Battle of Plassey Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The British East India Company’s triumph at the Battle of Plassey led first to British hegemony over Bengal and then to the establishment of the British Raj and to India taking its place as the crown jewel of the British Empire.

Summary of Event

The 1750’s were a boom time in the riverine ports of Bengal, where the manufacturing of high-quality textiles fueled an international commerce in which European traders were involved in intense rivalries. The nawab (provincial Mughal governor) of Bengal, who also ruled Bihar and Orissa, had to keep these traders on a tight rein. In the early 1750’s, that nawab was Alivardi Khan, who was very much master in his own house. Dying in 1756, he bequeathed his realm to a daughter’s son, the twenty-year-old Sirāj al-Dawlā. In the British historiographical tradition, al-Dawlā was portrayed as a vicious degenerate. Some twentieth century Indian historians have sought to rehabilitate his reputation, portraying him as a “freedom fighter.” In reality, he was neither. [kw]Battle of Plassey (June 23, 1757) [kw]Plassey, Battle of (June 23, 1757) Plassey, Battle of (1757) British East India Company;and Battle of Plassey[Plassey] British India Bengal, India Plassey, Battle of (1757) [g]India;June 23, 1757: Battle of Plassey[1490] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;June 23, 1757: Battle of Plassey[1490] [c]Colonization;June 23, 1757: Battle of Plassey[1490] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;June 23, 1757: Battle of Plassey[1490] Clive, Robert Alivardi Khan Sir{amacr}j al-Dawl{amacr} Mir Ja{ayn}far Mir Kasim

From the outset, Sirāj al-Dawlā was greatly incensed against the British East India Company, which had defied him by strengthening Fort William in Calcutta Calcutta, India without his permission. He therefore made a surprise attack on the city (June 16-20, 1756). Most of its European residents fled downstream before the city fell, but those who remained were imprisoned for the night, probably unbeknown to the nawab, in a cramped, airless cell without water. About 146 prisoners were pressed into an 18-by-14-by-10-foot cell. By morning, 123 had suffocated. This cell came to be known as the Black Hole of Calcutta. Once in possession of Calcutta, Sirāj al-Dawlā did nothing to fortify Calcutta or to prepare it in any way to defend against the predictable British return. Thus, on December 14, 1756, a British force from Madras commanded by Robert Clive, the hero of the Second Carnatic War, entered the Hughli and easily retook Calcutta on January 2, 1757.

The question for Clive and the British was what to do next. The nawab had returned upriver to his capital at Murshidabad. Initially, Clive sought a negotiated settlement in the Treaty of Alingar Alingar, Treaty of (1757) (February 9, 1757): Peace was to be restored between the nawab and the company, and the British were to enjoy their former trading privileges. Whether Clive entered into this agreement in good faith is an open question. Shortly afterward, however, he seems to have scented treachery, partly on account of the nawab’s French connections. The nawab indeed favored the French; in Europe, the Seven Years’ War had set the British and French in India on a collision course, and French reinforcements were expected daily in the Bay of Bengal. In March of 1757, Clive made a preemptive strike on French Chandernagore, in violation of the nawab’s authority.

Bengali mobile cannon are pictured being pulled by oxen at the Battle of Plassey.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

Clive now resolved to replace Sirāj al-Dawlā with someone more tractable. The nawab had no lack of enemies, including Mir Jaՙfar, brother-in-law of the former nawab, Alivardi Khan. On June 10, 1757, Mir Jaՙfar entered into a secret agreement with the British East India Company: In return for being made nawab, he agreed to confirm all the privileges granted to the company by the Treaty of Alinagar, to enter a defensive and offensive alliance with the company, to exclude the French from Bengal, and to pay £1 million to the company in compensation for the sack of Calcutta and another £500,000 to the city’s European residents. Privately, moreover, Mir Jaՙfar agreed to pay very substantial sums to members of the Calcutta Council and to the British military currently in Bengal, on the assumption that, once he had become nawab, he would enjoy access to the vast treasures allegedly accumulated by Alivardi Khan.

Once this secret agreement was in place, war would decide the issue. On June 13, 1757, Clive set out for Murshidabad. His force consisted of around three thousand men. Of these, twenty-two hundred were sepoys (Indian troops commanded by European officers) and topasses (Eurasian Christian troops of partly Portuguese descent). The sepoys had come with Clive from the south, veterans of his Carnatic campaigns. In addition, he had eight hundred European infantry and artillerymen.

Murshidabad was just over 150 miles from Calcutta. At Plassey (Palasi), more than 90 miles upriver, Clive found the nawab and his army encamped, totaling perhaps fifty thousand men. Clive reached Plassey on the night of June 22 and prepared for battle at sunrise. The British forces were drawn up in a straight line, with their left flank protected by the Hughli River and their rear by a mango grove, which offered some protection. Immediately facing them were Sirāj al-Dawlā’s best troops, a small corps of French mercenaries. Behind the French and to the east, stretching in an arc from north to southwest, were the vast majority of the nawab’s troops, capable of enveloping the right end of the British line, although this section consisted of the troops of the traitor Mir Jaՙfar.

