Mar 22 2016

The Battle of Plassey

Published by at 4:11 pm under History

This is a piece on a history event you’ve probably never heard about but its implications have been unimaginable.

A great misfortune of growing up in the West is that general surveys of history almost completely ignore the East. There’s a story from India that took place in the 1700s that’s just incredible.

We’ve all heard of Gandhi. But what’s less known is why Gandhi is famous. Gandhi was the leader of the Indian Independence movement that lasted from 1915 until 1947. He wanted the British to leave India. Ultimately, he succeeded. But what’s even lesser known is how the British came to power in India at all. This piece will cover a fateful day that gave the British much power – June 23, 1757. But first, a little backstory.

The year is 1756. The Indian subcontinent has been ruled by the Mughal empire for 200 years but that power has dissolved and European countries want to fill the vacuum. The British, French, Portuguese, Dutch and, strangely, Armenians are moving all over India. In eastern India, a prime seat of power is in a place called Murshidabad, about 70 miles north of Calcutta.

The ruler (or Nawab, as they were known at the time) is a man named Siraj-ud-Daulah. For about a decade, the British have been trying to undermine him. They’ve been stealing money and fortifying their outposts against the express commands of Siraj-ud-Daulah.

Finally, Siraj has had enough. He attacks the British in Calcutta at Fort William in June in what becomes known as The Siege of Calcutta. The British commander, Roger Drake, assembles a force of 500 rookie soldiers to defend the fort. Siraj quickly breaches the walls. Drake flees, leaving a surgeon, John Holwell, to remain behind with a small force. But Holwell and his men are overwhelmed by Siraj’s forces and thrown into the fort’s prison – an 18ft x 14ft room intended for no more than 2-4 prisoners at a time. Holwell claims the number of prisoners is 146, although most historians dispute this number, saying it’s inflated and maybe more on the order of 60-70 men. Regardless, a lot of people are in a small space on a very hot Indian summer night. Siraj goes to sleep the evening of June 20, 1756.

Throughout the night, the British prisoners plead with their Mughal captors to move them out of the room. Unsympathetic, the guards do nothing but offer small quantities of water through a tiny window. When Siraj wakes up in the morning and orders the cell opened, dozens of the British prisoners have died from asphyxiation and heat exhaustion. This is the room that becomes known as The Black Hole of Calcutta.

Holwell survives and his account of the incident births a retribution for the massacre. The British East India Company sends Colonel Robert Clive, stationed in southern India, up the coast with 3,000 soldiers to the outskirts of Calcutta to prepare for a battle. But Clive’s forces are outnumbered at least 6 to 1 by Siraj’s 12,000 men. Knowing a battle against these odds is foolhardy, the British begin searching for Indians disaffected with Siraj who may be interested in betraying Siraj and changing sides. They find their man – Mir Jafar.

Mir Jafar was a man known to Siraj. Mir Jafar had served as a brave military commander under Siraj’s father, Nawab Alivardi Khan. But Mir Jafar tried to overthrow Alivardi Khan and was dismissed.

In spite of this, with the British forces now advancing, Siraj forgives Mir Jafar for his prior treachery and asks him to fight against the British. Mir Jafar agrees to help and is placed in charge of one of three divisions for the battle. But what Siraj doesn’t know is that Mir Jafar has cut a deal with the British. Mir Jafar will sacrifice his entire division to the British in exchange for being named the new Nawab of Bengal.

Almost exactly one year to the day of the Siege of Calcutta and the deaths in The Black Hole, The Battle of Plassey begins some 90 miles north of Calcutta. The British, though far outnumbered, easily win the battle. Mir Jafar is named Nawab. Siraj, who flees during the battle, is captured 10 days later and murdered.

The Battle of Plassey in 1757 gave the British full control over Eastern India. The British remained in India for nearly 200 more years – until 1947 when Gandhi finally succeeded in removing them.

In US history, everyone has heard of Benedict Arnold. He was the American traitor who was put in charge of West Point during the American Revolution. His aim was to surrender the fort over to the British. And it would have happened if the Americans had not captured British Major General John Andre who had papers on him that outlined the entire operation. Even today, more than 225 years later, calling someone “Benedict Arnold” is synonymous to calling them a “traitor.” Only Judas’ betrayal of Jesus looms larger.

Think on this, though. Benedict Arnold failed in his plan and his treason is loathed today. Mir Jafar succeeded in his plot and turned Eastern India over to the British. In the East, the most damning accusation of betrayal is to be called a “Mir Jafar.” He sold his people out to the British for his own personal gain. Oh, how history pivots on the fulcrum of such very small moments. The Battle of Plassey lasted a mere 12 hours but ended up affecting hundreds of millions of Indian people. The extraction of wealth off the India subcontinent by the British is a significant reason why such poverty exists in India today. All because a guy named Mir Jafar wanted to sit in a big chair.

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