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Foundation for an Empire

By Chuck Lyons
8/1/2018 • MHQ Magazine

On a hot and humid day near a nondescript village in June 1757, Robert Clive won an improbable victory that set Britain on a course to dominate India for 190 years.

Few British commanders had ever faced such long odds. When Colonel Robert Clive’s three thousand infantry and eight fieldpieces confronted fifty thousand native troops supported by cavalry, elephants, and artillery near Plassey in northeast India, he had never before led so large a force, nor faced such an army. The stakes for Clive and for Britain, however, were as great as the odds he faced in that momentous battle of June 23, 1757. Nothing less than Britain’s future in India hung in the balance.

The British East India Company had been trading in that part of the world since the early seventeenth century. The company had built a handful of forts and become a quasi-governmental authority in the areas it controlled. During the first half of the eighteenth century, the Mughal Empire, which had ruled India since 1526, collapsed, and regional states began emerging. The resulting power vacuum seemingly invited outside intervention. That intervention came, not surprisingly, from the British. But the French—who had also been involved in trade there since 1664—also stepped in. By 1734, France was considered Britain’s only serious trading rival on the subcontinent. In fact, by the middle of the eighteenth century, the British and the French trading companies were virtually at war, a conflict that pulled in local rulers and their forces. Eventually regular British troops, theoretically only on loan to the East India Company, were sent to India to join the company’s troops.

During much of this period Alivardi Khan ruled as nabob in Bengal, in the northeast corner of modern India and Bangladesh, and managed to keep a rough peace between the French and British. But when he died in 1756, his chosen successor to the throne was his grandson, Siraj-ud-Daula, or “Lamp of the State,” who disliked the British and was in turn disliked by just about everyone. One Briton described him as “violent, passionate, of great ambition tinctured with avarice.” A Muslim historian, Siraj-udDaula’s own cousin, declared him unable to distinguish “between vice and virtue.” In time, the cousin claimed, he became as detested as Egypt’s pharaoh had been by the Jews.

Whatever his character flaws, the new ruler faced two major problems. The British, previously held in check by strong rulers, now became increasingly ambitious. Meanwhile, the nabob was surrounded by disgruntled relatives who conspired to replace him. Siraj-ud-Daula relieved his scheming maternal aunt of her wealth and slashed the power of Mir Jafar, commander in chief of the royal army. Relations between the nabob and the British deteriorated until, demanding the company dismantle fortifications at Calcutta, Siraj-ud-Daula sent troops to surround the British establishment at Kasimbazar, a trading post upriver from Calcutta. The nabob made plans to intercept British traders on the river and to blockade Calcutta to prevent their ships from leaving.

In early June 1756, William Watts, in command at Kasimbazar, had only about fifty men equipped with a few rusty cannons. Watts had no choice but to surrender to the nabob, whose forces now numbered fifty thousand infantry and cavalry, some three hundred elephants, and a train of French artillery. The British were treated politely, the company’s warehouses were sealed to prevent looting, and the nabob turned his attention downriver toward Calcutta.

That city lay in a crescent of the Ganges River, with the ill-fortified Fort William at its center, bastions on each side, and a ditch running from the north end of the crescent about four miles inland in a curve. A line of guns along the river extended the length of the fort. As early as 1746, however, one observer had declared the fort “untenable,” while a captain of British artillery had described the place as “indefensible.” Great windows had been cut in its curtain walls, outbuildings masked the fire from some of its bastions, and in some places its walls were too decrepit to support guns.

On June 16, the nabob’s force approached Calcutta, and its defenders retired to Fort William. Four days later the fort fell. As he left the city for Purnea, where Shaukat Jang, one of his cousins and a legitimate contender for his throne, was staging a rebellion, the nabob left the prisoners in charge of one of his commanders, Diwan Manik Chand, who declared that they should be confined to prevent their escape. The prisoners were herded into a cell roughly eighteen feet long by fourteen feet wide, with only two air holes. The British, who had used the room to confine drunken soldiers, referred to it as the “black hole,” a term then in common usage for a garrison lockup.

Estimates of how many were forced into the cell vary from the low sixties to almost 150 soldiers, but we do know that in the morning only twenty-three remained alive after a night of horror—resulting in one of the enduring legends of the British Empire. The tragedy focused Britons’ indignation and resulted in demands for revenge. Historian Robert Harvey has described the subsequent outrage as the “midwife to the birth of the British empire in India.”

