Lord Clive in military uniform. The Battle of Plassey is shown behind him.
Portrait by Nathaniel Dance
The British surrender of Madras, 1746.
There were only a few other insignificant skirmishes before the war ended in 1748. Madras was returned to the English company as part of the peace settlement, but the taste of excitement provided by the brief conflict changed Clive’s career—no longer would he succumb to the tedium, boredom and predictable routine of a clerk. He requested a change in his posting.
“Mr. Robert Clive, Writer in the Service,” reported his governor at Fort St. David, “being of a martial disposition, and having acted as a volunteer in our late engagements, we have granted him an Ensign’s Commission upon his application for the same.” Clive, ever his own cheerleader, ingratiated himself with his superiors, writing to the company directors in London to brag of his “great courage and bravery” and to request a promotion. He was given the position of steward, a potentially lucrative post that gave him a commission on the sale of all provisions and victuals for the company’s employees in the region and offered some opportunity for private trade. It was a good position for someone so young and inexperienced.
With the peace, the dreary life of merchant trading again descended upon the Indian coast. But the hostilities had forever shattered the tenuous peace that had been enjoyed in the past.
The scheming intensified, and the competing companies eyed each other suspiciously, searching for the latest threat. The short conflict had revealed to Clive something of immense value that was not widely appreciated, something that he would later use to devastating effect: the weapons and training of the French and English companies’ soldiers were vastly superior to those of the local forces. Clive began to see the companies in a new light— not merely as innocuous traders but as formidable military powers. Although numerically superior, the local armies were little better than unruly mobs armed with primitive weapons of poor quality. “How very ignorant we were of the art of war in those days,” Clive recalled. “Some of the engineers were masters of the theory without the practice, and those seemed wanting in resolution. Others there were who understood neither, and yet were possessed of courage sufficient to have gone on with the undertaking if they had known how to go about it. There was scarce an officer who knew whether the engineers were acting right or wrong, till it was too late in the season and we had lost too many men to begin an approach again.” But practice makes perfect, and Clive became aware that their own troops could engage far greater numbers of local soldiers and expect to win; that without having intended to achieve such a goal, the French and English companies had become powerful regional military forces, able to effect change far beyond trade. The troops served the companies’ interests but also became one of the most valuable commodities they had to sell to local rulers, particularly rulers whose interests were in alignment with the companies’ long-term business interests.
After the peace of 1748, most of the English company’s employees, if not Clive, hoped for a continuation of undisturbed and profitable trade, which was after all their reason for being in India. Dupleix and the French company, however, had other ideas. Although the two nations were officially at peace, in India their two companies were to be at war. While the Mughal Empire crumbled, local princes had been asserting greater power, and by 1740 many of them were de facto independent nations or kingdoms. One of the most powerful of these princes was Asaf Jah, ruler of the Deccan, the region where Madras and Pondicherry lay. When Asaf Jah died in 1748, Dupleix saw an opportunity to extend his own power and influence. He began to scheme with the contenders for the throne and eventually managed to place his candidates in power: Salabat Jang on the throne of the Deccan, and his local subordinate and deputy, Chanda Sahib, in the Carnatic along the Coromandel Coast.
English company officials in India were caught in a conundrum: their directors in London urged trade and profit, not expensive military adventures involving the dynastic squabbling of Indian princes. But Dupleix’s actions made it apparent that following a course of non-interference and peaceful trade might result in the French placing in charge sympathetic rulers who would not only favour the French company but who might be encouraged to expel the English company altogether, resulting in a French company monopoly. The English might be shut out of India by the French, as they had been shut out of the Spice Islands by the Dutch a century earlier.
Their only option was to support a rival ruler, and they soon conspired to set their own puppet ruler on the throne of the Deccan: Muhammad Ali, the younger son of the deposed ruler of the Carnatic. Clive resumed military duties, as a captain, during the struggles. When the combined armies of Muhammad Ali and the English company were besieged in the fortress of Trichinopoly by Chanda Sahib and his French allies, a plan was put forward to relieve the siege by launching an attack on Arcot, the capital city of the Carnatic, which had been left undefended, and thereby force Chanda Sahib to march to its defence. Clive begged for the command—a risky gamble that would leave the company’s bases at Madras and Fort St. David open to attack and possibly pave the way for French supremacy along the coast if the plan failed.
Clive and his meagre force of about two hundred English company troops and three hundred mercenaries marched inland through both sweltering jungle and withered scrub, crossing rivers and winding their way into the hills. They covered a difficult one hundred kilometres in six days of forced marching over treacherous terrain through the burning heat of August, and then through more days of pounding monsoon storms that turned the parched dust into a quagmire of mud. Spies had informed Clive to expect an opposing force of about a thousand to be defending the fort in Arcot, a town of around 100,000 inhabitants, so Clive was surprised to find it deserted. His ragtag force of exhausted and filthy irregulars wound through the dirty narrow streets, past the curious eyes of the onlookers and up to the stone fort in the centre of the settlement. The fort’s garrison had fled during the night, under “the combined influence of superstition and cowardice,” having fallen prey to rumours exaggerating the size of the force marching against them. A natural leader, Clive immediately ordered the French flag taken down, and he unfurled the one he had brought for the occasion: not, as might be expected, the flag of his company or of England, but the pennant of Muhammad Ali. The town and fort, he announced, had now been taken as a holding of the legitimate ruler of the Carnatic. He forbade his men to loot, accept bribes or take “gifts” from the people as payment for their defence: he needed no other enemies. Even studious neutrality would be a boon, and his polite respect bought him that, at least.
