Great Englishmen - M. B. Synge

Robert Clive (1725-1774)

Most of India now belongs to England, but when Robert Clive was born it was not so. Part of that country was governed by native chiefs, part belonged to France and was governed by French rulers, while a very small portion was in the hands of an English Company for the purpose of trading. This Company engaged English clerks to keep accounts and ship cargoes, and paid them very badly, while the members themselves grew rich by private trade, Robert Clive was the eldest of a large family. He was born in Shropshire, but when quite young he was sent to live with an uncle near Manchester. There he became very ill soon after he arrived, and his uncle found him a cross, self-willed boy, with an angry temper, no self-control, fond of fighting, and not much else. But he was no ordinary child.

One day when quite a little boy, he climbed nearly to the top of a very high steeple, and sat on a stone spout, looking down calmly on to the terrified people below.

On another occasion, when some boys were trying to turn a dirty water-course into the shop door of an unpopular dealer, the boy threw himself into the gutter, and there lay till the mischief could be repaired.

Clive was an idle boy, and no favourite with his masters at school. Wherever he went he was called an "unlucky boy"—one of his masters, it is true, saw something good in him, and went so far as to say he would make "a great figure in the world," but most agreed in saying he was a dunce.

His parents expected nothing from him, and, when he was eighteen, they sent him to a friend in India "to make his fortune or die of a fever." He had a bad passage out lasting over a year, and when he arrived found that the friend under whose care he was to be placed had just sailed for England. So the boy found himself alone, penniless, and friendless in a strange country. He found work in an office, but was miserably paid for it. He was very shy, and being rather of a proud nature, did not make any friends. The climate made him feel ill and low; there was no one to look after him; he pined by day and night for his home.

"I have not enjoyed one happy day since I left my native land," he said in a letter home, not long after he had arrived.

The Governor lent him some books, and Clive spent much of his spare time in reading and learning.

Twice in desperation the poor, homesick, and uncared-for boy tried to shoot himself with a pistol, and twice he failed.

"Surely," he cried, at the second failure, "surely I am reserved for something great!"

Suddenly a new path was opened before him; England was at war with France, and the French seized the Company's warehouses in India. They then took Madras, where Clive's work lay, and obliged him and the other Company servants to flee.

No more work could be done at present, and Clive entered the army, with hundreds of other young men, to fight against the French. He fought well, and his bravery and courage were soon noticed by his captain, who raised him to a higher rank in the army.

Now the French were growing more and more powerful. Clive saw this, and with true military genius, suggested to his captain that an attack on Arcot, a French fort, might surprise the French general and thwart his rapidly growing power.

The captain approved, gave him the command of five hundred men, and sent him to take the French fort of Arcot, 1750. The young captain started bravely off. The weather was stormy, but he did not mind, and pushed on through thunder and lightning and rain to the fort.

The French were quite taken by surprise at seeing the English army approach, and, too frightened and unprepared to fight, they left the fort, which Clive entered in triumph with his men.

When the French recovered from their surprise, they collected together about three thousand men, intending to retake their fort.

But Clive knew them. In the dead of the night he marched out of his fort with his men, attacked the sleeping French, slew numbers of them, and returned to his camp without having lost a single man.

When this news reached the head of the French, a tremendous army of them was sent to the fort at Arcot to besiege Clive and his men. Clive had by this time sent away some of his men and some had died, so he was left with only three hundred, and very little food. For fifty days the French besieged the fort, and the young captain defended it bravely with his handful of men.

Food gradually disappeared, and it became evident that they must soon give in, unless fresh troops were sent to help them.

There is a most touching story told of some of Clive's soldiers at this time, when the food was nearly gone. About two hundred of them were black men, natives of India, who were helping the English. These men, hungry and tired, we may be sure, after fifty days' siege, came to their captain, and begged him to give more food to the English soldiers than to them, for they could stand the want and hunger better. The thin gruel which was strained from the rice would do for them, they said.

At last the French resolved to storm the fort. Clive, having heard of the plan, had busied himself all day with preparations. In the evening, he threw himself down to sleep, utterly tired out, telling the soldiers to wake him at the first alarm. He had not slept long, when he was aroused and at his post in a minute. The French attacked by hundreds. They had brought with them huge elephants with great pieces of iron fixed on their foreheads to try and breakdown the gates. But when the English fired on them, the poor elephants turned round in a fright and rushed into the midst of the French, trampling many under foot. A struggle went on between Clive and the French for over an hour, the French losing heavily. Night fell, and Clive with his little band of weary men passed an anxious time, expecting a fresh attack every minute, but morning dawned to find the enemy entirely gone.

The siege was ended, the brave young captain had saved Arcot, and brought glory to the English arms.

Soon after this Clive joined his old commander and several more victories were won over the French.

At last Clive's health failed; he had never been quite well since he went out, and now, in 1752, he was obliged to return to England.

He went back a very different man from the poor despised boy who had been sent out ten years before to "seek his fortune or die of a fever," a soldier, loved and respected, brave and popular, with money enough to keep himself and his family. He was heartily welcomed at home.

"The lad is not such a booby after all," was his old father's comment, and Clive was yet to live to see tears of joy and pride roll down the old man's cheeks.

He had not been two years in England, when Clive heard he was wanted badly in India; so he again started for Bombay.

