By August 1756, when news of the fall of Kasimbazar in Murshidabad and the siege of Calcutta by Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah reached the British outpost in Madras, everyone in the English East India Company (EIC) had come to realise the full scale of the disaster it entailed. Going by customs, there would have been a drill to follow: the Company would send a delegation to Murshidabad, negotiations would take place, an indemnity would be paid, and trading resume like before.
None of that happened, because a young, ambitious British military officer had just arrived with his regiments on the Coromandel Coast at Fort St. David, south of Madras, after having successfully captured the fortress at Gheriah, a stronghold of the Marathas. Unlike his fellow officers, Robert Clive saw in the moment of the Company’s defeat in Calcutta an opportunity to not only reclaim the losses but also to unreservedly establish the rule of the East India Company in Bengal.
“This expedition, if attended by success, may enable me to do great things. It is by far the grandest of my undertakings,” wrote Clive in a letter to his father, as quoted in the book, ‘The Anarchy: The relentless rise of the East India Company,’ by historian William Dalrymple. Thereby began the preparations of the journey that would end with the Battle of Plassey in 1757, marking the beginnings of British political supremacy in the subcontinent.
Historians have often remarked how the British conquest of India was actually an act of the East India Company headquartered in London and managed in India by the ruthlessly ambitious Clive. Last week, as anti-racism protests spread across America and Europe, in response to the brutal murder of George Floyd, several statues depicting colonialism and racism came to be attacked. Among them was one of Clive at Shrewsbury, a county town of Shropshire in Western England where he was born.
A petition to remove the statue of Clive has been doing the rounds on the internet. It says, “Clive as a symbol of British colonialism is significantly offensive to Indian, Bengali and south-east Asian descent and to attempt to justify it as a celebration of British pride and nationalism is only justifiable if one revels in the persecution and murder of millions of innocent people.”
Clive’s place in Indian and British imperial history has been a matter of controversy in both the countries since the 18th century. While in India he was seen as an evil exploitative governor who plundered the country, in England he was widely hated as a corrupt and violent Company official.
An ‘unstable sociopath’ and inherently racist
In his book, Dalrymple refers to Clive as an ‘unstable sociopath’. He describes him as ‘violent, utterly ruthless and intermittently mentally unstable corporate predator.’ Biographers of Clive have discussed at length his complex personality since childhood. “The chief characteristics of Robert Clive at his several schools had been boldness and insubordination,” writes the English officer in India and author, George Bruce Malleson, in his book, ‘Lord Clive’. “He would not learn, he belonged to a ‘fighting caste’; he was the leader in all the broils and escapades of schoolboy life; the terror of the masters,” he adds.
“He was mentally unwell. He twice tried to commit suicide in his youth. He was suffering from serious depression throughout his stint in India and even after his return, and he ended up cutting his own wrist. He was a very troubled man,” says Dalrymple in a telephonic conversation with Indianexpress.com. “He was the kind of person one would never want to have dinner with. He was morose and hardly spoke. He was a depressive guy. None of his letters show any kind of interest in India” he adds.
But, does a depressive personality necessarily amount to being a racist? “Not everyone in the 18th century was straightforwardly racist. It was common to make generalisations about Indians, or Hindus or Muslims which were of a negative nature,” says Dalrymple.
“But he (Clive) was both a sociopath and a racist. He was a sociopath in the sense that he was not good company. He was a racist in the sense that he regarded Indians and particularly Indian Muslims as racially inferior,” he adds.
Clive’s racist attitude towards India is prominent in the way he describes Indians in several of his letters. In a letter written at the end of 1758 to the chairman of the EIC directors, he writes, “The Moors are indolent, luxurious, ignorant and cowardly beyond all conception.”
The corrupt official who plundered for personal gains
Historian Shekhar Bandopadhyay in his celebrated book on modern Indian history, “From Plassey to Partition: A history of modern India,” writes that “The Battle of Plassey marked the beginning of political supremacy of the English East India Company in India. What followed hereafter is often referred to as the ‘Plassey plunder’.”