Siraj-ud-Daula ordered a mosque erected at Calcutta and garrisoned the city, then retired north to his capital at Murshidabad near Kasimbazar, established roughly forty years earlier by Murshid Quil Khan, the first governor of Bengal to assert independence from the Mughal rulers at Delhi. Meanwhile the British East India Company had to deal with the loss of one of its primary trading hubs, calls from home for retaliation, and the possibility that Great Britain might be going to war with France in Europe and North America, as well as in India.

Company officials at Madras decided they had to launch a fullscale expedition to retake Calcutta and forcefully reinstate their position in Bengal. Rear Admiral Charles Watson was named to command the naval section of the expedition, and on October 11 the company’s ruling council chose Robert Clive as commander of the land forces.

Clive had been born near the village of Moreton Say, Shropshire, in 1725. The Clives had held their manor since the reign of King Henry II, and had produced a chancellor of the Irish exchequer and members of Parliament. Robert, an unruly boy not given to academic pursuits, was sent to India in 1743. He had turned 18 by the time he reached Madras, the British East India Company’s headquarters in India. For the next two years, he listed invoices, added columns of figures, and checked inventories in the company’s Fort St. George at Madras.

When the French captured Madras in 1746, in the continuing European struggle brought on by the War of Austrian Succession (1740-48), Clive escaped from the city with three friends, fleeing to Fort St. David, where he enlisted as a soldier. He was soon made an ensign and took part in the defense of Fort St. David and the siege of Pondicherry, both in 1748. In 1749, by now a lieutenant, Clive joined in the storming of Devi – kottia in south India, and in 1751, as captain in command, he seized Arcot and held it for eleven weeks with at times as few as eighty British soldiers and 120 sepoys fit for duty. He also was victorious in engagements at Arni and Kaveripak, and in the capture of Chingalpat, all in the Madras region, and of Kovilam, near India’s southern tip, before returning to England.

In 1755 Clive was back in India with a lieu- tenant colonel’s commission in the royal army and an appointment as governor of Fort St. David. In accepting command of the land expedition to retake Calcutta, Clive boldly wrote to the British East India Company’s officers in London: “I flatter myself that this expedition will not end with the retaking of Calcutta only: and that the company’s estate in these parts will be settled in a better and more lasting condition than ever.” In a letter to his father, he revealed that the upcoming expedition “if attended with success may enable me to do great things. It is by far the grandest of my undertakings. I go with great force and great authority.”

Despite his previous experience in India, Clive was an odd choice to lead the campaign. Given to bouts of depression and reportedly easily upset, he was also a hypochondriac. Modern analysts have also pointed out that Clive was not a professional soldier and his force exhibited little professionalism. They all agree, however, that the British commander was a remarkably courageous guerrilla leader. He has also been labeled—probably correctly—a better statesman than general. Nonetheless, he seemed to have an uncanny ability to win battles.

On October 16, 1756, a fleet composed of one frigate, four of His Majesty’s ships of the line (including the seventy-gun Cumberland), a fire ship, three company warships, three ketches, and transports sailed toward Bengal. Aboard were 528 infantry, 109 artillerymen, 940 sepoys, and 160 native sailors. The ships carried provisions and water for six weeks. To avoid monsoons, the fleet inched up the coast of Burma. It finally arrived at the Hugli River, a branch of the Ganges below Calcutta, on December 5. But Cumberland and the company’s Marlborough had been forced to return to Madras—a move that reduced Clive’s force by 243 infantrymen and 430 sepoys. The expedition was already in trouble, short of supplies, when scurvy began breaking out. Days later, with a favorable tide, the fleet entered the river.

The East India Company was a commercial venture, and Clive’s mission went beyond simply retaking Calcutta. He had been told to assure that the expedition would somehow return a profit and secure reparations for the losses the company had already suffered. Arriving at Fulta, a Dutch settlement on the Hugli where those who’d fled Calcutta had sought refuge (among them about thirty surviving members of the king’s troops), Clive sent letters to Diwan Manik Chand, the governor in Calcutta, and through him to Siraj-ud-Daula, demanding satisfaction.

Clive and Watson then decided to move against the city. The company’s troops would advance on land under Clive, first against the nabob’s fort at Budge Budge, while the king’s troops and the artillery headed upriver with the fleet.

Taking with him five hundred men and two fieldpieces, Clive set out a day earlier than the fleet on a night march through deep streams and swamps, arriving near the fort at Budge Budge an hour after sunrise. Surrounded by brush, his troops could not see the fort at all, and they did not know that a force commanded by Manik Chand, aware of Clive’s advance, had left the fort and was camped only two miles away. Unaware that the fort was now all but empty, Clive sent half his men toward it and remained behind with the other half.

