The French connection at Trincomalee

Saturday, 23 February 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The onslaught of Western maritime powers which began around 1505 in Sri Lanka continued in varying intensities until 1815 when the Sinhalese signed an agreement with British Empire for the governance of the mountain kingdom.

Portuguese and Dutch occupations of parts of Maritime Provinces lasted close to 150 years each. At the end, in 1815 British by use of force, diplomacy and intrigue were able to end 300 years of resistance of the last Sinhalese kingdom led by Kandyan Kings.

The activities of those three maritime empires in Sri Lanka are well known among us. However, two attempts by the French to come and establish themselves in Sri Lanka are not as known and remain in shrouds of mystery.


First French appearance

It is interesting to note that both these French attempts took place in and around Trincomalee; the second biggest and deepest natural harbour in the world. The first attempt took place on 22 March 1672 when a French fleet commanded by Admiral De La Haye appeared off Ceylon and cast anchor in the bay of ‘Thirikunamale’.

When they arrived at Trincomalee, the Dutch who were controlling some parts of Maritime Provinces at the time had a small fort in Trincomalee. The sudden appearance of French fleet disconcerted the Hollanders. They set fire to their fort and retired.

The French, having seeing the hasty departure of Dutch, occupied the two islands centrally located within the Trincomalee harbour and started building fortifications. The two islands were named by French as Isle By Soleil (island of the sun) and Caron. Since the British period the islands are known as Sober Islands.

At the time, the King of Kandy was Rajasinghe II (1629 to December 1687) and he was at war with the Dutch. King Rajasinghe, fortunately for the French, was looking for a maritime power to assist him to cut off Dutch reinforcements coming to Sri Lanka whilst he was engaged in fighting Dutch on land.

Admiral De La Haye sent an emissary with 30 French soldiers to Kandyan courts to negotiate with the king. Sieur Desfon taines, the emissary was treated so graciously in Kandy he decided not to return and settled down in Kandy.

Instead two court officials accompanied by several thousand men arrived at Trincomalee and were entertained on board ships by French. Few days after the return of court officials thousands of men arrived from Kandy to assist the work in fortification.

Within two months of arrival of French, a treaty was signed between King Rajasinghe and the French, granting approval for French to build fortification for the control of Trincomalee harbour. Shortly afterwards Governor of Dutch Processions in Ceylon, Van Goen arrived with a Dutch fleet to oppose the French presence in Trincomalee.


Menacing French position

At this juncture the French position was menacing. More than 400 French soldiers were suffering from dysentery resulting from exposure to the intense sun and were being treated by the 12 physicians sent by King of Kandy. There was a serious shortage of fresh provisions and French could not find adequate supplies, especially meat, for this large body of men. Dutch meanwhile landed some troops close by in an attempt to cut off supplies from the interior. Kandyan troops engaged Dutch soldiers but the French did not join the Kandyan troops in this battle claiming that they are formally at peace with Netherland.

The Kandyan enthusiasm for their newfound ally suffered greatly because of this apparent contradiction. Two ships the French sent to south India to succour supplies were captured by the Dutch fleet, making the French position even more perilous.

The diseases and the lack of food resulted in many deaths and Admiral Haye decided to leave Trincomalee leaving just 100 men in the fortification and two vessels at anchor. No sooner main fleet left, Trincomalee Dutch attacked that position and remaining French troops were forced to surrender.

A large army from Kandy came to Trincomalee but they were late by two days. So the French ambitions to build a trading empire in India with Trincomalee as its base and Sinhalese dream of getting rid of Dutch from Sri Lanka with the assistance of another maritime power were both lost in three months.


Second French appearance

The second incident of French appearance, which took place after 110 years after the attempt by Admiral Haye, is as interesting as the previous incident and as short lived as well.

From the beginning the French had tacitly helped Americans in the war of independence. In 1778 they openly declared against British by signing the treaty of alliance with USA. Because of this open declaration, British in India captured French strong holds including Pondichary.

In order to support their positions and of their allies, Dutch, France sent 12 ships under the command of Rear Admiral Andre De suffren. After several skirmishes against British ships, his fleet join with another French squadron that increased the strength of the fleet to 11 ships of the line and several transports carrying nearly 3000 troops. In the overall command of the Combined fleet was Admiral D’ Estinene – D Orves. This elderly Admiral died on board leaving the fleet under the direct command of Suffren.

The fleet sailed to Madras and met with British squadron commanded by Admiral Edward Hughes. French fleet engaged British squadron off Madras in the ‘battle of Sadras’. After the engagement Suffren was able to safely disembark the French troops in the Indian soil. After meeting Hyder Ali, the ruler of Mysore Suffren led his fleet to Trincomalee, in pursuit of British squadron which had sailed for Trincomalee.

The two fleets met in April 1782 off the Island of Providian (probably present Chalaithivu island near Vakarai, south of Trincomalee). Broadsides were engaged from noon to night fall. After the night fall Hughes returned to Trincomalee and Suffren anchored at Batticaloa which was still under the control of Dutch and remained there for six weeks to repair and replenish.

The next engagement took place off Nagapatnam when French fleet attempted to capture the coastal town of Nagapatnam. In this encounter, a storm scatted both the battered fleets, halfway through the engagement, without a decision.

The high point of the campaign took place in 1782 when Suffren together with another small French squadron that had joined him entered Trincomalee and landed 2,400 French troops. After being bombarded for three days by French, British garrison Commander, Captain McDowell surrendered Trincomalee to French on 31 August 1782. Suffren fortified the garrison and waited for Admiral Hughes fleet. Fleet appeared in September as expected and after the engagement between the two fleets, known as the ‘battle of Trincomalee’ in the annals of maritime warfare, the two fleets broke away and took shelter; British in Bombay and French in Indonesia, because of the onset of northeast monsoon.


End of hostilities

In 1783 with the beginning of southwest monsoon Suffren returned to India and engaged the British fleet off Cuddalore, inflicting sufficient damage to force Admiral Hughes to withdraw to Madras. This happened to be the last engagement between the fleets of Suffren and Admiral Hughes since the French and British signed an article of peace to end hostilities in the sub continent

French handed back Trincomalee to Dutch East India Company (VOC) at the peace of Paris in 1784 and in 1795 it was taken over by British.

So ended the second attempt by the French to establish a permanent foot hold in Trincomalee; two brief but colourful and eventful occupations. Of the two admirals, Suffren, considered perhaps the ablest naval commander the French ever produced, returned to France where he was enthusiastically received.

He was made vice Admiral of French in 1781 and later was killed in a duel, by Phe prince Du Mirepoix. The course of the encounter apparently had been saffron’s refusal in very strong language to use his influence to secure the restoration to the Navy of two of the Prince’s relations who had been dismissed for misconduct.

Hughes returned to England after the peace agreement. Although he was promoted to higher positions, he never hoisted his flag on a ship again. He lived a rich man from the wealth he accumulated from his Indian service and died in 1974.

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