Major-General Robert Clive, 1st Baron Clive
His major victory at Plassey was instrumental in securing India for Britain.
Posterity has viewed Clive (1725-74) both as a courageous and resourceful military commander who ultimately became an imperial statesman, and also as a greedy speculator who used his political and military influence to amass a fortune, at India’s expense.
His first career as a Writer in the East India Company’s civil service at Madras ended in 1746, when it was taken over by the French. Clive became an ensign in the Company’s service the following year. He briefly returned to the civil establishment in 1749, but re-entered the military as a brevet captain in 1751. He first came to prominence for his heroic defence of the Carnatic’s capital of Arcot in October 1751 against the French. This helped establish British power in southern India. The Prime Minister Pitt the Elder described Clive, who had received no formal military training, as the ‘heaven-born general’. As a lieutenant-colonel Clive then commanded the expedition sent to recover Calcutta from Nawab Siraj-Ud-Daulah in December 1756. The fortress of Baj-Baj was quickly taken with minimal British casualties. Shortly afterwards on 2 January 1757, Calcutta itself was captured.
Clive’s greatest victory occurred at Plassey on 23 June 1757. The Nawab, having resumed the war, commanded 50,000 men. The Company’s army was about 3,000 strong. The Nawab’s opening cannonade was out of range, while various skirmishes were inconclusive. Most importantly, Mir Jafar, who commanded the Nawab’s cavalry, refused to fight. Clive had secretly offered to make him the new Nawab of Bengal, if Siraj was defeated. By the end of the day, Clive was in a position to rout the Nawab’s disheartened forces. Mir Jafar was appointed Nawab although he was little more than a puppet ruler.
Clive served twice as Governor of Bengal (1758-60 and 1764-67). His first administration witnessed the virtual plundering of the province and he returned to Britain to be denounced as a corrupt 'nabob’. Despite the attacks, he was created Baron Clive of Plassey in 1762 and a Knight of the Bath in 1764. During his second administration he consolidated Company rule in Bengal, obtaining from Emperor Shah Alam II the right to gather land taxes and customs duties in 1765. This confirmed British military supremacy in the region and made the Company ruler of India’s richest province. To collect the taxes and police its territories, the Company created a huge civil and military administration. As part of this process Clive served as Commander-in-Chief Bengal, with the local rank of major-general. He did much to organise and train the Company’s army on European lines, turning it into a formidable force.
Although he attempted to reform the Bengal administration and reduce corruption, Clive was subjected to further political attacks on his return home in 1767. Accused of running a corrupt administration, he responded: ‘I stand astonished at my own moderation’. Despite a ringing Parliamentary resolution in his favour, a combination of illness and depression probably led him to take his own life on 24 November 1774.
Lord Robert Clive, c1764. Oil on canvas by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88), c1764
"The heaven-born general"
Pitt the Elder on Robert Clive.
Copyright 2016 National Army Museum, Royal Hospital Road, London, SW3 4HT
Registered Charity Number: 237902