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Battle of Plassey

Battle of Plassey

The Battle of Plassey (পলাশীর যুদ্ধ, Pôlashir Juddho) was a decisive British East India Company victory over the Nawab of Bengal and his French allies, establishing Company rule in India and British rule over much of South Asia for the next 190 years. The battle took place on 23 June 1757 at Palashi, West Bengal, on the riverbanks of the Bhagirathi River, about 150 km north of Calcutta, near Murshidabad, then the capital of the Nawab of Bengal. The opponents were Siraj Ud Daulah, the last independent Nawab of Bengal, and the British East India Company. The battle was waged during the Seven Years' War (17561763) and in a mirror of their European rivalry the French East India Company sent a small contingent to fight against the British East India Company. Siraj-ud-Daulah had a numerically superior force, and made its stand at Plassey. The British, worried about being outnumbered and not above some bribery, reached out to Siraj-ud-Daulah's deposed army chief - Mir Jafar, along with others such as Yar Latif and Rai Durlabh. Mir Jafar thus assembled his troops near the battlefield, but made no move to actually join the battle, causing Siraj-ud-Daulah's army to be defeated. Siraj-ud-Daulah fled, eventually to be captured and executed. As a result, the entire province of Bengal fell to the Company, with Mir Jafar appointed as their puppet Nawab.

Today, Plassey is judged to be one of the pivotal battles leading to the eventual formation of the British Empire in today's South Asia. The enormous wealth gained from the Bengal treasury, and access to a massive source of foodgrains and taxes allowed the Company to significantly strengthen its military might, and opened the way for eventual British colonial rule, mass economic exploitation, and cultural domination in all of all of South Asia. The subsequent battles that followed, strengthened the British foothold in South Asia and paved way for British colonial rule.

Pôlash (পলাশ), an extravagant red flowering tree (Flame of the forest), gives its name to a small village near the battlefield. A phonetically accurate romanization of the Bengali name would be Battle of Palashi, but the anglicised spelling "Plassey" is now conventional in English.

Background

The ostensible reason for the Battle of Plassey was Siraj-ud-Daulah's capture of Fort William, Calcutta (which he renamed Alinagar) during June, 1756, but the battle is today seen as part of the geopolitical ambition of the East India Company and the larger dynamics of colonial conquest.

This conflict was precipitated by a number of disputes :

  • The illegal use of Mughal Imperial export trade permits (dastaks) granted to the British in 1717 for engaging in internal trade within India. The British cited this permit as their excuse for not paying taxes to the Bengal Nawab.
  • British interference in the Nawab's court, and particularly their support for one of his aunts, Ghaseti Begum. The son of Ghaseti's treasurer had sought refuge in Fort William, and Siraj demanded his return.
  • Additional fortifications with mounted guns had been placed on Fort William without the consent of the Nawab; and
  • The British East India Company's policy of favouring Hindu Marwari merchants such as the Jagat Seth.

During this capture of Fort William, in June 1756, an event occurred that came to be known as the Black Hole of Calcutta. A narrative by one John Zephaniah Holwell, plus the testimony of another survivor, Cooke, to a select committee of the House of Commons, coupled with subsequent verification by Robert Orme, placed 146 British prisoners into a room measuring 18 by 15 feet, and only 23 survived the night. The story was amplified in colonial literature, but the facts are widely disputed. In any event, the Black Hole incident, which is often cited as a reason for the Battle at Plassey, was not widely known until James Mill's History of India (1817), after which it became the grist of schoolboy texts on India.

As the forces for the battle were building up, the British settlement at Fort William sought assistance from Presidency of Fort St. George at Madras, which sent Colonel Robert Clive and Admiral Charles Watson. They re-captured Calcutta on 2 January 1757, but the Nawab marched again on Calcutta on 5 February 1757, and was surprised by a dawn attack by the British . This resulted in the Treaty of Alinagar on 7 February 1757 .

Growing French influence

At the connivance of the enterprising French Governor-General Joseph François Dupleix, French influence at the court of the Nawab was growing. French trade in Bengal was also increasing in volume. The French also lent the Nawab some soldiers to operate heavy artillery pieces.