Overseeing this plunder and amassing a gigantic personal fortune out of it was none other than Clive. Dalrymple in his book describes the loot made out of Plassey as “one of the largest corporate windfalls in history”. In modern terms, the amount amassed was around £232 million, out of which £22 million was reserved for Clive. “Between 1757 and 1760, the Company received Rs 22.5 million from Mir Jafar, Clive himself got in 1759 a personal jagir worth £34,567,” writes Bandobadhyay.
Bandopadhyay further explains that “for the Company officials Plassey opened the gates to make personal fortunes, not only through direct extortion but also through rampant abuse of dastaks for their private trade.”
Speaking about the exploitation unleashed by Clive in India, Dalrymple says “he was not like Genghis Khan wiping out whole countries. He was far smarter than that in the sense that he wanted the money. What he did was he ruthlessly pursued and defeated his enemies and established an exploitative, extractive system that channeled all the profits of India back to Britain.”
With victory in the Battle of Plassey, the East India Company had evolved from being a British company trading in Bengal to becoming the de facto government of the Bengal province. The exploitative tendencies of the company are believed to have aggravated the devastation caused by Bengal famine of 1770 that led to the death of about one million people. “When the famine of 1770 was looming on the horizon, the East India Company largely forgot all of their duties as Diwan, except those that produced a profit,” writes historian Adam Morrisette in her article, ‘No Occasion for Coffins”: Humanitarianism and the Bengal Famine of 1770’.
“Furthermore, if the agents of the East India Company had, in fact, bought up all the rice in anticipation of a dearth, they had gone far beyond shirking their duties as Diwan; they had grossly abused their position with no regard for the Bengalis that were, technically, under their protection,” she added.
It is important to note here that by 1767 Clive had already returned to England. “While he was not in India during the famine, he had set up a system that failed to respond to the famine,” says Dalrymple.
Vilified and then glorified in history
Back in England, Clive was in fact heavily criticised by his contemporaries for his tendencies of self-aggrandisement and corrupt practices. In 1772, he was put on trial in Parliament for the practices of the Company in India. The havoc caused by the Bengal famine once again turned criticism towards Clive in the Parliament that blamed him and the Company’s abuse of monopoly rights for the sake of personal gains at the expense of the people of Bengal.
Clive died in 1774, reportedly a suicide. Interestingly, he was buried in an unmarked grave without a plaque. While he left no suicide note, the writer Samuel Johnson wrote of his death that he “had acquired his fortune by such crimes that his consciousness of them impelled him to cut his own throat”.
“He was a widely reviled man in England. After his death, a satire published in London called him the Lord vulture, picking the bones of the Indian dead,” says Dalrymple. He explains that no one in the 18th century would have dreamt of putting up a statue for Clive.
It was only in 1907 when the English merchant and politician Sir William Forwood happened to notice the unmarked burial place of Clive that he started a campaign that would eventually lead to monuments and memorials being erected in his honour. Apart from the statue at Shrewsbury, there is one that stands outside the Foreign Office, at the centre of the British government and right behind Downing Street. There is also one that was erected at Victoria Memorial in Kolkata, where it stands till today.
Forwood’s campaign caught the attention of Lord Curzon, who actively sought the glorification of Clive both in England and in India. “Curzon was an arch imperialist. He was an ardent believer in the British empire. As the founder of the empire, Curzon thought that Clive deserved to be celebrated,” says Dalrymple. “In reaction, Curzon’s successor, Lord Minto called it ‘unnecessarily provocative’.
Speaking about the ongoing petition to remove Clive’s statue, Dalrymple says, “I have always thought that his statue should come down. He was an evil and ruthless operator.”
“I also do not believe that the way to do these things is to pull statues down. They should be taken down, kept in museums and should be used to teach the British about the evils of the East India Company.”
The Anarchy: The relentless rise of the East India Company,’ by William Dalrymple
From Plassey to Partition: A history of modern India by Shekhar Bandopadhyay
Lord Clive by George Bruce Malleson
‘No Occasion for Coffins”: Humanitarianism and the Bengal Famine of 1770’. by Adam Morrisette
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