Robert Clive was born at Styche, the family estate, in the parish of Moreton Say, Market Drayton, Shropshire. We learn from his second speech in the British House of Commons in 1773, that as the estate yielded only £500 a year, his father followed the profession of the law also. The Clives, or Clyves, were one of the oldest families in the county of Shropshire, having held the manor of that name in the reign of Henry II. One Clive was Irish chancellor of the exchequer under Henry VIII; another was a member of the Long Parliament; Robert's father for many years represented Montgomeryshire in parliament. His mother, to whom he was tenderly attached, and who had a powerful influence on his career, was a daughter, and with her sister Lady Sempill co-heir, of Nathaniel Gaskell of Manchester. Robert was their eldest son. With his five sisters, all of whom married, he always maintained the most affectionate relations. His only brother survived to 1825.
Young Clive was the despair of his teachers. Sent from school to school, and for only a short time at the Merchant Taylors' School, which then as now had a high reputation, he neglected his books for perilous adventures. But he was not so ignorant as his biographers represent. He could read Horace in after life; and he must have laid in his youth the foundation of that clear and vigorous English style which marked all his despatches, and made Lord Chatham declare of one of his speeches in the House of Commons that it was the most eloquent he had ever heard. From his earliest years, however, his ambition was to lead his fellows; but he never sacrificed honour, as the word was then understood, even to the fear of death.
At eighteen he was sent out to Madras as a "factor" or "writer" in the civil service of the East India Company. The detention of the ship in Brazil for nine months enabled him to acquire the Portuguese language, which, at a time when few or none of the Company's servants learned the vernaculars of India, he often found of use.
For the first two years of his residence he felt miserable. He sufferred keenly the separation from home; he continually broke through the restraints imposed on young "writers"; and he was rarely out of trouble with his fellows, with one of whom he fought a duel. Thus early, too, the effect of the climate on his health began to show itself in those fits of depression during one of which he afterwards prematurely ended his life. The story is told of him by his companions, though he himself never spoke of it, that he twice snapped a pistol at his head in vain. His one solace was found in the governor's library, where he sought to make up for past carelessness by a systematic course of study. He had just come of-age when in 1746 Madras capitulated to Labourdonnais during the War of the Austrian Succession. The breach of that capitulation by Dupleix, then at the head of the French settlements in India, led Clive, with others, to escape from the town to the subordinate Fort St David, some 20 miles to the south. There, disgusted with the state of affairs and the purely commercial duties of an East Indian civilian, as they then were, Clive obtained an ensign's commission.
At this time India was ready to become the prize of the first conqueror who to the dash of the soldier added the skill of the administrator. For the forty years since the death of the emperor Aurangzeb, the power of the Great Mogul had gradually fallen into the hands of his provincial viceroys or subadhars. The three greatest of these were the nawab of the Deccan, or south and central India, who ruled from Hyderabad, the nawab of Bengal, whose capital was Murshidabad, and the nawab or wazir of Oudh. The prize lay between Dupleix, who had the genius of an administrator, or rather intriguer, but was no soldier, and Clive, the first of a century's brilliant succession of those "soldier-politicals", as they are called in the East, to whom Great Britain owed the conquest and consolidation of what becamne its greatest dependency. Clive successively established British ascendancy against French influence in the three great provinces under these nawabs. But his merit lies especially in the ability and foresight with which he secured for his country, and for the good of the natives, the richest of the three, Bengal.
First, as to Madras and the Deccan, Clive had hardly been able to commend himself to Major Stringer Lawrence, the commander of the British troops, by his courage and skill in several small engagements, when the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748) forced him to return to his civil duties for a short time. An attack of the malady which so severely affected his spirits led him to visit Bengal, where he was soon to distinguish himself. On his return he found a contest going on between two sets of rival claimants for the position of viceroy of the Deccan, and for that of nawab of the Carnatic, the greatest of the subordinate states under the Deccan. Dupleix, who took the part of the pretenders to power in both places, was carrying all before him. The British had been weakened by the withdrawal of a large force under Admiral Boscawen, and by the return home, on leave, of Major Lawrence. But that officer had appointed Clive commissary for the supply of the troops with provisions, with the rank of captain. More than one disaster had taken place on a small scale, when Clive drew up a plan for dividing the enemy's forces, and offered to carry it out himself.
