Forces Engaged: Honourable East India Company: 1,000 to 2,000 European and British troops, and 800 to 2,000 native soldiers (“sepoys”), including a single battery of artillery; roughly 3,000 in all, under LTC Robert Clive.
Before proceeding, we should discuss the curious organization the British brought with them to Plassey. First, it should be understood that the “British Government”, that is, the King and Parliament of England, were not officially invading or conquering the native governments of the Indian Subcontinent. This engagement, as was every engagement fought by British forces in India until 1858, was part of the commercial dealings of the Honourable East India Company, “HEIC” or “John Company”, the corporation of merchant-adventurers licensed to trade with the Indies.
The HEIC was also authorized to raise, equip, train and deploy organized units of formed troops. The rank-and-file of these units could be European in origin or raised from the natives of the territories in the Company’s purview. These “Company regiments” were officered by British professionals and the best were conceded to be on par with Royal (or “King’s/Queen’s regiments) troops.
Obviously, the notion that the HEIC was an independent contractor unaffiliated with the Crown was arrant nonsense, made even more apparent by the fact that the British government “loaned” King’s regiments to the HEIC. It was an incestuous relationship from the start.
LTC Clive had two regiments of Europeans – one Company regiment:
• The 1st Bombay European Fusiliers
And a single Queen’s regiment:
• The 39th (Dorsetshire) Regiment of Foot.
He also had three Company native infantry regiments, the
• 1st Bengal Native Infantry,
• The Royal Madras Fusiliers, and
• The Royal Bengal Fusiliers
The British Crown also provided:
• 9th Battery, 12th Regiment, Royal Artillery
• 50 naval ratings from HMS Tyger
Note 1 - On the order of battle: many accounts, including the Wiki entry for this battle, give the numbers of European and native troops as less than 1,000 British (or, really, Irish, since the “Bombay Europeans” were later merged to form the “Royal Dublin Fusiliers”, the Madras and Bengal Fusiliers were apparently originally Irish, leaving only the 39th of Foot to represent other parts of the British Isles) and 2,000 sepoys or more. Clive’s official report says that the army that marched from Chadernagore consisted of “…about one thousand Europeans, and two thousand sepoys, with eight pieces of cannon. “ However, of the units listed as present only the 1st BNI was unquestionably Bengali. The other units (save the 39th) were, at least originally, European and one (the 1st BEF) appears to have retained that character. So this leaves only three out of five infantry regiments as probably composed largely of Bengalis. I have not been able to locate an order of battle that gives the strengths of the regiments, but to reach Clive’s totals the Bombay and Madras Fusiliers and the 1st BNI would have had to have been fielding close to 700 troops each, an unusually large total for a 10-company British-style infantry unit, where company strengths were typically 30 to 50 rather than 70. So the numbers for the native troops seem high. But I will continue to check on this.
Note 2 - A “fusilier” was originally a soldier armed with a light musket – a “fusil” – originally tasked with escorting artillery but by the early 18th Century used simply an honorific title, like “Guards”.
Forces of the Nawab of Bengal: No accurate accounting of the feudal levies of the state of Bengal exists. Most accounts of the battle suggest that the forces present in or around Plassey that June day amounted to somewhere around 50,000.
However, as we will see, most of those were suborned by various traitors and did not fight. Clive, again in his 26 July report, says that the Nawab fielded “…about fifteen thousand horse, and thirty-five thousand foot, with upwards of forty pieces of cannon.” Officially under the command of the Nawab himself, Siraj-ud-daulah. In fact, the Bengali forces were no better than feudal fighting tails, sworn to their overlords, including Mir Jafar Ali Khan, Jagat Seth, and Rai Durlabh, all of whom were open enemies or restive subjects (at best) of the Nawab. All of the treacherous Bengali nobles held their retainers off of the fight at the mango grove on 23 June, leaving a badly demoralized force of about 5,000, including some 40 French “advisors” to face the British.
