Mauritius & Bourbon
For many years the French had attempted to replace the British as the European masters of India. French settlements in India had been supplied by ships that had used the Ile de France (Mauritius) and Ile de Bourbon (now called Réunion) as a pit-stop on the voyage across the Indian Ocean. Mauritius had been a Dutch colony since c1650; they named it after Maurice, Prince of Orange, the Stadtholder, but had vacated the island in 1712, allowing the French to occupy it and re-name it. Under the Revolutionary forces it was used as a base for harassing and capturing British trading vessels. French privateers were enjoying great success in the lucrative business of piracy. It was also an important link in the chain of communication between the Mysore government and Napoleon.
The Bombay government was instructed to send a force to Rodriguez, an island about 350 miles to the north-east of Mauritius. This was to be used as a military and naval base. The expedition left Bombay on 28 June 1809, consisting of 2 companies of the 56th (Essex) Regiment and 2 companies of the 2/2nd Bombay NI, and some artillery, all commanded by Colonel Keating of the 56th. The Bombay companies, commanded by Captain Imlach, were made up of four British lieutenants, four Indian officers, 10 Havildars, 4 drummers, 200 rank-and-file, and 39 followers. They took a huge herd of cattle, and sacks of seeds to establish a farming settlement providing fresh produce for the Naval base. But it was a rough voyage and most of the cattle died. They reached Rodriguez island on 5 Aug 1809 and found it very fertile, but sparsely populated, having only three French families and their slaves. They spent a month unloading the stores and building defences. The livestock situation was dire so Lieutenant Robert Seward of the Bombay battalion was sent to Madagascar to buy more cattle. While they awaited his return the seed sacks were opened to find that the crooked suppliers had filled them with pieces of canvas, and the seed potatoes had been eaten to counter the scurvy amongst the troops on the voyage. But the time was used to build houses, barracks and a hospital. Also Colonel Keating reconnoitred Bourbon in preparation for a surprise attack. He saw that the harbour of St Paul contained two richly laden British ships captured by the French privateers.
The Battle of St Paul, 21 Sep 1809
It was imperative that a surprise attack had to be made soon to retrieve the two British ships, so three frigates were sent back to Rodriguez to bring troops. A force of 386 men, half from the 56th and the other half from the 2/2nd NI, reinforced 200 Marines and sailors on HMS Mereide. The enemy forces consisted of French soldiers, Creoles and local militia. At St Paul 110 French troops were still on board the ship that had captured the British merchant vessels. There were 300 Creoles also, however, the local militia were not considered to be a threat. The British force were put ashore on the evening of 20 Sep, at Pointe Dauphine (Pointe de Galets) 7 miles north of St Paul. Under cover of darkness they made their way towards their objective. They captured two of the French batteries, and the guns were used to fire at the enemy ships.
There was a third battery that seemed to be deserted by the French, so the troops from the Bombay battalion, under Captain Imlach were sent off to secure it. But on the way there they found themselves facing the entire French force of the island in a strong defensive position. Imlach ordered his men to charge, but without success, so reinforcements were sent in from the 56th Regiment. The fighting was very hard going so more men from the reserve were sent to their aid. This meant abandoning the other two batteries, but the extra manpower proved decisive and the enemy gave way. By 8.30am the town was captured and the rest of the day was spent destroying the French guns before re-embarking on the ships. More French and Creole troops were on their way from St Denis, so the British transferred men to landing crafts ready to return to the shore. But at daylight on 23 Sep it was found that the French had retreated back to St Denis.
A General Order published in Bombay on 2 Nov 1809 included these commendations, ‘The Governor in Council..feels the most lively pleasure in expressing his particular approbation of the conduct of Captains Forbes and Hannah of the 56th Regiment and Captain Imlach of the 2nd/2nd Regiment NI who commanded the columns on that occasion…The resolute conduct and spirited attack made by the Native Infantry of the 2nd/2nd on the French force, which they unexpectedly encountered on their march to one of the batteries, does them great credit.’ One Indian officer, Subadar Shaik Soloman, was severely wounded and had a special medal designed for him. And Havaldar Shaik Mohidee was recommended by Colonel Keating for promotion to Jemadar. The casualties were 2 men killed and 12 wounded. The booty from the captured town was great and the victory released the two British merchant ships and most of their cargo.
The Misfortunes of Rodriguez 1809 - 10
The base, called Fort Duncan, at Rodriguez was destroyed by a hurricane on Christmas Day 1809. All the building work was torn down, the stores ruined and small boats sunk. On the day after, the transport Eugenia returned from Madagascar. Lieutenant Seward had purchased 183 head of cattle and 216 chickens. But the voyage was disastrous; most of the cattle had died of starvation and heat, so that only 29 animals and 106 chickens survived. Everyone on board suffered from scurvy and the captain of the vessel had died, along with one sepoy and 28 cattlemen. Seward himself was very ill and had lost the use of his limbs. Colonel Keating wrote to Bombay suggesting that he ‘be appointed Bazaar Master and acting Chaplain as he will never recover from the effects of his voyage to Madagascar.’
