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An Account of His Majesty’s De Meuron Regiment Chapter 3: Enter the British 1794-1795

An Account of His Majesty’s De Meuron Regiment Chapter 3: Enter the British 1794-1795

An Account of His Majesty’s De Meuron Regiment 1795-1816

Chapter 3: Enter the British 1794-1795

 


HM De Meuron Regimental Standard (courtesy Musee d’Histoire Neuchatel)

 

The Honourable East India Company, during the late 18th century had for some time cast a covetous eye upon the ports and harbours available in Ceylon. Those harbour facilities were ideal for military and commercial shipping, but intermittent hostilities with France and Holland had precluded the possibility of any treaty. Added to which the King of Kandy, as a result of previous misunderstandings, regarded any approaches of British diplomacy with considerable suspicion.[1]

When the French invaded the Netherlands at the end of 1794, the hereditary ruler, the ‘Stadtholder,’ Willem V, Prince of Orange, had travelled to Britain, and in rather vague terms, placed all Dutch foreign colonies and dependencies under British protection. This was interpreted by the Governor of the Madras Presidency, Robert 4th Lord Hobart and his Council, as rendering all the Coastal Ceylon forts, garrisons, ports and harbours to the British and therefore Company control and made swift moves to consolidate that as an objective. Needless to say, the order by the exiled Stadtholder was rejected by the new Batavian Republic, in essence a French client state, who claimed that the Dutch people had brought about and welcomed the new republic. Chaos ensued in the Dutch colonial areas affected and the Dutch Governor of Ceylon, van Angelbeek received the following correspondence dated 7th February 1795, from the Stadtholder;

We have deemed it necessary to address you this communication and to require you to admit into Trincomalee and elsewhere in the Colony under your rule the troops of His Majesty the King of Great Britain which will proceed there, and also to admit into the harbours of such other places where ships might safely anchor the warships, frigates and armed vessels which will be despatched on behalf of His Majesty of Great Britain: and you are to consider them as troops and ships belonging to a power that is in friendship and alliance with their High Mightinesses, and who come to prevent the Colony from being invaded by the French.[2]

A further note to Van Angelbeek dated 7th July 1795 from Lord Hobart, Governor of Madras, was attached;

Having made this communication it is my duty to inform you that if contrary to His Majesty’s expectations resistance should be made to deliver up the several Colonies and Settlements upon the Island of Ceylon disregarding the order of the Prince Stadtholder such action will render you responsible for the consequences. Major Agnew who has the honour of delivering these despatches is an officer upon whose integrity and discretion you may place the fullest reliance.[3]

Alexander Patrick Agnew had joined the East India Company’s Madras Army as a Cadet in 1774, was Governor of Trincomalee in 1796, and rose to Major General by 1811, before his death in 1813. [4]

Letters were also sent to the King of Kandy, inviting him to enter into a treaty with the British.

Governor van Angelbeek, wished to remain loyal to the Stadtholder, yet he and his council opted not to accept the terms that the Stadtholder had set out and refused to accept Lord Hobart’s interpretation, nor to accept any British troops in the Ceylon garrisons.

The British, sceptical of the adequacy of the Stadtholder’s letter, lost not a moment of opportunity and arrived off Trincomalee, Ceylon on Saturday 1st August 1795, with a combined force under Major General James Stuart and Admirals Peter Rainier and Alan Gardner,[5] comprising of:

 71st, 72nd and 73rd Infantry Regiments of Foot
1st, 9th and 23rd Regiments Madras Native Infantry
2nd /2nd Regiment Bombay Native Infantry
Detachments of Madras and Royal Artillerymen
Gunships HMS Suffolk and Centurion
Frigates, HMS Diomede (sank on voyage) and HMS Heroine
 Sloops, HMS Rattlesnake,  HMS Swift, HMS Echo
Gunships HMS Stately and HMS Arrogant
 East India Company ships
 6 companies of Gun Lascars and  undefined auxiliaries

 

In 1795, Colombo was garrisoned by 800 Dutch and Malay troops as well as five companies of the Regiment Meuron. Fort Frederick at Trincomalee was garrisoned by 750 men of whom 84 were from the regiment and the nearby fort of Ostenburg was garrisoned by 250 men of whom 70 were from the regiment. An unknown number of troops were at the fort Point de Galle. The entirety of the defending Dutch force did not exceed 3,000 and was not matched by the British whose strength was estimated at 2700. On arrival the men-of-war and transport ships, anchored and landed the troops, camped about two miles away from Fort Frederick and commenced negotiations.

When negotiations over Trincomalee stalled and after the British ‘had shown much forbearance,’ Stuart’s troops on 18th August ‘broke ground and opened the batteries on 23rd but the garrison held out until 26th August when the commander of the Dutch garrison, Major J. G. Fornbauer, asked for a 24 hour armistice and terms.

