Battle of Plassey - The Presage
Before we understand the battle itself it is important for us to understand the events that preceded it. What caused this series of dominos to fall that resulted in the confrontation of the EIC and the Siraj-Ud-Daula.
Siraj-Ud-Daula was a man who was known for his indulgences in all kinds of debauchery and for his revolting cruelty. None of the sources of his time have anything good to mention about him,
even his own political ally called him as a man with ‘the worst reputation imaginable.’ Jena Law writes about him as ‘a man harsh by nature and quick to take offense, he barely trusted anyone and had little-to-no education. He insulted his predecessor’s commanders who had served his grandfather well.’ His cousin, Ghulam Hussain Khan, writes that he was so intoxicated with youth, power, and dominion that he found no distinction between good and bad, between vice and virtue. So much so, when people met him they’d pray against him and ask God to save them from him. One of the greatest errors of Siraj, which he later regretted was his treatment of the Jagat Seth banker. It was these Seths who had brought Alivardi Khan to power in Bengal, and that anyone who wished to operate here did well to cultivate their favor. When Siraj wanted to arm and equip his forces against his cousin he ordered the bankers to provide him Rs 3 crore which Mahtab Rai said was impossible. Siraj angrily struck him. Despite such behavior of Siraj, he held great sway over his grandfather Alivardi Khan. The only surviving grandson from his three daughters. Alivardi Khan did not have any sons. Siraj from a young age became the heir apparent to the Suba of Bengal. However, for some time there was hope that Alivardi Khan would see the behavior of Siraj and appoint his son-in-law, Nawasih Khan, as the governor, but all shattered with the formal declaration of Siraj’s succession. Even the Company was concerned and anxious about Siraj’s rule.
Nawab 'Alivardi Khan with his grandson Siraj-Ud-Daulah sit opposite his nephew Sayyid Ahmad Khan (Saulat Jang) and two nobles also probably relatives. Murshidabad, circa 1756
In March of 1756, when Alivardi khan was sick and bedridden, he received a report from visitors of Mughal south about how the Europeans had behaved in the Carnatic war five years ago. From being useful tools in the hands of the Mughal Nawabs they became puppet masters overnight, creating and discarding rival rulers at their whim. This made a great impression on Alivardi Khan who had been welcoming of these Europeans. When news arrived that the East India Company (EIC) was caught making unauthorized repairs and completely rebuilding the walls of Calcutta, he swiftly wrote to the French and the English to abandon their plans and dismantle fortification immediately. The French hesitantly obliged but Governor Drake of EIC wrote back saying “We cannot think of submitting to the demand of such unprecedented nature.” Infuriated by the response, Alivardi Khan summoned Narayan Singh, his trusted diplomat, to try for one last time to diplomatically solve the issue and to explain to them the status of merchants in the Mughal kingdom, outlining consequences if the Company did its man mani.
Alivardi Khan passed away in April 1756, the same evening Siraj attacked his aunt, Gashti Begum, his first act as the Nawab of Bengal, seizing all her jewelry and money. The next month, he prepared to march to attack his cousin who he perceived as a potential rival and threat to his rule. On his way, he met Narayan Singh, who complained to him about Drake’s behavior towards him and had him sent out of the city without an audience. Siraj infuriated, turned back, and in one night’s march came and besieged the English Factory of Kasim Bazar.
While Siraj’s army grew with reinforcements to 30,000 strong, only 200 men were present in the factory to defend it. Eventually, William Watts, the in charge of the factory, made an unconditional surrender to the Nawab. He was made to hug Siraj’s legs and cry for mercy “Tomar Ghulam.” The factory was opened and ransacked and the residents arrested and put in irons.
Watercolour painting of Murshidabad in West Bengal by Robert Smith (1787-1873), c. 1814-1815. Inscribed on the mount in pencil is: 'Nawab's House at the City of Moorsedavad'.Murshidabad is situated on the banks of the Bhagirathi River, north of Calcutta in West Bengal
Siraj then sent an envoy to Calcutta to warn them to remain submissive to his rules or risk expulsion from the state. He wanted the English to remain like the Armenians before them who had to stay as a subject merchant community relying not on their fortification but on the Mughul Governor for their protection.
Drake did not even bother to reply, sensing that what happened at Kasim Bazar was a mere bluff played by Siraj to gain the goodwill of his courtiers as the new Nawab, so much so that he did not even prepare defenses of the fort. One of the civilians of Calcutta, William Tooke writes that Drake was deeply unpopular and that he was such a divisive figure that it was practically impossible for him to organize a coherent defense.
Siraj led his troops now 70,000 strong to Fort William in Calcutta against what Drake could field, 265 Company military men and 250 armed but untrained Civilians, of whom 100 were Arminians. His garrisons did not have close to 250 fighting men including officers.
Siraj-Ud-Duala personally arrived on the 16th of June, directed his artillery, and began firing into the town and after two attempts with heavy casualties, Siraj’s troops were able to cross the Maratha Ditch that surrounded the Black town and comprehensively looted it.
On the 18th, the Mughal forces advanced towards the Fort. The company retreated with heavy losses and a small party bravely defended it for six hours, most of the men wounded and retired. Late at night, after the collapse of the first defense, a council of war was established. “They assessed that they had only three days worth of ammunition and the men were either injured or drunk, so much so that no one answered when the drums of war were beaten, hardly a man could get up onto the ramparts,” writes David Renny of the Militia. The next day when the Nawab’s general pressed, the council argued in favor of abandoning the fort altogether. Just as the council was discussing, a cannonball burst through the chambers. Panic, confusion, and tumult took over and the morale of the English hit rock bottom. Many of them headed to ships and boats and started to flee, including Drake, the Governor, and the commandant of the troops, Minchin. Ghulam Hussain writes about Mr. Drake that he fled without so much as giving notice to his countrymen.
Under the Command of John Holwell, the roughly remaining 150 members in garrison continued resistance. By mid-afternoon, many of the defenders were dead and exhausted from strengthening and vigor. At about 4 o'clock in the afternoon, Mir Jafar’s troops called out to hold fire to which Holwell replied with a flag of truce and gave orders for the garrison not to fire.
Inside the fort, Siraj’s troops began to plunder and take everything they set their eyes on. Siraj held a Durbar and renamed Calcutta as Alinagar after Imam Ali, appropriately named for a prominent city of a Shia ruled Subah, after which he appointed Raja Manikchand as the fort keeper of Alinagar. So far the surrender of the garrison went well, unusually well for Mughal standards. There was no immediate enslavement, no executions, no beheadings, and no torture.
Immediately things took a turn for the worst. All the survivors were herded into a small punishment cell, 18 ft long and 14 ft wide with only a small window- the infamous incident of Blackhole.
Holwell wrote a bloated account of the incident, stating that 145 company men were shoved inside of whom 123 had died. A recent study showed that only 64 people entered the cell and 21 survived.
Map of Fort William-1844
It was not just a loss of lives and prestige. It was the trauma and humiliation that horrified the Company. News of Kasim Bazar and military assistance reached Madras on the 14th of July and a full month later on 16th, they received the news of Calcutta. In normal circumstances, Madras would have sent a delegation to Murshidabad, making negotiations, apologies and assurances. But as fate would have it, Robert Clive and his 3 regiments of Royal Artillery arrived at Coromandel coast to St. David, south of Madras. Accompanying them was Admiral Watson’s flotilla of fully armed battle-ready men of war.