The Company’s Conquest I

The Battle of Buxar, 22 October 1764, was the decisive battle which defined British as a ruler that was fought between English Forces, and a combined army of Mir Kasim, the Nawab of Bengal, Nawab of Oudh and Shah Alam II, Mughal Emperor.

Nader Shah was Mughal emperor for only fifty-seven days, in 1739, but those days created aftershocks that transformed India’s politics. They broke existing centres of authority, massively shrinking the scope of Mughal power. They set loose bands of mounted warriors who ransacked the countryside seeking wealth from villages and towns. They pushed traders behind the walls of whichever power had the strongest forts. For a short period plunder, rather than negotiation, became the most effective tool for creating new centres of wealth. Those fifty-seven days laid the ground which allowed the East India Company to conquer territory in India for the first time.

Nader Shah was born a long way from India, but he was from the kind of background which for centuries had nurtured men attracted to India as a source of adventure and power. He began life as a mercenary on the southern edge of the Caucasus Mountains between Russia and Iran, recruiting a band of soldiers who seized power in Persia when the 200-year-old Safavid dynasty collapsed in the early 1730s. He reunited Persia and defended the country against invading Turks and Russians. Instead of restoring a Safavid monarch to the throne, in 1736, at the age of thirty-eight, he decided to take the Persian imperial crown himself. Concerned about the security of his authority in Persia, he then marched east in search of legitimacy. If he could be declared Mughal emperor, successor to great central Asian sovereigns like Timur, Babur and Akbar, Nader Shah believed his presently shaky grip on power in Persia itself would be secure.

By the 1730s Delhi had become the Mughal empire’s weak point. Mughal authority, as we have seen, had been dispersed in a network of strong regional regimes. The capital became a centre of symbolic importance more than administrative or military power. So when Nader Shah marched through the Khyber pass into northern India, most ‘Mughal’ rulers stayed in their home provinces. An overwhelming Persian victory at Karnal on 24 February 1739 was followed by a choreographed ceremony in Delhi’s gold-walled audience hall on 19 March, where Nader Shah took the formal sovereignty of the Mughal empire but left the existing emperor in practical charge. Nader Shah’s aim was to make a name for himself as the conqueror of India but leave the existing political structure intact. But something went badly wrong.

As usual, tension began in the marketplace, the one arena where people from different places and with different assumptions were forced to interact. Nader Shah’s troops were not used to the unruliness of the Indian mob. When they tried to fix the price of wheat, they were greeted by protests from Delhi merchants. When soldiers then tried to suppress the crowd, they were attacked. To begin with the new emperor trusted his new subjects more than his own troops, saying, ‘some villain from my camp has falsely accused the men of Hindustan of this crime.’ But when townsfolk fired upon Nader Shah himself, he concluded that only a massive show of violence could secure his new dignity and power. Unsheathing his sword on the roof of a mosque in Chandni Chowk, he signalled the beginning of a massacre, and ‘remained there in a deep and silent gloom that none dared disturb’ while the killing went on around him. The kotwal, or head of Delhi’s police, estimated that 20,000 to 30,000 men and women died.

After staying less than two months, Nader Shah left with silver, gold, 300 elephants, 10,000 horses and the famous jewelled Mughal Peacock Throne that would became the symbol of Persian sovereign power. On his way out, he placed the ‘crown of Hindustan’ on the head of Emperor Muhammad Shah, who ‘offered’ Kashmir and Sindh to be ruled by Persia in ‘gratitude’. Ananda Ranga Pillai, a merchant and adviser to the French East India Company at the southern coastal city of Pondicherry, asked ‘if such, indeed, be the fate that befell the Emperor of Delhi, need we wonder at the calamities which overtake ordinary men’. He added: ‘Of what avail is the power and wealth of kings, on this earth.’ Nader Shah’s conquest taught that ‘[t]hese are perishable’.

Nader Shah’s eruption did not dent eighteenth-century India’s prosperity as most of the soldiers who helped him conquer Delhi spent their plunder in India. But the Persian conquest did corrode the systems which held together eighteenth-century India’s polity. The Mughal empire’s authority to arbitrate between rivals in India’s provinces vanished, allowing civil war to proliferate. Credit networks temporarily disappeared, making it harder to transfer money from one place to another. The British found it difficult to remit money through Indian bankers from Surat to Calcutta for example; the banker they relied on in Bengal had begun ‘withdrawing all his money from the Europeans as well as the natives’ in response to the shock of Mughal decline. The collapse of public finances meant groups which felt they had a legitimate claim on the state’s resources started harassing local populations to collect it, rather than asking at the treasury. A time of prosperity for some, the years after 1739 were a period of insurgency and disorder for others, as social groups who had previously been kept in check by the complex balance of Mughal politics asserted their autonomous power over India’s small towns and the countryside. With its forts and armed forces, the East India Company was designed to protect itself against political violence. The chaos of the 1740s and 1750s was a time when it thrived.


