Clive meeting with Emperor Shah Alam II, 1765.


It was trade, not any abstract concept of empire, that took the British to India in the first place. In 1600 a royal charter was granted to ‘The Governor and Company of Merchants of London, Trading into the East Indies’. Queen Elizabeth I signed the document at a time when the national economy was expanding rapidly, and was to be spared the worst aspects of decline that affected some of her commercial rivals like France, Spain and Holland. However, although there is a measure of truth in the image of the bold Elizabethan sea dog, it was actually the Portuguese and then the Dutch who made the running in the East, and the foundation of the East India Company marked a belated realisation that English merchants required the government’s backing if they were to succeed.

The Company had to gain the Mughal emperor’s permission to establish a trading base at Surat on the north-west coast. Its first negotiations with the court, then at Agra, were easily seen off by the Portuguese, long resident there. Although King James I’s representative, William Hawkins, apparently did better in 1609–11, when the Company’s fleet arrived off Surat it was rebuffed. In 1613, violence succeeded where diplomacy had failed, and two of the Company’s ships, moored downstream from Surat, drove off a Portuguese attack and traded successfully. The English went on to win a larger engagement two years later. This encouraged the emperor, who had relied on surrogate Portuguese sea power to defend his coasts, to grant the Company a firman allowing it to trade within his dominions.

The Company was still not on a smooth path to success. The Dutch remained dominant further east, and in 1623 they tortured and then murdered several traders at Amboina: compensation was not forthcoming until the 1650s after Oliver Cromwell’s military success against the Dutch. Nor was the state of English politics helpful. The early Stuarts, well aware of the contribution made by the Company to their straitened finances, did their best to support it, but the Company went through a very difficult period during and after the Civil War, emerging with a new charter in 1657. It made steady progress for the rest of the century, with Bombay replacing Surat as its main trading centre on the west coast in 1664, and the establishment of two other centres at Calcutta (1696) and Madras (1693) on the east coast, the basis of the three presidencies that were to form British India.

Yet the Company was still not secure. Unwise leadership took it to war with the Mughal empire, followed by a humiliating and costly climb-down. Domestic opposition to its monopoly saw changes which first created a new English India Company in 1698 and then, in 1709, saw the merger of the old and new into a United Company of Merchants Trading to the East Indies. It was now the Honourable East India Company, Jan Kampani, or ‘the Valiant Company’ to its Indian subjects, and thus ‘John Company’ to all and sundry. The Company became increasingly prosperous almost at once. Its armed merchantmen, with a broad buff stripe around their black hulls, were berthed at Howland Great Dock at Deptford, and underwent repair at the Company’s dockyard at Blackwall. They flew the Company’s distinctive red and white striped ensign, which first had the cross of St George in its upper canton and, from 1707, replaced this with the union flag. John Company’s headquarters, India House, in Leadenhall Street in the City of London, had long boasted a facade with the Company’s arms and suitable nautical iconography. In the 1720s this was given a new facade in the very best of classical taste: the Company had come of age at last.

Between 1709 and 1748 lucrative trade with the three presidencies grew steadily, with Calcutta rapidly forging ahead, partly because its hinterland, securely under Mughal rule, was comparatively stable, and in 1717 the emperor had granted the Company a firman allowing it to trade in Bengal without paying customs, all for a small annual payment of 3,000 rupees. Madras, in addition, sent Indian fabrics to Indonesia and received spices in return, and began to act as a staging post for trade in tea and porcelain from China. During the period the Company was not simply a reliable source of dividends to its shareholders. As a condition of its new charter it lent the government over £3 million, its annual sales of £2 million were a fifth of Britain’s imports, and taxes on this trade were an important source of national revenue.

Then, between 1748 and 1763, the picture changed dramatically. The Company had already raised its own military forces, though on a small scale, and during the War of Austrian Succession in the 1740s there had been battles between the Company’s troops and those maintained by its French rival, the Compagnie des Indes. A lasting relic of French recruitment of sepoys (itself stemming from sipahi, the Persian for soldier) was the word pultan, Indian for regiment, derived from the French peloton. But during the Seven Years’ War there was far more fighting. This was partly because, as in the previous conflict, rivalries initiated in Europe spilled overseas, and partly because the new Nawab of Bengal, Suraj-ud-Daula (ostensibly the emperor’s provincial governor, but in fact a quasi-independent ruler), had his own axe to grind and took on the Company, capturing Calcutta in June 1756. He had 146 of his European captives imprisoned in a cell in which 123 died overnight from heat and lack of oxygen. This episode, the infamous ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’, aroused a national revulsion exceeding even that inspired by the Amboina massacre over a century before.

Calcutta was recaptured by a force led by Admiral Watson and Colonel Robert Clive. But the crucial Red Bridge Fort was actually taken by:

… one Strahan, a common sailor belonging to [HMS] Kent, having just been served with a quantity of grog, had his spirits too much elevated to take any rest; he therefore strayed by himself towards the fort, and imperceptibly got under the walls; being advanced thus far without interruption, he took it into his head to scale at a breach that had been made by the cannon of the ships; and having luckily got upon the bastion, he discovered several men sitting on the platform, at whom he flourished his cutlass, and fired his pistol, and then, after having given three loud huzzas, cried out ‘the place is mine’.

