INS Arihant is India’s first nuclear-powered submarine. The ship submersible ballistic, nuclear (SSBN) submarine was launched at the Indian Navy’s dockyard in Visakhapatnam, which is the headquarters of India’s Eastern Naval Command.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has inaugurated the vessel into the Indian Navy, asserted that the indigenously built submarine would be used for self defence. The name Arihant derives from two words – Ari meaning enemy and Hanth meaning destroy.
Arihant, India’s first indigenously built nuclear submarine, cost $2.9bn. It was jointly developed by the Indian Navy, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) at the naval dockyard in Visakhapatnam. Russian designers assisted in building the vessel.
Other companies involved in the development of the submarine are Tata Power, a division of Tata Group and Larsen & Toubro (L&T), a technology, engineering, construction and manufacturing company.
The project, earlier known as the advanced technology vessel (ATV), has been under development since 1998. Construction of five more nuclear-powered submarines is also being planned. According to a report in the Indian Express, the hulls of the second and third submarines have already been constructed.
Arihant will be commissioned into the Indian Navy after extensive sea trials for at least two years. Initially harbour acceptance trials (HATs) would be conducted followed by sea acceptance trials (SATs).
Arihant has been developed as part of the military modernisation programme undertaken by India. The Indian Navy has a fleet of 16 diesel-electric submarines leased from Russia and Germany. However, the disadvantage with diesel electric submarines is that they cannot stay under water for an extended period.
“INS Arihant is India’s first nuclear-powered submarine.”
Conventional diesel-electric submarines have to ascend to the surface each day to eject carbon dioxide produced by the generator. Nuclear-powered submarines, on the other hand, can stay under water for long durations without being detected. Arihant is expected to enhance the Indian Navy’s capability of delivering nuclear weapons from all terrains.
Arihant’s design is based on the Russian Akula-1 Class submarine. It weighs 6,000t. At a length of 110m and breadth of 11m, Arihant is the longest in the Indian Navy’s fleet of submarines and can accommodate a crew of 95. It can reach a speed of 12kt-15kt on surface and up to 24kt when submerged.
Arihant will be able to stay under water for long periods undetected due to the nuclear-powered 80MW pressurised water reactor (PWR). The PWR was developed by the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre with assistance from a Russian design team.
The submarine’s exterior is uneven and the hull is placed on a mat covered with tiles. The tiles help in absorbing sound waves and provide stealth capability to the submarine. Compared to conventional submarines, the conning tower of Arihant is situated near the bow instead of the centre.
The central part of the submarine’s body consists of the outer hull and an inner pressurised hull. The starboard side consists of two rectangular vents that draw in water when the submarine submerges into sea.
The Indian Navy and the DRDO together designed the submarine. Once the design was finalised detailed engineering was implemented at L&T’s submarine design centre using 3D modelling and product data management software.
Tata Power designed the control systems for the submarine. Walchandnagar Industries, a company specialising in execution of heavy engineering projects, designed parts of the steam turbine.
Tests and delivery
The trials are being conducted at a concealed test area called ‘Site Bravo’. During harbour acceptance trials, the nuclear power plant and auxiliary systems of the submarine will be tested for stability.
“Arihant has been developed as part of the military modernisation programme undertaken by India.”
The most crucial part of the trials will be the firing of the reactor. Once the reactor is fired all systems on board are tested on the inherent power of the submarine.
Arihant will be taken for a series of high-speed runs during the sea acceptance trials and its various components will be tested at different depths, temperatures and pressure.
The final phase of the trials will include weapon trials. During these trials actual firing of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) will take place from the platform.
The crew of Arihant will be trained on the 12,000t Akula-II submarine. The submarine will be taken on lease from Russia in 2010 for ten years. Apart from the Akula-II submarine, six Scorpene attack submarines will also be acquired by the Indian Navy between 2012 and 2017.
Arihant will be capable of carrying all types of missiles and will have underwater ballistic missile launch capability. It will carry 12 K-15 SLBMs that can be launched even under ice caps.
Tested in 2008, the K-15 missiles are 10.4m long and have a diameter of 1m. The 6.3t missiles can carry a 5t nuclear warhead targeted 750km away. The K-15 missiles, however, will be replaced later by the 3,500km range K-X missiles.
Apart from the K-15s, the submarine will carry a range of anti-ship and land-attack cruise missiles and torpedoes.
A significant progress in the development of Arihant took place when the land-based pressurised water reactor became operational in 2004 at the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research in Kalpakkam, Chennai. Following this, miniaturisation of the land-based PWR had to be carried out to enable it to fit into a confined space in the submarine. The reactor consists of 13 fuel assemblies each having 348 fuel pins.
Several companies supplied components of the reactor. High grade steel supplied by Heavy Engineering Corporation, Ranchi was used to build the reactor vessel. The steam generator was provided by Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited (BHEL); and Audco India, Chennai built the pressure valves.
The PWR consists of a huge pressure hull, a tank containing water and a reactor. It also consists of a pressure vessel built from unique steel, a control room as well as an auxiliary control room.
The propulsion plant housing the reactor is 42m long and 8m in diameter. The complete propulsion plant along with the primary, secondary, electrical and propulsion systems occupy half of the submarine. To reduce the weight of the plant, light water and enriched uranium was used as opposed to non-enriched uranium used in land-based reactors.
Control and communication systems
Arihant is fitted with a combination of two sonar systems – Ushus and Panchendriya. Ushus is state-of-the-art sonar meant for Kilo Class submarines. Panchendriya is a unified submarine sonar and tactical control system, which includes all types of sonar (passive, surveillance, ranging, intercept and active). It also features an underwater communications system.
A new submarine promises to give the world’s most populous democratic nation a powerful second-strike nuclear capability. The INS Arihant, India’s first nuclear ballistic-missile submarine, will finally give the country nuclear weapons that could survive a surprise first strike and go on to deal a crushing retaliatory blow to the enemy. The new sub will complete India’s triad of air, land and sea nuclear forces.
India tested its first weapon, an eight-kiloton device nicknamed Smiling Buddha, in 1974. Although small in yield, the device was a remarkable technological achievement that thrust the young country into the exclusive, so-called “nuclear club” that had until then consisted of the United States, Soviet Union, United Kingdom, France and China.
India is believed to have 520 kilograms of plutonium—enough for, according to the Arms Control Association, “100 to 130 warheads.” New Delhi describes this a “credible minimum deterrent” against neighboring nuclear powers China and Pakistan. India has a firm No First Use policy with regard to nuclear weapons, vowing to never be the first to use them in any conflict and only use them to retaliate in kind.
Nuclear-armed submarines are an ideal basing solution for a country such as India. While less accurate than land-based missiles and less flexible than air-launched weapons, ballistic-missile submarines are the most difficult to destroy in a first strike. Hiding in the vastness of the oceans, a nuclear-armed submarine is nearly invulnerable. And, in the logic of nuclear deterrence strategy, an invulnerable nuclear arsenal makes for an invulnerable country.
The Arihant program goes back more than three decades, to the vaguely named Advanced Technology Vessel. Begun in 1974, ATV was broadly conceived as a project to research nuclear propulsion and, down the road, field a indigenously developed and constructed nuclear-powered submarine. The program was a collaboration between the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, the Indian Navy and the Indian government’s Defence Research Development Centre.
By 1995, ship-sized reactor trials were underway at the Bhabha Centre in Mumbai. According to Combat Ships of the World, the reactor had been under development since 1985, weighed 600 tons and was “entirely unsuccessful.” By 1989, Russian nuclear scientists and engineers joined the project, and yet the program still failed to yield a viable reactor. In 1998, the Indian government threw in the towel and purchased a reactor design outright from Russia, and by 2004, a working eighty-megawatt prototype reactor had been built, tested and achieved criticality.
Hull began construction in 1998 at Visakhapatnam, but could not be completed due to the lack of a working reactor. The hull itself is variously reported as based on the Russian Akula/Project 971–class nuclear attack submarine or the ex-Soviet Charlie II class. Combat Fleets of the World claims it is based on the Akula, and lengthened an additional thirty feet to accommodate a missile compartment. Other sources claim it is based on the Charlie II class, one of which was leased to India from 1988 to 1991 and served as INS Chakra. At either rate, the submarine is estimated to be 330 to 360 feet long, with submerged displacement of 6,500 tons. It is the smallest ballistic-missile submarine in the world, with the possible exception of the North Korean Gorae class.
Thanks to nuclear propulsion, Arihant can do twelve to fifteen knots on the surface and twenty-four knots underwater. Maximum diving depth is unknown, and probably a closely held secret, but the Akula class is known to dive to six hundred meters. The submarine is manned by a crew of ninety-five to one hundred.
Arihant was officially launched in 2009. The onboard reactor reached criticality in 2013, and the ship began sea trials in late 2014. It was officially commissioned into service in August 2016. According to Naval Technology, the total price tag was $2.9 billion.
Arihant’s name literally translates to “Slayer of Enemies,” and the ship’s armament makes it the greatest concentration of firepower in Indian history. The submarine was built with four missile tubes mounted in a hump behind the conning tower. The four can carry twelve K-15 Sagarika (“Oceanic”) short-range ballistic missiles. K-15 has a maximum range of just 434 miles, making it capable of hitting just the southern half of Pakistan.
Alternately, the sub can carry four K-4 medium-range ballistic missiles with a 2,174-mile range, capable of hitting targets as far away as Beijing. Both the K-4 and the K-15 are nuclear capable, but the warhead yield is unknown. India has yet to master multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) technology, so whatever the yield of the warhead, K-4 and K-15 carry just one of them.
In order to be credible, a seagoing nuclear deterrent must have at least one submarine on patrol at all times. The second ship in class, Aridhaman, is under construction in Visakhapatnam, and India plans to have as many as four boomers by 2020—the same number as the United Kingdom and France. With the four nuclear-armed boats completed, India may finally achieve its goal of strategic invulnerability.
Governor-General of British territories in India Charles Canning’s next decision meant that, instead of a series of mopping-up operations, conducted in the next campaigning season when Campbell had originally intended to take Lucknow, the British were suddenly faced by a whole new rebellion, requiring them once more to fight on through the hot weather and the monsoon. As a collective punishment for the support that so many taluqdars of Awadh had given to the cause of their deposed king, Canning issued a proclamation that all except for six named individuals would have their land-holdings resumed. Other than a promise of life and liberty to those who were not personally implicated in murder, the only concession offered was that dispossessed taluqdars should depend on the justice and mercy of the British government. In view of its previous dealings with Awadh, he might as well have said they should depend on the mildness of the summer sun or the gentleness of the monsoon rain. The result, as Outram and John Lawrence warned him would be the case, was to drive those who had previously been in arms to a more determined resistance. Those who had been neutral, or had helped British fugitives, took up arms themselves rather than suffer the loss of their place in the world. The insurgents who had been driven from Lucknow, instead of quietly dispersing to their homes, remained in the field with renewed hope.
Canning had prepared this proclamation long in advance and only waited for the recovery of Lucknow before issuing it, on the grounds that such leniency as it contained would otherwise be regarded as evidence of British weakness. He sent it to London for approval, unaware that Palmerston’s administration had fallen on 12 February 1858 and the Conservatives had returned to office after a generation in opposition. The new President of the Board of Control, Lord Ellenborough, a former Governor-General of India, wrote to Canning on 24 March saying that, once Lucknow was taken, Awadh should be treated with the conventions appropriate to a country conquered after defending itself to the last in a desperate war, rather than those applicable to the suppression of mutiny and rebellion. He was appalled when he received on 12 April the terms of the Awadh declaration, sent long before Canning knew of the change of ministry. It was especially unexpected given that Canning had previously insisted that no one be punished without due process, if only to avoid alienating the many respectable Indians who supported the maintenance of British rule (a policy pilloried in The Times and Punch as `The Clemency of Canning’). In a minute denouncing Dalhousie’s annexation of Awadh as based on fraud and deception, Ellenborough said that hostilities there `had rather the character of legitimate war than of rebellion’. Canning was told that the ministers wished to see British rule in India rest upon the willing obedience of a contented people. `There cannot be contentment where there is general confiscation.’
