The Company’s Conquest II

Robert Clive fires a cannon in the Siege of Arcot(now in the state of Tamil Nadu) 31st August to 15th November 1751 in the War in India: picture by Cecil Doughty.

What honour is left?

It was in the eastern province of Bengal that the Company acquired control over their greatest stretch of land. Here, too, the Company’s rise was shape by the forces that disrupted South Asian politics in the years after Nader Shah’s arrival. The Nawab Shuja ud-din died five months after the Persian invasion, possibly from shock at the collapse of Mughal power. The old servant he sent to defend Bengal’s western borders quickly seized power on his death, ruling as Alivardi Khan. Alivardi spent most of his reign battling invasions from Maratha forces which, as in southern India, claimed they had a right to collect a proportion of the province’s total tax take. Raghuji Bhonsle led 20,000 soldiers on horseback in 1742, recruiting the same number again as he was joined by nobles from Bihar and Bengal who backed Alivardi Khan’s rivals. The capital of Murshidabad was burnt to the ground and three million rupees (£46 million in 2016 prices) taken from the treasury. The new Nawab forced the Marathas to flee, but they returned six times over the next nine years.

As elsewhere, the Marathas extended their influence by claiming to be the guardians of legitimate Mughal power. A Bengali poet writing about the invasions said the Marathas had come after the Mughal emperor and condemned the ‘servant’ Alivardi for overturning the natural Mughal hierarchy and seizing power. ‘He has become very powerful, and does not pay me tax,’ Emperor Muhammad Shah is supposed to have complained. ‘I have no army.’ The poet thought the Maratha invasions were divine punishment for the disorder that had engulfed Bengal since Alivardi took the throne at Murshidabad. Bengal had become a place where ‘the people took pleasure with the wives of others. No one knew what might happen at any time,’ he said.

Unable to collect money from central state treasuries, the Marathas harassed and plundered small towns and villages as part of their usual bottom-up process of state formation. Their aim was to force local leaders to back them to preserve the peace, causing the existing regime to collapse. In some parts of the region ruled by the Nawab of Bengal, this strategy was successful. To stop them raiding Alivardi recognized the Marathas as rulers of the province of Orissa in 1751, which had perhaps a fifth of the population he governed. There, the Marathas stopped marauding and adopted Mughal forms of statecraft, governing through a process of negotiation with local rajas. As they supported the constellation of institutions which commercial society relied on, bridges, ferries and temples, markets and mosques, so Orissa’s prosperity returned.

In Bengal and Bihar, the Nawab held on but the raids corroded the capacity of his regime to maintain a balance of power. In historian P. J. Marshall’s words, ‘the fabric of acquiescence on which the Nawab’s governed rested was severely stretched’. To pay for his swelling army Alivardi demanded money from landholders, local princes, and the European companies. ‘Coming down with all His Excellency’s cannon’ to Hughli in 1752, the East India Company complained that Alivardi managed to ‘bully’ 300,000 rupees (£4.9 million in 2016 prices) from the Company. The French wrote about wanting ‘to humble the pride of that man’. Robert Orme suggested to Clive that ‘t’would be a good deed to swinge the old dog’. But Alivardi was an old soldier who retained the loyalty of his army, and was skilful at ensuring potential opponents had no opportunity to unite. He died, of natural causes, aged over eighty, in April 1756.

Through the years after Nader Shah, British officers thought their capacity to control the flow of commodities in Bengal was continually in danger. Raghuji Bhonsle’s troops had attacked the Company’s boats on the Ganges in 1748. Other local lords took advantage of insecurity and seized Company goods through the 1740s and 1750s. In response the Company strengthened its forts in Bengal, building bigger walls and new gun emplacements around its settlement. A line of defences was dug around Calcutta in 1742, to protect the city from attack; it is still called the Maratha ditch. In the last years of Alivardi’s reign the Company built new battlements to the north of Calcutta, ostensibly to defend against the French. Bengal’s government complained that these defences increased their strength against the legitimate authority of the Nawab’s regime, as much as the French or the Marathas.

