The Company’s entry into India had begun with the Battle of Plassey in Bengal in 1757. The Company’s forces were led by a young man, Robert Clive, who was a humble accountant with no training in warfare. More than once, he would return to England, only to be sent back to India. He made no effort to fit into Indian culture. In fact, he abhorred the natives and their customs. He refused to learn the local languages. In his writings, he would refer to the Muslims as “the Moors.”
To everyone’s surprise, including presumably his own, he was very successful militarily. But those victories meant little to him. All he wanted was to return to England and become a Member of Parliament – which eventually he did become. Much as he disliked India, it enriched him to the extent of 300 million pounds in today’s currency. He was made a lord. A rich man, he toured the continent of Europe, but a tragic ending awaited him.
He faced impeachment by Parliament for a series of misdeeds in India. He was eventually vindicated but went into depression and killed himself at the age of 49 in his own townhouse in Berkely Square by using a blunt paper knife to cut his jugular vein. He was buried anonymously in the same church where he was born.
Samuel Johnson wrote the ultimate obituary: Clive “had acquired his fortune by such crimes that his consciousness of them impelled him to cut his own throat.”
Warren Hastings succeeded him. Unlike Clive, he fell in love with India. He learned Bengali and Urdu and was fluent in Persian. Yet, on 13 February 1788, Warren Hastings was put on trial after impeachment by the House of Lords. At the trial, 170 lords were present, along with “bewigged and ermined judges, black-robed lawyers for both sides, and 200 members of the House of Commons […] this was not just the greatest public spectacle in the age of George III, it was the nearest the British ever got to putting the Company’s Indian Empire on trial […] They did so with one of their greatest orators […] Edmund Burke.”
In his opening speech, Burke accused Hastings of the raping India “with injustice and treachery against the faith of nations.” He said that Hastings was quite simply a criminal, “a robber […] wallowing in corruption […] like a wild beast, he groans in corners over the dead and dying.”
The speech lasted four days. He accused the East India Company of “stripping India of its assets, like an army going to pillage the people under the pretense of commerce […] their business is more like robbery than trade.”
Seven years later, on 23 April 1795, Hastings was ultimately cleared of all charges. But those seven years had scarred the final years of his life. He died a broken man.
After the Great Uprising of 1857, the Company was removed from power. The British Raj took its place a year later. The Company was dissolved in 1874, with “less fanfare than a bankrupt regional railway”
The trial also permanently tarnished the Company. Poetic, some would say divine, justice was served – and not by the Indians, but the British themselves.
The Company had gained control of India through an interminable series of battles, often involving the French, who, on Emperor Napoleon’s urgings, were actively guiding and assisting a number of the local regional powers in the south and in the west. French troops were on Indian soil, actively participating in the battles.
Dalrymple describes the battles in vivid detail. Once again, we see the classic principles of warfare being validated. Frontal attacks are costly and fail to bring victory. What wins are carefully-thought-out indirect attacks, directed at the enemy’s weak spots, coupled with surprise and speed.
The role of intelligence about the enemy’s intentions and deployments cannot be overstated. Neither can the role of engineers, logistics and supply. Discipline and training are invaluable in the heat of battle. And superior weaponry plays an enormous role in deciding who will win and who shall lose.
The man Parliament sent out replace Hastings in India had a reputation for incorruptibility. He had had the misfortune to surrender the British forces under his command in North America at Yorktown in Virginia to General George Washington. Lord General Cornwallis landed in Calcutta in August 1786, looking forward to a brighter future.
Tipu Sultan was defeated by English forces commanded by Lord Wellesley, the elder brother of Arthur Wellesley, who was a major-general fighting under his brother’s command against the Indians. Arthur would later return to England and gain fame as the Duke of Wellington who defeated Napoleon in Waterloo, and be elected Prime Minister.
Tipu Sultan died while fighting in what can only be characterised as a hero’s death. On getting the news, Lord Wellesley remarked: “I drink to the corpse of India.” In less than two years, Wellesley had disarmed the largest French force in India, and gone on to defeat and destroy the second largest. Now only the Marathas stood in the way of his mastery of India. They held vast territories in western, central and southern India.
Seven decades had elapsed since the death of Emperor Aurangzeb. The Marathas were now the strongest military power in India and had played a powerful role in dismembering the Mughal Empire.
Wellesley defeated them in the Battle of Delhi, thereby gaining control of half a million square miles of territory. The Mughal Emperor was allowed to sit on the throne, but he would henceforth be a sovereign just in name. Dalrymple says, “The sinews of British supremacy were now established,” noting that India would remain in British hands for another 144 years.
However, Wellesley had come close to bankrupting the Company during six years of incessant fighting. In 1803, the Company’s Board of Directors got the news that he was building an enormous Government House in Calcutta. In horror, they recalled him. In 1813, Parliament abolished the Company’s monopoly of trade with India. In 1833, Parliament essentially turned the Company into a government body.
After the Great Uprising of 1857, the Company was removed from power. The British Raj took its place a year later. The Company was dissolved in 1874, with “less fanfare than a bankrupt regional railway.”
The fate that befell Clive and Hastings, and the Company whom they represented, is rich with pathos – worthy of being dramatised by a Shakespeare and staged at the Globe or set to a musical score by a Puccini and staged at the Royal Opera House in London.
When the British liberated India in August 1947, it was not because they had lost a battle. In fact, they had won two world wars. But the winning had left them enervated. The British Empire had come to an end, not just in India but in the globe.