The Beginning of the Raj: The Battle of Plassey (Part Two)

Read: The Beginning of the Raj: War over Calcutta (Part One)

Bengal in 1750s. This map is not accurate; it is only intended to give an estimation. Bengal borders are modern-day, not a reflection of Bengal in 1750s.

Bengal in 1750s. This map is not accurate; it is only intended to give an estimation. Bengal borders are modern-day, not a reflection of Bengal in 1750s.

Clive’s victory over Nawab’s forces in February 1757 had ensured that the British were back to the status they had been before Siraj-uddaula had taken the throne. But now he wanted to make sure that they retain their power for all time to come. He turned his attention to the French. The French and the British had lived in Bengal amicably for many decades. Even during the recent war between the Nawab and East India Company, the French had remained neutral. But Clive had spent his career in Madras, where Europeans regularly fought with each other. Looking from that prism, the French appeared as the greatest threat to the British. In reality, they were far from it. The French East India Company in Bengal was broke, drowned in debt from the local merchants. Its town Chandernagore had little fortifications or manpower. So when the British began making threatening moves, it sought the Nawab for help.

But the Nawab had bigger concerns. The Emperor in Delhi was once again threatening to march on Bengal. To pre-empt this attack, the Nawab wanted to move his forces up to Patna to defend Bengal. His army was severely demoralized after their defeat in Calcutta, so he sought help from the only logical ally he could think of – the British. He proposed to Clive to march with him to Patna in return of Rs. 1 lakh a month as retainer. Clive said he was happy to oblige but in return he wanted permission to attack the French town of Chandernagore. After much back and forth, the Nawab reluctantly gave his permission.

The attack was swift. Within days the French were driven out of Chandernagore. They sought refuge in Murshidabad. The attack was of immense importance, for it drove out the French from India forever. The day the news of attack reached London, the Company’s stock rose by 12% in one day. By this time the threat from Delhi had once again disappeared and Siraj-uddaula was now regretting having allowed Clive to attack the French. The British were now stronger than ever before and there was no one to check their power.

At this time another man entered the picture – Omichand. He was a rich Hindu at the Nawab’s court of unparalleled deviousness. He had already switched sides many times during the previous war between Siraj-uddaula and Clive – sometimes advising the Nawab and sometimes spying for the British. Now he set his eyes on even a bigger goal, playing the kingmaker. Siraj-uddaula, suspicious of him, had confiscated a lot of his property. Omichand decided that to get it back, he must remove the Nawab from power.

For this he approached the Seth family, one of the richest bankers in Bengal.  The Seths had their own grievances with the Nawab. Siraj-uddaula had always insulted them, having once slapped Jagat Seth in front of the entire court. The Nawab had also let Clive defeat the French despite strong lobbying from the Seths who were the biggest creditors of the French. Most importantly, the bankers were worried that with the British so strong, Siraj-uddaula will start extorting money from their families instead of the Europeans.

Omichand suggested putting a weak man on the throne, someone he could control. But the Seths insisted on strong leadership. So an approach was made to Mir Jafar, the Nawab’s well-respected general, who had once sworn his loyalty to Siraj-uddaula on the Koran. After some persuasion, Jafar agreed to be the point man of the conspiracy.

To complete the plot, Omichand now opened a line between Clive and Mir Jafar. Seths will bankroll the enterprise, Jafar will be the political face and the British will provide the provocation. For putting the whole thing together, Omichand wanted 5% of all the money in the state treasury. Outdoing him in his own game, Clive drew up two versions of the secret treaty; one of them falsely promised Omichand the five percent that Clive had no intention of paying him.

While the plot was developing, the Nawab, who was currently stationed in Plassey with his army, got a wind of it. Most likely, it was Omichand who informed Siraj-uddaula about it, expecting to get reward from the Nawab instead of betting on a far-fetched scheme. The Nawab quickly ordered Mir Jafar to be arrested, but the men he sent to arrest the general were beaten back by Jafar’s men.

Robert Clive with Mir Jafar

Robert Clive with Mir Jafar

The Nawab was desolate. While the British threat was growing everyday, he did not know whom he could trust in his own court. His army seemed to breaking up in front of his eyes. He needed to resolve the issue now, before his soldiers begun deserting him. In desperation, he employed a trick his grandfather had once used successfully – he went to see Jafar and begged him to stay loyal. The general gave him assurances and acted like the plea had changed his mind.

The Nawab could not be sure of his general’s loyalty, but either way he needed to end the British menace now before Clive could spread the conspiracy further. As part of the scheme, Clive had been moving his forces up to Plassey in a showdown. On 23 June 1757, with no other option in sight, Siraj-uddaula attacked British forces in the war known as Battle of Plassey. 3,000 British troops met 62,000 of Nawab’s army.

It was only after the battle began, that the Nawab realized that of his 62,000 troops, 50,000 under the command of Mir Jafar were not fighting. They did not desert or defect to the British side, just stood and watched the entire battle without firing a shot. Most likely, it was because even now Jafar could not make up his mind. Anyways, for the Nawab, the battle was lost. He escaped on a camel leaving his soldiers demoralized.

In a strange irony of fate, when Siraj-uddaula tried to hide himself from his enemies, he came across a beggar. The beggar had once been an influential man, but on some offence the Nawab had his nose and ears cut and mutilated, he now lived on the streets as a fakir. The beggar recognized Siraj-uddaula and informed his enemies. The Nawab was quickly captured and put to death.

Mir Jafar now entered Murshidabad as the new Nawab. It must be recognized that at this point the British were neither in control of Bengal, nor did they have desire to do so. All they wanted were more trading rights. While British had played an important role, it was a coup in which Mir Jafar had taken power from Siraj-uddaula. Jafar still remained the man with the largest army in Bengal. Moreover, Clive had no intention of ruling Bengal, which made no sense for a company to do. “So large a sovereignty may possibly be an object too extensive for a mercantile company,” he wrote to his father.

Nevertheless, Bengal’s political stability had been irrevocably damaged. Ironically, it was the conspiracy which sow the seeds of Jafar’s destruction. After the battle, the conspirators like the Seths and Clive clamoured to get their rewards from Murshidabad and ended up emptying the treasury. Facing overbearing costs of running Bengal, Jafar was forced to increase taxes on the traders which put him on a collision course with the British once again. In 1760, the Company and Seths conspired to overthrow Jafar and replace him with his son-in-law Mir Qasim. Then the pattern repeated once again. By 1764, East India Company was once again at war with the Murshidabad. The ensuing Battle of Buxar and the defeat of Mir Qasim finally sealed Bengal’s fate. This time, the British decided to make sure that the next Nawab would be nothing but a puppet by keeping the power of taxation – diwani – in their own hands. Bengal continued to have Nawabs, but none of them were powerful enough to challenge the Company.

Bengal was now in British control. The Raj had begun.

Sources: Darwin, John, After Tamerlane: The Rise & Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000(London: Penguin, 2009); Hill, SC (ed.), India Records Series: Bengal in 1756-1757(London: Government of India, 1905) vols 1-3; Malleson, GB, The Decisive Battles of India, (London: WH Allen, 1885); Prakash, Om, European Commercial Enterprise in Pre-colonial India(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Robins, Nick, The Corporation that Changed the World: How the East India Company Shaped the Modern Multinational (London: Pluto Press, 2006)


One thought on “The Beginning of the Raj: The Battle of Plassey (Part Two)

  1. Pingback: The Beginning of the Raj: War over Calcutta (Part One) | Revisiting India

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