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Robert, Lord Clive
The history of British India is without a parallel in the annals of mankind. It is little over a hundred years ago since "the company of British merchants trading with the East Indies" possessed nothing more than a few ports favorably situated for commerce, held at the will, or rather the caprice, of the native princes, and defended against commercial rivals by miserable fortifications, which could not have resisted any serious attack. Now British sovereignty in India extends over an empire greater than that possessed by Alexander or the Caesars, and probably superior to both in the amount of its wealth and population. The chief agent in raising the East India Company from a trading association to a sovereign power was Lord Clive, whose own elevation was scarcely less marvellous than that of the empire which he founded.
Robert Clive was born September 29, 1725; his father was a country gentleman, of moderate fortune and still more moderate capacity, who cultivated his own estate in Shropshire. When a boy, the future hero of India distinguished himself chiefly by wild deeds of daring and courage, neglecting the opportunities of storing his mind with information, the want of which he bitterly felt in after-life. His violent temper, and his neglect of study, led his family to despair of his success at home, and, in his eighteenth year, he was sent out as a "writer," in the service of the East India Company, to the Presidency of Madras. In our day such an appointment would be considered a fair provision for a young man, holding out, besides, a reasonable prospect of obtaining competency, if not fortune; but when Clive went to the East the younger "writers," or clerks, were so badly paid, that they could scarcely subsist without getting into debt, while their seniors enriched themselves by trading on their own account. The voyage out, from England to Madras, which is now effected in three or four weeks, occupied, at that time, from six months to a year. Clive's voyage was more than usually tedious; the ship was detained for a considerable period at the Brazils, where he picked up some knowledge of Portuguese, and contracted some heavy debts. This apparent misfortune had the good effect of compelling him to reflect on his situation. He avoided all amusements and dissipation, but availed himself of the resources of the governor's library, which was liberally opened to him in his hours of leisure. He, however, felt himself unhappy, for his occupations were unsuited to his tastes, and he longed for an opportunity of finding a mode of life more congenial to his disposition.
The war of the Austrian Succession, in which George II. took the side of the empress, while the French king supported her competitor, extended to the Eastern World. Labourdonnais, the governor of the French colony in the Mauritius, suddenly appeared before Madras, and, as the town and fort were not prepared for defence, both were surrendered on honorable terms. But Dupleix, the French governor of Pondicherry, denying the right of Labourdonnais to grant any terms, refused to ratify the capitulation, and directed Madras to be razed to the ground. With still greater disregard for public faith, he led the English who had capitulated through the town of Pondicherry, as captives gracing his triumphal procession, in the presence of 50,000 spectators. Clive escaped this outrage by flying from Madras in disguise; he took refuge at Fort St. David, a settlement subordinate to Madras, where he obtained from Major Lawrence, one of the best officers then in India, an ensign's commission in the service of the company.
Peace between England and France having been established, Madras was restored to its former owners. Clive, however, did not return to his civil pursuits; he occasionally acted as a writer, but he was more frequently employed as a soldier in the petty hostilities which arose between the English and the natives. Events, however, were now in progress, which made the French and English East India companies competitors for an empire, though neither understood the value of the prize for which they contended; and Clive, fortunately for his country and himself, was almost forced to take the position of a military commander.
To explain fully the position of India, at this period, would take far more pages than we can afford lines; a very brief sketch, may, however, help our readers to comprehend the course of events. India, in its entire extent, was nominally governed by the Emperor of Delhi, or, as he was generally, though absurdly, called in Europe, "the Great Mogul." Under him were several viceroys, each of whom ruled over as many subjects as any of the great sovereigns of Europe; and the delegates of these viceroys had a wider extent of territory than is included in most of the minor states of Germany. This empire began to lose its unity toward the close of the seventeenth century. The different viceroys, while professing a nominal allegiance to the crown of Delhi, established a substantial independence; several of their immediate vassals treated them as they had done the emperor; and several warlike tribes took advantage of this disorganization to plunder the defenceless provinces. Of these the most formidable were the Mahrattas, whose name was long the terror of the peninsula.
