Saturday, 16 August 2014

An Emperor called Clive? (otherwise known as Baron Clive of Plassey, County Clare).

Clive – The Life and Death of a British Emperor.

By Robert Harvey. Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1998. pp X + 388 text + bibliography and index. Pictures and maps.

This review was written on June 3rd 2004.

This biography could hardly be described as a work of scholarship or of fresh information in the sense that the author appears to have depended on secondary sources and to have relied very much on previous biographies of Clive. Robert Clive had a very controversial career. He played a major role in converting the British interests in India from a few commercial outposts in Madras and Calcutta on the east coast and of Bombay in the west to full military, political and administrative control of the subcontinent. In the early days of his arrival in Bengal in 1756 the British had no imperial aspirations as far as India was concerned and the outposts under the control of the East India Company were simply there as a commercial arrangement with the Indians and their rulers. The French also had a few outposts at that time but again the French had no imperial ambitions. The country was governed by regional nabobs with the chief nabob in Delhi. The latter had little executive power or influence over his regional colleagues. Nevertheless, despite the limited presence of the British, the East India Company outposts in Madras, Calcutta and Bombay in the mid-1700s were well developed communities with prosperous and influential British employees and a military presence, and with the support of the British navy and merchant marine. There was a strong British influence in terms of architecture, culture, and social life, particularly in Calcutta in Bengal

Robert Clive was a young man when he went out to Fort David, close to Madras, as a clerk in the East India Company. He became involved on the military side because of a few local crises which occurred between the British community and the local Indian rulers and some of the French. Clive was born in 1725 in Shropshire where his family was part of the minor gentry. Like many other famous people; he had an undistinguished career during and immediately after his schooling. At the age of 17, and with much influence, he was appointed to a position in India. Clive first travelled to India on the Winchester, a ship of 500 tonnes, a larger vessel than the ships commonly employed at the time.  He had an eventful journey of nearly one year which included various catastrophes at sea, including many months in Brazil where the ship was being repaired after spending much of that time grounded off the coast of Rio. It is astonishing how sea travel to India at that time, often lasting six months or more, could have been tolerated, with cramped and unhygienic conditions, the close contact of so many individuals of different gender, education, social status and temperament, not to mention the appalling diet. It is difficult to understand how these small vessels, entirely dependent on sail, could survive the storms, the uncharted seas and the navigational problems which prevailed in these early years.

Model of a 1750s ship
As a young man he appeared to be quite individualistic and he found it difficult to conform to the conventions of society. He proved to be a person of enormous courage and on several occasions, when he became involved on the military side in India, he showed little caution in undertaking the most hazardous actions. His military victories were mostly against the greatest odds, although history described by British sources and the current author may exaggerate the disparity between the British forces and the opposing local Indian troops and their French leaders.

The book gave me for the first time an insight into the development of India under British rule. Clive’s exploits up to the time he last left India had not yet established the full control by the British of the Indian sub-continent and it was before the diatribes about the East India Company’s activities which were a prominent feature of Edmond Burke’s political campaign at the end of the eighteenth century.  Followed as Clive was by other imperialists, the leading Muslim business and the Hindu Nabobs eventually came under British military protection and economic control some time after Clive’s third and last visit to India when he was appointed Governor of Bengal, replacing the local nabobs there.

British rule was not entirely devoted to exploiting the local population on behalf of the mother country. An excellent civil service was established along the tradition of the British colonial system, and some of the Indian troops, under British tutelage, became gallant and efficient soldiers to serve in later wars involving Britain and the Empire. This vast country remained under British control until the independence movement started in the early twentieth century with the evolution of democratic ideas and the gradual loss of power of the nabobs. Gandhi was of course the person who spearheaded Indian independence and it was he who was to cause such distress and sense of loss to the British imperialists, such as Winston Churchill. Independence probably evolved in  practice as local government gave a thrust to the aspirations of the people of India, as it did in Ireland in the late nineteenth and early twenty centuries where control of local government and of education made it inevitable that the British hegemony would end.

In the final settlement with the British, India was partitioned into the Hindu dominated India in the south and the Muslim dominated Pakistan in the north, where, as in the North of Ireland, religion and its divisive effects has left serious problems in relation to minorities and the control of Kashmir. Both Pakistan and India became republics but remained in the British Commonwealth and have maintained good relations with Britain, unlike the situation in  Ireland where the effects of the civil war was to cause a serious alienation among some Irish which now is happily resolving. We also rashly retired from the Commonwealth in 1949 at the time of the declaration of a republic and on the impulse of the then Taoiseach Jack Costello.

Clive was still in his forties when he returned to India for the third and last time. He had made an immense amount of money during his times there. He became passionately interested in entering British politics, but, because of poor judgement and the many enemies he created among influential politicians and within the East India Company and the British administrations, he essentially failed as a politician although he had been a Member of Parliament for some years after his return from India. He was probably a very unhappy man who’s materialistic and political ambitions were associated on many occasions with stress and failure, and with adverse public opinion despite his having many admirers. Because of his wealth and his conflict with political colleagues and some directors of the East India Company, he was subjected to a Parliamentary enquiry. Although he was eventually absolved of serious corruption, it was a time in England where there was little or no libel law and when the most atrocious charges were made against prominent people such as Clive which were as difficult to refute as they were to prove. I expect the nouveau riche and those who enriched themselves in the service of the Empire were particularly vulnerable.

He died mysteriously in his early fifties and is buried in an unmarked grave in an obscure village in the West of England. The exact site of the grave in the churchyard is not known and the only memorial plaque to him is in the adjoining church. He married his wife Margaret during his first visit to India after he had earned renown as a young and successful military strategist and he returned to England on his honeymoon in triumph and already enjoying some wealth. She lived for many years after him as Lady Clive and climbed successfully the social ladder after his death. One of Clive’s great ambitions was to join the aristocracy with an English peerage but this he never achieved despite the acquisition of a few fine country houses and estates in the West Country. He was largely snubbed by leading politicians and by the aristocracy, and his only recompense was an Irish peerage, one which was considered of secondary importance in English circles.

On balance I was glad to have read the book, not in any sense for its literary merits, and its cohesive structure, but in relatively few pages it gave me an insight into the history and political development of India as it is to-day. The population of Greater India at the time of Clive’s first visit was estimated to be 150 million. Its population to-day is close to 1,100 million. The latter figure does not include the population of Pakistan. One wonders if we are in complete denial about the critical effects of the exponential human population increase over the last century.

No comments:

Post a Comment