The Battle of Plassey is a watershed moment in the history of India. Not only was it the first major victory of the East India Company [EIC], but it was also what transformed their fortunes in India. The decisive British victory against the combined forces of Siraj ud-Daulah and the French East India Company established their supremacy in the region and signalled that they were not ‘just one of the many European trading companies in India.’
In the early 18th century, India was a quarry of limitless opportunities – home to spices, and other luxurious goods prized by the Europeans. Since Jahangir’s reign, the Company used the subcontinent’s strategic location for expanding their business interests across the Persian Gulf and Asia. Bengal, one of the richest provinces at the time, prospered with the rise of native and migrant merchants (such as the Armenians); engaging in global trade with the Dutch, French and English companies. But the Battle of Plassey would change everything.
Take a look at the momentous Battle of Plassey through paintings of its key events, battle plan sketches and portraits of its belligerents!
1) Grooming the heir: Nawab Aliverdi Khan with his grandson Siraj ud-Daulah
Seated on the right is the Nawab of Bengal, Aliverdi Khan and his grandson Siraj ud-Daulah. The Nawab had come to power in 1740 in a military coup financially backed by the Jagat Seths. He was a stable ruler and had decent relations with the British.
2) The new Nawab: Siraj ud-Daulah and his new policies
Upon Alivardi Khan’s death in 1756, Siraj ud-Daulah assumed the throne. Daulah was openly hostile to British policies and favoured the French over them. The British had expected Aliverdi Khan’s son-in-law to be his heir and had focused on developing cordial relations with him rather than Daulah.
Both the French and British had been building fortifications in Calcutta. While Aliverdi Khan had tried to resolve the matter through diplomacy, Siraj ud-Daulah led an army of 30,000 men to surround the British Factory at Cossimbazar (Qasimbazar). In contrast, the British had only 200 men at standby and so they decided to surrender.
3) Sparking the Battle of Plassey: The Black Hole of Calcutta
The British officials were imprisoned in the dungeon of Fort William, also known as the Black Hole of Calcutta. According to Holwell’s account, only 23 out of the 146 people imprisoned survived. The rest had died either of asphyxiation, heat exhaustion or delirium. Shock waves of the incident spread to London and it was decided that quick retaliation was necessary.
4) Turning the tables: Clive goes to Calcutta
When news of this catastrophe and the fall of Calcutta reached the Council in Madras, they sent an expeditionary force to Bengal under Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Clive and Admiral Charles Watson. The land forces of Clive and the naval forces of Watson were successful in recapturing Calcutta and establishing the Council there. However that was not enough. It was necessary to the British interest in the region to eliminate this new threat.
5) French defeat: The capture of Chandernagore
The British first captured the French town of Chandernagar. The Nawab had tried to send help but the governor of Hooghly was bribed to remain inactive and prevent the Nawab’s reinforcements to Chandernagar. The incident deepened Siraj ud-Daulah’s distrust of the British.
6) Drawing up plans: Battle of Plassey
As tensions escalated, battle plans were drawn up. This plan was produced for the London Magazine in 1760 to show the advancement of British troop in the battle by horses (yellow) and by foot (red).
7) Marching to Plassey
Siraj-ud-Daulah had a numerically superior force with 50,000 soldiers, 40 cannons and 10 war elephants and made his stand at Plassey.
8) The Betrayal of Mir Jafar
As opposed to this, the British had only 30,000 men. Worried about being outnumbered, the British plotted a conspiracy with Siraj-ud-Daulah’s demoted army chief Mir Jafar, along with others such as Yar Lutuf Khan, Umichand, Rai Durlabh and the Jagat Seths. They decided they would betray the Nawab and never actually send in their troops as reinforcements.
9) How tarpaulins defeated the Nawab
Besides trusting Mir Jafar and the rest, the Nawab also made another blunder. Siraj ud-Daulah forgot to bring tarpaulins to the battle and when it began to rain, their cannons became useless. Assuming that the same had also happened to the British, Mir Madan, the Nawab’s trusted general, led a cavalry attack. The British opened fire once again and the general was fatally wounded.
10) Clive charges into the Battle of Plassey
The death of his most trusted general disturbed the Nawab deeply and he heeded the advice of Rai Durlabh to retreat and leave the battle to his generals. Clive saw this as an opportunity and launched a three pronged attack against the remaining troops. He estimated that the Nawab’s force lost 500 men, including several important officers.
11) Meeting of co-conspirators: Clive and Mir Jafar after the battle
According to the treaty between the two, after the battle, Clive recognised Mir Jafar as the Nawab of Bengal and the British acquired all the land within the Maratha Ditch (and 600 yards beyond it) and the Zamindari rights over the land between Calcutta and the sea. Donations were also to be made by the new Nawab to cover for the losses to the British naval and army squadrons.
The battle was both politically and economically beneficial to the British. This painting by Francis Hayman captures the British triumph and glory. The fluttering Great Union Flag in contrast to the mangled green & white flag on the ground depict the very different fates of the two camps.
Battle of Plassey : The Aftermath
With their newly gained confidence the British expanded further into India. They turned their attention to the Maratha lands next and entered into alliances with local rulers, controlling all the princely states one by one, either directly or through puppet rulers. With the power of the Mughal Empire dwindling, the EIC would go on to obtain more and more Diwani rights over India, and the Indian rulers would recede into the shadows. The victory in the Battle of Plassey also led to the realisation that with a sizeable military force, there was little that could prevent the Company’s domination of India.
Author Sudeep Chakravarti in his book ‘Plassey: The Battle That Changed The Course of Indian History’ tells the story through multiple perspectives. Instead of advocating for a particular side, Chakravarty gives a clinical description of the events that unfolded in the late 18th century. He has employed a variety of sources, including some Bengali sources that have till now been overlooked. His book is a fascinating retelling of the battle and offers a detailed understanding of the changing relationships forged by greed and mutual interest, and of the conspiracy that ensued.