Young Robert Clive was not a good student, and his parents despaired for his future. A long line of modest landowners in Shropshire, the Clive family possessed an enormous, ancient manor house in need of repair, and Robert’s father practised law to augment the estate’s income. The family had high expectations for Robert, their oldest child. Born in 1725 , he had five younger sisters and one younger brother.
But their big brother proved to be an intractable prankster and was expelled from several prominent schools. A natural leader, audacious and brash, he dreamed up schemes to amuse himself and was drawn to the moral grey zone of society. On one occasion he organized a group of youths into a gangster-style protection scheme to extort money from shopkeepers.
Shrewd, self-satisfied and wry, Clive had a talent for sensing weakness in others and the confidence to act on his intuition, even when the odds seemed against him or the penalty for failure was extreme. He also possessed a strong sense of duty and loyalty to his comrades: for example, when the directors of the East India Company voted him a valuable ceremonial sword for his bravery, he refused to accept the gift unless his commanding officer was likewise honoured. Extremely generous and free with his money, he was a man to whom the normal rules of society did not seem to apply. He followed his own conscience and dealt with the consequences later. It would have been difficult to imagine that this impetuous and carefree youth, careless about the consequences of his actions and prone to questionable adventures, would one day establish the English East India Company’s military and political supremacy over large parts of the Indian subcontinent and lay the foundation for the British Raj. The official portraits of Clive show him, in later years, decked out in the ceremonial regalia of a fabulously wealthy lord, weighted down with the responsibility of maintaining social standing. These portraits do not hint at the spark of unpredictable energy that animated his youthful exploits and won an empire for his employers.
At the age of seventeen, Clive was enlisted by his parents in the English East India Company to serve as a clerk overseas. It was well known that fortunes could be made in this way, not by serving as a clerk, but by the many more shady or semi-official opportunities that lay outside the narrowly defined role of a clerk. Survival was the wild card. Shipwreck, disease, misadventure were very real threats—while the chance of going to an early grave was less than it had been in the company’s early days, it was still considerable. Clive departed England in a small fleet of company ships with a naval escort to sail past the coasts of France and Spain, and witnessed one of his sister ships on the convoy smash to pieces on the rocks near the Cape Verde Islands. Only a small contingent of survivors were hauled from the surf. Not long afterward, his own ship ran aground along the coast of Brazil. The damage was severe but no lives were lost, and the ship had to be repaired from keel to masts during a nine-month delay. Clive, gaining focus as he got older, did not waste this time in idle diversions. He devoted himself to learning Portuguese, and was quite fluent by the time he arrived in Madras on June 1, 1744, nearly a year and a half after leaving home.
By the time of Clive’s arrival, the English East India Company had thrived such that it had surpassed the Portuguese and was soon to eclipse the Dutch East India Company as well. The political situation in India was tense, partly as a result of tensions in Europe. The second half of the seventeenth century and the early eighteenth century saw a continuous series of conflicts in Europe involving Sweden, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, the Holy Roman Empire, Russia, Poland and the Ottoman Empire in an endlessly shifting round of alliances. Scarcely a handful of years passed when a war was not being fought somewhere on the continent. The Dutch Republic and France had been at war from 1672 to 1713, and French commerce had taken a beating. But with the recent peace between Holland and France, commercial activity expanded, as did commercial jealousy, animosity and competition.
In 1705 , after ruling for almost half a century, the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb died at the age of eighty-eight. The Mughal dynasty was descended from the Mongols, an invading force that had swept into India from Central Asia in the sixteenth century. Throughout that century, the Mughal armies marched and conquered, slowly extending their rule over most of what is now India, Pakistan and parts of Afghanistan. When Aurangzeb died, his empire began to disintegrate as local rulers who had chafed under his heavy-handed rule seized the opportunity to assert their independence. Central authority waned, and the imperial government was increasingly unable to maintain the peace. Travel and trade became more and more subject to the whims of local lords and bandits, and corruption ballooned as the hierarchy disintegrated. “In the absence of a strong government,” writes Stephen R. Bown in A Most Damnable Invention:
Dynamite, Nitrates and the Making of the Modern World, “the companies began to arm themselves and maintain small professional standing armies that they hired out to local rulers to settle regional power struggles.”
