The Company’s Conquest III

The difference was that the fractured political landscape of Bengal in the 1750s gave the British allies in their project of intended revenge. Since becoming Nawab, Siraj had failed to successfully enlist powerful magnates with sufficient offers of friendship, particularly alienating merchants and nobles from the commercial cities of Dhaka and Patna. In the spring of 1757, merchants from Patna had started talking about ousting Siraj. They reached out to Rai Durlabh, Governor of Dhaka, the man whose son had fled to Calcutta but who since then had maintained a fractious friendship with Siraj. They also enlisted traders and military commanders from the Nawab’s capital at Murshidabad. Central to the conspiracy were the Jagat Seths, the biggest bankers in Bengal, who increasingly believed Siraj was incapable of providing the security needed for commerce to flourish. To begin with, the Company was not involved in the plot. With good reason as it turned out, Bengal’s rebellious merchants and magnates worried that the East India Company would twist any situation to their own advantage, but the Company’s possession of money and arms made them too useful an ally to ignore. In May 1757, the conspirators approached William Watts, the British agent in Murshidabad, and the Company asked to join the coalition against Siraj.

The conspiracy to oust Siraj-ad-Daula would have happened even without the Company. The British march on Chandernagore and then Plassey would have happened without the conspiracy. The plot gave the British an alternative candidate with whom to replace the new Nawab. The plan which developed from the beginning of May 1757 was to replace Siraj-ad-Daula with his military paymaster, Mir Jafar, a man whom Clive believed ‘as general [sic] esteemed as the other was detested’. It also threatened to divide the Nawab’s army, giving the Company a chance of military victory. After they ‘weighed and debated’ the proposal, Calcutta’s council decided that ‘a revolution in Government’ would be good for the Company. Siraj-ad-Daula’s ‘word, honour and friendship’ could no longer be trusted, so a new Nawab was needed in order for British interests to thrive. To set the plot in motion, Clive and Watson marched their troops north from Chandernagore on 19 June. John Corneille did not believe this confrontation to be the result of rational thought. The East India Company had already received everything it wanted from the Nawab. Corneille thought the decision to fight was an act of passion, driven by a desire for retribution more than profit. ‘Thus situated’, he wrote to his father, ‘with minds still angered against the nabob the tempting opportunity of pursing further revenge could not be withstood.’

The British army certainly seems to have been ruled by alternating fits of rage and fear. Cooler British minds had cautioned against fighting, saying violence would ‘throw the country again into confusion’. But the 784 British soldiers (613 infantry and 171 artillery) in Clive’s force of 3000 were driven on by a desire for ‘satisfaction’ at the affront they believed they had suffered when the Nawab drove them out of Calcutta. Troops marched to the small fortified settlement of Katwa, forty miles south of the capital of Bengal, and the town which Marathas soldiers had used as their base to conquer Bengal in the 1740s. The march north to Plassey had been hot-headed, but by the time the Company’s army had trudged ninety miles north in the early monsoon rain, passions had cooled somewhat and the British were frightened about the possible consequences of their actions.

In the dark, wet night of 21 June that mood of fear overcame Clive and he was wracked by indecision. Sleep eluded him as he considered the prospects and risks of fighting Siraj. Only a few miles away from Siraj’s army, the real limits of British power was apparent. Clive did not know where his potential Indian allies were. He had no news of Mir Jafar and it was rumoured that a Maratha force was marching to Bengal again. Having failed to displace Alivardi Khan from Bengal, they thought they would have a better chance now that a younger, weaker successor was on the throne. Perhaps Clive should fortify his position, and wait for Maratha support, as he had done six years earlier at Arcot. Or perhaps the Nawab would come to terms. Clive had called a council of war the previous evening, a majority of whose members shared his mood. By a vote of twelve to six, the British decided to call off their march north and wait for the Marathas; unsurprisingly, Corneille voted against action. An hour after the meeting ended, however, Clive had changed his mind and decided to continue the march. But still he did nothing, and he did not sleep that night.