Due to an error on parliamentary procedure, the draft of this despatch was circulated among MPs for several weeks before it reached the Secret Committee of the Court of Directors. The subsequent scandal threatened to bring down the minority `Derby-Dizzy’ government. To save his colleagues Ellenborough resigned, though the Prime Minister, the Earl of Derby, supported his judgement by telegraphing to Canning that a clear distinction had to be made between the taluqdari militias and sepoys previously in the British service. Canning considered resigning, especially as the news of these proceedings soon reached India and thus prolonged the resistance in Awadh. After a few days, however, he decided, as senior officers in wellpaid appointments generally do, that it would be in the public interest for him to remain in post. The Times suggested that the ministers had tried to provoke his resignation so that they could lay their hands on a valuable piece of patronage.
While Campbell marched to Lucknow, the second front was opened according to plan. Major General Sir Hugh Rose, then aged fifty-six and more practised as a military diplomat than a field commander, had arrived in India for the first time on 19 September, to command of the Bombay Army’s Poona Division. He was resented by those who saw him as an inexperienced interloper, and at first the inevitable consequences of the friction of war on any plan was taken as evidence of his mismanagement. On 17 December he took over the newly formed Central India Field Force, consisting of the 14th Light Dragoons (who had returned to Bombay from the Persian Gulf in May 1857), the 86th Foot, the 3rd Bombay Europeans, the 3rd Bombay Light Cavalry and 25th Bombay NI, elements of the Hyderabad Contingent, a siege train and four horse or field batteries, with sappers and miners from Madras and Bombay, totalling some 6,000 combatants organized in two brigades.
Rose, with the 2nd Brigade, left his base at Mhow, 10 miles south-west of Indore, on 6 January 1858. His first task was to relieve Sagar (Saugor), 200 miles away to the northeast, a mud fort held by seventy European gunners and the 31st Bengal NI since the mutiny of two other sepoy regiments in the original garrison eight months earlier, and containing 150 European women and children. On the way, he demolished the insurgent stronghold at Rahatgarh, despite a surprise attack by Mardan Singh, Raja of Banpur. This prince had previously supported the British, hoping that they would return his ancestral district of Chanderi, seized from the previous raja by Sindhia and then administered by the British to fund the Gwalior Contingent. When they did not, Mardan Singh decided to recover it irrespective of their approval and did so with the aid of the local nobles. After the fall of Rahatgarh he retreated to Barodia, but was again defeated by Rose’s column and was himself wounded. Sagar was relieved on 3 February and Rose was later joined there by a Madras brigade from Jabalpur, 80 miles to the southeast. While he waited, he collected supplies, bullocks and baggage-elephants, and augmented his siege train with heavy guns from the Sagar arsenal.
On 27 February he advanced northwards. Mardan Singh, with his ally the Raja of Shahgarh, tried to hold the hill passes between Sagar and Bundelkhand, but was outmanoeuvred at the cost of some British casualties, including Rose’s horse shot under him. Mardan Singh fell back, adopting a scorched-earth policy, and the British reached his capital only to find it deserted. Meanwhile the 1st Brigade (previously the Malwa Field Force), advancing on a separate axis, recaptured Chanderi for Sindhia. After marching 120 miles in twenty days, Rose’s main force had almost reached Jhansi when, on 20 March, urgent messages arrived from both Canning and Campbell. After his defeat at Kanpur on 6 December, Tatya Tope had rallied with the Gwalior Contingent at Kalpi and now suddenly struck southwards against Charkhari, a small Bundela state whose raja supported the British. The raja, holding out in Charkhari fort, 80 miles east of Jhansi, appealed for help and Rose was ordered to his relief.
Rose, supported by Sir Robert Hamilton, the Governor-General’s Agent in Central India, who accompanied his march, decided to maintain his aim. He reasoned that to leave a strong fortress and garrison in his rear would boost insurgent morale by giving the impression he feared to attack it. If the British laid siege to Jhansi, Tatya Tope would leave Charkhari and come to its assistance, whereas even if they headed for Charkhari, it might fall before they arrived. Accordingly, operations against Jhansi began on 21 March, the same day that Campbell completed his capture of Lucknow. The first siege batteries opened fire on 25 March and the remainder the next day, when the 1st Brigade joined Rose’s camp. The fort, built on a granite outcrop within a walled city 4½ miles in circumference, was one of the strongest in Central India, and had a garrison of about 12,000 troops, with over thirty guns. Many were regular soldiers from Jhansi’s former army, disbanded at the time of the British annexation. All trees and buildings around the city had been levelled to deny the besiegers their raw materials and to give clear fields of fire.
The Rani, since the massacre of the previous June, had been in correspondence with the British authorities, denying any responsibility for what had occurred and claiming that such support as she had given the sepoy mutineers was in response to force majeure. This was, however, much the same story as that told by the King of Delhi and Nana Sahib. Lurid tales of sexual assault had no more foundation here than elsewhere. The widely believed story (the subject of a touching poem by Christina Georgina Rosetti) that, after a spirited defence, Captain Skene, the British political agent, finding further resistance useless, shot first his wife and then himself, was quite false. Nevertheless, sixty people had been very cruelly killed and the British were not prepared to take the Rani’s words at face value. She was instructed to assume the government of Jhansi state pending the restoration of British rule, when they would investigate what had occurred. In the meanwhile, she had to face incursions from her neighbours, the rajas of Datia and Orchha, who had their own claims on Jhansi territory. In a spirited response, she made alliances with the rajas of Banpur and Shahgarh, reassembled her late husband’s army and called on the local land-holders to join her with their militias. They had driven out the invaders and now, with the apparent return of the good old days, stood ready to treat the Central India Field Force in the same way. As the British showed no sign of allowing the Rani to retain possession of Jhansi, she decided to defy them in arms rather than tamely submitting to their return.
As Rose expected, Tatya Tope left Charkhari and marched to relieve Jhansi. He arrived late on 31 March with some 20,000 men, including Mardan Singh’s troops, and over twenty guns. After crossing the River Betwa, they lit a huge beacon to signal their presence to the defenders, who acknowledged it with shouts and gunfire. During the night, leaving his siege works held by a third of his force and a contingent of Orchha troops, Rose redeployed the remainder, about 1,900 strong, to meet the anticipated attack. The next morning the insurgents’ first line advanced and began a firefight. Rose, meeting them with his 2nd Brigade, pinned them with his field artillery and ordered his infantry to lie down while his cavalry and horse artillery attacked on both flanks. Rose himself led a charge by a troop of the 14th Light Dragoons. The insurgent firing line crumpled and fell back to its reserve, 2 miles in the rear, where Tatya Tope had his command post. With the British closely following, the retreat become a rout before the second line was reached. Tatya Tope’s artillery opened fire, but was countered by the advancing British guns. The 1st Brigade, marching towards the sound of gunfire, drove a force of about 3,000 insurgents from a village with a bayonet charge, but in the heat of the day the men were too exhausted to pursue them and they withdrew in good order. Elsewhere, the British cavalry pressed Tatya Tope’s retreating men hard, and captured their guns before they escaped back across the river, covered by smoke and flames from forest fires burning behind them. British casualties totalled less than 100, against an estimated 1,500 among their opponents.
Rose resumed the siege, where a masking bombardment had prevented the defenders from sallying out to support their intended rescuers. The engineers had already reported a practicable breach and efforts to close it with wooden palisades had been defeated by red-hot shot. Women as well as men, inspired by the Rani’s proclamation that, even if defeated, they would earn eternal glory, laboured on the walls and the Rani herself was observed encouraging them. Accurate shooting by the British siege gunners had dismounted most of her guns, but nevertheless, when Rose launched a moonlight assault at 3.00 a. m. on 3 April there were still enough left, with other improvised explosive devices, rockets and missiles of various kinds, to bring it to a momentary halt. The engineers led the way to the city wall and while one column entered the breach, two others scaled the ramparts. The first two officers were killed as they led the way over the walls, but their men followed and fought their way through fiercely defended streets and houses to reach the palace, designated by Rose as the point where all three columns were to meet. A group of fifty Afghans of the Rani’s bodyguard held the palace stable yard until flames drove them out.
Fighting in the city continued into the following day. The 86th and the Bombay Europeans, fighting to avenge their massacred compatriots, gave no quarter to any male of military age, and their comrades of the Bombay Native Infantry followed their example. The estimated number of those killed varied from three to five thousand, with many others subsequently executed. British casualties amounted to about 40 killed and 200 wounded, including 2 killed and one wounded out of the 7 Engineer officers, always among those most at risk in siege warfare. The 86th lost men to suicide bombers who blew up buildings inside the palace as the British entered.
During the day the Rani was persuaded by her advisers that the battle was lost and that she could do more for her cause by escaping to carry on the fight elsewhere. Wearing a breastplate, sword and pistols, she rode in the midst of her Afghan cavalry with the infant maharaja on her saddlebow, and escaped with members of her household and a baggage elephant through the sector held by the Orchha troops. Rose seems deliberately to have left an opening there, with a view to allowing the Rani to leave rather than hold out in the citadel, which could only be stormed with heavy losses. They encountered an outlying picquet, but rode on for 21 miles towards Kalpi before halting. The Rani’s father and her finance minister became separated from the main party and sought refuge with the Raja of Datia, who sent them back to his British friends at Jhansi, where they were later hanged.
Rose had given strict orders against looting, but much destruction of valuable cultural property went on nevertheless. Everyone knew the story of how Mahmud the Iconoclast, the first great Muslim invader of India, had refused to accept an offer of ransom for the holy Shivalingam of Somnath, saying he would not stand forth on Judgement Day as one who took money to spare an idol, but then found it full of precious stones when he destroyed it. In the temples of Jhansi, images of Hindu deities were broken up, and the gold and jewels adorning them carried off by the victorious troops. Despite Rose’s orders to spare women and children, many were killed by collateral damage and others by their own husbands and fathers, as some of the British at Lucknow had planned to do, for fear of the usual consequences when a city was stormed. There were, however, other cases in which British soldiers, finding widows and orphans without food, gave them their own rations. The Rani’s scorched-earth policy had had little effect on the British, who received supplies from Sindhia and Orchha, but the ordinary people of Jhansi starved and Rose subsequently fed them with government grain seized as lawful contraband.
The next morning, 4 April, when the Rani’s escape was discovered, a squadron of light dragoons and Bombay light cavalry was sent in pursuit. They found the Rani at breakfast and one officer almost reached her before a bullet wounded him. Forty of her Afghan troopers sacrificed themselves to protect her flight and the British, with their own horses failing, could not overtake the rested mounts on which the rest of her party escaped. Late on 5 April, escorted by a party of Tatya Tope’s cavalry, she reached the headquarters of the Peshwa’s army in Bundelkhand, commanded by Nana Sahib’s nephew Panduranga Sadashiv, Rao Sahib, at Kalpi, 85 miles north-east of Jhansi.
The Chinese, unable to understand the genuine resentment and anger the Tibetans felt about the occupation, were convinced that India supported the resistance. Sino-Indian relations deteriorated even further when the Dalai Lama fled to India after the failed uprising in Lhasa in March 1959. At a CCP Politburo meeting on 17 March, Zhou stressed upon what he saw as a connection between the uprising and the Indian government, and he went on to speculate that both Britain and the United States had provided support for the rebels in collusion with India, and that, ‘a commanding centre of the rebellion has been established in Kalimpong’.
