Plassey: Beginning of an Empire?
It’s true that Amartya Sen requires no introduction. However, all that he writes, may not always be true. In a deftly articulated piece (for the Guardian) entitled ‘Illusions of Empire’, on 29 June 2021 Sen states:
The British empire in India was in effect established at the Battle of Plassey on 23 June 1757. The battle was swift, beginning at dawn and ending close to sunset. It was a normal monsoon day, with occasional rain in the mango groves at the town of Plassey…… It was in those mango groves that the British forces faced the Nawab Siraj-ud-Doula’s army and convincingly defeated it.
Without confronting what the Nobel Laureate wrote at the beginning of the paragraph, it is so germane to cross swords with him as he nears the end of his statement:
“British forces……convincingly defeated it.”
Dr Sen, it’s indeed a loose statement, abruptly coming out of the scabbard, and incidentally painting a wrong history of the sub-continent. The word ‘convincingly’ hides innumerable realities pertaining to the battle.
Yes, the battle began early on the 23rd of June 1757, no doubt; not quite at dawn per se, but to be particular at around 8 AM. And the battle just didn’t end at sunset; though the writing was on the wall much before the battle was actually fought. The battle finally ended at around 8 PM on the same day, much after sunset.
As India celebrates 75 glorious years of independence from British imperialism, it is not impertinent at all to probe into the details of perhaps the most significant battle that opened the floodgates of British imperialistic venturesin the sub-continent, and more so when of late a person of Dr Sen’s stature mentions it and that too in a 200 year old British media website.
A long time before Plassey
One of the more compelling reasons which led to the accretion of European explorers in the sub-continent was that in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries, there was a great demand for spices, which were used to mask the taste of vast amounts of salt used for preserving the food through long winters. Furthermore, writes Roy Moxham in his lucid composition ‘The Theft of India’, pepper was used by the rich in Europe as an item of fashion!
Merchants of Italy controlled the trade with the sub-continent from Alexandria, Cairo, Beirut, and Constantinople. Constantinople was captured by the Ottoman Islamic Turks as they defeated the Byzantine Christian Empire in 1453. Naturally, markets of Alexandria and Cairo became more important for the Europeans. Since Arabs were in control of the sea trade to India’s Malabar region, they siphoned off the profits and price of spices inflated as they finally reached Europe.
Moxham tells us that Italian traveller Nicolo Conti travelled to India in the middle of the 15th century and his travelogue was published in 1492. The publication encouraged the Portuguese explorers, which led to the voyage by Vasco da Gama in 1498.
In 1553, exactly hundred years after the conquest of the apparently impregnable Constantinople, some English merchants planned a voyage to reach ‘Indies’ through the north of Russia. They however reached Moscow – met the Tsar – and got trading rights in Russia. They couldn’t make it to India.
One Thomas Stephens, son of a wealthy London merchant, turned priest and reached Goa in 1579. He wrote to his father about the life and riches of Goa. These stories, writes Moxham, induced excitement and curiosity among London merchants about India. Finally, on 24 September 1599, as William Dalrymple dramatically tells us in his Anarchy, that a motley group of London merchants along with the Mayor of the city subscribed anything between 100 to 3,000 pounds each and collected 30,000 pounds to plan an expedition to the East Indies. In the process was formed the English East India Company (EIC).
The Charter was signed on 31 December 1600 whereupon it was emphasised that the Company was to restrict itself to trade and not to attempt colonisation or conquest. EICwas to be managed by a governor and 24 directors. William Hawkins captained the ship HECTOR and reached India at the largest of the Mughal ports – Surat. As Hawkins anchored offshore on 24 August 1608, began an era of British mercantilism in India which later transformed into capitalistic imperialism.
Close to 150 years flew past.
Shortly before Plassey
With the contemplation of war in America and Europe between the arch rivals England and France, Robert Clive and his three regiments of Royal artillery were sent from London as a pre-emptive measure in securing the business interests in the sub-continent. Clive’s entourage arrived at Fort St David (near Tamil Nadu’s Cuddalore of today), along with the warships led by Rear Admiral Watson. The force however, was supposed to take on the French. Providence nonetheless had different plans for them.
In June 1756, Bengal’s new Mughal governor, SirajudDaula attacked EIC settlements in Calcutta since the latter did not stop their fortifications even after repeated requests by the former Mughal governor Alivardi Khan (Siraj’s grandfather). Siraj captured Fort William in Calcutta and was also wrongly alleged to have been responsible for the death due to suffocation of a large number of Europeans in the so-called ‘Black Hole Tragedy’.
