China-India – Conflict Background

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.

Gheria 1756

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.

BATTLE OF BUXAR, (23 October 1764)

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 Company’s Conquest I

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.

The Company’s Conquest II

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 Company’s Conquest III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Insolence and interruptions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Delhi Field Force March to Dehli

The British army storm the batteries at Battle of Badli-ki-Serai near Delhi, during the Indian Rebellion, 8th June 1857. A lithograph by W. Simpson, after a drawing by Captain G. F. Atkinson. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Indian Mutineers selected Delhi as their capital, but, despite their attempts to drive the British off the nearby ridge, they failed to take the initiative. British reinforcements counterattacked the city and captured it after a desperate struggle.

In 1855 John Lawrence asked Reynell Taylor, the temporary Commandant of the Guides, to undertake a thorough review of the charges against Hodson relating to financial wrongdoing. The subsequent report, presented in March 1856, exonerated the former commandant. Taylor had gone through the accounts with a fine-tooth comb and considered them to be ‘an honest and correct record from beginning to end’. He had examined every claim of alleged irregularity and had found ‘Lieutenant Hodson’s statements borne out by the facts of the case’. Though the accounts had been ‘irregularly kept’, Hodson had inherited a highly unorthodox system from his predecessor. In a covering letter Taylor recommended a second court of inquiry to consider his own findings. John Lawrence’s response was that neither the Commander-in-Chief nor the new Governor-General, Lord Canning, saw the need for a new inquiry. They were, however, prepared to grant Hodson a ‘full acquittance’ on matters relating to the Corps’ accounts and thereby hoped to put an end to ‘this harassing and painful business’.

Hodson saw his ‘full acquittance’ for what it was — an attempt to sweep the matter under the carpet — and continued to demand a public inquiry. In April 1857 he travelled to Simla to lobby Anson in person and received a sympathetic hearing. ‘He would write himself to Lord Canning and try to get justice done me,’ wrote a delighted Hodson to his brother. ‘I do trust the light is breaking through the darkness and that before long I may have good news to send you.’ Anson never did write to Canning. News of the mutinies at Meerut and Delhi reached Simla a few days after his meeting with Hodson and thereafter he had more urgent business to attend to. But he had been impressed by the forthright subaltern and, after reaching Ambala, appointed him assistant quartermaster-general with special responsibility for intelligence. Hodson’s first task was to re-establish contact with Meerut, from which place only ‘very imperfect’ information had been received. He set off on 21 May, paused for a time at Karnal, where he was joined by an escort of the Raja of Jhind’s cavalry, and finally reached Meerut at daybreak on the 22nd. ‘He had left Karnal (76 miles off) at nine the night before,’ wrote an officer at Meerut, ‘with one led horse and an escort of Sikh cavalry and, as I had anticipated, here he was with despatches for Wilson! . . . Hodson rode straight to Wilson, had his interview, a bath, breakfast, and two hours’ sleep, and then rode back the seventy-six miles, and had to fight his way back for about thirty miles of the distance.’ He rested for a few more hours at Karnal and then continued on to Ambala, arriving in the early hours of 23 May. He had covered more than 250 miles in two days.

Anson was impressed and at once commissioned him to raise and command a corps of irregular cavalry. So came into being Hodson’s Horse, mainly Sikhs from the Amritsar, Jhind and Lahore districts of the Punjab. They too wore khaki tunics and could be distinguished from the Guides Cavalry by their scarlet turbans and shoulder sashes. Their commandant was even more distinctive. ‘A tallish man,’ wrote a contemporary, ‘with yellow hair, a pale, smooth face, heavy moustache, and large, restless, rather unforgiving eyes.’ He still suffered from migraines and wore tinted spectacles to protect his bright blue eyes from the fierce Indian sun. Yet as one of his British officers observed: ‘As a cavalry soldier he was perfection, a strong seat on horseback (though an ugly rider), a perfect swordsman, nerves like iron, and a quick, intelligent eye, indefatigable and zealous, and with great tact.’

Anson arrived at Karnal on 25 May. He was billeted in relative comfort with General Palmer, a retired sepoy general; his staff had to make do with the dak-bungalow where they were crammed in six to a room. Nevertheless it was Anson who fell ill with cholera on the morning of 26 May and was dead within twenty-four hours. He lived long enough to appoint Sir Henry Barnard, just arrived in camp, as his successor. ‘Barnard,’ he said faintly, ‘I leave you the command. You will say how anxious I have been to do my duty. I cannot recover. May success attend you. God bless you. Good-bye.’ ‘Poor General Anson!’ wrote Colonel Keith Young in his diary. ‘[Colonel] Chester returned about three in the morning to say he was dead, poor man. Chester tells me that he must have felt himself quite unequal to the present emergency; and anxiety of mind has had much to do with his fatal illness. He seems to be popular with very few; and the Native troops have apparently a great hatred for him, honestly thinking that he was commissioned to convert them. Quite a private funeral in the burial-ground in the evening, Chester reading the service.’

Both before and after his death, Anson was widely criticized for his plodding response to the outbreak. ‘He ought to have been before Delhi days ago,’ wrote a doctor at Nowgong in central India on 29 May. ‘The natives even ask what he is doing. Such delay is unpardonable, particularly as so much depends upon the celerity of his movements.’ Even Canning, while recognizing that Anson had faced many problems, was convinced that he had delayed unnecessarily.

