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Overview of a Great Battle at Plessey in 1757 That Made the British Masters of India
In the Indian state of Bengal there is a small village called Plessey about a 100 km from Calcutta. It is a non-descript place now, but its strategic importance in world history is incalculable, as at this place a battle was fought between the East India Company and the local ruler Nawab Siraj-ud Dowlah that changed the course of Indian History. To quote Field Marshal Viscount Barnard Montgomery the famous British Commander of World war II in his History of warfare “It was the most significant battle fought by the British in India”.
The battle fought on 23rd July 1757 resulted in the complete domination of the British over Eastern India and the start of 190 years of British rule that ended in 1947. This battle made India the brightest jewel in the British crown.
Build up to the battle
The 18th century was a period of great turmoil in India. The Mughal rule which had commenced in 1526 after the first battle of Panipat had collapsed. The Mughal Empire had broken in to small parts and Hyderabad, Punjab and East India had broken away from Delhi. The Sikhs established their hold in the Punjab and in the south; local Mughal satrap’s usurped power. In the east also the states of Bihar, Bengal and Oudh came under the sway of Nawab Zain-u-ddin.
Nawab Zain-u ddin and the Anointment of Siraj as Nawab
Nawab Zain-U ddin was the Nawab of East India. He was getting old but had no heir. The Nawab was desperate to anoint an heir so that his dynasty could carry on. The Nawab had a grandson named Siraj who was the son of Ali Vardi Khan who was the ruler of Bengal. The daughter of Ali Vardi Khan was the mother of Nawab Zainuddin.
Ali Vardi khan had no sons as such he anointed his grandson Siraj as the ruler of Oudh, Bengal and Bihar. In April 1756 Siraj was crowned Nawab at the young age of 23.
Court Intrigue and Consipracy
The anointment of Siraj as Nawab did not go down well with the senior courtiers of the Nawab and they plotted to remove Siraj. The courtiers were led by Mir Jafar who thought of opening lines to the East India Company which had its headquarters at Fort William in Calcutta. These traitors offered the East India company help in defeating the Siraj in case they were to join battle with him.
The British looking for a foot hold readily consented to the plan of Mir Jafar.
Reaction of Nawab Siraj Ud Dowlah
Nawab Siraj came to know of the plan of Mir Jafar. He asked Mir Jafar about it, who denied everything. The Nawab contacted the company headquarters at Calcutta, but the British who were in league with Mir Jafar did not give any reply.
Attack on Calcutta
Exasperated at the lack of a reply from the British the Nawab turned to the French for help. The French were at Cossim Bazaar near Calcutta and they readily consented to help Siraj. The French representative Jean Law promised military support with guns and ammunition. Based on these assurances the Nawab attacked Calcutta and the British taken by surprise were defeated and Fort William was occupied.
The British Reaction
The British in India at that time were headed by Robert Clive. He was a genius having risen from the position of a clerk in the Company office to the post of Commander of the East India Company army.
Clive moved troops from Madras to Calcutta and he made plans to confront nawab Siraj.
Both Sides Ready for Battle
The Nawab thought it prudent to vacate Fort William and face the British at a village about a 100 km from Calcutta at Plessey. He had about 50,000 troops as well as 40 guns from the French army which were manned by French Gunners. It was a formidable force, but unknown to nawab Siraj, his commander in Chief Mir Jafar had already contacted Robert Clive and promised all help. He had a one point condition that he be recognized as Nawab after the battle. Clive consented.
Clive had about 10000 troops and a similar number of guns, with one exception, the British guns had the longer range compared to the French guns.
Clive marched out from Calcutta towards Plessey, confident that he would win as Mir Jafar was on his side. The stage was thus set for the greatest battle in that period.
The opposing forces met for battle on 23 July 1757. The Battle commenced at 7 am with the Nawabs force leading the charge with covering fire from the French guns. The British were hard pressed and would have probably lost. At this critical juncture Nawab Siraj ordered Mir Jafar to mount an attack on the British to finish the battle. Mir Jafar refused and in fact ordered a retreat.
Clive was waiting for this moment and the long range British guns opened up. In the confusion the Nawabs army fled
The British suffered very few casualties, while the Nawab’s force lost 2000 dead. One other factor compounded the situation. A heavy thundershower commenced and drenched the battle field. The British had taken precautions and covered their guns while the French did not.
The Genius of Clive
After the defeat of Nawab Siraj, Clive was appointed governor of Bengal Nawab Siraj who was just 24 was captured and handed over to Mir Jafar This decision of Robert Clive looks perverse, but he didn’t expect the consequences. Clive appointed Mir Jafar as Nawab, but he treated him with contempt all through.
Mir Jafar and his son Mir Marab took a decision to execute nawab Siraj. On 27 July 1757, the young Nawab Siraj was beheaded by a man named Mohammad Ali Baig. This forever has remained a black day in Indian history. He was executed on 27 July 1757 on the orders of Mir Marab the son of Mir Jafar. The executioner was Mohammad Ali Baig a confident of Mir Jafar.
All the characters in this drama did not survive long. After the execution of Nawab Siraj, Mir Jafar died in 1765 and Robert Clive committed suicide as he was addicted to opium. The curtain thus came down on the most significant battle In British India history and paved the way for British rule in India