22–23 June 1757

A portrait of Robert Clive (1725–74) appeared in the 1832 publication Portraits of Illustrious Personages of Great Britain. Clive masterminded the victory of the East India Company forces at Plassey.

Perhaps the most significant battle to take place on Indian soil in the modern age was the encounter near the Bengali village of Plassey (more properly Palasi) between the huge army of the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-daula, and a small force of European and Indian troops commanded by Colonel Robert Clive of the British East India Company. On paper it looked as though Clive’s forces would be annihilated. Clever deployment and guileful diplomacy between them secured a victory by a force of 784 European soldiers and 2,100 Indian soldiers, or ‘sepoys’, against a Bengali army estimated at approximately 50,000.

The background to the final encounter at Palasi (the ‘place of the Palas trees’) was complex in the extreme. The Indian Mughal Empire was in the throes of dissolution, and European powers vied for the rich trade that access to Indian markets allowed. They established local trading companies and bribed and flattered local rulers to allow them to carry on a commerce that made many French, Dutch and British families rich. In Bengal, the three European states competed with each other to win the support of the nawab (king), who in turn played one off against another to extort what he could from the deals he made. In 1756, Nawab Alivardi Khan died and was succeeded by his rapacious and temperamental great-nephew, Siraj-ud-daula, who, barely twenty, had already established an unenviable reputation for debauchery and vice and was little liked by much of Bengal’s elite.

A hand-coloured map of the Battle of Plassey shows clearly the great disparity in size between Clive’s forces in the orchard to the left and those of the nawab of Bengal spread out alongside the river. The map appeared in the London Magazine, published c.1760.

The new nawab resented the British presence and feared their long-term ambitions. In May 1756, he launched war against the East India Company, sacking its settlement at Kasimbazar and then marching on Calcutta, where the British traders were based. The city was captured by a large army and looted, while the European prisoners were forced into a small airless prison, known in British army slang as the ‘Black Hole’, where 123 out of 146 of them suffocated to death during the night. The atrocity became one of the reasons why the Company brought together an expeditionary force at Madras to sail north, recapture Calcutta and re-establish British trade. The expedition was led by Colonel Robert Clive, supported by a small fleet of ships under command of Vice Admiral Charles Watson. By December 1756, they had arrived in Bengal and within weeks had retaken Calcutta using only 500 British troops and the threat of naval bombardment. In February 1757, Clive, supported by Watson, inflicted a heavy reverse on the nawab’s large army, which forced the Indian ruler to seek a temporary armistice. Meanwhile, war had broken out in Europe between Britain and France, and Clive used this pretext to attack and capture the main French trading base at Chandernagore.

The arrival of a British force reignited the nawab’s growing hatred for the East India Company, while the French were happy to support him following their defeat. Clive was adept at manipulating the factions at the Bengali court in Murshidabad and promised alliances with wealthy merchants and soldiers if they came over to his side, but it was a risky business in a world where betrayal of trust and pursuit of self-interest assumed Machiavellian proportions. The nawab finally decided to make one last attempt to oust the British before his own political position became too tenuous. In June 1757, Clive led his 784 British troops and 2,100 sepoys, supported by 12 guns and a large stock of supplies, towards the nawab’s army of around 35,000 infantry, 15,000 cavalry and 53 guns (under the command of French artillerymen) which had gathered near the village of Muncarra.

Clive was anxious about the risk of confronting such a large force, but the disparity was reduced not only by the greater discipline and training of the British troops, but by the fact that two-thirds of the nawab’s army, under command of two conspirators, Mir Jafar and Rai Durlabh, were unlikely to take part in the fight. Clive could not be sure of this, but on 22 June, he finally risked a showdown and moved his small force to occupy a large orchard of mango trees and the small buildings of the village of Palasi, 5 kilometres (3 miles) from the nawab’s camp. That evening both sides moved into position. Clive placed his artillery so that it could engage the French guns in front of him. His forces were dispersed in such a way that they could take the offensive when the moment came. The nawab’s colourful army, accompanied by scarlet-coated elephants and camels, and thousands of horsemen with glittering sabres, prepared for battle – ‘a pompous and formidable appearance’ according to one of Clive’s collaborators.

The battle began at 8 a.m. and after four hours of artillery duel, which mortally wounded Siraj-ud-daula’s only reliable general, Mir Madan, a monsoon storm hit the battlefield. The British powder was kept dry under tarpaulins, but the French powder was soaked, and their guns fell silent. When the rain stopped, the Bengali force pulled back to the shelter of a redoubt, but became the victim of a determined British offensive which by 5 p.m. had broken the resistance of those of the nawab’s forces still fighting for him. Siraj-ud-daula fled north to his capital, packed what treasure he could and continued north. He was discovered and surrendered to the conspirators, who had him hacked to death and paraded through the streets of Murshidabad on the back of an elephant. The battle at Palasi resulted in the death of an estimated 500 Indian soldiers, but fewer than 20 from Clive’s diminutive force. Many of the Bengali soldiers held back; they did not want to fight for a ruler widely despised, and with little prospect of loot.

Though small in losses, the battle had momentous consequences. Clive put Mir Jafar on the throne of Bengal while the East India Company was reinstated as the chief trading power. Clive was rewarded with £234,000 worth of treasure, though the unfortunate Watson died at Calcutta a few weeks after the battle. By the 1760s, victory at Palasi had opened the way to British imperial domination not just of Bengal, but eventually of the whole Indian sub-continent.