Ahmad Shah Abdali

Siraj-Ud-Daulah faced conflicts on two fronts simultaneously. In addition to the threat posed by the British East India Company, he was confronted on his western border by the advancing army of the Afghan, Ahmad Shah Abdali, who had captured and looted Delhi in 1756. So, Siraj sent the majority of his troops west to fight under the command of his close friend and ally, the Diwan of Patna, Ram Narain.

Court intrigue

In the midst of all of this, intrigues were occurring at Siraj Ud Daulah's court at Murshidabad. Siraj was not a particularly well-loved ruler. Young (he succeeded his grandfather in April, 1756 at the age of 23) and impetuous, he was prone to make enemies quickly. The most dangerous of these was his wealthy and influential aunt, Ghaseti Begum (Meherun-Nisa) who had wanted another nephew to succeed to the throne, Shaw (who had suffered as a result of the siege of Calcutta) and Mir Jafar (who was deposed as army chief and eventually brought into the British fold).

Company policy

The Company had long since decided that a change of regime would be conducive to its interests in Bengal. In 1752 Robert Orme, in a letter to Clive, noted that the company would have to remove Siraj's grandfather, Alivardi Khan, in order to prosper .

After the premature death of Alivardi Khan in April 1756, his nominated successor was Siraj-ud-Daulah, a grandson whom Alivardi had adopted. The circumstances of this transition gave rise to considerable controversy, and the British began supporting the intrigues of Alivardi's eldest daughter, Ghaseti Begum, against that of his grandson, Siraj.

Instructions dated 13 October 1756 from Fort St. George instructed Robert Clive, "to effect a junction with any powers in the province of Bengal that might be dissatisfied with the violence of the Nawab's government or that might have pretensions to the Nawabship". Accordingly, Clive deputised William Watts, chief of the Kasimbazar factory of the Company, who was proficient in Bengali and Persian, to negotiate with two potential contenders, one of Siraj's generals, Yar Latif Khan, and Siraj's grand-uncle and deposed army chief, Mir Jafar Ali Khan.

On 23 April 1757 the Select Committee of the Board of Directors of the British East India Company approved Coup d'état as its policy in Bengal.

Mir Jafar, negotiating through an Armenian merchant, Khojah Petrus Nicholas, was the Company's final choice. Finally, on 5 June 1757 a written agreement was signed between the Company, represented by Clive, and Mir Jafar. It ensured that Mir Jafar would be appointed Nawab of Bengal once Siraj Ud Daulah was deposed.

Troops

The Honourable East India Company's army led by Robert Clive was vastly outnumbered, consisting of 300 Europeans and no native Indian sepoys and a small number of guns. The Nawab had an army of about 50,000 with some heavy artillery operated by about 40 French soldiers sent by the French East India Company. Out of the initial 50,000 army, however, the 16,000 under the control of Mir Jafar, along with the troops commanded by yar Latif and Rai Durlabh did not take part in the battle under the secret pact with the British. Finally only 5,000 troops actually engaged in battle, which was still a significant superiority in numbers to the estimated 2,500 British soldiers facing them and there was a time when Clive thought that he was going to be forced to retreat. A cannonball strike that killed army chief Mir Madan and the ensuing confusion in the Nawab's ranks turned the course of the battle. The final casualty figures - with less than 20 deaths on the British side - point to a very unequal battle.Principal officers - British

Battle details

The battle opened on a very hot and humid morning at 7:00 a.m. on 23 June 1757 where the Nawab's army came out of its fortified camp and launched a massive cannonade against the British camp. The 18th Century historian Ghulam Husain Salim describes what followed:

Mīr Muhammad Jafar Khān, with his detachment, stood at a distance towards the left from the main army; and although Sirāju-d-daulah summoned him to his side, Mīr Jafar did not move from his position. In the thick of the fighting, and in the heat of the work of carnage, whilst victory and triumph were visible on the side of the army of Sirāju-d-daulah, all of a sudden Mīr Madan, commander of the Artillery, fell on being hit with a cannon-ball. At the sight of this, the aspect of Sirāju-d-daulah’s army changed, and the artillerymen with the corpse of Mīr Madan moved into tents. It was now midday, when the people of the tents fled. As yet Nawāb Sirāju-d-daulah was busy fighting and slaughtering, when the camp-followers decamping from Dāūdpūr went the other side, and gradually the soldiers also took to their heels. Two hours before sun-set, flight occurred in Sirāju-d-daulah’s army, and Sirāju-d-daulah also being unable to stand his ground any longer fled.