Robert Clive was the greatest beneficiary of the transformation caused by Nader Shah’s conquest. Clive was the eldest of thirteen children born to a well-connected lawyer and former Member of Parliament from the small town of Market Drayton in Shropshire. His background, as the member of an ambitious but not wealthy family of minor gentry, was typical of East India Company officials. Somehow or other though, it seems to have given him a peculiar gift for ‘self-assertion’, as the Bengali writer Nirad C. Chaudhuri put it. Clive is often thought responsible for the beginning of the Company’s empire in southern India, and then for the Battle of Plassey, the first moment when a British army asserted military dominance over a large area of territory in India. But Clive’s greatest talent was telling stories which put him at the centre of the action. In reality forces over which he had no control shaped the course of events.

Clive first arrived in Madras as a 19-year-old in 1744. In the five years since Nader Shah had conquered and left, the politics of south-east India had been transformed by the invasion of Maratha armies marauding in search of money they could no longer collect from Mughal treasuries. Until 1739, the far south-east of India had been part of the Mughal province of Arcot, ruled by increasingly autonomous Nawabs; the area to the north, now the Indian states of Telengana and Andhra, was governed by the Viceroy of the Deccan, a man with the title Nizam ul-Mulk (‘Regulator of the Realm’), who had authority over all the Mughal empire’s territories in the south of India. But their deals with a succession of Mughal emperors let the Marathas claim 35 per cent of revenue throughout these lands. Until 1739, that money had reluctantly been paid directly from the Nawab or Nizam’s treasuries. As the Nizam wrote, ‘if I had the necessary strength to destroy them [the Marathas] and their homelands, I would not have asked for meetings, mutual consultations and united action.’ But Nader Shah’s invasion broke the credit networks and emptied the treasuries which sustained the political order of southern India. Instead of negotiating with regional states, the Marathas sent bands of horsemen to collect revenue directly from local leaders scattered throughout the region’s towns and villages. By 1744, Arcot had seen five years of raiding by the Marathas, and the fracturing of political power into dozens of petty principalities and a myriad of fractious local powers. ‘Every officer who had been entrusted with a petty government was introduced as a na[wab]’, the Nizam said while travelling through the region. One day he is supposed to have exclaimed, ‘I have seen, this day, eighteen nawabs in a country where there should be one, scourge the next fellow who comes with that title.’

Robert Clive’s English education gave him no inkling of the Mughal and Maratha politics which would shape his career. His childhood allowed him to imagine India as a place to make money quickly, perhaps also as a scene of Britain’s ancient quarrel with France. Writing home in his first months, the homesick nineteen-year-old said his purpose was no more than ‘to provide for myself & . . . being of service to my Relations’. His first fighting in the region was indeed driven by English conflict with France. When war broke out between the two European powers and Madras briefly occupied by the French in 1748, Clive managed to escape, enlist in the Company’s army and then helped defend the second British force in the region, Fort St. David. But it was as part of a Company army allied to Indian forces that Clive made his name.

In the years after Nader Shah’s invasion, groups of Indian nobles kept their valuables and more vulnerable family members in the strongest local forts. The paranoia and mutual animosity of the European Companies in the region ensured that Madras and, 100 miles to the south, the French town of Pondicherry were two of the region’s best defended citadels. One claimant to the rule of the Arcot region, Chanda Saheb, sheltered with the French. His rival, the man recognized by the Mughal emperor as the Nawab of Arcot, became an ally of the English. Each enlisted the respective European Company’s army on their side, and in the late 1740s and early 1750s the French alliance was winning. By 1751 the Nawab Muhammad Ali Khan had been driven out of every part of southern India apart from Trichinopoly, a fort 210 miles south-west of Madras. In return for a ‘a gratification adequate to the charges’ – a tract of land twenty-five miles around Madras and a bill of exchange for 20,000 rupees – the Nawab enlisted the East India Company’s army to reassert his control over the south. Muhammad Ali Khan suggested the British recapture the province’s capital city of Arcot. Getting control of the city’s revenue-collecting offices would help the nawab to pay his debts to the Company. When Captain Rodolphus de Gingens, the British Commander-in-Chief in Madras, refused to help with the raid, Robert Clive was appointed as second choice. It was the siege of Arcot that began Robert Clive’s career as a great martial hero.