Many biographers see this moment as a sign of Clive’s erratic temperament, evidence of the tendency for destructive self-doubt that accompanied his capacity for brilliant action. Yet Clive’s paralysis tells us more about the mood of empire than the mind of one man. Throughout their time in India, from the 1680s to the 1940s, British officers were impatient in trying to assert their command over circumstances. They used force to make money and secure their settlements, but also to prove to themselves that they were men of honour who could act decisively. As much as anything else, Clive’s military exploits were driven by his desire to put himself in a heroic light in England. The same was true for British officers in India for more than a century. Yet their power in India was always limited by their reliance on allies they usually did not trust and often found difficult to understand. The British idea of power was always out of kilter with their true ability to act. This brought about a strange, indecisive state of mind, one that oscillated between violent action and profoundly paranoid paralysis.

The following afternoon, after a day without rain, passions prevailed once again. Clive ordered his soldiers to march overnight the fifteen miles to the village of Palashi, a mile south of the Nawab’s army. By three o’clock on the morning of 23 June, troops were in position opposite Siraj’s forces in a mango grove. At first light Siraj-ad-Daula tried to surround the smaller British army, commencing with an artillery bombardment. But three of four sections of the great arc intended to annihilate the Company were commanded by Mir Jafar and his fellow plotters, and did not take part in the fighting. Clive’s plan had been to hold on until sunset, then launch a surprise attack on Siraj-ad-Daula’s camp at night. At midday it began to rain again. The Nawab’s army had not kept their powder dry but the British army had. When they tried to charge, Siraj’s forces were cut down by the Company’s nine cannon. As Clive changed into dry clothes following the downpour, his second in command launched a counter-attack. Initially angry that his authority had been usurped, Clive then joined the charge. Demoralized by the rain, and seeing that such a large part of his army refused to charge, Siraj-ad-Daula ordered his forces to retreat to Murshidabad to fight another day. Most of his army, however, fled in panic.

Since 1757 historians have tended to play down the importance of ‘the Battle of Plassey’, as it became known. They have suggested it was the lucky result of political negotiations, ‘the successful culmination of an intrigue’ as Percival Spear put it, rather than a real fight. Such judgement depends on an unrealistic idea of what determines the outcome of normal wars. There was nothing particularly unusual about the fact that Plassey was shaped by forces off the field. Until mass mechanized warfare, most battles were determined by who didn’t fight rather than the capacity of those who did. Siraj lost because his forces reflected his own limited capacity to assert authority over the constituent parts of Bengali society. Defeat was a consequence of the breakdown of political authority caused by the social upheaval that followed the invasion of Nader Shah. In June 1757, the East India Company was better able to hold a fighting force together than its enemies. The important point, though, is that the real British ability to lead a small body of men on the battlefield did not give them the capacity to command the submission of the province’s twenty million people afterwards. Plassey did not found an empire. It merely ensured that political chaos endured in Bengal far longer than it would have done otherwise.

Insolence and interruptions

Clive’s army marched on to the capital, Murshidabad, where Mir Jafar ‘found himself in peaceful possession of the palace and city’. The new Nawab asked to be formally recognized by the force he believed had brought him to power. On 1 July, a week after Plassey, Clive escorted the new ruler onto the throne at Murshidabad. A day later, Siraj-ad-Daula was found and killed by the new Nawab’s son. Clive imagined that these events meant Mir Jafar was ‘firmly and durably seated on the throne’. ‘[T]he whole country has quietly submitted to him,’ he optimistically wrote. With 25,000 ‘matchless seapoys . . . there shall be nothing wrong to make the country flourish and subjects happy’, he insisted in a letter to the Mughal emperor in Delhi asking for Mir Jafar to be acknowledged as Bengal’s new ruler. In Calcutta Britons celebrated the ‘revolution’ so vigorously that women danced until their feet were sore. Clive later said Plassey was an act that acquired and delivered ‘absolute power’ to a regime governed by allies of the Company. In fact, it was a moment that handed power to no one.

Many of Bengal’s inhabitants experienced the beginning of the British-backed regime as a time of chaos. Merchants were particularly vulnerable to the collapse of authorities able to maintain a balance between different interests, and the undisciplined expansion of British power. For example, two weeks after Mir Jafar took the throne in Murshidabad the warehouse of the trader Mir Ashraf was raided. This took place in Patna, 300 miles west of and upstream from Bengal’s capital on the River Ganges. Ashraf was one of this great Mughal city’s merchant aristocrats, a man whose trade lay at the centre of an urbane, cultured civil society, which supported poetry and music, hospitals for the poor and centres of Muslim piety. With his brother Mir Ashraf ran a business that traded in potassium nitrate, otherwise known as saltpetre, the most important ingredient in gunpowder.

