Robert Clive, the 1st Baron Clive is also known as Clive of India and is widely credited for laying the foundation of the British East India Company (EIC) rule in Bengal after winning the Battle of Plassey in 1757.  When Clive left India in January 1767, he had a fortune of £180,000 (equivalent to £25,700,000 today).  On 22 November 1774 Clive died from a cut to his throat from a penknife he held. No inquest was carried out, the absence of which caused contemporary newspapers to report his death as due to a fit brought on by an overdose of drugs or remorse for the fortune that he had acquired through such crimes that his consciousness of them impelled him to cut his own throat. His body was buried in a secret night-time ceremony, in an unmarked grave, without a plaque.

A large part of the Seven Years War (AKA French and Indian War) occurred in India where the British East India Company (EIC) waged war to block impending French mastery of India.  Robert Clive improvised a 1751 military expedition that ultimately enabled the EIC to adopt the French strategy of indirect rule via puppet government. Hired by the EIC, Clive conspired to secure the company’s trade interests by overthrowing the ruler of Bengal, the richest state in India. Then he returned to England and used the wealth he had accumulated from India to secure an Irish barony from the then Whig PM, Thomas Pelham-Holles in 1762.  

Vilified by his political rivals in Britain, he went on trial in 1772 and again in 1773 before Parliament.  Parliament opened an inquiry into the EIC’s practices in India. Clive’s political opponents questioned the providence of the large sums of money he had received while in India, Clive pointed out that these payments were “not contrary to accepted company practice”, and defended his behavior by stating “I stand astonished at my own moderation” given opportunities for greater gain.

Clive’s management of Bengal during his tenure with the EIC is widely believed to be a cause of the Great Bengal Famine of 1770, which killed between one and ten million people.  This famine which lasted almost four years reduced the population of Bengal by a third. It was argued that the activities and aggrandizement of company officials caused the famine, particularly abuse of trade monopoly and land tax used for the personal benefit of company officials, like Clive. Ultimately, he was absolved from every charge but Clive made some very powerful enemies.

General John Burgoyne was one of Clive’s most vocal critics.  He pressed the case that some of Clive’s gains were made at the expense of the company and of the government. Clive’s defense was that Parliament should “Take my fortune, but save my honor.” The vote that followed exonerated Clive, who was commended for the “great and meritorious service” he rendered to the country. Immediately thereafter Parliament began debating the Regulating Act of 1773, which significantly reformed the East India Company’s practices.

Despite the gravity of his financial dealings in India and the circumstances of his death, a statue of his likeness stands in front of Whitehall just outside the Foreign Office where it confronts every diplomat from India and Pakistan and reminds them of the looting of their country by the EIC, the codification of a system of a racist caste system in both India and South Africa, and a whitewashing of the excesses of empire in the former British colonies.  It seems that crime does pay.  Perhaps we should have let “Gentleman Johnny” shoot Clive after all.

Think about this next time you read of the excesses of Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, or even Donald Trump. Lets make sure future generations don’t have to pull down their statues from inappropriate places.

Published by Michael Carver

My goal is to bring history alive through interactive portrayal of ordinary American life in the late 18th Century (1750—1799) My persona are: Journeyman Brewer; Cordwainer (leather tradesman but not cobbler), Statesman and Orator; Chandler (candle and soap maker); Gentleman Scientist; and, Soldier in either the British Regular Army, the Centennial Army, or one of the various Militia. Let me help you experience history 1st hand!

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