The pretender, Chanda Sahib, had been made nawab of the Carnatic with Dupleix's assistance, while the British had taken up the cause of the more legitimate successor, Mahommed Au. Chanda Sahib had left Arcot, the capital of the Carnatic, to reduce Trichinopoly, then held by a weak English battalion. Clive offered to attack Arcot in order to force Chanda Sahib to raise the siege of Trichinopoly. But Madras and Fort St David could supply him with only 200 Europeans and 300 sepoys. Of the eight officers who led them, four were civilians like Clive himself, and six had never been in action. His force had but three field-pieces. The circumstances that Clive, at the head of this handful, had been seen marching during a storm of thunder and lightning, frightened the enemy into evacuating the fort, which the British at once began to strengthen against a siege. Clive treated the great population of the city with so much consideration that they helped him, not only to fortify his position, but to make successful sallies against the enemy. As the days passed on, Chanda Sahib sent a large army under his son and his French supporters, who entered Arcot and closely besieged Clive in the citadel.
Macaulay gives the following brilliant account of the siege:
The siege of Arcot at once gave Clive a European reputation. Pitt pronounced the youth of twenty-seven who had done such deeds a "heaven-born general," thus endorsing the generous appreciation of his early commander, Major Lawrence. When the court of directors voted him a sword worth £700, he refused to receive it unless Lawrence was similarly honoured. He left Madras for home, after ten years' absence, early in 1753, but not before marrying Miss Margaret Maskelyne, the sister of his friend Nevil Maskelyne who was afterwards well-known as Astronomer Royal.
All Clive's correspondence proves him to have been a good husband and father, at a time when society was far from pure, and scandal made havoc of the highest reputations. In after days, when Clive's uprightness and stern reform of the Company's civil and military services made him many enemies, a biography of him appeared under the assumed name of Charles Carracioli, Gent. All the evidence is against the probability of its scandalous stories being true. Clive as a young man occasionally indulged in loose or free talk among intimate friends, but beyond this nothing has been proved to his detriment.
After Clive had been two years in England the state of affairs in India made the directors anxious for his return. He was sent out, in 1756, as governor of Fort St David, with the reversion of the government of Madras, and he received the commission of lieutenant-colonel in the king's army. He took Bombay on his way, and there commanded the land force which captured Gheria, the stronghold of the Mahratta pirate, Angria. In the distribution of prize money which followed this expedition he showed no little self-denial. He took his seat as governor of Fort St David on the day on which the nawab of Bengal captured Calcutta, and thither the Madras government at once sent him, with admiral Watson. He entered on the second period of his career.
Since, in August 1690, Job Charnock had landed at the village of Sutanati with a guard of one officer and 30 men, the infant capital of Calcutta had become a rich centre of trade. The successive nawabs or viceroys of Bengal had been friendly to it, till, in 1756, Suraj-ud-Dowlah succeeded his uncle at Murshidabad. His predecessor's financial minister had fled to Calcutta to escape the extortion of the new nawab, and the English governor refused to deliver up the refugee. Enraged at this, Suraj-ud-Dowlah captured the old fort of Calcutta on 20 June 1756, and plundered it of more than two millions sterling. Many of the English fled to ships and dropped down the river. The 146 who remained were forced into the Black Hole in the stifling heat of the sultriest period of the year. Only 23 came out alive.