With Anson dead, Barnard took charge of the force at Karnal and the dithering General Reed succeeded by right to the command of the Bengal Army. Only the Queen, acting on advice from the British government, could appoint Anson’s permanent successor as Commander-in-Chief of India. Yet a temporary replacement was essential, and Canning and his advisers plumped for 53-year-old Lieutenant-General Sir Patrick Grant, Commander-in-Chief of Madras and a former Adjutant-General of the Bengal Army. It was a brave decision because no Company officer had ever held the Supreme Command. But in the unique circumstances that then prevailed, it was thought right to appoint a vigorous officer who had an intimate knowledge of Indian troops. Grant did not reach Calcutta to take up his temporary appointment until 17 June. Until then, Reed was supreme in Bengal, and on 28 May, defying instructions from Calcutta to leave Barnard to his own devices, he left Rawalpindi to take charge of the force advancing upon Delhi. His already frail health deteriorated en route, however, and Barnard remained in command.

Born in Oxfordshire in 1799, the son of a parson, Barnard had been educated at Westminster and Sandhurst before joining the Grenadier Guards in 1814. Since then he had spent most of his career in staff appointments, including a stint as chief-of-staff to General Simpson, Lord Raglan’s successor in the Crimea. But he had also commanded a brigade and a division in the recent war against the Russians, and, though he had only been in India for a matter of months, Canning considered him the best man for the critical task of retaking Delhi. Described by a member of the headquarters staff as a ‘very good, gentlemanly little man’ who did not ‘want for pluck’, his early zeal seemed to confirm Canning’s judgement. ‘So long as I exercise any power,’ he wrote to Sir John Lawrence on 28 May, ‘you may rest assured that every energy shall be devoted to the objects I have now in view, viz., concentrating all the force I can collect at Delhi, securing the bridge at Baghpat, and securing our communication with Meerut.’

For a time Barnard was as good as his word. The bulk of his force set off from Karnal in the evening of 30 May and five days later was at Alipore, 11 miles north of Delhi. It left in its wake a trail of death and destruction. ‘We burnt every village,’ wrote Lieutenant Kendal Coghill of the 2nd Bengal Fusiliers, ‘and hanged all the villagers who had treated our fugitives badly until every tree was covered with scoundrels hanging from every branch.’ Some positively enjoyed this gruesome task. ‘There were eleven more villagers hung yesterday, to the great delight of Fawcett, Blair, and Evans, who nearly forfeited their dinner for the butchery,’ wrote an officer of the 9th Lancers to his wife on 4 June. ‘Hope [Grant, the CO] had to approve of their sentence, and gave directions about a strong enough rope just before he sat down. All this is very horrid work, preceding as it does the blood-stained horrors of the battle-field.’ Trials were little more than drumhead courts martial with officers and men vowing to kill prisoners whether they were found guilty or not. A private in the 9th Lancers wrote on 1 June:

News was gained today that it was here that some of the Europeans making their escape from Delhi were ill used and a Doctor, his wife and child, killed. Mr Hodson went to the village where the guilty parties were and some eleven prisoners were brought in. One among them, a young man who violated the lady and then killed her and also the infant child. They were all lodged in the Provost Guard and the Provost had hard work from keeping [the members of the guard] from taking the law in their own hands. As it was their heads were shaved and pork fat rubbed all over them and then spat in their mouths; according to their beliefs this sent their soul to hell and made them unclean. About 4 o’clock in the afternoon these men were all tried and sentenced to be hung at sunset. During the time their trial was going on a number of men assembled near to the tent armed with sticks and swore by all that was good if this man, the murderer, was not sentenced to be hanged they would beat his brains out on the spot. But when the Provost came out and announced their fate and pointing to a large tree at the same time, all were satisfied . . . At last they made their appearance under a strong guard. On reaching the tree the villains called upon their countrymen to avenge their blood, but not one dared to move. They were hung and buried under the tree . . . All these men confessed their guilt before death.

Sometimes trials were dispensed with entirely. Tales of atrocities against women and children, many of them exaggerated, had infuriated the British soldiers and almost any Indian male was considered fair game. Harriet Tytler, whose husband had been appointed paymaster to the Delhi force, was shocked to see the body of a harmless Muslim baker dangling from the branch of an acacia tree. ‘From what we could gather,’ she wrote, ‘this poor man had been late for several days with his bread for the men’s breakfast, so Tommie Atkins threatened to hang him if this happened again and so they did. I can’t understand how such a cruel deed was allowed, for they in turn should have been hanged, but I suppose a single soldier could not have been spared, even in the cause of justice.’

Meanwhile Brigadier Wilson’s force had finally left Meerut on 27 May. It was made up of six companies of the 60th Rifles, two squadrons of the 6th Dragoon Guards, a troop of horse artillery, a battery of foot artillery and a small number of Sappers and Miners: a total of one thousand men and fourteen guns, two of them 18-pounders. To avoid the worst of the sun the force marched at night and rested by day. The effect was debilitating none the less. ‘I hope Barnard’s force will move down soon,’ wrote Wilson from his camp at Ghazi-ud-din-Nagar on the left bank of the Hindan River, nine miles from Delhi, on 30 May, ‘for I am quite sure no European can long withstand the exposure we are now undergoing. The heat and dust are dreadful and we are all, particularly the officers, marching in the greatest discomfort, from the [Commissariat] not being able to supply us with carriage. I sit or lie all day with a wet towel round my head.’ He had, moreover, been sleeping in his boots, ‘ready to turn out at a moment’s notice,’ since the outbreak at Meerut. Second-Lieutenant Hugh Chichester of the Bengal Artillery found the dust a particular torment. ‘It is nothing but perpetual sand storms in the day,’ he informed his mother. ‘Your tent and everything one has gets covered, you swallow oceans, it is something abominable.’