Dupleix, whose name has already been mentioned as the French governor of Pondicherry, was the first who conceived the possibility of establishing a European dominion on the ruins of the Delhi empire; and, for this purpose, he wisely resolved to attempt no direct conquest, but to place at the head of the different principalities, men who owed their elevation to his aid, and whose continuance in power would be dependent on his assistance. With this view he supported a claimant to the viceroyalty of the Deccan, and another to the subordinate government of the Carnatic; or, as the Indians term it, a rival nizam, and a rival nabob, against the princes already in possession of these territories. His efforts were equally splendid and successful; the competitors whom he had selected became masters of the kingdom, and he, as the bestower of such mighty prizes, began to be regarded as the greatest authority in India. The English were struck with astonishment, and, as there was peace with France, they were at a loss to determine on the line of conduct that they ought to pursue. Mohammed Ali, whom the English recognized as Nabob of the Carnatic, was reduced to the possession of the single town of Trichinopoly, and even that was invested by Chunda Sahib, the rival nabob, and his French auxiliaries. Under these circumstances Clive proposed to the Madras authorities the desperate expedient of seizing on Arcot, the capital of the Carnatic, and thus recalling Chunda Sahib from the siege of Trichinopoly. With a force of 200 Europeans and 300 Sepoys, under eight officers, four of whom had been taken from the counting-house, Clive surprised Arcot in the midst of a terrific storm, and the garrison fled without striking a blow. Being reinforced by large bodies of troops, the expelled garrison, swelled to the number of 3,000 men, formed an encampment near the town; but Clive took them by surprise in the night, slew great numbers, put the rest to flight, and returned to his quarters without a single casualty.
Chunda Sahib sent 10,000 men, including 150 French soldiers, under his son, Rajah Sahib, to recover Arcot. Clive's little garrison endured a siege of fifty days against this disproportionate force, and against the pressure of famine, which was early and severely felt. Nothing in history is equal to the proof of devotion which the native portion of this gallant little band gave to their beloved commander; the Sepoys came to Clive with a request that all the grain should be given to the Europeans, who required more nourishment than the natives of Asia, declaring that they would be satisfied with the thin gruel which strained away from the rice. Rajah Sahib at length made an attempt to take the place by storm; he was defeated with great loss, principally by Clive's personal exertions, upon which he abandoned the siege, leaving behind him a large quantity of military stores.
Clive followed up his victory with great vigor, and the government of Madras, encouraged by his success, resolved to send him with a strong detachment to reinforce the garrison of Trichinopoly. Just at this conjuncture, however, Major Lawrence returned from England and assumed the chief command. If Clive was mortified by the change, he soon overcame his feelings; he cheerfully placed himself under the command of his old friend, and exerted himself as strenuously in the second post as when he held the chief command. The French had no leaders fit to cope with the two friends, and the English triumphed everywhere. The besiegers of Trichinopoly were themselves besieged, and compelled to capitulate. Chunda Sahib fell into the hands of the Mahrattas, and was put to death at the instigation of his rival. The forts of Covelong and Chingleput were taken by Clive, though his forces consisted of raw recruits, little better than an undisciplined rabble. Dupleix, however, was not driven to despair, but still sought means of renewing the contest.
After the capture of Chingleput, Clive returned to Madras, where he married Miss Maskelyne, sister to the Astronomer Royal, and immediately after returned to England. He was received with great honors by the Court of Directors, and, through the influence of Lord Sandwich, obtained a seat in Parliament; but his election having been set aside, he again turned his thoughts toward India, where both the company and the government were eager to avail themselves of his services. The directors appointed him governor of Fort St. David; the king gave him the commission of a lieutenant-colonel in the British army; and thus doubly authorized, he returned to Asia in 1755.
The first service on which he was employed after his return to the East was the reduction of the stronghold of Gheriah. This fortress, built on a craggy promontory, and almost surrounded by the ocean, was the den of a pirate named Angria, whose ships had long been the terror of the Arabian seas. Admiral Watson, who commanded the English squadron, burned Angria's fleet, while Clive attacked the fastness by land. The place soon fell, and a booty of a hundred and fifty thousand pounds sterling was divided among the conquerors.
About two months after Clive had entered on his government at Fort St. David, intelligence was received of the destruction of the English settlement at Calcutta by Surajah Dowlah, the Nabob of Bengal. Although scarcely any resistance had been made, the English prisoners, 146 in number, were all thrust into a close and narrow apartment called the Black Hole, which, in such a climate, would have been too close and too narrow for a single prisoner. Their sufferings during the dreadful night, until death put an end to the misery of most, cannot be described; 123 perished before morning, and the survivors had to be dug out of the heap formed by the dead bodies of their companions.
