Seeing that it is the anniversary of the Battle Of Plassey,
Robert Clive was born in September 1725 at Styche Hall, near the village of Moreton Say near Market Drayton. His father, Richard, was a lawyer and a former MP, but his fortunes were declining fast. Styche Hall was falling down, and Robert was one of 13 children his father had to feed.
At the age of three Robert, the eldest son, was sent to live with childless relatives in Manchester. The young Clive was completely uncontrollable when he returned to live with his parents. His most shocking exploit was a protection racket he set up in the town. He and a gang of youths he led extorted money from Market Drayton’s shopkeepers. Good training for his time in the East India Company, one would say. Faced with the choice of paying up or receiving a visit from Clive and his boys, most merchants decided to pay. If his behaviour generally was bad, in school it was worse – he was expelled from three, including Market Drayton Grammar School.
Finally Clive’s long-suffering father could stand no more, and the young man was packed off to India aged 17 or 18, as a clerk in the East India Company in Madras. Although his salary was £5 per year and he got an allowance of £3 per year to pay for other necessities, he could earn additional performance related income bonus and his food and board were free. The real attraction in taking up a job with the East India Company was the potential to make huge sums of money while working in India.
In 1746, hostility between English and French empire builders boiled over. Madras was captured by the French, and Clive and several others escaped to Fort George 20 miles away, which remained in British hands. Clive quickly began to build a reputation for courage and skill in battle in the wars against the French and their Indian allies.
Soon his reputation reached England when he was given command of an expedition to seize Arcot, the capital of the Carnatic. With a force of just 200 Europeans and 300 native soldiers, backed up with a handful of guns, Clive took the central fort and proceeded to hold it against all the odds.
For 50 days the young captain inspired his men to hold the citadel, until a final, desperate assault spearheaded by elephants (wearing armour!) was driven off and the enemy withdrew. This exploit won him the name Sabut Jung, or ‘the daring in war’ in India, as well as an European reputation.
He returned home in 1753 a hero, marrying Margaret Maskeylne and living in a fine London house. Clive also began to make his mark in Shropshire, repaying his father’s debts and for the rebuilding of Styche Hall and buying the Walcot Estate at Lydbury North.
Having finished most of his funds in repayments and lavish showing off he went back to India three years later as a Lieutenant Colonel and Deputy Governor of Fort St David. He arrived in the middle of a crisis: Calcutta had been captured by the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud Daula, after the British refused to destroy their new fortification there. Clive quickly re-took the city and then inflicted a decisive defeat on Siraj ud Daula at the Battle of Plassey. Clive’s army of 3,000 men, with just 650 British, routed the Nawab’s 68,000-strong French-backed army.
The path was clear for Britain to extend its influence into Bengal under a new and grateful Nawab Mir Jaffar, who rewarded Clive very generously. Plassey also removed serious opposition to British rule in India. In 1760 Clive returned to England and was at 34 elected MP for Shrewsbury, later serving as Mayor. Two years later he was made Baron Clive of Plassey.
By this time his health was not good but in 1765 he was sent back to India to restore order. Perhaps it was this action that led to his enemies growing in numbers, and allegations of treachery and dishonesty were levelled at him. Equally likely was a certain amount of snobbery directed at him because he was not an aristocrat, but a self-made man.
Returning to Britain, Clive was taking ever-increasing quantities of opium to suppress his acute abdominal pains. Around this time he bought and made several changes to a country estate in Claremont, Surrey. The hatred people felt for him is clear in the following observation by Macaulay,
“The peasantry of Surrey looked with mysterious horror on the stately house which was rising at Claremont, and whispered that the great wicked Lord had ordered the walls to be made so thick in order to keep out the devil, who would one day carry him away bodily”.
There was a Parliamentary inquiry after which Clive was criticised for accepting huge payments, mainly from the Indian leaders he supported or helped into power, although it was acknowledged that he “did at the same time render great and meritorious services to his country”.
This criticism was probably more than a little unfair. He had accepted lavish gifts from grateful Indian leaders, but he turned down far more than he accepted. Many merchants of the time made a killing from the subcontinent without exposing themselves to a fraction of the risks that Clive faced.
Clive’s death remains something of a mystery, but it’s likely that the manic depression that stalked him all his life was at the heart of it. Although it was always denied by his family, it is likely that he killed himself at the age of 49 on 22 November, 1774. He may have shot himself, taken an overdose or slit his throat – accounts vary. The stigma of suicide was strong, but his past history, along with other indications, point to death by his own hand. As suicide was regarded as a sin, if this had been admitted he would not have been allowed a church burial. As it is, his grave was unmarked and remains so.
The first is a map of Palashi in 1757, in an engraving from the London Magazine, 1760
The second is an oil painting of Clive and Mir Jaffar’s meeting, by Francis Hayman around 1762