There was no more Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai and it was at this time that Deng Xiaoping argued that India had to be taught a lesson The incursions into Longju in August 1959 and Kongka La in October were most likely meant to probe India’s defences. The American academic Donald S. Zagoria in his comprehensive study of the Sino-Soviet conflict has another explanation for the Chinese attacks in 1959; it once again shows that China’s conflict with India was never mainly about border demarcation or whether or not old treaties should be honoured. He refers to what was said by a Polish delegation that visited Beijing in October 1959 for the 10th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China,
The Poles … supposed that Chinese Communist resentment at being left out of high-level negotiations was one of the motivations behind Peking’s (Beijing’s) decision to stir up trouble with India over the boundary question. The October incident in Kashmir, where several Indian soldiers were ambushed and killed, was said to be intended as a reminder to India, the Soviet Union, and the West that there were important areas of the world where settlements could be reached only by direct negotiations with Peking.
It was also becoming increasingly clear that Mao’s—and China’s—worldview was fundamentally different from Nehru’s ideals of non-alignment and non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. The Western concept of the Three-World Model, as formulated during the Cold War, meant that the US and its allies belonged to the First World, the Soviet Union and its satellites to the Second, and neutral and non-aligned countries to the Third World. Mao’s Three Worlds Theory was different. To him, the US and the Soviet Union belonged to the First World; Japan, Europe and Canada formed the Second World; and Asia, Africa, and Latin America were the Third.
Naturally, China aspired to become the leader of the Third World and dethrone India from the position it held throughout the 1950s as the main voice of the newly independent Asian and African nations. Wang Hongwei, a researcher from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, spelled it out in one of his studies, ‘India after annexing more than 560 principalities, sent forces into Kashmir and embarked on expansionism … Since then the bourgeois elite of India stepped on the stage of contemporary Asian history and strived for power and hegemony, and acted as if they were leaders.’ And in order to change that, China had to show that it was militarily superior to India. That was achieved in 1962. India never recovered from the defeat—Nehru himself died a broken man in 1964, and China under Mao became the beacon for most of the Third World revolutionaries. As Mao had said, ‘political power grows out of the barrel of a gun’.
The 1962 War also forced India to abandon its non-aligned status, first by seeking support from the US and later by allying itself with China’s new enemy, the Soviet Union. Non-interference became history when Indian troops intervened in East Pakistan in 1971 and helped the resistance fighters there break away to form Bangladesh. Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent ideals had definitely given way to a militarized India, which expanded its armed forces and even exploded its own nuclear device in May 1974. China had won. India was no longer an example to follow for the Third World. China was.
Even a cursory look at the history of China’s wars since 1949 shows that border disputes were never a main guiding principle in Beijing’s foreign policy. Apart from the invasion of Tibet and bombardments of the nationalist-held islands of Quemoy and Matsu in the Taiwan Strait in the 1950s (which were meant to consolidate the new communist government over what it considered its rightful territory) China’s wars have always been ideologically motivated, meant to show its superior strength vis-à-vis adversaries and to demonstrate socialist solidarity with its ‘comrades-in-arms’. Respect for international boundaries has never been an issue.
In Korea in the early 1950s, hundreds of thousands of Chinese ‘volunteers’ streamed down the peninsula to support the communist regime in the North and its war against the US-allied South. The Korean War ended in an armistice in 1953, and a still-divided nation, a Chinese ally, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the North, and the pro-West Republic of Korea in the South. Chinese losses in that war were immense, as it resorted to ‘human-waves tactics’, i.e., sending wave after wave of inexperienced recruits to face the bullets and the artillery of the south. An estimated 152,000 Chinese died and 383,000 were wounded in that war, but China had for the first time showed that it was a military force to be reckoned with and that it would not hesitate to suffer heavy casualties if a political point could be made.
After the Mekong River Operation across the border into Myanmar in 1960–61, China embarked on a strategically even more adventurous campaign in the same region. In January 1968, thousands of Chinese crossed the border again into Myanmar—this time as ‘volunteers’ to fight alongside the insurgent Communist Party of Burma (CPB), which resorted to armed struggle against the Myanmar government shortly after independence in 1948. Since the early 1950s, more than 140 Myanmar Communists had been living in exile in China, but it was not until an unpredictable general, Ne Win, seized power in the capital Yangon in March 1962 that they began to receive substantial Chinese support for their cause. It is generally assumed by most Westerns scholars that the anti-Chinese riots in Yangon in June 1967 became the catalyst for China’s decision to aid the CPB. But, like the border dispute with India, that was only a pretext for China to move into action.
CPB cadres had already begun surveying the border areas for possible infiltration routes in 1963. At the same time, they were introduced to a group of ethnic Kachin rebels who had also retreated into China in the early 1950s. As most of the Myanmar communists were urban intellectuals, that group of warlike Kachin tribesmen were to become the nucleus of the CPB army. But, until the early 1970s, Chinese ‘volunteers’ made up the bulk of the CPB’s fighting force. Most of them were youthful Red Guards from China, who had received their political schooling during the Cultural Revolution. But among them were also more experienced PLA officers and political commissars.
Chinese support for the CPB continued until Deng Xiaoping, a political hardliner but an economic reformer, changed Beijing’s foreign policy in the 1980s from support of revolutionary movements to bilateral trade with China’s neighbours and other commercial activities. But the Chinese never completely abandoned the CPB. It was still a useful tool, which the Chinese could use to exert its influence inside Myanmar.
In March 1969, a border war broke out between China and the Soviet Union, ostensibly over the ownership of some sandbanks in the River Ussuri. But, as was the case with India in 1962, political motives were more important than the exact alignment of the border. Beijing wanted to show the Third World that revolutionary China was strong enough to stand up even against the ‘Soviet revisionist renegade clique’, as the Chinese called the Soviet leaders after Beijing had broken ties with Moscow in 1960. China, not the Soviet Union, was the true leader of all the oppressed peoples of the world.
Chinese support for North Vietnam and the communist guerrillas in the South was substantial until that war ended in May 1975. But centuries of mutual distrust between the Chinese and the Vietnamese let to strained relations, with Hanoi allying itself with the Soviet Union. When Vietnam invaded Cambodia, China’s main ally in the region, in December 1978–Janaury 1979, it was time for Beijing to teach another neighbour ‘a lesson’. In February 1979, Chinese troops—and they came from the same regiments as those that had taken part in the 1961 campaign against the KMT in Myanmar—crossed the border into northern Vietnam. But this time, the PLA was not as successful as it had been against India in 1962. The Vietnamese fought back, inflicting heavy casualties on the Chinese. No one really won that war—and it turned out to be the last of its kind that the PLA fought. Since then, efforts have been made to turn the PLA into a more modern and professional force, not the ‘people’s army’ of the past.
But back in 1962, the PLA was still an ideologically motivated entity guided by the political commissars from the CCP, and it is clear that India, and Nehru in particular, did not realize that. Nehru’s faith in Zhou was also misguided. George Patterson, a British Tibet expert who was fluent in several local dialects, writes in his Peking Versus Delhi, which was published in 1963,
There is another side to Chou [Zhou] which is not so well-known as the charming, brilliant, even ‘moderate’, exterior which he uses to win friends and influence people. In 1931, Kao Chen-chang [Gu Shunzhang], a member of the Communist Central Committee and Chief of the Communist secret police, broke with the Communists and informed to the police in Hankow [Hankou], a group of men led by Chou himself murdered the whole family, including servants and babies, by strangulation.
Gu himself was not among those killed, and the decision to punish the family was made as he had managed to escape from the clutches of the Party. When Gu had outlived his usefulness to the KMT authorities, he was executed by the police in 1935. Zhou, meanwhile, carried out many similar purges and killings of real or imagined traitors to the Communist cause. Zhou was as much a hardliner as the dreaded security chief Kang Sheng, who became notorious for his brutality during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.
Moreover, Chinese articles and documents show that Nehru’s apparent fondness for Zhou was not reciprocated. The Chinese Communists always considered Nehru a bourgeois nationalist leader, and not even as a mild socialist. The earliest attacks on the Indian prime minister came even before the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed on 1 October 1949. Nehru was a ‘running dog of imperialism’, according to an article on 19 August 1949 in Shijie Zhishi (‘world knowledge’), a magazine published by the CCP’s Culture Committee. In its 16 September 1949 issue, the magazine proclaimed, ‘Nehru riding behind the imperialists whose stooge he is, actually consider[s] himself the leader of the Asian people… as a rebel against the movement for national independence, as a blackguard… as a loyal slave of imperialism, Nehru has always been made the substitute of Chiang Kai-shek by the imperialists.’
Even if Nehru was unaware of what Zhou and his comrades were writing in their Chinese-language publications, and saying about him behind his back during the days of Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai, the CIA certainly knew what the Chinese were up to. A top secret CIA report from 2 March 1963, which has only recently been declassified, states,
The Chinese diplomatic effort was a five-year masterpiece of guile, executed—and probably planned in large part—by Chou En-lai [Zhou Enlai]. Chou played on Nehru’s Asian, anti-imperialist mental attitude, his proclivity to temporize, and his sincere desire for an amicable Sino-Indian relationship. Chou’s strategy was to avoid making explicit, in conversations and communications with Nehru, any Chinese border claims, while avoiding any retraction of those claims which would require changing Chinese maps. Chou took the line with Nehru in Peiping [Beijing] in October 1954 that Communist China ‘had as yet had no time to review’ the Kuomintang maps, leaving the implication but not the explicit promise that they would be revised. In New Delhi in November–December 1956, Chou sought to create the impression with Nehru that Peiping would accept the McMahon Line, but again his language was equivocal, and what was conceded with his left hand, he retrieved with his right.
The same CIA report says that the former prime minister of Myanmar, Ba Swe, had written a letter to Nehru in 1958, warning him to be ‘cautious’ in dealing with Zhou on the Sino-Indian border issue. At the same time, Myanmar was engaged in talks with the Chinese about their common border, which was eventually demarcated in 1960 after an agreement, which was not unfavourable to Myanmar, had been reached.
According to the report, ‘Nehru is said to have replied by declaring Chou to be “an honourable man”, who could be trusted’. Nehru, and India, had to pay a heavy price for that trust when the PLA came storming across the Himalayas in October 1962.
Some analysts and historians have argued that China would have been willing to settle the border dispute with India through some ‘give-and-take’ on both sides. The Chinese would give up their claim to the NEFA in exchange for India’s recognition of China’s de facto control of Aksai Chin. After all, that was how China had settled its border disputes with Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan. But this argument fails to make a distinction between Beijing’s relations with smaller neighbours such as Myanmar and Nepal, and the importance of a strategic alliance with Pakistan, and the fact that China’s disputes with India go way beyond drawing a line on the map and demarcating it on the ground. And, as noted, in the 1950s, China emerged as India’s main rival for leadership of the newly independent nations in Asia and Africa.
Today, an entirely new situation has emerged. Bilateral trade between China and India—not across the closed border but by sea—is booming; in 2015–16, it stood at US$ 70.73 billion, but it should be added, India’s trade deficit is US$ 52.68 billion. China imports minerals, ores, and cotton from India, while India buys electronic equipment, computer hardware, and chemicals from China.
However, the rivalry between India and China is far from over, and the distrust between the two countries remains deep and profound. To China, Arunachal Pradesh is still ‘South Tibet’ and travellers from that part of India get their Chinese visas stapled into their passports. According to the Chinese, they are not foreigners, as they are coming from a part of China that is under Indian occupation. This is a gesture that serves no purpose other than to humiliate India and the Indians.
More alarmingly, China has not ceased its support to rebels in India’s troubled northeast. Nagas, Assamese, and Manipuris have been able to buy weapons on what is euphemistically called ‘the black market’ in China. Paresh Baruah, the leader of the main outfit, the United Liberation Front of Asom [Assam] (ULFA), stays in Chinese towns and travels freely across the country. The Chinese may argue that they are only reciprocating India’s act of providing sanctuary for the Dalai Lama, allowing the enemy of one country to stay in the other. But while the Dalai Lama is not the leader of a band of armed insurgents, Baruah certainly is.