At four in the afternoon of 30 May Wilson’s camp on the Hindan was fired upon by a mixed force of mutineers that had marched out of Delhi under the nominal command of Bahadur Shah’s grandson, Mirza Abu Bakr. The main rebel position was in a village on rising ground across the river. They had, in addition, placed two guns and a strong force of infantry to cover the 600-yard causeway across the Hindan. Ensign Everard Phillipps of the 11th Native Infantry was with two companies of riflemen ordered to take the bridge:

On reaching the bridge the two companies extended, two more came in support and the long range of the rifles forced the enemy to abandon the guns. The Colonel sent me down to order the two leading companies to reform on the causeway and take the guns at the point of the bayonets. One of the 11th’s colours was with the guns — the sepoys carried it off on our taking the guns. One sepoy, Dars Singh of the 11th, fired his musket into a cart full of ammunition. Captain Andrews, Wilton and myself and about nine men were around a tumbril when it blew up. Andrews was blown to pieces and four men killed. Wilton’s head was bruised — God only knows how I escaped. I’m merely bruised, just a little blood drawn from about five places . . . When the smoke cleared up the enemy had retired to a village strongly walled, on rising ground about 200 yards off. We fired a few shots and cleared it at the point of the bayonet. The sepoys fought like fiends — in one place we left about 35 dead all in a heap, killed altogether 50 and lost five men of rifles.

The rebels’ cause had not been helped by the antics of their inexperienced royal commander, who watched the early stages of the battle from the roof of a house near to the bridge. ‘From time to time,’ wrote Mainodin Hassan Khan, ‘he sent messages to his Artillery to tell them of the havoc their fire was creating in the English ranks . . . Presently a shell burst near the battery [at the bridge], covering the gunner with dust. The Commander-in-Chief, experiencing for the first time in his life the effects of a bursting shell, hastily descended from the roof of the house, mounted his horse, and galloped off with his escort of sowars into the rear of the position, not heeding the cries of his troops. A general stampede then took place.’ The British captured five guns, four of them heavy calibre.

That evening Wilson set up camp on the Delhi side of the river. The bridge was not considered strong enough to bear the weight of the guns so, with some difficulty, they were dragged through the quicksand of a nearby ford by teams of elephants and bullocks. The following day, shortly after noon, the rebels attacked again in even greater strength. ‘They had taken up nearly the same position as the previous day,’ wrote Second-Lieutenant Chichester, ‘only a little more to the right and a higher position. We could only see the muzzle of the guns peeping over the hill and they had a most capital protection from our firing. Having no end of heavy guns in position they made some excellent long and straight shooting. The grape rattled in amongst the troop of Horse Artillery like a hail storm, and the Artillery having only two heavy guns, the rest being 6- and 9-pounders, we found great difficulty in reaching them.’ Eventually the two 18-pounders were brought forward to support the horse artillery, causing the rebel fire to slacken. At this point Wilson ordered a general advance, and the enemy withdrew under the cover of a light field battery, so preventing the loss of any heavy guns. The British troops ‘were so knocked up by the sun and want of water’ that they were unable to pursue for long. Of the forty or so British casualties during the two-day battle, several died from the effects of the sun.

On 1 June Wilson’s small force was considerably strengthened by the arrival of six hundred Gurkhas of the Sirmur Battalion. With no news from Barnard it remained on the Hindan for two further days. Finally, during the evening of 3 June, the long-awaited order arrived: Wilson was to make for the bridge-of-boats at Baghpat and a rendezvous with the main force on the 7th. Both Hewitt and Hervey Greathed, who was accompanying Wilson as his political adviser, were against such a move because they thought it would expose Meerut and the Doab to rebel attack. Barnard and his staff considered such a threat to be negligible. ‘Our object is Delhi,’ recorded Colonel Young, ‘and everything must be sacrificed to this . . . as to Meerut itself, they have fortified the school of instruction and can hold their own against any number.’ Wilson was in agreement: ‘While we are before Delhi they will not dare to detach any large force from thence.’ Hewitt’s objections he put down to fear. ‘Old Hewitt is furious with me,’ he informed his wife on 3 June, ‘and says I shew him great disrespect because I pay no attention to his orders, quite forgetting that I am commanding a Field Force under the orders of Gen. Barnard and therefore independent of him. He is a dreadful old fool, and thinks of nothing but preserving his old carcase from harm.’ Wilson began his march on the night of 4 June and reached the bridge at Baghpat two days later. On the 7th he linked up with Barnard at Alipore. ‘I can’t tell you how well they all looked,’ Keith Young informed his wife, ‘the Brigadier himself in high health . . . [Captain] Edwin Johnson [Bengal Artillery] the picture of health; and Colonel Jones of the Rifles, as fat and rosy as ever.’

