William Dalrymple, Bengal and East India Company

Did Bengal’s last independent ruler Nawab Siraj ud-Daula bring about his own downfall and pave the way for the British conquest of India by his attack on Calcutta, destroying the city? The question came to my mind after reading William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company.

Siraj ud-Daula was a greedy, cruel, lustful young prince unfit to rule, in Dalrymple’s opinion. Siraj’s grandfather and predecessor, Aliverdi Khan, was the last good powerful independent ruler of Bengal, according to the British historian.

Siraj, Alivardi’s favourite and designated successor who ascended the throne after his grandfather’s death, alienated some of his generals and the rich, powerful Hindu Marwari bankers, the Jagat Seths. They conspired against him.

Robert Clive, the East India Company officer who defeated Siraj in the Battle of Plassey in 1757, was not the arch-conspirator. He was a co-conspirator.

And Clive went into battle against Siraj only after the latter attacked and destroyed much of Calcutta (now called Kolkata) in June 1756. Some of the British who surrendered or were captured by the nawab’s forces reportedly died incarcerated in the so-called “Black Hole” of Calcutta.


Calcutta — founded by the East India Company employee Job Charnock, who arrived in the village of Sutanuti, which became part of Calcutta, on August 24, 1686 – was a bustling city before it was destroyed by Siraj. The city contained probably around 200,000 people, including about a thousand Europeans, according to Dalrymple.

It was the East India Company’s most important trading post. People flocked to the city for safety, jobs and to do business. It offered refuge from the Marathas who laid waste to the land. The Maratha Ditch was dug to keep out the Marathas, also called the Bargis. But the city’s defences – the guns and fortifications of Fort William – were rusting and crumbling.

When the governor Roger Drake wanted to rebuild the walls, Siraj objected – and, when the English went ahead despite the objections, Siraj attacked Calcutta.

Robert Clive was sent by the East India Company from London not to conquer Bengal but to defend the company’s trading posts against the French. Engaged in a perpetual tussle for power, Britain and France fought the Seven Years’ War from 1756 to 1763, which had its repercussions in India also.

It was Clive’s second stint in India. He had returned to England and bought a “rotten borough”, a safe seat in parliament, with the fortune he had made in India but had been ejected from parliament in political shenanigans and was facing an uncertain future when he was recalled by the Company.

Clive in Bengal

He sailed to Madras (now called Chennai) or Fort St George, as it was then called. From there he sailed with Admiral Watson of the Royal Navy and his flotilla of ships to Calcutta.

The British retook Calcutta on January 2, 1757. Siraj made peace, signing the Treaty of Alinagar, restoring all the English privileges, freeing English goods of taxes, allowing the Company to keep its fortifications and establish a mint.

At Admiral Watson’s insistence, Clive and he next proceeded against the French at Chandernagar, the French trading post also on the Hooghly river like Calcutta. They defeated the French there in March 1757. The capture of Chandernagar was a body blow to the entire French presence in India, writes Dalrymple.

At the end of April 1757, Clive and Watson prepared to leave Bengal with their troops and return to the Coromandel, anxious about the safety of Madras which had been left undefended and could be attacked by the French.

But they were drawn into the conspiracy against Siraj. Mir Jafar, the general and paymaster of the nawab’s army, offered the Company the vast sum of Rs 2.5 crore if they helped him oust Siraj.
The Company joined the conspiracy and persuaded the conspirators to offer even more money to overthrow Siraj.

Battle of Plassey

On June 13, 1757, Clive issued an ultimatum accusing Siraj of breaking the terms of the Treaty of Alinagar. On the same day, he began his march to Plassey with 800 Europeans, 2,200 South Indian sepoys and eight cannon.

They were vastly outnumbered by Siraj’s army. Clive estimated that Siraj had 35,000 infantry, 15,000 cavalry and 53 pieces of heavy artillery superintended by French gunners.

But, unlike Clive, Siraj’s army did not keep their guns and powder dry when it rained on the battlefield. A cavalry charge led by Siraj’s general Mir Madan was mowed down with gunfire by Clive’s men. Mir Jafar withdrew from the battlefield with his forces as he had promised the British. Clive’s subordinate Major Kilpatrick seized the guns abandoned by Siraj’s men.

Siraj fled to his capital, Murshidabad, and then went into hiding but was caught by Mir Jafar’s son-in-law Mir Qasim. He was brought back to Murshidabad and killed. He was only 25 years old.

“The same day that the remains of Siraj ud-Daula were paraded through the streets (on July 7), Clive finally got his hands on the money. It was one of the largest corporate windfalls in history — in modern terms around 232 million pounds of which 22 million pounds was reserved for Clive,” says Dalrymple.

Mir Jafar and Mir Qasim

Mir Jafar became the nawab of Bengal and the British the dominant military and political force in Bengal. Mir Jafar, however, proved an incapable ruler who could not even pay his troops. The army finally mutinied in July 1761. His son-in-law Mir Qasim turned against him.

According to the Persian history of Bengal, the Riyazu-s-salatin: “Mir Qasim, in concert with Jagat Seth, conspired with English chiefs .. brought Mir Jafar out of the fort, placed him in a boat, and sent him down to Calcutta.”