At this time the ruler of part of India was a Nabob—a young man, very weak, very hated, very cruel. He hated the English more than any other people, and determined to kill as many as he could. So he went to Calcutta, took the town, seized a hundred and fifty English people, and had them shut up in a room—a small, hot room with only one window very high up on the wall, and that window barred with thick bars. The fierce Indian sun poured down, not a breath of air could enter—the poor English people could hardly move, so tightly were they packed. In vain they cried for mercy. In vain they appealed to the guards—those heartless men only replied from outside the door that the Nabob was asleep, and would be very angry if anyone woke him.

Many of the poor prisoners went mad; they trampled each other under foot; they fought for the place nearest the window; they prayed and screamed. The cruel guards only held lights to the window, and laughed mockingly at their frantic struggles.

Gradually as the long night passed, the struggles ceased, the screams died away, and low moans were the only audible sounds. At last morning dawned. The Nabob woke and ordered the doors to be opened. Twenty-three fainting people alone staggered out! the rest lay dead in heaps upon the floor! Even now, though over a hundred years have passed since that horrible crime—even now the Black Hole of Calcutta cannot be spoken of without a shudder.

You can imagine the anger and resentment that arose in every Englishman's heart, as the news spread. Clive was chosen to march against the Nabob, at the head of a vast army, and subdue the inhuman man.



Then followed the battle of Plassey, 1757, about which you must never forget, for it was one of Clive's mightiest victories. The Nabob lay near Plassey with an enormous army, nearly twenty times as large as Robert Clive's. Clive marched to the opposite bank of the river, and there halted. For almost the first time in his life, the general was undecided. Should he attack at once that huge army, or should he wait till more soldiers came up to help? He consulted his officers. Most of them said "Wait." Clive left them, and went alone into a shady wood for a short time to think. He soon returned, bright, bold, and decided. "Be in readiness to attack to-morrow," was his order.

They crossed the river, and did not rest till they were within a mile of the enemy. Clive could not sleep; he could hear music from the Nabob's camp, and he could not help thinking of the terrible loss of life there would be, if they lost the day.

At last the day broke, "the day which was to decide the fate of India."

The battle began; the English fought well, and many of the Nabob's best men fell. Disorder arose among the soldiers; the Nabob himself grew frightened, and ordered his men to draw back. Clive saw it, and gave the order to rush forward; his well-trained soldiers obeyed, and a terrible slaughter of the enemy took place.

In an hour all was over, and Clive was left conqueror, not only of the field of Plassey, but of the British Empire in India.

After this, riches, presents, honours were heaped upon Clive; "he walked between heaps of gold and silver, crowned with rubies and diamonds."

But his conduct was not as pure as it should have been. He received bribes from native rulers without the knowledge of England, and sank low to deceive a native merchant, who was playing false to him. These failings, this unmanly conduct, were brought up against him later, when he had changed his course, and was doing his best to rule well and purely.

Three months after this great victory, Clive once more sailed for England. Honours awaited him at home; the King, George III., thanked him in person for his services to his country, and he was declared to be a "heaven-born general." Clive sent large sums of money to his parents and sisters, and ordered a certain sum to be paid yearly to his old commander.

He had not been long in England, when news reached him that India was again in a very disturbed state. The body of men that had been left to govern, ruled badly and could not agree—the cry was, that "Clive and Clive alone could save the empire which he had founded."

So Clive was appointed Governor of the British Empire in India, and sailed for India.

He found matters even worse than he had expected, and at once began a reform; but it was not easy to govern a country which had never been ruled uprightly and cleanly, and Clive had to call up even more courage than he had displayed at the siege of Arcot or on the battle-field at Plassey. Gradually people and things yielded to his iron will, and the two years that followed were perhaps the most glorious of his life.

At the beginning of his rule, plots were formed against him, but Clive had a few faithful officers, and some of the black men stood by him to the end. Some of the plots were discovered, the young offenders punished lightly, the old ones severely. All plots very soon ceased, and the name of Clive was enough to restore peace.

Lord Clive might have got a vast amount of wealth at this time, neighbouring princes would have given any sum to win his favour, but he firmly refused it all for himself.

He had not been Governor more than a year and a half, when he was obliged to return on account of his health.

Once more he left the country he had conquered, the country over which he had ruled so well and honourably for two years, never to return to it again.

But he was not received with outstretched arms and cries of welcome as before, he was not loaded with appointments and honours. Complaints of him were pouring in, he was accused of having taken money and received bribes, his enemies brought to light the old wrongs and mistakes of his early rule in India; and Clive's last years were very bitter and unhappy. Added to this, bad news arrived from India, a bad famine was going on, and the blame was all laid at Clive's door.

Clive had long suffered from a very painful disease. As long as he had work to do, and people to live for, he had braved it; but now the pain grew worse, he had nothing to do, no one to live for; he could never go back to the country where he was loved and honoured.

He grew low in spirits, irritable in temper, and at last, in his forty-ninth year, worn out by bodily pain, broken down with disappointment and "wounded honour," the great soldier and statesman died by his own hand late in the autumn of 1774.

Great as he was, Clive had many faults; some very grievous ones, which call forth our deepest pity, but I have not dwelt on them, as what I want you to remember is that Robert Clive was one of the greatest self-trained soldiers England has ever had—brave, courageous, firm; and his name stands and ever will stand high on the roll of conquerors.