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Robert Clive Biography

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CLIVE, Robert, Baron Clive of Plassey (1725–74). An English general, whose achievements laid the foundations of the British Indian Empire. His father, a lawyer and small landowner, came of an ancient Shropshire family, whose manor seat, Styche, near Market Drayton, dates from the reign of Henry II. There Clive was born, Sept. 29, 1725, the eldest of 13 children. He spent several years with an uncle at Hope Hall, near Manchester, and at various schools showed more aptitude for pugilism and mischievousness than for study. At 18 years of age he shipped to Madras as a writer to the East India Company, where he dragged on an unhappy and quarrelsome existence as a mere drudge in the employ of the company until the outbreak of the great struggle between the French and the English in India. He applied for and obtained an ensign's commission and distinguished himself in Boscawen's unsuccessful siege of Pondicherry in 1748. His dauntless courage, previously exhibited in a duel which forms the idealized subject of Browning's poem "Clive," now had scope for development. English influence was almost extinct in India, through the prestige of the French and their allies. In 1751, with 500 mixed English and Sepoy troops, Clive marched from Madras and captured Arcot, a city of 100,000 inhabitants, garrisoned by 1500 of Chunda Sahib's best troops. The daring displayed in the capture of Arcot was equaled by the intrepidity and fortitude exhibited in its successful defense by Clive and his little band, reduced to 200 men, against a besieging army of 7000 natives and French, and impressed the natives with the strength and prowess of Britain. The succeeding campaign, in which successes and personal escapes were of a most dramatic character, included the victories of Arni and Kaveripak and the capture of Kovilam and Chingalpat. Henceforward Clive's name was a local tower of strength; the natives surnamed him "Sabat Jung," or "the Daring in War," and Pitt described him as "the youth of 27 years" who had done the deeds of a "heaven-born general." In 1753, with his bride, Margaret Maskelyne, sister of the astronomer, he visited England and received a diamond-hilted sword and the warm thanks of the India Company. Possessed of a moderate fortune, obtained from prize money, he expended part in redeeming the paternal estate and relieving his father from pecuniary embarrassment. The rest soon disappeared in an unsuccessful parliamentary contest and in luxurious display. He returned to India in 1755 and in 1756 was called to avenge the Black Hole (q.v.) atrocity perpetrated by Siraj-ud-Daula, Nawab of Bengal. Clive advanced against the Nawab, and in January, 1757, the English were again in possession of Calcutta. A peace was arranged; but Clive, bent upon a brilliant exhibition of his powers and eager for the riches of Bengal, soon returned to the struggle. To insure his success, he entered into a plot for the elevation to the throne of Bengal of Siraj-ud-Daula's general, Mir Jaffir, who was to desert his chief, and who promised to shower wealth on Clive and the East India Company for his services. On June 23, 1757, Siraj-ud-Daula was overthrown in the battle of Plassey. This victory decided the ascendancy of England over France in India and was followed by the rapid building up of a British Indian empire. Mir Jaffir was placed upon the throne of Bengal and kept his promises. From shares in these and other spoils and from presents and territorial grants from native princes, Clive amassed vast wealth, which yielded an annual income of £40,000. After managing the affairs of the East India Company at Calcutta for some years and winning fresh victories, he returned to England in 1760 and was loaded with thanks and honors. He became parliamentary member for Shrewsbury, was raised to the Irish peerage as Baron Clive of Plassey, and in 1764 was created Knight of the Bath. Through the dishonesty of its servants, high and low, the affairs of the company became greatly involved after his departure from India, and in 1765 he was sent out to set them right. He proved as competent an administrator as a warrior; and in less than 18 months, by raising salaries, abolishing perquisites, reorganizing the army and ruling with a rod of iron, he "restored perfect order and discipline in both the civil and military services and brought back prosperity to the well-nigh ruined finances of the company." He returned to England in 1767 and was received with the distinction to which he was entitled. But the energy he had displayed in righting Indian affairs antagonized many who suffered pecuniarily from the suppression of dishonest practices; and they, possessing influence, employed it in raising English feeling against Clive. His Indian administration was made the subject of animadversion in Parliament in 1772, which he at first ignored, but subsequently replied to in a vigorous and eloquent speech, which elicited Pitt’s admiration. A parliamentary inquiry, the following year, demonstrated that in certain particulars Clive’s treatment of the natives had been questionable. A large part of his enormous wealth was shown to have come from presents from the natives, a fact justified by custom. But at the same time Clive undoubtedly, as in the case of Omichand, acted disgracefully. A qualified acquittal from Parliament, which acknowledged his "great and meritorious services," was not satisfactory to Clive, who never recovered from the disgrace implied in the trial; this, with sickness, recourse to opium to alleviate his sufferings, and mental depression, led to his suicide, Nov. 22, 1774.

Clive was an able man and got India for England. Perhaps Macaulay was justified in saying that "Clive, like most men who are born with strong passions and tried by strong temptations, committed great faults, but our island has scarcely ever produced a man more truly great either in arms or in council."

The New International Encyclopaedia, Vol. V (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920) 469-470.