Alivardi was succeeded by Siraj-ad-Daula, the old Nawab’s 21-year-old grandson who had been nurtured as heir since his late teens. The change of Nawab fractured the fragile peace which Alivardi had maintained. On taking the throne, Siraj found a province populated by armed groups of men trying to challenge his attempt to keep order. For example, land to the east was controlled by Rai Durlabh, a nobleman with strong independent power based around Dhaka; three of the biggest local lords in Bengal, the rajas of Birbhum, Burdwan and Nadia, refused to pay any revenue at all. Amid the chaos caused by Maratha incursions, the death of an effective local ruler left a polity at war with itself. And as in the south of India a decade earlier, the power of the East India Company was strengthened by the flight of merchants and nobles behind the walls of its fortified port.

To Siraj-ad-Daula the flight of rival nobles to the British port made the fortified city an island of disorder, the most serious obstacle to his effort to maintain a balance of power throughout his land. Within two months of becoming Nawab, Siraj insisted the English ‘fill up their ditch, raze their fortifications’ and trade on the same terms as they had done under Murshid Quli Khan, otherwise he promised to ‘expel them totally out of the country’. Nobles in Siraj’s entourage complained of the ‘contumacy, usurpation and violence of the English’, and urged him to act. To begin with the Nawab tried to negotiate, sending an envoy to remonstrate with the East India Company when Rai Durlabh’s son fled to Calcutta with a fortune of 5.3 million rupees, Siraj-ad-Daula sent an envoy. The emissary received a slap from a British officer and was expelled from the British city, returning to Murshidabad asking, ‘What honour is left to us, when a few traders, who have not yet learnt to wash their bottoms reply to the ruler’s order by expelling his envoy?’ Eventually, with his nobles clamouring for action, Siraj-ad-Daula marched south and, in June 1756, occupied Calcutta.

Gusts of passion

When Siraj-ad-Daula expelled the British from the capital of their operations in eastern India, Robert Clive’s mind was on the Marathas not Bengal. Clive had been away in England for two years, but in 1755 he was appointed second in command of an expedition to join a Maratha campaign against the Nizam, then supported by a strong French army under the great general Marquis de Bussy-Castelnau. The plan was for a British force to arrive at Bombay, meet their Maratha friends at Pune and march together towards the Nizam’s capital at Aurangabad, forcing the governor of central India to abandon his alliance with France forever. Clive was appointed lieutenant colonel and given the position of chief at the Company’s subordinate base at Fort St David once the expedition was over. He saw the appointment as a chance to act out the life of a great military hero and return home with new glory.

When he landed in Bombay, however, Clive was disappointed to find the Aurangabad invasion plans had been cancelled, falling foul of British indecision and doubt. After helping the Marathas recapture a string of forts from rebels along India’s western coast instead, Clive sailed to take up his appointment at Fort St David. He imagined there was to be no more fighting. On his way, he wrote to the governor in Madras saying he had been reconciling himself to being ‘happily seated at Fort St David, pleased with the thought of . . . my application to the civil branch of the Company’s affairs and improving the investment’.

Within a week of taking up his new post Clive learnt that an ‘event which must be [of] the utmost consequence to [the Company’s] trade’ had occurred. The British had been driven from Calcutta. Most upsetting was the incident that found infamy as the Black Hole. After the Nawab’s army captured Calcutta, the small number of British soldiers and officers who had not managed to escape were crammed into a tiny jail room in Fort William and left overnight. Many (historians dispute the exact number) suffocated to death. News of the capture caused intense passion at Madras and other English settlements. This was ‘the greatest calamity that ever happened to the English nation in these parts’, one of them said. ‘Every breast seems filled with grief, horror and resentment’, as Clive put it. Rage was directed particularly at Siraj-ad-Daula, the conqueror of Calcutta and supposed murderer of their compatriots. But there was also a feeling of humiliation at the ease with which Calcutta had been captured, and a desire for recrimination among the British themselves. A notice was quickly put up at Falta, the village thirty miles south of Calcutta to which Company servants had fled, asking British officers to state ‘what they think blameable concerning the unfortunate loss’. The mood was for the redemption of lost honour through violent revenge.

