Clive of India: From humble start to divisive British Empire pioneer and unclear death

Rarely can one man have been as controversial in the history of the British Empire as Robert Clive.

Clive of India laid the foundations of the British Empire in India
Clive of India laid the foundations of the British Empire in India

By paving the way for the British grab of the whole of India, he was one of the founding fathers of the British Empire, and so played a key part in helping shape the map of the world.

His military skill and unscrupulous methods ensured that the French were shut out from the vast subcontinent – and that he lined his pockets with plundered dosh.

Robert Clive was a national hero – at least at first. But the more the 18th century public and Establishment learned of what he and others had got up to in India, the more he was despised, culminating in an unsuccessful Parliamentary attempt to censure him and strip him of all his riches.

Clive of India laid the foundations of the British Empire in India

A highly controversial figure even in his own time, his exploits in India saw him acquire extraordinary personal wealth by means which his enemies, of which there was no shortage, charged were corrupt, fraudulent, and dishonourable.

Clive was unabashed. He saw the shedloads of gold and jewels which came his way as gifts, legitimate war booty, or simply as doing things the way they were done in India.

"By God, Mr Chairman, at this moment I stand astonished at my own moderation," he famously said as he was interrogated in what we would call today a sleaze inquiry.

There is not much doubt that Robert Clive, known to history as Clive of India, was a rogue, a trait he exhibited from his Shropshire childhood when he was a tearaway who terrorised people in Market Drayton.

He came from a relatively humble background and in achieving greatness – or great prominence, if you prefer – overcame mental health issues which were to dog him throughout his life. He was a drug addict (opium) and a depressive, a man whose flaws were equal to his attributes.

In the end, he committed suicide, or probably did, as there is a question mark against that too.

The story begins at Styche Hall, Moreton Say, near Market Drayton, on September 29, 1725. The half timbered building where he was born no longer exists, having been rebuilt during his lifetime.

Clive's birthplace, the original Elizabethan timber-framed Styche Hall.

The early part of his childhood was spent in Manchester and he soon developed a reputation as being a pugnacious boy.

His family were already uneasy about him.

"Fighting, to which he is out of measure addicted, gives his temper such a fierceness and imperiousness that he flies out on every trifling occasion," said an uncle.

Returning to Market Drayton, his adventures bordered on what we now would call juvenile delinquency. Fact and legend are not easily separated.

One story tells how he led a gang running a protection racket among the town’s shopkeepers. Pay up or we'll smash your windows, he said.

Faced by a trader who wouldn’t pay up, Clive and his cronies built a dam with the aim of flooding the shop. As the dam began to crumble, the story goes, he threw himself into the breach.

And young Clive was said to have climbed to the top of St Mary’s Church tower and straddled a gargoyle to the astonishment of those below. The gargoyle, incidentally, is now at Powis Castle.

“Both of these manifestations, of recklessness and physical courage, are borne out in his later life. It’s consistent behaviour,” said Shropshire historian Keith Pybus, formerly of Market Drayton, who has researched the life of the town's famous son and has even been to India on his trail.

Clive was sent from school to school, and was considered an extremely naughty boy and an idle dunce. He was educated in part at the town’s old grammar school, in the shadow of the church.

His family expected nothing good from him and when aged only 17 he went out to Madras as a £5-a-year clerk, or “writer”, with the East India Company.

On arrival in India he was desperately unhappy and depressed, and the headstrong teenager behaved to his superiors as he had behaved to his school masters and was lucky to keep his job.

Twice he held a pistol to his head to end it all, and twice it failed to go off. Having satisfied himself that the pistol was properly loaded, this seems to have built within him a conviction that he had been spared to be a man of destiny.

In a later incident, Clive got into a duel over a game of cards. Aiming his pistol, he missed. The other duellist then put his pistol to Clive’s head, demanding he withdraw his cheating allegation or he would fire. Clive refused to do so. The other duellist threw away his pistol declaring that Clive was mad.

While Clive was in India the balloon went up when the French made a move, taking the town and fort at Madras. Clive fled in disguise and became a soldier in the service of the East India Company.

The life of a soldier clearly was a much better fit for his temperament, and his superiors noticed that he was a very able officer. The fighting in India involved rival French and British alliances with local rulers, statesmanship, intrigue, and duplicity, and at first the French were in the ascendancy.

Clive first distinguished himself by taking Arcot, which was the easy bit as the defenders ran away when he arrived with his tiny force. He then successfully withstood a 50-day siege of the fort, finally driving off the attackers. It was a victory which challenged the notion of French primacy in India.

Clive at the Siege of Arcot.

He added lustre to his reputation in further fighting, and returned victorious, but in failing health, to Madras. He married Margaret Maskelyne, the sister of an eminent mathematician, and almost immediately they returned to England. His victories had seen him win considerable sums of prize money.

He was returned as an MP in Cornwall, but it was ruled that he had been improperly returned and he was ejected from Parliament. The call of India was strong, and he went back in 1755 as a Lieutenant Colonel. He was quickly faced with a crisis in the province of Bengal which was under the control of a young despot named Surajah Dowlah who took the fort at Calcutta.