As the siege-train from Phillour had arrived a day earlier, there was nothing to prevent Barnard from continuing his march towards Delhi. He now had under his command the best part of four regiments of European infantry, two of European cavalry, three troops of horse artillery, two companies of foot artillery and a detachment of artillery recruits. The 60th Native Infantry and a squadron of the 4th Light Cavalry had been sent to Rohtak and Saharunpur respectively, and the only native troops now with Barnard were the Sirmur Battalion of Gurkhas, fifty sowars of the 4th Irregular Cavalry and a small quantity of sappers and miners. The total strength of the so-called Delhi Field Force was now around 3,200 men, most of them Europeans, with twenty-two field guns and twenty-four siege guns.

Barnard knew, thanks to William Hodson and his scouts, that his advance was barred by a strong rebel force in well-constructed positions at the village of Badli-ki-Serai, halfway down the Grand Trunk Road between Alipore and Delhi. It numbered about 9,000 men and thirty guns, and was commanded by Mirza Kizr Sultan, the uncle of the disgraced Abu Bakr. Barnard’s plan was to attack the rebels from three directions: the two infantry brigades would advance on either side of the road, while the cavalry, under Brigadier Grant, crossed the canal to the west of the village ‘with a view to taking the enemy in the flank’. The plan could have been disrupted by the arrival in camp of General Reed in the early hours of 8 June. Fortunately Reed was suffering from ‘severe sickness and fatigue’ and did not interfere with Barnard’s arrangements.

The British force left Alipore in darkness and appeared before the enemy positions at Badli-ki-Serai six miles west of Delhi, at dawn. As the assault brigades deployed in the plain, the artillery advanced to engage the rebel guns. But the latter were mostly heavy pieces and got the better of the early exchanges. ‘I have never seen such splendid artillery practice as theirs was,’ noted Lieutenant Kendal Coghill. ‘They had the range to a yard and every shot told.’ One staff officer told his son that he ‘was never under a hotter fire, even at Chilianwalla’. Hugh Chichester, who was with four heavy British guns — two 18-pounders and two 8-inch mortars — recalled: ‘We had marched about 5 miles when all of a sudden a bomb was heard, and the shots went right over our heads killing several, amongst them one or two officers.’ The most grievous loss was Colonel Charles Chester, the adjutant-general, who was hit in the side by a roundshot that also killed his white horse, ‘Sir Walter’. Keith Young was on the opposite side of the road when Chester fell and was shocked when he came upon his body. ‘It seems he lived for a minute or two after he was struck down,’ wrote Young, ‘and young Barnard, the Aide-de-Camp, jumped off his horse and went to his assistance, holding his head until he died. He was quite sensible at first, and spoke to Barnard, asking him to raise his head that he might look at his wound; and seeing . . . that he couldn’t live, he wanted Barnard to leave him, which he would not do, but gave him some water to drink, on which he said, “What’s the use of giving me water?” But it seemed to revive him a little, and he died without apparent pain.’

Finding that his light field pieces were unable to silence the rebel guns, and that he was ‘losing men fast’, Sir Henry Barnard ordered the 1st Brigade to charge the left of the rebel defences. Lieutenant Kendal Coghill recalled:

When [the 1st Brigade were] within 300 yards [the rebels] poured awful volleys of round shot, shell and grape into the line, but a hearty good English cheer and a charge at the double brought the 75th Foot and 1st Fusiliers on their guns and the bayonets did the rest. About 3000 of the enemy’s infantry, some cavalry and horse artillery bolted across towards our lines on the left and met the 60th Rifles and 2nd Fusiliers who gave them a few well directed volleys and then ceased firing for close in their rear a wing of our 9th Lancers charged across, cut up a lot and captured 2 guns! It was then our turn for the sport, so the left Brigade (ours) brought its left round, went through a large jungle or forest, killed all we found, went through a large village, rooted them out and potted them and then fired it. We then turned their guns on them, gave them a few rounds of grape into the retiring mass and by half nine that position was ours . . .

As at Ghazi-ud-din-Nagar, the rebel commander was the first to flee. Intercepted by Mahbub Ali Khan, the King’s chief minister, Mirza Kizr Sultan explained that he was ‘hurrying back to the city for more artillery and ammunition’ and, ‘in spite of all remonstrances, galloped away’.

The victorious British troops were hot, thirsty and exhausted. But Barnard was determined to push on to the Ridge and allowed just half an hour’s rest before ordering an advance. A short way beyond Badli-ki-Serai, at a fork in the road, Barnard split his troops into two columns. Brigadier Wilson led one to the right down the continuation of the Grand Trunk Road towards the picturesque suburb of Sabzi Mundi at the bottom of the Ridge. Barnard took the other to the left through the destroyed British cantonments. ‘I soon found,’ reported Barnard, ‘that the enemy had posted himself strongly on the ridge over the cantonments, with guns in position, and under the range of which we soon found ourselves; upon which I determined on a rapid flank movement to the left, in the hope of gaining the ridge under cover of the cantonments, and taking the position in flank.’ Lieutenant Coghill, whose 2nd Bengal Fusiliers were at the point of the attack, recalled:

At the foot of the hill we extended in skirmishing order about 8 or 900 of us and when we got within 100 yards of the top the word to charge was given and with a yell like so many demons we rushed up and in ten minutes the battery was ours — we spiked the guns and rushed after them down the opposite side of the hill until we were fairly done and then we came up and finished off some lurkers and some wounded men who shammed dead and potted at us. We killed two blackguard Englishmen who begged for mercy swearing they had been compelled to fight but had aimed over our heads, but as they had served the guns and every shot had come into our columns and they were recognised as great blackguards by their own men, the artillery, no mercy was shown and they were killed on the spot.

