Robert Clive was a British military officer and British official important to the history of British imperialism in India. More specifically, he was a significant historical figure during the time of the British East India Company and its rise to prominence in India.
ROBERT CLIVE EARLY YEARS
Robert Clive was born on September 29th, 1725 in Shropshire, England. His father worked as a lawyer and government parliamentarian. Historians have noted that as a young man, Robert Clive was supposedly a bit of a troublemaker. For instance, he was known to fight with other students at school and harass local shops. This troublesome streak caused him to struggle early with his schooling, but as a teenager he apparently began to focus on his education much more and received a basic education from Hertfordshire.
BRITISH EAST INDIA COMPANY
As stated above, the British East India Company played a significant role in the in the history of India and British imperialism in India. The British East India Company was first established on December 31st, 1600 as a company that aimed at promoting British trade in the Far East, which included India, China and Japan. Throughout its history, the British East India Company worked to establish an economic foothold in the Far East that benefited the company and Britain. By the mid-1700s, the British East India Company had begun to exert considerable influence in India. For example, By 1720, approximately 15% of all imports into England came from India and the British East India Company was responsible for almost all of this trade. Furthermore, the British East India Company grew so large and influential that by the 18th century it faced almost no competition for trade between England and India, that it was effectively a monopoly. This situation gained the company not only influence in India, but also in the political and economic circles in England.
ROBERT CLIVE'S FIRST TRIP TO INDIA
Robert Clive first visited the Far East from 1744 until 1753 as a company agent for the British East India Company. In fact, he first arrived at Fort Saint George, which was the first English fort in India, on the coast of eastern India. At the time, India was still under the control of the Mughal Empire, but it had slowly been lessening in power due to the arrival of European merchants and companies, including the British East India Company. Clive worked in Fort Saint George for about two years as a shopkeeper for the company, until hostilities in India pushed him to take a more active role militarily. For instance, he participated in skirmishes with the French in India, including the First and Second Carnatic Wars. These wars also involved the British East India Company fighting against local India rulers for economic control over the region. Clive worked his way up through the army of the British East India Company, and became known as a successful commander. In fact, his actions in the Siege of Arcot gained him fame back in England, and British Prime Minister William Pitt called him the ‘heaven-born general’. Clive returned to England in 1753, after first marrying Margaret Maskelyne.
ROBERT CLIVE'S SECOND TRIP TO INDIA
Clive returned to India in 1755, after shortly serving as a Member of Parliament in England from 1754 and 1755. He went to India, again for the British East India Company, to serve as a deputy governor of Fort Saint David. By this point, the British East India Company had used its extensive wealth and influence to recruit ever more ships and sepoy soldiers. Indian soldiers who fought for European companies were referred to as ‘sepoys’. The British East India Company carried out the practise of recruiting sepoys regularly and amassed a large army of Indian soldiers. This was vitally important to the expansion of the British East India Company in the 18th century and allowed it to gain control over huge sections of the Indian subcontinent, which expanded its wealth and influence. For instance, in 1750 the company had only about 3,000 soldiers, but by 1778 it had over 67,000. It used this army to fight battles to further its expansion into India from the areas it controlled in Bengal, Madras and Bombay. In fact, by the mid-1700s, the company faced less resistance from European competitors and more from local Indian rulers. This eventually led to a major conflict for the British East India Company in 1757 called the Battle of Plassey, which was also significant to the life and history of Robert Clive.
