Rowdy ‘bob’ who won at Plassey
Winning the Battle of Plassey that changed Indian history didn’t make General Robert Clive a popular man
When, on this day 261 years ago, Robert Clive prevailed at the Battle of Plassey, he secured for himself a place as one of the great villains of Indian history. The wheels were set in motion for what would become British imperium in the East, and, for all its cruel rapacity, even years later Clive saw no reason to regret what he had unleashed. Defending his actions in 1773 in the British parliament, he uttered words which have since become notorious. “Am I not deserving of praise for the moderation which marked my proceedings?” he demanded. “Consider the situation in which victory at Plassey had placed me. A great prince was dependent on my pleasure; an opulent city lay at my mercy…I walked through vaults…piled…with gold and jewels!” exclaimed Clive. “Mr Chairman, at this moment I stand astonished at my own moderation!”
One might have sympathized with the man’s stream of thinking had his “moderation” not cost Bengal rivers of gold and silver already. An estimated 75-100 boats were deployed to carry the loot from Murshidabad to Calcutta, and Clive alone was granted not only a substantial cash reward by his freshly-planted puppet nawab, but also a jagir that yielded £27,000 (a hundred times that sum in today’s money) every year for the remainder of his lifetime. It was an extraordinary achievement for this Shropshire boy who began life as “Bob”, and whose career, in the words of a biographer, first saw him serve as a “glorified apprentice shopkeeper”. For here was a character who was a typical specimen of 18th century English middle-classdom, packed by boat to India in his teens, reduced to complaining about the weather, and plodding along on an annual £5 salary.
Clive was the son of an undistinguished lawyer, raised briefly by an aunt and her husband. When he was 6, his uncle recorded that the boy was “out of measure addicted to fighting”, with such “imperiousness” of temper that nobody seemed able to tame his rowdy behaviour. Insolence travelled with him to India, and he often got into petty quarrels with his superiors—on one occasion, he disagreed with a man of the church and decided to give him a colossal whack in the middle of the street. He chewed paan and smoked the hookah, though the only wine he could afford was the kind that was mixed with plenty of water. “I have not enjoyed one happy day since I left my native country,” he complained between days of clerical drudgery. His only consolation was writing, a practice, he reflected gloomily, “invented for the comfort of such solitary wretches as myself”.
Change came to his monotonous career during the Battle of Madras in 1746, when this British settlement fell to French forces. Clive, all of 21, managed to escape from under the noses of his captors, face darkened, and dressed in the clothes of his “native” servant. Moving from civilian service, he now elected to become a soldier, finding at last his calling. In a subsequent skirmish, he acquitted himself with courage so that his superiors wrote to London: “Mr Robert Clive, Writer in the Service, being of a Martial Disposition” was granted “an Ensign’s Commission”. Of course, he didn’t shed his trademark impetuosity, though this was perhaps less dangerous than the other thing he acquired in the course of his military adventures in India: gonorrhoea.
As the years passed, Clive achieved distinction. He was embroiled in the politics of the Carnatic, just as he was involved in the training of Indian troops for Western-style military practice. He cultivated spies, including an ill-fated prostitute, and began, at last, to earn an income that allowed him to indulge his love for an elaborate wardrobe. Marriage to a woman above his station followed, one who enjoyed being carried in palanquins and playing the harpsichord when she wasn’t pregnant. When he returned to India in 1756 after a brief stint at home, he was senior enough to enjoy a gun salute, victory at Plassey only confirming his importance in the order of precedence the Company established in India.
Laurels won here were not, however, the ones Clive wanted—India could be milked for cash, which he hoped, then, to employ in the pursuit of ambitions at home. By the time he went back in 1760, he had become enough of a personality to receive an audience with the king, and purchase more than one mansion for his use. But the hero of Plassey, despite his celebrity, was seen as a mere upstart. As Horace Walpole sniggered, “General Clive is arrived, all over estates and diamonds. If a beggar asks charity, he says, ‘Friend, I have no small brilliants about me.’” It didn’t help, of course, that Clive won few friends when he addressed, for instance, the chairman of the Company as “this mushroom of a man”, and, in any case, he soon disappeared for a third stint in India, his reputation slowly on the decline.
The 1773 trial of Clive—provoked by parliamentary horror at the Company’s depredations, of which Clive was the principal mascot—saw the man defend himself vigorously. He “was never guilty of any acts of violence or oppression…such an idea never entered into my mind”, he declared. And, as it happened, he was cleared soon enough. Peace and true respectability evaded Clive, however: In 1774, a year after these embarrassing proceedings in Parliament, he died suddenly, rumoured to have stuck a knife down his throat, though it may well have been an opium overdose. It was suicide, either way. In great secrecy, then, the man who inaugurated the Raj in India was laid to rest in an unmarked grave, his name associated forever since with greed, tragedy, and scandal.
Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015) and Rebel Sultans (2018). He tweets at @UnamPillai