The same day that the remains of Siraj ud-Daula were paraded through the streets, 7 July, exactly 200 days since the task force had set off up the Hughli to Fulta, Clive finally got his hands on his money. It was one of the largest corporate windfalls in history – in modern terms around £232 million, of which £22 million was reserved for Clive. He immediately despatched his winnings downstream to Calcutta.
“The first fruit of our success was the receipt of Rs 75 lakh, nearly a million sterling, which the Souba paid and was laid on board 200 boats, part of the fleet which attended us in our march up, escorted by a detachment from the army,” wrote Luke Scrafton, one of Clive’s assistants.
As soon as they entered the great river, they were joined by the boats of the squadron, and all together formed a fleet of three hundred boats, with music playing, drums beating, the colours flying, and exhibited to the French and Dutch, whose settlements they passed, a scene far different from what they beheld a year before, when the Nabob’s fleet and army passed them, with the captive English, and all the wealth and plunder of Calcutta. Which scene gave them more pleasure, I will not presume to decide.
Clive’s winnings in 1757 was a story of personal enrichment very much in the spirit of the Caribbean privateers who had first founded the Company 157 years earlier: it was all about private fortunes for the officers and dividends for the Company, about treasure rather than glory, plunder rather than power.
Yet this was only the beginning: in total around £1,238,575 was given by Mir Jafar to the Company and its servants, which included at least £170,000 personally for Clive. In all, perhaps £2.5 million was given to the Company by the Murshidabad Nawabs in the eight years between 1757 and 1765 as “political gifts”. Clive himself estimated the total payments as closer to “three million sterling”.
Clive wrote to his father as he escorted his loot down the Bhagirathi, telling him that he had brought about “a Revolution scarcely to be parallel’d in History”. It was a characteristically immodest claim; but he was not far wrong. The changes he had effected were permanent and profound. This was the moment a commercial corporation first acquired real and tangible political power.
It was at Plassey that the Company had triumphantly asserted itself as a strong military force within the Mughal Empire. The Marathas who had terrorised and looted Bengal in the 1740s were remembered as cruel and violent. The Company’s plunder of the same region a decade later was more orderly and methodical, but its greed was arguably deadlier because it was more skilful and relentless and, above all, more permanent.
It initiated a period of unbounded looting and asset-stripping by the Company which the British themselves described as “the shaking of the pagoda tree”. From this point, the nature of British trade changed: £6 million had been sent out in the first half of the century, but very little silver bullion was sent out after 1757. Bengal, the sink into which foreign bullion disappeared before 1757, became, after Plassey, the treasure trove from which vast amounts of wealth were drained without any prospect of return.
Bengal had always produced the biggest and most easily collected revenue surplus in the Mughal Empire. Plassey allowed the EIC to begin seizing much of that surplus – a piece of financial happenchance that would provide for the Company the resources it would need to defeat a succession of rivals until they finally seized the Mughal capital of Delhi itself in 1803. The Company was now no longer simply one of a number of European trading companies competing for Indian markets and products. Rather, it found that it had become a kingmaker and an autonomous power in its own right. It was not just that the East India Company had assisted in a palace coup for which it had been very well paid. With this victory, the whole balance of power in India had now shifted.
The British had become the dominant military and political force in Bengal. They now suspected that if they grew their army sufficiently they could probably seize any part of the country they took a fancy to, and rule it either directly or through a pliant puppet.
Moreover, many Indians were beginning to understand this, too, meaning that the Company would become the focus for the attentions of all the dethroned, dispossessed and dissatisfied rulers, leading to a kaleidoscope of perpetually reforming and dissolving alliances that occurred from this point and which offered the region little prospect of peace or stability.
Indeed, the most immediate effect of Clive’s palace coup was to destabilise Bengal. Three months later, in September, Clive had to return to Murshidabad to try and sort out a growing chaos there. Exactions by the Company, gathering arrears of pay of Mir Jafar’s troops, military paralysis in the face of rebellions and punitive expeditions using Company sepoys created a growing vortex of violence and unrest.