The Nawab’s troops were East Indian warriors, effectively unchanged since the invasion of the Mughals over a century before. Footmen armed with sword, shield and spear, cavalry with bow and lance. A handful of Western-trained gunners and infantrymen were attached to the Nawab’s person, but in the persons of the Bengali warriors of June, 1757 the 14th Century fought the 18th.The Campaign: The “Age of Exploration” that began in the 15th Century had, as we all probably learned in school at some point, left the globe spattered with European outposts and outright colonies by the 18th. This was certainly true for the Indian subcontinent. Fortunate to have been spared the arrival of the Spanish, in the 1750’s France, England, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Portugal held positions of one type or another all the way from Bombay on the west to Calcutta in the east, along the Arabian and Bengal Sea coasts as well as along the island of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).
The Portuguese had been the first to arrive but, not surprising in view of the size and military weakness of the peninsular nation, also the first to decline. Many of her trading factories and military outposts were seized by the Dutch in the mid 1600s. The remainders were predominantly still what they had been in 1507: small, precarious, almost temporary cantonments, typically manned by a handful of Europeans, in an at best neutral but often vaguely threatening Indian mainland.
The Dutch East India Company was, in keeping with the Netherlands’ commercial character, largely a truly commercial trading organization, and this, with the military incapacity of 18th Century Holland, resulted in a rather unaggressive colonial policy towards India. (Note that the Dutch were not saints; their colonial policies in the Sumatran and Javan archipelagos were fairly brutal. They simply found the Indian princes entirely too well armed and too intransigent for a certain ease of the undertaking).Denmark, as you can imagine, was a bit of a joke.
This left England and France. Both powerful maritime nations, both aggressive, both with imperial designs overseas, and both with a fairly poisonous dislike of one another stemming from the wars between them running back to Capetan and Plantagenet times. At the time of Plassey England and France were engaged in what has been called the “Second Hundred Years’ War” that had begun with the War of the Grand Alliance in 1688 and was to continue with relatively minor interruptions to the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. The single longest period of peace between them was the twenty-seven years between the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713 and the outbreak of the War of Austrian Succession in 1740. In 1757 the British and French Empires were again at war, this time the Seven Years’ War; the doors of the temple of Janus had been reopened the preceding year.
So the Plassey campaign, though the immediate aim was colonial and imperialist, was part of a global war between the rival empires for primacy both in Europe and across the world.
The immediate causus belli, however, was between the HEIC and the relatively young, recently enthroned Nawab of Bengal about the Nawab’s unconcealed dislike of John Company’s territorial and economic ambitions in the Bay of Bengal and India as a whole.Most sources cite John Company’s aggressive inroads into Bengal as the principal proximate causes of the campaign. These included the illegal use of Mughal Imperial export trade permits, not paying taxes to the Nawab, interference in the Nawab's court politics and internal business, and strengthening their factories and forts without the consent of the native crown. For the English, the bottom line was that the Nawab was unwilling to grant them the favors they wanted or open the Bengali economy to their profit. And……the Frogs were busy. How much British foreign policy has been formulated, not with any deep geopolitical ends in mind, but out of sheer bloody-mindedness and desire to keep the Frogs out? Certainly in this case the presence of the active and ingenuous Governor-General Dupleix made the British nervous. His attempts to ally the native rulers of India with the French East India Company were a major source of sleeplessness in Leadenhall Street. Possibly the act that prodded the British to move in Bengal was the provision of heavy artillery and the trainers to operate them to the Nawab by the French East India Company.
In any case, the Bengali alliance proved initially fruitful for France; in June of 1756 the Nawab’s troops captured Kasimbazar, Calcutta and the HEIC fortification Fort William located there. The Franco-Bengali offensive stalled there, however, and in January, 1757, John Company in the person of LTC Clive (having been dispatched from the HEIC’s Presidency of Madras in December) turned up to recapture Calcutta on the 2nd. Siraj-ud-daulah turned up on the 5th with an immense feudal army of between 60,000 and 100,000 horse, foot and artillery (although many sources believe the latter, the word of Clive’s deputy Sir Eyre Coote, to be a massive overestimate) which Clive’s little army of 2,000 proceeded to hand a fairly thorough beating.
