Who Became Known as Clive of India?
Robert Clive (1725-74) was the founder of Britain’s Indian Empire. Yet at school he was idle, unruly and turbulent and became the ringleader of a gang of youths who terrorized his native town of Market Drayton, Shropshire. Both Market Drayton and the Clive family must have been relieved when, at the age of 18, he left England to become a clerk with the British East India Company in Madras.
At first he was so depressed by his new environment that he twice tried to shoot himself, but his opportunity for greatness came with the outbreak of war between the French and the British for supremacy in India.
In 1751, when the tide was running against the British, Clive led a few hundred English and Indian troops to seize the great fort at Arcot the capital of one of France’s Indian allies. For 53 days his small force held the fort against repeated assaults until the besiegers were forced to retreat, leaving the district to the ruled by an Indian who favored the British. Clive followed up this success with further victories which led to a settlement in south India in Britain’s favor in 1752.
He returned to England in 1753 with a large fortune, but soon spent it and went back to India as Governor of Fort David. He was sent north to re-establish British power and defeated the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daula, at the great battle of Plassey in 1757, replacing him with Mir Jaffir, who was sympathetic to the British. Clive accepted a gift of £200,000 from the new ruler and when Mir Jaffir died, Clive was left lands with annual revenue of £30,000.
He sailed for England in 1760 but five years later returned as Governor of Bengal and tried to curb the corruption which was rife in India and to which he himself had contributed in earlier days. In 1767 he left India for the last time.
Major-General Robert Clive established the military and political supremacy of the East India Company in Bengal. He is credited with securing a large swath of South Asia (Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan) and the wealth that followed, for the British crown. Together with Warren Hastings he was one of the key early figures in the creation of British India, with all his attention focused on one prize, Bengal. He also sat as a Tory Member of Parliament in London.
Clive was one of the most controversial figures in all British military history. His achievements included establishing control over much of India, and laying the foundation of the entire British Raj. For that he was vilified by his contemporaries in England, and put on trial before Parliament.
At home he was cross-examined about his great wealth by a strongly critical parliamentary committee which found him guilty of fraud and greed. Because of his services, he was not prosecuted. Modern historians have criticized him for atrocities, for high taxes, and for the forced cultivation of crops which exacerbated famines. But the bitter attacks on him, together with the strain of his life in India, affected his mind and health so much that he committed suicide in 1774.