Bumla and other passes in the Himalayas may be quiet today, but there is growing concern over a cascade of dams the Chinese are planning to build on the Brahmaputra in Tibet, where it is called Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibetan and Yarlung Zangbo on Chinese maps. One dam, at Zangmu in southeastern Tibet, became operational in October 2015, and there are another 27 proposed dams on the Brahmaputra and its tributaries before the river enters India. Naturally, that plan has caused controversy as the Chinese have not consulted India and Bangladesh, the downstream countries that would be affected by these dams.43 China’s attitude towards its neighbours has been the same on the Mekong, where a number of dams have been built inside China without any consultation with Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, through which that river also flows.
Despite the tension along and across the border, the centre of frictions between India and China today is not in the Himalayas but in the Indian Ocean. The Chinese are making inroads into what India has always considered its ‘own lake’, and that could lead to conflict. China wants to keep a close watch on the sea lanes used by its suppliers of oil in the Middle East, but that means challenging India’s supremacy in the Indian Ocean. Recent joint naval exercises between India and the United States, and Japan’s interest in those, show that there is a new Cold War, this time with China rather than the Soviet Union as the main adversary.
In the middle of this imbroglio lies Myanmar, which has always strived to be a neutral buffer state between regional rivals, but more often than not ended up as an area of conflict between players, indigenous as well as foreign, vying for power and influence. During the decade 1968–78, the Chinese poured more aid into the CPB in Myanmar than they had into any other communist movement outside Indochina. A 20,000-square-kilometre base area was established along the Chinese border in Myanmar’s northeast. The Chinese built two small hydroelectric power plants inside the CPB’s territory, and a clandestine radio station, ‘the People’s Voice of Burma’, began transmitting from the Yunnan side of the border in 1971. It was later moved to the CPB’s headquarters at Panghsang inside Myanmar, where the entire leadership resided in houses built by the Chinese.
On the Thai border, ethnic Karen, Shan, and Mon rebels were allowed to set up bases, and buy supplies and weapons from the Thai side. The Thais wanted a border buffer between themselves and their historical enemy, Myanmar, which had invaded their country in the past and had sacked the old capital of Ayutthaya in 1767. While such concerns may seem anachronistic in today’s world, they were real enough for the Thais.
In the west, near the border with East Pakistan (later Bangladesh), Muslim guerrillas from the Rohingya community in Myanmar’s Rakhine State have been active since Myanmar became independent from Britain in 1948. India never supported any rebel movement in Myanmar, but gave asylum to U Nu, who was ousted by General Ne Win in 1962. During a pro-democracy uprising in August–September 1988, the activists received moral support from Indian authorities.
The situation in Myanmar’s border areas changed dramatically when, in March–April 1989, the once powerful CPB collapsed after a mutiny among the rank-and-file of the party’s army, most of whom were Wa tribesmen. The Wa were headhunters who lived in the mountains straddling Myanmar’s northeastern border with China and had been recruited into the communist army without having any clear idea of the ideology for which they were fighting and dying. Almost the entire old leadership fled to China, where they were given asylum. The CPB subsequently broke up into four ethnic armies, of which the United Wa State Army (UWSA) is by far the strongest.
The 1989 CPB mutiny actually suited China’s interests, and there are strong suggestions that China’s clandestine services actively encouraged the Wa and others to rise up against their leaders. In view of Deng’s new polices, which emphasized trade and economic expansion, the CPB’s old leadership, which remained staunchly Maoist, had become a liability.
In the years following the CPB mutiny, trade between China and Myanmar blossomed. China flooded Myanmar’s markets with cheap consumer goods and imported mainly raw materials such as timber and minerals. The annual exchange of goods soon reached the US$ 1 billion mark. The surge in bilateral trade between Myanmar and China was facilitated by Western sanctions and boycotts, which at that time were in force because of the Myanmar government’s gross violations of human rights. China did not have to face any competition and became Myanmar’s most important foreign trade partner.
But China was not going to give up the foothold inside Myanmar that it had had since the late 1960s. In May 1989, the UWSA entered into a ceasefire agreement with the Myanmar government, which, on the one hand, suited China’s new commercial interests, and on the other, also helped strengthen the UWSA. After all, the Chinese had had a long-standing relationship with most of the leaders of the UWSA, dating back to their CPB days. Thus, the UWSA has been able to purchase vast quantities of weapons from China, including heavy artillery, surface-to-air missiles, and armoured fighting vehicles.
Today, the UWSA is better armed than the CPB ever was. It can field at least 20,000 well-equipped troops as well as thousands of village militiamen and other supportive forces. Moreover, the top leaders of the UWSA are usually accompanied by Chinese intelligence officers who provide advice and guidance.
In recent years, Myanmar has mended its ties with the West, partly because the Chinese influence, even dominance, was becoming overwhelming, and sanctions have been lifted. China’s sending of even more weaponry to the UWSA is a way of putting pressure on Myanmar’s government at a time when its relations with Washington are improving. As China sees it, it cannot afford to ‘lose’ Myanmar to the US and the West. A strong UWSA provides China with a strategic advantage, and it is also a bargaining chip in negotiations with the Myanmar government.
When Aung Min, the then president office minister, visited Monywa, a town northwest of Mandalay, in November 2012, to meet local people protesting a controversial Chinese-backed copper mining project in the area, he openly admitted, ‘We are afraid of China…we don’t dare to have a row with [them]. If they feel annoyed with the shutdown of their projects and resume their support to the Communists, the economy in border areas would backslide. So you’d better think seriously.’ By ‘the Communists’ he clearly meant the UWSA and its allies, among them the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) in the Kokang area, another former CPB force in Myanmar’s northeast, which indeed resorted to armed struggle in February 2015.
China, predictably, has denied any involvement in that conflict, but the fact remains that most of the MNDAA’s weaponry and vast quantities of ammunition have been supplied by the UWSA. According to a well-placed source, China was indirectly ‘teaching the Myanmar government a lesson in Kokang: move too much to the West, and this can happen’. At the same time, China is playing another, ‘softer’ card by being actively involved in the so-called ‘peace talks’ between the Myanmar government and the country’s multitude of ethnic rebel armies.
Whether China wants to export revolution or expand and protect commercial interests, it apparently feels that it needs to have a solid foothold inside Myanmar. There is no better and more loyal ally in this regard than the UWSA and its former CPB affiliates. Myanmar is China’s ‘corridor’ to the Indian Ocean as an outlet for trade from Yunnan and other landlocked southwestern provinces, quite apart from Beijing’s strategic interests in the region. Although there are no, and have never been, any Chinese bases there, as some Indian writers have suggested, China has helped Myanmar upgrade its own naval facilities—and that is worrying enough for India.
In April 2015, India eventually ran out of patience with Myanmar’s turning a blind eye to the presence of Indian rebels on their soil. Indian commandoes crossed the border into Myanmar and destroyed a number of camps where Assamese, Manipuri, and Naga rebels were ensconced. The rebels were armed with weapons obtained from secret arms factories inside a former CPB area in Myanmar’s northern Kachin State. Although located inside Myanmar, the machinery and the technicians came from China. The Chinese may have no interest in independence for Assam, Nagaland, or Manipur, but they evidently want to keep the Indians off balance—at least as long as the Dalai Lama is alive and the Tibetan exiles are being provided with sanctuaries in India.
Besides the broader issue of the vast differences in the respective cultures and worldviews to which the sign at Bumla refers somewhat presumptuously to as ‘Two Old Neighbouring Civilisations’, the question of Tibet remains at the heart of the conflict between India and China. And if the proponents of the Chinese version of the border dispute and the 1962 War had paid more attention to the Chinese source material, even they would have discovered that border demarcation was never the main issue. On 6 May 1959, only weeks after the Lhasa uprising against the Chinese occupation of Tibet, the official Chinese news agency Xinhua published an article titled ‘The Revolution in Tibet and Nehru’s Philosophy’, accusing the Indian prime minister of having adopted ‘the strategic aspirations of British imperialism’.
According to US security expert and former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel, ‘On the day the article attacking Nehru was published, Zhou Enlai said in a public forum that Nehru “had inherited England’s old policy of saying Tibet is an independent country” and that this mentality was “the centre of the Sino-Indian conflict”’. Vertzberger was obviously right in his conclusion that Nehru and the Chinese leaders had incompatible worldviews, and, in a more modern context, it can be argued that China and India are still worlds apart when it comes to culture and strategic thinking.
China may have been grossly mistaken in believing that Nehru, of all Indian leaders, wanted to seize Tibet. But, the Chinese fear of ‘losing’ what they have always considered an integral part of their country has been a factor that has determined relations between China and India for more than a century, and still does. And events first came to a head at Shimla in 1914—at a time when China was weak as millennia of imperial rule were being replaced by a new, chaotic republican order.
On 12 February 1756, a British naval squadron under RearAdmiral Charles Watson demanded the surrender of Gheria, a stronghold on the west coast of India of the Angrias, a Maratha family whose fleet was a factor in local politics and had been used for privateering attacks on European merchantmen. When the Indians opened fire, Watson `began such a fire upon them, as I believe they never before saw, and soon silenced their batteries, and the fire from their grabs [ships]’. The five-hour bombardment also led to the destruction of Tulaji Angria’s fleet, which was set ablaze with shells. The next day, the British warships closed in to bombard the fort at pistol-shot distance in order to make a breach in the wall for storming and this breach swiftly led to its surrender. Watson noted that `the hulls, masts and rigging of the [British] ships are so little damaged, that if there was a necessity we should be able to proceed to sea in twenty-four hours’. Attacks in 1718 and 1720 had failed. In 1756, Watson co-operated with Robert Clive and with Maratha troops.
The storming of Gheriah would have a faintly ritualistic air. Such were the overwhelming forces at the Company’s disposal on this occasion that the outcome can never have been in doubt. It was a set piece in which the attackers agonized more over the division of the spoils than over tactical niceties. With ample time for reconnaissance, Commodore William James in command of the Bombay Marine, had volunteered to make a survey; and after another typically bold foray right into the pirates’ nest he had reported favourably on the prospects. In fact he was ‘exceedingly surprised’ to find Gheriah nothing like as formidable as it had been painted. ‘I can assure you it is not to be called high nor, in my opinion, strong’ – an opinion amply substantiated by drawings of the place made after its capture. It was big and, like Colaba, impressively sited on the end of a promontory. But there was nothing to prevent warships getting within point-blank range nor to prevent troops from landing nearby and setting up their batteries on a hill that commanded the whole position.
This last consideration was of interest in that, besides the Royal squadron with its two admirals and its six warships mounting some 300 guns, and besides the Company’s ten somewhat smaller vessels, and not to mention the Maratha contingents both naval and military, the action was to be graced with the presence of three companies of the King’s artillery, 700 men in all, plus a like number of Indian sepoys, all under the command of the then Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Clive.
Clive’s presence at Gheriah was incidental and, in the event, not particularly decisive. He and his troops had arrived in Bombay en route to some unfinished business with the French in the Deccan. That expedition was cancelled at the last minute as a result of the Anglo-French peace. And so Clive had indented for a slice of the action – and of the spoils – at Gheriah. What these spoils might amount to was uncertain but surely considerable. It was known that the contents of most of Tulaji’s prizes, including the treasure-rich Derby, had been taken to Gheriah. It was there that he kept his family and his prisoners – mostly English and Dutch; and where a pirate kept such valued possessions, there too would be his treasure.
