Robert Clive was a brilliant and courageous officer in the private army of the British East India Company. More than anyone else, he ensured that India’s princes and people became partners with Britain rather than Dutch or French possessions, so shaping the character of India’s democratic, legal and economic institutions to this day.
IN 1744, eighteen-year-old Robert Clive went out to India as a lowly clerk, bearing a reputation for indiscipline. But after enlisting in the militia of the British East India Company, which was vying with the French government for the control of trade with India, Clive proved to be a resourceful and daring leader.*
Trapped in a fort at Arcot, and unimpressed with his gunners, Clive manned the artillery himself, lifting the siege and losing only five or six of his own men.* He married and returned to England to build himself a second career in Parliament, only to be urgently recalled to a restless Bengal in 1756. It was Clive who liberated Calcutta after the infamous ‘Black Hole’ incident the following year.*
The culmination of Clive’s Indian career was the Battle of Plassey in 1757, which cemented Britain as India’s almost exclusive partner in business and in government.* The relationships which Clive secured became the foundation of the British Raj, and of modern India.
* The British East India Company was founded in 1600 to open up trade with Asia. The Dutch founded their own in 1602, and the French (at this time still a monarchy) in 1664. Austria, Denmark, Portugal and Sweden also had East India Companies, albeit briefly. Indian princes allied with one colonial power or another, and played them off against each other, while the colonial powers sought to frustrate their European rivals. The stakes were high, not only because of the available wealth but also because their Governments were often at war in Europe, chiefly as a consequence of the political ambitions of Spain and France. This should be borne in mind when assessing the career of figures such as Clive.
* See The Siege of Arcot.
* See The ‘Black Hole’ of Calcutta.
* See The Battle of Plassey.