“On your arrival to-morrow  Surajah Dowlat will be either taken or killed”

Siraj rode hard. He arrived in Murshidabad, a capital which already had a foretelling of doom – with some cavalrymen having returned far earlier than the nawab. The Siyar mentions that Siraj reached Murshidabad the following morning at 8 am after travelling through the night. But Orme mentions he reached “before the midnight after the battle”. And Dutch sources – for instance, a letter dated 24 June to the Dutch Committee at Hugli from the Dutch deputy resident at Kalikapur at the time, George Lodewijk Vernet – note that Siraj reached Murshidabad sometime later.

Vernet, who between 1763-69 would be the director for Bengal for the Dutch Company, and like other Dutch in the region kept a hawk’s eye on developments in the region, reported: “The Nawab arrived with his defeated hordes, after a hurried and disorderly flight, at Moorshedabad about midnight.” Siraj went straight to Heerajheel, his palace in Mansurganj.

He quickly realised that bereft of power he was now a pariah. The Siyar relates how he ordered his principal commanders to engage their troops for his safety, “until he might take breath, and resolve on what he was to do next”, but they all left for their own homes.

This was even true of Muhammad Iraj Khan, his father-in-law, the Siyar claims, despite Siraj attempting the turban manoeuvre with him:

In vain did the Prince lay his turbant [sic] at his feet, and intreat him for god’s sake to remain with him, and to assemble some troops about his palace, that he might stay with safety, if staying should become proper; or depart with some decency, should flight become necessary. Mirza Iraj made polite excuses to decline, and went his way.

Although he had been abandoned by his troops and his court, Siraj “resolved to retain some people at least about his person; and he ordered that whoever had any demand upon the treasury, should be immediately satisfied. Numbers immediately thronged into it, some [like many soldiers] for their arrears, and some for advances to help themselves out. Some others likewise, under a variety of pretences, crowded into it, and received as much as they pretended to; for orders had been given to reject no man; so that during the whole night the treasury was full of people, who took money on every pretence they could devise, and carried it home.”

Orme’s version of that night of Siraj’s distress and melancholia is more methodical and logical, beginning with the distressed nawab’s arrival and that of some “principal officers” who reached Murshidabad around the time Siraj did:

These he assembled in council. Some advised him to deliver himself up to the English, which he imputed to treachery; others proposed, that he should encourage the army by the offer of great rewards, and appear again at their head in the morning. This he seemed to approve, and, having ordered an immediate distribution of three months pay to the troops, dismissed the council, and retired into the seraglio, where, left to his own reflections and his women, his terrors returned.

Both accounts have a common conclusion: by the morning few besides his harem remained with Siraj.

Both accounts differ as to the timing of what happened next, but not the intent. Orme writes that on the 24th morning, Siraj “sent away his women, with 50 elephants laden with their furniture and necessaries, and with them a great part of his own jewels, and some gold rupees...” (A letter from Mir Jafar that Clive received on 25 June offers more details: “...Mohun Loll he has dispatched to Purneah with his women and many treasures. I hope in god to take them all.”)

Siraj planned to follow at night, a plan he shared only with the eunuch “who governed his seraglio” –one among a scarce handful he could trust.

The Siyar has him leaving “in the dead of the night”, at about three in the morning on 25 June, driven to “desperate resolution” after a day without “a single friend to unbosom his mind with”. Siraj escaped with his wife and principal consort, Lutf-un-Nisa, and some “favourites” with “as much gold, and as many jewels” as possible. He escaped towards Bhagwangola, about 20 kilometres northeast of Murshidabad, hoping to escape by boat on the Ganga- Padma.

This village, in which a garrison was stationed during the reign of Alivardi to secure a supply line from the Ganga, is where Siraj began his “flight northwards” after Plassey, writes O’Malley. At the time the great river, here known as Padma, flowed by the village; in the present-day the main channel of the river has moved about 10 kilometres to the east of the village. This place associated with Bengal’s doom by Indian nationalist historians and Islamist historians was in the 1820s celebrated by Reginald Heber, the Oxbridge educated poet-bishop of Calcutta:

If thou wert by my side, my love, 
How fast would evening fail,
In green Bengala’s palmy grove, 
Listening the nightingale.

Orme’s recall of post-Plassey developments is anchored by greater chronological proximity to events, and access to Company archives that drive historians to his accounts and Company records more frequently than to writers of the Siyar and Riyazu-s-Salatin – who, to be fair, didn’t have access to such records or even extensive Bengal Court records, and often went by hearsay. (For instance, the scholar Joel Bordeaux describes Salim as having “no privileged access to the nawabi government, but he was a diligent amateur historian and his work – a history of Bengal from the first Turkic conquests in the thirteenth century through the early 1770s – set the standard for studies of the ‘Muslim Period’ in Bengal.”) And, certainly, Orme’s work is more objective than those like Holwell, and Macaulay – who lionised Clive & Co.

Besides a very visible abandonment by his soldiers and commanders in Murshidabad, for Siraj the inevitability of departure may have been triggered by the arrival of Mir Jafar in Murshidabad on the evening of the 24th, even though, as Orme surmises, he did not immediately move against Siraj. It’s possible Mir Jafar’s hesitation was prompted by the need to gauge the popular mood in Murshidabad: pro-Siraj, or anti-Siraj – if not specifically pro-Mir Jafar.

In any case it spurred Siraj into further flight. “Having disguised himself in a mean dress,” Orme tells us, “he went secretly at ten o’clock at night out of a window, carrying a casket of his most valuable jewels, and attended only by his favourite concubine and the eunuch.”

Orme may have been an hour off the mark:

Letter from Jafar Ali Khan, to Colonel Clive, dated 25 June, 1757, at 8 am.

About 11 at night he fled: at 12 I was advised of it. I have sent people after him. By the blessing of god he will be taken. Wherever you are continue. When I write you, proceed.

Later that day, at 6 pm, Clive received another update from Mir Jafar, which suggests Siraj may have remained in his palace for a few hours longer, having misled both Mir Jafar and, in his chronicling, Orme:

By Rungeet Roy I sent you word that his fortune was changed, and he has run away, but he is at his house...I hope on receipt of this you will oblige me by advancing with your army...On your arrival to-morrow Surajah Dowlat will be either taken or killed. Arrive soon. Do not delay.

For Mir Jafar, 24 June was a grand day, a prelude to a grander day. He made good with Clive, and there was little the colonel, however aggrieved he might have been with Mir Jafar’s non-conduct of the war, could do about it. Mir Jafar that day was imagined for posterity in regal tones – though, of course, not as regally as his key British co-conspirator.

Francis Hayman captured that moment of transference of power from Siraj to Mir Jafar. Actually, it portrayed the greater reality: John Company’s arrival as the supreme power in Bengal.

Excerpted with permission from Plassey: The Battle That Changed the Course of Indian History, Sudeep Chakravarti, Aleph Book Company.