The raid was led by Paul Pearkes, chief of the East India Company’s factory at Patna, possessor of a large fortune made from private trade and owner of one of the biggest mansions on the Hughli river. Pearkes claimed Ashraf had been housing French goods. In fact, he had long been desperate to enrich himself from Patna’s saltpetre trade; he wanted to use the Company’s power to create his own private commercial empire. Until Plassey he had been unable to compete with Ashraf’s efficient commercial operation. Pearkes’ raid was an attempt to take advantage of the change in Bengal’s balance of power and to undermine a commercial rival.

During the first half of the eighteenth century, the prosperity of Patna, like that of other commercial cities, had been secured by a network of urban organizations that mediated between rival interests, underwritten by a Mughal regime concerned with maintaining the local balance of power. These institutions allowed Patna’s trade to grow even after Nader Shah’s invasion. Patna, like Calcutta, was one of the few safe centres for commerce, a haven for merchants and money. The Europeans were a potentially violent presence, the East India Company having at least 170 soldiers to guard its factories and potentially harass its inhabitants. Yet fear of reprisals from the Nawab had prevented anything but small, violent clashes, until now. After Plassey, Ashraf found that the balance of power had changed drastically. He appealed to the city’s merchants, and then to the Nawab’s court in Patna, but to no effect. The commander of the British troops was sympathetic, but had no power over the chief of the Company’s factory. Ashraf wanted only to trade in peace. ‘God preserve the reign of the present nabob and that all may rest in quietness,’ he wrote to Amir Chand.

Mir Ashraf eventually got his property back from Pearkes, but only after a personal appeal to Robert Clive. Ashraf saw that Plassey brought about the speedy collapse of the institutions that had allowed trade to prosper in cities like Patna. Now the prosperity of individual merchants depended on a fragile chain of personal connections rather than a stable structure of power. Because of this, Mir Ashraf tried to create relationships with as many potential allies as he could, even if they were on opposite sides. By the beginning of 1759, he was helping the Shah Zada, son of the Mughal emperor Alamgir II, whose forces were then threatening to invade Bengal. He became a secret but ‘firm friend’ of the French. In 1763, he tried, unsuccessfully, to acquire land revenue rights from the Company, as land seemed a more secure basis on which to make a living than commerce in such troubles times. None of these tactics worked in the end. A decade after Plassey, Mir Ashraf’s company had been taken over by an Indian merchant employed directly by the British. Eventually it was assimilated into the East India Company itself. Paul Pearkes didn’t get his way, but the Company encroached on the commerce of an independent Indian trader.

Throughout the whole of the Bengal presidency, from Patna to Dhaka, the years after Plassey were a chaotic time of mistrust and crisis. Indian businesses collapsed as marauding British traders and their Indian allies undermined the viability of Indian enterprise. The number of European merchants outside Calcutta quickly expanded. By May 1762, there were at least thirty-three British traders scattered through Bengal on ‘private business’, most working in partnership with East India Company officials buying and selling a range of commodities. These traders claimed immunity from taxes and believed they were not subject to the power of the Nawab. As in Patna in 1757, or when a party of soldiers ‘killed one of the principal people’ of Sylhet ‘on account of a private dispute’, they created disorder by enlisting the Company’s violent capabilities in personal battles.

In the long term it was revenue not trade that dominated British politics in Bengal. In eastern India this demand for revenue began as an insistence on land to compensate for the losses in Calcutta, but ended up as an aim in its own right. The treaty signed with Mir Jafar promised more than twelve million rupees (£158 million in 2016 prices) in supposed recompense. Gifts of more than ten million rupees were promised to British civil and military officers ‘for their services’. Clive alone received two million. Military men, including John Corneille, were given five million rupees in total. The Company was promised land, too, 24 sub-districts to the south of Calcutta, still called 24 Parganas and Clive was given an estate that paid a further 300,000 rupees a year.