An exasperated soldier, no doubt looking forward to a bloody storm or dignified surrender, complained that: ‘The place was taken without the least honour to any one.’

Like so many of the paladins of British India, Robert Clive himself was not without controversy. He had sailed for India in 1743 as a writer, the most junior species of the Company’s civil service, and tried to kill himself during a fit of depression, but his pistol missed fire (there were times when the flintlock’s unreliability could be an advantage). He transferred to the Company’s military arm and in 1751 did much to frustrate French attempts to seize Madras, holding the little town of Arcot in a fifty-day siege. He reverted to the Company’s civil service once again, and then returned to England, where his extravagant lifestyle and a botched attempt to buy his way into Parliament made him many enemies. He was back in India in 1755, intent on recovering both fortune and reputation.

He did both by beating Suraj-ud-Daula at Plassey on 23 June 1757. On the face of it Clive was hopelessly outnumbered. The Nawab of Bengal had perhaps 35,000 infantry and 15,000 cavalry, with fifty guns and as many French gunners, and Clive had some 3,000 men, just one-third of them British, and ten guns. One of his men watched the enemy deploy:

what with the number of elephants all covered with scarlet cloth and embroidery; their horse with their drawn swords glittering in the sun; their heavy cannon drawn by vast trains of oxen; and their standards flying, they made a most pompous and formidable appearance.

Formidable in appearance, but, like many big Indian armies, less so in effect. Clive had suborned the nawab’s subordinates, and the battle became an artillery duel, in which Clive’s men had the advantage by keeping their powder dry during a sudden rainstorm. Surajud-Daula’s most reliable general, Mir Madan, was killed by a shell, and his army broke: Clive lost four Europeans and fourteen sepoys and little over twice as many wounded. The battle showed the formidable impact of a small body of troops, well led and disciplined, and underlined the fact that in India war and politics were indeed closely related in the sense that most Indian rulers usually had disaffected relatives or ministers who might be bribed. And as Penderel Moon trenchantly observed:

The men who comprised Indian armies did not fight for Bengal, Oudh, the Carnatic or other area with some linguistic or ethnic character, much less for larger abstractions such as the Mogul empire or Hindustan. They fought for the rulers or commanders who paid them to do so, generally at this time Muslims, but also Hindus, and the French and English; and such loyalty as they felt to their employers, all the greater to those who paid them promptly and led them to victory.

The notion of iqbal, or good fortune, was also important: men were attracted by an individual or an agency which seemed to be enjoying a run of good luck. In 1757 the Company’s iqbal shone, and Mir Jafar, the new nawab, was suitably grateful, and gave it the zamindari of twenty-four tax districts covering 800 square miles – its first substantial landholding.

Scarcely less significant, although a good deal less well known, is Colonel Eyre Coote’s victory over the French at Wandiwash in January 1760. Here again the lessons were clear: there was little virtue in retiring before a superior force, and once battle was joined cohesion was all. ‘The cannonading now began to be smart on both sides,’ wrote Coote, ‘and upon seeing the enemy come boldly up, I ordered the army to move forward.’ ‘When we came within 60 yards of them,’ remembered Major Graham of HM’s 84th, a regiment raised in 1759 specifically for service in India, our platoons began to fire. I had the honour to lead the 84th against the Lorraine Regiment on their right, which were resolved to break us, being as they said a raw young regiment, but we had not fired above four rounds before they went to the right about in the utmost confusion.

Coote went on to capture the French enclave of Pondicherry the following year, and the war ended with French hopes for India dashed for ever.

Clive returned to England with a substantial fortune and in 1762 was given a peerage by the grateful government. But he had also been made a mansabdar with the rank of 6,000 foot and 5,000 horse by the emperor, and received a jagir worth £28,000 a year from Mir Jafar, for which the Company was to act as zamindar, remitting the money to Clive once it had been collected. The episode highlighted the ambivalence of Clive’s position: at once the Company’s servant and yet an entrepreneur in his own right, and a spectacular example of what was euphemistically called ‘the taking of presents’ might produce.

Clive had been involved in a furious dispute with the Company when the marked deterioration of its position in Bengal encouraged the directors to appoint him Commander in Chief and send him back to India in 1765, allowing him sweeping civil and military powers. The Company had come into conflict with Shujah-ud-Daulah, ruler of Oudh, a semi-independent province of the empire adjacent to its own Bengal emporium. In 1763 Shujah-ud-Daulah allied himself with Mir Kasim, the new (and, until recently, British-backed) Nawab of Bengal. Forced out of Bengal by Major Hector Munro, a tough disciplinarian who had stamped hard on indiscipline amongst the Company’s forces in Bengal, the nawabs fell back and joined the emperor who was abroad with a good-sized army on a tax-gathering expedition. On 23 October 1764, Munro, with 900 Europeans and 7,000 sepoys beat the allies, with 50,000 men at Buxar, a battle which ‘marked more truly than Plassey the beginning of British dominion in India’. When he arrived, Clive pressed his advantage, raising fresh troops, ensuring the succession of a pro-British Nawab of Bengal, and then coercing the emperor into making the Company revenue collector for his provinces of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa.



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