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Clive’s victories at Arcot and Plassey secured India for the British

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Trade, War on Friday, 28 June 2013

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This edited article about British India originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 308 published on 9 December 1967.

Battle of Arcot, picture, image, illustration

The Battle of Arcot by C L Doughty

The urge to explore is often motivated by the desire to trade. When Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1498 and landed at Calicut on the west coast of India, he was welcomed by the local rajah, who earnestly desired to trade spices and precious stones with Portugal.

For a century the Portuguese monopolised the trade with India. Their place was taken in the 17th century by the Dutch who carried on extensive commerce with the east, evicting the Portuguese from most of their trading posts.

The first British expedition followed shortly upon the formation of the British East India Trading Company, in 1600. During the first half of the century, the Company acquired a number of coastal trading centres. These included ones at Surat, on the west coast; Madras; and Bombay, which the Company obtained through King Charles II from the Portuguese. At the end of the century, they founded Calcutta.

During this time, the French were building trading stations at Pondicherry and Chandernagore.

The situation in India was very tempting to those whose eyes turned from trade to the prospects of territorial acquisition. In the years that followed the death of Aurangzeb, the last great Mogul Emperor of India, in 1707, the viceroys who ruled great areas of India in the name of the Emperor began to extend their personal power and pay little more than lip-service to the imperial court at Delhi.

The most important of these viceroys were the nawab of the Deccan, the nawab of Bengal and the nawab of Oudh.

There was great scope in this situation for any foreign nation which chose to interfere. It was a question of who would do so first.

While the war of Austrian Succession was under way in Europe, the French governor of Pondicherry, Joseph Dupleix, used it as an excuse to attack and take the British Company’s trading post at Madras. The British only regained Madras in the settlement made in Europe by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chappelle (1748).

The French, attracted by the ease of their previous success, were eager to extend their activities and build an empire for themselves in India. The opportunity arose when the choice of a nawab in the Carnatic (a region of the Deccan) was disputed. The French succeeded in establishing their candidate there – for which he paid them a huge sum of money.

The candidate favoured by the British Company had little prospect of gaining power until the arrival of Robert Clive, the brilliant soldier-statesman who rose from the post of clerk in the East India Company to be the founder of the British Empire in India. Clive, seeing that the French pretender had left his capital – Arcot – to try and capture a nearby British station, suggested that he attack Arcot to bring the pretender in haste back to his capital. With only a handful of men and three pieces of artillery, Clive approached Arcot and the frightened enemy garrison evacuated it.

A great army under the pretender’s son, supported by the French, came to besiege Clive in the fort of Arcot. After 50 days, a full-scale attack was launched on the fort. In spite of the fact that the walls of the fort were falling down, nothing could suppress the courage of Clive and his men, even though the Indian army was 10,000 strong. After little more than an hour, the enemy were routed and in flight from the scene of battle.

Robert Clive, at 26 years of age, had made his reputation. And the British Company gained control of the Carnatic. From this moment, the French hopes of an empire in India were doomed.

If the British were established in the Carnatic, their position in Bengal was in danger. The nawab of Bengal, frightened by the British success in the Carnatic, decided to oust them from Bengal before they had a chance to assail his position. This nawab, named Surajah Dowlah, seized Calcutta, took prisoner members of the British Company, and pushed them into the Black Hole of Calcutta, an airless and tiny prison, where, in the course of one night, the majority died from suffocation.

Clive was the obvious choice of leader to avenge this action. He had just returned to India after two years in England.

With a small army, Clive sailed up the Ganges delta into the Bay of Bengal. Fort William, the East India Company’s settlement near Calcutta, was taken and then Calcutta itself. Then, after some weeks’ delay, in which negotiations of dubious honesty were pressed on either side, Clive made for Plassey, where the army of Surajah Dowlah was assembled. And what a vast army it was. There were 18,000 cavalry and 50,000 infantry supported by more than 50 pieces of artillery. Clive had just over 3,000 men of whom 2,000 were Indian. He had nine pieces of artillery.

Clive took a tremendous risk at Plassey – and won – but it was the sort of risk that was backed up by a sound knowledge of battle tactics. By waiting until the enemy army was nearly upon his own before opening fire, he threw his opponents into disorder, which he followed up by a rapid and devastating advance of his own force.

With Bengal in the hands of the Company, a puppet nawab, Mir Jafar, was installed, from whom vast financial rewards were accepted, and in addition, the Company gained rights over extensive lands around Calcutta. Clive’s soldiers and Company officials were also handsomely rewarded at the expense of the new nawab.

Clive returned to India for the last time in 1765, as Governor of Bengal. The power and effectiveness of the East India Company was now being undermined by the money and gifts which came into the hands of its servants: Bengal was rich and densely populated.

By undertaking extensive reforms in the army and the civil service – raising salaries and forbidding gifts of any sort – Clive made Bengal the base for further British expansion in India.

During the trouble that followed the death of nawab Mir Jafar, Clive secured from the Emperor, at Delhi, a document giving the East India Company sovereign authority in Bengal and the surrounding regions. This meant that the Company administered justice in that area, collected the taxes, and – need it be added – made a substantial profit into the bargain.

The Company was now in the strange position of having imperial power. As a trading company, it had ceased to exist.

The rule of the East India Company was not terminated until the Indian Mutiny (1857), forced the British government to assume full responsibility for the government of India.

India became an independent dominion of the British Commonwealth in 1947, and a sovereign republic in 1950.

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