Watson was least interested in moving towards Bengal and defend the interests of the EIC because he was representing the Crown directly and wished to remain in Madras since he was sent for that purpose. However, Clive prevailed upon the Council members of the English East India Company (EIC) at Madras and finally succeeded in persuading Watson to accompany him to Bengal. Clive was a far sighted individual and knew that Bengal was a repository of wealth and could bail him out of his financial difficulties he was facing at that juncture due to his investments in EIC stocks.
It took almost two months for the EIC to get ready for the invasion of Bengal. Finally, as Dalrymple writes, on 13 October 1756, an expeditionary force of ‘785 European troops, 300 marines and 940 Indian sepoys’ set sail towards Bengal. By the middle of December 1756, one of the ships Kent, anchored at Fulta in Bengal – where the English survivors of SirajudDaula’s attack on Fort William in Calcutta in June 1756 – had taken shelter. In fact, by then, almost 50 per cent of the original survivorshad died of fever.
Clive sent an ultimatum to Manikchand, who had been entrusted Fort William and Alinagar (as Calcutta was renamed by Siraj). However, the latter did not pay any heed to Clive’s warning. On 27 December 1756, Clive decided to moved upriver. Near the Fort of Budge Budge, Manikchand in a surprise move attacked Clive’s retinue. Clive was about to order a retreat as he was taken aback by this sudden attack. However, field artillery and rapid firing of the Brown Bess muskets saved the day for Clive. Manikchand was shot through the turban.
On 02 January 1757, Clive and Watson’s forces reached Fort William. Manikchand relinquished his position after a brief skirmish. The very next day, Clive declared war on Siraj in the name of the EIC.Watson too did the same in the name of the Crown. This was indeed a historic event. A mercantile company declared war against a sovereign authority.
However, Siraj appeared stern and not to give up so easily. As he was basking in the glory of defeating the EIC last year, he gathered an army of 60,000 soldiers and attacked Calcutta once more.Though Clive initially wanted to settle the issue with Siraj through discussions, the latter treated Clive’s negotiators with utter disregard.
As a reaction and true to his character, Clive decided to retaliate in a night attack against Siraj. Clive took about 500 sailors from Watson in order to carry the ammunition and draw the artillery guns. About 4 am on the 5th of February 1757, Clive and his troops were marching towards Siraj’s camp at the outskirts of north Calcutta.Clive’s men reached the centre of Siraj’s camp after a brief resistance by the latter’s forces. By 11 am on that day, Clive after having lost about 150 soldiers returned to Fort William a despondent man.Since there was thick fog on that day Clive’s forces were unsure of hitting their target.
Siraj on the other hand, lost about 2,000 men. Siraj’s closest aide and commander Dost Mohammad Khan was disabled in the battle. In fact, Clive too lost his secretary in the fight. Siraj nonetheless was petrified and retreated 10 miles away.
Just the next day, Siraj sent an ambassador to Clive for inking a peace deal. This too was true to the character of Siraj – a man of extremes. He showed strength and cruelty to the weak whereas the moment his opponent would counter him the hard way, he would turn meek. Three days later, the Treaty of Alinagar was signed. According to it:
All trade privileges of EIC were restored All EIC goods were exempted of taxes EIC was allowed to establish a mint EIC was allowed to fortify their settlements in Calcutta Roger Drake was to be removed as the Governor of Calcutta
The last point was a personal demand of Siraj, which was duly complied with by the EIC since Drake was already unpopular and was utterly inefficient in defending the EIC settlements in 1756 against Siraj’s attack. Drake’s removal was a face saving measure for Siraj which he demanded in order to satisfy his ego since in 1756 Drake had fled and Siraj could not get him by the scruff of his neck.
On 23 February 1757, Clive wrote to his father:
“I expect to return very shortly to the coast [Madras], as all is over here.”
However, as the 7 years’ war erupted in full blaze and under the command of EIC directors from London, Watson declared war against the French in Bengal. As fallout, Watson planned to attack the French settlement atChandernagore (today’s Chandannagar, about 50 km from Kolkata).
On 8 March 1757, with an army of 2,700Clive and Watson began their march towards Chandernagore. Interestingly, Siraj did not intervene, with the tacit assurance of the EIC that they will help him if the Afghan marauder Ahmad Shah Abdali attacks Bengal. The French at the other end had 700 soldiers to defend their Fort d’Orleans. Nonetheless, in a single day’s fighting, the French lost about 200 men killed or wounded.