Before setting out from Bombay, Admiral Watson summoned a meeting of the English commanders to thrash out the question of prize money. A scale was agreed on by which Watson himself would receive a twelfth of the proceeds, his rear-admiral half that, Clive and the captains of the Royal ships rather less, and James and the captains of the Company’s ships less still. It would appear that James and his commanders accepted the subordinate role that this arrangement implied. But Clive did not, demanding for himself parity with the rear-admiral. To resolve the argument Watson offered to make good the difference out of his own share. As he would put it to Clive in Bengal at the next division of the spoils, ‘money is what I despise, and accumulating riches is what I did not come here for’. But Clive, we are told, then refused to accept the Admiral’s money. ‘Thus did these two gallant officers endeavour to outvie each other in mutual proofs of disinterestedness and generosity’, wrote Ives in a footnote that was doubtless designed to deflect some of the criticism which would dog Clive’s every triumph.
Obviously if these arrangements were to be honoured, it was a matter of some consequence that the English and not their Maratha allies should actually take Gheriah. By mid-February 1756, when the armada finally arrived on station, they knew that Tulaji was already negotiating with the Maratha commander; they trusted their ally no more than the enemy, and clearly time was running out. When a first formal demand for the surrender of the fort was answered with procrastinating tactics, Watson realized that to be certain of their reward they would have to earn it. He ignored the possibility of a peaceful handover and gave the order for the fleet to move in.
The English entered the harbour in two columns, five great battleships plus the Company’s Protector forming an inner ring round the fort while the nine assorted ‘grabs’, sloops and ketches went round the outside to reach the enemy fleet as it lay penned upriver. Naturally the first shot is said to have come from the fort. It was repaid with compound interest as one after another the broadsides were brought to bear. Just over two hours later the entire ‘Angrian’ fleet was ablaze and the guns of the fort silenced. Briefly they ‘briskened their fire’ once again; then they fell silent for good.
That night Clive took his men ashore to set up their batteries while the bomb ketches continued to pour their shells into the fort. In the morning the bombardment was taken up both from the land and from the line of battleships. There was no answering fire, the object now being simply to effect a breach or cause such slaughter as would persuade the garrison to surrender. This they did in the course of the afternoon; by six o’clock the English colours were fluttering atop the smoking ruins. Nineteen men of the attacking force had been killed or wounded; of the carnage amongst the defenders there is no record.
Next day the victorious English got down to the serious business – plunder. According to Ives, who was Admiral Watson’s personal surgeon, they ‘found 250 pieces of cannon, six mortars, an immense quantity of stores and ammunition, one hundred thousand pounds sterling in silver rupees and about thirty thousand more in valuable effects’. It was less than expected but sufficient for several small fortunes, Watson’s share being about £10,000 and Clive’s about £5,000.
A painted scroll depicting different types of ships of the Marathan Navy including some captured English ships.
The Pirates of Malabar
The ransoming of the Colaba prisoners was part of a wider non-aggression pact signed between Kanhoji and the Company in 1713. Under its terms the Marathas agreed not to molest ships belonging to the Company and not to interfere with any shipping in Bombay harbour. In return the Company undertook to see that only ships ‘what belong to subjects of the English nation’ should fly the Company’s colours. Peace of a sort was restored. But it was this latter definition of English shipping which would provide a new bone of contention. Just as in Bengal the Company’s servants persistently abused the privileges of the 1717 farman by granting custom-free passes (dastak) to anyone, English or Indian, who would pay for them, so in Bombay they abused the agreement with Kanhoji by interpreting the term ‘English shipping’ as denoting not ownership of the vessel but ownership of its cargo. Thus any vessel, whether owned by the Company, a private English trader or an Indian trader, was deemed a Company ship if it carried a consignment belonging to the English or any of those living under their protection.
Needless to say, this was not how Kanhoji understood the matter. In 1716 recriminations flew between the ‘pirate’ and Bombay over the capture of four Indian vessels which supposedly carried English-owned cargoes. In 1717 the richly laden Success belonging to the Company’s Indian broker at Surat was taken and another ship, belonging to the Company itself, was relieved of part of its cargo. Again Kanhoji seemed willing to discuss reparations; but Bombay under Charles Boone, its new and vigorous Governor, was not. Boone had made the suppression of ‘piracy’ his personal crusade; £50,000 a year was being spent on building up the Bombay Marine; the Company’s own fleet of ‘grabs’ and ‘gallivats’ was coming off the stocks at Surat and elsewhere; and Bombay itself was being readied for war with the construction of the first city wall. Repeated requests for troops were sent to Madras and Calcutta, and from England as many as 500 recruits arrived in Bombay in a single year.
‘Let the bottom [i.e. the vessel] be whose it will’, wrote Boone to Kanhoji in protest at the latest prize-taking, ‘the money lent on it is worth more than the ship and the goods are English, you well know.’ But Kanhoji could not accept this logic. Today the English governor might be chartering only a single ship ‘but tomorrow Your Excellency will say that you have a mind to freight fifty or a hundred ships of Surat merchants. If so, what occasion have they to take the pass (dastak) that they formerly took of me?’ And whence, then, was the Maratha admiral to derive his revenue? But the Bombay Council was unmoved and in 1718 Boone resolved to hit back hard. When one of Kanhoji’s ‘gallivats’ was taken while peacefully going about its business in Bombay harbour, it was the end of the truce. ‘From this day forward’, wrote the Maratha, ‘what God gives, I shall take.’ It was no idle threat.
First, though, it was Boone who took the offensive with a raid on the Maratha fleet as it was being laid up for the monsoon in a sheltered inlet behind Gheriah (Vijayadrug), the most impressive of Kanhoji’s strongholds. So formidable were the rocky cliffs of Gheriah that an English historian would liken the place to Gibraltar. Not to be outdone, an Indian historian (writing in the first heady days of India’s independence) describes Boone’s surprise attack as ‘Pearl Harbor two centuries before its time’. There was, though, one difference. In spite of a motley armada and some 4000 troops, Boone’s raid was a total failure.
Downing, whose claim to have taken part has since been discredited, reports that the considerable firepower of the Company’s ships made little impression on the fort, whose rocks were too slippery for a landing and whose walls were too high for the scaling ladders. ‘We soon found that the place was impregnable.’ A simple boom across the river prevented the Company’s fireships, including one hopefully named the Terrible Bomb, from reaching the Maratha navy; and when a landing party was sent to deal with this obstacle it first blundered into a swamp and was then raked by fire from the fort. The only mystery was why the Marathas did not take greater advantage of the situation. Downing’s explanation, though scarcely consoling, probably contained much truth. ‘I question’. he wrote, ‘whether there were a hundred men in the castle during the siege.’ After four days the ‘siege’ was lifted and the Company’s armada returned to Bombay.
Undismayed, Boone used the closed season of the 1718 monsoon to plan a second assault, this time on Khanderi, an island only ten miles down the coast from Bombay itself. Again the fleet was packed with more than enough troops to carry the place, again a landing was effected, and again through sheer incompetence aborted. When Kanhoji himself appeared on the scene at the head of his fleet and threatened Bombay, the Company’s ships quickly scuttled back to the protection of the big guns of Bombay castle.
‘This ill-success was a great trouble to the President [Boone]’ noted Downing. In 1719 no new attack was mounted and there was even talk of peace. But as Kanhoji’s confidence had grown, so had Boone’s bulldog spirit. ‘He now did all in his power to suppress this notorious pyrate’, building in addition to more ships ‘a great and mighty floating machine’. Called The Phram, this contraption seems to have been half raft, half castle, ‘pretty flat’ with a draft of only six feet, and a single mast and topsail. But what impressed Downing was the thickness of its sides ‘made by the nicest composition cannon-proof’ and its twelve monstrous guns each of which fired a forty-eight pound cannon-ball. (Twenty-four pounders were the largest guns then favoured by the Bombay Marine.) ‘It must of course prove of great service to us against any of those castles which we could approach near enough to cannonade.’
With just such a demonstration in mind, Boone launched a second assault on Gheriah in 1721. As in 1718 the landing parties effected nothing. But great were the expectations of The Phram. It was manoeuvred into position, the massive gun carriages were wheeled to the ports, the charges laid and the fuses lit: With an almighty splash the great shells fell into the sea rather less than a stone’s throw from the vessel. Someone had miscalculated the angle of fire; either the carriages were too high or the ports too low. The Phram was withdrawn for modification.
By the time it was ready for further trials, word had got round the fleet that those armour-plated sides were not much use either; once again insufficient allowance had been made for the elevation of the ‘Indian Gibraltar’. If The Phram discharged its guns from a distance, its murderous missiles were more of a danger to the waiting landing parties than to the fort, but if it moved into a more effective range the guns of the fort could lob their own shells onto its flat and crowded decks. Both expedients were tried and, amidst heavy casualties, both failed. It was thought that two of Kanhoji’s ‘grabs’ had caught fire as a result of a separate bombardment and with this very doubtful claim to ‘victory’ the English fleet withdrew.
Meanwhile more merchant shipping was falling into Maratha hands. The trade of beleaguered Bombay was suffering and in a bid to end piracy once and for all the Company’s directors in London applied for the assistance of the Royal Navy. With great ceremony a squadron was duly dispatched to the Indian Ocean in 1721, ostensibly to root out those Anglo-American buccaneers still operating out of Madagascar but additionally, and perhaps primarily, to take on Kanhoji Angrey. By now it was painfully obvious that the Company’s ‘sentinels’ made indifferent storm-troopers even when primed with copious liquor and fired by the promise of cash bonuses. Similarly their counting-house masters made dismal admirals. It was time for the professionals to try their hand.
Commodore Matthews in charge of the Royal squadron reached Bombay in 1722 to a welcome soon noted for its acrimony. In a rerun of the quarrels between the Old Company and Ambassador William Norris – the last occasion on which Royal ships had visited India – Matthews claimed precedence by virtue of his commission and was soon planning a series of voyages designed to ensure for himself a handsome share of the Company’s profits. He seemed bent on discrediting the Company and, worse still, he completely repudiated the Company’s contention that any ship carrying an English consignment was entitled to fly English colours, thus in effect supporting Kanhoji’s case. Governor Boone, however, was resolved on one last, all-out offensive. His term of office was drawing to a close; he had just engineered an offensive alliance against the Maratha admiral with the Portuguese; and he desperately needed Matthews’s cooperation. Swallowing his pride, he deferred to the Commodore and set about planning the downfall of Colaba.
Unlike previous attacks, that on Colaba was waged from the land, an odd choice given the importance attached to the presence of Matthews’s squadron. With a combined strength of 6,500 plus an artillery train, the Anglo-Portuguese forces surrounded Kanhoji’s stronghold while the English fleet prevented any relief reaching it from the sea. In spite of the unexpected appearance of a Maratha detachment of horse and foot, the arrangements were more than adequate for the task in hand.
But once again the affair was woefully mismanaged. Without waiting to set up their batteries, and leaving the Portuguese to deal with the Maratha detachment, the English charged the fortress. The gates held, the English ladders were too short, and casualties were heavy. Meanwhile the Portuguese had been routed by the Marathas who now threatened to cut off the English attackers. A chaotic retreat ensued. Had the Marathas followed up their advantage it would have been the worst ever defeat for English arms in India. Matthews’s squadron had contributed nothing except 200 marines lent to the land forces; compared to the conduct of the Company’s reluctant sentinels, their bravery had been conspicuous.
Immediately after this fourth failure Boone sailed for home while Matthews took his squadron on a trading venture to Surat and Bengal. Ever open to anything that might discredit the Company, in Calcutta the Commodore was approached by a distraught but still pretty widow who was being detained in India pending payment of £9000 from her late husband’s estate. Matthews listened to her long and heart-rending story with interest; and convinced that no one who heard it could fail to condemn the Company’s ingratitude, he promptly took the young lady under his wing and into his cabin. She was, of course, none other than Mrs Katherine Gyfford, previously Harvey and Chown, née Cooke, lately of Karwar, Colaba, and Anjengo. Together the Commodore and the widow sailed back to Bombay, where old acquaintances were duly scandalized by Mrs Gyfford’s new liaison, and then to England. Years of litigation over the tangled affairs of Anjengo followed, their outcome unknown. But evidently Mrs Gyfford returned to India for she died in Madras in 1745.