The authorities at Madras, on receiving this intelligence, resolved to avenge the outrage; 900 Europeans and 1,500 Sepoys, under the command of Clive, were embarked on board Admiral Watson's squadron; the passage was rendered tedious by adverse winds, but the armament arrived safely in Bengal. Clive proceeded with his usual promptitude; he routed the garrison which the nabob had placed in Fort William, recovered Calcutta, and took Hoogly by storm. Surajah Dowlah, who was as cowardly as he was cruel, now sought to negotiate peace, but at the same time he secretly urged the French to come to his assistance. This duplicity could not be concealed from Clive and Watson. They determined accordingly to attack Chandernagore, the chief possession of the French in Bengal, before the force there could be strengthened by new arrivals either from the South of India or Europe. Watson directed the expedition by water; Clive by land. The success of the combined movements was rapid and complete. The fort, the garrison, the artillery, the military stores, all fell into the hands of the English, and nearly five hundred European troops were among the prisoners.
Soon after, Clive marched to attack Surajah Dowlah near Plassey. At sunrise on the morning of June 23, 1757, the army of the nabob, consisting of 40,000 infantry and 15,000 cavalry, supported by fifty pieces of heavy ordnance, advanced to attack the English army, which did not exceed three thousand men in all, and had for its artillery but a few field-pieces. But the nabob had no confidence in his army, nor his army in him; the battle was confined to a distant cannonade, in which the nabob's artillery was quite ineffective, while the English field-pieces did great execution. Surajah's terror became greater every moment, and led him to adopt the insidious advice of a traitor, Meer Jaffier, and order a retreat. Clive saw the movement, and the confusion it occasioned in the undisciplined hordes; he ordered his battalions to advance, and, in a moment, the hosts of the nabob became a mass of inextricable confusion. In less than an hour they were dispersed, never again to reassemble; though only five or six hundred fell; their camp, guns, baggage, with innumerable wagons and cattle, remained in the hands of the victors. With the loss of only 22 soldiers killed and 50 wounded, Clive had dispersed an army of 60,000 men, and conquered an empire larger and more populous than Great Britain. Surajah Dowlah fled from the field of battle to his capital, but, not deeming himself safe there, he tried to escape by the river to Patna. He was subsequently captured, and barbarously murdered by the son of Meer Jaffier. In the meantime Clive led Meer Jaffier in triumph to Moorshedabad, and installed him as nabob.
Immense sums of money were given to the servants of the company; Clive received for his share between two and three hundred thousand pounds. Nor was this all: Shah Alum, the son of the Emperor of Delhi, having invaded Bengal, Clive delivered Meer Jaffier from this formidable enemy, and was rewarded with the jaghire or estate of the lands south of Calcutta, for which the company were bound to pay the nabob a quit-rent of about thirty thousand pounds annually. But the gratitude of Meer Jaffier did not last long; weary of his dependence on the English, he sought an alliance with the Dutch, who had a factory at Chinsurah. The authorities of this place sent earnest letters to their countrymen in Batavia, urging them to take this opportunity of raising a rival power to the English in India, and their advice was taken. Seven large ships from Java, having on board 1,500 troops, appeared unexpectedly in the Hoogly. Though England was at peace with Holland, Clive resolved to attack them without delay. The ships were taken and the army routed. Chinsurah was invested by the conquerors, and was only spared on the condition that no fortifications should be built, and no soldiers raised, beyond those that were necessary for the police of the factories.
Three months afterward he returned to England, where he was received with a profusion of honors; he was raised to the Irish peerage, and promised an English title. George III., who had just ascended the throne, received him with marked distinction, and the leading statesmen of the day vied with each other in showing him attention. By judicious purchases of land he was enabled to acquire great parliamentary influence, and by large purchases of India stock he was enabled to form a strong party in the Court of Proprietors. The value of such support was soon shown; the Court of Directors, instigated by Mr. Sullivan, the personal enemy of Lord Clive, withheld the rent of the jaghire that he had received from Meer Jaffier, and it was necessary to institute a suit in chancery to enforce payment.