Although the Nawab signed a treaty ceding everything John Company wanted, in effect sovereignty over their enclaves and immunity from the Nawab’s law and economic regulation, he continued to intrigue against the invaders. He was in a bad position. Not only did the British bulldog have its nose thrust painfully into his crotch, the Marathas were hammering on his arm from the southwest and the Afghan Durrani empire of Ahmad Shah Abdali was raining hitsies on the back of his skull from the northwest. The bulk, and presumably the best, of the Bengali troops had been sent to the west for the 1757 campaign season to deal with the threat of his fellow Indians, a threat that the Nawab probably considered more desperate and more dangerous.
Even his own palace was not safe. Clive and his political officers had worked hard to suborn the Nawab’s disloyal subjects and had succeeded brilliantly. As mentioned above, half a dozen of the Nawab’s principal subordinates, most crucially Mir Jafar, the former royal marshal. This beauty was promised viceroyalty of Bengal if he would betray his ruler, promptly accepted, and Clive then knew it was safe to march. In his own report, he says:
“About this time some of his principal officers made overtures to us for dethroning him. At the head of these was Meer Jaffier, then Bukhshee to the army, a man as generally esteemed as the other was detested. As we had reason to believe this disaffection pretty general, we soon entered into engagements with Meer Jaffier to put the crown on his head. All necessary preparations being completed with the utmost secrecy, the army, consisting of about one thousand Europeans, and two thousand sepoys, with eight pieces of cannon, marched from Chandernagore on the 13th, and arrived on the 18th at Cutwa Fort, which was taken without opposition. The 22nd, in the evening, we crossed the river, and landing on the island, marched straight for Plassey Grove, Where we arrived by one in the morning.”Clive continues: “At daybreak, we discovered the Nabob's army moving towards us, consisting, as we since found, of about fifteen thousand horse, and thirty-five thousand foot, with upwards of forty pieces of cannon. They approached apace, and by six began to attack…”
The Battle of Plassey had begun.
The Sources: Bengali records of the engagement are effectively nonexistent. Probably the only literate men present on the Bengali side were in the court, where history-writing was not an established science. We have no letters or diaries from the native side, and most of the accessible accounts are written by the French advisors, who were not in a particularly good position to dispassionately assess the British actions, and their view even of the Bengali side is extremely limited. Perhaps the only near-contemporary native source is Gulam Husayn’s “Riyāż al-salāṭīn”, Gardens of the Sultans, written in 1787.British original sources include Clive’s reports and dispatches now resident in the HEIC records at the British Library, as well additional letters and reports by subordinates such as Eyre Coote. Regimental returns, contemporary maps and the typical multifarious documentary evidence we associate with a modern industrial, literate, culture.
The obvious problem with this is that all we really have is the winner’s broadsheet. Until the mid-20th Century most of the historians writing about Plassey were working from the British sources and, not surprisingly, ended up with a mostly British point-of-view. Modern Indian historians are beginning to reverse this pattern – the most signal example is the revisionist brief on the so-called “Black Hole of Calcutta” atrocity and the Nawab’s responsibility or lack of same – but, as with all colonial military engagements, it’s worth remembering who wrote the history.
One of the more accessible modern histories of the battle is written by Peter Harrington included in the “Osprey Campaign Series” of illustrated paperback treatments of famous campaigns. It is clear, well-written and includes the usual excellent maps typical of this series.
The Engagement: The engagement fought around the little mango grove near Palashi is, in outline, about as simple as warfare gets. Trying to square the accounts, however, is a marvel of complexity and muddle. As far as I can tell the battle went something like this:
1. Both sides exchange artillery fire. Despite their heavier weight of metal, the Nawab’s artillery gets the worse of the exchange.2. Siraj-ud-daulah orders Mar Jafar to attack. Mir Jafar refuses. So does Rai Durlaub. The bulk of the Bengali forces sit out the battle.