BATTLE OF PLASSEY
The Battle of Plassey was a major conflict between the British East India Company and Muslim rulers (Nawab) in Bengal. At the time the Nawab were supported by the French and had overrun a British trading post, causing the British East India Company to send Robert Clive and British soldiers to fight. The actual fighting took place in western India along the shores of the Hooghly River. It is estimated that the Nawab had as many as 30,000 infantry soldiers and another 20,000 cavalry. In contrast, Clive and the British were vastly outnumbered. By this point Clive held the rank of lieutenant-colonel in the British Army and led approximately 1,100 British soldiers and another 2,100 sepoys for the British East India Company during the Battle of Plassey. The Battle of Plassey began early on the morning of June 23rd, 1757 as French artillery launched shells towards Clive’s soldiers. The Nawab infantry began to move in on the British in continuous waves. Clive ordered his British soldiers and sepoys to retreat a bit to find cover, where they dug in against the advancing Nawab. The situation for the British improved as a rainstorm hit the battlefield. Clive had prepared for this situation, because he protected the British gunpowder stores with ‘tarpaulins’. The tarpaulins, which were large cloths made waterproof by tar, were used to keep the gunpowder dry and usable even during the rain. Whereas, the Nawab made no such protections, and as a result were unable to use their firearms in the wet conditions. This caused the Nawab commander, Mir Madan Khan, to attack the British with the Nawab cavalry, because he believed that the British were no longer able to use their firearms. However, when the Nawab cavalry advanced on the British position, they realized their error as the British opened fire and devastated the Nawab. In the chaos of the attack, Mir Madan Khan was wounded and later died. The loss of the Nawab commander proved significant, as it caused the Nawab to order a retreat from the battlefield. The British, recognizing their opportunity, attacked the retreating Nawab and were able to capture several key pieces of French artillery, which were put into action for the British. As a result, Clive led the British to victory over the Nawab and its French Allies on June 23rd, 1757. Historians estimate that the British lost 22 sepoy soldiers with another 50 wounded in the Battle of Plassey while the Nawab lost approximately 500. At the end of the battle, Clive installed Mir Jafar as the new leader of the Nawab.
Mir Jafar was a supporter of the British and the British East India Company. The victory in the Battle of Plassey was important for the British East India Company because it gave it a foothold in Bengal that it used to expand throughout the rest of India. For example, Clive is credited with expanding the military capabilities of the British East India Company in the region around Bengal. In fact, many historians credit the Battle of Plassey as being the major turning point when the British East India Company gained a stronghold in India. In fact, the Battle of Plassey was likely the most significant event in Clive’s career in India and the one for which he is best remembered today.
Throughout the late 1700s, the British East India Company expanded its control over large sections of eastern India from its main base in Bengal. For example, by the mid-1800s, the company had come to control all of the Indian subcontinent and ruled over the country through direct administration. This transformed the British East India Company from having a focus on trade to directly ruling and controlling India as a possession. It did this by expanding its military strength in the region. In fact, by 1857, the British East India Company had several armies that totaled as much as 267,000 soldiers.
Following his success in the Battle of Plassey, Clive carried out more campaigns in western India to further strengthen the position of the British East India Company. When he returned to England, in 1760, he was a fairly wealthy man. During this time in England, he worked to gain political influence over the policy decisions that impacted India. At the same time, stories of corruption began to emerge about the British East India Company, which caused Clive to return to India in 1765, at the age of 40.
ROBERT CLIVE'S FINAL TRIP TO INDIA
Clive landed back in India in May of 1765. He went to work quickly, by forging new alliances with local rulers and establishing the rule of the British East India Company in Bengal. For instance, Clive was essentially granted the ruling title of Bengal in 1765. This is important because it made Bengal, the stronghold from which the British East India Company would rule over India for the next several decades. He used his influence in the region to bring in several administrative reforms. For instance, he instituted several policies aimed at ending the corruption that had plagued the company in earlier years. For example, he forbid company officials from receiving ‘gifts’ from local Indian rulers. These policies had mixed results, as corruption in India remained an ever present problem. However, his military reform were more successful and helped establish the British control over India for decades to come.
ROBERT CLIVE'S LATER YEARS AND DEATH
Clive returned to England in 1767 where lived out his remaining years. In his final years, some British parliamentarians began to question his legacy and argued that his actions in India led to the corruption of the British East India Company. In particular, he was accused of benefiting personally at the expense of both the Indians and the company. He defended himself by arguing that he always acted within the then current rules of the British East India Company, and famously stated “I stand astonished at my own moderation”.
Robert Clive died at the age of 49 on November 22nd, 1774 from an apparent heart attack. Today, Clive is viewed as a significant figure in the history of the British East India Company and the growth of British imperialism in India.