After years of increasingly acrimonious squabbling, the French company, then headed by Joseph François Dupleix, sought to control India by building on the ruined foundation of the Mughal Empire. The historian Henry Dodwell writes, in Dupleix and Clive: The Beginning of Empire, “in Europe they [the companies] were mere private corporations; in India they were political entities . . . The real question at issue was whether or not to embark on a struggle which would determine the possession of India, but no one perceived this.” The scene was set for epic change, from the chaos of a crumbling central power to the superior military technology of the company troops. There were always problems. In order to secure regular shipments of saltpetre, silk and cotton, company agents had become knowledgeable about and involved in the politics of the region: how to pay or avoid taxes, whom to bribe and to whom to address complaints. After decades of having a business presence, the traders had deep political and social connections within both the government and the leading merchant families. The European companies were lured into local politics to protect the trade and give some stability to their business activities. They also earned some income leasing their corporate troops out to local rulers to keep the peace, which inevitably drew them even deeper into struggles with local princes, and also with each other.
Trade and international politics were too linked to remain disconnected for long. The French company in particular was almost an arm of the state. It was founded by the state, funded by the state, and its dividends were guaranteed by the state. The king and his senior ministers freely meddled in company affairs and felt no compunction about using it to further their foreign-policy goals. The French company was much less a trading monopoly than either the Dutch or English companies, which still existed principally to make money for the shareholders, however peculiarly and ruthlessly they went about that goal. One of the English company’s obligations to maintain its monopoly was that it supply the English Crown with five hundred tons of saltpetre annually, at favourable rates, or it would face crushing export duties on silver bullion, the currency of the Eastern trade. Thus it was buying its monopoly with an annual gift of cheap saltpetre to the English state. But the English East India Company was content to quietly profit from its enviable monopoly position and to avoid further entanglement with international politics. It was not directly under any government control and faced no pressure to assist in foreign wars—until the 1740s, when the company’s directors asked the government for a favour: would it agree to send warships to clear French shipping from the Indian coast?
It was into this world, just as events began to heat up, that young Clive arrived, never imagining his own epoch-altering role in the coming struggle. Though apparently a hard-working lad, Clive was already disillusioned with his role as a desk-bound clerk in these early years. In one letter home he wrote, “The world seems vastly debas’d of late, and Interest carries it entirely before Merit, especially in this service . . . I should think myself very undeserving of any favour, were I only to build my foundation on the strength of the Former. I don’t doubt but you’ll make use of all possible means for my advancement.” While urging his parents to work for his advancement, Clive himself eventually chose a far more active role in securing his future. A slight, sickly young man who occasionally suffered from depression and seizures, he nevertheless adjusted readily to his new role as man of action.
The uneasy neutrality between the French and English companies in southern India ended abruptly at the outbreak of the War of the Austrian Succession in 1744. The English government readily acceded to the English company’s request for military help from the Royal Navy; after all, the French company was really an arm of the state and therefore had to be attacked along with all the other targets. Royal Navy ships arrived in India in 1745, attacking and capturing several French company ships. A French national fleet arrived soon thereafter and, following a series of tit-for-tat attacks (the English and French companies’ main commercial centres almost rubbed shoulders—Pondicherry was only 130 kilometres from Madras), the commander of the English fleet ordered his ships north to Bengal to refit. This left the company outpost at Madras undefended. In fact, the settlement never had real defences because their construction costs would have been payable out of company profits and thus had been neglected. Dupleix, the French governor general at Pondicherry, was pleased when the French fleet sailed north along the coast and began to attack Madras on September 7, 1746. A crafty man of about fifty, he had lost most of his personal fortune in the Royal Navy’s earlier attack and was eager for revenge.
Bird’s Eye View of Fort St. David in Pulicat, India
Not only was the English East India Company outpost at Madras poorly defended, it was also poorly manned. Only about three hundred company men were stationed in the town. This was less than a quarter of the number of French troops, and most had no military background or experience. The local ruler, or nawab, had forbidden Dupleix to attack the English but had no forces ready to enforce his commands. After two days the fort surrendered; apparently the liquor stores had been blasted and the men, after guzzling the spirits, refused to fight—for which one can hardly blame them, poorly paid and vastly outnumbered as they were. In the confusion of the surrender negotiations, however, the young clerk, Robert Clive, “in the habit of a Dubash [local interpreter] and blackened,” made a daring escape with several other Englishmen. They travelled by foot about 150 kilometres south, to the English company’s last remaining outpost along the coast, Fort St. David. When the French attacked Fort St. David, they had a surprise: they were challenged by nearly ten thousand troops, the forces of the nawab. The much smaller French company forces nonetheless routed them, and the fort was saved only by the timely arrival of the Royal Navy fleet returning from Bengal.