These two English rebels were deserters who had converted to Islam. One British officer attributed the accuracy of the rebel fire to their expertise as former artillerymen. Their summary execution was inevitable.

At Hindu Rao’s House, the deserted former home of a Maratha nobleman on the southern end of the Ridge, Barnard ‘had the satisfaction of meeting Brigadier Wilson’, whose column had had to fight the rebels the whole way into Delhi ‘through the strongest ground, gardens and villages that could be imagined’. There many of Barnard’s officers urged him to continue on into the city. But he refused, saying, ‘No, no, we will fight them in the open.’ It was, according to Mainodin Hassan Khan, a mistake. ‘If they had instantly marched on the city, the place would have fallen easily into their power . . . The hesitation on the part of the English inspired the Sepoys with confidence and, arming the city walls with guns, they soon began to fire shots in the direction of the cantonments.’

Barnard responded by placing pickets and gun batteries at four strong-points along the Ridge: (from north to south) the Flagstaff Tower, a ruined mosque, an ancient observatory and Hindu Rao’s House. The Sirmur Battalion of Gurkhas reached this last building, just 1,200 yards from the city walls, at around one in the afternoon. ‘Had just made ourselves comfortable,’ wrote Major Reid, ‘when the alarm was sounded. In ten minutes the mutineers were seen coming up towards Hindu Rao’s house in force. I went out with my own regiment and two companies of Rifles, and drove them back into the city. This, however, was not accomplished till five p.m., so that we were under arms for sixteen hours. Heat fearful. My little fellows behaved splendidly, and were cheered by every European regiment . . . They had (because it was a Native regiment) doubts about us; but I think they are now satisfied.’

Barnard may have missed a golden opportunity to retake Delhi. But he had won a great victory, nevertheless, thanks largely to the unflinching courage of his European infantry. Thirteen rebel guns had been captured, two of them 24-pounders, at a cost of 51 killed, 132 wounded and 2 missing. The rebel deaths alone were estimated at 400. As the fighting died down, Barnard ordered a tented camp to be set up on the old parade-ground, beyond the reach of the rebel guns on the city walls. The cantonments themselves were a scene of devastation, ‘only the walls standing, and things lying about the roads in every direction — broken dinner-sets, music-books, etc.’ But this was nothing compared to the carnage of the battlefield. Harriet Tytler, who accompanied her husband over the ground in the afternoon, remembered seeing scores of dead British soldiers lying neatly in a row. The rebels, including members of her husband’s regiment, were left where they fell. ‘I saw some of our fine, tall, handsome men,’ she wrote, ‘lying somewhat swollen by the heat of those four hours and stark naked, for every camp follower robbed them of their gold and silver jewels, and the last comers of the clothes on their bodies, leaving the poor fellows just as God had made them. Such handsome, splendid specimens of high caste Hindus. One man had a hole as large as a billiard ball through his forehead, a perfect giant in death. I could not help saying, “Serve you right for killing our poor women and children who had never injured you.”’

The following morning Henry Daly’s Corps of Guides marched into the British camp. One of the first officers to greet them was William Hodson, their former commandant. ‘It would have done your heart good to see the welcome they gave me,’ he wrote to his wife at Simla, ‘cheering and shouting and crowding round me like frantic creatures. They seized my bridle, dress, hands, and feet, and literally threw themselves down before the horse with the tears streaming down their faces. Many officers who were present hardly knew what to make of it, and thought the creatures were mobbing me; and so they were, but for joy, not for mischief.’ Everything about the new arrivals excited wonder in their onlookers. ‘The Guides Corps is a sight to see,’ noted a cavalry officer. ‘Their dress is highly peculiar and the men are chiefly of two sorts, viz., the tall, powerful, swarthy Afghan, and the short, muscular, olive-skinned Gurkha. They are the admiration of the camp, having marched 580 miles in twenty-two days — a feat unparalleled in the records of Indian marching.’ The epic trek was all the more incredible for having been accomplished during the feast of Ramadan and in the hottest time of the year.

The Guides had only been in the camp a matter of hours when they were given a further opportunity to impress. Shortly after two in the afternoon, the rebels launched a strong attack on the pickets at the southern end of the Ridge. Daly and his cavalry helped to drive them back to the walls of the city — but not without cost. ‘The men hotly engaged,’ recorded Daly, ‘Battye mortally wounded — noble Battye ever in front; Khan Singh Rosa hard hit; Hawes clipt across the face with a sword and many good men down. Men behaved heroically, impetuously.’ Lieutenant Quintin Battye, the popular commander of the Guides Cavalry, had been shot in the groin and died that evening. His last muttered words are typical of the patriotic sentiments expressed by many British officers at this time: ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.’

The British position on the Ridge was, in the words of one staff officer, ‘not only a coign of vantage for attack, but a rampart of defence’. The conundrum now facing Sir Henry Barnard was what to do next: dig in and await reinforcements or risk a surprise attack. Most of the officers on the Ridge, particularly the young ones, were for the bolder course. Any delay, they argued, would be to the advantage of the rebels, whose strength was increasing daily with the arrival of fresh mutineers. British numbers, on the other hand, could only decline in the short term. At first Barnard too seemed to favour the aggressive option. On 11 June he asked William Hodson and three young Engineer officers — Greathed, Chesney and Maunsell — to assess the feasibility of a sudden assault. That same day they reported that the Kabul and Lahore Gates had not yet been bricked up, that their bridges were still intact, and that troops could approach within 400 and 900 yards of them respectively under cover. They recommended blowing up both gates simultaneously, followed by a dawn assault by two columns.