3. The cannonade peters out after about three to four hours. That portion of the Bengal army that has been engaging the British retires to the Nawab’s camp, including returing their cannon to park. At some time immediately prior to this one Mir Madan, described by Gulam Husayn as the “Commander of the Artillery” is reported killed, pulped by a roundshot, and Husayn reports that “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.”
4. Several sources, including the Wiki entry for the battle, report that a monsoon downpour soaked both sides around noon with disastrous consequences for the Nawab’s troops, who supposedly didn’t cover their power stores and were thereby disarmed. I find no mention of this either in Clive’s report or Husayn’s history; indeed, Clive plainly states that of Bengali musketeers that “they kept a smart fire of musketry upon us. “ during the advance that afternoon. I suspect that this monsoon shower, if more than an anecdote, was not especially critical.
5. Someone – Clive says “we”, but at least one modern history (Harrington) insists that it was Clive’s brigade major, Kilpatrick – pushes at least one company of infantry [the grenadier company (or companies – later attacks by more than one are described by Harrington)] of the 39th Foot and two guns the distance from the mango grove to a pair of water “tanks” or reservoirs closer to the fortified camp held by the Nawab’s army.
6. This little force is so successful that more of Clive’s little army advances. Their fire volume and discipline is such that the Bengalis are unable to place their artillery back in battery. By 4 pm the British have stormed the breastworks protecting the Nawab’s camp and the Bengal army is in flight. Pursuit is insignificant but unnecessary – the Nawab’s power is broken.
Let Clive tell us the end of the tale himself:
“We immediately sent a detachment, accompanied with two field-pieces, to take possession of a tank with high banks, which was advanced about three hundred yards above our grove, and from whence the enemy had considerably annoyed us with some cannon managed by Frenchmen. This motion brought them out a second time; but on finding them make no great effort to dislodge us, we proceeded to take possession of one or two more eminences lying very near an angle of their camp, from whence, and (from) an adjacent eminence in their possession, they kept a smart fire of musketry upon us. They made several attempts to bring out their cannon, but our advanced field-pieces played so warmly and so well upon them, that they were always drove back. Their horse exposing themselves a good deal on this occasion, many of them were killed, and among the rest four or five officers of the first distinction, by which the whole army being visibly dispirited and thrown into some confusion, we were encouraged to storm both the eminence and the angle of their camp, which were carried at the same instant, with little or no loss; though the latter was defended (exclusive of blacks) by forty French and two pieces of cannon; and the former by a large body of blacks, both foot and horse. On this, a general rout ensued, and we pursued the enemy six miles, passing upwards of forty pieces of cannon they had abandoned, with an infinite number of hackeries, and carriages filled with baggage of all kinds. Suraj-u-Dowlah escaped on a camel, and reaching Moorshedabad early next morning, dispatched away what jewels and treasure he conveniently could, and he himself followed at midnight, with only two or three attendants."And that was that.
The Outcome: Decisive strategic British victory with geopolitical implications. Siraj-ud-daulah is eventually captured and murdered by Mir Jafar’s son, the duty of the new Nawab’s heir to secure his father’s throne. The HEIC takes effective possession of Bengal, securing a rich base of operations from which to subdue the rest of the subcontinent.What is worth noting is that the battle itself was a foregone conclusion. Sun Tzu says that the ultimate excellence in generalship is subduing your enemies without fighting. Clive ended up having to fight, but his cunning and the treacherous factionalism of the Nawab’s court ensured that he fought the smallest force possible, and that demoralized by the treachery they saw all around them. The British didn’t acquire their empire by nobility and fair play; cheap wickets where they could get ‘em and if the end meant some fairly filthy means, well, the victors write the histories, then, don’t they?
