Lord Clive meeting with Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey, oil on canvas (Francis Hayman, c. 1762)
In early 1756, immediately before the outbreak of the Seven Years War, Allahvardi Khan died, leaving the province to his 20-year – old grandson Siraj-ud-Daulah, the governor (Nawab) of Bengal. Headstrong and determined to hang on to his inheritance, the new governor was highly suspicious of the English at Calcutta and the French at Chandernagore, upstream on the River Hooghly. When both trading settlements strengthened their defences against each other, Siraj-ud-Daulah thought that they might be preparing to aid one of his rivals. Considering what had recently happened in southern India, his suspicion was not entirely groundless, and the offhand reply from the governor of Calcutta to his request to stop work on its fortifications only served to deepen the anxiety. Unlike the French who sent Siraj-ud-Daulah a customary gift of 350,000 rupees on his accession, the English seem to have underestimated the tactlessness of their refusal to take account of his wishes. First, Siraj-ud-Daulah seized the English factory at Kasimbazar to the north of Calcutta and imprisoned its occupants including Warren Hastings, a future governor – general of Bengal. He then marched on Calcutta with 50,000 men. The English took to their ships, leaving behind a token garrison, whose surrender was followed by the incident of the ” Black Hole ” , the notoriety of which was largely the work of a survivor named John Holwell.
So as to cover the shame of the rush to the ships and the virtual abandonment of the settlement, the horror of the night’ s incarceration in a tiny cell of nearly one hundred people provided a convenient story with which to blacken Siraj-ud-Daulah ‘ s name. Ignorant of the cruel imprisonment at the time, Siraj-ud-Daulah was nonetheless personally blamed for the atrocity, and Clive was conveyed along with 600 European and 900 Indian troops on two Royal Navy ships to exact vengeance. Augmenting his army with the surviving two companies of Bengal European infantry and volunteers from the company’s employees who had escaped from Calcutta and its outposts, Clive not only restored the English position in Bengal but intervened with decisive effect in the internal affairs of the province, bringing about the deposition of Siraj-ud-Daulah after the battle of Plassey in 1757. Less fighting probably occurred at Plassey than at any other eighteenth – century battle, for the issue was decided by an attack late in the day on the Bengali camp. Much time had been taken up by an exchange of artillery fi re, and, believing after a downpour that the English would undertake no further action that afternoon, Siraj-ud-Daulah ‘ s troops began moving back to their camp. Seeing the opportunity to attack, Clive advanced his troops at the double, and, fearing for his life, Siraj-ud-Daulah disappeared on a fast camel. Once again, a small Anglo – Indian army had routed a larger Indian opponent, in all probability 30,000 strong.
Thoroughly rattled, Siraj-ud-Daulah offered to make peace and restore the English East India Company’s privileges. Within days, a peace treaty was signed, much to the annoyance of Calcutta merchants, who said that the compensation agreed would not cover their losses. Clive brushed their objections aside for the good reason that he intended to expel the French from Bengal next. A motive for action was news that Siraj-ud-Daulah had sought an alliance with France in the hope of revenging himself for Plassey.
Colonel Robert Clive (‘Clive of India’) had won a stunning victory over the Nawab of Bengal’s army at Plassey, 70 miles north of Calcutta (the Nawab having captured the city the year before and filled its notorious ‘black hole’ with prisoners). The Nawab had 50,000 men, Clive had only 3,000, fewer than 1,000 of them British, including the only King’s regiment in India, the 39th Foot. The others were ‘Company troops’, raised and administered by the East India Company and commanded entirely by officers commissioned by the Company. The 39th Foot (later the Dorsetshire Regiment) were hired from the Crown, which otherwise had no interest in the subcontinent, for India was a trading opportunity not a colony.
At a distance the Nawab’s army – elephants, camels, bullock carts, billowing standards, regiments of horse and foot – had looked like a well-disciplined force, their spears, scimitars, shields and antique matchlocks not discernibly different from the weapons that Clive’s own men carried. The Nawab himself rode into the field in a gilded howdah atop a richly caparisoned elephant, with a regalia of swords, fans and umbrellas, as if at the head of a stately procession (not so very different from Marlborough himself, perhaps, who had more than once driven on to the battlefield in a coach). Clive was not going to test even this antique strength, however. Instead he intrigued his way to victory, for in the weeks before he had bribed the Nawab’s discontented officers, and their ambivalence on the day unnerved as much as it actually blunted the army’s fighting edge.
Fighting there was, however. The battle opened in the humid heat of a June morning, when the Nawab’s French-manned artillery began a massive cannonade of the British camp. It actually did little damage, the shot flying high, but gave the impression of much destruction. The Nawab meanwhile paraded his army up and down in a ‘great show of noise and futile movements’, as one contemporary account has it, for about five hours, until at eleven o’clock the Nawab’s battle commander, Mir Madan, launched an attack on the fortified grove in which Clive’s force had taken post. But he did so with only about a tenth of the army’s strength. Clive’s single Royal Artillery battery answered furiously, a fortuitous ball decapitated Mir Madan, and the attack petered out.
Soon after, it began raining heavily. Clive’s troops quickly covered their powder, but the Nawab’s men did not. When the rain stopped towards the middle of the afternoon, the Royal Artillery reopened fire, while the Nawab’s lay useless. Clive then launched a counter-attack, and by dusk, with the Nawab’s guns and muskets useless and his cavalry bribed into inaction, the Bengal army was in full retreat.
The Honourable East India Company was now a force to be reckoned with in Bengal, and by degrees would spread its power through the rest of the subcontinent, largely by the skill of its own troops but also with King’s regiments hired from the profits of increasing trade and from the taxes raised in the territory annexed in the wake of their victories. India, indeed, would grow so important to the Empire that by the end of the nineteenth century half the army would be either stationed there, or getting ready to go, or just returned; and the other half would be studying its methods.
The ‘oblique’ approach to war that Plassey represented would become characteristic of the following two centuries of continual, if usually low-intensity, operations in India and on its frontiers. It was war at a different pace, requiring sophisticated intelligence of local affairs, nerve and immense patience as well as bluff, gold, bullock carts and artillery, together with initiative on the part of junior officers who needed as much political as military acumen. From time to time, solid ranks of red discharging regular volleys would be needed, but it is no coincidence that it was in India that red was first replaced by khaki – where cunning, not mere discipline, was needed to defeat enemies who were masters of the first and who disdained the second.
But winning battles on the Ganges Plain, however thrilling to London, would not draw French troops away from either America or Europe.