At around 11:00 a.m., Mir Madan, the chief of the army and one of the Nawab's most loyal officers, launched an attack against the fortified grove where the East Indian Company was located. However, he was mortally wounded by a British cannonball, and this caused confusion among his troops.

At noon, a heavy rainstorm fell on the battlefield. The British quickly covered their gunpowder, cannons and muskets for protection from the rain, but the untrained troops of the Nawab, in spite of French assistance, failed to do so. When the rains stopped, therefore, the British still had firepower while the Nawab's guns lay useless. As a result, the cannonade ceased by 2:00 p.m. and the battle resumed where Clive's chief officer, Kilpatrick, launched an attack against the water ponds in between the armies. With their cannons and muskets completely useless, and with Mir Jafar's cavalry who were closest to the English refusing to attack Clive's camp, the Nawab was forced to order a retreat. By 5:00 p.m., the Nawab's army was in full retreat and the British had command of the field.

The battle cost the British East India Company just 22 killed and 50 wounded (most of these were native sepoys), while the Nawab's army lost at least 500 men killed and wounded .

Aftermath

The Battle of Plassey is considered as a starting point to the events that established the era of British dominion and conquest in India.

Mir Jafar's fate

Mir Jafar, for his betrayal of the Nawab Siraj Ud Daulah and alliance with the British, was installed as the new Nawab, while Siraj Ud Daulah was captured on 2 July in Murshidabad as he attempted to escape further north. He was later executed on the order of Mir Jafar's son Miran. Ghaseti Begum and other powerful women were transferred to a prison in distant Dhaka, where they were eventually drowned in a boat accident, widely thought to have been ordered by Mir Jafar.

Mir Jafar as Nawab chafed under the British supervision, and so requested the Dutch East India Company to intervene. They sent seven ships and about 700 sailors up the Hoogley to their settlement, but the British led by Colonel Forde managed to defeat them at Chinsura on 25 November 1759. Thereafter Mir Jafar was deposed as Nawab (1760) and they appointed Mir Kasim Ali Khan, (Mir Jafar's son-in-law) as Nawab. Mir Kasim showed signs of independence and was defeated in the Battle of Buxar (1764), after which full political control shifted to the Company.

Mir Jafar was re-appointed and remained the titular Nawab until his death in 1765, while all actual power was exercised by the Company.

Rewards

As per their agreement, Clive collected £ 2.5 million for the company, and £ 234,000 for himself from the Nawab's treasury . In addition, Watts collected £ 114,000 for his efforts. The annual rent of £ 30,000 payable by the Company for use of the land around Fort William was also transferred to Clive for life. To put this wealth in context, an average British nobleman could live a life of luxury on an annual income of £ 800 .

Robert Clive was appointed Governor of Bengal in 1765 for his efforts. William Watts was appointed Governor of Fort William on 22 June 1758. But he later resigned in favour of Robert Clive, who was also later appointed Baron of Plassey in 1762. Clive later committed suicide in 1774, after being addicted to opium.

Diwani and Dual government In Bengal:Terms of Agreement

These were the terms agreed between the new Nawab and the Company:

  1. Confirmation of the mint, and all other grants and privileges in the Alinagar treaty with the late Nawab.
  2. An alliance, offensive and defensive, against all enemies whatever.
  3. The French factories and effects to be delivered up, and they never permitted to resettle in any of the three provinces.
  4. 100 lacs of rupees to be paid to the Company, in consideration of their losses at Calcutta and the expenses of the campaign.
  5. 50 lacs to be given to the British sufferers at the loss of Calcutta
  6. 20 lacs to Gentoos, Moors, & black sufferers at the loss of Calcutta.
  7. 7 lacs to the Armenian sufferers. These three last donations to be distributed at the pleasure of the Admiral and gentlemen of Council.
  8. The entire property of all lands within the Mahratta ditch, which runs round Calcutta, to be vested in the Company: also, six hundred yards, all round, without, the said ditch.
  9. The Company to have the zemindary of the country to the south of Calcutta, lying between the lake and river, and reaching as far as Culpee, they paying the customary rents paid by the former zemindars to the government.
  10. Whenever the assistance of the British troops shall be wanted, their extraordinary charges to be paid by the Nawab.
  11. No forts to be erected by the Nawab's government on the river side, from Hooghley downwards.