The Director of the French factory at Kasimbazar (near Plassey), Jean Law wrote:
“…with the fall of Chandernagore, the gate to the entire country was thrown open to the English.”
Law hit the bull’s eye. It was only another European contingent which could have taken on the EIC. Especially the French, since they had shown their military muscle in 1746 in the battle of Adyar (near Madras) by defeating the Mughal governor’s son Mahfuz Khan and the latter’s 10,000 strong force.
Meanwhile, Siraj remained indecisive. He sent a relief force towards Chandernagore, but later withdrew it. On 24 March, Sirajgifted two leopards to Clive and congratulated him on his victory.Siraj in fact had alienated many military commanders of Alivardi’s regime.Most disgruntled was Mir Jafar Ali Khan, who was sidelined by Siraj even after being instrumental in the victory over the EIC in Calcutta in 1756.
Mir Jafar was a shiamuslim from Najaf in Iraq. He was unhappy because the governorship of Calcutta was granted to Manikchand though it was Jafar who led the avantegarde of Siraj’s forces against the Company in capturing Calcutta. Out of frustration as well as greed, Mir Jafar planned to offer the EIC a sum of Rs 2.5 crores if the EIC in turn helped him to remove Siraj.
The interesting aspect here is not why Mir Jafar and others conspired against Siraj, who was by no means a worthy candidate for being the Subahdar (governor) of Mughal Bengal, but why they sought the help of Clive to dislodge Siraj– an act which they could have done themselves. Probably, they were quite awestruck at the military prowess of the EIC and the leadership ability of Clive that they were unsure if they attacked Siraj, then EIC might come to his rescue invoking the Treaty of Alinagar. They were perhaps circumspect of the reaction of the Bengal nobility close to Alivardi if Siraj was displaced in a coup led by them. The plot was simple. Let Clive and EIC be the contract killers and let Jafar and his sidekicks Yar Latif Khan, Raja Rai Durlabh Ram enjoy the booty.
In this enterprise, Jafar was not the sole mastermind. The Oswal merchants from Rajasthan, the so-called JagatSeths or the ‘Bankers of Bengal’Mahtab Rai and Swaroop Chand spearheaded the ‘revolution’ insofar as idea, planning and finances were concerned. A diplomatic blunder of slapping Mahtab Rai and threatening him of circumcision in open court by SirajudDaula sparked the outrage.
On 01 May 1757, a Secret Committee made up of senior EIC officials in Bengal formally resolved to join the plot of dethroning Siraj. However, the sum assured was raised to 3 million pound sterling – the entire annual revenue of Bengal. In addition,
Rs 1,10,000 a month were to be given for the payment of troops of EIC. Furthermore, the EIC was to get the zamindari rights near Calcutta.
Moreover, by 19 May 1757, Mir Jafar agreed to pay the EIC a sum of 1 million pound sterling as compensation for the loss of Calcutta and another 0.5 million pound sterling as compensation to the European inhabitants who suffered due to the attack on Fort William last year. Finally, on 13 June, Clive sent an ultimatum to Siraj-ud-Daula accusing him of dishonoring the Treaty of Alinagar.On the same day, Clive along with an army of 2,200 Telingasepoys, 800 Europeans and 8 cannons, marched towards Murshidabad, a town about 200 km up north from present day Kolkata.
Nevertheless, Clive did not receive any clear signals nor information of intent from Mir Jafar. Clive kept on sending missives to Jafar elaborating his intent and expectations. But the latter remained unusually silent. In one of the letters, Clive wrote:
“Come over to me at Plassey or any other place you judge proper with what force you have – even a thousand horse will be sufficient, and I’ll engage to march immediately with you to Murshidabad. I prefer conquering by open force.”
This definitely showed the character of Clive vis-à-vis the treacherous Jafar Ali Khan and his cohorts. At least Clive true to his spirit and character, wished to fight Siraj. On the contrary, Mir Jafar and his co-conspirators were mere opportunists. Perhaps, they were outrageously rational beings, trying to exact maximum benefit out of the money offered to the EIC. They possibly had in their mind the simple arithmetic that in return to the hefty sum dished out to Clive and his men, they expected the entire fighting to be done by the EIC and minimum harm was to be inflicted on the native troops of Jafar and Co.
