With the Mughal (Mogul, Moghul) Empire in India in rapid decline in the 18th century, Great Britain and France became competitors for control of the subcontinent. Their rivalry was played out by employees of their respective East India Companies and when the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–48) and Seven Years’ War (1756–63) pitted Britain and France on opposing sides, India became a theater of war.
France won the first round when its agent in India Joseph Dupleix captured the British outpost Madras in 1746 and then extended French influence in the Indian state of Hyderabad.
However Dupleix was outmatched by a brilliant young Briton named Robert Clive, who decided to expand British power to the Bay of Bengal and the Ganges River delta during the Seven Years’ War. First he took revenge on the unpopular Mughal governor of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daula, for the death of many Britons in the infamous “Black Hole of Calcutta.”
He recaptured Calcutta in 1756, then moved upriver and captured the French fort at Chandernagore in the following year. In the next phase of the conflict, the French supported Siraj-ud-Daula, whose oppressive rule had alienated his Muslim noblemen, including the powerful Mir Jaffa. On the other hand Britain had the support of Bengali businessmen and bankers.
These rivalries culminated in the Battle of Plassey, June 23, 1757, which pitted Clive’s 1,000 European soldiers and 2,000 Indian sepoys (no cavalry) and eight cannons against Siraj-ud-Daula’s 50,000 combined infantrymen and cavalry and 50 cannons manned by French soldiers. Mir Jaffa’s neutrality and Siraj-ud-Daula’s flight in the midst of battle caused demoralization and the rout of the latter’s army. Clive lost only 22 European soldiers; fewer than 50 were wounded.
Clive’s victory was a turning point in Indian history. French influence was eliminated from Bengal, and at the end of the Seven Years’ War, from all of India. Britain’s client Mir Jaffa was invested the new governor of Bengal by the Mughal emperor in Delhi, who in turn granted landholder’s rights of 882 square miles around Calcutta to the British East India Company.
Clive remained in Bengal for two years to organize the new administration. In 1759, the Mughal emperor granted land tax rights of all Bengal and Bihar provinces to the British East India Company and made Clive the highest-ranking noble of the Mughal Empire.
The British government made Clive baron of Plassey. Events that developed after Clive’s victory at the Battle of Plassey would change the British East India Company from a trading company to a governing power and draw Britain to conquer the whole of India. Thus the Battle of Plassey was a historic turning point, and its principal participant Robert Clive an empire builder.