French and British battle in the Indian Ocean

Month Day
February 17

The worldwide implications of the American War for Independence are made clear on this day in history as the American-allied French navy begins a 14-month-long series of five battles with the British navy in the Indian Ocean.

Between February 17, 1782, and September 3, 1782, French Admiral Pierre Andre de Suffren de Saint-Tropez, otherwise known as Bailli de Suffren, and British Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Hughes, commander in chief in the East Indies, engaged in four major battles in the Indian Ocean region: the Battle of Sadras on February 17, the Battle of Providien on April 12, the Battle of Negapatam on July 6 and the Battle of Trincomalee on September 3. The French attacked British possessions on the Indian coast and in Ceylon as part of the world war spawned by the American Revolution. Although Suffren failed to take any of Hughes’ ships, he managed to prevent Hughes from taking any of his own fleet. This alone was a significant improvement in French performance when pitted against the legendary British navy. The fifth and final encounter of the two fleets—the Battle of Cuddalore on April 20, 1783—forced Hughes to leave for Madras, just before Suffren learned of the Treaty of Paris and returned to France.

En route home at the Cape of Good Hope, Suffren received compliments on his strategy from the English captains he had opposed in East India. Napoleon, too, had a high opinion of Suffren, commenting that he would have become France’s Lord Nelson, had he survived. Instead, he died suddenly in France on December 8, 1788, of either a stroke or wounds from a duel.

Hughes also profited from the East India campaign. He returned to Britain extremely wealthy from the various prizes and perquisites he won in the Indies and had his portrait painted in full naval splendor by the renowned Sir Joshua Reynolds.