Clive now set his men to work rebuilding and repairing the dilapidated defences of the fort, fortifying themselves against the inevitable counterattack. For the next fifty days, he and his band endured an all-out siege before being relieved by reinforcements. But he was not idle during the siege. Under cover of darkness he launched lightning forays into the enemy encampments, fended off numerous assaults against the gates, faced relentless sniping and artillery fire and endured inadequate food and stale water. Two of the men standing next to Clive were blasted dead, and only luck preserved him from a similar fate. Finally, over ten thousand troops commanded by Chanda Sahib’s son Raza encircled the fort and dispersed throughout the winding, narrow streets of the town. Clive received honeyed bribes and violent threats to abandon the fortress: great riches, free passage for his men; terrible suffering and torment should he refuse. Yet still he held firm, perhaps suspecting the terms would not be honoured, or hoping for reinforcements from Madras or from the English company’s allies. More likely he held firm out of sheer bull-headed stubbornness and a rigid sense of honour: he had said he would take and hold the fort, and so he would, and damn the consequences.
In Madras it was reported to the council that “Clive thinks himself able to defend a breach should the enemy make one; his only apprehensions therefore are his people’s falling down through fatigue; that he thinks no less a force than 1000 Blacks and 200 Europeans can attempt to relieve him, as the enemy’s situation is strong and their numbers increase daily.” On November 14 , 1748, an auspicious day, the assault began: it was the Muslim holy day of Ashura, mourning the martyrdom of the prophet Muhammad’s grandsons. Many of the troops in the attacking army were Muslims who believed that death in combat would send them directly to paradise. As the first light of day crept over the horizon, a swarm of men launched themselves at the gates of the battered fortress, carrying hundreds of great scaling ladders. In the forefront of this charging mob lumbered dozens of armoured battle elephants, their enormous heads encased in metal plates for battering.
The attackers’ success seemed assured, until Clive ordered explosives to be set off and his sharpshooters to continue firing their rifles at the hapless beasts. Roaring in agony and frustration, the elephants wheeled into the midst of the charging infantry, stamping and flinging men aside in their mad quest to escape. Still the attackers charged at the gates, heedless of the flying bullets, and launched a raft of men across the moat. Clive aimed one of the great guns down and fired into the mob, causing the men to panic and capsize the raft, drowning most of the attackers. The French commander and his troops apparently remained out of the melee, observing the carnage and destruction, but aiding little. Raza called off the attack and fled to a nearby fort to contemplate his defeat. A few hours later English company reinforcements arrived from Madras, accompanied by several thousand Maratha cavalry under Morari Rao, one of the nominal allies of Muhammad Ali.
But there was to be no rest. With his reinforced company army now numbering nearly a thousand and augmented by six hundred Maratha horsemen, Clive went on the offensive. He swept over several nearby forts and then defeated Raza’s army of nearly five thousand, which was marching with French company reinforcements. Key to the victory was the defection of hundreds of sepoys from Raza’s army. For the next several months Clive continued to lead his small army to a series of victories throughout the region, using the techniques that would bring him even greater renown in the coming years and secure for his company vast riches and tens of millions of subjects. Speedy movement across the land and surprise direct attacks with no hesitation, capped off by bribery to subvert the loosely loyal contingents of local armies, enabled Clive to virtually wipe out the power of the French company in the region and assure the succession of Muhammad Ali to the throne of the Carnatic.
Meanwhile, in Madras, Clive’s subordinates were managing his affairs and had made him a small fortune. The young, rich hero rented a comfortable house and immersed himself in making the social rounds in the small settlement. These rounds included meeting the young sister of one of his friends, Margaret Maskelyne, who had recently arrived from England. Margaret was seventeen, and Robert was now twenty-eight. They married weeks before departing for England in February 1753. Cultured, beautiful and charming, she seems not to have been a partner in her husband’s machinations and daring exploits. One of Clive’s biographers reported that “Clive was always affectionate with Margaret and apparently faithful, although there is no evidence that he ever consulted her on his plans or that she had any influence whatever on his actions.” They stayed together until the end of his life.
Clive left behind a company that was a formidable military force in southern India. Even at this stage in his career, on the long sailing voyage home, he was already working to develop his heroic legend. When not otherwise engaged with the attentions of his new bride, he was deep in conversation with Robert Orme, his comrade and later hagiographer, discussing the details of his many battles, triumphs, heroism, gambles, close calls and escapes from death. Orme was preparing a history of the English East India Company’s exploits in India. Clive, being of average height and not particularly handsome, with small eyes, a bulbous nose and a squarish face, would take some crafting to mould into a hero. He instinctively knew that to achieve the pinnacle of his wild ambition, he would need more than deeds.
Deeds were fine, even necessary, but to achieve his objective he would need a legend, and just as importantly in eighteenth-century England, he would need a fortune.