The British in India did this again and again – played off one ruler against another, one ethnic or religious group against another. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. At least in the medium term that mattered to John Company and, later, to the Crown.
The Effects: The immediate effect was to ensure British conquest of the Indian subcontinent. The victory at Plassey made Bengal a British colony for the next 200 years. It also enabled the HEIC to push towards central India, where seven years later the Battle of Buxar gutted the last of the Mughals, and opened the rest of the lands of what are today India and Pakistan to British rule. Final conquest of India took the next sixty years, but Plassey and Buxar ensured that the British would never be driven back into the sea.In the medium and global terms, possession of India meant that Great Britain went from being another one of the colonial powers of Europe to being the preeminent one, and, having the most to lose, the most aggressive. Many of Britain’s colonial wars and conquests over the next 150 years were begun, or accomplished, to serve some geopolitical purpose related to ruling India. Many of her African possessions were acquired to ensure passage from the home islands to India; Egypt and South Africa, certainly, and the expansion inwards towards central Africa began from there. Indian opium brought war with China, Indian commerce brought in colonies like Singapore, Oman and the Trucial States.
In the long term, and still affecting us today, the British left a legacy of envy, loathing, admiration, hatred and disruption to the places they conquered and ruled. If we’ve learned one thing from the Age of Colonialism, it should be that having your land taken from you and being ruled by a foreigner who has no interest in you or your land other than as something to transform into a tool for his hand is unlikely to result in unalloyed benefits for the conquered.Apologists for colonialism, people like Niall Ferguson, like to point at things like parliamentary democracy and market economics, freeways and flush toilets as the benefit of having a bunch of foreigners come from out of nowhere, knock you down, shove a tool in your hand and make you work for them while whoring out your daughters and drafting your sons for their soldiers. And to Niall, this may, indeed, be a fair trade for democracy, flush toilets and the rest. It is instructive to note, however, than whenever the people conquered by these helpful foreigners have had a chance, they have rebelled and killed as many of the foreigners, down to their women and babies, as possible.And after the land mine, semiautomatic rifle and the electronic media made colonialism passé; in the 20th Century, none of these peoples invited their benevolent overlords to stay on.
Strange, that. Hmmm.
Another artifact of battles like Plassey is the feelings of inferiority, resentment and anger resident in people all over the world at the Western technologies and training that enabled small bands of Europeans – Cortez in Mexico, Pizarro in Peru, Clive in India, Kitchener in the Sudan and Elgin in China – to defeat much larger armies of native peoples lacking the military organization and firearms capability of the Spanish, French and British. This sense of irritation at the know-it-all Westerners is one of the reasons they don’t seem to greet us with flowers and candy. Frankly, they’re tired of getting their ass run over every time some Western power gets a wild hair up its ass.
And I can’t say I altogether blame them.
Touchline Tattles: The paucity of unofficial sources makes it difficult to come up with an unusual or quirky little story about Plassey. Perhaps the best story to tell is the tale of Mir Jafar, the traitor whose eagerness to sell his ruler and his people in return for a throne is central to the story of Plassey.
True to their secret arrangement, the officials of the HEIC appointed Jafar the new Nawab, while in the process levying massive indemnities and demands on the principality of Bengal. In less than a year, Jafar was seeing that the British had made him a leader so he could lead his people into virtual slavery. He turned to the Dutch for help, only to find that the British had a way of besting other white people, too. They beat the Dutch and their Malay levies at a battle near Chinsurah in 1759. Piqued at their supposed-puppet John Company forced him to abdicate in favor of his son-in-law.
Who also rebelled against the British, in 1762.
So Mir Jafar returned, to spend the last three years of his life as Nawab.His legacy is as disparate as the legacy of British colonialism in Bengal.
One of his descendants was the first President of Pakistan.
And his name – “mirjafar” – means “traitor” in Bengali, much as “raguser” means “to welch” in French and “Quisling” means to betray and toady to an oppressive conqueror the world over.