Battle of Plassey is the beginning of the end. The end of Indian glory and the beginning of the dreadful British ‘Raj’. Popular narratives describe it as singular event which changed the course of India’s history. In the battle Robert Clive, the ambitious British lieutenant in the private army of East India Company defeated the young Nawab of Bengal Siraj-ud-daulah and acquired a much more friendly ruler in Bengal, Mir Jafar.
It can be argued from an academic perspective that the significance of Battle of Plassey in popular narratives is overstretched. After Plassey, it would take another fifty years and many more conflicts for East India Company to wholeheartedly desire dominating the entire Indian Sub-continent. Defeating the Mughals may have got them the Gangetic plains, but rest of the Indian dominion was created by occupying territories ruled by Hindu and Sikh Kings. The destruction of Maratha Power in Second Anglo-Maratha war laid the foundation of British Empire in Asia according to Richard Wellesley, the Governor General of East India Company from 1800-1811. And not until 1858, the British government would directly rule India after the failed rebellion of 1857 ended East India Company as an entity.
The conspiracy to remove Siraj-ud-daulah started in his own court. The British had absolutely nothing to do with it in the initial stages. Mir Jafar was the military face of the conspiracy, but the financiers, and the brains behind it all were the Jagat Seths and Omi Chand, the richest bankers of India at that time. The Powerful bankers and merchants were deeply offended by Nawab’s financial policy. Clive was invited by the conspirators to be a part in their plan. They were impressed by his military abilities in taking back Calcutta in a previous conflict with Nawab and seizing Chandernagar from the French.
The company leadership in London was adamant that Company should stick to peaceful trade and not interfere in local political disputes. Wars were expensive adventures with no guarantee of victory and profit. The unpredictable nature of violence was not to the taste of London merchant community which controlled East India Company. But communication was a complicated thing in 18thcentury. Correspondence took many months, sometimes over a year, to go back and forth from England to India. Company directors in London debated and argued over business policy, meanwhile, their men in India did what was in their own best interests.
Mir Jafar and the Jagat Seths offered Clive & Company Rs28 million, or £3 million sterling (around 300 million sterling in today’s value and the entire annual revenue of Bengal at that point of time) for their help overthrowing Siraj. A further amount of Rs 110,000 was also offered as a pay for Company troops. In addition, EIC was to get zamindari (landholding) rights near Calcutta, a mint in the town and confirmation of duty-free trade. On 13 June 1757, Clive began the historic march towards the village of Plassey with a small army of 800 Europeans, 2,200 south Indian sepoys and only eight cannons.
Communication between Clive and Mir Jafar before the battle was ambiguous making Clive have a crisis of confidence. Multiple times Clive thought of retreating. His army was small compared to Nawab’s and his plan entirely depended on Mir Jafar’s promised support. On 21stJune Clive summoned his officers to a council of war. The majority, including Clive, voted against proceeding further ahead. At that point, according to his friend Robert Orme, Clive retired into a grove of trees where he stayed for an hour in meditation. On his return he gave orders for the army to move on to Plassey.
The British arrived at the Village of Plassey (Palashi) 1 am in the night and took shelter in a mango orchard. The Nawab had already arrived at the place with an army of 35,000 infantry, 15,000 cavalry and fifty-three pieces of heavy artillery which was superintended by a team of French experts.
The fighting began 8 o’clock in the morning on 23 June 1757. Clive’s troops moved out from the cover of the orchard to form a line facing the approaching army. The nawab’s army stretched from the river on Clive’s left, along the face of the orchard, and curved around to Clive’s right flank. The artillery of both sides opened fire at each other. The Company’s light field guns lacked enough firepower to damage the Siraj-ud-doula’s heavy cannon. The British artillery was effective against the Bengali infantry, but so was Bengali artillery against British troops. Clive had much smaller force, he could not afford many losses. He withdrew his troops back into the orchard, settled behind the protective wall and continued firing at the approaching Bengali army.
At noon there was a tremendous thunderstorm. Ammunition of the nawab’s army was soaked and their artillery became ineffective. Thinking that Clive’s army was similarly affected, Siraj-ud-daula’s most loyal and able commander, Mir Madan, charged with his cavalry. But the British had protected their ammunition with tarpaulins. They were able to maintain their fire. The cavalry charge soon turned into a massacre of Nawab’s troops and Mir Madan was hit and fatally wounded. This turned out to be the most decisive factor in the battle. The nawab was deeply shocked by the loss of Mir Madan. He summoned Mir Jafar, threw his turban at his feet, and asked him for help. Mir Jafar, with deceit in his heart advised the nawab that it was too late to attack and suggested he recall his troops. Another conspirator gave the same advice.