Around 10 that morning, Manik Chand launched an attack with three thousand cavalry against Clive’s two hundred and fifty soldiers, but that force retreated when Chand was hit in the turban by a bullet. The Indians lost about a hundred and fifty men, according to Clive’s estimate, as well as four officers and an elephant. Meanwhile, Watson’s ships had arrived off Budge Budge, silenced the fort’s guns, and landed marines to aid Clive. Clive returned to the warships to consult with Watson, and they decided to wait until the following day to launch a full-scale attack on the fort.

During these consultations, however, a seaman named Strahan, reportedly the worse for grog, took it upon himself to approach the fort. Entering through a breach the ships’ guns had made earlier, he confronted several defenders sitting on the walls. Strahan fired his pistol and brandished his cutlass while his fellow seamen came running to his aid. Surprisingly, the British took the fort with the loss of only four men, who were all wounded. “Thus the place was taken without the least honor to anyone,” wrote Major Eyre Coote, a member of the expedition.

After destroying that fort, Clive and his troops again headed upriver, capturing the fort at Thana, which also had been abandoned but held forty cannons probably taken from Calcutta. The same night, advanced units of the British fleet found several vessels filled with wood, obviously intended for use as fire ships. They burned them before they could endanger the fleet.

On the morning of January 22, 1757, the company’s troops landed and set off for Calcutta while Watson’s sixty-four-gun Kent and sixty-gun Tyger advanced up the river. Before Clive and his ground troops could get to the city, the ships had already arrived outside Calcutta’s Fort William and accurate cannon fire had driven off its defenders. The defenders killed only three of Watson’s marines and six sailors.

With Calcutta apparently wide open, Clive and Watson entered the city to plan the next step in their campaign against the nabob. The previous spring, hostilities in what would be known as the Seven Years’ War had broken out, pitting Britain against France in India. The British commanders knew that the French had about three hundred trained soldiers and artillery at Chandernagore, some thirty miles north of Calcutta. Established by France as a trading colony in 1673, Chandernagore was larger than Calcutta. It was possible the French there would lend the nabob their support to regain Calcutta.

Clive, who believed native troops commanded by British officers could defeat the forces of local rulers regardless of their number, recruited between two hundred and three hundred men and formed the 1st Regiment of the Bengal Native Infantry. In addition, he requested and was given troops that had been stationed aboard Watson’s fleet. The nabob’s army—then approaching Calcutta with about forty thousand men, including eighteen thousand cavalry, forty cannons, and fifty elephants—still vastly outnumbered his forces.

On February 5, under cover of an early morning fog, Clive marched against the nabob’s camp with 470 British infantry, eight hundred sepoys, six hundred sailors from Watson’s fleet, seventy artillerymen, one howitzer, and six fieldpieces. Clive had intended to circle the camp and attack the nabob’s headquarters, but his guide inadvertently led the British into the center of the enemy force. Suddenly surrounded by Indians, the British began firing in all directions. Some of the nabob’s troops panicked, but they managed to launch a three-hundred-man cavalry attack. Repulsing the cavalry, Clive’s force pushed on and through the enemy troops. Then his men began to realize they were behind the nabob’s men and cut off from Calcutta, just when the fog began lifting to expose their position.

At this critical moment, an Ensign Yorke of the 39th Foot brought up a single cannon that blasted away so fiercely that Clive and his men were able to break through the Indian army and return to Calcutta. Clive’s aide-de-camp had been killed at his side, while another forty Britons and eighteen sepoys had been killed and 137 wounded. The nabob, however, had lost thirteen hundred killed or wounded as well as five hundred horses and an elephant. It had been, Clive later wrote, “the warmest service I ever yet was engaged in.”

Upset by his losses and the audacity of Clive’s attack, the nabob retreated several miles from the city. He soon learned that Afghans were moving across northern India, so he withdrew his army back to his capital at Murshidabad. Shortly thereafter, Siraj-ud-Daula signed a treaty with the British that returned all privileges to the British East India Company and paid some compensation for the losses it had suffered.

The treaty freed Clive to look north toward Chandernagore. Early in March, after being reinforced by about a thousand Europeans and sixteen hundred sepoys, he felt ready to attack the French. He marched on March 8, and by the 12th his force was encamped outside Chandernagore. Two days later, he laid siege to the city.