The English captives were then thrown into the Black Hole of Calcutta, with 146 of them packed into a dungeon 20ft square in high summer. There were only 23 survivors and the English were bent on vengeance, which was soon meted out by Clive's forces, with a climatic battle being fought at Plassey, about 100 miles north of Calcutta.

It was a rout. Despite having only about 3,000 troops to face a force of around 50,000, Clive scored a victory which laid the ground for the British becoming the greatest economic and military power in India. He, and others, were also showered with wealth, the fruits of victory.

Militarily his name was now so great that he only had to turn up at a battle for his enemies to melt away.

On his return to England in 1760 he enjoyed honours and rewards. He was elected the Shrewsbury MP, and later became Mayor, and was made Baron Clive of Plassey, an Irish peerage which hints at the fact that the Establishment hadn't quite taken to him. He interpreted it as a snub.

He returned to India one last time in 1765. Riven by misgovernment and corruption, his task was to sort the place out and make reforms.

When he returned to Britain chickens started coming home to roost. Public opinion had turned against those who had acquired vast wealth in India. The activities of the East India Company and its servants aroused much indignation.

Clive didn't help himself by living in ostentatious luxury, and once ordered 200 shirts asking for "the best and finest that can be got for love or money."

In Surrey, as his stately home was rising at Claremont, it was whispered that the walls were so thick so as to keep out the devil who would one day carry him away.

Contempt was deepened by a devastating famine in India 1770 which led to millions of deaths. Although Clive had left India for good in 1767, it increased his unpopularity.

There was a Parliamentary inquiry into Clive's dodgy dealings. It resolved that acquisitions made by the arms of the State belonged to the State alone, and that it was illegal for servants of the State to line their own pockets. It also resolved that this principle had been systematically violated in Bengal. But it left it at that, and Clive was also praised for his "great and meritorious services."

Whether Clive had been a servant of the State, as opposed to a company man, was a disputed point. In any event, the effect of the outcome was that he had got off.

Keith Pybus says Clive was great not only as a military leader but also as an administrator and undoubtedly aspired to be the Prime Minister.

“Because he had become the richest man in the country who had not inherited vast amounts of land he had stirred up so much jealousy it was unlikely he was going to make that step.

“Also socially he was off too low a rung of the ladder. He never forgave them for giving him an Irish peerage, which is regarded as second order,” said Keith.

Clive had various homes in Shropshire – Clive House in Shrewsbury, where he lived when MP and mayor of Shrewsbury; Walcot at Lydbury North, reputed to be Lady Clive’s favourite; and Condover Hall.

His son married into the Powis family which explains why many Indian treasures are on display at Powis Castle.

Clive died in 1774 at his home in Berkeley Square, London. Although the circumstances are unclear – suicide was a crime and a disgrace and his family put up a smokescreen – it is thought he stabbed himself in the throat while racked by stomach pains.

The report of his death carried by the Shrewsbury Chronicle of November 26, 1774, said he died in his 49th year of age after five days' illness, and a further report the following week said: "The late Lord Clive was just ready to set out for Bath by the Advice of his Physicians, but when his Footman went up Stairs to inform him that the Coach was ready at the Door, he found his Lordship dead."

A report in the Shrewsbury Chronicle of Saturday, November 26, 1774, of the death of Robert Clive, Clive of India.

He was buried at St Margaret’s Church in Moreton Say but no-one knew where until his coffin was found during work in the church in 1900.

Clive has attracted new scrutiny in this age of statue-toppling, and it has been agreed that his statue in The Square, Shrewsbury, should be given an "interpretation board."

The folk of Shrewsbury didn't exactly rush to put up the statue to him – it was not unveiled until January 18, 1860, many decades after his death.

This picture of the statue which has pride of place in The Square, Shrewsbury, may have been taken soon after it was erected.

Keith, who must rank as one of the foremost experts on his life, said: "I remember that when we were naming the Clive Steps in Market Drayton that I encountered the Deputy High Commissioner for India and I raised the question of Clive's status with him. He said: 'He is as much a part of our history as he is of yours.' I thought that was a lovely thing to say.

"And I love his statue in Shrewsbury. That's a spiffing image of him.

"I went to India specifically in pursuit of Clive and when I discovered the church at which he was married I was thrilled. There was also a big block where he had begun in India as a clerk."

Some of Clive's vast accumulation of wealth was rediscovered relatively recently, by divers on a shipwreck off South Africa.

Sailing on his second return to India in 1755 he had put a hoard of 830 gold coins in a treasure chest on board the ship Dodington which, being faster than the rest of the convoy, went ahead. Dodington ran aground in heavy weather and only 23 of the 279 aboard survived. Clive was on a different ship, to which he had switched at the last moment.

The shipwreck was found in 1977 and artefacts were subsequently recovered, and gold coins which were claimed to be "Clive's Gold" later went under the hammer.

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