As the nawab’s troops withdrew, a detachment of Clive’s troops moved forward, despite his orders to do nothing, and took control of a hill recently abandoned by Nawab’s artillery. Angrily, Clive rushed out and threatened to put his second-in-command under arrest. But he soon realized that it would be folly to give the impression of withdrawing. He called upon his reserves and then launched another attack.
Some of nawab’s brave troops counterattacked. But Clive’s cannons effectively fired upon them. British artillery was also able to cause havoc among the oxen and elephants that drew the nawab’s huge artillery platforms. Several of the nawab’s senior officers were killed. His troops began to lose confidence. The contingent of cavalry on the left of Nawab’s army began to move away down to the banks of the Hugli and left the fighting. This contingent was under the command of Mir Jafar, He withdrew from the battle just as he had promised. Until this point Clive, not having received any message from Mir Jafar, was unsure about the intentions of the nawab’s army deployed to his right.
The remainder of nawab’s army soon realized that they were losing the battle. They began to retreat which soon turned into a stampede. The Nawab himself had already fled on a camel back to his capital, Murshidabd. By 5 p.m., the battle of Plassey was over. He was soon caught and killed by Mir Maran, son of Mir Jafar. Three things tilted the odds in Clive’s favor: luck, unpredictable weather, and his soldier’s training in using tarpaulin.
For such a massive confrontation, there were very few casualties at the Battle of Plassey. The nawab lost about 500 men. The British losses were only four Europeans and sixteen sepoys. The treachery of Mir Jafar had won the day. But it wasn’t the single factor responsible for Siraj-ud-daula’s defeat. It’s difficult to assess whether the Battle was won before it was fought or on the field. The entire intrigue had all the aspects of a coup, but the decisive moment of course came on the battlefield. The odds were not at all in favor of the conspirators. Conventionally they were not supposed to win. Even without Mir Jafar’s help Siraj-ud-doula could have defeated the British. He had all the advantages on the field of Plassey. He had more numbers, more guns with better firepower. In retrospect, the British were very lucky. Mir Jafar had almost changed his mind early in the day, but the rains did their part, also the British artillery to certain extent.
In Indian literature, the battle of Plassey gave a proper noun to describe the common nouns of backstabbers and traitors, ‘Mir Jafar’, the general who betrayed his Nawab. The eminent Indian scholar K. M. Pannikar famously called the Battle of Plassey a ‘transaction, not a battle, a transaction by which the compradors of Bengal, led by Jagat Seth, sold the Nawab to the East India Company’.
Clive’s participation in the Bengal coup completely transformed Company’s role in India. It was no longer sticking to just peaceful trade. Efforts by East India Company’s leadership in London, to control the events, further negated when Clive and other EIC officials used their newly acquired wealth to buy large quantities of Company’s shares. Plassey had turned the ‘traders’ into rulers.
The battle of Buxar (currently in modern day Bihar) which happened seven years after Battle of Plassey was a more critical turn in history of Bengal and India. Mir Qasim (the nawab who replaced Mir Jafar after East India Company found him ineffective) in alliance with the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam and his formidable ally, Shuja-ud-Daula the Nawab of Awadh attacked the British after being ousted by them.
Battle of Buxar was much more decisive than Plassey and the beginning of direct British rule over Bengal. It wasn’t luck or monsoon which decided the fate of battle in Britisher’s favor, but regular discipline and strict obedience to orders. Despite five thousand veteran Afghan cavalry from Abdali’s army, despite Mir Qasim’s disciplined forces, the Mughals’ prestige and the Awadh army of perhaps thirty thousand, it was MajorHector Munro’s force of 7500 largely Indian sepoys (British led) which gained a hard fought but a conclusive victory. But the Battle of Plassey will remain deeply entrenched in our literary and cultural memories for a very long time. The tragedy of the battle and post battle Bengal makes Plassey an emotional wound. It was the beginning of the end.
K. M. Pannikar, Asia and Western Dominance, New York, 1954.
Dalrymple William and Olivia Fraser. 2019. The Anarchy : The Relentless Rise of the East India Company. New York NY: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Moxham Roy. 2016. The Theft of India : The European Conquests of India 1498-1765. New Delhi: HarperCollins Publishers India.
Keay John. 2013. India a History : From the Earliest Civilisations to the Boom of the Twenty-First Century. London: HarperCollins.
Chaudhury, Sushil. “THE ROAD TO PLASSEY A REAPPRAISAL OF THE BRITISH CONQUEST OF BENGAL, 1757.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 59 (1998): 734–50. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44147045.