Yes, I lived in the White-House with my father. My father was not the President of USA, but a provincial police-chief in India! Oh, this White House is not in Washington DC, but in Cuddalore, South India. As Top-Cop, he lived in the Government Quarters. This was a historic British colonial mansion facing the sea, inside the ruins of Fort St. David and was called— you guessed it — the “White-House”. I don’t know how it got its name; but I spent some wonderful moments of my life here.
The American War of Independence
I can sense your disappointment: it is not THE White House. But wait, what if I told you this place has a connection to US history, that is older than the American White-House?
What if I proved that the last battle in the American War of Independence was fought here in Fort St. David in 1783, not in Yorktown 1781? I am not joking, here’s the dope.
In 1775, settlers in the British colonies of America rebelled by refusing to pay their taxes. The local British force could not cope, as it exploded into a civil war; the British King saw nothing “civil” about the war and sent more forces. The French King, saw this as an opportunity to spite his old rival and entered the war on the side of Americans. The Spanish King, who was the French King’s brother-in-law, believed that family business needed expansion: he allied with the French. Meanwhile, the Dutch thought it was a gung-ho idea and joined all of them. All these Europeans had colonial interests in Africa, America and Asia and everyone fought all over the place. So suddenly, a simple police case became a complex World War. Trust the Americans to stir up the hornet’s nest!
The Siege of Cuddalore
The War of American Independence was now extended to India and the Brits renewed hostilities with the French. Sometime earlier, the French had captured the British Fort St. David in Cuddalore. Now, the English Governor Macartney, urged Brigadier-General James Stuart to repossess it. Stuart’s army was not fully prepared, but he put together a 11000-man army of the Bengal and Madras sepoys and besieged Fort St. David. The British Vice-Admiral Edward Hughes had already blockaded the port of Cuddalore, thus surrounding the French. The wily French General, Marquis de Bussy saw it all coming and was well prepared. He had with him the Army of Mysore as well, so he was matched in strength with Stuart.
The Last Battle of the American Independence War
In June 1783, both sides were getting ready to attack; suddenly, some trigger-happy soldiers opened fire without waiting for orders. This caused both armies to charge at each other wildly without strategy. At the end of day-one, each side had lost around 1000 men — this was becoming messier than Yorktown.
As both sides retired for rest and re-strategising, the French sprang a surprise during the week. French Admiral Suffren appeared from nowhere and attacked the blockading British fleet. Technically the sea-battle was a draw, because the battle lasted for several hours with no great damage on either side.But the Brits were short on water and many of them were down with scurvy—Hughes and Suffren had been fighting each other for several months now. So Hughes retreated to Madras for recharging. The ‘victorious’ Suffren now landed a reinforcement of 2400 naval soldiers.The blockade was lifted.
De Bussy was greatly enthused, and the French made several attacks into the British ranks. The charges were brave, but fruitless. Gen. Stuart ensured that each time he captured more French officers. (One such P-O-W was Jean Bernadotte— please see the epilogue). Despite de Bussy’s leadership, the French were feeling demotivated that none of their charges were successful. Stuart, meanwhile shot off angry letters to Madras. He was not happy either: he got no supplies, whereas the French had an advantage after the British Navy had aborted the blockade. The British Governor responded strangely– he sacked Stuart and placed him under arrest. Remember, in those days the British Indian Army was in the private sector (the East India Company) and sacking a brave general was no big deal!
The summer was oppressive, soldiers on both sides were succumbing to wounds, sickness and thirst. By end-June, an English ship brought good news: a provisional Peace Treaty had already been signed 7 months ago in Paris, Cornwallis had surrendered and George Washington had returned home. In short the war ended long back, but it took ages to reach messages across the seas! As an offshoot of the Treaty, the British got back Fort St. David and Cuddalore, while Pondicherry was reconfirmed as French territory. Thus ended the last battle for American Independence! Status quo ante was restored, but after a massive, pointless bloodshed. All because a bunch of Americans stopped filing their Tax Returns!
Of course, Indian historians have always treated the siege of Cuddalore as part of the Second Anglo-Mysore war 1780-84; they could not be bothered with American trivia. It was left to an old Cuddalorean (me) to rediscover his American heritage.
- Sgt. Jean Bernadotte returned to France after being released and rose to become Napoleon’s favourite general, and ultimately Marshall of France. Then, Lady-Luck smiled and he became King Carl John IV of Sweden & Norway. In his new role in European politics, he went on to defy the mighty Napoleon!
- Brigadier-General Stuart went to London and fought for his case for reinstatement in the army, and succeeded. He retired as a Major-General. He fought a duel at Hyde Park with his tormentor, Governor Macartney and substantially wounded him. This, despite the fact that Stuart could hardly stand (one leg had been blown by canon fire in a previous battle); such was his passion to restore his honour!
- Marquis de Bussy was honoured for his stout defence of Fort St. David and promoted to Governor General of French India— a position he held till his death. He was one of the rare French leaders who succeeded in India.
The pics of the US White House and the Siege of Cuddalore are thanks to Wikepedia. The pics of Indian White House were taken by my wife, when we took our kids on a nostalgic trip. I was taught to respect history by a provincial policeman—my dad! Happy Father’s Day, wherever you may be, Appa!