The French could muster fewer than eight hundred men to defend the outpost’s weak fortifications. By March 27, two of Watson’s ships, Kent and Tyger, had worked their way up the river past ships the French had sunk to impede them and began bombarding the fort. The French guns returned fire, inflicting a heavy toll on the British seamen. Aboard Kent, only Watson and one other officer escaped injury, and Captain Henry Speake and his 16- year-old son, Midshipman Billy Speake, were both struck by the same bullet, the boy dying from his wound. On Tyger, flying splinters wounded Admiral George Pocock. Thirteen men were killed, and another eighty wounded.

Eventually the French succumbed to the bombardment and surrendered, having suffered more than two hundred killed and wounded. The defeat not only made the French position in Bengal precarious but also deprived Siraj-ud-Daula of his only ally against the British. The nabob nonetheless offered aid to those French who had escaped from Chandernagore and allowed some of the fugitives to join him, further angering the British.

On May 1, the company officially—but quietly—joined in the scheming to replace Siraj-ud-Daula, throwing its support behind Mir Jafar, the nabob’s chief military commander. A secret agreement signed with Mir Jafar specified that the French would be banished from Bengal, the British would aid Mir Jafar against his enemies, and the new nabob would replace the revenue already lost by the company and its retainers. Meanwhile, Siraj-ud-Daula left to join his army, which had been gathering near the small village of Plassey, to counter the British at Chandernagore. A party of forty-five Europeans, who were to handle his artillery, accompanied him, commanded by a Frenchman named St. Frais.

At the same time, Clive decided to move upriver to meet the nabob before the rainy season made campaigning all but impossible. He left Chandernagore in mid-June, the hottest time of year in India, when the rainy season was imminent. Despite the fact that it was the worst time to begin a campaign, it was doubtful that the lid could be kept on the simmering conspiracy until more favorable fall weather arrived. Clive was probably unaware of the odds against him and the significance of the impending conflict. His defeat could mean the loss of all of Bengal—and possibly India—for the company. At the very least, a defeat would allow the French to return to Bengal. It might also cost the British Madras, since that region had sent most of its troops with Clive to reclaim Bengal.

Clive had 613 European infantry of the 39th Foot, about a hundred Eurasian soldiers, 171 artillerymen, fifty sailors and seven midshipmen, plus about twelve hundred native troops. His artillery consisted of ten fieldpieces and two small howitzers.

On June 13, Clive issued an ultimatum to the nabob, and on the 18th easily overran the fort at Kulna, which defended another approach to Murshidabad. Its de- fenders fled as the British approached. On June 19, in torrential rain, the main British force reached Katwa, roughly ninety miles north of Calcutta and forty miles from the nabob’s capital at Murshidabad. Between them and the capital lay Plassey. At Katwa, Clive wrote to Mir Jafar urging him to send word as to what was happening at the capital and to join him. “Come over to me at Plassey or any other place you judge proper,” Clive wrote, “with what force you have. Even a thousand horse will be sufficient, and I will engage to march immediately with you to Murshidabad.” He received no answer.

Camped on the Kasimbazar River, a branch of the Hugli, Clive faced a difficult decision. To attack the nabob’s army at Plassey, he needed to cross the river, which was easy enough. If he needed to retreat, however, crossing back over that same river would be far more difficult. He would in effect be entering a trap that could prove even more deadly if the coming rains swelled the stream. On June 21, Clive called a council of his officers, at which the majority—seven of the nine senior officers present—opposed fighting. Of the seven junior officers at the council, however, three wanted to advance.

Clive retired alone to a grove of trees for an hour to deliberate. Then, convinced it would be absurd to stop where he was, he ordered the army to cross the river the next morning, relying on his pact with Mir Jafar.

After the crossing and another night march, the first contingent of British soldiers arrived at Plassey about midnight and found some six thousand of the nabob’s troops encamped within three miles. Clive occupied Plassey House, a substantial brick hunting lodge on the riverbank, and made it his headquarters. His troops camped in a nearby mango grove known as the Orchard of the Hundred Thousand Trees, eight hundred yards wide by three hundred yards deep and about fifty yards from the river. A mud bank and a ditch surrounded the grove.

