India: Peeps at History - Beatrice Home

From the Black Hole to Plassey

The ruler of the great provinces of Bengal, Orissa, and Behar was Surajah Dowlah. Young in years but old in wickedness, cowardly, revengeful, and cruel, this prince hated the English. Their growing prosperity and power alarmed him, while they had enraged him by giving shelter to a native whom he wished to kill.

Suddenly, with a huge army, he advanced upon Calcutta, burning and plundering all the villages on his way. The garrison was a small one and the fortifications weak. The town was panic-stricken. Had a courageous soul like Clive been present, how different it all might have been. But it is sad and shameful to record that the Governor, Mr. Drake, and Captain Minchin, the commandant, ran away. These cowards escaped to the ships in the river and left the rest, with the women and children, to the mercy of the enemy. The hero of this terrible time was a brave civilian, Mr. Howell. He did all he could to resist and then made terms with Surajah Dowlah, who promised them their safety. But in spite of this occurred the terrible tragedy of the Black Hole of Calcutta.

Those who have not lived in the fierce heat of the Indian plains in summer, when the scorching rays of the sun are succeeded by such stifling heat that even birds fall to the ground gasping for breath, can have no idea of the awful sufferings of those who died in an agony of suffocation on that night of June 20, 1756. In the guard-room of the fort a space of 18 ft. square had been walled in to form a prison cell, and into this 146 men and one woman were driven and crushed with clubs and bayonets, to suffocate in that stifling, airless darkness.

Brave Mr. Howell's words of advice were drowned by the cries and moans of the terrified crowd. Some sank down, to be trampled to death by those who with frantic shrieks cried for air, or struggled and fought for the few drops of water with which their guards tantalised them in their raging thirst, laughing at their prayers for mercy and entreaties that the dead and dying might be removed. So it went on through the horror of that awful night, the cries and moans ever growing fewer and more faint, until, when the doors were opened in the morning, from the heap of bodies piled upon one another in the Black Hole only twenty-three were carried out alive, amongst them the woman, Mrs. Carey, whose husband had perished.

To add to our misfortunes, war had again broken out with France, and a powerful French force was being prepared in Europe to attack the English position in India. After some delay at Madras, Clive dashed northwards with a force to recover Calcutta before the French could reach the East. Fortunately, their arrival was delayed for two years, and in the meantime Clive and Admiral Watson retook Calcutta.

In connection with this an amusing incident occurred. The enemy were holding Fort William, which Clive was about to attack, and some sailors were landed to help him. One of these, Strahan by name, getting intoxicated, wandered off at dawn and, stumbling on the fort, crawled through a hole which our artillery fire had knocked in the wall. In a moment he found himself among the garrison, but, caring for nothing, he fired his pistol and slashed right and left with his cutlass in the most desperate fashion, shouting lustily the while, "I've took the fort! I've took the fort!" The garrison, believing him to be the leader of a storming party, fired wildly in all directions and fled, and the English troops, hearing the commotion, rushed up to find Strahan in proud possession of Fort William. On being ordered up for punishment next morning he swore that if he were flogged he would never, as long as he lived, take another fort by himself.

[Illustration] from Peeps at History - India by Beatrice Home


When, soon after, Surajah Dowlah again advanced with 40,000 men, Clive broke into the midst of his army in a fog and, although he had to retire in some confusion, Surajah Dowlah was so frightened by the daring of the attempt that he made peace and retreated.

But we had trusted the scoundrel too easily. Clive had just seized the French settlement of Chandanagore when we heard that Surajah Dowlah had secretly promised the French his support. But while he thus plotted, others, in true Oriental fashion, were likewise plotting against this monster of cruelty and wickedness. Their scheme was to place Meer Jaffier, the commander-in-chief, on the throne, and they appealed to the English for assistance. It was quite plain that delay would be fatal, for the new French expedition might be nearing India, and unless Surajah Dowlah were crushed at once we should be attacked by a very powerful alliance. Whereas, if successful, we should in reality become overlords of Bengal, Orissa, and Behar.

