Robert Clive, who arrived in India as an ill-disciplined prankster with no military training, rose rapidly in the militia of the East India Company to become, in the words of William Pitt the Elder, a ‘heaven-born general’.
IN the Spring of 1752, Robert Clive’s poor health prompted him to return to England, but he was determined to rob the French of the forts of Covelong, a fishing village twenty-five miles south of Madras, and neighbouring Chingleput, before he left.*
The Company gave him five hundred newly-enlisted Sepoys and two hundred raw recruits drawn from some of the more unruly slums of London. Of these, many fled at the first sound of the Covelong fort cannon; one deserted his post for the comparative safety of fifteen hours in a nearby well.
Such was Clive’s authority that he made men of them nonetheless, and they not only took the fort at Covelong, but plundered an approaching relief-column. That so alarmed the commander of Chingleput that he conceded his fort without a fight.
Clive now retired to Madras, where he married Margaret Maskelyne, sister of his friend Nevile, a mathematician and later the Astronomer Royal, before leaving for England.
* Madras is the British name for Chennai, which lies on the east coast of India, somewhat towards the south of the country: map. Covelong is known as Kovalam and is the location of Fisherman’s Cove, a luxury beach resort; Chingleput is Chengalpattu, an important railway and manufacturing town.