[ 23 June 1757 ]
On 23 June 1757, Colonel Robert Clive, commanding 3,000 troops of Britain’s East India Company, defeated Siraj-ud-Daula, the Nawab of Bengal, at the Battle of Plassey. The ‘glorious victory’ was achieved partly by persuading Mir Jafar, the Nawab’s senior military commander, to defect. Jafar was immediately installed as the new puppet Nawab of Bengal and promptly instructed to arrange ‘reparation for damage’ caused by Siraj-ud-Daula’s earlier attempt to drive the British out of India. The initial payment alone amounted to £1,238,575 for the company, including £177,000 for Clive, but by 1765 Clive himself estimated that Jafar had extracted from the population ‘political gifts’ to the Company and its employees totaling nearly three million sterling.1
The long term price of the ongoing payments was an economic downturn which had devastating consequences for local living standards and life expectancy. William Dalrymple in his book The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, notes that the battle ‘initiated a period of unbounded looting and asset-stripping by the Company which the British themselves described as “the shaking of the pagoda tree.”‘ He adds that ‘from this point, the nature of British trade changed: £6 million had been sent out in the first half of the century but very little silver bullion was sent out after 1757. Bengal, the sink into which foreign bullion disappeared before 1757, became, after Plassey, the treasure trove from which vast amounts of wealth were drained without any prospect of return.’2 By 1770 the cumulative impact of prolonged heavy taxation to pay off the Company combined with a devastating drought resulted in a famine, in which as many as 10 million people, about a third of Bengal’s population perished.3
But what meant misery and starvation for some, brought almost unimaginable wealth and privilege for others. When in 1760, Clive next returned to England, Edmund Burke commented in the Annual Register that ‘it is supposed that the General can realise £1,200,000 in cash, bills and jewels: that his lady has a casket of jewels which are estimated at least at £200,000. So that he may with propriety be said to be the richest subject in the three kingdoms.’4 For enriching the Company and expanding British hegemony over Bengal, the victor of Plassey was made Baron Clive of Plassey, appointed Knight of the Order of the Bath and given an honorary degree by Oxford University.
- William Dalrymple, The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Ccompany, Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2019. p. 134.
- Richard Gott, Britain’s Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt, Verso, London, 2011, p. 46.
- William Dalrymple, op. cit., p. 140.
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