He was escorted by the British. In Calcutta, he was given a modest townhouse and a modest pension and kept under house arrest for several months.

Mir Qasim became the new nawab of Bengal. Dalrymple calls it: “The second revolution engineered by the Company, this time against their own puppet…”

Mir Qasim and the British, however, soon fell out. Hostilities broke out between the nawab and the Company.

“Across Bihar and Bengal, the provincial Mughal elite rose as one behind Nawab Mir Qasim in a last desperate bid to protect their collapsing world from the alien and exploitative rule of a foreign trading company,” writes Dalrymple.

On July 4, 1763, the Council in Calcutta declared war on Mir Qasim. The Council voted to put Mir Jafar back on the throne.
Mir Jafar was carried back to Murshidabad by the Company’s expeditionary force, which left Calcutta on July 28, 1763. The force consisted of about 850 Europeans, including French former prisoners-of war, and 1,500 sepoys. They defeated Mir Qasim’s forces.

Mir Qasim fled to Monghyr. He had several leading figures killed on suspicion of treachery, including the bankers Jagath Seth and his cousin. British captives were also killed on his orders.

Mughals against British

Mir Qasim then went with his army to the kingdom of Awadh. He met Shuja ud-Daula, the Nawab of Avad, and the Mughal emperor Shah Alam, who was staying with the nawab as his guest. Mir Qasim proposed a grand Mughal alliance against the British. Shah Alam argued against hostilities because the British had sworn fealty to him. But Shuja ud-Daula embraced the plan.

The massive, combined Mughal army advanced from Avadh, crossed the Ganges and headed for Patna, which was held by the British. The Avadh forces included the naked Hindu Naga sadhus who fought fiercely. Running low on supplies, the besieged British garrison was on the point of surrender when the Mughals unaccountably lifted the siege of Patna and retired to the fort of Buxar. There, Shuja u-Daula turned against Mir Qasim and held him prisoner.

Battle of Buxar

Finally, on October 22, British forces closed in on Buxar, including fresh reinforcements from Calcutta. The British won the ensuing battle the next day.

Dalrymple writes:

Buxar was a short and confused battle, but a bloody one: Company forces lost 850 killed, wounded or missing, of the 7,000 men they brought to the field… Mughal losses were many times higher, perhaps as many as 5,000 dead…

It was one of the most decisive battles in Indian history, even more so than the Battle of Plassey seven years earlier.

The three great armies of the Mughal world had come together to defeat the Company and expel it from India, When instead it was the Mughals that were defeated, the Company was left the dominant military force in north-east India. Buxar confirmed the Company’s control of Bengal and the coast and opened the way for them to extend their influence far inland to the west.

Mir Qasim was freed from captivity by Nawab Shuja ud-daula during the flight from Buxar. But he never regained power. He died in abject poverty on a smallholding near Agra.

Shuja ud-daula put up one last stand, and lost, at Kora on May 3, 1765. Eventually, after a long time on the run, he surrendered to the British. He was reinstated in a reduced version of his old kingdom.

Shortly after Buxar, Shah Alam negotiated for a settlement with the British.

Robert Clive, now Baron Plassey, returned from London to India to join the negotiations as the Governor of Bengal.

Catastrophe for Bengal

In a ceremony on August 12, 1765, the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam agreed to recognise all the Company’s conquests and hand it over financial control of all north-eastern India.

For the people of Bengal, this was an unmitigated catastrophe, says Dalrymple. Tax collectors harried the peasants for taxes. Merchants and weavers were forced to work for the Company at far below market rates.

Ghulam Husain Khan, the 18th century historian in Bengal, realised Company rule meant the extinction of the Mughal nobility. Their power had ultimately rested on their expertise as horsemen. But now they were effectively unemployed. The Company replaced them with infantrymen mostly recruited from rural Hindu Rajput and Brahmin backgrounds.

Dalrymple writes:

He (Ghulam Husain Khan) estimated the changes would throw between 40,000 and 50,000 troopers out of employment across Bengal and Bihar, besides dispersing the thousands of merchants who followed that numerous cavalry. This in turn had an important economic and civilisational effect. The even more numerous artisans whom the noblemen had always kept busy found their patrons no capable of sustaining them.

The Company faced criticism even in British parliament. In 1833, parliament passed the East India Company Charter Bill, taking away the Company’s right to trade, turning it into a sort of governing corporation, writes Dalrymple. But its days were numbered.

In the end, the Company’s own sepoys rose in rebellion in 1857, joined by disaffected Indian princes. The Company crushed the rebellion but could not keep its possessions.

The British parliament stripped the Company of power. The Company’s navy was disbanded and its army passed to the Crown. In 1859, the Company’s then Governor General Lord Canning announced the Company’s Indian possessions would be nationalised and pass into the control of the British Crown.

In the epilogue, Dalyrmple writes:

The Company’s conquest of India almost certainly remains the supreme act of corporate violence in world history. For all the power wielded today by the world’s largest corporations — whether ExxonMobil, Walmart or Google — they are tame beats compared with the ravaging territorial appetites of the militarised East India Company.

In The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, Dalrymple tells a compelling story that brings history alive.

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