By the mid-18th century, the Mughal Empire, which had once controlled most of the Indian sub-continent, was in a state of collapse as native Indian and European states attempted to carve out their own political and economic power bases. The East India Company was one of these competing powers, battling the French for trading supremacy while simultaneously involving itself in local politics, especially in Bengal, India’s richest province.
Siraj-ud-Daulah had been in dispute with the Company for some time. A year before Plassey, when the Company refused to halt military preparations against the French, he had attacked and captured its stronghold of Fort William in Calcutta (Kolkata).
Shortly after the fort’s surrender, Siraj confined a number of prisoners in a small dungeon. One British survivor’s account states that 123 of the 146 prisoners were killed in the crush. The ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’ has been the subject of much controversy ever since. It subsequently proved to be a useful justification for British revenge and conquest. By February 1757 the Company and the British Army had won Calcutta back. The following month Clive seized the French fort of Chandernagore.
In the spring of 1757 the opposing armies skirmished and squared off in a series of minor engagements. On learning that the Nawab was negotiating with the French, the Company decided a change of regime was needed to achieve its political and financial goals. It secretly offered to make one of Siraj’s army commanders, Mir Jafar, the new nawab of Bengal, if Siraj was defeated in battle. On 23 June 1757 Mir Jafar got his chance.
Siraj-ud-Daulah (1733-57) commanded around 50,000 men, including 16,000 cavalry. He also possessed 50 field guns, a combination of 32-, 24- and 18-pounders. Officers on loan from the French commanded this artillery.
Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Clive (1725-74) commanded the East India Company force. Formerly a writer (clerk), Clive had switched to the Company’s military service and his tactical flair and personal bravery had earned him rapid promotion and a great personal fortune. His army was about 3,000-strong, including 2,100 Indian sepoys (infantry) and about 800 Europeans. The latter included the 1st Madras European Regiment and 600 Crown troops from the 39th Regiment of Foot. Clive had only ten field guns and two small howitzers.
The armies met on the banks of the Bhagirathi-Hooghly River, near the small village of Plassey (Palashi) about 100 miles (160km) north of Calcutta (Kolkata). The Nawab’s opening cannonade was out of range, while various skirmishes were inconclusive. A heavy downpour of rain then interrupted proceedings. The British artillerymen quickly covered their cannon and ammunition with tarpaulins, but the enemy failed to do the same and their artillery was put out of action.
When the Nawab’s men moved forward, assuming that Clive’s cannon were also inoperable, they were met by a storm of fire. They soon withdrew in disarray. At this point in the battle, Mir Jafar, who was commanding the Nawab’s cavalry, refused to take part. By the end of the day Clive was in a position to rout the Nawab’s disheartened forces, inflicting over 500 casualties for the loss of only 22 men killed and 50 wounded.
Mir Jafar later killed Siraj and was then appointed nawab in his place. But he became little more than a puppet ruler who was forced to cede control of Bengal through the treaties he signed with the British. Siraj’s defeat also meant that the French were no longer a significant force in Bengal.
After his victory at Plassey, Clive was appointed Governor of Bengal. In 1765 he secured the ‘diwani’, the right to collect the tax and customs revenue of Bengal, from Emperor Shah Alam II for the East India Company. This confirmed British military supremacy in the region and gave the Company a political stake in India. Indian tax revenues were now used to buy Indian goods for export to Britain. The Company created a huge civil and military administration to collect the taxes and police its territories. No longer purely a commercial organisation, it had become an imperial power.
In the years that followed, the British used their newly acquired revenues and military might to eject their European colonial rivals, the French and the Dutch, from the rest of India. The victory at Plassey thus started a process that eventually resulted in British rule over the sub-continent.
For a later generation of Britons, the victory at Plassey marked the birth of their Indian Empire. Until Indian independence in 1947 almost every schoolchild would have heard of the battle and known of ‘Clive of India’. This was despite the fact that during his lifetime Clive had divided public opinion. Many people had denounced him as a corrupt and greedy ‘nabob’ who used his political and military influence to amass a fortune.
The Victorians, however, preferred to remember the courageous and resourceful military commander and statesman who won them an empire. Thomas Babington Macaulay declared, ‘our island, so fertile in heroes and statesmen, has scarcely ever produced a man more truly great either in arms or in council’ (‘On Clive’, 1840). For Robert Browning, ‘Clive it was gave England India’ (‘Clive’ in ‘Dramatic Idylls: Second Series’, 1880).
The victor of Plassey was eulogised as the daring man of action, an example to a new generation of empire-builders busy carving up Asia and Africa. For this reason, even a century after Clive’s death, a road in West Dulwich, London, could be named after this imperial hero. His position in the popular consciousness was sustained through fictional and cinematic representations of his life, including Richard Boleslawski’s ‘Clive of India’ (1935), which starred Robert Colman in the lead role.
While Plassey and Clive are less known today, they are not forgotten. For the last few years the Bengali community in East London has used the anniversary of the battle to celebrate the shared history of Britain and Bengal and the rich cultural legacy that has emerged from it. This included the publication of a book, ‘Plassey’s Legacy: Young Londoners Explore the Hidden Legacy of the East India Company’ (2011).
In Bengal itself, the Battle of Plassey is viewed with mixed feelings. Recently, local campaigners complained that the marble British memorial (erected in 1907 on the site of the battle) glorified colonial aggression against India. They were unsuccessful in having it removed, but a new bronze bust of Siraj-ud-Daulah was installed in front of it. Others want to keep the British memorial and hope the addition of the bust of Siraj will increase historical tourism to the area.