Barnard approved the scheme and gave orders for it to be carried out during the morning of 13 June. The assaulting troops, including almost all the fit Europeans, were ordered to assemble at one in the morning. But at the appointed hour three hundred members of the 1st Bengal Fusiliers were missing. The duty officer, Brigadier Graves, was to blame. A couple of hours earlier he had received a verbal order from Barnard that all European troops on picket duty were to be withdrawn for special duty. This order included a ‘vague hint that a night-assault was in contemplation’. When Graves reached the Flagstaff picket, however, and realized that it was about to be left in the sole charge of Indian troops, he instructed the Europeans to stand fast while he galloped down to the general’s tent to seek confirmation of the original order. Barnard told him that every British infantryman was needed for an immediate assault. But he was evidently having second thoughts because he then asked Graves, who knew Delhi well, the assault’s chances of success. ‘You may certainly take the city by surprise,’ replied the brigadier, ‘but whether you are strong enough to hold it is another matter.’ This response is said to have shaken Barnard’s faltering resolve still further. It was, in any case, too late to carry out the original order, because, as one senior officer commented, ‘it would have been broad daylight before we could all get down to the Gates’. The operation had to be cancelled.

The majority of Barnard’s staff officers were secretly relieved. ‘Most fortunate, I think, that we did not attack,’ noted Keith Young in his diary, ‘for failure would have been death — and success was not quite certain; and we are not reduced to such a desperate state yet as to risk all. My own idea is — wait till the Sikh corps comes.’ There were, wrote Captain Norman, the acting adjutant-general, ‘few who did not feel that the accident which hindered this attempt was one of those happy interpositions in our behalf of which we had such numbers to be thankful for’.

But Barnard was still under intense pressure from Calcutta and the Punjab to capture Delhi. The plan for an assault, therefore, had been delayed rather than abandoned. ‘I have nothing left,’ Barnard informed Canning on 13 June, ‘but to place all on the hazard of a die and attempt a coup-de-main, which I purpose to do. If successful, all will be well. But reverse will be fatal, for I can have no reserve on which to retire. But, assuredly, you all greatly under-estimated the difficulties of Delhi. They have twenty-four-pounders on every gate and flank bastion; and their practice is excellent — beats ours five to one. We have got six heavy guns in position, but do not silence theirs, and I really see nothing for it but a determined rush, and this, please God, you will hear of as successful.’

The new assault was scheduled for the morning of 16 June. Twenty-four hours before it was due to take place, however, Barnard received word that 4,000 reinforcements were on their way from the Punjab. A council of war duly met in the afternoon of 15 June to decide whether the attack should go ahead. In attendance were Barnard, a fit-again General Reed, Brigadier Wilson, Hervey Greathed and the senior Engineer officers. Hervey Greathed was opposed to a further postponement on the political grounds that it would ‘disappoint expectations, protract the disorders with which the country is afflicted, increase the disaffection which is known to exist amongst the Muhammadan population in the Bombay Presidency, and cause distrust on the part of the Native allies’. Wilberforce Greathed, the young Engineer, was even more forceful in his advocacy of an immediate attack, ‘but his talk was too fiery and wild for any one to listen to’. Most of the senior officers present, on the other hand, were for delaying the assault until at least some reinforcements had arrived. Even Wilson, who had been urging an immediate assault, was now of the opinion that the Delhi Field Force was ‘perfectly safe’ on the Ridge and ‘with fresh troops’ would be able ‘to take Delhi with but little loss and with a certainty of destroying the mutineers’. But with so much at stake, a final decision was postponed until the following day.

At the reconvened council of war on 16 June, the balance was tipped in favour of delay by Archdale Wilson’s written assessment, which concluded: ‘It would be impossible, with the small force we now have, to leave a sufficient force for the protection of Delhi, and at the same time to send out such brigades as will be required. It appears to me a question of time only.’ Later that day Wilson informed his wife: ‘It has been decided principally at my recommendation to delay the assault till we are joined by the moveable column from Lahore.’ No one was more tormented by the decision than Sir Henry Barnard. ‘I confess,’ he wrote to Sir John Lawrence on 18 June, ‘that, urged on by the political adviser acting with me, I had consented to a coup-de-main . . . accident alone prevented it; it may be the interposition of Providence. From what I can hear, and from the opinion of others whom it became my duty to consult, I am convinced that success would have been as fatal as failure . . . Be sure that I have been guided by military rule, and that it required moral courage to face the cry that will be raised against our inactivity before Delhi; I can but act for the best, and wait any favourable opportunity for striking the blow.’