But Clive's greatest strength was derived from the misconduct of his successors in the government of Bengal. "Rapacity, luxury, and the spirit of insubordination," says a late writer, "spread from the civil service to the officers of the army, and from the officers to the soldiers. The evil continued to grow till every messroom became the seat of conspiracy and cabal, and till the Sepoys could only be kept in order by wholesale executions." Individuals were enriched, but the public treasury was empty, and the government had to face the dangers of disordered finances, when there was war on the frontiers and disaffection in the army. Under these circumstances it was generally felt that Clive alone could save the empire which he had founded.
Lord Clive felt the strength of his position. He refused to go to India so long as his enemies had preponderating power in the Court of Directors; an overwhelming majority of the proprietors seconded his wishes, and the Sullivan party, lately triumphant, was deprived of power. Having been nominated governor-general and commander-in-chief of the British possessions in Bengal he sailed for India, and reached Calcutta in May, 1765. He at once assembled the council, and announced his determination to enforce his two great reforms--the prohibition of receiving presents from the natives, and the prohibition of private trade by the servants of the Company. The whole settlement seemed to be set, as one man, against these measures; but Clive declared that if the functionaries in Calcutta refused obedience, he would send for some civil servants from Madras to aid him in conducting the administration. As he evinced the strength of his resolution by dismissing the most factious of his opponents, the rest became alarmed and submitted to what was inevitable.
Scarcely had the governor-general quelled the opposition of the civil service when he had to encounter a formidable mutiny of the officers of the army, occasioned by a diminution of their field allowances. Two hundred English officers engaged in a conspiracy to resign their commissions on the same day, believing that the governor-general would submit to any terms rather than see the army, on which the safety of the empire rested, left without commanders. They were mistaken in their calculations; Clive supplied their places from the officers round his person; he sent for others from Madras; he even gave commissions to some mercantile agents who offered their support at this time. Fortunately the soldiers, and particularly the Sepoys, over whom Clive had unbounded influence, remained steadfast in their allegiance. The leaders were arrested, tried, and dismissed from the service; the others, completely humbled, besought permission to withdraw their resignations, and Clive exhibited lenity to all, save those whom he regarded as the contrivers of the plot.
In his foreign policy he was equally successful. The Nabob of Oude, who had threatened invasion, sought for peace as soon as he heard of Clive's arrival in India; and the Emperor of Delhi executed a formal warrant, empowering the Company to collect and administer the revenues of Bengal, Bahar, and Oussa; that is, in fact, to exercise direct sovereignty over these provinces. Never had such a beneficial change been wrought in the short space of eighteen months. The governor-general set a noble example of obedience to his own regulations; he refused the brilliant presents offered him by the native princes, and when Meer Jaffier left him a legacy of sixty thousand pounds, he made the whole over to the Company, in trust, for the officers and soldiers invalided in their service.
At the close of January, 1767, the state of his health compelled Lord Clive to return to England. His reception at home was far from being gratifying; his old enemies in the India House, reinforced by those whose rapacity he had checked in Bengal, assailed him publicly and privately; the prejudices excited against those who had suddenly made large fortunes in India, were concentrated against him who was the highest, both in rank and fortune; while his ostentatious display of wealth and grandeur increased the unfavorable impression on the public mind. The dreadful famine which desolated Bengal in 1770, was, with strange perversity, attributed to Lord Clive's measures, and his parliamentary influence was greatly weakened by the death of George Grenville. Such was his position in the session of 1772, when the state of India was brought before Parliament, and all the evils of its condition made subjects of charge against the best of its rulers. Clive met the storm with firmness. Lord Chatham declared that the speech in which he vindicated himself at an early stage of the proceedings was one of the finest ever delivered in the House of Commons; his answers, when subjected to a rigid examination before a committee of inquiry, were equally remarkable for their boldness and candor. But there were some of his deeds which could not be justified, and a vote of moderate censure on his conduct was sanctioned by the House of Commons. This was a disgrace, for which the favor of his sovereign, though it never varied, afforded him no consolation; his constitution, already weakened by a tropical climate, began to give way; to soothe the pains of mind and body he had recourse to the treacherous aid of opium, which only aggravated both; at length, on November 22, 1774, he died by his own hand.
That Clive committed many faults cannot be denied; and it is not sufficient excuse to say that they were necessary to the founding of the British empire in India. But his second administration, the reforms he introduced into the government, and the system of wise policy which he established, may well atone for his errors; indeed, it has done so in India, where the natives not only respect his memory as a conqueror, but venerate it as a benefactor.