Clive however was not satisfied with Jafar’s commitment, which appeared to him to be equivocal. Hence, he wrote a letter requesting support from Raja of Bardhaman – Tilak Chand. Clive actually needed cavalry. Clive also wrote on 20 June to the nawab Assad-uz-Zaman of Birbhum requesting for cavalry, informs journalist Sudeep Chakravarti in his book Plassey.
On 21 June 1757, Clive called a Council of War to decide whether to continue with the campaign as he was unsure of the intent of Mir Jafar and his lackeys. By then, Siraj’s army of 50,000 had reached the mango plantations of Plassey (or Palashi, about 150 km north from Kolkata). And without Mir Jafar’s express commitment, this decision was very crucial for Clive.
Nine of Clive’s senior officers voted. Seven of them were against immediate military action and only two were in favour. Out of eight junior officers, five were in favour. So, total seven officers were in favour of taking on Siraj at Plassey, whereas the majority wanted to back out. Amongst the junior ranks, Eyre Coote was most vocal as he reasoned that any delay might dampen the spirits of the soldiers since they had already captured the Fort of Katwa, and consequently should move on. Coote was of the opinion that they were on a victorious spree from the Battle of Budge Budge onwards and hence ought to continue their journey.
At the same time, Clive received a letter from Jafar [Moxham, p 222] which read thus:
“When you come near, I shall be able to join you…..When I am arrived near the army, I will send you privately all the intelligence….”
Clive’s confidence was relatively bolstered and he immediately proceeded towards Palashi and reached the place at 1 AM on 23 June 1757. When Clive and his troops arrived at Plassey, writes Chakravarti [p 262], ‘they were stunned to discover that Siraj’ army had got there well before them….”
Nonetheless, Clive’s forces positioned themselves in a large mango orchard, surrounded by a ditch and a high bank. Clive occupied a hunting lodge [used earlier by Siraj] between the orchard and the Bhagirathi river. It was tactically advantageous because he could have kept a watch on the proceedings of the battle from the rooftop of the lodge.
EIC’s official historian of the period, Robert Orme has estimated that Siraj’s army numbered about 35,000 to 40,000 infantry, armed mainly with matchlock guns, swords, pikes, rockets. There were about 18,000 Pathan cavalry too. Also, artillery consisted of 50 cannons, mostly 24 and 32 pounder field guns. These guns, along with their gunners were carried on six feet high platforms being driven by a group of 40-50 oxen and at times pushed by elephants from behind when they were stuck.
A small artillery detachment under the command of St Frais (Sinfray) and 50 French soldiers took position beside the water tank nearest to the mango grove. Siraj, interestingly ‘waited inside his tent at the back of his formation….shielded by the bulk of troops loyal to him’, writes Chakravarti [p 272]
Mir Madan, the Superintendent of Artillery of Siraj’s forces, told him that ‘the English were coming at the instigation of Mir Muhammad Jafar, and ….therefore it is expedient to finish Mir Muhammad Jafar, and if he is killed, the English would not have the daring to approach this side.”
However, Siraj did not pay any heed to this counsel of Mir Madan.Why? Was Siraj that big a fool? One reason could be that Mir Jafarhad already taken an oath of the Quran and pledged loyalty to Siraj. In that sense, Siraj was a bit relieved too. Historian Sushil Chowdhury attempts to provide an answer [p. 153, PalashirOjanaKahini]. Chowdhury quotes Jean Law:
“Perhaps, since Mohanlal(Siraj’s confidante) was indisposed, Siraj was unable to trust anyone. That’s why he tried to show his enemies that he was believing them. So that his enemies be beside him for the time being as he deals with the EIC. Thereafter he will pounce upon the conspirators at an opportune moment.”
At 8 am on the 23rd of June 1757, Siraj’s artillery started firing at the EIC. In fact, it was St Frais who opened up the fire. In 30 minutes or so, Clive lost 10 Europeans and 20 sepoys. Immediately, Clive ordered his troops to take defensive positions. Siraj’s soldiers thought the EIC men were retreating and hence kept on firing at them by moving up their heavy guns. But the shots missed the EIC, rather they hit the trees.
Interestingly, occasional explosions of ammunition amongst Siraj’s artillery wing were heard. Lack of efficiency of Siraj’s artillery was palpable. Moreover, casualties went down considerably for EIC since they took positions behind the embankments.
