In 1699 the French tried to colonise Pondicherry. The English East India Company, having dealt with Portuguese and Dutch, now had to contend with the French. The prospect of war loomed because of the differences between France and England over who should be monarch of Spain. When the conflict arose, it spread to India.
Robert Clive had arrived in India in 1743 and hoped to make a modest living as a clerk and doing business on his own account - the way of most Company employees. He surprised everyone by his talent for organization and leadership. In peacetime he would have made a fortune. In wartime he made one anyway. In 1751, Clive captured and then defended Arcot against French and India troops. In 1756 the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daula, captured Calcutta and a contingent of European soldiers were incarcerated overnight in what became called, The Black Hole of Calcutta. Clive re-captured Calcutta in January 1757 and his victory at Plassey made Clive a national hero.
Against the instincts of the East India Company, Clive created an Indian empire for the Company. However, the Company did not share his vision for the future and felt it a trading organization not an imperial ruler. Clive told Pitt the Elder (Britain's Secretary of War) that India was there for the taking. Pitt said 'No'. But the government and the Company could not quench Clive's foolhardy ambitions to place the East English Company at the centre of Moghul politics. The success or otherwise was raising questions about British possessions in India. One observer noted that the Company by then had sovereignty over 80 million in India and needed to hold Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) and the Cape of Good Hope to safeguard and logistically supply that authority. Many were asking that apart from the £17 million a year income, exactly what might be gained from being in India. By then it was too late. The British would be there until 1947.
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Robert Clive 1725-1774, 1st Baron of Plassey
Born in Market Drayton, Clive came from an old but modest Shropshire family and had few prospects in England. He was sometimes a morose young man and is thought to have attempted suicide as a teenager. He went to Madras in 1743 as a clerk in the East India Company. He left his clerical duties to take charge of a unit of English East Indian Company army and in 1751 attacked and held Arcot for 53 days against a combined French-Indian army. His victory as Plassey against the Nawab of Bengal and French artillery aroused the same reaction in England as later did Trafalgar or Waterloo. In 1762, he became baron Clive of Plassey and later returned to India as governor and commander in chief of Bengal. In England, Clive was accused of maladministration and worse and, although cleared, later committed suicide.
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Did You Know...
There is still uncertainty over what happened in The Black Hole of Calcutta. There was no hole. On the night of 20-21 June 1756, some 146 soldiers, commanded by John Holwell (1711-1798), were locked in a guardroom measuring about 5.5m by 4.5m. At the time, there was not too much made of the incident.
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A letter written by Robert Clive wrote in 1759 to Pitt the Elder, advising him that India was ripe for conquest.
"So large a sovereignty may possibly be an object too expensive for a mercantile company; and it is feared that they are not themselves able, without the nation's assistance, to maintain so wide a dominion. I have therefore presumed, Sir, to represent this matter to you, and to submit it to your consideration, whether the execution of a design, that may hereafter be still carried to greater lengths, be worthy of the Government's taking into hand. I flatter myself I have made it pretty clear to you, that there will be little or no difficulty in obtaining the absolute possession of these rich kingdoms."
Observations by John Nicholls on the increasingly imperial role of Britain show that Nicholls feared a catastrophe.
"Our main design in putting our self to this great charge for making this addition to our dominions being to gain our subjects more free and better trade in the East Indies and to enlarge our dominions in those parts and to advance thereby the honour of Our Crown and the general commerce and wealth of our subjects, you are with all convenient speed and advice to make use of the best ways and means for encouragement and invitation to our subjects and strangers to resort and trade there; and you are especially to give all manner of encouragement, help and assistance to the subjects of the King of Portugal in the East Indies, to protect them, as much as in you lyeth, in their trade and navigation there.
You are also to keep a very good correspondence with the Vice-King of Goa and all other Portugal governors, and likewise with the natives of the country, and to do all you can to settle a trade among them. You are to give such encouragement as securely as you may to such natives and others as shall submit to live peaceably under Our obedience."
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