It was becoming abundantly clear that Mir Jafar was not up to the job, and that however many members of Siraj ud-Daula’s regime he and Miran purged, there could be little legitimacy for this general who had had his own Nawab murdered and who now sat in what one Company observer called “a throne warm with the blood of his Lord”.
From now on there would be a slow drift to the Company of troopers, merchants, bankers and civil servants, leaving the Nawabs with nothing more than the shadow of their former grandeur. Clive and his colleagues had intended to do little more than re-establish British trade on a favourable footing and to ensure the accession of a more friendly Nawab. But what they had in fact done was fatally and permanently to undermine the authority of the Nawabs, bringing chaos to what had been up to that point the most peaceful and profitable part of the old Mughal Empire.
Twelve months later, to celebrate the first anniversary of the Plassey Revolution, Mir Jafar paid a state visit to Calcutta.
It was the new Nawab’s first visit since he had led the assault on the town as a general of Siraj ud-Daula two years earlier, and his last before Clive would return to London to pursue his parliamentary ambitions. It was therefore as magnificent an affair as the still somewhat battered trading settlement could muster: there was a visit to the theatre, several concerts and a grand ball at the slightly surprising venue of the Calcutta courthouse, where the few women present danced “until their feet were sore”.
Even more of a surprise was the choice of decoration selected to beautify the halls of justice for the entertainment of the pious Shia Muslim Nawab: “twelve standing waxwork Venuses”, unveiled to the sound of trumpets, horns and kettledrums. “We have been so much taken up with balls, musick and visits to do honour to the Nabob,” wrote Luke Scrafton, “that all publick affairs have been totally neglected.”
But behind the external show of friendship between allies, perhaps inevitably, distrust and mutual dislike were now growing between the two rival governments of Bengal. “Thank God His Excellency is at last gone,” wrote Scrafton a week later. “He has led me a hell of a life here by the constant attendance I have been obliged to pay to him and his wenches, for he never went twenty yards from his house but they were with him.”
Clive, characteristically, was more cutting: the “humane, generous and honest prince”, whose impeccable character he had vouched for to the directors before Plassey, and who he had claimed to honour “with the same regard as a son has for a father”, he now regularly referred to as “he old fool”, while his son Miran was dismissed as “a worthless young dog”. Indolence, incompetence and opium had changed Mir Jafar, Clive wrote to London. The man he had raised to the throne had now become “haughty, avaricious, abusive ... and this behaviour has alienated the hearts of his subjects”.
If anyone had changed it was in reality the smugly victorious and now supremely wealthy Clive. Indeed, such was Clive’s swaggering self-confidence at this period that he began to show signs of regretting sharing power with the Mughals at all.
In despatches to London he flirted with the idea of seizing full and immediate control of Bengal with the now greatly enhanced power of his ever-growing cohort of tightly disciplined sepoy regiments. By the end of 1758 he was dismissively writing to the chairman of the EIC directors, “I can assert with some degree of confidence that this rich and flourishing kingdom may be totally subdued by so small a force as 2,000 Europeans”:
The Moors are indolent, luxurious, ignorant and cowardly beyond all conception ... The soldiers, if they deserve that name, have not the least attachment to their Prince, he can only expect service from them who pays them best; but it is a matter of great indifference to them whom they serve; and I am fully persuaded that after the battle of Plassey I could have appropriated the whole country to the Company and preserved it afterwards with as much ease as Mir Jafar, the present Subah [governor] now does, through the terror of English arms and their influence ...
The power of [the Mughal] Empire is greatly broken by intestine commotions, and perhaps its total ruin has been prevented only by the sums of money sent to Delly [from Bengal] ... You are well acquainted with the nature & dispositions of these Musselmen: gratitude they have none; [they are] bare Men of very narrow conceptions, and have adopted a system of Politicks more peculiar to this Country than any other, viz: to attempt everything through treachery rather than force. Under these circumstances may not so weak a Prince as Mir Jafar be easily destroyed, or be influenced by others to destroy us? What then can enable us to secure our present acquisitions, or improve upon them, but such a force as leaves nothing to the power of Treachery or Ingratitude?
Excerpted with permission from The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, And The Pillage Of An Empire, William Dalrymple, Bloomsbury.