The battle reached some sort of a stalemate. Clive called a meeting of his staff at around 11 AM. It was decided to continue with the artillery firing till the evening and attempt to attack Siraj’s camp at midnight, utilizing the element of surprise and speed at which Clive was such an expert.
However, the crucial turn around for Clive took place at 12 pm with the onset of the monsoon rains. Siraj’s artillery wing was so careless that they did not bother to bring adequate covers for the ammunition. At the other end, Clive’s forces were disciplined enough to cover their guns and ammunition with tarpaulin.
Without much critical thought that Clive’s troops might have had their ammunition intact, Siraj’sotherwise brave cavalry commander Mir Madan advanced towards the Company forces, assuming that his enemy’s guns were also disabled like his, due to the downpour. Soon he was surprised to find a cannon ball hit his stomach and his elite 5,000 Afghan cavalry face a barrage of cannon balls and array of bullets from the musket wielding infantry of the Company.
Chief of Artillery Mir Madan was killed. Nauwe Singh Hazari- captain of artillery – also lost his life. Bahadur Ali Khan, commander of musketeers, died. Siraj was unnerved, for the second time in his brief period of showdown with the EIC.
Siraj in a very humble tone, bowed down in front of Mir Jafar, even placed his turban in front of him attempting to invoke his emotions so that Jafar helps him save his honour. However, nothing happened to that effect. Jafar answered in a cold tone that since the day was about to end, there was no time for an attack. So, it was prudent to order a retreat, in order to fight the next day.
Conspirators Mir Jafar, Raja Rai Durlabh and Yar Latif Khan, who among themselves were marshalling troops to the tune of 35,000 and could have decided the fate of the war, counselled Siraj to withdraw from the battlefield by playing on his fears of the English. They goaded Siraj to quit and the latter escaped on camel back to reach Murshidabad early next morning.
The three traitorous generals then started retreating from the battlefield. Such a sight created confusion amongst the remaining rank and file of Siraj’s forces. Mohan Lal and St Fraishowever continued the fight, but it was already a lost battle.
IAS officer and author NitishSengupta in his book ‘Land of Two Rivers’ writes that Mohan Lal and St Frais fought valiantly till 5 pm and thereafter left Palashi [p 171, Sengupta]. By that time, the EIC were in possession of the whole entrenchment of the Nawab’s forces as well as his camp.By 8 pm, the battle of Palashi was over, with Clive’s forward forces chasing the left over Siraj’smatchlock men and paltry French forces into historical obscurity. The victory made the EIC virtual masters of Bengal, Bihar and Odisha, opines Colonel Malleson in his The Decisive Battles of India.
Now the questions that crop up are:
Would Siraj have won the day at Plassey if his artillery wing had been disciplined enough to cover their ammunition with tarpaulin?
Would Siraj have been victorious if Mir Jafar and his associates have fought with their infantry?
Would the results have been different if Siraj held his ground and not fled the battlefield but led his forces valiantly?
Each option has its own probabilistic outcome. Indeed, with his artillery intact, Siraj’s army would have fought on till the evening, with the EIC field guns’ rate of fire of 5 to 6 times per minute being much higher than that of traditional Indian cannons’ once in 15 minutes efficiency. Thereafter, Clive’s night raid could have been interesting to watch out. Siraj’s defeat was definitely one option in that raid.
If Jafar and his men would have fought, there was a high chance that they could have outnumbered Clive’s forces, howsoever efficient and trained they were. Large casualties could have been expected from the field gun firing of the EIC, yet overall the march of infantry of around 35,000 appears to be a ‘mowing down’ of around 3000 soldiers with only 2 field guns.
With Siraj leading his forces by example would have surely emboldened the spirits of his soldiers. And with St Frais and Mohanlal still fighting, though of low probability, yet there was a possibility of Sirajturning the tables against Clive. But alas, Siraj did not show any mettle whatsoever. He turned out to be a coward and inept general.
What transpires is the defeat in the Battle of Plassey were among others, due to the following factors:
Lack of proper training and discipline of Indian forces
Lack of development of artillery corps in mid-18th century India
Lack of generalship by Sirajud Daula
Conspiracy by three commanders of Siraj
At a fundamental level, it is clear that defeat at Plassey was by no means a ‘convincing victory’ (as Dr Sen would persuade us to believe) by Clive and the EIC, which however came much later in a series of battles from 1759 to 1857.
By Dr Uddipan Mukherjee
(The writer writes on history,
insurgency, counterinsurgency, physics and foreign policy.
Any opinion expressed in this piece is author’s own.)