The Turning Point: Robert Clive and the Conquest of Bengal



“We have at last arrived at that critical period, which I have long foreseen; I mean the period which renders it necessary for us to determine whether we can, or shall, take the whole to ourselves.”

—Robert Clive, 1765 (Peers 101).

The English East India Company sought to gain access to the province of Bengal because it was the most successful industrial region in India. In 1750, India accounted for 25% of world economic production contrasted to England’s 1.9% (Robins 61). Bengal was at the center of that production. In 1776, in the Bengali city of Dhaka alone, 80,000 women spun cotton for 25,000 weavers who produced approximately 180,000 piece of cloth (63). Indian textiles wove their way so fully into British culture that South Asian names for cloth cropped up in the English language—such as bandana, calico, taffeta, gingham, and chintz (63). In addition to textile manufacturing, Bengal’s fertile soils of the Ganges River Basin made for outstanding agricultural production. Any company seeking a profit in India wanted a piece of the lucrative region.

The East India Company opened a port in Calcutta to access Bengali riches. In 1717, the Company bribed a feeble and short-lived Mughal Emperor to give them a farman in Bengal—a decree that gave the Company the rights to trade duty free in return for a small annual fee to the Mughal court (Keay 228-229). This “get-out-of-all-Bengali-taxes-for-free card” made it impossible for other European powers to compete with the British there. But the local Bengali rulers resented this privilege that deprived them of tax revenue. More still, the farman was granted to the Company by a distant and weak ruler—the Emperor— who had only nominal authority in the province. Despite relentless protests from the local nawab, the British increased their trading presence in Bengal. A military clash seemed likely.

Around the mid 1700s, the European military strength of Great Britain and France surpassed the Mughal Empire. A key turning point was the Battle of Madras in 1746. The French provided their soldiers with the latest muskets that could fire 20 rounds per minute. The local nawab mustered 10,000 men and expected that the Europeans could still fire only once every three minutes. Instead, the new French muskets cut down Indian soldiers at will and the nawab quickly retreated. This was the first battle in South Asia in which European weapons proved dramatically decisive (Keay 281). In the future, superior military technology would have dramatic results when combined with the British desire to further exploit the wealth of Bengal.

The East India Company’s conquest of Bengal began when a new nawab, named Siraj, challenged the increasing power of the British. Worried about recent French incursions along the coast, the British built Fort William in Calcutta, which infuriated Siraj: “You are merchants. What need have you for a fortress? Being under my protection you have nothing to fear” (Keay 299). Still, the British refused to stop building. So, in 1756, Siraj attacked Fort William in Calcutta with 30,000 troops. One thousand British settlers evacuated, including the military commanders, leaving one hundred or so behind. After the nawab’s soldiers easily conquered the fort, they crammed the British prisoners into a small, dark basement. The majority of the prisoners slowly suffocated to death—only 23 survived (Robins 69). A British military officer wrote a terrifying and vivid account of how he endured the “Black Hole” of Calcutta, and it created a stir back in England (Keay 300-304). The British lost Calcutta. It was a military disaster. But, the description of the treatment of the surrendered soldiers sparked wide spread public support for the subsequent conquest of Bengal.

As it turned out, it fell to a young, impetuous, and inexperienced Company colonel, Robert Clive, to change the course of British and Indian history. Fast moving events prevented the Company directors in London from efficiently communicating orders to Clive in India. It took six months on average to travel or communicate one way between India and Britain, and this was an emergency (Peers 11). As the “man on the spot,” Clive from the outset dreamed of conquest: “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” (Robins 69). He quickly retook Fort William and Calcutta with 1000 sepoys (Indian soldiers trained by the British), 800 British troops, 14 cannons, and naval support. Shortly after, the Bengali nawab returned to Calcutta with 40,000 infantry, 60,000 cavalry and thirty cannons. Surrounded and severely outnumbered, Clive heard troubling news—the French had offered military support to the Bengali prince.

With luck, pluck, and a dash of treachery, Clive turned events to his advantage at the Battle of Plassey. As chance would have it, Afghan troops sacked the Mughal capital of Delhi and were reportedly heading towards Siraj to plunder his palace (Keay 313). The attack never came, but it so worried Siraj that he left the siege of Calcutta and actually asked for British support against the Afghanis. As the nawab hesitated, Clive turned and successfully attacked the French at Chandernagar, eliminating a potential European ally of the nawab and pushing the French out of Bengal forever. Next, he coopted disgruntled generals in the nawab’s army to agree to a secret pact. Mir Jafar, the key Bengali general, agreed to betray Siraj during battle and, in return, take the place of the nawab. At the last minute, however, one co-conspirator, a wealthy Bengali merchant, threatened to expose the secret treaty unless the cabal agreed to promise him 5% of Siraj’s treasure. This was blackmail. Clive simply prepared two treaties, a real one and a fake to fool the unreliable co-conspirator (Robins 71). The subterfuge worked.

At the Battle of Plassey, 3,000 Company troops—only one third of them European—defeated the nawab’s army of 50,000 (Keay 317). It was a sham battle; the Bengali general, Mir Jafar, betrayed Siraj. Clive fulfilled his side of the bargain and allowed Mir Jafar to ascend the Bengali throne. The co-conspirator who had been tricked by the fake treaty had a heart attack and died the moment he found out about Clive’s deceit (Robins 71). Siraj was soon found and killed. The year before, the nawab had presciently compared the Europeans to a swarm of bees “of whose honey you might reap the profit, but if you disturbed their hive they might sting you to death” (Keay 300).

