The war that had begun in 1775 as a struggle by Britain's thirteen American colonies to achieve their independence had, by 1780, developed into a much more global conflict as first France, then Spain, and finally the Netherlands allied themselves to the fledgling republic of the United States in hope of securing territorial advantage at England's expense. As had been the case during the Seven Years War (1756-63), one of the principal areas of conflict was India, where France and England vied with each other to extend both their lands as well as their influence over the princely states, and nowhere was there more naval activity than off the eastern coast of the sub-continent and Ceylon. The English and French fleets in Indian waters were surprisingly well-matched and, commanded by Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Hughes and Admiral Pierre André de Suffren respectively, the two navies fought each other four times during the course of 1782. On the first occasion, off Madras on 17 February, the action was indecisive despite some tactical successes on both sides and this set the pattern for the next two encounters on 12 April (off Providen, Ceylon) and 6 July (off Negapatam).
The last action of the year took place off Trincomalee, Ceylon, on 3 September and was the result of Suffren's capture of the fortress there on 28 August. Hughes, having received news of the impending French assault whilst at Madras, raced south but was too late to prevent the fall of the citadel and when he arrived off Trincomalee on 2 September, it was already in enemy hands. The next morning, Suffren came out of harbour with his fourteen ships-of-the-line and battle was joined at 2 o'clock. Hughes, with twelve ships, withstood Suffren's uncharacteristically impetuous attack and held firm in a spirited action lasting three hours during which the French flagship Heros-74 guns, lost her mainmast and became unmanageable. Throughout the battle, Suffren received only poor support from his captains and when the two squadrons parted as darkness fell, he lost another '74', L'Orient, when she grounded on a reef outside Trincomalee and was wrecked. Hughes was later criticised for not pressing home his advantage and securing a greater victory but with no safe anchorage on the Ceylon coast in the monsoon season, he had no alternative but to return north to Madras and await the final encounter with Suffren the following year.