Throughout the night, the British heard the sounds of cymbals and drums from the enemy camp. On the morning of June 23, the nabob’s force—elephants covered in scarlet cloth, horsemen whose swords glittered in the sun, heavy cannons, and standards flying— could be seen from the hunting lodge. Within a mile of the British position, Siraj-ud-Daula lounged in his tent surrounded by a force of thirty-five thousand infantry and fifteen thousand cavalry. His infantry was poorly trained, undisciplined, and badly armed. The cavalry, armed with long spears and swords, was better prepared, however, and the artillery was even more ready for battle. In all, the nabob had fifty-three fieldpieces tended by Frenchmen determined to avenge the loss of Chandernagore.

The nabob’s army was entrenched along the river and some two hundred yards inland and northeast for three miles. There was a redoubt where the entrenchments turned, and a small hill covered with jungle. Eight hundred yards in front of the mango grove was a small lake, and a hundred yards farther out a larger one. The nabob’s army was formed into three divisions, one of which was commanded by Mir Jafar. Those divisions moved out that morning to form a crescent containing the mango grove and Clive’s troops. Four of the French guns were stationed at the larger lake about two hundred yards from the British, with two guns placed nearer the river.

Clive had been led to believe the nabob had only some eight thousand troops, but now realized he faced a juggernaut of close to fifty thousand—and the real possibility that his forces would be cut off and destroyed. Both the French and British had learned in south India, however, that vast native armies were also unwieldy, undisciplined, and no match for European-trained and -led forces. In 1744, for example, four hundred British troops with two cannons had routed ten thousand native troops outside Madras, and Clive had several times witnessed small European forces besting larger native ones. In addition, native commanders usually rode on elephants, which made them easy targets. Once those officers were hit, panic often seized their troops.

Siraj-ud-Daula was also uneasy. He could no longer trust his troops, whose pay was in arrears. He feared large-scale desertions; only by making large cash payments had he persuaded his men to march at all. Aware that conspirators surrounded him, he had gone to Mir Jafar’s home and had him swear his support on the Koran, yet he still suspected the commander’s loyalty. He also worried that someone might have bribed his soldiers not to fight in the coming battle. In addition to everything else, his astrologer had told him the omens were very bad.

Clive had chosen a masterful defensive position that he knew he had to successfully hold or face destruction. He ordered his men out of the mango grove, forming them into a line facing the nabob’s troops. His European troops were placed in the center, with three six-pounders at each side and native troops to their left and right. He situated his remaining guns, two six-pounders and the howitzers, near some brick kilns about two hundred yards in front of the hunting lodge.

At 8 A.M. the French guns opened fire. The British responded and cut down a number of the nabob’s troops. After ten Europeans and twenty sepoys had been killed, however, Clive ordered his men to fall back behind the bank at the edge of the mango grove while maintaining the same order of battle. The French moved their guns forward and continued to shell the grove, but did little damage to Clive’s sheltered force. The British cut holes in the mud bank through which their fieldpieces continued to fire.

The British repulsed with grapeshot the only move the Indians made to attack, a modest cavalry charge. Meanwhile Clive had called a command meeting at 11 that morning, and his officers decided to hold their current position until dark. At midnight they would attack the nabob’s camp, in a desperate attempt to panic the enemy forces.

What Clive did not know at the time was that Mir Madan Khan, one of the nabob’s most trusted commanders, had been seriously wounded. Nor was he aware that other large segments of the enemy army—commanded by leaders, including Mir Jafar, who were ensnared in the plots and counterplots of the nabob’s court—were holding back from the fighting. They intended to wait until it became clear who would win, at which time they hoped to join with the victors.

An hour later, it began to rain. The British quickly covered their ammunition with canvas, but the nabob’s troops were much slower to act, and a quantity of their ammunition was rendered useless. The British guns continued to fire during the half-hour-long rainfall, while the nabob’s fell silent. Meanwhile Mir Madan had died, along with another of the nabob’s loyal commanders, Bahadur Ali Khan.

Siraj-ud-Daula was beginning to panic. He called for his remaining commanders. Mir Jafar and Rajah Dulab Ram, another plotter, advised him that it was too late in the day to launch another attack. The nabob heeded their advice. Around 3 P.M. he ordered much of his force to begin an orderly withdrawal toward its main camp. The British, meanwhile, observed a large body of troops making off toward Plassey. Since the village controlled the river, they feared the nabob was planning to attack them from the riverside. (It was later determined that those troops, under the command of the turncoat Mir Jafar, were leaving the area.)

