England in India; in return, the French would recognise Maratha sovereignty.60 Formalising the draft treaty, however, required the consent of the Court of France, which never arrived. Louis XV’s ministers, ignoring French opinion in India, favoured an alliance with Hyder Ali, to whom a royal embassy was sent in 1769. Once again, Chevalier’s efforts were overlooked.

As time wore on, Chevalier grew increasingly frustrated with Versailles, complaining of the French government’s “inertia” to the Indian cause. One influential figure sympathetic to his plans was Louis XV’s foreign minister Étienne François, the Duc de Choiseul, who argued for a French naval campaign against English interests in India as the diversion for an attack on England itself. Choiseul accelerated the redevelopment of his nation’s military capacity and gathered naval forces on the Isle de France in preparation for “Operation Hindusthan”.

However, his forward policy of revanche was at odds with majority opinion at Versailles, which favoured the preservation of peace with England at least until French military and financial strength had fully recovered from the Seven Years’ War. For leading France, allied with Spain, to the brink of war with England over the Falkland Islands with- out the approval of Louis XV, Choiseul was dismissed as foreign minister in 1770. His successor, the Marquis of Boynes, cautioned Chevalier not to provoke war with the English.

Only with the outbreak of the War of American Independence did the position of the French government change. From early 1776, France, sufficiently confident of its military strength, began arming the Patriots and preparing for war with England. Chevalier’s plans now received serious attention in Versailles for the first time: the decision was taken to send a royal diplomat to India to investigate the possibility of an alliance with Shah Alam and a combined French-Mughal invasion of Bengal.

To Chevalier’s great distress, François Emmanuel Dehaies de Montigny arrived too late. By the time he made it to Delhi, Madec had left for Pondicherry, disillusioned by the court of France’s prevarication over his negotiations with the Mughal emperor. War had been declared between England and France and the English had occupied Chandernagore once again.

Hooghly: The Global History of a River

Excerpted with permission from Hooghly: The Global History of a River, Robert Ivermee, HarperCollins India.