The fleet was as strong, for those days, as the land force was weak. Disembarking his troops some miles below the city, Clive marched through the jungles, where he lost his way owing to the treachery of his guides, but soon invested Fort William, while the fire of the ships reduced it, on 2 January 1757. On 4 February he defeated the whole army of the nawab, which had taken up a strong position north of Calcutta. The nawab hastened to conclude a treaty, under which favourable terms were conceded to the Company's trade, the factories and plundered property were restored, and an English mint was established. In the accompanying agreement, offensive and defensive, Clive appears under the name by which he was always known to the natives of India, Sabut Jung, or "the daring in war". The hero of Arcot had, at Angria's stronghold, and now again under the walls of Calcutta, established his reputation as the first captain of the time. With 600 British soldiers, 800 sepoys, 7 field-pieces and 500 sailors to draw them, he had routed a force of 34,000 men with 40 pieces of heavy cannon, 50 elephants, and a camp that extended upwards of four miles in length.
His own account, in a letter to the archbishop of Canterbury, gives a modest but vivid description of the battle, the importance of which has been overshadowed by Plassey.
In spite of his double defeat and the treaty which followed it, the madness of the nawab burst forth again. As England and France were once more at war, Clive sent the fleet up the river against Chandernagore, while he besieged it by land. After consenting to the siege, the nawab sought to assist the French, but in vain. The capture of their principal settlement in India, next to Pondicherry, which had fallen in the previous war, gave the combined forces prize to the value of £130,000. The rule of Suraj-ud-Dowlah became as intolerable to his own people as to the British. They formed a confederacy to depose him, at the head of which was Jafar Ali Khan, his commander-in-chief. Associating with himself Admiral Watson, Governor Drake and Mr Watts, Clive made a treaty in which it was agreed to give the office of viceroy of Bengal, Behar and Orissa to Jafar, who was to pay a million sterling to the Company for its losses in Calcutta and the cost of its troops, half a million to the British inhabitants of Calcutta, £200,000 to the native inhabitants, and £70,000 to its Armenian merchants.
Up to this point all is clear. Suraj-ud-Dowlah was hopeless as a ruler. His relations alike to his master, the merely titular emperor of Delhi, and to the people left the province open to the strongest. After the "Black Hole", the battle of Calcutta, and the treachery at Chandernagore in spite of the treaty which followed that battle, the East India Company could treat the nawab only as an enemy. Clive, it is true, might have disregarded all native intrigue, marched on Murshidabad, and at once held the delta of the Ganges in the Company's name. But the time was not ripe for this, and the consequences, with so small a force, might have been fatal. The idea of acting directly as rulers, save under native charters and names, was not developed by events for half a century. The political morality of the time in Europe, as well as the comparative weakness of the Company in India, led Clive not only to meet the dishonesty of his native associate by equal dishonesty, but to justify his conduct by the declaration, years after, in parliament, that he would do the same again.
It became necessary to employ the richest Bengali trader, Omichund, as an agent between Jafar Ali and the British officials. Master of the secret of the confederacy against Suraj-ud-Dowlah, the Bengali threatened to betray it unless he was guaranteed, in the treaty itself, £300,000. To dupe the villain, who was really paid by both sides, a second, or fictitious treaty, was shown him with a clause to this effect. This Admiral Watson refused to sign; "but," Clive deponed to the House of Commons, "to the best of his remembrance, he gave the gentleman who carried it leave to sign his name upon it; his lordship never made any secret of it; he thinks it warrantable in such a case, and would do it again a hundred times; he had no interested motive in doing it, and did it with a design of disappointing the expectations of a rapacious man." Such was Clive's own defence of the one act which, in a long career of abounding temptations, was of questionable honesty.