Was it a mistake to delay? Probably. General Rose would demonstrate during the Bundelkhand campaign of 1858 what a bold commander could achieve with limited resources. Every day that Barnard remained on the defensive at Delhi, his position became relatively weaker. By 21 June nearly half the native corps in the regular Bengal Army had mutinied, partially mutinied or been disbanded. They had been joined in rebellion by three local corps, the whole of the Oudh Irregular Force, the Malwa Contingent, the Bharatpur Legion and most of the Gwalior Contingent. A further thirteen regiments of native infantry, six of cavalry, seven companies of foot artillery and two troops of horse artillery had also been disarmed by this time. In the majority of cases — as if in confirmation of Ahsanullah Khan’s claim that it was agreed by the conspirators beforehand — the mutinous corps headed for Delhi. But only a relatively small number of trained Bengal troops, perhaps a couple of thousand in all, had reached the Mogul capital by the time the first council of war was held on 15 June. Over the next ten days, however, the rebels at Delhi were augmented by mutinous elements of a further ten regiments of infantry, two of cavalry and one artillery battery from stations as far afield as Nasirabad in Rajputana, Bareilly in Rohilkhand and Jullundur in the Punjab: roughly 7,000 troops in all. During the same period the British at Delhi received fewer than a thousand reinforcements. The possibility of a successful assault was becoming ever more distant; and while Delhi remained in the hands of the mutineers, the rebellion would continue to spread.

Battles of Maharajpore and Punniar 1843


Gough, quick to react , ordered a full reconnaissance of the enemy positions (conducted by General Harry Smith, serving on his staff, and also accompanied by the Governor General Lord Ellenborough ) which suggested that he was faced with up to 15,000 men , including several thousand cavalry, and possibly 100 guns. The Mahrattas were drawn up with their left on the River Asan. Their right flank was open, as if they were expecting reinforcements from that direction. Several villages had been fortified, including the village of Maharajpore, some distance to the front of the main position. Having found out where the enemy were, Gough ordered a frontal assault whilst the enemy’s left was turned.

Goughs force was divided into three columns. The Right Column, under the one-armed veteran of the Peninsula and Waterloo, General Thackwell. and the Centre Column under General Valiant, were to fall upon and turn the enemy’s left flank, whilst the Left Column under General Littler would assault their front.

The terrain in front of the Mahratta positions was cris-crossed with ravines, but despite this all three columns, setting out before dawn, reached their start points without mishap or delay. Littler’s column reached their position first and halted about one mile from the village of Maharajpore. This village was fortified and held by a strong force of infantry and artillery Little could be seen of the rest of the enemy positions due to the extreme flatness of the ground and the high crops of corn which obstructed the view almost completely, Gough spent almost an hour within quarter of a mile of the Mahratta pickets, and did manage to observe that the village was too far in front of the main enemy line at Chonda and Shirkapore to be afforded any support. At 8.30am he ordered the assault to commence regardless of the fact that he had no real idea of the enemy strength and deployment, nor of the terrain to his front!

Gough ordered up his 8 ” howitzers to bombard the village whilst the horse artillery troops of Grant and Alexander deployed within 500 yards of two enemy heavy batteries, both of which they silenced, the position being stormed by infantry from Valiants brigade. Meanwhile Littler’s infantry was deploying under heavy artillery fire for an assault on the village whilst on the extreme left Scotts Native Cavalry Brigade had repulsed a determined attack by a large body of Mahratta horse. Some of Littler’s sepoys began to waver under the weight of fire, but were urged on by Gough. The 39th Foot led the assault with the bayonet. Casualties from artillery fire were heavy, but despite storms of grapeshot the village was reached and the gunners killed defending their guns to the last. Within half an hour the defenders of the village had been destroyed and the village itself was ablaze. The heavy howitzers were not responsible for this, as they had not yet opened fire.

There now remained the problem of the main enemy position, around Chonda and Shirkapore. Both were heavily entrenched and some of the batteries were so well hidden that they were almost invisible. Again no tangible intelligence of the enemy deployment was available and the attack went in blind.

General Valiant manoeuvred around Littler’s rear and attacked Shirkapore, led by H.M. 40th Foot. Casualties including the Colonel and Second-in-Command of the 40th were again heavy as three successive lines of previously unobserved entrenchments were stormed at bayonet-point before the village was taken. Again the Mahratta gunners stood by their guns to the last. The village taken, Valiant turned towards the right flank of the enemy main position.

Meanwhile, Grants Horse Artillery was again in the thick of it, having galloped to within point blank range of a battery 12 enemy guns. (The reason for this apparent dash may be that severely outranged by the enemy cannon, it was better to get in close and at least return their fire.) So rapid and accurate was Grant’s fire that the enemy gunners were several times driven from their guns for a while, which enabled Littler’s infantry, headed by H.M. 39th , to roll up the Mahratta line from left to right with far less loss than could have been the case . The capture, by the Grenadier company of H.M. 39th, of a small entrenchment mounting four guns on the far left of the Mahratta position marked the end of the engagement. The Mahrattas ceased to form an effective fighting force and withdrew from the field. leaving over 50 guns and much of their baggage. Pursuit was not possible as Thackwell’s cavalry were halted by an impassable ravine, although he was later censured by Gough for not having carried out a more effective pursuit. Exactly how is open to some conjecture.

Casualties were quite heavy (almost 800), the 39th losing over 200 and the 40th almost that number. The artillery suffered less than 50 casualties, despite its point-blank exchanges with the enemy. Of the native regiments, most were not engaged although the 16th Bengal Native Infantry were alone in suffering any great loss: 179 dead and wounded. It was the opinion of many that the sepoys fighting ability was becoming questionable at best! Criticism was made by Sir Harry Smith o the poor standard of training and initiative shown among the officers of the Indian Army , e. g. the heavy battery failed to engage the enemy because their commander would not open fire without direct orders to do so, despite being only half a mile from the enemy positions!