In the short term, the Battle of Plassey benefitted the Company and its officers in Bengal at the expense of the Indians. Clive immediately plundered the Siraj’s treasury, leaving the new nawab, Mir Jafar, Clive’s ally, with nothing. Clive took a jagir, an endowment of tax revenue for life (Keay 322), and, at the age of 33, became one of the richest men in England (Robins 73). The conquest profited the Company as well. The Mughal emperor, Shah Alam II, recognized British power by granting the East India Company a diwani. This office gave the Company official authority to collect taxes on 10 million Bengalis, making the Company the virtual rulers of Bengal (Robins 3). Within a few years, Bengal would account for 50% of all Company trade (Keay 272). Clive wanted more.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the long-term consequences of the conquest of Bengal. Most historians look at this aggressive acquisition of territory as the first step in the rise of the British Empire in India. For this is the moment when the English East India Company shifted decisively from a trading company to a landlord and an occupying force. From its power base in northeast India, the Company expanded its territory quickly by playing local Indian princes and nawabs off each other. The Company replicated the model in Bengal elsewhere, creating compliant puppet rulers so that it could rule territory efficiently and inexpensively. Throughout India, the Company used the name and authority of the disintegrating Mughal Empire for political cover. The Company now replaced and emulated the Mughal revenue system by relying on local rulers to collect taxes. Importantly, this new source of wealth obviated past trade practices of sending valuable silver from England to India. Bengal was the imperial “golden goose” that conquerors dreamed of.

The shift in share of World GDP from 1600 to 1879 (in millions of 1990 dollars

1600

% of Total

1700

% of Total

1870

% of Total

Great Britain

6,007

1.80

10,709

2.88

100,179

9.10

Western Europe

65,955

20.02

83,395

22.46

370,223

33.61

China

96,000

29.14

82,000

22.30

189,740

17.23

India

74,250

22.54

90,750

24.44

134,882

12.25

World

329,417

371,369

1,101369

(Robins 7)

For Bengalis, however, the British conquest was a tragedy. The most productive region in India was quickly reduced to poverty. Famine spread throughout the province as the British increased tax collection, decreased wages, and failed to respond to droughts and floods. In 1769, 1 to 10 million Bengalis died of famine (estimates vary widely because no official count was ever taken) (Robins XV). In the lower parts of Bengal the famine resulted in a population loss of between 33 to 50 percent (Keay 383). Throughout the famine, the Company continued to collect taxes and actually increased the land tax (Robins 92). They offered no food relief for the starving and, shockingly, some Company officials made fortunes by hoarding and charging exorbitant prices for food. Calcutta Company officials reported that they had actually increased revenues during the famine (Robins 92). Taking responsibility for the welfare of the people of Bengal was clearly not part of the Company’s mission. Under the British, Bengal also lost its role as a manufacturer of high quality goods and instead became dependent on exporting low-value raw materials, such as raw cotton, opium, indigo, and tea (Peers 48). Taking advantage of its monopoly on trade, the Company forced weavers to accept extremely low wages and the industry declined. By the middle of the 19th century, the Company had effectively de-industrialized Bengal.

Back in England, some critics attacked the Company’s meteoric rise to success and called for reform. In 1772, Parliament investigated the Company for its finances and how it conquered and ruled Bengal. The focus turned quickly to how Clive acquired his fortune. He defended himself vigorously, saying, “I stand astonished by my own moderation” (Wikipedia). Despite winning a knighthood and a seat in the House of Lords, he felt embittered by the public recriminations. Suffering from gallstones and opium addiction, he committed suicide in 1774 (Wikipedia and Keay 393). In any case, Parliament regulated the Company in 1773 and again in 1813, taking possession of territory, rescinding its monopoly on Asian trade, and allowing missionary activity for the first time (Keay 393). In a further blow to the Bengali textile industry, the regulations also included a 78% tax on imported Indian cotton to protect the incipient British textile industry (Robins 147). Bengali textile exports slowed and opium soon became the main export (illegally traded to China). Even with the new regulations, the East India Company continued to expand in India.

Despite an incomplete conquest, the Company ruled most of India by the early 1800s. They fought long and protracted wars against the Marathas and the Prince of Mysore, just as the Mughals had done. And the British failed to subdue the Sikhs in the Punjab, the last holdout, until 1848 (Peers 42-43). But, the East India Company vanquished the Mughal Empire in all but name. In 1803, in a telling reversal, the Mughal Emperor himself accepted the protection of the British Empire. The East India Company president in London was essentially the Emperor of India. The British Empire triumphed right along with the Company. With France’s defeat in the Napoleonic Wars in 1812, England rid itself of its last imperial competitor in Europe. The British Empire now ruled the seas as well as most of South Asia (Ferguson 56).

Academics and political leaders have for centuries reflected on the legacy of the English East India Company. Thomas Macauley, Victorian historian, poet, and former Indian administrator, deemed it “The Greatest Company in the World” (Robins 22). But, few took such a sanguine view. The champion of free market economics, Adam Smith, a contemporary of Clive, wrote of how the Company “oppresses and domineers” the Bengalis (4). Karl Marx, on the other side of the economic spectrum, disparaged how the East India Company had “conquered India to make money out of it” (38). And in the 20th century, the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, wrote of how the East India Company was full of “corruption, venality, nepotism, violence and greed of money” (13). Historian Nick Robins summarized the accomplishments of the Company this way in 2006: “The East India Company deserves to be looked at as it was—a profit making company that generated great wealth, but one the also contributed to great suffering” (16).




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