The whole hot season of 1757 was spent in these negotiations, till the middle of June, when Clive began his march from Chandernagore, the British in boats, and the sepoys along the right bank of the Hugli. That river above Calcutta is, during the rainy season, fed by the overflow of the Ganges to the north through three streams, which in the hot months are nearly dry. On the left bank of the Bhagirathi, the most westerly of these, 100 miles above Chandernagore, stands Murshidabad, the capital of the Mogul viceroys of Bengal, and then so vast that Clive compared it to the London of his day. Some miles farther down is the field of Plassey, then an extensive grove of mango trees, of which enough yet remains, in spite of the changing course of the stream, to enable the visitor to realize the scene. On 21 June 1757 Clive arrived on the bank opposite Plassey, in the midst of that outburst of rain which ushers in the south-west monsoon of India. His whole army amounted to 1100 Europeans and 2100 native troops, with 9 field-pieces. The nawab had drawn up 18,000 horse, 50,000 foot and 53 pieces of heavy ordnance, served by French artillerymen. For once in his career Clive hesitated, and called a council of sixteen officers to decide, as he put it, "whether in our present situation, without assistance, and on our own bottom, it would be prudent to attack the nawab, or whether we should wait till joined by some country power ?" Clive himself headed the nine who voted for delay; Major (afterwards Sir) Eyre Coote led the seven who counselled immediate attack. But, either because his daring asserted itself, or because, also, of a letter that he received from Jafar Ali, as has been said, Clive was the first to change his mind and to communicate with Major Eyre Coote. One tradition, followed by Macaulay, represents him as spending an hour in thought under the shade of some trees, while he resolved the issues of what was to prove one of the decisive battles of the world. Another, turned into verse by Sir Alfred Lyall, pictures his resolution as the result of a dream. However that may be, he did well as a soldier to trust to the dash and even rashness that had gained Arcot and triumphed at Calcutta, and as a statesman, since retreat, or even delay, would have put back the civilization of India for years. When, after the heavy rain, the sun rose brightly on 22 June 1757, the 3200 men and the 9 guns crossed the river and took possession of the grove and its tanks of water, while Clive established his head-quarters in a hunting lodge. On the 23rd the engagement took place and lasted the whole day. Except the 40 Frenchmen and the guns which they worked, the enemy did little to reply to the British cannonade which, with the 39th Regiment, scattered the host, inflicting on it a loss of 500 men. Clive restrained the ardour of Major Kilpatrick, for he trusted to Jafar Ali's abstinence, if not desertion to his ranks, and knew the importance of sparing his own small force. He lost hardly a white soldier; in all 22 sepoys were killed and 50 wounded. His own account, written a month after the battle to the secret committee of the court of directors, is not less unaffected than that in which he had announced the defeat of the nawab at Calcutta.
Suraj-ud-Dowlah fled from the field on a camel, secured what wealth he could, and came to an untimely end. Clive entered Murshidabad, and established Jafar Ali as nawab. When taken through the treasury, amid a million and a half sterling's worth of rupees, gold and silver plate, jewels and rich goods, and besought to ask what he would, Clive was content with £160,000, while half a million was distributed among the army and navy, both in addition to gifts of £24,000 to each member of the Company's committee, and besides the public compensation stipulated for in the treaty. It was to this occasion that he referred in his defence before the House of Commons, when he declared that he marvelled at his moderation. He sought rather to increase the shares of the fleet and the troops at his own expense, as he had done at Gheria, and did more than once afterwards, with prize of war.
What he did take from the grateful nawab for himself was less than the circumstances justified from an Oriental point of view, was far less than was pressed upon him, not only by Jafar Ali, but by the hundreds of native nobles whose gifts Clive steadily refused, and was openly acknowledged from the first. He followed a usage fully recognized by the Company, although the fruitful source of future evils which he himself was again sent out to correct. The Company itself acquired a revenue of £100,000 a year, and a contribution towards its losses and military expenditure of a million and a half sterling. Such was Jafar Ali's gratitude to Clive that he afterwards presented him with the quit-rent of the Company's lands in and around Calcutta, amounting to an annuity of £27,000 for life, and left him by will the sum of £70,000, which Clive devoted to the army.