Robert Clive was always conscious of the way his actions would be perceived by a hopefully admiring public back in Britain. The recapture of Calcutta was, he thought, his chance for glory, so he quickly put himself forward to lead the reconquering army. On hearing of the fall of Calcutta, he quickly travelled north to Madras to offer his services, pressing his friend Robert Orme, then a member of the Council, to make his case. Clive was appointed joint commander along with Admiral James Watson. ‘This expedition’, he wrote to his father, ‘if attended with success may enable me to do great things. It is by far the grandest of my undertakings.’22 In October 1756, he sailed north, accompanied by ‘a fine body of Europeans full of spirit and resentment’: 784 in total. He also had copies of certificates from the Mughal emperor giving the Company the right to settle in Bengal. Like the Marathas, the Company claimed its valiant actions were underwritten by Mughal authority.

Others less concerned with personal glory found ensuing events hard to comprehend, and their perspective allows us to trace the importance of passion and glory hunting in the unfolding drama. John Corneille wrote a particularly illuminating narrative. A lieutenant in the Duke of Dorsetshire’s regiment who fought alongside Clive, Corneille sent a series of puzzled letters about the East India Company’s war with Siraj-ad-Daula to his father. For him, the British war against Siraj was not a calculated effort by the British to maximize their advantage. It was an event driven by ‘the vicissitudes of fortune’, by luck and passion.

The history of the British empire began for John Corneille when he joined an army packed ‘from the different regiments of the kingdom of Ireland’ into nine ships at Cork in 1755. Corneille was a ‘military man’ whose vocation required him to be ‘ready at short warning to go wherever [his] duty might call him’, be it India or fighting the French in Europe. But by the time Corneille’s ship reached Madras in March 1756, war with France had been put on hold. Instead, Corneille found himself a mercenary tax collector, leading troops against local lords in Arcot who refused to pay revenue to the Company’s ally, Nawab Muhammad Ali Khan. By July, he was back in Madras where ‘everything was in a state of tranquility’. The following month, stories about the capture of Calcutta were circulating. Sharing a sense of outrage at Britain’s humiliation, Corneille was also hostile to the ‘irresolution and delays’ of his commanders. When it finally headed north, his ship sailed into bad weather and sprang a leak. With 225 soldiers on board seriously seasick, Corneille’s vessel only made it halfway up the coast to Vizagapatam. There, the frustrated officer spent his days wandering and shooting in the lush countryside, angry at missing out as 800 European and 1000 Indian soldiers led by Clive and Watson recaptured Calcutta.

Calcutta was reconquered on 2 January 1757. The Company’s army carried on to Bengal’s second biggest port of Hughli, twenty miles north, and ‘made a prodigious slaughter’ of the Nawab’s army. Shortly afterwards, on 9 February, the Nawab of Bengal signed a treaty that gave the Company the right to trade without paying taxes, to mint coins and a promise of compensation for the cash lost in the occupation of Calcutta. After the signing of the treaty John Corneille wrote that ‘the English after an eight months banishment were restored again to their settlement, and not only to the full enjoyment of their ancient rights and privileges but many more’.

Clive and Watson believed Siraj decided to sign a peace treaty with the East India Company because he was cowed into submission by the British army. ‘Arms’, Admiral Watson wrote, ‘are more to be dependent on, and I dare say will be much more prevalent than any treaties or negotiations.’ In fact, Siraj’s agreement to a peace treaty was shaped by circumstances beyond Bengal of which the British had only an inkling. In 1756 and early 1757, Delhi was in a state of political turmoil once again. Nader Shah’s conquest of 1739 had started a sequence of western invasions, as northern India once again became a field for thousands of adventurers, warriors and empire-builders from Persia and Afghanistan. The greatest of these was Ahmad Shah Durrani, a Pashtun soldier from the Afghan city of Herat who began his military career in Nader Shah’s army. Ahmad Shah invaded northern India seven times between 1748 and 1767, but perhaps the most devastating incursion occurred in the final months of 1756 and first part of 1757. Siraj-ad-Daula was concerned that warriors invading from the west were about to pour into Bengal, so at the beginning of February 1757 he believed that a quick agreement to the East India Company’s demands might help enlist the British as allies.

