Robert Clive

The English soldier and statesman Robert Clive, Baron Clive of Plassey (1725-1774), extended British power in India. He checked French aspirations in that area and made possible 200 years of British rule in the Indian subcontinent.

Robert Clive was born of an old and prominent family on Sept. 29, 1725, at Styche in Moreton Say, Shrop-shire. An unruly youngster, he attended several schools and at 18 was sent to Madras as a clerk and bookkeeper in the East India Company. A moody young man, he once fought a duel and twice attempted suicide.

The rivalry between French and British interests in southern India gave Clive his opportunity for fame and fortune. He volunteered for military service, received an ensign's commission, and participated in several battles against the French; he distinguished himself at Pondicherry in 1748, before the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle temporarily ended hostilities. In 1749 he was appointed captain of commissary to supply provisions to the troops, and he began to amass a fortune. But recurring clashes between the French and English East India companies brought him back to active military service.

In 1751 Clive offered to lead an expedition to relieve Trichinopoly (Tiruchirappalli), where Mohammed Ali, the British candidate for nawab, or ruler, was besieged by Chanda Sahib, the French candidate. With only 200 European and 300 Indian troops, plus three fieldpieces, Clive seized Arcot, Chanda Sahib's capital, thereby diverting 10,000 of Chanda Sahib's men from Trichinopoly.

Clive withstood a 50-day siege and, when he received reinforcements, began guerrilla warfare against the French and French-supported troops. The siege of Trichinopoly was finally lifted, and a truce in 1754 recognized Mohammed Ali as nawab. The Treaty of Paris in 1763 confirmed this, and in 1765 the emperor at Delhi admitted British hegemony in southern India.

Clive's brilliant leadership at Arcot gave him an immense reputation in Europe. When he went home in 1753, William Pitt the Elder called him a "heaven-born general." After running unsuccessfully for Parliament, Clive returned to India in 1755 as governor of Fort St. David and as lieutenant colonel in the royal army.

In 1756 Suraja Dowla (Siraj-ud-Daula), the new nawab, seized and plundered Calcutta, the principal city of Bengal and the most valuable trading center in India. Many English fled to ships and escaped, but 146 were imprisoned in a small underground dungeon called the Black Hole. Only 23 would emerge alive. Clive led a relief expedition from Madras in October; he rescued the English prisoners in December, took Calcutta in January, and defeated the nawab's army in February. Peace was made, and the East India Company's privileges were restored.

Displeased with the nawab's friendly attitude toward the French, Clive decided to replace him. In June 1758, at the Battle of Plassey, he defeated Suraja and became company governor and virtual master of Bengal. His position now enabled him to buttress the authority of the new nawab, Mir Jafar, to launch successful military expeditions against the French and to thwart Dutch expansion.

In declining health Clive went to England in 1760. He was given an Irish peerage, knighted, and made a member of Parliament. In 1765, when administrative chaos and fiscal disorder brought the company near disaster in Bengal, he returned to Calcutta as governor and commander in chief.

Clive limited the company to Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa, bringing these states under direct company control. He reformed the company's administrative practices, restored financial discipline while abolishing abuses, and reorganized the army. His efforts made the company sovereign ruler of 30 million people who produced an annual revenue of £4 million sterling.

Clive left India in February 1767. Five years later, in the absence of his strong hand in Bengal, the company appealed to the British government to save it from bankruptcy caused by widespread corruption. Clive's enemies in Parliament claimed that he was responsible for the situation. After a long trial he was exonerated; but continuing attacks on his integrity, together with illness and physical exhaustion, led him to commit suicide in London on Nov. 22, 1774. Somewhat above average height, with a commanding presence though melancholic mien, Clive brought a measure of peace, security, prosperity, and liberty to Indian natives who had been oppressed for many years.


Further Reading on Robert Clive

There are three standard biographies of Clive: Sir George Forest, The Life of Lord Clive (2 vols., 1918); R. J. Minney, Clive of India (1931; rev. ed. 1957); and A. Mervyn Davies, Clive of Plassey (1939). H. H. Dodwell, Dupleix and Clive: The Beginning of Empire (1920), is a classic account of French-British rivalry in India. Lucy Sutherland, The East India Company in Eighteenth-Century Politics (1952), clarifies the relationship of government and business.

Additional Biography Sources

Bence-Jones, Mark, Clive of India, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1975, 1974.

Chaudhuri, Nirad C., Clive of India: a political and psychological essay, London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1975.

Edwardes, Michael, Clive: the heaven-born general Michael Edwarde, London: Hart-Davis, MacGibbon, 1977.

Garrett, Richard, Robert Clive, London: A. Barker, 1976.

Lawford, James Philip, Clive, Proconsul of India: a biography, London: Allen & Unwin, 1976.

Malleson, G. B. (George Bruce), The founders of the Indian empire, Delhi: Mayur Publications; New Delhi: Distributed by D.K. Publishers Distributors, 1985.

Spear, Thomas George Percival, Master of Bengal: Clive and his India, London: Thames and Hudson, 1975.

Turnbull, Patrick, Clive of India, Folkestone: Bailey and Swinfen, 1975.

Watney, John Basil, Clive of India, Farnborough, Hants.: Saxon House, 1974.