While busy with the civil administration, the conqueror of Plassey continued to follow up his military success. He sent Major Coote in pursuit of the French almost as far as Benares. He despatched Colonel Forde to Vizagapatam and the northern districts of Madras, where that officer gained the battle of Condore, pronounced by Broome "one of the most brilliant actions on military record". He came into direct contact, for the first time, with the Great Mogul himself, an event which resulted in the most important consequences during the third period of his career. Shah Alam, when shakzada, or heir-apparent, quarrelled with his father Alam Gir II, the emperor, and united with the viceroys of Oudh and Allahabad for the conquest of Bengal. He advanced as far as Patna, which he besieged with 40,000 men. Jafar Ali, in terror, sent his son to its relief, and implored the aid of Clive. Major Caillaud defeated the prince's army and dispersed it. Finally, at this period, Clive repelled the aggression of the Dutch, and avenged the massacre of Amboyna, on that occasion when he wrote his famous letter, "Dear Forde, fight them immediately; I will send you the order of council to-morrow."
Meanwhile Clive never ceased to improve the organization and drill of the sepoy army, after a European model, and enlisted into it many Mahommedans of fine physique from upper India. He re-fortified Calcutta. In 1760, after four years of labour so incessant and results so glorious, his health gave way and he returned to England. "It appeared," wrote a contemporary on the spot, "as if the soul was departing from the government of Bengal". He had been formally made governor of Bengal by the court of directors at a time when his nominal superiors in Madras sought to recall him to their help there. But he had discerned the importance of the province even during his first visit to its rich delta, mighty rivers and teeming population. It should be noticed, also, that he had the kingly gift of selecting the ablest subordinates, for even thus early he had discovered the ability of young Warren Hastings, destined to be his great successor, and, a year after Plassey, made him resident at the nawab's court.
In 1760, at thirty-five years of age, Clive returned to England with a fortune of at least £300,000 and the quit-rent of £27,000 a year, after caring for the comfort of his parents and sisters, and giving Major Lawrence, his old commanding officer, who had early encouraged his military genius, £500 a year. The money had been honourably and publicly acquired, with the approval of the Company. The amount might have been four times what it was had Clive been either greedy after wealth or ungenerous to the colleagues and the troops whom he led to victory. In the five years of his conquests and administration in Bengal, the young man had crowded together a succession of exploits which led Lord Macaulay, in what that historian termed his "flashy" essay on the subject, to compare him to Napoleon Bonaparte. But there was this difference in Clive's favour, due not more to the circumstances of the time than to the object of his policy ? he gave peace, security, prosperity and such liberty as the case allowed of to millions of Indians, who had for centuries been the prey of oppression, while Napoleon's career of conquest was inspired only by personal ambition, and the absolutism he established vanished with his fall. During the three years that Clive remained in England he sought a political position, chiefly that he might influence the course of events in India, which he had left full of promise. He had been well received at court, had been made Baron Clive of Plassey, in the peerage of Ireland, had bought estates, and had got not only himself, but his friends returned to the House of Commons after the fashion of the time.
Then it was that Clive set himself to reform the home system of the East India Company, and began a bitter warfare with Mr Sulivan, chairman of the court of directors, whom in the end he defeated. In this he was aided by the news of reverses in Bengal. Vansittart, his successor, having no great influence over Jafar Ali Khan, had put Kasim Ali Khan, the son-in-law, in his place in consideration of certain payments to the English officials. After a brief tenure Kasim Ali had fled, had ordered Walter Reinhardt (known to the Mahommedans as Sumru), a Swiss mercenary of his, to butcher the garrison of 150 English at Patna, and had disappeared under the protection of his brother viceroy of Oudh. The whole Company's service, civil and military, had become demoralized by gifts, and by the monopoly of the inland as well as export trade, to such an extent that the natives were pauperised, and the Company was plundered of the revenues which Clive had acquired for them. The court of proprietors, accordingly, who elected the directors, forced them, in spite of Sulivan, to hurry out Lord Clive to Bengal with the double powers of governor and commander-in-chief.