John Corneille thought the treaty with Siraj-ad-Daula would end the fighting for good, but then news that war had finally broken out with France reached India. The troops Corneille commanded became part of ‘a scheme . . . towards dispossessing [the French] out of their settlements in Bengal’. Corneille left Vizagapatam for Calcutta on 1 March 1757. His first action in Bengal was to take part in the British conquest of the East India French Company’s small fort at the town of Chandernagore, fifteen miles north of Calcutta, an event that gave the lieutenant of the Devonshires his greatest sense of honour. With the defeat of the French the British had at last ‘recovered that character which their pusillanimous behaviour at Calcutta had justly lost them, and were once more looked on as a great and powerful people’, Corneille argued. Still keen on enlisting the English as partners against Ahmad Shah, Siraj-ad-Daula wrote to Clive of his ‘inexpressible pleasure’ at the British victory over their old rivals.

Despite Siraj’s clear interest in negotiating with the British, the months between March and June saw the relationship between the two finally collapse. The exchange of threats and insults, humiliation and revenge that had begun in June 1756 created a cycle of antagonism that neither side was able to step out of, despite the apparent willingness of both to do so.

Young, and with little experience in the practical arts of statecraft, Siraj-ad-Daula was a man ruled by a more passionate desire to seek speedy revenge than his predecessors had been. ‘Siraj-ad-Daula was not the man to forget what he regarded as an insult,’ Jean Law, French chief at Chandernagore observed. He had quickly become ‘incensed against the English’. Richard Becher, one of the most thoughtful British observers, argued that Siraj had decided to occupy Calcutta to begin with in a ‘sudden gust of passion’.

Yet even Siraj tried to move beyond the cycle of anxious violence. He knew the rules of Mughal statecraft, the politics of combining friendship with fear, even if he wasn’t always experienced enough to put them into practice. Throughout his exchanges with the East India Company Siraj tried to play the part of the statesman, appealing to the British to act in the way appropriate for merchants. ‘You have taken and plundered Hughli,’ he wrote to Admiral Watson in March, ‘and made war upon my subjects: those are not actions becoming merchants.’ As traders and men sharing a common belief in the same God, he thought the British had a duty to keep their promises. In February, he compared them unfavourably to the Hindu Marathas. ‘The Mahrattas are bound by no gospel, yet they are strict observers of treaties,’ Siraj wrote. ‘It will therefore be a matter of great astonishment and hard to be believed, if you, who are enlightened with the gospel, should not remain firm, and preserve the treaty you have ratified in the presence of God and Jesus Christ.’

For their part, British officers ignored Siraj’s allusion to prophets and scriptures. They spoke as if being merchants was inextricably linked to the use of military force. They believed that the honour of a merchant in Asia always depended on his capacity for violence. The British addressed the Nawab as a fellow warrior, believing that he shared with them a martial ethos. Clive and many of his compatriots thought anything other than an explicit admission of the Nawab’s contrition an insult to their martial power.

Indian friends of the British tried to encourage a less aggressive tone. Commenting on one draft of a letter that Clive intended to send to Siraj, the Company’s ally Manik Chandra complained that Clive used ‘improper expressions’. Clive replied that it would not be consistent with his ‘Duty to the Company or their honour’ to write in submissive language. ‘We are come to demand Satisfaction, not to entreat his favour.’ ‘I know you are a great Prince and a great warrior. I likewise for these past ten years have been consistently Fighting in these parts and it has pleased God Almighty always to make me successful,’ he wrote to the Nawab.

While Siraj’s unusually quick passion played some part in the breakdown, the anxious, prickly sense of honour the British carried with them in the subcontinent contributed the most to the escalation of conflict. As they had been in the run-up to the Anglo-Mughal war seventy years earlier, the Company’s officers thought they could not achieve self-respect in the subcontinent without achieving total dominance over their rivals. As then, a concern with the profits of the East India Company underlaid British actions. But it was over-laid in turn by an anxious, often paranoid attitude which interpreted every possible slight as a major humiliation, and considered violence the only means of restoring honour.