Stories From English History: III - Alfred J. Church


In the year 1600 Queen, Elizabeth gave a charter to a Company of Merchants under the title of "The Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading to the East Indies." For some time the East India Company, as it came to be called, was a very humble affair. It built, by leave of the native rulers of India, factories or places for trade. But these were never safe from attack, either from the natives or from European rivals. The Dutch, for instance, in 1623 destroyed the factory of Amboyna, and murdered all its inhabitants. Nevertheless, the Company's power and wealth gradually increased. A factory was founded on the Hoogly river in 1642. This is now Calcutta. In 1661 Bombay was handed over to England as part of the dowry of the Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza, who became in that year the wife of Charles II. Madras, the chief city of the third of the three great divisions or presidencies, as they are called, was bought from an Indian Rajah or Prince for a yearly payment of 500.

In 1743 one Robert Clive received an appointment as "writer," i.e.  clerk in the East India Company's factory at Madras. He was certainly not a good clerk; the work was not of a kind that he liked, and he neglected it, and he gave much trouble to his superiors. In 1747 he ceased to be a clerk and became a soldier. As a soldier he was to do his country such services as have never been surpassed. Many able statesmen and brave and skilful soldiers have helped to build up our great Indian Empire, but no one of them did more than Robert Clive, and very few did as much.

A Frenchman, Dupleix by name, had conceived the idea of gaining India for France. To do this he had to conquer or persuade the Indian rulers, and also to drive out the English. For a time his plans seemed to prosper, but it was Clive who hindered them from being accomplished. He persuaded the Governor of Madras to allow him to occupy the fort of Arcot. The place seemed hardly capable of standing a siege. The walls were low, the towers upon it ruinous, the ditch half filled up. Clive did his best to strengthen these defences. Though he lost four of the eight officers who were serving under him, and though his garrison was at last reduced to 200 native troops and 120 Europeans, he contrived to hold out for fifty days against an army of 10,000 men. The siege was raised, other victories were won, Dupleix was recalled to France, and the natives began to look to the English rather than to the French as the nation that could not be conquered.

This was in 1751. Five years later a terrible thing happened in another part of India. The Nawab of Bengal, Suraj-ud-Dowlah by name, picked a quarrel with the English at Calcutta, seized the town, and compelled the fort to surrender. The prisoners, one hundred and forty-six in number, were thrust into a chamber about twenty feet each way, afterwards known as the Black Hole. After a night of dreadful suffering from suffocation and thirst, only twenty-three were found alive next morning. The Government of Madras at once sent Clive to punish the Nawab for his wrong-doing, and to recover Calcutta. Calcutta he recovered without any difficulty, and won other victories so speedily, that the Nawab was compelled to ask for peace, and to give back to the English all that they had ever held in Bengal. But no sooner had the treaty been signed than the Nawab began to negotiate with the French. Clive saw at once what had to be done. The French would attempt in Bengal what Dupleix had attempted in Madras, and they must be stopped at all hazards. He began by seizing the French settlement of Chandernagore. This was an illegal act, for though France and England were at war, Chandernagore nominally belonged to the Nawab, and could not be taken without his permission. Nevertheless, Clive did it. He then made friends with two of the Nawab's most powerful subjects. One, Meer Jaffier by name, was to succeed the Nawab; the other, Omichund, was to be rewarded by a large sum of money.



The Nawab had collected an army of 50,000 men. Clive had 3000, of whom less than 1000 were English. The question was—should they fight? Meer Jaffier had promised to desert his master, but he might not keep his promise; he certainly would not unless Clive could make him feel sure that the English were going to win the day. A council of war was held. The majority was against fighting, and Clive, strange to say, was one of the majority. But a commander can always overrule the decision of a council, and Clive had to consider again what was to be done. He retired into a clump of trees, and there thought the matter out, with this result—that he determined to fight. The next morning he crossed the river, and marching during the day, found himself at night-fall within reach of the enemy's army.

The next day, June 23, the Nawab drew up his forces in order of battle. Clive's army was in front of a mango grove. He had one regiment, the 39th. This he put in the centre, the native troops and the few small guns that he had being on either side. Cavalry he had none. The Nawab had 12,000, 36,000 infantry, and a number of heavy guns, some of them served by French artillerymen. The Nawab's guns opened fire with such effect that Clive had to withdraw into the mango grove, which was protected by mud-banks all round it. Here he intended to wait. At night he would attack the enemy's camp. While he waited a heavy storm of rain came on, and so spoilt the enemy's powder that the cannonade was almost stopped. The commander of the Nawab's cavalry, Meer Mudin, thinking that the English guns also were disabled, advanced to attack Clive's position. But the guns had been under cover, and fired a discharge of grape shot which drove the enemy back in confusion, Meer Mudin himself being killed. The Nawab, dismayed at this reverse, ordered his army to retreat into the camp, and himself fled from the field. Clive now advanced with his whole force. The French artillerymen offered a brave resistance, but there was no one to support them. As for the Nawab's infantry, they fled almost without waiting for a blow. The Nawab had deserted his army early in the day, and the rest of their leaders followed the example of their chief. Clive won the battle, and with it a vast extent of territory, at a cost of less than a hundred in killed and wounded. This was the first great victory of Plassey.