Contributing factor in Battle of Plasy and Buxar

  • One of members of Clive's entourage at Plassey was a young volunteer called Warren Hastings. He was appointed the British Resident at the Nawab's court in 1757. Warren later became the first Governor-General of India for the British East India Company from 1773 to 1786, he was impeached for corruption.
  • Clive was later awarded the title Baron of Plassey and bought lands in County Limerick and County Clare, Ireland naming part of his lands near Limerick City, Plassey. It retains this name to this day and is now the site of the University of Limerick.
  • The French guns captured at this battle can still be visited at the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta.
  • The infamous meeting between Mir Jafar and Watts took place at Jaffarganj, a village close to Murshidabad. Mir Jafar's palace now stands in ruins at the place, but close to it is a gate called Nemak Haramer Deori (literally traitor's gate) where Watts is supposed to have entered the palace disguised as a purdanasheen (Urdu for veiled) lady in a palanquin.
  • One of the unseen protagonists of the court drama was a wealthy Marwari trader who went by the family name Jagat Sheth (World Banker (actual name - Mahtab Chand)). He was a hereditary banker to the Mughal Emperor and the Nawab of Bengal and thus well conversant with court intrigues. He negotiated a 5% commission from Clive for his assistance with the court intrigue to defeat Siraj. However, when Clive refused to pay him after his success, he is supposed to have gone mad. The family (i.e. Jagat Sheths) remained bankers to the Company until the transfer of the British head quarters to Calcutta in 1773 .
  • The Indian rebellion of 1857 began almost exactly a century later during May, 1857
  • Plassey Day is still celebrated by 9(Plassey) Battery, Royal Artillery

Quotes

  • "A great prince was dependent on my pleasure, an opulent city lay at my mercy; its richest bankers bid against each other for my smiles; I walked through vaults which were thrown open to me alone, piled on either hand with gold and jewels! Mr. Chairman, at this moment I stand astonished at my own moderation" - Baron Robert Clive commenting on accusations of looting the Bengal treasury after Plassey, at his impeachment trial in 1773
  • "Heaven-born general" - British Prime Minister William Pitt 'The Elder', Earl of Chatham referring to Robert Clive
  • "It is possible to mention men who have owed great worldly prosperity to breaches of private faith; but we doubt whether it is possible to mention a state which has on the whole been a gainer by a breach of public faith." - Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay, later British Secretary at War, who condemned Clive's actions

References

Further reading

  • Chaudhury, S. The Prelude to Empire; Palashi Revolution of 1757,, New Delhi, 2000.
  • Datta, K.K. Siraj-ud-daulah,, Calcutta, 1971.
  • Gupta, B.K. Sirajuddaulah and the East India Company, 1756-1757, Leiden, 1962
  • Harrington, Peter. Plassey 1757, Clive of India's Finest Hour, Osprey Campaign Series #35, Osprey Publishing, 1994.
  • Hill, S.C. The Three Frenchmen in Bengal or The Commercial Ruin of the French Settlement in 1757, 1903
  • Landes, David S. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. New York: Norton and Company, 1999.
  • Marshall, P.J. Bengal - the British Bridgehead, Cambridge, 1987.
  • Raj, Rajat K. Palashir Sharajantra O Shekaler Samaj, Calcutta, 1994.
  • Sarkar, J.N. The History of Bengal, 2, Dhaka, 1968.
  • Spear, Percival Master of Bengal. Clive and His India London, 1975
  • Strang, Herbert. In Clive's Command, A Story of the Fight for India, 1904

External links

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