The movement to pull down statues of Robert Clive has attracted some influential voices. In his Spectator Diary, Tristram Hunt says he’s been approached by my old friend the historian William Dalrymple to see whether the V&A museum would take the Whitehall statue of Clive. Fresh from his Brexit battles, Lord Adonis has joined the fray.
But Hunt doesn’t want anything to do with the ‘corrupt and colonising’ Clive. Many of Clive’s contemporaries would have felt the same way. The trouble is their views were formed by ‘fake news’ which, like its 21st century counterpart, was contrived for partisan political purposes and was uncritically accepted by persons who should have known better.
Shropshire’s most famous son was born in 1725. As a teenager, he was sent to Madras to work as a clerk (writer) for the East India Company. At the time, this was the fastest route to fortune – equivalent to entering the City of London in our day. In 1746, the French drove the British out of Madras and Clive soon found himself in uniform. While still in his mid-twenties, he led Company troops to a famous victory at Arcot against overwhelmingly superior forces. In 200 days in 1757, Clive recaptured Calcutta which had been overrun by the local ruler Siraj ud-Daula, took the French fort at Chandannagar and decisively defeated Siraj at Plassey. Prime minister William Pitt hailed the ‘heaven-sent general.’ But after Clive committed suicide at the age of 49, Dr Johnson opined that he ‘had acquired his fortune by such crimes that his consciousness of them impelled him to cut his own throat.’
To modern eyes, Clive’s chief crime was that he was a coloniser. Yet it was the Frenchman Joseph-François Dupleix, head of the French East India Company, who first dreamt of building a European empire on the subcontinent. Clive was a reluctant imperialist. He was bold in battle but did not initiate warfare. The decision to attack the French in Bengal was taken by his colleague Admiral Watson after the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War. The decision to depose the tyrant Siraj, whom Dalrymple describes in his book The Anarchy as a ‘bisexual rapist,’ was made after the British were approached by disgruntled ministers and by Bengal’s effective kingmakers, the powerful banking family the Jagat Seths.
After Plassey, Clive realised there was no going back. When he returned to Calcutta in the mid-1760s it was to root out corruption among East India Company officials and military officers. Macaulay considered Clive’s civil actions more praiseworthy than his military exploits. But it earned him bitter enemies. In London, Clive was also at loggerheads with Laurence Sulivan, the wily chairman of the EIC.
Two years after Clive left India for the last time in 1767, a famine broke out in Bengal. His enemies filled newspapers blaming Clive for creating a monopoly trade in salt, which they claimed aggravated the crisis. A former EIC servant turned ‘whistleblower’, William Bolts, who’d been sacked for brutality and corruption, published scurrilous accusations, including the unverified claim that Bengali weavers cut off their fingers to avoid being press-ganged into Company factories. Horace Walpole fell for this propaganda hook, line and sinker, writing hysterically to his friend Horace Mann in March 1772:
“‘The groans of India are mounted to heaven, where the heaven-born General Lord Clive will be certainly disavowed... We have murdered, deposed, plundered, usurped – nay, what think you of the famine in Bengal in which three millions perished, being caused by a monopoly of the provisions, by the servants of the East India Company?’
Perhaps a third of Bengal’s population died in the famine. According to Warren Hastings, the Company ‘violently’ exacted revenue during the crisis and not enough was done to provide relief. But the famine was not caused by the salt monopoly, a longstanding Mughal practice, nor was Clive responsible for the tragic loss of life.
In his biography, the Bengali intellectual Nirad C. Chaudhuri claims that Clive aroused resentment at home because he’d landed the English with power in India that they neither desired nor knew what to do with. This partly explains Dr Johnson’s ‘little Englander’ distaste. Added to this was snobbish resentment at the massive wealth accumulated by Indian nabobs. Clive gained a fortune so large that it upset the established social order – Walpole, the son of a prime minister, was obsessed with it. There’s no doubt that Clive was eager to get rich, but he believed his wealth was earned fairly by victories in the field and the free gift of an annuity (jaghir) from the Nawab Mir Jaffir.
When his affairs were examined by Parliament, Clive declared that after Plassey he ‘walked through vaults which were thrown open to me alone, piled on either hand with gold and jewels... at this moment, I am astonished by my own moderation.’ This protestation has elicited sneers over the centuries, but consider the fortune of Mir Jaffir’s successor, who owned 300 treasure elephants packed with gold. Clive was extremely generous not just to his family and friends, but also to former colleagues and military families. After acquiring a large slice of Monmouthshire, he ensured that tenants on unfertile land were charged only ‘homage’ or peppercorn rents.
It was understandable that Mughal chroniclers, like Ghulam Hussain Khan, much cited by Dalrymple, should look back to a mythical golden age, and it is entirely predictable that Indian nationalist historians should continue in this vein. But out of the anarchy that accompanied the collapse of the Mughal Empire, a new order was destined to arise. For better or worse, Clive ensured that this new order should be British.
His countrymen were slow to recognise his achievements in bronze and stone. As Chaudhuri comments, the statue of the former Governor-General Lord William Bentinck was already green with patina before a statue to Clive was erected in Calcutta. The Clive statue in Whitehall was unveiled in 1912. Fake news delayed these public memorials to Clive, we shouldn’t allow it to distort our current judgements of the man.