Shuja-ud-Dowlah, the Moghul vizier and Nawab of Oudh, and Mir Kasim, Nawab of Bengal, assembled some 50,000 men to reconquer Bengal, which had fallen to the HEIC [Honourable East India Company] after the Battle of Plassey. The offensive was met by a British force of 7000 under Major (later Sir Hector) Munro, on the south bank of the Ganges at Buxar near Shahabad in Bihar. After a violent conflict the Indians retreated with a loss of 2000 men, but their force was much reduced by desertions as well. This defeated Mir Kasim’s claim to Bengal. It also raised the Co’s prestige and heavily depressed that of the Moghul govt. In practice the victory made the Co. a govt. as well as a trading concern, though it did its best to conceal the fact.
The Battle of Buxar was fought on 22 October 1764, between the forces under the command of the British East India Company, led by Hector Munro, and the combined armies of Mir Qasim, the Nawab of Bengal till 1763. Mir Jafar was made the Nawab of Bengal for a second time in 1763 by the Company, just after the battle. After being defeated in 4 battles in Katwa, Giria and Udaynala, the Nawab of Awadh Shuja-ud-Daula and the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II, accompanied by Raja Balwant Singh of Kashi made an alliance with Mir Qasim. The battle was fought at Buxar, a “small fortified town” within the territory of Bihar, located on the banks of the Ganga river about 130 kilometres (81 mi) west of Patna; it was a decisive victory for the British East India Company. The war was brought to an end by the Treaty of Allahabad in 1765. Battle
The British army engaged in the fighting numbered 7,072 comprising 859 British, 5,297 Indian sepoys and 918 Indian cavalry. The alliance army’s numbers were estimated to be over 40,000. According to other sources, the combined army of the Mughals, Awadh and Mir Qasim consisting of 40,000 men was defeated by a British army comprising 10,000 men. The Nawabs had virtually lost their military power after the battle of Buxar.
The lack of basic co-ordination among the three disparate allies was responsible for their decisive defeat.
Mirza Najaf Khan commanded the right flank of the Mughal imperial army and was the first to advance his forces against Major Hector Munro at daybreak; the British lines formed within twenty minutes and reversed the advance of the Mughals. According to the British, Durrani and Rohilla cavalry were also present and fought during the battle in various skirmishes. But by midday, the battle was over and Shuja-ud-Daula blew up large tumbrils and three massive magazines of gunpowder.
Munro divided his army into various columns and particularly pursued the Mughal Grand Vizier Shuja-ud-Daula the Nawab of Awadh, who responded by blowing up his boat-bridge after crossing the river, thus abandoning the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II and members of his own regiment. Mir Qasim also fled with his 3 million rupees worth of Gemstones and later died in poverty in 1777. Mirza Najaf Khan reorganised formations around Shah Alam II, who retreated and then chose to negotiate with the victorious British.
Historian John William Fortescue claimed that the British casualties totalled 847: 39 killed and 64 wounded from the European regiments and 250 killed, 435 wounded and 85 missing from the East India Company’s sepoys. He also claimed that the three Indian allies suffered 2,000 dead and that many more were wounded. Another source says that there were 69 European and 664 sepoy casualties on the British side and 6,000 casualties on the Mughal side. The victors captured 133 pieces of artillery and over 1 million rupees of cash. Immediately after the battle Munro decided to assist the Marathas, who were described as a “warlike race”, well known for their relentless and unwavering hatred towards the Mughal Empire and its Nawabs and Mysore. Aftermath
The British victory at Buxar had “at one fell swoop”, disposed of the three main scions of Mughal power in Upper India. Mir Kasim [Qasim] disappeared into an impoverished obscurity. Shah Alam realigned himself with the British, and Shah Shuja [Shuja-ud-Daula] fled west hotly pursued by the victors. The whole Ganges valley lay at the Company’s mercy; Shah Shuja eventually surrendered; henceforth Company troops became the power-brokers throughout Oudh as well as Bihar”.
MIR JAFAR (?-1765) the greatest noble at the Court of the Nawab Suraj-u-Dowlah of Bengal, conspired with the Jagath Seth to depose him and secured the HEIC’s help by promising large sums of compensation for his seizure of Calcutta. Naturally the HEIC agreed and so Mir Jafar’s troops stood aside, while Clive defeated the Nawab at Plassey. On elevation he granted the zamindari of the XXIV Parganas and undertook an offensive and defensive alliance with the HEIC. Extravagance and the onerous financial terms of his agreements drove him towards bankruptcy, and he entered into an intrigue with the Dutch which came to nothing. Meanwhile Clive had gone to England and Mir Jafar’s son had died. The British accordingly deposed him in favour of MIR KASIM (?-?1767) his son-in-law, who ceded the three districts of Burdwan, Midnapore and Chittagong but was a more efficient and sensible administrator than Mir Jafar. In particular to regularise the wholesale abuses of private trade by HEIC officials he agreed a new tax regime (9% ad valorem on the officials, 40% on the rest) with the Pres. of the Calcutta council but the council demanded 2% and on salt only. Thereupon he remitted all duties, which enabled the industrious Bengalis to undersell the British. War followed. Mir Kasim was driven into Oudh where he, with the Nawab of Oudh, were defeated at Buxar (Oct. 1764). Mir Jafar, was meanwhile reinstated upon financial terms which were much more onerous than before, for he had to pay for the war against his son-in-law, restrict his duty on European trading to 2% and pay out enormous sums in presents.
The Battle of Buxar, 22 October 1764, was the decisive battle which defined British as a ruler that was fought between English Forces, and a combined army of Mir Kasim, the Nawab of Bengal, Nawab of Oudh and Shah Alam II, Mughal Emperor.
Nader Shah was Mughal emperor for only fifty-seven days, in 1739, but those days created aftershocks that transformed India’s politics. They broke existing centres of authority, massively shrinking the scope of Mughal power. They set loose bands of mounted warriors who ransacked the countryside seeking wealth from villages and towns. They pushed traders behind the walls of whichever power had the strongest forts. For a short period plunder, rather than negotiation, became the most effective tool for creating new centres of wealth. Those fifty-seven days laid the ground which allowed the East India Company to conquer territory in India for the first time.
Nader Shah was born a long way from India, but he was from the kind of background which for centuries had nurtured men attracted to India as a source of adventure and power. He began life as a mercenary on the southern edge of the Caucasus Mountains between Russia and Iran, recruiting a band of soldiers who seized power in Persia when the 200-year-old Safavid dynasty collapsed in the early 1730s. He reunited Persia and defended the country against invading Turks and Russians. Instead of restoring a Safavid monarch to the throne, in 1736, at the age of thirty-eight, he decided to take the Persian imperial crown himself. Concerned about the security of his authority in Persia, he then marched east in search of legitimacy. If he could be declared Mughal emperor, successor to great central Asian sovereigns like Timur, Babur and Akbar, Nader Shah believed his presently shaky grip on power in Persia itself would be secure.
By the 1730s Delhi had become the Mughal empire’s weak point. Mughal authority, as we have seen, had been dispersed in a network of strong regional regimes. The capital became a centre of symbolic importance more than administrative or military power. So when Nader Shah marched through the Khyber pass into northern India, most ‘Mughal’ rulers stayed in their home provinces. An overwhelming Persian victory at Karnal on 24 February 1739 was followed by a choreographed ceremony in Delhi’s gold-walled audience hall on 19 March, where Nader Shah took the formal sovereignty of the Mughal empire but left the existing emperor in practical charge. Nader Shah’s aim was to make a name for himself as the conqueror of India but leave the existing political structure intact. But something went badly wrong.
As usual, tension began in the marketplace, the one arena where people from different places and with different assumptions were forced to interact. Nader Shah’s troops were not used to the unruliness of the Indian mob. When they tried to fix the price of wheat, they were greeted by protests from Delhi merchants. When soldiers then tried to suppress the crowd, they were attacked. To begin with the new emperor trusted his new subjects more than his own troops, saying, ‘some villain from my camp has falsely accused the men of Hindustan of this crime.’ But when townsfolk fired upon Nader Shah himself, he concluded that only a massive show of violence could secure his new dignity and power. Unsheathing his sword on the roof of a mosque in Chandni Chowk, he signalled the beginning of a massacre, and ‘remained there in a deep and silent gloom that none dared disturb’ while the killing went on around him. The kotwal, or head of Delhi’s police, estimated that 20,000 to 30,000 men and women died.
After staying less than two months, Nader Shah left with silver, gold, 300 elephants, 10,000 horses and the famous jewelled Mughal Peacock Throne that would became the symbol of Persian sovereign power. On his way out, he placed the ‘crown of Hindustan’ on the head of Emperor Muhammad Shah, who ‘offered’ Kashmir and Sindh to be ruled by Persia in ‘gratitude’. Ananda Ranga Pillai, a merchant and adviser to the French East India Company at the southern coastal city of Pondicherry, asked ‘if such, indeed, be the fate that befell the Emperor of Delhi, need we wonder at the calamities which overtake ordinary men’. He added: ‘Of what avail is the power and wealth of kings, on this earth.’ Nader Shah’s conquest taught that ‘[t]hese are perishable’.
Nader Shah’s eruption did not dent eighteenth-century India’s prosperity as most of the soldiers who helped him conquer Delhi spent their plunder in India. But the Persian conquest did corrode the systems which held together eighteenth-century India’s polity. The Mughal empire’s authority to arbitrate between rivals in India’s provinces vanished, allowing civil war to proliferate. Credit networks temporarily disappeared, making it harder to transfer money from one place to another. The British found it difficult to remit money through Indian bankers from Surat to Calcutta for example; the banker they relied on in Bengal had begun ‘withdrawing all his money from the Europeans as well as the natives’ in response to the shock of Mughal decline. The collapse of public finances meant groups which felt they had a legitimate claim on the state’s resources started harassing local populations to collect it, rather than asking at the treasury. A time of prosperity for some, the years after 1739 were a period of insurgency and disorder for others, as social groups who had previously been kept in check by the complex balance of Mughal politics asserted their autonomous power over India’s small towns and the countryside. With its forts and armed forces, the East India Company was designed to protect itself against political violence. The chaos of the 1740s and 1750s was a time when it thrived.
Robert Clive was the greatest beneficiary of the transformation caused by Nader Shah’s conquest. Clive was the eldest of thirteen children born to a well-connected lawyer and former Member of Parliament from the small town of Market Drayton in Shropshire. His background, as the member of an ambitious but not wealthy family of minor gentry, was typical of East India Company officials. Somehow or other though, it seems to have given him a peculiar gift for ‘self-assertion’, as the Bengali writer Nirad C. Chaudhuri put it. Clive is often thought responsible for the beginning of the Company’s empire in southern India, and then for the Battle of Plassey, the first moment when a British army asserted military dominance over a large area of territory in India. But Clive’s greatest talent was telling stories which put him at the centre of the action. In reality forces over which he had no control shaped the course of events.
