Battle of Plassey
On 23 June 1757, the battle of Plassey was fought in north-eastern India. Robert Clive, accompanied by the troops of the British East India Company, lined up against the forces of Siraj-ud-Daulah (last Nawab of Bengal), and his French allies. Clive’s victory allowed the British to become the biggest economic and military power in India.
By the mid-eighteenth century, the Mughal empire which once ruled over most of the Indian subcontinent, was beginning to collapse. The native Indian and European states were slowly developing their own political and economic power bases.
The East India Company was one of the significant powers. They were engaged in a war with the French for trading supremacy. Simultaneously, the company involved themselves in local politics, especially in Bengal. It was India’s richest province at that time.
Bengali ruler Siraj-ud-Daulah was in dispute with the company for a long time. A year before the Battle of Plassey, he captured Fort William in Calcutta. The company had refused to halt their military operations against the French following the outbreak of the Seven Years War (1756-63).
Post Fort William’s surrender, several prisoners were confined in a small dungeon. As per a British survivor’s account, 123 of the 146 prisoners died in the crush.
The ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’ was controversial and was used as a justification for British revenge and conquest.
The East India Company and the British Army had won Calcutta back by February 1757. The very next month, the French fort of Chandernagore was seized by Robert Clive.
In the spring of 1757, the opposing armies were overhauled in a series of minor engagements by the British troops.
Change of Regime
After realizing that Siraj was negotiating with the French, the company understood that a change of regime was essential for achieving its political and financial goals. Even Mahtab Rai, head of the Jagat Seth Bengal banking family was not happy under Siraj’s rule. He feared that the Nawab would seize Seth’s huge wealth for his own requirements.
In a conspiracy, Jagat Seths and Clive offered to make Mir Jafar (Siraj’s army commander), the new nawab of Bengal, after defeating Siraj in the battle. On 23 June 1757, Mir Jafar got his opportunity at Plassey.
Siraj-ud-Daulah (1733-57) was pretty powerful. He commanded around 50,000 men, including 16,000 cavalry. He possessed 50 field guns, a combination of 32-, 24- and 18-pounders. French officers who were taken on loan commanded this artillery.
The British force was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Clive (1725-74). Before joining the company’s military service, he worked as a writer (clerk). His tactical flair and bravery earned him quick promotions and great personal fortunes.
Robert Clive’s army had a strength of 3,000 soldiers. It included 2,100 Indian sepoys (infantry) and around 800 Europeans. The European strength in the army comprised Madras European Regiment and 600 Crown troops from the 39th Regiment. Clive’s army possessed ten field guns and two small howitzers.
The armies fought with each other on the banks of Bhagirathi-Hooghly River, near the village of Plassey (Palashi). It was 100 miles (160km) north of Calcutta. The Nawab’s opening cannonade was not perfect, the skirmishes were rather inconclusive.
Heavy rain interrupted the battle. The British artillerymen were quick to respond. They covered their cannon and ammunition with tarpaulins. On the other hand, their enemy failed to do the same and their artillery was put out of action.
Storm of Fire
In the battle, the Nawab’s army moved forward, believing that Clive’s cannons were also inoperable. But they were met by a storm of fire instead and withdrew in disarray. At that point, Mir Jafar stood away from the Nawab’s cavalry.
By the end of the day, Clive was in a dominant position. The Nawab’s forces were disheartened. They suffered over 500 casualties. Whereas among the British troops, only 22 men were killed and 50 were wounded.
Mir Jafar killed Siraj to become the new nawab. But he was a mere puppet ruler and was forced to sign several treaties with the British empire. Post Siraj’s death, the French lost their influence in Bengal.
Clive was appointed Governor of Bengal post his victory at Plassey. He secured the right to collect the tax and customs revenue of Bengal (diwani) in 1765. The rights were secured for the company from Emperor Shah Alam II. This was pivotal in giving the East India Company a political stake in India and establishing British military supremacy.
Indian goods were bought using Indian tax revenues and exported to Britain. The company created a vivid civil and military administration for collecting taxes and policing its territories. It was not just a commercial organization anymore, it had become a mighty imperial power of the time.
Clive served as Commander-in-Chief Bengal. He had the local rank of major-general. He trained the company’s army on European lines, converting them into a formidable force.
In the following years, the British utilized their revenues and military might for ousting the rest of their European colonial rivals from the rest of India, this included the French and the Dutch. The victory at Plassey eventually helped the British to rule over the entire subcontinent.
The victory at Plassey marked the rise of the British empire in India. After years of colonial rule, India finally gained its independence in 1947.
All along his life, the public had divided opinion on Robert Clive. Several people accused him of being a corrupt and greedy officer!
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