The Battle of Plassey

The Battle of Plassey

In the mid-1700s, the chartered European trading companies in Asia and the Pacific transformed their trading posts into fortresses. With their parent nations engaged in political and military skirmishing in Europe, this was done as much to defend against each other as to fend off Maratha attacks. In 1756 Siraj-ud-Daula (r. 1733–57), the young nawab of Bengal, as the region’s Muslim rulers were known, ordered the Europeans to dismantle their fortifi cations. All but the British complied. In response, Siraj seized the English trading post at Kassim Bazaar and laid siege to the British post at Calcutta (Kolkata).

After four days, the English commander there fl ed with some of his men, abandoning the rest of the garrison. Those left behind were captured and put in the post’s stockade. According to a survivor, by the next day 123 of 146 prisoners had suffocated. (Some historians have questioned the reliability of his account.) The stockade became known as the Black Hole of Calcutta. The few British who escaped Calcutta spent six months waiting for rescue at Diamond Harbor, where many succumbed to disease.

During this time the British were actively engaged in countering French power throughout the world. On the subcontinent French hold-ings included settlements on the southeast and southwest coasts and in Ceylon (today’s Sri Lanka) as well as in Bengal. Their headquarters were at Pondicherry, on the southeast coast. As part of the British Crown’s initiative against the French in Pondicherry, a British fl eet and army happened to be in the harbor at Madras, 100 miles (160 km) north, when word of Siraj’s attack was received.

The fl eet was sent to avenge the disaster under the command of Robert Clive (1725–74), a former civil servant who had become a military leader in the subcontinent, and the troops successfully reconquered British Calcutta in January 1757. That same year Clive negotiated a treaty with Siraj-ud-Daula with more favorable terms for the British and also took the opportu-nity to destroy the French trading post at Chandernagore (present-day Chandannagar).

Despite the new trade agreement with Siraj, Clive desired a more pli-ant ruler on the throne. Many of the merchants and bankers of Bengal also wanted a more business-friendly leader. Clive conspired with Siraj-ud-Daula’s opponents, including Mir Jafar, Siraj’s commander in chief and father-in-law. Clive organized a small British force to attack Siraj-ud-Daula’s army. Fought in a mangrove swamp in Bengal in 1757, the Battle of Plassey marked the true beginning of British control of the subcontinent.

Though far outnumbered, the British possessed supe-rior cannons, and with deceit wracking Siraj-ud-Daula’s forces, Clive’s forces won an easy victory. Siraj-ud-Daula was tracked down and killed, and Clive made Mir Jafar the new nawab of Bengal (r. 1757–60). In the aftermath of the victory, the British would reap untold riches, while the area, at the time among the most fertile in the world, began to experience an economic decline from which it has still not recovered. Henceforth the British appointed and discharged the nawabs of Bengal at their discretion.