Clive had been watching from the roof of the hunting lodge. When he came down to change into dry clothes, he was angry to learn that a detachment under Major Kilpatrick had set out after the troops headed toward Plassey. Kilpatrick had acted without orders, and Clive went after him. He ordered Kilpatrick back to the lodge to take command at the grove, and took charge of the forward troops himself. Fearing that a return to the lodge might provoke another attack, he sent back for additional troops and formed a line facing the enemy soldiers behind the large pond’s embankment. That movement—as it was intended to do—drew the nabob’s men out of their trenches, and the British guns promptly riddled them with fire. But Clive’s men were also hard pressed by the French artillery and strong musket fire.

At the same time, the nabob’s cavalry formed for a charge on Clive’s position as well as on the mango grove, causing Clive to cancel a second call for reinforcements from the grove. Under the hail of British fire, however, the enemy began to break up. Observers noted that even the elephants became “unruly.” Clive sent one party to storm the small hill and another the redoubt held by St. Frais and the French. Both succeeded. The nabob himself, on hearing the British were attacking, mounted a fast camel and made off with two thousand horsemen toward Murshidabad. By 5 P.M., with two commanders dead, the nabob in full flight, and large parts of his army holding back from combat, fear transfixed the rest of the Indians, who fled.

The British victory was complete. Clive’s troops pursued the routed army for about five miles, captured five pieces of artillery, and came to a halt. The British had lost twenty dead and another fifty wounded, as well as sixteen sepoys killed and thirty-six wounded. Estimates placed the nabob’s dead at five hundred. On the morning of June 24, Clive received Mir Jafar, and much to the Indian’s surprise (since his troops had merely been held back, rather than actively sided with the British), declared him nabob, sending him ahead to the capital. Clive and his force followed, entering Murshidabad on June 29.

Siraj-ud-Daula fled with a favored concubine, hoping to raise a new army in Bihar, but he was captured at Rajmahal, just west of the Ganges—reportedly because a beggar whose ears he had ordered cut off recognized him. Returned to the capital and paraded through the streets like a common criminal, the former nabob was then stabbed to death and his body was displayed on the back of an elephant.

The Battle of Plassey represented a resounding victory for Clive and the culmination of a chain of events that secured Bengal for the East India Company. Clive took his share of the spoils in the sum of £234,000, and British East India Company officials meeting in Calcutta subsequently appointed him governor of Bengal. The new nabob, Mir Jafar, also awarded him lands around Calcutta that would yield the new governor another £30,000 a year. “The great revolution,” Clive wrote the company directors in London, “so happily brought about, seems complete in every respect.”

The British East India Company had gained commercial control of the largest and wealthiest region of India. Added to its strength in the south, this gave it a hand in roughly a third of the subcontinent’s landmass. The company was now clearly the major power in India. Indeed, it also gave the British government a basis for imperial power in Asia.

In 1760 Clive returned to England, hoping to involve the government more in Indian affairs and leaving troops behind to mop up the remaining French, who were short of supplies and money, and lacking in naval power. In England Clive was crowned with honors for his Indian successes. He became a Member of Parliament in 1761, was made Baron Clive of Plassey in 1762, and a Knight of the Bath in 1764. Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder described him grandly as a “heaven-born general.” Clive returned to India in 1765 as commander in chief and governor of Bengal, where the company’s affairs had fallen into disorder.

His second tenure in Bengal cemented Clive’s reputation for statesmanship. He settled disputes that were dividing Bengal and created a system that made the British virtual rulers of Bengal and Bihar. At the same time, he reformed the East India Company and restored discipline to the army, creating what turned out to be the foundations of the British empire in Asia.

In 1767, when Clive again returned to England, he encountered a much cooler reception than he had received in 1760. Questions had been raised about his methods in India, and Parliament launched an inquiry. Clive was cross-examined, he later said, “like a sheep stealer,” but finally was declared to have rendered great service to the nation. His acquittal in 1772, however, was written in such a way that Clive still felt disgraced.

In October 1774, Clive traveled to Bath in failing health, and in November returned to his home at London’s Berkley Square, where he reportedly took large doses of opium for pain in his throat and stomach. He died on November 22, 1774—possibly by his own hand. Some biographers have said he stabbed himself in the throat with a penknife, while others refer to any talk of suicide as “contemptible slander,” claiming Clive died of a “fit” or an overdose of laudanum. Some have even suggested that he was murdered.

The controversy over his death has never been resolved. There was no inquest or postmortem examination, and no official cause of death was ever announced. He was buried without ceremony in the humble church of Moreton Say—his grave unmarked, according to his wife, “to elude the prying eyes of a gloating public.” His precise resting place within the church remains unestablished.

India remained part of the British Empire until 1947.


Originally published in the Summer 2008 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here

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