robert clive, india, and untold riches -- 6/2/20

Today's selection -- from The Anarchy by William Dalrymple. A young, bold, British military leader named Robert Clive led the British East India Company, which effectively had its own army, to victories of conquest against India. In doing so, he became one of the richest men in the world:

"[Through his military victories in 1757, Robert Clive] finally got his hands on his money. It was one of the largest corporate windfalls in history -- in modern terms around £232 million, of which £22 million was reserved for Clive. He immediately despatched his winnings downstream to Calcutta.

Lord Clive in military uniform. The Battle of Plassey is shown behind him.

"'The first fruit of our success was the receipt of Rs75 lakh, nearly a million sterling, which the Souba paid and was laid on board 200 boats, part of the fleet which attended us in our march up, escorted by a detachment from the army,' wrote Luke Scrafton, one of Clive's assistants.

"'As soon as they entered the great river, they were joined by the boats of the squadron, and all together formed a fleet of three hundred boats, with music playing, drums beating, the colours flying, and exhibited to the French and Dutch, whose settlements they passed, a scene far different from what they beheld a year before, when the Nabob's fleet and army passed them, with the captive English, and all the wealth and plunder of Calcutta. Which scene gave them more pleasure, I will not presume to decide'.

"Clive's winnings in 1757 was a story of personal enrichment very much in the spirit of the Caribbean privateers who had first founded the Company 157 years earlier: it was all about private fortunes for the officers and dividends for the Company, about treasure rather than glory, plunder rather than power. Yet this was only the beginning: in total around £1,238,575 was given by Mir Jafar to the Company and its servants, which included at least £170,000 personally for Clive. In all, perhaps £2.5 million was given to the Company by the Murshidabad Nawabs in the eight years between 1757 and 1765 as 'political gifts'. Clive himself estimated the total payments as closer to 'three million sterling'.

"Clive wrote to his father as he escorted his loot down the Bhagirathi, telling him that he had brought about 'a Revolution scarcely to be parallel'd in History'. It was a characteristically immodest claim; but he was not far wrong. The changes he had effected were permanent and profound. This was the moment a commercial corporation first acquired real and tangible political power. It was at Plassey that the Company had triumphantly asserted itself as a strong military force within the Mughal Empire. The Marathas who had terrorised and looted Bengal in the 1740s were remembered as cruel and violent. The Company's plunder of the same region a decade later was more orderly and methodical, but its greed was arguably deadlier because it was more skilful and relentless and, above all, more permanent.

"It initiated a period of unbounded looting and asset-stripping by the Company which the British themselves described as 'the shaking of the pagoda tree'. From this point, the nature of British trade changed: £6 million had been sent out in the first half of the century, but very little silver bullion was sent out after 1757. Bengal, the sink into which foreign bullion disappeared before 1757, became, after Plassey, the treasure trove from which vast amounts of wealth were drained without any prospect of return."



William Dalrymple


The Anarchy


Bloomsbury Publishing


Copyright William Dalrymple


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