The Battle of Plassey, fought on June 23rd 1757, decided the fate of Bengal as part of the British Empire. From this point on there was little doubt that Great Britain would be the dominant colonial power in the region, nor that large tracts of the Indian sub-continent would fall into British hands and become the jewel in the crown of the British Empire for the next 200 years.
During the early 1750s there had been four European powers with an interest in exploiting the resources of India for their own benefit, namely Great Britain, France, the Netherlands and Portugal, although by the end of the decade only the first two could be considered serious players.
France and Britain both allowed commercial companies to be their agents in the region. In the case of France this was the “Compagnie des Indes”, while for Britain the “British East India Company” ruled the roost. This latter was a remarkable institution in that it was allowed to command its own army and to declare war and peace as though it were a sovereign state.
The East India Company established its main base at Calcutta (modern day Kolkata) in West Bengal, and this city was to become the capital of British India. It was the capture and relief of Calcutta that led to the Battle of Plassey.
On June 20th 1756 Suraja Dowla, the Nawab of Bengal, captured Calcutta after a four-day siege. When the city fell, a number of British citizens were imprisoned in a small cell and, due to overcrowding, more than 120 of them died in a single night. At least, that was the account given by one of the survivors. The incident has gone down in history as the “Black Hole of Calcutta”, and it did much to strengthen British resolve to punish the perpetrators. The exact circumstances are, however, still shrouded in mystery. It is quite likely that the horror of the incident was exaggerated, and whether it even happened at all is open to argument.
When Calcutta was recaptured by troops sent from Madras, on January 2nd 1757, it was decided that a British force, led by Robert Clive, should pursue Suraja, who was being aided by the French. This meant proceeding inland up the Hooghly river, which flows past Calcutta.
On 23rd March Clive captured a French fort at Chandernagore. This was an important step because it meant that the British supply lines to Calcutta could not be interrupted by the French.
Clive caught up with Suraja further up the Hooghly river, beyond the point where its name changes to the Bhagirathi. The Indian troops, together with some French artillery, were camped on the far side of the river from Clive’s direction of approach, near the village of Plassey (modern day Palashi).
Suraja’s force was considerably larger than Clive’s. Suraja commanded 50,000 men and he also had 53 guns available to him, under French control. Clive could only muster just over 3,000 troops and had ten guns. However, that did not dissuade him from crossing the river and massing his forces in a mango grove.
Suraja surrounded the British army in a semicircle and began firing on them. However, a sudden rainstorm had the effect of making the Indian gunpowder useless and the firing was brought to a halt. Instead, the Indians mounted a cavalry charge which was repulsed by the British, who had literally “kept their powder dry”, to the surprise of the Indians.
Clive had something of a “fifth column” in Suraja’s army, in that it contained supporters of a rival Nawab, Mir Jafar. Clive gambled on the probability that, if the tide turned in favour of the British, these supporters would change their allegiance, and the gamble paid off.
Clive was thus able to advance on Suraja’s entrenchments and fire on them at close range. Only the French guns fought to the last as Suraja’s men fled in disarray.
Suraja Dowla did not survive much longer, being assassinated a few days later. Clive established his son-in-law, Mir Kasim, as the new Nawab, but, when Kasim proved to be too independent for Clive’s liking, he was deposed and Mir Jafar took his place.
An important aspect of events surrounding the Battle of Plassey was that the British exploited divisions among the Indians in order to get a firm foothold on India. The British adopted the tactic of supporting one Indian faction against another and then demanding their reward when their side won. Two-thirds of Clive’s army at Plassey were Indians, and his campaign was funded by a powerful banking family who were rivals of Suraja Dowla. By making Mir Jafar the new Nawab, Clive was ensuring that his man was in the seat of power, but only as a puppet with the British pulling the strings.
The Battle of Plassey was not the final action that the British would fight, either against Indian natives or French colonialists, but it set the scene for what was to follow. Eventually the French would give up their claims and local uprisings would be put down with relative ease, as would mutinies of Indian troops within the British army. By the end of the century the dominant position of Great Britain as the overlord of much of India was firmly established, and would be further consolidated in the century that followed. The Battle of Plassey therefore marked a turning point in that British expansion in India was no longer under serious threat.
© John Welford