The Invasion of Bourbon, July 1810
The force under Keating’s command was increased after the decision had been made to occupy the other islands. The Ile de Bourbon (aka Ile Bonaparte) was the next objective and the force was increased so that Keating now had 4 Brigades; 1,850 Indian troops and 1,800 British, made up from the 86th Leinsters, the 69th South Lincolnshires and Royal Marines, and some from the 56th West Essex. The Indian troops were from the 6th and 12th Madras NI and some detachments including men of the 2/2nd Bombay NI. The latter were in the 3rd Brigade with the 69th. The plan was to capture the main town of St Denis in a surprise attack so that the enemy did not disperse into the interior of the island which was mountainous and thickly forested.
The force left Rodriguez on 3 July 1810, and reached Bourbon on 7 July. The 1st Brigade landed at Grand Chaloup, 7 miles west of St Denis, and the other 3 brigades started to land at St Marie, 6 miles east of St Denis. But bad weather interrupted the disembarkation so that only 150 men had been landed before it became impossible to offload the rest. Meanwhile, the 1st Brigade, consisting of the 86th Regiment and detachments of the 6th Madras NI and Pioneers, had fought the main part of the French garrison, capturing two redoubts. The bulk of the force, meanwhile, had sailed round to Grand Chaloup to attempt a landing there, this time with more success, so that St Denis was now threatened by most of Keating’s brigades. The French commander capitulated and the whole island was now in British hands. The French troops were shipped off as prisoners to South Africa. The 2/2nd NI had suffered no casualties in this invasion, but the 86th Regiment and Indian soldiers in the 1st Brigade had lost one officer and 17 men killed, and 8 officers and 71 men wounded. The battle honour BOURBON was retrospectively awarded to the 4th Bombay NI on 20 Feb 1855. The island was returned to France in 1815 when hostilities ceased, and retained the name Bourbon until 1848 when it was changed to La Réunion.
The Invasion of Mauritius, Nov 1810
The decision to invade Mauritius was brought forward when it was reported that the French were sending reinforcements. A naval battle took place at Grand Port, on the south east of the island, which was hard fought but ended with a French victory. The new Commander-in-Chief of the Bombay army, General John Abercromby, was the son of the more famous Sir Ralph who was killed at Alexandria in 1801. He had been a prisoner of the French from 1803 to 1808 and was captured again when the frigate in which he travelled was apprehended, but he was rescued by Commodore Rowley’s flagship Boadicea. He assembled the invasion force at Rodriguez and they set sail in late November 1810. They arrived on 29 Nov and disembarked at Grand Baie, 12 miles from St Louis the capital. The 5-mile march through thick jungle was such hard going that a halt was made at the end of the first day. An officer of the 84th Regiment wrote about the conditions:
‘The day was extremely sultry and close, and not a drop of water was to be had. Captain Yates of the ‘City of London’ Indiaman, who came with the army for his amusement, was knocked up almost before we entered the jungle, and died on the spot, as did Lieutenant Dove of the 14th Regiment…. Notwithstanding that the march was only 5 miles… even our little Regiment were knocked up, although hardy dogs in general, and the Bengalese never suffered so much in their own country from fatigue and sun as they did in this.’
Abercromby was obliged to halt his men 5 miles short of their objective, such was their state of exhaustion. They took up a position at Moulin à Poudre, and the 3rd Brigade, containing the 69th and the 2/2nd NI were sent off on 1 Dec to capture two batteries and make contact with the Fleet. This was accomplished with little trouble, while the rest of the force advanced on St Louis. The French had formed two defensive lines, the first of which was charged and captured. There was a pause in the action as the two sides faced each other out of range of cannon shot. An uneasy night was spent, with false alarms causing casualties from indiscriminate firing. The next day, 2 Dec 1810, the French commander, General de Caen, surrendered. The French troops and their families were allowed to go back to France, but all their property was now in the hands of the British. A large number of ships were captured or reclaimed; 36 French, 5 British and 3 American vessels. The casualties were:
British Troops: Killed; 2 officers and 23 men. Wounded; 5 officers and 79 men. Missing; 14 men
Indian Troops: Killed; 2 men. Wounded; 8 men. Missing; One officer and 33 men.
The casualties of the 2/2nd NI were One Havildar killed and 2 sepoys wounded. The battalion returned to Bombay in April 1811 but left a detachment under one officer at Rodriguez where they remained until 24 May. Rodriguez was handed over to a French Governor after destroying the British base, Fort Duncan, and shipping the stores to Mauritius. The battalion were highly praised for their service over a period of two years against the French, “…their character as soldiers has been conspicuous for good order and gallantry.” Captain William Imlach was promoted to major and appointed CB. Oddly enough there was no battle honour for Mauritius.
Reunion was returned after the war in 1815 even though its sister colony Mauritius was retained by the British. Whilst in charge of the island, the British did introduce sugar cane as a cash crop.
The British would return to the island in World War 2 when the colony was going to stay loyal to the Vichy regime. The Free French with British support launched a commando raid on the island to take it over.