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24 September 2014

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You are in: Shropshire > History > Great Salopians > Robert Clive: Tearaway to empire builder

Robert Clive (Shrewsbury Museums Service)

Robert Clive

Robert Clive: Tearaway to empire builder

Few of our list of Great Salopians have changed the world in the way that Robert Clive did. Yet in his early life he seemed more likely to be heading for the hangman's noose than fame and fortune.

Robert Clive was one of the most influential Salopians. He was involved in key battles that undoubtedly changed the course of history.

The first of these was the battle of Calcutta in February 1757. This inspired a series of victories that led to the decisive win at the Battle of Plassey in June that year.

You can hear a BBC Radio Shropshire series looking at the life of Clive of India - from his delinquent beginnings, to his tragic end - including a special programme from the streets of Calcutta. Listen to the series by clicking on the links on the right hand side.

Who was Robert Clive?

Clive engineered British rule in India, fighting several key battles with the French for control of trade in the sub-continent.

This helped cement the economic power that allowed the British Empire to grow, as well as forging the strong connections between India and Britain that still exist today.

Yet the young Robert Clive was an uncontrollable tearaway who terrorised the people of Market Drayton, and who was only sent to India to get him out of the way.

And even more remarkably, he suffered from mental illness - now thought to be bipolar disorder, or what used to be called manic depression - a major handicap to anyone in the 18th Century.

Robert Clive was born in September 1725 at Styche Hall, near the village of Moreton Say near Market Drayton.

Spoiled

His father, Richard, was a lawyer and a former MP, but his fortunes were declining fast. Styche Hall was falling down, and Robert was one of 13 children his father had to feed.

At the age of three Robert, the eldest son, was sent to live with childless relatives in Manchester, who spoiled him rotten.

Robert Clive (Shrewsbury Museums Service)

Robert Clive

So much so that the young Clive was completely uncontrollable when he returned to live with his parents.

He is reputed to have climbed the tower of St Mary's Parish Church in Market Drayton and perched on a gargoyle, frightening passers by down below.

But his most shocking exploit concerned what we would now call a protection racket he set up in the town. He and a gang of youths he led extorted money from Market Drayton's shopkeepers.

Faced with the choice of paying up or receiving a visit from Clive and his boys, most decided to pay.

If his behaviour generally was bad, in school it was worse - he was expelled from three, including Market Drayton Grammar School.

Finally Clive's long-suffering father could stand no more, and the young man was packed off to India aged 17 (or 18, depending on your source!) as a clerk in the East India Company in Madras.

The people of Market Drayton must have breathed a sigh of relief and hoped that they had heard the last of Robert Clive.

They couldn't have been more wrong. Disease accounted for many who went to India, and his chances of survival were less than 50 per cent - but Clive was made of sterner stuff.

At first things didn't go well for the young clerk, who quickly became bored with his job. He missed home and was often in trouble with his superiors for breaking the rules.

Depression set in and he resolved to kill himself.

So the story goes, Clive pointed a pistol at his head and pulled the trigger. It didn't go off, so he tried again. When the pistol failed to fire a second time, the young Clive concluded that his life had been spared for a reason.

Captured

In 1746, hostility between English and French empire builders boiled over. Madras was captured by the French, and Clive and several others escaped to Fort George 20 miles away, which remained in British hands.

Statue of Robert Clive

Renovated in 2004

Here he joined the East India Company's private army and found his role in life: That of soldier, imperial statesman and politician.

Clive quickly began to build a reputation for courage and skill in battle in the wars against the French and their Indian allies.

Soon his reputation reached England when he was given command of an expedition to seize Argot, the capital of the Carnatic and hold it, dividing the enemy's forces.

With a force of just 200 Europeans and 300 native soldiers, backed up with a handful of guns, Clive took the central fort and proceeded to hold it against all the odds.

For 50 days the young captain inspired his men to hold the citadel, until a final, desperate assault spearheaded by elephants (wearing armour!) was driven off and the enemy withdrew.

This exploit won him the name Sabut Jung, or 'the daring in war' in India, as well as a European reputation. Back in England, Prime Minister Pitt pronounced the youth of 27 a "heaven-born general".

He returned home in 1753 a hero, marrying Margaret Maskeylne and living in a fine London house.

Clive also began to make his mark in Shropshire, paying for the rebuilding of Styche Hall and buying the Walcot Estate at Lydbury North.

But India was in his blood and he returned three years later as a Lieutenant Colonel and Deputy Governor of Fort St David.

Black Hole of Calcutta

He arrived in the middle of a crisis: Calcutta had been captured by the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud Daula, after the British refused to destroy their new fortification there.

Clive is buried in the churchyard at Moreton Say

Churchyard at Moreton Say

A cell just 18 feet square - The Black Hole of Calcutta - held 146 captured Britons  - and just 23 of them had survived.

Clive quickly re-took the city and then inflicted a decisive defeat on Siraj ud Daula at the Battle of Plassey. Clive's army of 3,000 men, with just 650 British, routed the Nawab's 68,000-strong French-backed army.

The path was clear for Britain to extend its influence into Bengal under a new and grateful Nawab, who rewarded Clive handsomely. Plassey also practically removed serious opposition to British rule in India.

In 1760 Clive returned to England, and at the age of 34 was elected MP for Shrewsbury, later serving as Mayor. Two years later he was made Baron Clive of Plassey, but as an Irish peer was allowed to continue in the Commons.

By this time his health was not good, and in his absence corruption had become rife in India. In 1765 he was sent back to India to restore order.

Perhaps it was this action that led to his enemies accumulating, and allegations of treachery and dishonesty were levelled at him.

Equally likely was a certain amount of snobbery directed at him because he was not an aristocrat, but a self-made man.

Returning to Britain, Clive was taking ever-increasing quantities of opium to suppress his acute abdominal pains.

Criticised

There was a Parliamentary inquiry after which Clive was criticised for accepting huge payments, mainly from the Indian leaders he supported or helped into power, although it was acknowledged that he "did at the same time render great and meritorious services to his country".

This criticism was probably more than a little unfair. True, he had accepted lavish gifts from grateful Indian leaders, but he turned down far more than he accepted, and greed was certainly not his motivation.

Many merchants of the time made a killing from the subcontinent without exposing themselves to a fraction of the risks that Clive faced.

Yet Clive's reputation at home, especially in Shropshire, remained more or less intact. He was returned as MP for Shrewsbury in 1774 with an increased majority.

Clive's death remains something of a mystery, but it's likely that the manic depression that stalked him all his life was at the heart of it.

Suicide

Although it was always denied by his family, it is most likely that he killed himself at the age of 49.

On 22 November, 1774, he was found dead at his home in Berkeley Square, London. He may have shot himself, taken an overdose or slit his throat - accounts vary.

The stigma of suicide was strong, but his past history, along with other indications, point to death by his own hand.

As suicide was regarded as a sin, if this had been admitted he would not have been allowed a church burial. As it is, his grave was unmarked and remains so.

After a life of empire building in a foreign field, Robert Clive was buried in the church of Moreton Say, the parish where he was born.

Legacy

Clive's legacy was immense. He had almost single-handedly secured the beginning of the British Empire, and brought about the unique mix between British and Indian cultures that still exists today.

Control of India - not forgetting that it was Clive who was responsible for forcing the French out of the sub continent - paved the way for Britain to develop the financial resources necessary for the Industrial Revolution and to become the major world power for more than 150 years.

Arguably, Clive was the only one of our Great Salopians to change the world through his actions.

Only Darwin's impact on the world competes - and his influence was to change the way we look at our world.

last updated: 14/03/2008 at 16:43
created: 29/03/2005

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