Clive first arrived in Madras as a 19-year-old in 1744. In the five years since Nader Shah had conquered and left, the politics of south-east India had been transformed by the invasion of Maratha armies marauding in search of money they could no longer collect from Mughal treasuries. Until 1739, the far south-east of India had been part of the Mughal province of Arcot, ruled by increasingly autonomous Nawabs; the area to the north, now the Indian states of Telengana and Andhra, was governed by the Viceroy of the Deccan, a man with the title Nizam ul-Mulk (‘Regulator of the Realm’), who had authority over all the Mughal empire’s territories in the south of India. But their deals with a succession of Mughal emperors let the Marathas claim 35 per cent of revenue throughout these lands. Until 1739, that money had reluctantly been paid directly from the Nawab or Nizam’s treasuries. As the Nizam wrote, ‘if I had the necessary strength to destroy them [the Marathas] and their homelands, I would not have asked for meetings, mutual consultations and united action.’ But Nader Shah’s invasion broke the credit networks and emptied the treasuries which sustained the political order of southern India. Instead of negotiating with regional states, the Marathas sent bands of horsemen to collect revenue directly from local leaders scattered throughout the region’s towns and villages. By 1744, Arcot had seen five years of raiding by the Marathas, and the fracturing of political power into dozens of petty principalities and a myriad of fractious local powers. ‘Every officer who had been entrusted with a petty government was introduced as a na[wab]’, the Nizam said while travelling through the region. One day he is supposed to have exclaimed, ‘I have seen, this day, eighteen nawabs in a country where there should be one, scourge the next fellow who comes with that title.’
Robert Clive’s English education gave him no inkling of the Mughal and Maratha politics which would shape his career. His childhood allowed him to imagine India as a place to make money quickly, perhaps also as a scene of Britain’s ancient quarrel with France. Writing home in his first months, the homesick nineteen-year-old said his purpose was no more than ‘to provide for myself & . . . being of service to my Relations’. His first fighting in the region was indeed driven by English conflict with France. When war broke out between the two European powers and Madras briefly occupied by the French in 1748, Clive managed to escape, enlist in the Company’s army and then helped defend the second British force in the region, Fort St. David. But it was as part of a Company army allied to Indian forces that Clive made his name.
In the years after Nader Shah’s invasion, groups of Indian nobles kept their valuables and more vulnerable family members in the strongest local forts. The paranoia and mutual animosity of the European Companies in the region ensured that Madras and, 100 miles to the south, the French town of Pondicherry were two of the region’s best defended citadels. One claimant to the rule of the Arcot region, Chanda Saheb, sheltered with the French. His rival, the man recognized by the Mughal emperor as the Nawab of Arcot, became an ally of the English. Each enlisted the respective European Company’s army on their side, and in the late 1740s and early 1750s the French alliance was winning. By 1751 the Nawab Muhammad Ali Khan had been driven out of every part of southern India apart from Trichinopoly, a fort 210 miles south-west of Madras. In return for a ‘a gratification adequate to the charges’ – a tract of land twenty-five miles around Madras and a bill of exchange for 20,000 rupees – the Nawab enlisted the East India Company’s army to reassert his control over the south. Muhammad Ali Khan suggested the British recapture the province’s capital city of Arcot. Getting control of the city’s revenue-collecting offices would help the nawab to pay his debts to the Company. When Captain Rodolphus de Gingens, the British Commander-in-Chief in Madras, refused to help with the raid, Robert Clive was appointed as second choice. It was the siege of Arcot that began Robert Clive’s career as a great martial hero.
With 210 soldiers, Clive left for Arcot on 26 August 1751. When he reached the city he found the garrison had been abandoned. Chanda Saheb’s own finances were in a far worse state than the British or Muhammad Ali Khan imagined. The fragmentation of authority meant that even with the possession of the Nawab’s capital, collecting revenue was impossible, so troops had not been paid and hence had abandoned the garrison. Upon his arrival, Clive hoisted two flags, one signifying that Arcot was now under Mughal authority, the other the flag of the nawab. In Clive’s first military venture, there was not a Union flag to be seen; the Company was acting as mercenary for a Mughal ruler. His first action was to appoint revenue officers to collect money from lords in the surrounding countryside on behalf of the Nawab.
Shortly after Clive’s arrival, Chanda Saheb’s son appeared with a French detachment and some 2000 Indian soldiers and blockaded the fort. Clive strengthened the defences, displaying skill in placing British cannons so as to inflict maximum damage. Clive and his soldiers spent fifty days camped in Arcot fort while the French and their Indian allies blew the town to smithereens. Two-thirds of his troops were killed by enemy gunfire. But it wasn’t Clive’s military acumen or his soldiers’ bravery which caused the siege to end. After ten hours of constant bombardment on 14 November, Chanda Saheb’s forces stopped firing and abandoned the town at two o’clock in the morning. They fled so quickly that they left behind four large cannons and a sizeable stock of ammunition. What frightened them was the arrival of 6,000 Maratha soldiers come to support Clive, the Company and the Nawab.
In fact, while Clive was besieged at Arcot, the political situation had turned dramatically in favour of the Company’s ally, Muhammad Ali Khan. The Nawab had been playing the old Mughal game of fear and friendship, enticing a growing band of supporters to join his alliance. The rulers of Mysore to the west supported him in exchange for a promise of territory south of Trichinopoly. The rajas of Tanjore, an offshoot of the Maratha ruling family, had been humiliated by Chanda Saheb a decade earlier and were keen to join the alliance, too. Most importantly, large Maratha armies based in central India had returned to the south, lured by the region’s prosperous agriculture and commerce. In September 1750 the Maratha leader Raghuji Bhonsle sent his general Murari Rao to Arcot. Murari Rao’s force had the full backing of the Maratha Peshwa Balaji Rao, grandson of Balaji Vishwanath. The Marathas decided to support Muhammad Ali Khan against Chanda Saheb and his French allies.
‘You would never believe’, the French commander Dupleix wrote, ‘that four or five hundred Marathas [he miscounted] would make M. Giupil determine to raise the siege.’ After resting for two weeks Clive’s small force marched to join the Maratha army. On 3 December, at Arni, twenty miles south of Arcot, a joint Anglo-Maratha army force of 1,000 men defeated Chanda Saheb’s troops, also seizing 100,000 rupees in cash. This was Clive’s first real battle. Here, he led English troops acting as an auxiliary in a Maratha action. Five months later, Chanda Sahib himself was killed in a fight with the combined forces of the Nawab of Arcot, the East India Company, the rajas of Tanjore and Mysore and the Marathas. It was Maratha not British support which turned the tide in favour of the Company’s Indian allies.
These victories did not found a British empire in South Asia, but they did see the British change from being armed merchants to tax collectors in southern India. In return for lending soldiers and money to Indian rulers, the East India Company began to acquire property outside the vicinity of its forts for the first time. With little cash to pay the Company directly, the Nawab of Arcot handed the British a succession of rights over remunerative assets. In 1748, he gave the East India Company his share of the 50,000 pagodas (gold coins worth three rupees each) collected from pilgrims of the temple at Tirupati each year. Three years later, St Thomé, an old, abandoned Portuguese base along the Coromandel coast, together with a semi-circle of land twenty-five miles outside Madras, paid for the British presence at Trichinopoly and Arcot. The Nawab would stay an ally of the British, with steadily less and less power, until 1799. In addition, in 1759 the Company was handed 30,000 square miles of territory by the Nizam of Hyderabad to the north, in return for the Company’s support against the French and other rivals; the grant was then confirmed by the Mughal emperor in 1765. These northern sarkars (districts) were made up of well-watered rice-growing land which included the Kistna and Godavari river deltas. They were the first significant territories to come under direct British command. The handover similarly cemented an alliance with the Nizam, and Hyderabad remained autonomous until 1947.
Here and elsewhere, the British saw land as a financial asset and a way to fund their fortified outposts, rather than an opportunity to assert political power over large areas of territory. In the northern sarkars, at the temple of Tirupati and throughout the tranche of territory surrounding Madras, the Company acted as Indian rulers did when their financial commitments exceeded their political power: they sold revenue-collecting rights to tax farmers, often leaving them in charge of the same officers who governed them under the Nizam or Nawab. In the 1750s, the British did not want to extend their political leadership evenly over Indian territory. By now possessing theoretical sovereignty in some places, they were not interested in exercising effective political power.
Robert Clive fires a cannon in the Siege of Arcot(now in the state of Tamil Nadu) 31st August to 15th November 1751 in the War in India: picture by Cecil Doughty.
What honour is left?
It was in the eastern province of Bengal that the Company acquired control over their greatest stretch of land. Here, too, the Company’s rise was shape by the forces that disrupted South Asian politics in the years after Nader Shah’s arrival. The Nawab Shuja ud-din died five months after the Persian invasion, possibly from shock at the collapse of Mughal power. The old servant he sent to defend Bengal’s western borders quickly seized power on his death, ruling as Alivardi Khan. Alivardi spent most of his reign battling invasions from Maratha forces which, as in southern India, claimed they had a right to collect a proportion of the province’s total tax take. Raghuji Bhonsle led 20,000 soldiers on horseback in 1742, recruiting the same number again as he was joined by nobles from Bihar and Bengal who backed Alivardi Khan’s rivals. The capital of Murshidabad was burnt to the ground and three million rupees (£46 million in 2016 prices) taken from the treasury. The new Nawab forced the Marathas to flee, but they returned six times over the next nine years.
As elsewhere, the Marathas extended their influence by claiming to be the guardians of legitimate Mughal power. A Bengali poet writing about the invasions said the Marathas had come after the Mughal emperor and condemned the ‘servant’ Alivardi for overturning the natural Mughal hierarchy and seizing power. ‘He has become very powerful, and does not pay me tax,’ Emperor Muhammad Shah is supposed to have complained. ‘I have no army.’ The poet thought the Maratha invasions were divine punishment for the disorder that had engulfed Bengal since Alivardi took the throne at Murshidabad. Bengal had become a place where ‘the people took pleasure with the wives of others. No one knew what might happen at any time,’ he said.
Unable to collect money from central state treasuries, the Marathas harassed and plundered small towns and villages as part of their usual bottom-up process of state formation. Their aim was to force local leaders to back them to preserve the peace, causing the existing regime to collapse. In some parts of the region ruled by the Nawab of Bengal, this strategy was successful. To stop them raiding Alivardi recognized the Marathas as rulers of the province of Orissa in 1751, which had perhaps a fifth of the population he governed. There, the Marathas stopped marauding and adopted Mughal forms of statecraft, governing through a process of negotiation with local rajas. As they supported the constellation of institutions which commercial society relied on, bridges, ferries and temples, markets and mosques, so Orissa’s prosperity returned.
In Bengal and Bihar, the Nawab held on but the raids corroded the capacity of his regime to maintain a balance of power. In historian P. J. Marshall’s words, ‘the fabric of acquiescence on which the Nawab’s governed rested was severely stretched’. To pay for his swelling army Alivardi demanded money from landholders, local princes, and the European companies. ‘Coming down with all His Excellency’s cannon’ to Hughli in 1752, the East India Company complained that Alivardi managed to ‘bully’ 300,000 rupees (£4.9 million in 2016 prices) from the Company. The French wrote about wanting ‘to humble the pride of that man’. Robert Orme suggested to Clive that ‘t’would be a good deed to swinge the old dog’. But Alivardi was an old soldier who retained the loyalty of his army, and was skilful at ensuring potential opponents had no opportunity to unite. He died, of natural causes, aged over eighty, in April 1756.
Through the years after Nader Shah, British officers thought their capacity to control the flow of commodities in Bengal was continually in danger. Raghuji Bhonsle’s troops had attacked the Company’s boats on the Ganges in 1748. Other local lords took advantage of insecurity and seized Company goods through the 1740s and 1750s. In response the Company strengthened its forts in Bengal, building bigger walls and new gun emplacements around its settlement. A line of defences was dug around Calcutta in 1742, to protect the city from attack; it is still called the Maratha ditch. In the last years of Alivardi’s reign the Company built new battlements to the north of Calcutta, ostensibly to defend against the French. Bengal’s government complained that these defences increased their strength against the legitimate authority of the Nawab’s regime, as much as the French or the Marathas.