What he had done for Madras, what he had accomplished for Bengal proper, and what he had effected in reforming the Company itself, he was now to complete in less than two years, in this the third period of his career, by putting his country politically in the place of the emperor of Delhi, and preventing for ever the possibility of the corruption to which the British in India had been driven by an evil system. On 3 May 1765 he landed at Calcutta to learn that Jafar Ali Khan had died, leaving him personally £70,000, and had been succeeded by his son, though not before the government had been further demoralized by taking £100,000 as a gift from the new nawab; while Kasim Ali had induced not only the viceroy of Oudh, but the emperor of Delhi himself, to invade Behar. After the first mutiny in the Bengal army, which was suppressed by blowing the sepoy ringleader from a gun, Major Munro, "the Napier of those times", scattered the united armies on the hard-fought field of Buxar. The emperor, Shah Alam, detached himself from the league, while the Oudh viceroy threw himself on the mercy of the British.
Clive had now an opportunity of repeating in Hindustan, or Upper India, what he had accomplished for the good of Bengal. He might have secured what are now called the United Provinces, and have rendered unnecessary the campaigns of Wellesley and Lake. But he had other work in the consolidation of rich Bengal itself, making it a base from which the mighty fabric of British India could afterwards steadily and proportionally grow. Hence he returned to the Oudh viceroy all his territory save the provinces of Allahabad and Kora, which he made over to the weak emperor.
But from that emperor he secured the most important document in the whole of British history in India up to that time, which appears in the records as "firmaund from the King Shah Aalum, granting the dewany of Bengal, Behar and Orissa to the Company 1765." The date was 12 August 1765, the place Benares, the throne an English dining-table covered with embroidered cloth and surmounted by a chair in Clive's tent. It is all pictured by a Mahommedan contemporary, who indignantly exclaims that so great a "transaction was done and finished in less time than would have been taken up in the sale of a jackass". By this deed the Company became the real sovereign rulers of thirty millions of people, yielding a revenue of four millions sterling.
All this had been accomplished by Clive in the few brief years since he had avenged the "Black Hole" of Calcutta. This would be a small matter, or might even be a cause of reproach, were it not that the Company's undisputed sovereignty proved, after a sore period of transition, the salvation of these millions. The lieutenant-governorship of Bengal after Clive's time grew so large and prosperous that in 1905 it was found advisable to divide it into two separate provinces. But Clive, though thus moderate and even generous to an extent which called forth the astonishment of the natives, had all a statesman's foresight. On the same date he obtained not only an imperial charter for the Company's possession in the Carnatic also, thus completing the work he began at Arcot, but a third firman for the highest of all the lieutenancies of the empire, that of the Deccan itself. This fact is mentioned in a letter from the secret committee of the court of directors to the Madras government, dated 27 April 1768. Still so disproportionate did the British force seem, not only to the number and strength of the princes and people of India, but to the claims and ambition of French, Dutch and Danish rivals, that Clive's last advice to the directors, as he finally left India in 1767, was this:
Having thus founded the empire of British India, Clive's painful duty was to create a pure and strong administration, such as alone would justify its possession by foreigners. The civil service was de-orientalised by raising the miserable salaries which had tempted its members to be corrupt, by forbidding the acceptance of gifts from natives, and by exacting covenants under which participation in the inland trade was stopped. Not less important were his military reforms. With his usual tact and nerve he put down a mutiny of the English officers, who chose to resent the veto against receiving presents and the reduction of batta at a time when two Mahratta armies were marching on Bengal. His reorganization of the army, on the lines of that which he had begun after Plassey, and which was neglected during his second visit to England, subsequently attracted the admiration of the ablest Indian officers. He divided the whole into three brigades, so as to make each a complete force, in itself equal to any single native army that could be brought against it. He had not enough British artillerymen, however, and would not make the mistake of his successors, who trained natives to work the guns, which were turned against the British.
Clive left India in February 1767. From 1772 he had to defend his actions against critics in Britain. Despite his vindication in Parliament he committed suicide at his Berkeley Square home in London on 22 November 1774.