The Terms offered to Fornbauer by Rainer and Stuart were;

Garrison will be allowed to march out of fort with the honours of War, Drums beating and Colours flying, to the Glacis when they will ground all arms and surrender themselves prisoners of war. The British troops to be put in possession one hour after capitulation—two officers of the rank of Captain to be delivered immediately as hostages for the performance of the agreement. These are the only terms offered. Major Fornbauer, if he accepts will sign this paper and return it by two officers he will send as hostages within an hour.[6]

Fornbauer replied that he must consult his officers and would send answer by two officers at 6pm that evening—26th August 1795.[7]

The garrison eventually surrendered on 27th August and during the siege of Trincomalee the Regiment Meuron had sustained 30 casualties. By 6th October the British were in possession of all the Dutch coastal forts except Colombo. Fort Batticaloa had surrendered to 22nd Regiment on 18th September, Jaffna on 22nd September, Mullaitivu to 52nd Regiment, disembarking from HMS Hobart, on 1st October, Mannar on 5th October and Fort Ostenberg had been captured by mid-November. The Dutch coastal installations at Hammenhiel (Kayts), and Kalpitiya had also capitulated, Chilaw and Negombo were abandoned by the Dutch in early February 1796 and the remaining Dutch forces at Kalutara, Galle and Matara followed soon afterwards.

Colombo Fort should have constituted a large and significant military obstacle, likely to be a difficult proposition to take by storm. Pierre Frederic de Meuron commander of the garrison, ought to have been capable of a vigorous resistance had he been in anything like a position to do so; instead, there was very little fighting or resistance by the Dutch military.

Captain Lamotte, commanding the Dutch Malay battalion at Colombo, sent to confront the enemy with companies from the garrison, posted troops in a position to defend the passage of the Kaimelle river but with orders to retreat should the enemy be able to continue their advance. False intelligence circulated purporting to show that armed Kandians were coming in great force to unite with the enemy and Lamotte received further orders to retire on Colombo. His men destroyed all the bridges and dug up the roads, on their route back, to obstruct the passage of British artillery.

Captain Robert Percival, originally of HM’s 18th Royal Irish Regiment, but attached to the 19th Regiment of Foot, (1st Yorkshire North Riding Regiment) arrived in Ceylon in 1796, shortly after its capture, and wrote an account of the invasion. He portrayed the ‘degraded state‘ to which the Dutch military forces were by then reduced and that  Stuart’s force had marched unimpeded, able to cross rivers on rafts of bamboo unchallenged. [8] A battery erected to oppose the British advance was abandoned as the British approached Colombo and a few shots fired at the British by a small Dutch unit, led to the Dutch fleeing into the fort, once fire was returned.

The British advance had been slow due to the poor condition of roads leading to Colombo and the British frequently resorted to marching along the shoreline and beaches.

There is little question that Governor van Angelbeek, together with his council, Colonel Pierre Frederic de Meuron, his officers, and the garrison troops, faced a difficult situation and opted for a comparatively bloodless transition to British rule over Ceylon.

The VOC. or Dutch East India Company had already begun a slow decline, particularly as a result of the 4th Anglo-Dutch War 1780-84 and the invasion of Ceylon in 1795 by the British would spell its death knell. Following on from the invasion a naval battle at Camperdown, (or Camperduin,) fought on 11th October 1797, between the Royal Navy under Admiral Duncan and Batavian Navy under Jan de Winter destroyed any future ambitions for colonial development or trade by the Batavian Republic in the east. The VOC was nationalised by the Batavian Republic in 1796, and finally closed down in 1799.

 

Madras Gun Lascar late 18th century (Anne Brown Digital Repository & Collection)

 

[1] L. Mills, Ceylon under British Rule 1795-1932, with an Account of the East India Company’s Embassies to Kandy 1762-1795, (London: OUP and H. Milford, 1933) pp.1-7

[2] Report on Dutch Records, by E.G. Anthonisz, p. 138. Translated from the original in the Government Archives, Colombo. ‘High Mightinesses’ is a reference to representatives of the defunct United Provinces.

[3] Military and Political Proceedings, 1795—Government of India Record Office, Madras.

[4]  E. Dodswell & J. Miles, An Alphabetical List of the Officers of the Indian Army. (Longman, Orme Brown & Co. 1838) pp.3-4;

JSTOR Military History of Trincomalee (Journal of Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka. New Series Vol. 39, 1994) pp.1-126.

[5] C.E. Buckland, A Dictionary of Indian Biography (London: Swan Sonneschein, 1906)

[6] H. Marshall, Ceylon, A General Description of the Island with an Historical Sketch of the Conquest of the Colony by the British (Colombo: Sooriya Publishers, 2005) Reprint of the 1846 edition. pp.70-71

[7] Articles of Capitulation:  Journal Royal Asiatic Society Vol. X. 1888, pp.401 402;

Madras Record Office, Vol. 197 A—August 1795, p.2548

[8] R. Percival, An Account of the Island of Ceylon (Dehiwala, Sri Lanka; Tisara Prakasakayo ) 1803, pp.281-307