Posts Tagged ‘Eyre Coote’

Etiquette and Empire

Posted in On This Day on January 22nd, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – 3 Comments

Of course, you would expect an Orangeman and an Irishman to brawl whenever and wherever they met. But on this day in 1760, the brawl would determine the control of India. The Orangeman, the painfully named Eyre Coote, commanded the forces of the British East India Company. The obviously Irish Thomas Arthur O’Lally, in his lifelong war with Britain ended up in the French army and commanded its forces in Southern India.

Yes, there was another French and Indian War and, however deflating to our North American egos, at the time the control of India and its riches seemed more important than the muskrat trade in the Ohio valley. Unlike the North American conflict, where 2 million British subjects were pitted against 100,000 Frenchmen and any native tribes who had survived smallpox, the conflict in India was evenly matched. Both European armies had several thousand men as the core of their force, but their preferred strategy was to let their allied Indian princes slaughter each other. Since this was a traditional pastime among Indian princes, the British and French really were just spectators who lent cannons.

Fighting to the last rajah, this war could have lasted indefinitely. However, Thomas O’Lally was a decisive man; and the French commander decided that he didn’t like India. His idea of the caste system was to treat everyone like an Untouchable. While this egaliterian rudeness might have earned O’Lally the gratitude of India’s dung collectors, the lower castes were not leading the armies on which the French strategy depended. Insulted princes are not usually the most reliable allies. O’Lally learned that when he advanced upon a British fort at Wandiwash. His Indian allies forgot to show up.

British commander Eyre Coote was on excellent terms with his Indian allies and, with his conspicuously larger force, he routed the French. From that day–January 22, 1760–the French were in continual retreat until the remnants of their empire were confined and besieged in the town of Pondicherry. When Pondicherry surrendered, O’Lally was taken as a prisoner to Britain. Ironically, at least he was safe there.

The French government charged O’Lally with treason. Considering that the Seven Years War was a world atlas of French defeats, Versailles should have been accustomed to incompetent generals. But only O’Lally was condemned as a traitor. He had not merely lost a battle; he had sabotaged the underlying alliance on which French India was based. Perhaps for that very reason, the grateful British were willing to offer O’Lally political asylum. However, he insisted on returning to France to defend his career and honor. At worse, he would be executed; and for Thomas O’Lally that would still be preferable to living in England. He certainly got his wish; returning to France after war ended in 1763, he was immediately imprisoned and beheaded three years later.

Eyre Coote had a considerably more successful career, gaining a knighthood and a fortune. (The opportunities for graft in India were wondrous.) He died–of natural causes–in 1783, leaving a vast estate in Ireland where his heirs treated the Irish like Untouchables.