Meanwhile, General Sir John Grey had commenced his march on Gwalior. Finding his route blocked by the enemy, he turned south towards Punniar to outflank the Mahratta posItions.

His line of march took him parallel with some hills, at a distance of only a few hundred yards from his right flank Despite the fact that Grey must have known that the Mahrattas were in force somewhere on the other side of the hills. he failed to send out any sort of flank guard or even patrols to the summit of the hills to see what was on the other side! So, with a line of march some 10 miles long , with no idea of the lay of the land or he presence or location of any enemy , save what the vanguard and rearguard might have told him , the front of the column reached Punniar at around three in the afternoon , only to hear the sound of guns coming from the rear of the column. Panic stricken native cavalry reported that the rearguard was under attack and being cut to pieces!

Before too long the troops were reassembled and reinforcements of cavalry and artillery sent to the rearguard’s aid. It then dawned on Grey just what was happening – the Mahratta force he was trying to outflank had been marching parallel with him on the other side of the hills! Some of their artillery was entrenched in a village near Punniar taking pot-shots at his baggage, whilst their main body occupied some high ground on the other side of the hills about four miles to his east.


Grey’s first order was to send H.M. 3rd Foot (The Buffs) and a detachment of Bengal Sappers and Miners straight over the hills to whatever fate befell them, as he had no idea whether they would encounter any enemy troops due to the dead ground between the hills and the main enemy position on hills further east! Predictably, they reported that the enemy were in position over the hills in great strength and requested reinforcements which Grey sent in the form of H. M. 50th Foot and two Bengal Native Infantry battalions under Colonel Anderson of the 50th Anderson’s Brigade crested the hills , under heavy but ineffective artillery fire, to the right of the Buffs, to face a deep valley filled with Mahratta infantry, behind which was an entrenchment holding four heavy guns. Descending the slope, Anderson’s troops took shelter in a dried upriver bed and commenced pouring volleys into the enemy. With the light fading fast, and Grey (possibly thankfully!) nowhere to be seen, Anderson ordered his men to charge. The valley was cleared and the guns taken, their gunners defending them to the death. On their left the Buffs, under even heavier fire, braved the storm of grape and captured eleven enemy guns. Again the Mahratta gunners stood by their pieces to the last and were killed to a man.

With this, and the onset of night, the extremely confused (and confusing) battle came to an end. Casualties among the two Queens battalions had again been high, as they had borne the brunt of the fighting. Out of a total loss of 213 casualties The Buffs lost 72, the 50th lost 42, and only the 39th Bengal Native Infantry suffered greatly with 62 out of a total of 97 Native casualties. Mahratta casualties were reported by Grey as being very heavy, but this is difficult to substantiate.

With these two battles the campaign was over, and on New Year’s Eve the Rani came into the British camp and a treaty was signed. The Gwalior army was greatly reduced, to around 10,000 infantry, 6,000 cavalry and 32 guns. The native contingent, under British officers was reduced to a strength of 10,000 .

As for the Generals, it is possible to criticise Gough for his handling of the battle of Maharajpore insofar as he attacked headlong and totally blind against an enemy well entrenched and far his superior in numbers and artillery. By his own confession Gough underrated the Mahratta forces, and was influenced by the presence of a number of political personages including Lord Ellenborough, Governor General of India , and may have made decisions based on their advice or influence. Gough should have known better if he had any understanding of the effects of similar influence from ‘Politicals’ during the Afghan War, and a possibly unhealthy precedent was being set for a Governor General to accompany the Commander-in Chief with the Army into the field , e. g. Hardinge during the Sikh Wars.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that, like Napier in Sind. he unknowingly marched his army straight into a trap, like Napier he fought his way out of it to eventual total victory.

Grey at Punniar is another case altogether. His performance hardly suggests that he was a very competent commander, nor were his brigadiers much better. His failure to use his cavalry during the battle, or after in pursuit, and his orders to blind send a battalion over the top in the face of heaven knows what does not suggest any particular grasp of basic military theory. The officer in command of the brigade which included the 50th Foot had accidentally shot himself with a pistol a few days before the battle. Prior to this he had failed to demonstrate any ability at all, even for peace-time soldiering, and was constantly asking Colonel Anderson of the 50th for advice! It is therefore fair to say that had the Battle of Punniar NOT been a confused affair led by the Colonels of the two Queens battalions then the result may have been very different.

It is interesting to note one other aspect of this albeit which did much to set the seal on military tradition since then; that is the awarding of medals to all participants in the campaign, rather than just a few of the senior officers.

In order to make the most of the victory Lord Ellenborough issued a bronze medal to each of the soldiers of all ranks who had participated in the campaign. This was not unusual for him as at the close of the Afghan War medals had been issued to troops for Jalalabad, Ghazni and the Afghan Campaign as a whole. This had stirred up a lot of discontent from various quarters.

One school of thought , including the Duke of Wellington was against the issuing of campaign medals to all ranks (the Waterloo Medal didn’t count!) and the Duke of Richmond alluding to the Afghan disasters, stated in Parliament that “Only suffer a disaster, and you will get a medal to revive your spirits”. On the other hand persons like General Sir de Lacy Evans and Lord John Russell were for the awarding of campaign medals for all ranks, including back-dating such awards to include the Napoleonic Wars-no easy task! Whatever the arguments, the precedent was set and campaign medals have been issued as a matter of course to all ranks with clasps for different actions and rainbow ribbons, ever since Lord Ellenborough’s time as Governor General of India.