The details of our share in the plot against Surajah Dowlah are too long and complicated to tell here. Everything depended on swift action, and Clive, whose whole early life seems to have been spent in desperate adventures, now undertook what was, perhaps, the most desperate of them all. With only 3000 men he set out for Surajah Dowlah's capital, Murshedabad. Barring his way, at a village called Plassey, stood a huge army of 50,000 men, strengthened by a small body of French troops. Part of this was commanded by Meer Jaffier, and although he had promised to come over to the English during the battle, Clive had discovered him to be on such friendly terms with the Nabob that there was good reason to suspect him of playing false. Most probably he intended to see how the battle went before taking any decided step. At all events, an officer of Meer Jaffier's met our leading troops at Cutwa and dared us to advance further. So things looked pretty black. It was at this point that Clive called that famous council of war to decide whether we should advance or encamp where we stood. Every officer but seven voted for delay. Clive himself voted with them, but his heart was with the bolder seven. So, breaking up the council, he retired to the solitude of some trees hard by, and for a whole hour he reconsidered the verdict.



Then, at last, with his mind made up, the young leader returned to his little army and gave the order that all were to advance against the enemy at sunrise on the morrow.

On the evening of June 22, 1757, the little English force halted by a mango-grove surrounded by a low mud-bank close to the village of Plassey. As they lay down to rest that night they could hear strange bursts of native music from the great army in their front. Perhaps they thought of their forefathers at Crecy and Agincourt, for there was much in their situation that was similar.

A few hours later the sun rose on a day that was to decide the fate of India, when Clive and his valiant three thousand stood ready for battle in front of the mango tope, the centre of an immense semicircle of fifty thousand men. Again and again in the history of England our armies have been strangely assisted by some providential occurrence. A storm dispersed the great Armada, and a deluge of rain just before the onset at Crecy soaked the bow-strings of the French archers and rendered them useless. Many a time have we been similarly aided by accidents when the desperate valour of our fighting-men might not have saved them. Let us not, therefore, boast of our own triumphs, but regard them, in spite of our much wrongdoing, as the will of the Lord of Hosts.

A strange thing now helped us at Plassey. The battle began with a hot fire from the French artillery on the right of the Nabob's army. This compelled Clive, who could not afford to lose many men, to withdraw his force into the shelter of the mangoes, with the intention of holding this position until night enabled him to make an attack in the darkness.

No sooner had he done so than suddenly, as of old at Crecy, a deluge of rain burst over the battle-field. At Crecy our archers cased their bows and kept them dry. So now Clive's gunners covered their guns and ammunition with handy tarpaulins. But the rain destroyed the powder stores of the great host opposed to them, who were in consequence unable to use either muskets or artillery.

Believing, however, that the English were just as badly off, the Nabob's huge army advanced with confidence to crush the small force in the mangoes by weight of numbers. But as they came on in thick masses a terrific fire of shot and shell burst from the English position, and shattered their dense columns to pieces. The ground was heaped with dead and wounded, and the rest of the host, with its best leaders fallen, reeled back in confusion. Surajah Dowlah, with a guard of two thousand horsemen, galloped off to his capital, while his broken army fell back upon its camp still smitten by the deadly fire of the pursuing English.

The French troops made a gallant resistance, but the traitor Meer Jaffier had now drawn his men away from the battle, and the rest of the army broke into wild and tumultuous flight, carrying the French with them. Thus was Plassey fought and won. Strange to tell, our little army lost only twenty-two men, killed and wounded.

Clive pushed on to Murshedabad, and Meer Jaffier was proclaimed as Nabob of the three provinces. Surajah Dowlah escaped for the moment, but was captured three days later by the soldiers of Meer Jaffier and put to death without delay before Clive heard of it.

[Illustration] from Peeps at History - India by Beatrice Home


Thus, when the new French force under General Count Lally at last reached India, we had made ourselves masters of Bengal, Orissa, and Behar, the richest part of India, for Meer Jaffier could only rule under our supervision. We were now free to meet the French, whose fortunes under Lally's leadership soon went from bad to worse. For he quarrelled with his best officers and irritated his Indian allies. He tried to capture Madras, but was beaten off with heavy loss, for our fleet had now driven away the French ships, and although commanding a strong French force, Lally failed to do more for some time than march it to and fro. But at last, after many months of manoeuvring against an English army under Eyre Coote, Lally attempted to recapture the fort of Wandewash which we had taken from the French.

Eyre Coote came upon him at this place, and a fierce battle ensued between the British and French regular troops, as fierce as that in which, only four months earlier, Wolfe had won Quebec on the Heights of Abraham. At Wandewash the brilliant leadership of Coote and Draper won a great victory, which completely wiped out French rivalry in southern India. A year later Pondicherry was taken, and soon after the flag of France had ceased to fly in India.