Wednesday 15 February 2023

The Battle of Plassey: The Victory that won an Empire (1757)

 The road from the old imperial capital of Kolkata (Calcutta) up to the site of the battlefield at Plassey is not for the faint hearted. An arterial route running alongside the Hoogli river it passes close to the historic town of Barrackpore and winds its' way up through countless towns and villages before reaching a recently installed memorial arch which 'announces' that Plassey has been reached. We chose Indian National Day to travel, not the wisest move - but something that did enrich the journey somewhat as everyone seemed to be dressed in their very best finery - a riot of colour.

On the Road to Plassey

Robert Clive (Clive of India) famously made his reputation at Plassey and on the way up we swung by the decaying ruins of his once great house, in the suburb of Dum Dum (near the ammunition factory), Kolkata. Sadly the place is in a dreadful state, unstable and gradually collapsing. There is talk of a preservation effort, but even securing the site would be difficult given that there are a number temporary looking dwellings within the perimeter of the building. Those who live there would need to be rehoused and compensated.

Clive's House, Kolkata

The town of Barrackpore (Barrackpur) was the first British barracks complex (cantonment) built in India. It's colonial history goes back to 1772 after the British Crown had assumed control of the area from the East India Company - as a result of the British victory at Plassey. We were unable to gain entry to the recently refurbished Flagstaff House or the extensive grounds. This was a shame as, apart from the house itself, we were keen to see the old British statues which had been displaced from public spaces in Kolkata post 1947. The town has a prominent place in the Indian nationalist historical narrative as the Indian Rebellion (Mutiny) of 1857 was sparked on one of its' parade grounds when Mangal Pandey declined to accept an order from his British Commanding Officer. Pandey is now feted as a national hero across the sub-continent. 

British Statues in the grounds of Flagstaff House

There are few battles in history, that had as profound a set of consequences as Plassey. Towards the end of the Eighteenth Century Britain was emerging as Europe's most powerful nation - to the discomfort of France. British influence and control in the sub-continent was exercised through the trading and policing activities of the increasingly powerful East India Company. The ruler of Bengal, Nawab Siraj-ud-daulah, sought to put an end to this dominance and enlisted the help of the French. The culmination of this military challenge came at Plassey where, in a handful of hours, Robert Clive's 3,000 strong combined force of British soldiers, Sepoys and East India Company men saw off a Franco-Bengali force numbering 18,000.

The Plassey Monument - Erected 1857

The memorial on the battlefield was built on the first centenary of the battle in 1857 on the site of the Hunting Lodge which sat at the heart of Clive's positions on the east bank of the River Hoogli. We spent quite a bit of time pouring over contemporary maps and whilst the Hoogli has changed course over the year, the consensus was that the memorial was almost certainly in the 'right place'. That can not be said about the memorial stones purportedly capping a battlefield gravesite centred on the Nawab's main position (his 'camp'). This latter memorial, erected in 1973, consists of a raised brick plinth surmounted by three obelisks each commemorating a named individual. 
The Plassey Battlefield - India National Day

The Nawab's Memorial - Erected 1973

The battle started with an artillery duel during which two large water tanks providing some cover for Clive's men. There are water tanks on the battlefield today - large water-filled rectangular reservoirs but these are almost certainly not in the same place as the originals. As the fight developed, a mixture of tactical superiority, better disciple and changing weather (heavy rain) meant that the balance tipped towards the British and with the death of one of the senior Bengali commanders, Mir Madan, and the Nawab's flight from the battlefield victory was secured. Clive had no cavalry so the pursuit was not prolonged, but the battle had been decisive and British hegemony in Bengal was secured.

For photographs of Plassey and Barrackpore click here.