Despite these ‘gifts’ the Company was no more confident with its new allies than the now murdered Siraj-ad-Daula had been. With characteristic impatience it pressed Mir Jafar to pay money that had been promised, often by violent means. In the days after Plassey Clive deliberately kept his troops outside Murshidabad to prevent them from plundering Bengal’s capital, but officers sent to investigate the condition of the town complained about the ‘shuffling and tricking’ of Mir Jafar’s new ministers, saying there was far less money in the treasury than they expected. Clive decided to march into Murshidabad with a ‘guard’ of 500 men to secure the Company’s share of Bengal’s cash. Over the next twenty-four hours at least two-thirds of its treasury was emptied and shipped to Calcutta.

Undermined by the force used by his British sponsors Mir Jafar did not last long as Nawab. The cash he needed to pay his army was quickly depleted. The post-Plassey frenzy of private British commerce led every trader, big and small, to claim he was doing business on behalf of the East India Company and to take advantage of the Company’s tax-free trade privileges, so that tax revenues collapsed. Local lords used the weakness of the regime to assert their autonomy, and refused to pay revenue. As Robert Clive’s successor as governor put it, ‘the general disaffection of the people [meant] the revenues of most parts of the province were withheld by the Zemindars [sic]’. Commercial confidence in this recently prosperous province plummeted. The government’s authority evaporated. The Nawab’s own army was unpaid and starving, ‘their horses are mere skeletons, and the riders little better’, as Warren Hastings, the Company’s resident at Murshidabad noted. Eventually, hungry troops mutinied and barricaded Nawab Mir Jafar in his palace. Bengal’s nobles began to organize themselves around alternative candidates to rule Bengal. Robert Clive was Mir Jafar’s last British supporter. Mistrustful of yet still loyal to the man he had personally escorted onto the throne, Clive left India in February 1760, again apparently for the last time, tired and ill but with a fortune and a grand story to tell back home about his great deeds. Mir Jafar survived less than a year.

The big issue during the next few months was the fate of Chittagong. Chittagong was Bengal’s only seaport, a tough town to attack, the place the British had imagined would become the centre of their trading empire in the Bay of Bengal since the late seventeenth century. The lure of this great port had led the British to fight, and lose, a war with the Mughal empire in the 1680s. After the Battle of Plassey, the British demanded the new Nawab hand over the port and its district but Mir Jafar resisted. The city’s governor even blocked the East India Company’s attempt to open a factory there. Company officers suggested force was necessary. As one argued, Chittagong ‘will require a season when we can command instead of requesting’. In a controversial move opposed by Robert Clive’s allies, the new British governor in Bengal supported Mir Jafar’s replacement by his son-in-law, Mir Qasin, when he promised to hand them the city along with the revenues of the districts of Burdwan and Midnapur. With no support from the Company’s new governor and prominent nobles and bankers, Mir Jafar abdicated and fled to Calcutta. In October 1760, the new Nawab, Mir Kasim, arrived to find the city and throne of Murshidabad empty for the second time in three years.

In these troubled times the physical occupation of an empty palace did not bring with it the right to rule. The Company could only collect revenue from Chittagong once four companies of Company troops were sent to force the local governor to submit. In other districts local leaders fled to the hills, leaving no one for the British to collect revenue from, and no records of who was supposed to pay them anyway. The new Nawab thought he could only build his own authority if he checked the East India Company’s power; Mir Kasim tried to put into practice the classic Mughal policy of balancing interests. To counter the British East India Company he backed the Dutch East India Company, and gave tax-free trade to all merchants. But with no revenue to pay troops needed to check the Company and maintain order, small instances of violence escalated throughout Bengal. The English factory in Dhaka complained of the ‘general insolence of the natives, with interruptions put upon the trade in general’, and prepared for battle. Local conflicts coalesced into full-scale war. The Company again marched to Murshidabad to evict a Nawab, but this time it was one they had themselves installed. Mir Kasim moved his army and capital west to the town of Monghyr in Bihar, and joined up with Shah Alam II, the newly crowned Mughal emperor on the borders of Bengal, capturing and killing East India Company officers as he did so.

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