Alivardi was succeeded by Siraj-ad-Daula, the old Nawab’s 21-year-old grandson who had been nurtured as heir since his late teens. The change of Nawab fractured the fragile peace which Alivardi had maintained. On taking the throne, Siraj found a province populated by armed groups of men trying to challenge his attempt to keep order. For example, land to the east was controlled by Rai Durlabh, a nobleman with strong independent power based around Dhaka; three of the biggest local lords in Bengal, the rajas of Birbhum, Burdwan and Nadia, refused to pay any revenue at all. Amid the chaos caused by Maratha incursions, the death of an effective local ruler left a polity at war with itself. And as in the south of India a decade earlier, the power of the East India Company was strengthened by the flight of merchants and nobles behind the walls of its fortified port.
To Siraj-ad-Daula the flight of rival nobles to the British port made the fortified city an island of disorder, the most serious obstacle to his effort to maintain a balance of power throughout his land. Within two months of becoming Nawab, Siraj insisted the English ‘fill up their ditch, raze their fortifications’ and trade on the same terms as they had done under Murshid Quli Khan, otherwise he promised to ‘expel them totally out of the country’. Nobles in Siraj’s entourage complained of the ‘contumacy, usurpation and violence of the English’, and urged him to act. To begin with the Nawab tried to negotiate, sending an envoy to remonstrate with the East India Company when Rai Durlabh’s son fled to Calcutta with a fortune of 5.3 million rupees, Siraj-ad-Daula sent an envoy. The emissary received a slap from a British officer and was expelled from the British city, returning to Murshidabad asking, ‘What honour is left to us, when a few traders, who have not yet learnt to wash their bottoms reply to the ruler’s order by expelling his envoy?’ Eventually, with his nobles clamouring for action, Siraj-ad-Daula marched south and, in June 1756, occupied Calcutta.
Gusts of passion
When Siraj-ad-Daula expelled the British from the capital of their operations in eastern India, Robert Clive’s mind was on the Marathas not Bengal. Clive had been away in England for two years, but in 1755 he was appointed second in command of an expedition to join a Maratha campaign against the Nizam, then supported by a strong French army under the great general Marquis de Bussy-Castelnau. The plan was for a British force to arrive at Bombay, meet their Maratha friends at Pune and march together towards the Nizam’s capital at Aurangabad, forcing the governor of central India to abandon his alliance with France forever. Clive was appointed lieutenant colonel and given the position of chief at the Company’s subordinate base at Fort St David once the expedition was over. He saw the appointment as a chance to act out the life of a great military hero and return home with new glory.
When he landed in Bombay, however, Clive was disappointed to find the Aurangabad invasion plans had been cancelled, falling foul of British indecision and doubt. After helping the Marathas recapture a string of forts from rebels along India’s western coast instead, Clive sailed to take up his appointment at Fort St David. He imagined there was to be no more fighting. On his way, he wrote to the governor in Madras saying he had been reconciling himself to being ‘happily seated at Fort St David, pleased with the thought of . . . my application to the civil branch of the Company’s affairs and improving the investment’.
Within a week of taking up his new post Clive learnt that an ‘event which must be [of] the utmost consequence to [the Company’s] trade’ had occurred. The British had been driven from Calcutta. Most upsetting was the incident that found infamy as the Black Hole. After the Nawab’s army captured Calcutta, the small number of British soldiers and officers who had not managed to escape were crammed into a tiny jail room in Fort William and left overnight. Many (historians dispute the exact number) suffocated to death. News of the capture caused intense passion at Madras and other English settlements. This was ‘the greatest calamity that ever happened to the English nation in these parts’, one of them said. ‘Every breast seems filled with grief, horror and resentment’, as Clive put it. Rage was directed particularly at Siraj-ad-Daula, the conqueror of Calcutta and supposed murderer of their compatriots. But there was also a feeling of humiliation at the ease with which Calcutta had been captured, and a desire for recrimination among the British themselves. A notice was quickly put up at Falta, the village thirty miles south of Calcutta to which Company servants had fled, asking British officers to state ‘what they think blameable concerning the unfortunate loss’. The mood was for the redemption of lost honour through violent revenge.
Robert Clive was always conscious of the way his actions would be perceived by a hopefully admiring public back in Britain. The recapture of Calcutta was, he thought, his chance for glory, so he quickly put himself forward to lead the reconquering army. On hearing of the fall of Calcutta, he quickly travelled north to Madras to offer his services, pressing his friend Robert Orme, then a member of the Council, to make his case. Clive was appointed joint commander along with Admiral James Watson. ‘This expedition’, he wrote to his father, ‘if attended with success may enable me to do great things. It is by far the grandest of my undertakings.’22 In October 1756, he sailed north, accompanied by ‘a fine body of Europeans full of spirit and resentment’: 784 in total. He also had copies of certificates from the Mughal emperor giving the Company the right to settle in Bengal. Like the Marathas, the Company claimed its valiant actions were underwritten by Mughal authority.
Others less concerned with personal glory found ensuing events hard to comprehend, and their perspective allows us to trace the importance of passion and glory hunting in the unfolding drama. John Corneille wrote a particularly illuminating narrative. A lieutenant in the Duke of Dorsetshire’s regiment who fought alongside Clive, Corneille sent a series of puzzled letters about the East India Company’s war with Siraj-ad-Daula to his father. For him, the British war against Siraj was not a calculated effort by the British to maximize their advantage. It was an event driven by ‘the vicissitudes of fortune’, by luck and passion.
The history of the British empire began for John Corneille when he joined an army packed ‘from the different regiments of the kingdom of Ireland’ into nine ships at Cork in 1755. Corneille was a ‘military man’ whose vocation required him to be ‘ready at short warning to go wherever [his] duty might call him’, be it India or fighting the French in Europe. But by the time Corneille’s ship reached Madras in March 1756, war with France had been put on hold. Instead, Corneille found himself a mercenary tax collector, leading troops against local lords in Arcot who refused to pay revenue to the Company’s ally, Nawab Muhammad Ali Khan. By July, he was back in Madras where ‘everything was in a state of tranquility’. The following month, stories about the capture of Calcutta were circulating. Sharing a sense of outrage at Britain’s humiliation, Corneille was also hostile to the ‘irresolution and delays’ of his commanders. When it finally headed north, his ship sailed into bad weather and sprang a leak. With 225 soldiers on board seriously seasick, Corneille’s vessel only made it halfway up the coast to Vizagapatam. There, the frustrated officer spent his days wandering and shooting in the lush countryside, angry at missing out as 800 European and 1000 Indian soldiers led by Clive and Watson recaptured Calcutta.
Calcutta was reconquered on 2 January 1757. The Company’s army carried on to Bengal’s second biggest port of Hughli, twenty miles north, and ‘made a prodigious slaughter’ of the Nawab’s army. Shortly afterwards, on 9 February, the Nawab of Bengal signed a treaty that gave the Company the right to trade without paying taxes, to mint coins and a promise of compensation for the cash lost in the occupation of Calcutta. After the signing of the treaty John Corneille wrote that ‘the English after an eight months banishment were restored again to their settlement, and not only to the full enjoyment of their ancient rights and privileges but many more’.
Clive and Watson believed Siraj decided to sign a peace treaty with the East India Company because he was cowed into submission by the British army. ‘Arms’, Admiral Watson wrote, ‘are more to be dependent on, and I dare say will be much more prevalent than any treaties or negotiations.’ In fact, Siraj’s agreement to a peace treaty was shaped by circumstances beyond Bengal of which the British had only an inkling. In 1756 and early 1757, Delhi was in a state of political turmoil once again. Nader Shah’s conquest of 1739 had started a sequence of western invasions, as northern India once again became a field for thousands of adventurers, warriors and empire-builders from Persia and Afghanistan. The greatest of these was Ahmad Shah Durrani, a Pashtun soldier from the Afghan city of Herat who began his military career in Nader Shah’s army. Ahmad Shah invaded northern India seven times between 1748 and 1767, but perhaps the most devastating incursion occurred in the final months of 1756 and first part of 1757. Siraj-ad-Daula was concerned that warriors invading from the west were about to pour into Bengal, so at the beginning of February 1757 he believed that a quick agreement to the East India Company’s demands might help enlist the British as allies.
John Corneille thought the treaty with Siraj-ad-Daula would end the fighting for good, but then news that war had finally broken out with France reached India. The troops Corneille commanded became part of ‘a scheme . . . towards dispossessing [the French] out of their settlements in Bengal’. Corneille left Vizagapatam for Calcutta on 1 March 1757. His first action in Bengal was to take part in the British conquest of the East India French Company’s small fort at the town of Chandernagore, fifteen miles north of Calcutta, an event that gave the lieutenant of the Devonshires his greatest sense of honour. With the defeat of the French the British had at last ‘recovered that character which their pusillanimous behaviour at Calcutta had justly lost them, and were once more looked on as a great and powerful people’, Corneille argued. Still keen on enlisting the English as partners against Ahmad Shah, Siraj-ad-Daula wrote to Clive of his ‘inexpressible pleasure’ at the British victory over their old rivals.
Despite Siraj’s clear interest in negotiating with the British, the months between March and June saw the relationship between the two finally collapse. The exchange of threats and insults, humiliation and revenge that had begun in June 1756 created a cycle of antagonism that neither side was able to step out of, despite the apparent willingness of both to do so.
Young, and with little experience in the practical arts of statecraft, Siraj-ad-Daula was a man ruled by a more passionate desire to seek speedy revenge than his predecessors had been. ‘Siraj-ad-Daula was not the man to forget what he regarded as an insult,’ Jean Law, French chief at Chandernagore observed. He had quickly become ‘incensed against the English’. Richard Becher, one of the most thoughtful British observers, argued that Siraj had decided to occupy Calcutta to begin with in a ‘sudden gust of passion’.
Yet even Siraj tried to move beyond the cycle of anxious violence. He knew the rules of Mughal statecraft, the politics of combining friendship with fear, even if he wasn’t always experienced enough to put them into practice. Throughout his exchanges with the East India Company Siraj tried to play the part of the statesman, appealing to the British to act in the way appropriate for merchants. ‘You have taken and plundered Hughli,’ he wrote to Admiral Watson in March, ‘and made war upon my subjects: those are not actions becoming merchants.’ As traders and men sharing a common belief in the same God, he thought the British had a duty to keep their promises. In February, he compared them unfavourably to the Hindu Marathas. ‘The Mahrattas are bound by no gospel, yet they are strict observers of treaties,’ Siraj wrote. ‘It will therefore be a matter of great astonishment and hard to be believed, if you, who are enlightened with the gospel, should not remain firm, and preserve the treaty you have ratified in the presence of God and Jesus Christ.’
For their part, British officers ignored Siraj’s allusion to prophets and scriptures. They spoke as if being merchants was inextricably linked to the use of military force. They believed that the honour of a merchant in Asia always depended on his capacity for violence. The British addressed the Nawab as a fellow warrior, believing that he shared with them a martial ethos. Clive and many of his compatriots thought anything other than an explicit admission of the Nawab’s contrition an insult to their martial power.
Indian friends of the British tried to encourage a less aggressive tone. Commenting on one draft of a letter that Clive intended to send to Siraj, the Company’s ally Manik Chandra complained that Clive used ‘improper expressions’. Clive replied that it would not be consistent with his ‘Duty to the Company or their honour’ to write in submissive language. ‘We are come to demand Satisfaction, not to entreat his favour.’ ‘I know you are a great Prince and a great warrior. I likewise for these past ten years have been consistently Fighting in these parts and it has pleased God Almighty always to make me successful,’ he wrote to the Nawab.
While Siraj’s unusually quick passion played some part in the breakdown, the anxious, prickly sense of honour the British carried with them in the subcontinent contributed the most to the escalation of conflict. As they had been in the run-up to the Anglo-Mughal war seventy years earlier, the Company’s officers thought they could not achieve self-respect in the subcontinent without achieving total dominance over their rivals. As then, a concern with the profits of the East India Company underlaid British actions. But it was over-laid in turn by an anxious, often paranoid attitude which interpreted every possible slight as a major humiliation, and considered violence the only means of restoring honour.
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.