With 210 soldiers, Clive left for Arcot on 26 August 1751. When he reached the city he found the garrison had been abandoned. Chanda Saheb’s own finances were in a far worse state than the British or Muhammad Ali Khan imagined. The fragmentation of authority meant that even with the possession of the Nawab’s capital, collecting revenue was impossible, so troops had not been paid and hence had abandoned the garrison. Upon his arrival, Clive hoisted two flags, one signifying that Arcot was now under Mughal authority, the other the flag of the nawab. In Clive’s first military venture, there was not a Union flag to be seen; the Company was acting as mercenary for a Mughal ruler. His first action was to appoint revenue officers to collect money from lords in the surrounding countryside on behalf of the Nawab.

Shortly after Clive’s arrival, Chanda Saheb’s son appeared with a French detachment and some 2000 Indian soldiers and blockaded the fort. Clive strengthened the defences, displaying skill in placing British cannons so as to inflict maximum damage. Clive and his soldiers spent fifty days camped in Arcot fort while the French and their Indian allies blew the town to smithereens. Two-thirds of his troops were killed by enemy gunfire. But it wasn’t Clive’s military acumen or his soldiers’ bravery which caused the siege to end. After ten hours of constant bombardment on 14 November, Chanda Saheb’s forces stopped firing and abandoned the town at two o’clock in the morning. They fled so quickly that they left behind four large cannons and a sizeable stock of ammunition. What frightened them was the arrival of 6,000 Maratha soldiers come to support Clive, the Company and the Nawab.

In fact, while Clive was besieged at Arcot, the political situation had turned dramatically in favour of the Company’s ally, Muhammad Ali Khan. The Nawab had been playing the old Mughal game of fear and friendship, enticing a growing band of supporters to join his alliance. The rulers of Mysore to the west supported him in exchange for a promise of territory south of Trichinopoly. The rajas of Tanjore, an offshoot of the Maratha ruling family, had been humiliated by Chanda Saheb a decade earlier and were keen to join the alliance, too. Most importantly, large Maratha armies based in central India had returned to the south, lured by the region’s prosperous agriculture and commerce. In September 1750 the Maratha leader Raghuji Bhonsle sent his general Murari Rao to Arcot. Murari Rao’s force had the full backing of the Maratha Peshwa Balaji Rao, grandson of Balaji Vishwanath. The Marathas decided to support Muhammad Ali Khan against Chanda Saheb and his French allies.

‘You would never believe’, the French commander Dupleix wrote, ‘that four or five hundred Marathas [he miscounted] would make M. Giupil determine to raise the siege.’ After resting for two weeks Clive’s small force marched to join the Maratha army. On 3 December, at Arni, twenty miles south of Arcot, a joint Anglo-Maratha army force of 1,000 men defeated Chanda Saheb’s troops, also seizing 100,000 rupees in cash. This was Clive’s first real battle. Here, he led English troops acting as an auxiliary in a Maratha action. Five months later, Chanda Sahib himself was killed in a fight with the combined forces of the Nawab of Arcot, the East India Company, the rajas of Tanjore and Mysore and the Marathas. It was Maratha not British support which turned the tide in favour of the Company’s Indian allies.

These victories did not found a British empire in South Asia, but they did see the British change from being armed merchants to tax collectors in southern India. In return for lending soldiers and money to Indian rulers, the East India Company began to acquire property outside the vicinity of its forts for the first time. With little cash to pay the Company directly, the Nawab of Arcot handed the British a succession of rights over remunerative assets. In 1748, he gave the East India Company his share of the 50,000 pagodas (gold coins worth three rupees each) collected from pilgrims of the temple at Tirupati each year. Three years later, St Thomé, an old, abandoned Portuguese base along the Coromandel coast, together with a semi-circle of land twenty-five miles outside Madras, paid for the British presence at Trichinopoly and Arcot. The Nawab would stay an ally of the British, with steadily less and less power, until 1799. In addition, in 1759 the Company was handed 30,000 square miles of territory by the Nizam of Hyderabad to the north, in return for the Company’s support against the French and other rivals; the grant was then confirmed by the Mughal emperor in 1765. These northern sarkars (districts) were made up of well-watered rice-growing land which included the Kistna and Godavari river deltas. They were the first significant territories to come under direct British command. The handover similarly cemented an alliance with the Nizam, and Hyderabad remained autonomous until 1947.

Here and elsewhere, the British saw land as a financial asset and a way to fund their fortified outposts, rather than an opportunity to assert political power over large areas of territory. In the northern sarkars, at the temple of Tirupati and throughout the tranche of territory surrounding Madras, the Company acted as Indian rulers did when their financial commitments exceeded their political power: they sold revenue-collecting rights to tax farmers, often leaving them in charge of the same officers who governed them under the Nizam or Nawab. In the 1750s, the British did not want to extend their political leadership evenly over Indian territory. By now possessing theoretical sovereignty in some places, they were not interested in exercising effective political power.