The conflict began around 8:00 a.m. on June 23 with a vigorous exchange of cannon fire. Around noon, however, the fighting was slowed by a heavy downpour of rain, which would have been disastrous for the British, had they failed to keep their powder dry. When the rain had abated, the nawab’s troops launched an unsuccessful attack, after which they fell back in disarray to their encampment, where a faction within his forces counseled the nawab’s retreat. Meanwhile, Mir Jaՙfar had withdrawn his own forces from the fray and was awaiting the outcome of the battle.

The British then advanced against the nawab’s camp, encountering little resistance. The nawab’s forces were soon in full flight. The engagement had lasted less than eight hours. British casualties have been estimated at around twenty-eight killed and fifty wounded; the nawab lost perhaps five hundred men. Sirāj al-Dawlā fled toward Bihar, hoping to rally more loyal supporters, but he fell in with one of Mir Jaՙfar’s men, who handed him over to Mir Jaՙfar’s son, Miran. Miran ordered Mir Jaՙfar’s execution on July 2, 1757.

Meanwhile, on June 29, 1757, Clive installed Mir Jaՙfar in Murshidabad as the new nawab of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa. Clive thus initiated what has been called “the revolution in Bengal,” for which he was well rewarded: He received £234,000 in a lump sum and an annual payment of £30,000. The latter sum constituted the nawab’s quitrent for the districts known as the Twenty-Four Parganas, which he had ceded to the British East India Company.

In the months that followed Mir Jaՙfar’s accession, Clive proceeded to mediate, cajole, and command: He sent his second-in-command, Colonel Francis Forde, to occupy the northern Circars, which had been assigned by the Nizam of Hyderabad to the French in 1753. Forde was then instructed to defeat the Dutch in Chinsura. Clive was eager to return to England, however, and he made the return journey in 1760, arriving on July 9. In London, he was made Baron Clive of Plassey in the peerage of Ireland, and he bought in County Clare the estate of Ballykilty, which he renamed Plassey.

Soon after Clive’s departure from Bengal, the Calcutta Council decided it had had enough of Mir Jaՙfar. He had proved increasingly inept, and worse, the state of the Murshidabad treasury did not allow him to fulfill the reckless financial promises he had made to obtain his title. Before the year was up, he was replaced by his son-in-law, Mir Kasim, who quickly fell out in turn with the British, with whom he came to blows. After several minor skirmishes and one massacre of British prisoners in Patna (October, 1763), Mir Kasim entered Awadh and allied himself with the powerful nawab-vizier, Shuja al-Dawlā, and the Mughal emperor Shāh Alam, then a fugitive from his capital of Delhi. The alliance did him no good, however, as the forces of all three men were crushed by the company’s troops under the command of Eyre Coote, at Buxar (Baksar), Bihar, on October 22, 1764. The Battle of Buxar Buxar, Battle of (1764) confirmed British military dominance in India and accelerated the train of events begun at Plassey.

In London, the company’s directors, appalled by news from Bengal of incompetence, corruption, and violence, sent Clive back as governor of Bengal and commander in chief. He reached India on May 3, 1765, and remained until February, 1767, vigorously cleaning the Augean stable and acquiring from Emperor Shāh Alam the diwani (right to collect imperial revenue) of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa, thereby formally integrating the British East India Company into the Mughal imperial bureaucracy as an officeholder in the North Indian state system.

Significance

Historians are too quick to designate past battles as decisive, meaning that they changed history, which often they did not. Plassey was no clash of titans, but it indubitably changed history. Clive’s victory led to the British East India Company’s takeover of Bengal, which in turn led to the spread of the British Raj over India, which lasted until the nation achieved independence in 1947. These developments had incalculable consequences for the institutional and cultural evolution of modern India.

Clive, learning from the French example, demonstrated conclusively that European-trained and -officered troops, whether themselves European or Indian, could almost invariably overcome the ill-disciplined rabbles that constituted most traditional indigenous forces in India. A brilliant leader of men, he was the first of the so-called sepoy-generals, whose later ranks included Stringer Lawrence, Sir Eyre Coote, and Arthur Wellesley (later the first duke of Wellington), and who made possible British hegemony in Asia.

The Seven Years’ War has often been said to have won Great Britain the status of a world power. If so, it was the Battle of Plassey, coupled with James Wolfe’s victory at Quebec and Edward Hawke’s defeat of the French fleet at Quiberon Bay, that made this rise in status possible.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davies, Marvyn A. Clive of Plassey. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1939. A fine biography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Didwell, Henry. Dupleix and Clive. London: Methuen, 1920. Detailed and very complete.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gupta, Brijen K. Sirajuddaullah and the East India Company. Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 1966. A fine attempt to rehabilitate the nawab.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harvey, Robert. Clive: The Life and Death of a British Emperor. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. A biography of Clive, including plates, maps, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lawford, James, P. Britain’s Army in India, from Its Origins to the Conquest of Bengal. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1978. Excellent on military background.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Majumdar, R. D., et al. An Advanced History of India. London: Macmillan, 1950. Pages 654 to 675 provide a judicious account of Indian history.

Carnatic Wars

French and Indian War

Seven Years’ War

Peace of Paris

Anglo-Mysore Wars

First Marāthā War

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Robert Clive; Joseph-François Dupleix; William Pitt the Elder; James Wolfe. Plassey, Battle of (1757) British East India Company;and Battle of Plassey[Plassey] British India Bengal, India Plassey, Battle of (1757)

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